LOS ANGELES – As Thursday night’s Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinal inched toward the end of regular time, the chants of confidence rang out.
For the first time since LAFC were up three goals against the LA Galaxy way back on March 31, 2018, the Black & Gold clad supporters were filled to the brim with belief that the game was theirs.
It wasn’t only because LAFC's Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi had already notched important goals on the biggest night in the Black & Gold’s short history. It wasn’t just because the LAFC defense was keeping Zlatan Ibrahimovic in check, although they were doing that too.
It was also because Adama Diomande — in his first game since returning to LAFC following a month in the league’s Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program — had just gut-punched the Galaxy as they attempted to claw back. Diomande capped off a Vela-like dazzling run from nearly half field, carving up defenders, with the cheeky chip to match, restoring the home side’s two-goal lead with his brace and putting the game out of reach, which finished 5-3 at Banc of California Stadium on Thursday.
“I was pissed off of course when they scored the second goal, the 2-2 goal. But I was thinking, ‘Now is my moment to come in and change the game,’’’ Diomande told reporters afterward. “When I come in, I always have that killer instinct in me and I just want to finish the play right off and help the team.”
And that’s exactly what he did, notching the first of his two goals — the one that happened to be the game winner — after calmly nodding a Rossi cross that left the Galaxy defense lost in a cloud of The 3252's celebratory smoke.
Diomande’s impact was so important that he was the first name on Bob Bradley’s lips when asked about the standout performers on the night.
“In this whole stretch, I think Dio has grown,” said Bradley of a player who he worked with earlier in his coaching career in the forward’s native Norway. “You know there were times that the second half of last year and earlier this year, I thought he was moodier than he was when I worked with him in Stabaek and so sometimes on the personal level there are some things. He’s handled it great. He’s done everything, the club has done a good job and so to see him now come back into the team and have a big night like that, yeah I’m proud of him, not just because tonight he came on scored two great goals but just because he’s handled everything really well.”
The striker — who, Thursday had only his second multi-goal game for LAFC in 2019, the other being his vital double in a 3-1 away win at Houston earlier this year — took some time postgame to separate fact from rumor about his time away from the team.
“People who say something about drugs or alcohol, I don’t drink and I’ve never done drugs,” said Diomande, who is a devout Muslim. “[The absence] is more about personal issues. That’s what I want to share.”
Although he didn't train with the team during the several weeks he spent away, as part of the program's requirements, Diomande confirmed he had been staying fit and in-form while away so that he could come back into the fold and make a difference.
For the player, working through the personal issue in such a fashion to allow him to make such an emphatic return so quickly had a great deal to do with the bond with his coach.
“When I was in Norway I told him he’s been like a father for me,” Diomande said. “I didn’t grow up with a father who was around and just to get that motivation from a guy I just newly met and giving all the details around, I can do better on the pitch and also outside the pitch and so he always supported me. I’m just happy to know him and he’s been a friend and a father figure for me I think so he’s been helping a lot. I’m just grateful to be around such a great guy and a great coach, and I’m just happy for that.”
And on an night when the world expected Vela or Ibrahimovic to find the game-winning goals, it was Diomande who stepped in with the dagger and brought on the chants of confidence in an El Trafico playoff contest for the ages, leaving Bradley with plenty of primed attacking options going into Tuesday’s Western Conference Final against Seattle (10 pm ET | ESPN in US; TSN1/5, TVAS in Canada).
“I’m a team player and I don’t complain if I’m coming off the bench or starting the match,” said Diomande, adding that he and Bradley share a mutual trust about how he will be involved. “I’m more motivated now than I was before I left the team and more clear-minded, happier and you could see that today too. I’m still on it. I haven’t lost anything since I left.”