LOS ANGELES — Not long after the final whistle of Tuesday night’s Western Conference Final of the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, LAFC captain and MLS MVP favorite Carlos Vela watched the carts race out onto Banc of California Stadium’s Bermuda grass pitch.
It was the same field where he broke the single-season scoring record to win the Golden Boot presented by Audi with a hat trick on Decision Day presented by AT&T, helping LAFC reach unprecedented regular season success in 2019; the same field where, just a few days earlier, the club had beaten the LA Galaxy, their boogeyman regional rival, in emphatic fashion.
But now it was the place where his manager Bob Bradley embraced him, the two having a conversation as an impromptu stage was erected that LAFC wouldn’t get to stand on after the Seattle Sounders' 3-1 victory.
“I don’t remember well what Bob said to me,” Vela said afterward. “In that moment, I was so blocked. I was not thinking about [anything], just trying to see what happened tonight.”
What happened was a Seattle team came into the Banc, disrupted LAFC through a combination of committed defending and physicality, and left the home side unable to stitch together the kind of offensive production they had all year.
“Nobody expected this end for our season,” said Vela. “But we know in playoffs, we know it’s one game, 90 minutes, and if they make better plays than you, you’re out.”
Vela and LAFC’s potent attacking talent couldn’t get the engine roaring in this game the way they had almost every match this season and Seattle made them pay.
The Black & Gold have conceded three goals at their downtown LA home on just four prior occasions in their short history — a draw against the Galaxy earlier this year, the El Trafico playoff win last week, a victory over last year’s MLS Cup champs Atlanta United, and that stinging first playoff defeat to Real Salt Lake in their inaugural season.
But this year was supposed to be different. It felt different. One win would send them to MLS Cup, a massive game that they would host right there in L.A. — and that was the perfect ending to a nearly perfect season that a lot of people figured was inevitable.
“I don’t think we care what people say,” Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “Obviously people are going to have their opinions, there is going to be an MLS Cup winner and it’s not going to be us, so that’s that.”
Vela, who refused to blame his side’s loss on officiating or on Seattle’s physical play, also reminded everyone just how far along LAFC have come and how far they have to go.
“We have just two years as a club and we have a lot of things to improve, but I think we are in the good way,” said Vela. “Of course, on days like [this], you see everything bad, but we have to see what happens, we have to change some things and get strong, come back next year and be better. It’s the only way to be a good club.”
But being just a ‘good club’ this year would be an understatement.
As if to underline that fact, just as the visitors from the Pacific Northwest crowded together on the stage and the cannons shot out green and blue confetti, there was a roar that caught everyone in the press box — and in the stadium — by surprise.
Much of the 3252 had remained in the stadium even after Vela had spoken to his coach, applauded his supporters, and returned to the dressing room. Against the fireworks and visitor jubilation cries of “LA Football Club, sha la la la la la la la la” rang out until long after the victors had stepped off the stage.
The chanting was so defiant and so loud in the face of the gut-wrenching loss that there was a sense in the stadium that its echoes might just swirl around that Bermuda pitch until the first opponents in the Concacaf Champions League visit the Banc in 2020.
“I think in the end we have to be proud of how we have done all year and learn,” said Vela. “It’s football. These things happen and we have to get all the wrong things, all the bad moments to get better, and prepare everything for next season because like you say, we have another tournament and we want to be important in that tournament, so we have to first rest well and come back strong.”