SANDY, Utah — LAFC’s comfortable win in the U.S. Open Cup didn’t look too different from what they’ve been doing in MLS so far this season. After all, Carlos Vela scored a goal and SoCal squad netted three or more for the third straight game and eighth time this year in their 3-0 fourth-round win over Real Salt Lake.
They were keenly aware, though, that the stakes were different in this competition, and had an extra bit of motivation that can be hard to come by in your typical midseason contest.
“We certainly know that different than the regular season if you don’t play well and you lose you’re out. That got mentioned a few different times. It was nice to hear players saying it to each other,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said after the game. “We always talk about how Open Cup is important and we were disappointed last year to lose in penalties in the semis and everybody was excited to get started this year.”
Last year, LAFC fell at the penultimate hurdle, equalizing deep into stoppage time against eventual champions Houston only to fall in the aforementioned penalty shootout. With the team currently dominating all comers in MLS and still looking for the first trophy in club history, it's easy to see why the Open Cup is such an appealing target and a priority for Bradley and his men.
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“This was a big game for us. We set the goal at the beginning of the season, we want to win every game and we want to win trophies,” LAFC midfielder Lee Nguyen said. “Open Cup is another opportunity to put a trophy in the cabinet.”
The timing of the Open Cup does throw up its own little wrinkles, of course, with the opening rounds typically falling at the start of a busy summer calendar for international soccer. Though it was largely a first-choice lineup based on the players available, LAFC missed three regular starters to international duty, with goalkeeper Tyler Miller and defender Walker Zimmerman (United States) and midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye (Canada) off to represent their countries in the Gold Cup.
Nonetheless, some of LAFC's lesser-used players proved more than up to the task. Pablo Sisniega got his first start in goal and recorded the shutout, making a big save when the game was still 1-0. Rodolfo Zelaya came on and almost scored on a free kick in extra time. Finding the right mixture of playing time, routine and rhythm can solidify a chase for the Supporter’s Shield and Open Cup through the summer.
“Wherever I have been you get into the routine of the season and you enjoy going week to week, but then cup matches are a little different type of challenge that come in the middle of the season. If you lay it out there the right way with the players and if everybody is on board, it’s something that can make the team better,” Bradley said.
One way to assure players take it seriously is running out as close to first-choice lineups as possible. Bradley hinted that will probably be the norm for the rest of the competition.
“Certainly worked out this week,” he said. “I will say, last year we also tried to put a really good team out on the field for every Open Cup match. As a club we want to go into every Open Cup match, understand that it’s really important to our fans. You can tell that because we have traveling fans tonight, that are cheering for us all game and knowing that they’re as committed as they are, it’s the responsibility on all of us to make sure that we treat the competition with real respect.”