COLUMBUS, Ohio – LAFC’s excellence this year was built, as much as anything, on control: Organization, tactical superiority, mastery of game states, leverage over opponents in key spots at key moments.
An early loss of control against the Columbus Crew was their undoing in Saturday’s MLS Cup final at Lower.com Field, conceding two goals in a four-minute span amid an overall subpar first-half performance. That left the Black & Gold chasing the game for the first time in more than two months, a hole ultimately too big to dig out of despite a tenacious late rally to cut the deficit in half and push the hosts right until the final whistle.
“Did Columbus deserve to win tonight? Yes, they did. They played a fantastic game,” said head coach Steve Cherundolo after the 2-1 loss, LAFC's 53rd match this season. “Do I think they're better than us? No. I think they're better than us tonight. We made a couple of errors defensively that led to their two goals, and that's pretty much it.
“That's how these games are decided, and I think we didn't have enough good performances from our guys tonight, with and without the ball. You cannot expect to win a final just showing up for one half, and you compete on the same level for just one half.”
Pen or no pen?
The game’s path was set half an hour in, when referee Armando Villarreal pointed to the spot for a handball in LAFC’s penalty box on Diego Palacios, allowing Cucho Hernández to rifle the opening goal past Maxime Crépeau in front of the teeming throngs of Crew partisans in the Nordecke supporters’ section.
It was the first time the defending champs trailed in a match in over two months, dating back to the early minutes of an eventual 5-1 win over Minnesota United FC on Oct. 4, their third-to-last regular-season game.
Did the ball hit Palacios’ chest before hitting his arm? That’s how LAFC co-president and general manager John Thorrington saw it.
“What I saw, it definitely hit his chest and then hit his arm. I wish I could look at you and tell you I know what a handball is anymore,” a rueful Thorrington later said outside the team’s locker room. “Of what I understand there are certain places where that's not a penalty and others where it is. To me I think the unfortunate thing about the penalty, look, they had a lot of play at that phase of the game, getting into that part of the first half, but it wasn't like it came from a chance.
“It's one thing if a guy's blocking something that's going to goal and then you get a penalty, but it wasn't even a chance, [Diego Rossi] gets the ball and he just flicks it up and it goes off a chest and an arm. I thought he [Villarreal] was too quick to blow, but we lost and we take it on the chin. Certainly we've had far worse refereeing decisions, like in the Campeones Cup, going against us.”
Veteran defender Giorgio Chiellini readily acknowledged Columbus “deserved to win” after the Ohioans produced a scintillating display of their swashbuckling positional-play system with all the bravery head coach Wilfried Nancy demands of them.
“I think that the mistakes we did were when we spread out too much,” said the Italian legend. “We are not afraid of crosses, to be honest. Diego Rossi, Cucho and [Alex] Matan, I guess me and Muri [his center-back partner Jesús Murillo], we can stay 15 days and they cannot score.
“But in most of the other situations, in between their lines, one-two, quickly one-two balls and they adapt fast and shooting, yeah, we can suffer and we suffered. What we didn't do well, I think we lost so many duels sometimes. And we concede too many balls, especially in between the center backs and the fullbacks. It's something that we have just to stay more narrow and to concede the wide.”
More finals heartbreak
LAFC know all too well the razor-thin margins by which cup finals are won and lost. They rode the high side of such margins to last year’s MLS Cup-Supporters’ Shield double, but now fly home on the other, nursing the profoundly bitter taste of their third cup final of this marathon season, bereft of the hardware they craved. They also lost in Concacaf Champions League and Campeones Cup finals this year.
“I don't understand why we started so slowly. We went out on the field with every intention of doing everything properly. I think maybe we were caught up by the emotions of the moment. And then we had to come back in the second half and it was too hard to overcome,” said Dénis Bouanga, the MLS Golden Boot presented by Audi winner who made the game’s final stages interesting by scoring his 38th goal of the year in all competitions, tying his teammate Carlos Vela’s MLS record for goals in a calendar year (set in 2019).
“Having scored in those [other] two finals, those goals, it's like they don't exist,” he added. “I would rather win three finals and not score, [than] being out there and having scored today. Unfortunately, it's like no one's going to remember that Dénis scored. I'm really upset about having lost, for the guys, because everyone really tried really hard and put all of their effort out there.”
After a season of record-breaking length and brutal intensity, a potentially transformative offseason beckons. Questions loom about the futures of Vela, Chiellini, Crépeau, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and others, including, perhaps, Bouanga too, who said “it's a possibility I have to return to Europe” after the loss.
But Cherundolo pushed back against the suggestion that any common thread ran through his team’s heartbreaking letdowns in so many big occasions.
“I will fight as hard as I can with you and anybody else who will categorize finals. They're all different,” he said. “And they come at different times of the season, sometimes overlapping seasons. And I know it's fun to dump things together and create your own statistics and facts. I know you have a tough job to do to fill papers and websites and cameras and all of that. But I won't do that. Every game has its own story. And you cannot compare one with the other, they're just completely different. So we didn't play a very good first half tonight. That was the story tonight.
“Sure, the disappointment sits deep for now,” said Cherundolo. “But I think we're all looking forward to a little time off, regrouping and then giving this another go next year.”