MLS’s 2022 frontrunners paid the league’s current dynasty a visit on Saturday afternoon, serving up the tension and quality of a November postseason clash for a national network audience on ABC.
Top-of-the-table LAFC’s trip to Lumen Field to lock horns with Seattle Sounders FC, who are still joyfully – and understandably – flaunting their Concacaf Champions League trophy as MLS returns to action after the June international break, pulsated with life. Even the weather cooperated, serving up cool, crisp, fall-like conditions in the Emerald City.
For two sides who’ve yet to produce a scoreless draw in four-plus years of meetings, the only missing element in the 1-1 stalemate was a few more goals.
“What you saw was a couple of teams that were going after it pretty good; game got a little chippy at the end,” said Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer afterward.
“Not to be cliche or anything, but that's playoff-type soccer.”
His opposite number Steve Cherundolo concurred.
“There was a lot of quality on the field. It was a hard-fought game, an intense game, a little bit of a playoff feeling, maybe,” said LAFC’s first-year boss.
With a 4W-2L-0D record in their last six games, Schmetzer’s squad rode into this match on a strong surge in form after a weak start to their league schedule while they focused on CCL all spring. The Rave Green had finally climbed above the Western Conference playoff line with Tuesday's 4-0 rout of Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and when the all-action Albert Rusnak seized on Maxime Crepeau’s poor pass out of the back to thump home the game’s opening goal, further upward progress felt imminent.
But in a revealing display of the tight margins in an affair of this caliber, the visitors capitalized on a fleeting moment of vulnerability after Sounders center back Xavier Arreaga pulled up lame with what looked like a hamstring issue.
Catching Seattle in the midst of an already-planned substitution, the injury forced Schmetzer & Co. to scramble, and minutes later Danny Trejo and Cristian Arango opportunistically conjured a head-tennis equalizer in the dying moments to escape Puget Sound with a road result that ensures LAFC will remain atop the Supporters’ Shield standings regardless of results elsewhere in Week 15.
“It's a little quiet in the locker room, and rightly so, because I think guys are disappointed,” said Schmetzer, using the ‘D’ word five times in his postgame press conference. “We're disappointed not being able to close it out and giving a goal away like that where it's individual duels, that hurts a little bit. … But it's MLS, it's a hard league. There's plenty more games to go.”
While the veteran coach was repeatedly complimentary of Cherundolo’s team, an undercurrent of pride, and perhaps a portent of future antagonism, could be detected in his analysis of the Californians.
“That's the league's best team on paper, on record. I can make an argument that we're pretty good,” said Schmetzer, noting the “challenging” circumstances around key contributors Arreaga, Jordan Morris, Cristian Roldan and more returning from busy international windows. “We didn't come in looking at LAFC as Supporters’ Shield winners, they're just the leaders. We knew we were in for a good fight.
“Well organized, good team, quality players, but they're not perfect either. We're not perfect, they're not perfect. Everybody's got flaws,” he added later. “I thought we were able to put them under pressure in certain moments of the game. But we just couldn't find that second goal.”
For their part, the Angelinos seem to have put last month’s three-game winless patch behind them, looking resolute under duress and managing both the physical limitations and the lingering uncertainty around star attacker Carlos Vela, who came off the bench for the second half and still has not signed a contract extension as his current deal dwindles into its final days.
“I think if we finish all of our chances, we maybe come out on top. But any time you go behind in Seattle, on the road, obviously to come back and tie, it speaks a lot about the character of your team, which I'm very proud of tonight,” said Cherundolo. “The boys fought hard, they didn't give up, they pushed back and were rewarded with the point on the road.”
As impressive as Saturday’s combatants have been, other clubs will also have their say in the West race in the long buildup to Decision Day on Oct. 9. FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake sit just a few points back of LAFC, while Austin FC, the LA Galaxy and Nashville SC have been excellent at times.
That sense of inevitability that many MLS observers have about the Sounders’ slow climb back into the upper reaches of the standings will fizzle soon enough if the Rave Green can’t sustain the ruthlessness that powered their run to CCL glory.
“It’s MLS, and we can’t take our foot off the gas,” admitted Schmetzer, whose side was missing striker Raul Ruidiaz to a hamstring injury. “We can’t take breaks at any point during the season, especially against a good team like LAFC.”