LAFC believe they’ve arrested their dramatic late-summer slump, and just in time to keep pole position in the Supporters’ Shield race while setting a course for MLS Cup.
The Black & Gold are assured of the Shield if they win their final two matches of the regular season, and thanks to their advantage in wins – MLS’s first standings tiebreaker – they effectively need only match the results posted by the Philadelphia Union over the next two weeks.
In fact, the longtime league leaders can clinch the Shield this weekend if Philly lose at Charlotte FC on Saturday (5:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+), a scoreline the Californians will know before they visit the Portland Timbers on national network television on Sunday (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN Deportes).
“In these last months we really understand how much it’s important, the details,” Giorgio Chiellini told reporters on Friday afternoon. “And we'll see on Sunday because I think against Portland, it’s a game that, second balls and set pieces, the details are much more important than tactical or other stuff. Especially going forward to the playoffs, it will be the same things.
“It’s very important to pay attention – I repeat that many, many times the same things – to the details,” he later added. “The importance of a pass, the importance of a control, the importance of a shot. There's more concentration and more work on the head – starting from the head, arrive to the feet and to the pitch. It’s important that we understand how all the things could be the winning key for a game.”
Theirs for the taking
LAFC have topped the league table for the lion's share of the season, and had pundits batting around greatest-ever talk as they reeled off seven straight wins in mid-summer. That all cooled off dramatically when a sudden 1W-4L-1T slump followed close on its heels, allowing the Union to storm back into Shield contention and raise real questions about the Angelinos’ title credentials.
A 3-1 home win over Houston on Sept. 18, combined with Philly’s scoreless draw at Atlanta a day earlier, restored control of their own destiny and allowed them to cruise into the international window with more serenity than their recent form might otherwise allow. And that break seems to have provided a useful physical respite before the final charge for two trophies in a matter of weeks.
“We've talked about it during that phase, and came up with solutions, and came out on the good side,” said head coach Steve Cherundolo. “So those weeks are beyond us. If you look at the past performances, especially against Houston at home, it was what we like to see and what we had seen throughout the season.”
A Serie A lifer until joining LAFC a few months ago, Chiellini seems to have quickly grasped the concept of the MLS stretch run, with his enormous tournament experience with the Italian national team surely a factor.
“It was important, the last win against Houston, because we [stay] at the top of the table and it's important for us to win after a not-good period,” he said. “Now where we arrive in the best moment of the season, the most important. It’s just two games and it depends on us for the Supporters’ Shield, and then it’s the playoffs in just two weeks to decide the whole season.”
Crunch time is here
It’s also the maiden MLS voyage for Cherundolo, though his knowledge of the terrain is obvious, including in his measuring of the raucous Providence Park experience.
“First and foremost is Portland, and what I would like to see is our players mentally and physically, first of all, accepting the challenge, and showing up. And then in the moments, key moments, using our football to decide the game for us,” he said.
“But certainly, you have to go into a place like Portland ready to fight first.”
While they’ve only rarely been Shield contenders over the years, the Timbers are well-established as an autumn tiger, especially under head coach Gio Savarese, who has repeatedly sorted out his side’s early issues just in time for late runs, including to host last year’s MLS Cup final.
This year a tweak in focus and a formational adjustment built around a three-man defense has seen them storm above the Western Conference playoff line via their ongoing 4W-0L-1D surge.
“They've done an excellent job of creating a way of playing that is stable, suits the characteristics and attributes of the players they have, and they keep adding to that. They’ve had consistency as well, with their coach and with their players,” said Cherundolo.
“It's one of the hardest teams in the league to beat, especially at home. So that's what we're up against. Tactically they’ve played a little differently in the last nine games. But it doesn't change their demeanor as a group and their direction as a club and the way they win games – just a re-organization of spaces and bodies.”
Still a masterful center back at 38, Chiellini’s status as a mentality monster is clear and he aims to keep his teammates locked in for the final days of what could be a landmark campaign – or a case study in collapse.
“I think that we arrive after the streak of wins, seven if I remember well, a little bit tired, especially in the mind. And maybe one loss is because we are not so ready or angry as before,” he noted on Friday. “Unfortunately, it's normal after many wins happen, this stuff … there were different games and different reasons, for sure. Now we have recovered more energy, we are fresher, we are faster, and it's important, because now arrives the most important moment of the season.”