The combination of their star power, quality and sizeable lead in the Supporters’ Shield table has made LAFC the team everyone wants to beat this season, and Real Salt Lake stepped up to take their best shot on Saturday night in Sandy, Utah.
Despite outpacing their guests in most statistical areas, despite clanging two shots off the crossbar, despite the raucous noise from one of the biggest crowds in Rio Tinto Stadium history, RSL walked away empty-handed – just like most of LAFC’s adversaries this year – after a clinical, comprehensive 4-1 win for the Southern Californians.
“RSL played well tonight and they had a good game plan for sure. And for us it’s the story every week,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo told reporters postgame. “Every team shows up to play against us and usually plays particularly well. When you're in first place, there's always a target in your back. So we know that.”
A brace from Cristian "Chicho" Arango, whose team-leading total has now stretched to 11 goals in league play, a banger from Kellyn Acosta and Gareth Bale’s late exclamation mark banked LAFC’s fifth straight victory, one that pushes them six points clear of their nearest pursuers in the Shield race, Austin and Philadelphia. They’re likely to rack up further points as they host Charlotte and D.C., who have only won three road games combined this season, in their next two matches.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for us to kind of separate ourselves from the league – big three points away,” said Acosta postgame. “And we're going to go with momentum, coming back to the Banc.”
It is a mark of the talent at Cherundolo’s disposal that he can bring the likes of Bale and Brian Rodriguez off the bench to help close out matches like this one, a service Bale quickly provided with a trademark solo run down the right flank and past Justen Glad for his second MLS goal.
The same can be said of his demands on Arango, who at most MLS clubs would be a bolted-on, everyday starter, but at LAFC must prove his worthiness for the starting striker role day in, day out as the club stacks up one attacking reinforcement after another to compete for minutes and lift their level.
After last month’s win at Nashville, a game in which Arango scored, Cherundolo rather bluntly revealed that “Chicho at the beginning of the season wasn't working defensively, and that changed,” adding that he still believed his starting No. 9 “can play better defensively and with the ball; there were too many unforced errors and I think his pressing at times wasn't evident enough.”
Meanwhile multiple media reports have suggested the Black & Gold are open to trading the Colombian as first Bale and now Denis Bouanga arrived to offer Cherundolo a cornucopia of options up top.
Gareth Bale scores INCREDIBLE solo goal for LAFC
Arango has responded in the simplest and most effective manner possible: by scoring goals, many of them spectacular – like Saturday’s quick-thinking drag back and heel-clip finish deep inside the RSL penalty box – and at a steady clip.
“I’m always listening to what they need and my goal is always to deliver on their needs,” he said in Spanish after Saturday’s win, “and I want to do what they ask of me. All our team wants to do that, really. We have a great group of players and hopefully we can deliver on what the expectation is and continue working on that.”
Currently racking up points at a clip of 2.22 ppg, LAFC are on a similar track to their Shield-winning 2019 squad, and on pace to eclipse the all-time regular-season points record (73) set by last year’s top finishers, the New England Revolution. Cherundolo said he’s not too concerned about that, at least not yet.
“As far as goals go, we're taking this game to game, and sometimes half to half,” he said, after taking pains to point out some of the flaws in his side’s performance despite the emphatic final scoreline. “So we're not too concerned with records or the table at the moment. Obviously we like where we’re at, we'd like to stay there, but we will take this week to week.”
If Cherundolo’s frankness and high expectations are wearing on Chicho or his teammates, there was no sign of it after this latest victory.
“In regards to the work, my teammates do a lot and give me great support and we've become a family. We have a lot to build and I'm happy that our family is on a good path,” said Arango. “Our teammates are all doing well in their positions, anyone that comes into the game is doing well as well. There's nothing greater than the satisfaction of knowing that everything's going well for the entire group and everyone in the organization.”
HIGHLIGHTS: Real Salt Lake vs. Los Angeles Football Club | August 06, 2022