Updated: Nov 4, 2022
At the start of the Western Conference Final on Sunday, Oct. 30, the 3252 raised a tifo featuring Jason from Friday the 13th. The LAFC Instagram caption read, "No place to hide." It's spooky season, after all, and the Supporters' Shield winners, amongst a jam-packed stadium, gave the visiting opponents good reason to be frightened. LAFC delivered one of their most self-assured performances to date with a 3-0 shutout against Austin FC at the Banc of California Stadium.
The matchup was set to be an intriguing one, featuring two young coaches leading high-profile teams with a similar DNA: Steve Cherundolo and Josh Wolff were USMNT teammates, both pupils of former LAFC manager Bob Bradley, and are spearheading new-ish clubs with major fan bases and celebrity ownership. But while LAFC had the betting odds on their side, Austin had bested the Black & Gold in their last two meetups, 4-1 and 2-1. LAFC have also suffered from big game jitters in the past, and don't always fair well being the favorite. Not so this time around.
From the get-go, LAFC applied a relentless high press, forcing Austin into multiple turnovers and neutralizing one of the most efficient attackers in the league, Sebastián Driussi. Likewise, Italian luminary Giorgio Chiellini, who compared the MLS Playoffs to a Champions League game, helped completely shut down Austin's no. 9, Moussa Djitté.
LAFC midfielder Ilie Sánchez once again played an invaluable role in controlling speed of play and maintaining possession. Couple that with the frightening attacking trio of MVP finalist Chicho Arango, former Golden Boot Carlos Vela, and rising star Dénis Bouanga, and the stats are a clear reflection of the team's class and quality. LAFC outshot their opponents 16 to 1 in the first half alone, and exceeded their 2.25 xG with three goals, though the scoreline could have easily been four or five nil.
Appropriately enough, Arango opened the scoresheet in the 29th minute with a deftly placed header off a Carlos Vela corner kick.
In the 62nd minute, Vela increased their lead to two, after his corner deflected off Austin attacker Maxi Urruti for an own goal. The 2-0 buffer allowed Cherundolo to make some key substitutions in the warm weather, swapping Arango for the always dynamic Mahala Opoku, and Vela for skilled midfielder Sebastián Méndez. The fresh legs paid off in the 81st minute, when Opoku all but sealed LAFC's ticket to the final with a beautiful precision shot past Austin keeper Brad Stuver.
In total, LAFC fired off 22 shots to Austin's seven, including a close-range effort from Ryan Hollingshead and several more from Bouanga and Arango.
LAFC will now face east coast no. 1 Philadelphia Union—who beat NYCFC 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Final that same day—and enjoy home game advantage thanks to MLS' tiebreaker, which is based on total number of wins rather than goal differential. It will be the first time both sides have made it this far, and the first time since 2003 that two no. 1 seeds will play each other for the coveted trophy.
Amazingly, Union head coach Jim Curtin was there for that epic match as well, except as a player. Curtin was part of a Chicago Fire squad that included Jesse Marsch, Chris Armas, and current LAFC assistant coach Ante Razov. While that match ended in a 4-2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, Curtin may rightly feel this return is something of a date with destiny.
In the post-match press conference, Cherundolo was tempered in his celebration. "In the locker room what I see is still hunger and want for more,” he said. "Dolo" is having a dream of a season in his inaugural year as LAFC head coach, molding arguably the most well-rounded team in the league, and expertly juggling internationally famed players alongside lesser-known talent.
Come Saturday, LAFC versus the Union will be an experiment in what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force. Not only is Philadelphia's Andre Blake Goalkeeper of the Year, some say he's the best keeper the MLS has seen, ever. Curtin beat out Cherundolo for Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year, even after Cherundolo won Supporters' Shield and broke the record for most wins as a first-year head coach in the MLS. And a whopping four Union players were named to the 2022 MLS Best XI (LAFC had one).
So what happens when the best keeper in the league meets the best attackers in the league? What happens when the best coach in the east meets the best coach in the west?
Supporters' Shield winners rarely win MLS Cup. In fact, LAFC are the only team in the past five years to advance to the finals after winning the Supporters' Shield the same season. And yet, LAFC possess the gifts of newness and versatility. Seven of their starters on Sunday are in their first full season with the club, allowing for mental freshness and untainted ambition. Their roster depth is unmatched in the league, with a bench that could easily start on most other MLS squads.
What happens when immovable object meets unstoppable force? Despite the odds favoring LAFC, the match appears to be anyone's game, and the history making final is poised to be one of the league's best yet.
The MLS Cup will be Saturday, Nov. 5, at the Banc of California Stadium at 1 p.m. PDT, broadcast on FOX, UniMás, TSN4, and TVA Sports.