For the second time in three weeks, LAFC lifted a trophy at Banc of California Stadium. This time it was the Western Conference championship, which will go into the display case next to the Supporters' Shield the team won earlier this month.
The title celebration was short-lived however, because even with a 3-0 win Sunday over Austin FC, LAFC is one victory short of the prize it really wants: the MLS Cup.
It will go after that Saturday when it plays host to the Philadelphia Union, a 3-1 winner over New York City FC in the Eastern Conference final.
“We are very pleased with the game we played and the trophy,” midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “But this is not the one we want to have, or not the only one that we want to have. We look forward to the bigger one.”
Sánchez wasn’t alone.
“In the locker room [there] is still hunger and want for more,” coach Steve Cherundolo said in a celebratory news conference. “We'll keep the level of focus as high as possible for a week and hope to have a similar press conference next Saturday.”
The last time an MLS Cup final was played in Southern California, LAFC was a concept without a name. That was 2014, the year a group of investors, that included Mandalay Entertainment head Peter Guber, paid MLS more than $100 million for the rights to put an expansion team in Los Angeles.
From the team’s first season in 2018, Guber said the idea was never simply to compete, but to win championships — only to be frustrated with two first-round playoffs losses and another in the MLS Cup semifinals.
Sunday the team finally punched through to the final.
“The idea has come true,” Guber said. “If people believe and they work together, magic can happen. And it did.”
So it was fitting that captain Carlos Vela, the club’s first signing and one of only two holdovers from the inaugural season, not only set up the goals that put LAFC in its first MLS Cup final but also accepted the Western Conference trophy on behalf of the team.
LAFC dominated the first half, forcing Austin into numerous mistakes by swarming the ball and denying time and space needed to operate. That pressure finally paid off in the 29th minute when Cristian Arango stepped in front of Moussa Djitte to nod in a left-footed Vela corner kick from the edge of the six-yard box for a 1-0 lead.
For Arango, who scored the winner in stoppage time in LAFC’s playoff opener with the Galaxy, the goal was his 32nd in 53 MLS games, including playoffs, since coming to the league 14 months ago. Only Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar has scored more in that span.
LAFC should have had a larger cushion going into intermission after outshooting Austin 16-1 and putting six of those tries on target, but Austin goalkeeper Brad Stuver, who finished with seven saves, repeatedly frustrated LAFC to keep the game close.
In fact, the next shot to get by Stuver came off one of his players with Maximiliano Urruti deflecting another Vela corner into the Austin net in the 62nd minute, seconds after coming off the bench. That goal was a big one since LAFC hasn’t lost this season when scoring multiple times.
Mahala Opoku, a second-half substitute, added an insurance goal, pouncing on a poor Austin clearance — and a fortunate bounce — and beating Stuver with a left-footed shot from outside the box in the 81st minute.
On the other end, LAFC keeper Maxime Crepeau was called on to make only one stop in shutting out the second-best scoring team in the conference.
“This is what you play for as a child,” Crepeau said of the chance to compete for a title. “We have that opportunity next week.”
Crepeau was one of seven starters Sunday who are finishing their first full season with LAFC and were not part of the team’s previous playoff disappointments. That isn’t to say they didn’t know disappointment. Before this year, Crepeau had played on only one winning team in MLS and Kellyn Acosta and Ryan Hollingshead had never won more than one playoff game in the same season.
Next weekend they’ll all be playing in an MLS Cup final.
“We've known from the start of the season that when we play our best football, nobody can match us,” said Hollingshead, who came to LAFC from FC Dallas in a February trade. “The season is long, there's ups and downs, there's moments where your legs are not feeling 100%.
“We’ve gotten what we've asked for and we've come and performed. So we'll be ready for it.”
Then there’s Sánchez, the winter free-agent signing who has done more to transform LAFC than any of the offseason additions. He twice made it to the conference final with Sporting Kansas City without winning, but Sunday he left the field wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned “Conference Champions.”
“I hope I’m wearing another championship T-shirt next week,” he said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.