Austin FC falters in West final to star-studded Los Angeles FC

LOS ANGELES — In this town, it’s all about star power.

From the 2,695 stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame to megacelebrities from LeBron to Leo to Tarantino, this is no city for shrinking violets. To survive here, you’ve got to bring it big time.

They’re always looking for the next big thing, be it on the Hollywood screen or the soccer pitch.

And the Los Angeles Football Club had a pinch more than the visitors. Well, a lot more than a pinch with three MLS All-Stars to Austin’s one.

“They could almost start two elevens,” Austin FC coach Josh Wolff said. “They’re that loaded.”

The home town’s collection of stars such as Carlos Vela and Chicho Arango and Giorgi Chiellini and Diego Palacios, to name a few, just overwhelmed Austin FC 3-0 in a tidal wave of offensive pressure and ended Verde’s magical season in a ragged performance in this single-game elimination Western Conference final Sunday.

In a season in which the Austin team made clear and undeniable progress, this wasn’t one of its finer moments, to say the least.

“Today wasn’t one of our better games,” Austin winger Diego Fagúndez said. “The better team won today.”

The Texas team that had far exceeded anyone’s wildest imaginations this year and had become the first Major League Soccer team to come back from multiple goals down and win four times couldn’t find the back of the net once. Quite frankly, Verde saved its worst for last or one of its worsts, mostly thanks to tight pressure from LAFC, which allowed only 38 goals all season, the third-best performance in the league.

As if Austin’s feeble play at the worst possible time of the season weren’t enough against powerful LAFC, which won the Supporters’ Shield with the league’s best record, Austin replacement Maxi Urruti accidentally headed a corner kick into his own net for LAFC’s breathe-easy second score in the 62nd minute of the game. That would be more than enough.

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A third goal came in the 82nd minute, when left-footed sub Mahala Opoku got some separation from the Austin defense and sent it home clear of Brad Stuver for the clincher in front of a packed house of 22,175, including celebrities such as Owen Wilson and stars of “Sons of Anarchy.”

Austin had been one of just two teams to win here at Banc of California Stadium, where the supporters’ section brandished several dozen black and gold flags and kept the noise buzzing.

For an Austin team that had swept LAFC in both meetings during the regular season and had brought some killer confidence to this first road playoff match in the West final, getting skunked will leave a bad taste that Verde will take with it during the offseason but not the lingering effect after a dramatic turnaround.

LAFC totally dominated the first half with 13 shots to Austin FC’s zero and finished with an eye-popping 22-7 differential as the Black and Gold controlled the match from the opening whistle and led with an overwhelming 10-1 advantage in shots on goal.

“They did a fantastic job making it difficult on us today,” Wolff said. “They’ve been best team the entire year. We’ve been on other side of things like this, building momentum and smothering other teams. They didn’t give us a chance to breathe. They would not let us get in their half of the field and set up shop. They were very relentless.”

To maximize its chances of winning its first MLS Cup ever in its five years of existence, LAFC made Sebastián Driussi a harmless spectator. Incredibly, Austin weathered the onslaught and trailed just 1-0 in the first half, thanks to some spectacular saves from Stuver to hold the homeowners at bay for the most part.

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Driussi didn’t take a shot in the opening half and was limited to just 16 touches in the first 45 minutes, his fewest of the season.

And so it came crashing to a halt, all of Austin’s feel-good momentum dissolved in 90 minutes of rare mediocrity against a superior ballclub. This one was over long before it was, well, over.

“We’ve smothered other teams, peppered them and not let ❜em get out,” forward Jon Gallagher said. “Today we were on the receiving end.”

The Verde and Black were one step away from reaching the MLS Cup championship against the winner of Sunday night’s matchup between East Conference champion Philadelphia and MLS defending champion New York City FC.

Austin was hoping to become only the third team in MLS history to try to win it all within just two years of existence, following the lead of the Chicago Fire in its debut and Atlanta United in Year Two. Maybe Austin FC should loan its blueprint to Steve Sarkisian.

El Tree should have felt very much at home here at the black-themed Banc of California because it played its first game in its maiden season here a year and a half ago. Alas, that was a 2-0 loss to the Los Angelinos, who also swept all three of their showdowns with Austin.

The table was turned dramatically this year. Actually, it was flipped over as Josh Wolff’s bunch was one of just two teams to win at the Banc and sweep LA.

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You might have taken one look at the black-clad tailgaters east of the stadium and thought you were at a Raiders game, and in truth LAFC brings a physicality to the contest that would make Al Davis smile. Just win, baby, and LA did, taking the Supporters’ Shield by winning a league-high 22 games, getting a first-round bye and then holding off the LA Galaxy with a 93rd-minute goal from Cristian Arango.

By allotment, Austin FC fans received 280 tickets to the arena, which incidentally was designed by the same Gensler architects who drew up the floor plans for Austin’s Q2 Stadium as well as Texas’ Moody Center. That said, a couple of hundred more were sequestered throughout the 5-year-old facility, which sits next door to the Los Angeles Coliseum, where multimillionaire Lincoln Riley lifted his USC Trojans over Arizona the night before.

LAFC’s following does rival Austin’s in decibel level and butts in the seats as they ranked ninth in the league in attendance, one spot ahead of Austin, although both sell out regularly. None does more so than El Tree because all 36 home games have been sold out at the Q.

LAFC’s roster went through massive changes in the summer transfer window, and features all kinds of stars such as Vela, Denis Bouanga, Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta and Palacios.

What a leap forward this Austin team accomplished, however, in its transition from an expansion team to an experienced one that made its presence felt in a big way.

Rare is it that the MLS playoffs go to form, but Austin arrived at the postseason as the No. 2 seed and challenged the West’s best team while East champion Philadelphia quarreled with defending MLS champion New York City FC in the other semifinal.

“Playoffs are the playoffs,” Stuver said. “You win or go home. What we did in the regular season, we did in the regular season. We’re a little bummed out.”

Better to be bummed than bums. Austin’s no one’s bums anymore. It stood an embarrassing 12th in the Western Conference a year ago, doomed by an AWOL offense and poor defensive transition. That did a 180 this season as Austin, fueled by MVP candidate Driussi and his 22 regular-season and MLS-best three playoff goals and dynamic winger Fagúndez, who was dangerously effective with his curving free kicks, was the second highest-scoring team in the league. In fact, Austin’s 65 goals this season were one back of LAFC.

On Sunday the gap was much wider.

By game’s end, Austin saw stars, and on this clear, sunny day, they almost all wore black and gold jerseys.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Austin FC loses to LAFC in MLS Western Conference finals 3-0


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