LAFC defeats Austin FC to reach MLS Cup final for first time

For the second time in three weeks, LAFC lifted a trophy at Banc of California Stadium. This time it was the Western Conference championship that will be put in the showcase alongside the Supporters’ Shield the team won earlier this month.

The title celebrations were short-lived, however, as even with a 3-0 win over Austin FC on Sunday, LAFC are one win away from their true goal: the MLS Cup.

After this Saturday is Philadelphia Union, a 3-1 win over New York City FC in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“We are very happy with the game we played and the trophy,” said midfielder Ilie Sánchez. “But that’s not what we want, or not the only thing we want. We are looking forward to the bigger one.”

Sanchez was not alone.

“In the locker room [there] is still hungry and wants more,” said coach Steve Cherundolo in a celebratory press conference. “We will keep the focus as high as possible for a week and hope to hold a similar press conference next Saturday.”

The last time Southern California hosted an MLS Cup final, LAFC was a nameless concept. That was in 2014, the year a group of investors including Peter Guber, head of Mandalay Entertainment, paid MLS more than $100 million for the rights to place an expansion team in Los Angeles.

From the team’s first season in 2018, Guber said the idea of ​​competing was never easy, but winning championships – only to be frustrated by two losses in the first round of the playoffs and another in the semifinals of the MLS Cup to be.

On Sunday the team was finally in the final.

“The idea came true,” said Guber. “When people believe and 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 leftovers from the inaugural season, not only set up the goals that propelled LAFC to their maiden MLS Cup final, but also the Western Conference trophy accepted team on behalf of the club.

LAFC star Carlos Vela holds the MLS Western Conference Champions trophy.

LAFC star Carlos Vela holds the MLS Western Conference champions trophy as he celebrates the team’s 3-0 win over Austin FC on Sunday.

(John McCoy/Associated Press)

LAFC dominated the first half, forcing Austin to make numerous errors, swarming the ball and denying the 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 a left-footed Vela with a corner kick from the edge of the six-yard box for a 1-0 lead.

For Arango, who scored the winner in added time in LAFC’s playoff opener with the Galaxy, the goal was his 32nd in 53 MLS games, including playoffs, since joining the league 14 months ago. Only Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar has scored more goals in that span.

LAFC should have had a bigger cushion before the break after beating Austin 16-1 and putting six of those tries on target, but Austin goaltender Brad Stuver, who finished with seven saves, repeatedly frustrated LAFC to keep the game close .

Indeed, Stuver’s next shot came from one of his players when Maximiliano Urruti deflected another Vela corner into Austin’s net in the 62nd minute, seconds after he was substituted off the bench. That goal was a big one as LAFC hasn’t lost this season when they’ve scored multiple goals.

Mahala Opoku, a second-half substitute, added an insurance goal, pouncing on a poor release from Austin – and a lucky jump – and beating Stuver with a left-footed shot from outside the box in the 81st minute.

On the other hand, LAFC keeper Maxime Crepeau only had to make one stop to knock out the conference’s second-best scoring team.

“That’s what you play for as a kid,” Crepeau said of the chance to fight for a title. “We have that opportunity next week.”

Crepeau was one of seven Sunday starters to complete their first full season with LAFC and was not part of the team’s earlier playoff disappointments. That’s not to say they didn’t have disappointments. Prior to that year, Crepeau had only played on one winning team in MLS, and Kellyn Acosta and Ryan Hollingshead had never won more than one playoff game in the same season.

They all play in an MLS Cup final next weekend.

“We’ve known since the start of the season that when we play our best football, nobody can match us,” said Hollingshead, who joined LAFC from FC Dallas in February. “The season is long, there are ups and downs, there are moments when the legs don’t feel 100%.

“We got what we asked for and we came and performed. So we will be prepared for that.”

Then there’s Sánchez, the winter free agent who has done more to transform LAFC than any of the offseason signings. He twice made it to the Conference Finals with Sporting Kansas City without a win, but on Sunday he walked off the field in a black T-shirt that read “Conference Champions.”

“I’m hoping to wear a championship shirt again next week,” he said. LAFC defeats Austin FC to reach MLS Cup final for first time

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