How LAFC learned to win the MLS Cup and come back for more

Dec 9, 2023 | Canyon Crest Guide Newspaper | 0 comments

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COLUMBUS, Ohio — One. More. Try.

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The longest, most grueling season in the six-year history of the Los Angeles Football Club sits perched on a razor’s edge.

Failure looms.

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History beckons.

Next to no space can be found between these outcomes when LAFC clashes with the Columbus Crew on Saturday for a late afternoon championship match at Field.

Six franchises in the history of the league earned the chance to repeat. LAFC made it seven after returning to the MLS Cup following last year’s dramatic victory.

Three found a way: D.C. United during the first two MLS seasons in 1996-97; the Houston Dynamo in 2006-07; and David Beckham’s 2011-12 L.A. Galaxy.

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That the last team to celebrate back-to-back MLS Cup wins happens to be LAFC’s chief rival offers an added dimension for what second-year head coach Steve Cherundolo and his players want to accomplish.

“For me it would be wonderful,” said LAFC’s impressive Golden Boot recipient, Denis Bouanga. “It would be a real success to do that this season, knowing I was able to spend a whole season with this team. I think it would show to everyone that LAFC is a very strong club and to be able to win trophies would show the strength of the club and the importance of the club to the city of Los Angeles and the league.”

Win or lose, the man who signed Bouanga last year, LAFC general manager and head of soccer operations John Thorrington, sees the importance of the repeat bid another way leading into the club’s 53rd match this year – a record total for an MLS team.

“We had to learn,” Thorrington said. “Nobody had ever done this before and we did our best. To still be standing here the day before an MLS Cup final, given what we’ve had to go through this year, speaks volumes about this group and that to me is success.”

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“We know we are in a really great position,” LAFC captain Carlos Vela added. “We know how hard it is to win one trophy.”

Falling in the CONCACAF Champions League final and the Campeones Cup this year offered lingering reminders that success isn’t guaranteed no matter who you are or what you are, even if in LAFC’s case it often feels like it should.

“I think that is one of the successes of this club and this team because we are not happy winning one championship,” Vela said. “We want to win more and we’re here again. We’re in a really good spot. Of course we know we’re playing away against a really good team and it will be tough. Tougher than last year, and last year was difficult. Imagine how hard it will be.

“We know how difficult it is to win. More difficult is to repeat.”

Winning season after season?

Few players on any level have had that experience.

LAFC center back Giorgio Chiellini is a rare exception, capturing nine consecutive Serie A titles with Juventus.

The Italian’s terrific late-season form in the middle of LAFC’s backline this year played a key factor in the defending champions’ return to the MLS Cup, evident by holding opponents goalless over the last 367 minutes of playoff action.

“It’s not easy in this league to create a dynasty,” Chiellini said. “The teams that were able to do it were so good and we have to clap our hands to them, but we are trying to do something similar.

“Winning is difficult. Repeating is much more difficult. And if you try to repeat in a row, the difficulty rises and increases so much.”

MLS labyrinthine rules, regulations and budget restrictions place what the league describes as a premium on competitive balance, making repeatable success an underdog proposition.

And yet here is LAFC, rising again to the top of the Western Conference to grasp an opportunity at further growing its footprint in Los Angeles, which in several ways over the past six years has overshadowed their once-dominant neighbors from Carson.

Making good on a repeat bid would be one more thing the Galaxy could no longer hold over LAFC’s head.

“I said and I still meant it, statistically the Galaxy was the most successful team to the point we joined the league,” Thorrington said, “and our goal was to focus on what we need to do to be the most successful team from when we start.

“Our goal was to be the best team from when we exist and on. I wouldn’t say we’re satisfied 100% yet that we’ve achieved that, but we’re on our way.”

The 2023 Eastern Conference champions have taken notice of this winning attitude. Crew midfielder Julian Gressel, winner of the MLS Cup with Atlanta United FC in 2018, called making it this far a “huge credit to LAFC.”

“I think winning a championship can either relax you, and be like, ‘OK, now we can take the foot off.’ Or it can do the opposite: ‘OK, this is what victory tastes like and we want more and more,’” he said. “I feel like that’s what [winning] has kind of done to that team.”

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