LAFC pulls away in second half to open playoffs with win over Whitecaps

Vancouver Whitecaps midfielder Andrés Cubas, left, and LAFC forward Carlos Vela vie for the ball during the first half of their MLS playoff match Saturday at BMO Stadium. (Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

LAFC won its MLS playoff opener Saturday, which isn’t as impressive or definitive as it sounds.

In years past, the dominant 5-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps at BMO Stadium would have moved the team on to the next round. This year, it’s little more than a step forward on that path.

That’s because MLS changed its playoff format again this fall, making the first round a best-of-three series rather than a single match. So rather than advancing to the second round, LAFC is only advancing to the second game.

It can close out the series with a win Nov. 5 in Vancouver. If a third game is needed, it will be played Nov. 9 at BMO Stadium.

But if Saturday’s seesaw opener lacked finality, it didn’t lack excitement, with Vancouver twice erasing one-goal deficits in a wide-open first half before LAFC put the game away with three unanswered scores in the second half. Ryan Hollingshead and Dénis Bouanga had two goals each and Jesús Murillo scored once for LAFC. Brian White and Sam Adekugbe scored for Vancouver.

Hollingshead put LAFC in front in the 18th minute but had to work for the goal, first nodding a Carlos Vela corner kick on target from the far post, only to have Vancouver keeper Yohei Takaoka make a diving, one-handed save. Takaoka pushed the rebound right to Hollingshead, however, and this time the LAFC defender didn’t miss, putting a low, left-footed shot across the goalmouth and just over the line.

That was a good omen for LAFC, which has lost just once in 24 games in all competition when scoring first. Undeterred, Vancouver pulled that goal back less than 10 minutes later when White made Murillo pay for a giveaway deep in his own end by burying a right-footed shot from inside the box.

The PA announcer had barely finished acknowledging the game-tying score before Bouanga, the league’s scoring leader, untied it with his seventh goal in his last four games and his second in as many Saturdays against Vancouver.

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Adekugbe pulled that one back 11 minutes later, scoring his first league goal of the year on a far-post header off a Ryan Gauld free kick, marking the first time Vancouver scored twice in the first half of an MLS game since July. The last time LAFC surrendered two first-half goals was in June, in a 3-2 loss to these same Whitecaps at BMO Stadium, Vancouver’s only win over LAFC in the last three seasons.

The Whitecaps have gone even longer without a playoff victory, their only postseason win coming in 2017 against San José. That drought continued Saturday, with Hollingshead putting LAFC in front to stay seven minutes into the second half, knocking in another deflection, this one off a Bouanga shot, from the top of the six-yard box.

The two goals were Hollingshead’s first in the postseason since 2015, when he scored his only previous playoff goal for FC Dallas. But LAFC wasn’t done, with the red-hot Bouanga adding an insurance goal in the 64th minute, banging in a right-footed shot in from outside the box off a Vela free kick. That gave him his second two-goal brace in four playoff games.

Murillo closed out the scoring by heading in a Mateusz Bogusz cross in the 80th minute.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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