LAFC newcomer Denis Bouanga has made an immediate impact for the reigning MLS Cup champions. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
LOS ANGELES — LAFC, once again, is on the verge of doing something special.
That has quickly become a habit since the team played their first game in 2018. An expansion club in a city like Los Angeles was always going to have ambitious expectations from the jump. Having one of the most decorated coaches in American soccer history, Bob Bradley, at the helm of the project was massive. Following that announcement with Carlos Vela being the team’s first signing was monumental.
And everything that has followed since has been way more good than bad for the Black and Gold.
The record-setting 2019 Major League Soccer season of course stands out due to Vela’s absurd 34 goals en route to the MVP and Golden Boot — a complement to LAFC winning the Supporters’ Shield, the club’s first trophy. That glorious campaign fell short of the ultimate goal of winning MLS Cup.
Just three years later LAFC would do just that, and add another Supporters’ Shield, too.
Most impressively is that the organization accomplished the double under first-year head coach Steve Cherundolo, who took Bradley’s place last season. He will be the first to admit that a lot of his success was due in large part to the strong foundation already built by Bradley and Co. in the years prior. Cherundolo didn’t come in to shake things up, he just wanted to build and continue pushing the limits of how great LAFC could be.
Turns out he’s a pretty damn good builder.
Tuesday night at BMO Stadium was yet another example of that as LAFC defeated Philadelphia Union 3-0 in the second leg of the CONCACAF Champions League semifinal, advancing to the final for the second time in team history.
The Black and Gold have been stellar under Cherundolo, especially in this tournament, outscoring opponents 14-3 over three rounds. Usually MLS teams that make long CCL runs struggle in league play due to the packed schedule and challenges of roster construction. That’s the norm people are used to. LAFC does things its own way, though.
It has been a perfect balancing act as LAFC remains the only undefeated team in MLS at the moment with a 5-0-3 record, running rampant on opposition there as well with 16 goals scored and a league-low six conceded.
What the team is doing isn’t just a casual success story or lucky moment. This is historic.
“I have a ton of respect for what this club is all about here in L.A.,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin after the loss. “[LAFC is] probably the best team, you could argue, in our league’s history”
Kwadwo Opoku (right) celebrates with midfielder Kellyn Acosta and defender Aaron Long after scoring a goal against the Philadelphia Union on Tuesday at BMO Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
With all due respect to the 2017 Toronto FC squad, LAFC will be exactly that if it’s able to beat León in the final. Liga MX teams have traditionally always dominated CCL, winning 16 of the last 17 titles. But last year the Seattle Sounders stepped up and took down Pumas UNAM to become the first MLS team to hoist that trophy.
After the Sounders won the 2022 final, head coach Brian Schmetzer said something that resonated. “There’s a lot of talented coaches in MLS, this was going to happen at some point. Yes, I feel fortunate that I’m with a really strong, forward-thinking, proactive organization and I had a chance to do it. But I think there’s going to be more success following our success.”
Cherundolo was one of the specific coaches he mentioned by name when praising his peers. At that point, Cherundolo was only a few months into his new gig at LAFC. That should tell you everything you need to know. And now a year later, to no surprise, it’s Cherundolo and LAFC that will have a chance to make good on Schmetzer’s premonition.
But this also isn’t foreign territory to the Black and Gold. In 2020 they reached the CCL final and saw it slip away in the closing minutes, as the Bradley-led squad lost to Tigres UANL 2-1. That tournament was unusual due to a long pause caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which in turn affected the format and caused single-elimination games to be played at a neutral site instead of the traditional home-and-away series.
The experience and accomplishment of reaching that level still counts, especially considering LAFC had to face all Liga MX competition that year. This time around is different as their final opponent will be their first Liga MX challenge.
The contrast between those years is endless because this version of LAFC isn’t so reliant on Vela as it was in the past. The new era that Cherundolo and his coaching staff have orchestrated revolves around a distinct mindset.
“It’s about LAFC, it’s not about individuals, a coach or player. It’s about this organization,” Cherundolo said. “That message has been delivered loud and clear and implemented pretty much week to week by these players.”
LAFC players celebrate after Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Union at BMO Stadium. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
It speaks volumes that the guys having major impacts are newer acquisitions like Timothy Tillman, who Cherundolo was familiar with before he came to L.A. and helped recruit. And Denis Bouanga, who leads the tournament with six goals and is the MLS MVP frontrunner at the moment with seven goals in league play.
But there are also veterans like Ilie Sanchez, Kellyn Acosta and Ryan Hollingshead, who have stepped in to solidify the group. The success on the field is evident and it’s a direct reflection of how great LAFC has been able to attract players and get them comfortably settled while buying into the system.
LAFC went from a new MLS team to being a model for the league, and now the continent. Strong aspirations have directly translated into Black and Gold prosperity.
“We are ecstatic to be in the final of this competition. It’s a competition that was highlighted on our calendar,” Cherundolo said. “So far, we have accomplished the goals we have set for ourselves. There’s one more to go.”