That word was on the lips of many across MLS back in August when Lionel Messi lit up the dog days of summer during Inter Miami CF’s run to the Leagues Cup trophy, thanks to MLS Season Pass commentator Jake Zivin’s deployment of the term after the GOAT’s golazo in the tournament final in Nashville.
Messi and the Herons aren’t taking part in the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs, however. In that context, it might be better to apply the tag to Los Angeles Football Club.
The league’s defending champions are grinding their way through the postseason with a steely, efficient relentlessness exemplified by Saturday night’s 2-0 dispatching of Houston Dynamo FC in the Western Conference Final at noisy, vibrant BMO Stadium.
Wily, muscular and direct, LAFC booked their place in the MLS Cup Final once again via a masterful exercise in tactical jiu-jitsu, conceding 70.3% of ball possession to their visitors but closing down the Dynamo in the final third and showing vicious opportunism with their transition moments and set pieces.
“I think there's a little bit of a draw in the regular season where you want your football to look good, and you want it to be a certain style,” said right back Ryan Hollingshead, who scored the game-winner from point-blank range on the rebound created by a Giorgio Chiellini corner-kick header.
“But there's also in the playoffs a difference of, we got to win games. It's just about winning and advancing. And I think we know what it takes to win these games.”
If that’s not quite as high-flying or aesthetically pure as the slick, possession-oriented soccer LAFC produced in their first few years of existence, Steve Cherundolo and his squad sound unlikely to lose a single wink of sleep over that.
“Progressing the ball isn't something that's super complicated or difficult at times, but penetrating centrally and then moving your lines and trying to get in behind our back line was very difficult for them tonight. Which is the point of the game,” said LAFC’s second-year boss, who remains undefeated in Audi MLS Cup Playoffs action as a head coach.
“I mean, it's a very talented team, Houston, connecting passes and combinations, very strong. And they were able to do that a few times, but didn't create anything because of it. And I think the bottom line for me is what actually comes out of it. If I have the most wonderful goal kick drawn up on the planet, and I train it every single day, five days a week, and then it works on the weekend but we don’t score a goal from it, what the hell's the point?”
"They're the standard"
LAFC’s dogged commitment to fluid buildup, high pressing and counter-pressing under former coach Bob Bradley has evolved into something different under Cherundolo. That’s perhaps also due to the aging of Carlos Vela, who on this night received an emotional ovation from the home faithful who know this may have been their last glimpse of him on the pitch where he’s shined so brightly since becoming the Black & Gold’s first-ever signing in 2017, and the sheer attacking menace MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Dénis Bouanga offers in transition.
More easily overlooked, yet just as essential, is the sturdy back four and cerebral deep-midfield shielding of Ilie Sánchez, which constantly guided Héctor Herrera and the Dynamo down cul de sacs once they reached LAFC’s defensive third.
“We knew that's what they wanted. They wanted the ball,” said Hollingshead. “They like to play this little tiki-taka in the middle of the field, these little movements, little one-twos, three of their guys just kind of pass the ball, but they're going nowhere. And so we just said, do whatever you got, have the ball as long as you want.
“They created zero dangerous chances. They had a half-chance in the first half on a cross to [Corey] Baird and that was it. And so a lot of these teams, it's like, yeah, they've got possession, they may be moving the ball. But if they're not creating dangerous chances, who cares?
“We know how to just wear teams down like that,” Hollingshead added. “How frustrating it is for a team like this to have the ball 70% of the game and create nothing, right? … So it's a very strategic play from us.”
Houston were the superior side in several statistical categories, yet were second-best by a safe margin in expected goals (2.3 to 0.4) and the one that trumps all the others: the scoreboard.
“We had to be perfect. And we had to do what we did, but at a level maybe we're not capable of right now,” said La Naranja head coach Ben Olsen to MLS Season Pass postgame. “Congratulations to LAFC. They're the standard. And they have this ability to turn it up in the postseason. They’ve been there, they’re athletic, they’re a real transition [team], they got experience. And again, there just wasn't a lot of ways through. One of those nights where we were going to have to be very, very efficient.”
Game No. 53
LAFC’s pragmatism cuts a glaring contrast to the Columbus Crew, their hosts in next Saturday’s final (4 pm ET | Apple TV - Free) who have blossomed into perhaps the league’s most ideologically committed side under positional-play advocate Wilfried Nancy. If ‘styles make fights,’ this MLS Cup promises to be a memorable one, and a precious opportunity for the Angelenos to end a marathon 2023 campaign on a positive note.
The Black & Gold have played the de facto equivalent of two seasons in one, thanks to the additional load of Leagues Cup and their run to the Concacaf Champions League final, where they tasted heartbreak to Liga MX’s Club León and suffered the resulting domestic hangover that has been such a common element of MLS teams’ experience in that continental tournament.
At times they appeared to be nearly men, destined to fall short in one big game after another. But here they are, poised to defend their title after a profoundly difficult campaign that’ll reach 53 matches in total.
“We were going to let others say what they want about us, but internally we know what we're capable of,” said midfielder Kellyn Acosta. “Obviously we've had some difficulties this year, especially playing for I think six trophies and not being able to capitalize on those moments.
"But right here, we knew that [if] we keep putting our heads down, keep working, keep just embracing the adversity that we were just thrown into this year, that we'll have an opportunity to win more.”