Can LAFC avoid the Supporters' Shield curse? El Trafico is their first test

LAFC lifts Supporters' Shield

LOS ANGELES – In Major League Soccer’s past 26 seasons, only seven (27%) Supporters’ Shield winners have gone on to win MLS Cup later that fall.

The feat hasn’t been accomplished since 2017, when Toronto FC achieved their historic treble under now-LA Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney, one that included a Canadian Championship title as well. In fact, it's happened just twice since 2011 – a demarcation for rapid MLS expansion, now sitting at 28 teams compared to 18 back then.

That all begs the question, with a decently-sized historical framework available: Is the Shield curse real? And how much does it weigh on LAFC after, in early October, they captured their second Shield in four seasons?

The Black & Gold offered perspective to ahead of Thursday’s highly-anticipated El Trafico vs. the Galaxy at Banc of California Stadium (10 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes), a Western Conference Semifinal that follows their Round One bye in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs as a No. 1 seed.

“I don't see any curse to [the Shield],” said LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington. “ … I think it's an incredibly gratifying reward that justifies the work that goes in over a 34-game season. This is not to devalue MLS Cup. I think the definition is the team that is best over 34, I think is the better team than someone who wins in the one-off single-elimination games. I think the data would play that out, just probability-wise.”

LAFC experienced an at-times dominant regular season, finishing ahead of Eastern Conference No. 1 seed Philadelphia Union on the most-wins tiebreaker (21 vs. 19) after both clubs finished with 67 points. And they locked in some silverware the weekend before Decision Day after form wavered late on – going from winning 11 of 13 games at one point to winning just three of nine down the stretch.

Ahead of their win-or-go home playoff match against the Galaxy, head coach Steve Cherundolo believes his squad is prepared to not join the majority (19 others, 73%) who haven’t turned a Shield victory into an MLS Cup.

“I think it's psychologically normal for somebody to exhale after achieving something,” Cherundolo said. “That is natural and something that happens.

“But something I've seen from this group and something I've tried to help cultivate is a winning mentality, whether it's 4-on-4 in training or playing for a Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup. This group tries to win everything they take part in, and they take pride in it. The Shield is over and done with, there's no talk of it, not celebrating really. They're just focused on winning MLS Cup now.”

Different "beast"

As LAFC’s postseason begins, they own hosting priority for MLS Cup on Nov. 5. Two victories get them there, and a win over the Galaxy would mean they host the Western Conference Final on Oct. 30 against either No. 2 Austin FC or No. 3 FC Dallas – the other Western Conference Semifinal matchup that awaits.

Asked about the Shield curse, US men’s national team midfielder Kellyn Acosta said it’s about recognizing that season-long vs. one-off tournaments come with unique requirements.

“This league is built on two tournaments where the first is Supporters' Shield and the second is playoffs and then MLS Cup,” said Acosta, who has played in MLS since 2012 with prior stops at FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids. “Obviously people are looking at the history, but maybe they lose sight of how playoffs are their own beast and how difficult it can be. It's about who wants it more, who can roll up their sleeves and just grind it out. We saw Dallas the other night going into PKs against Minnesota; Austin versus Salt Lake the same.

“These games aren't easy and teams aren't going to just roll over – they're going to fight until the end and every single minute, every single play matters. These games aren't super simple or pretty, so it's the realization that you have to adapt to what the game brings you and know that the game may not be glamorous at times. But it's about who can be gritty and do what they need to to win this game. We’re prepared for all that brings.”

Does LAFC need MLS Cup?

Given the high-profile makeup of their roster – summertime moves brought in superstars Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, a new DP winger (Denis Bouanga), an Ecuadorian international midfielder (Sebastian Mendez) and a former Barcelona winger (Cristian Tello) – there’s at least external pressure on LAFC to validate their 2022 season with an MLS Cup.

That’s because as great as the Shield accomplishment was, booking a 2023 Concacaf Champions League spot as well, MLS legacies typically hinge on who lifts the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy – a byproduct of American and Canadian sporting cultures. And as much as LAFC have accomplished during their first five years in the league, entertaining with an attack-minded identity, an MLS Cup has eluded them.

“​​It's a genuine feeling in the group that it's something we can achieve,” Canadian international goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau said of a possible double. “We can't push ourselves ahead of time, but it's something that's missing in this club. Two Shields is something to be recognized, yes, within the organization, but the Cup would be the cherry on the top and in the North American system this is the playoffs and it's what it's all about. It's something we're all aiming for and have projected ourselves toward.”

Acosta believes pressure can be a healthy thing, and now it’s about following through on the Black & Gold’s potential.

“Need is perhaps not the right word, but I think it's rewarding ourselves for our hard work and the work we've put on this training field right here,” Acosta said. “You talk about the heat, the long days, the grind of a season – it's rewarding this club and fan base for everything we've put in to reach this position.”

Under the bright lights of El Trafico, LAFC meet the weight of history that comes with the Shield. It all hinges on winning three playoff games, as simultaneously simple and formidable as that may sound.

“We know in this league, all the things you did in the past, in the season, doesn't matter right now,” said captain Carlos Vela. “We have to focus ourselves on three more games and we have to work for that.”