National Writer: Charles Boehm

LAFC find secret ingredient vs. Vancouver: "I take us over anybody"


If you’re going to challenge Dom Toretto to a drag race, you’d best make sure your tires are aired up and the gas tank is full.

The Vancouver Whitecaps showed they, too, could rev their engines at BMO Stadium on Saturday night. But their rickety restart defending ensured they were no match for the combined horsepower of LAFC, as the defending MLS Cup champions started their 2023 postseason with a dominant 5-2 win in Game 1 of their Western Conference Round One series.

The Black & Gold racked up an astonishing four set-piece goals, three on corner kicks and three of them registered in the second half to provide the final margin of victory after the 'Caps showed admirable resilience to equalize twice in the opening 45 minutes via Brian White and Sam Adekugbe.

To sprinkle further salt in the Whitecaps’ wounds, after the match LAFC boss Steve Cherundolo pointed out that assistant coach Marc Dos Santos – who led VWFC for two and a half seasons before being dismissed in August 2021 – is his team’s point person for planning restarts.

“Marc is on top of set pieces all season long and we've worked with the guys,” said Cherundolo. “In the end, it comes down to consistency of the service and the timing of the runs. And the third factor in set pieces in any league around the world is the will to go get the ball first. And tonight our guys showed that they were hungry and they took advantage of set pieces.

“In playoff time and in tournaments and in finals in all competitions around the world, set pieces unlock games and unlock results. And it did tonight.”

Dos Santos’ presence on LAFC’s coaching staff helped clinch the blockbuster trade that brought their starting goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau from Vancouver last year, with Crépeau later revealing his discontent with the manner of the coach’s departure from VWFC. And now it seems Dos Santos is helping provide another edge over his former club.

“Marc’s gonna love this if I pump this up too much, so I gotta keep him humble,” joked LAFC fullback Ryan Hollingshead, who twice pounced on corner-kick rebounds deep in the VWFC penalty box to bag a brace. “This guy analyzes film, he's got a special knowledge of Vancouver as well from his time there, so I think he knows a little bit of the DNA there and how they want to defend. He knows attacking-wise kind of what they're going to try to throw at you. But he just dissects it in all the ways.

“Our coaching staff stressed just how important set pieces can be in these playoff games and we know it from our [championship] run last year how important they can be. So we were active on set pieces, ready to capitalize on moments like that.”

MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Dénis Bouanga also added a slaloming run and top-corner finish – “a banger,” in Vancouver coach Vanni Sartini’s words – for their second goal, underlining how deadly LAFC can be in the run of play. If anyone around the league was downgrading the Angelinos’ title credentials after some rough patches during the regular season, this was a stark reminder of the champs’ menacing reserves of talent and resolve.

“The season was such a grind. There's so many highs, so many lows, and you get to this point now where games are spread out every week, you're not playing these midweek games, we've got everybody back healthy for the most part. And that's where LAFC is at its best,” said Hollingshead.

“When you're talking about all these guys coming off of rest, able to go full 90, no questions, you add the extra kind of adrenaline and energy of the playoffs and just the structure of the playoffs, I think allows us to shine in a way that not a lot of other teams in the league can do. And when you just put our talent up at its best without heavy legs or tough moments or whatever, I take us over anybody.”

Sartini & Co. will be thankful that goal aggregate is not a factor in the new Audi MLS Cup Playoffs format as the three-game series shifts to BC Place for next Sunday’s second leg. But Vancouver’s coaching staff may have some psychological damage to tend to in the coming week, considering how wobbly their squad looked on the repeated occasions they had to defend in their own box.

The visitors conceded 12 corner kicks and looked vulnerable on just about all of them.

“Of course it’s pretty simple to make an analysis that we have to do much better on defending set plays. We concede three goals on a corner, guys. I think it’s impossible to win games if you concede three goals from the corner,” said Sartini postgame. “It’s a big lesson that we need to be perfect to win these games.”

While the Whitecaps have historically been a tougher proposition for LAFC at BC Place, the Californians will travel to British Columbia next weekend understandably bullish about completing a sweep.

“Certainly I would love to end the series in Vancouver and that'll be our objective,” said Cherundolo. “We want to go out and play the exact same way we play here. And I'm 100% positive Vancouver will play a little more aggressively and try to press us a little more, like they did when they were down tonight, and I’ll expect that from minute one. But we want to play the same way. We would prefer a similar result.”