It’s never a good idea to give LAFC a lead. With tactical mastermind Steve Cherundolo at the helm, any vulnerability exposed in pursuit of an equalizer is sure to be punished swiftly and efficiently – a lesson hard learned by Real Salt Lake, who saw a 0-0 halftime score quickly descend into a 4-0 loss in Tuesday night’s Round-of-16 Leagues Cup match at BMO Stadium.
Given Cherundolo’s 300-plus Bundesliga appearances as a player and two-trophy campaign in his debut season with LAFC as a coach, the manager knows a thing or two about closing the door on opponents.
“I think it's quite difficult to play against us when we go up,” said Cherundolo post-match. “And that is something we talk about. We train. We know our habits and our principles. When we apply them correctly, we'll hurt teams when they do try to risk things and set numbers forward and open up.
“... It would be normal for the guys, and psychologically easy, to sit back and just kind of let the game end 2-0, which is kind of over then. But this team doesn't know how to slow down, which is great. And it's fun to watch.”
Expanding that concept outward a bit, it’s easy to see how Cherundolo’s LAFC adopt a similar mindset whenever they hit a good run of form over multiple matches, often winning in bunches during months-long stretches of scintillating play. Last year, they put together an 11W-1L-1D record during the dog days of summer – a notoriously challenging stretch of any MLS season often marked by lots of travel, lineup rotations, and brutally hot temperatures – which helped them win the 2022 Supporters Shield.
When midseason roster turnover disrupted their form down the homestretch that season, the potential for Audi MLS Cup Playoffs disappointment loomed. But instead, they went on another historic run, winning multiple down-to-the-wire thrillers (against rival LA Galaxy and Eastern Conference powerhouse Philadelphia Union) to lift the 2022 MLS Cup.
That type of surge now seems in place for their 2023 Leagues Cup campaign.
After going undefeated through eight games to start the current MLS season and making a run to the 2023 Concacaf Champions League final (which they lost to Liga MX side Club León 3-1 on aggregate), LAFC had hit something of a summer swoon, posting 3W-5L-3D record in the time between their CCL loss and the start of Leagues Cup. But with the two-week rest afforded to them via their 2022 MLS Cup win and subsequent Leagues Cup group-stage bye, LAFC have retooled in the Secondary Transfer Window and refocused on the pitch.
“So before this tournament, we had an opportunity to get the players in training sessions, multiple training sessions,” said Cherundolo. “We can work with them and try to get back to our old habits, behaviors, principles of play. And that was helpful. And we're seeing that. We saw that the other night against Juárez and again tonight.”
Bouanga finds form
Adding the 4-0 Round-of-16 win to their 7-1 Round-of-32 defeat of FC Juárez, LAFC now boast a +10 goal differential over two Leagues Cup matches, both of which were knockout games. Much of that offensive output has come through Designated Player and Landon Donovan 2023 MLS MVP candidate Dénis Bouanga, who’s now tallied 5g/2a through two Leagues Cup matches.
“Is that more than [Lionel] Messi?” Cherundolo quipped to reporters before noting that even if the total goal contributions don’t quite match the Inter Miami CF superstar's 7g/3a for the tournament, the per-match rate is better.
Bouanga’s resurgent form mirrors that of LAFC, as the 28-year-old Gabon international only scored twice between CCL and Leagues Cup after he'd tallied 10 times in his first 10 matches of the regular season. But it’s not just Bouanga who has reignited the Black & Gold’s attack; they’re also getting contributions from fresh faces like 19-year-old homegrown Nathan Ordaz and newly-acquired Bulgarian midfielder Filip Krastev, both of whom scored against RSL.
Those down-roster contributions may prove crucial in light of captain Carlos Vela’s apparent injury. The 34-year-old Mexico national team legend did not dress for the RSL match after scoring a stunning brace against FC Juárez the match before.
“I don't have an update for you with Carlos,” Cherundolo told reporters. “We'll do our best to give you more information on a day-to-day basis. But he wasn't available tonight. And so hopefully I can give you better news tomorrow or on Thursday, but we just don't know. So anything further than that would be a lie.”
Rose Bowl showdown
Now looming over the MLS champs is a quarterfinal match against Liga MX powerhouse Monterrey, who posted the best record of the 2023 Clausura and are still undefeated in their Apertura campaign as well as Leagues Cup. Based on both regular season records and tournament form, it's no exaggeration to say the matchup pits Liga MX's and MLS's top sides against one another. And it all goes down at the nearly 90,000-capacity Rose Bowl stadium on Friday, Aug. 11 (10:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass).
“Monterey is a top, top team with no weaknesses,” praised Cherundolo. “It's just a very well-balanced team, very hard team to beat. Also, for me, not a typical Liga MX team.
“It's a team who you could place in a European league and wouldn't look out of place. They're big, they're strong, they're physical, they're fast, they can play vertical, they can play slow, they can combine. They have some finishers and some excellent defenders.”
Is Cherundolo himself excited to show what LAFC can do in front of a sure-to-be raucous crowd that will feature plenty of supporters for both teams? Probably yes, though his dry sense of humor obscures matters, a tactic likely deployed to keep focus on his team and their steadfast preparations.
“Big stadium, no parking, usually really hot. That was my thoughts at the Rose Bowl,” deadpanned Cherundolo, whose LAFC side fell to the Galaxy, 2-1, in an attendance-record-setting match on the Fourth of July.
Added Cherundolo on a more serious note: “Hopefully we'll get a lot of fans out, hopefully more for Black & Gold. … But this is why we're playing this tournament, to see these types of matchups, and we’re looking forward to it.”