Back in midsummer, when they at one stage reeled off seven straight league wins, it looked like LAFC’s path to the 2022 Supporters’ Shield would be more of a parade than a race – a leisurely, stately procession thanks to their long periods of dominance over MLS.
That’s hardly a compelling plotline in Tinseltown, though. So perhaps it was in everyone’s best interest that the Black & Gold stumbled badly and had to sweat for it, winning just one game in six as the Philadelphia Union mounted a ferocious late push to snatch the title of regular-season champions from under their noses.
The euphoria among LAFC’s players and staff on the pitch at Providence Park on Sunday evening was genuine, as they celebrated a stunning late rally past the Portland Timbers to clinch the Shield in fittingly Hollywood fashion.
“These type of emotional endings in games seem to be a habit in this league, not quite sure why,” said coach Steve Cherundolo wryly in his postgame press conference. “And it's certainly not good for my health, and the others involved who have a personal relationship with the club.
“But we're ecstatic. We had a goal this year and we've achieved the first one.”
The champagne did indeed flow in the away locker room after Denis Bouanga’s 95th-minute winner, a stunning conclusion to an edgy, to-and-fro clash that unfolded under unseasonably hot conditions in the Rose City. LAFC feel this achievement justified it, with good reason.
“It's a great feeling because in the end, this league is a little bit different because you have a playoff and you play all your season in three [playoff] games,” noted Carlos Vela, the face of the franchise and the scorer of Sunday’s gorgeous opener, one of his trademark left-footed curlers into the top corner. “But this is the real work of all the year, when you do a good job. Of course, we decided to complicate our way to get it, but in the end I think we did a lot of good things and this is the reward to the team for all the effort.”
One trophy down, one to go
Though Vela also said they held something in reserve, mindful that they have another month of work to do in order to capture what most of the league rates as the biggest prize: MLS Cup, the road to which they can ensure runs through Banc of California Stadium thanks to their home-field advantage as the top seed.
“Of course, we celebrate a little bit – not that crazy, how it can be if we win the MLS Cup,” he explained. “I think this is a little bit to say to the team, ‘this is something like we can have if we win the MLS [Cup].’ So I think everybody's excited and everybody's happy about where we are, how good we are and our chances to really win. So everybody's focused on what is the real target and I hope we can prepare ourselves the best way to win the [Cup].”
While the SoCal side has already attained this achievement in its brief history, having hoisted the 2019 Shield under Bob Bradley, this one was more unexpected, and perhaps sweeter for it.
It’s Cherundolo’s first season in charge, and first campaign as a first-division head coach. Taking over from Bradley after last year’s surprising underachievement, his squad experienced significant turnover both before and during the season, and were not widely considered leading contenders for hardware.
Carlos Vela’s future was uncertain, at least until he signed a contract extension in June. The team’s tactical identity evolved noticeably under Cherundolo, and a wave of summer transfer-window activity headlined by the striking arrivals of Giorgio Chiellini and Gareth Bale forced him and his staff to adapt on the fly.
“The most important thing, I think, in coaching, at least the way I interpreted coaching, is forming a group of players or people who are all moving in one direction, who respect each other on a daily basis, who help each other and who bring out the best in each other, and playing to our potential,” said Cherundolo. “That's how I view success personally. And I think I can say it has been a successful year in those regards.”
MLS Cup or bust
The boss’s ability to establish a culture, manage chemistry and find solutions was impressive, and will likely keep him at the forefront of the Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year award conversation.
“It's been phenomenal. Every day, everybody has a common objective of working together, pushing ourselves physically, mentally, and then really being fluid in our tactical identity. And that's something that is just fantastic,” said goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.
“You cannot ask for more as a player that when you have teammates that want to push every single one of us, every single day. And so the quality of training has been really high. And for me as a new player to the organization and with some of my teammates, I think everybody's on the same page on and off the ball with what to do, and what's the requirement to play for this club.”
Given all that, anything short of a title triumph on Nov. 5 will leave a sour taste in Black & Gold mouths. Vela and several of his teammates experienced that via their upset loss to the eventual champs Seattle Sounders FC in the 2019 Western Conference final, and will surely make sure LAFC’s newer arrivals get the message in the coming weeks.
“This is the first step. This is the first trophy we want to win. Today we will celebrate, tomorrow maybe as well. But after that we have to be focused on the playoffs, because we know already that even if you win the Supporters’ Shield, it’s nothing if you don't win the MLS Cup,” said Vela. “So I hope we will learn from that experience in the past, and I hope we can do a better job in the playoffs and win the trophy that we really want.”