doyle-season-recap-LAFC

Five seasons and a double.

A GIF is worth a thousand words:

For a while there – a good, long while, right up through the middle of August – it looked like LAFC were going to set all sorts of records. They were running away with the Supporters’ Shield, were up above 2.25 points per game, and seemed to be kicking into a gear that suggested they could make a run at the single-season goal differential record, which they’d set back in 2019.

It didn’t work out that way, of course. The Black & Gold famously signed two new DPs in Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello, and two new TAM guys you may have heard of in Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, and then they… got worse? I mean, yeah. They were not as good in the final quarter of the season as they had been through the first 25 games.

But then they got better again, and then they started locking things down enough to turn each match into a game of moments – and when you have superior talent, which LAFC did against literally everybody they took the field against, that’s a pretty damn good plan.

And so they did the double. Bouanga scored a memorable solo effort up in Portland to secure the Supporters’ Shield with a week left in the season, and then Bale – and John McCarthy!!! – did the unthinkable in leading the Black & Gold to their first-ever MLS Cup triumph in indescribable fashion.

Given the quality of the two teams (poor, poor Philly) and the stakes, I’m pretty sure what we saw on Saturday was the greatest game in MLS history. And in the end it was LAFC, delirious at having born the burden of their own expectations, lifting the Cup.

Formation and Tactics

New head coach Steve Cherundolo was smart to keep a lot of what his predecessor Bob Bradley had put into place. That meant everything was primarily out of a 4-3-3, and throughout they showed both an ability to press high and hard, as well as a ton of comfort on the ball.

But Cherundolo also laced in some more pragmatic elements, and I think it’s fair to say by May it was pretty clear this year’s version of the team wasn’t only comfortable playing on the counter, but they almost preferred it. They would go through games entirely content with sitting back and absorbing if that’s what presented itself, because who doesn’t enjoy having space to run into?

The third heat, of course, was their set-piece dominance. Up until mid-August they were the best team in the league on restarts, scoring 14 times in 25 games. Then they didn’t score again off of a set piece until the playoffs, at which point the floodgates re-opened and they scored five in three games.

That ability to toggle between high-block, low-block, possession, press, counter and kill you on dead balls… that’s who LAFC were. You couldn’t put them in a box because they had too many solutions for getting out of them.

Highlight

They led the Shield race from the jump, going 7W-1L-2D in their first 10 games. They strung together a seven-game winning streak in mid-summer, which made it look like they were going to run away with all the records even before integrating the four new high-profile additions. These are moments that would lead this segment for any normal team.

This version of LAFC was not a normal team.

Here is Bouanga’s jaw-dropping Shield winner:

GOAL: Dénis Bouanga, LAFC - 95th minute

And here are the highlights from the greatest game ever played:

HIGHLIGHTS: Los Angeles Football Club vs. Philadelphia Union | November 05, 2022

I don’t think I can write anything that enhances the experience of watching those highlights. Hell, rewatch the whole damn game if you’ve got the time. And I sure as hell can’t explain what I saw – what we all saw on Saturday.

Sports can be magic. They can be beyond explanation.

They should’ve sent a poet.

Lowlight

From Aug. 20 to Sept. 13 they went 1W-4L-1D, a six-game stretch (five of those on the road, mind you) that saw them lose their commanding lead in the Shield race and lose any chance of breaking the Revs’ single-season points record (73) set just last year.

That stretch is why we’ll look back and only consider this group to be an all-time great team instead of the all-time greatest team.

I’m sure that will really bother them as they’re looking at those two new trophies in their cabinet. Lots of sleepless nights this winter, I bet.

Revelation

I’m going to start this segment by praising Jose Cifuentes, the young Ecuadorian central midfielder who entered the league with a ton of potential and fully bloomed this season into the best two-way central midfielder in all of MLS. He will go to Qatar this month, and on the other side of that tournament, my guess is John Thorrington et al will have an eight-figure bid from somebody in Europe to ponder over.

But the real revelation was Thorrington himself, and his approach to roster building. The summer window – the window of Bale and Chiellini – sucked all the air out of the room and generated all the headlines, but it was Thorrington’s shrewdness in the winter window that paved this season’s road in Black & Gold. He went out and added 1,000 games worth of MLS experience by bringing in Ilie Sanchez, Maxime Crepeau, Kellyn Acosta, Ryan Hollingshead and Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, four of whom started in MLS Cup (ITS was traded mid-season to the Revs), and three of whom were among the very best in the league at their respective positions.

I think that window is going to do more to reshape MLS’s hot stove league than what he pulled off in the summer. One is about shrewd talent ID and management of cap resources; the other is about having a Rolodex and a spot in one of the world’s great destination cities.

Disappointment

If you’re a USYNT sicko, I guess it’s fair to be a little disappointed no academy players have broken through for LAFC yet. But who were they really going to play over? If you want to play for the best team in the league you have to be really, really good, and that’s a high bar for kids to hit.

Long-term I do think LAFC need to open that faucet – both they and the Galaxy are sitting on a gold mine in southern California – but I don’t think any LAFC fan is sitting there thinking “damn, I really wish Tony Leone had gotten some minutes this year.”

2023 Preview

Five Players to Build Around

  • Chicho Arango (FW): 30g/7a in 3,700 regular-season minutes since coming to MLS two summers ago, and two more goals in this year’s playoffs across 230 minutes. The 27-year-old Colombian’s one of the best in the league.
  • Bouanga (W): His relentless attacking of space in behind the backline, both on and off the ball, gave this team a much-needed new dimension.
  • Carlos Vela (W): He’s lost two steps and will never again be the unstoppable force he was in 2019, but he remains among the league’s best playmakers cutting in from the right, and perfectly balances Bouanga.
  • Ilie (DM): Got justifiable MVP buzz for a good chunk of this year.
  • Jesus Murillo (CB): One of the better CBs in MLS, he’s both in his prime and largely injury free.

Offseason Priority

It is going to be a complicated offseason for this team, which could end up playing 50+ games next year between the regular season, postseason, CCL and Leagues Cup. Can they keep Bale and Chiellini? Should they even bother to try, given how injury-prone each of them was? (I maintain Bale should hang up his boots after the World Cup, because there’s no better way to go out than with that goal for LAFC and then a swansong with his beloved Wales).

Will bids come in for Cifu and Diego Palacios? How long will Crepeau be out after that brutal injury in MLS Cup, and if the answer is “a real long time,” is John McCarthy the full-time answer as a replacement?

Is Mahala Opoku going to agitate for more playing time? Is Latif Blessing on the trade block, and is Jhegson Mendez sticking around? How much do Vela, Ilie and Hollingshead have left in the tank? Is Mamadou Fall coming back from Villarreal after his loan, or will they hit a number that means he’s gone for good?

Thorrington went all-in to win the Cup this year and it paid off, but the upshot is he’s going to have to be brutal with some of these decisions. It’s a tradeoff any GM in the league would be happy to make, but the pressure’s back on… and for the Black & Gold, well, they’ve shown for five years their expectations are through the roof.

I don’t think that’s going to change because of what they pulled off this season. I think it’s just going to make them all – owners, front office, players, fans – want more.