LOS ANGELES, Calif. – At first, Cristian Arango almost didn’t know where to turn in celebration, as if he couldn’t believe what he just accomplished.
LAFC’s striker, sitting on the LA Galaxy’s goalmouth, pounced on Denis Bouanga’s corner-kick volley that goalkeeper Jonathan Bond could only parry into the Colombian No. 9’s path. But Arango reacted instinctively, firing his 93rd-minute shot just below the crossbar.
That sealed an El Trafico for the ages, a rivalry that always seems to deliver on the biggest stages and with the entire league watching. The 3-2 victory belonged to the Black & Gold, and so did a spot in the Western Conference Final on Oct. 30.
“It's something that the fans deserved, my family deserved it, we all deserved it,” Arango said, describing the emotions of his latest game-winner. “It's an uncountable amount of happiness that we needed as a group. Now we need to continue on this path.”
LAFC’s next Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs game comes against the winner of Sunday’s Austin FC vs. FC Dallas rivalry match (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes), the other Western Conference Semifinal as the field narrows to MLS Cup on Nov. 5.
But Thursday evening, it was all about an incredible atmosphere and a five-goal game that’ll create where-were-you-when questions among the fanbase. It was almost like a boxing match with back-and-forth blows, where Bouanga’s brace seemed to win it, only for Dejan Joveljic’s latest super-sub salvo to draw LA level in the 85th minute, one minute after the Galaxy’s Serbian striker entered the fray.
The chants from LAFC’s 3252 were constant from start to finish, and the Galaxy’s visiting supporters’ section marked their goals with smoke-filled celebrations. It was a proper derby, a clasico that’ll go down in MLS postseason lore for its buzz and bustle.
"It's unbelievable,” Bouanga said of the atmosphere, having signed this summer after competing in France’s Ligue 1. “Even with my experiences in other stadiums, it was fantastic. Our supporters out there, it starts from minute one until the end and it really pushes the group. ... You don't feel tired at all even though we played 90 [plus] minutes. It's fantastic to have [the fans] and ever since my first game here, I've felt that."
A "monster" up front
It was perhaps fitting that Bouanga scored LAFC’s first two goals and ignited their third, having scored the game-winner in early October during a 2-1 victory at the Portland Timbers that sealed the club’s second Supporters’ Shield title in four years. Gathering a seeing-eye through ball from LAFC captain Carlos Vela for his opener, Bouanga even pulled out a front-flip celebration.
And that gets at the core of LAFC’s threat they pose, sitting six deep at forward, creating a pick-your-poison challenge for opposing defenses. Marquee summer signing Gareth Bale didn’t make the bench due to a leg injury, robbing the Black & Gold of their biggest super-sub threat, a superstar acquired for games like El Trafico gracing the playoffs.
LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo expects Bale to be “ready to go” for the Western Conference Final, but on Thursday the spotlight was squarely on their DP winger signed from AS Saint-Étienne.
"He's physically and mentally a monster,” Cherundolo, a World Cup veteran with the United States during his playing days, said of the Gabon international. “I personally, as a right back, would not like to play against him. And I probably would not have looked very good against him, either. So I'm glad those days are behind me. I'm extremely excited and proud to be his coach."
Bring it on home
That excitement was palpable in the Banc of California Stadium underbelly, as postgame celebrations carried into the locker room and coaches, staff and players could all be heard saying some version of “two more” – meaning two more games. That’s the advantage of getting a Round One bye, as LAFC just need three home victories to complete a domestic double (Shield and MLS Cup) only seven of 26 prior clubs have accomplished.
Holding hosting priority, there’s clearly excitement building in what LAFC’s postseason journey could become. The fifth-year club seems to have all the pieces, too.
“Hosting it would be unique, but we have to take it one game at a time,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “I'm hoping we can achieve that, it would be incredible.”
With their home crowd a just reward for finishing atop the regular-season standings, LAFC believe they can go far, not buckling under the pressure of a No. 1 seed.
“It’s probably the loudest that I've seen the Banc,” said goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau. “It's sensational, to be honest. Since day one against Colorado with the home opener, and then tonight, the atmosphere was great the first day. But today they took it to another level."
Added Acosta: “It's amazing. I can't highlight the 3252 enough because they're our heartbeat. They're our driving force, our energy. These games are amazing. They're electric even if we play at the Galaxy, it's the same back and forth. The energy is incredible.”
Emotions will quickly give way to renewed focus, with a watchful eye on who next enters the Banc. That test, 10 days out, likely won’t be at an El Trafico tier intensity-wise. But with the levels LAFC can reach with their star-studded roster, dreams will soar.
“The road is clear ahead of us and we have to take that road and do our best,” Arango said.