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LAFC’s goal: Repeat as MLS champions through experience and versatility

LAFC won everything there is to be won in MLS last season, finished with the best regular season record to claim the Supporters’ Shield and then defeated Philadelphia in an epic final to capture the inaugural MLS Cup.

That leaves the team with only one possible encore for this season: do it all over again.

“The goal is to win. The goal is to become champion, to get the most points,” said captain Carlos Vela in Spanish.

“When you win one, you feel how cool it is to win a championship,” he continued. “You want to win more. So we prepare for that.”

LAFC is only the second team since 2011 to win the MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield in the same season. No club has won both in consecutive years. But LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said his championship team has improved since last fall.

“We’re getting better,” he said. “Our training courses are getting better and better. We are refining our model, our scouting department, management. We join our academy. So many ways that we’re improving.

“You have to define success. Last season’s success for us was maximizing the group’s potential, and we did that. The same goal applies for this year because it is a different group.”

That new group would open the new season on Saturday, facing the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl in a game that would likely have broken the MLS single-game attendance record of 74,479. On Friday, that game was postponed due to impending bad weather.

When LAFC finally kicks off the season, it will do so with many familiar faces. Nine of the 11 starters from November’s MLS Cup final are back, with striker Cristian Arango, the team’s top scorer for the past two seasons, the most notable absence.

That continuity is already a step forward, says John Thorrington, the team’s general manager and co-chairman, since LAFC began last season with a freshman coach, new staff and nine new players.

“The easy equation is to talk about the team that came off as champions and not think about where we were a year ago. And that’s really the relevant equation – where we were at the beginning of last season,” he said. “Last year our tactical approach was more of ‘let’s see how the new coach(s) get used to the new players. ‘

“Where we stand with the benefit of an extra year with some of our players, with the guys we added last summer, with a full pre-season with a coach and staff who have now worked with the players for a year. .. we feel very good about the group we are going to on Saturday.

While Arango, transferred to Mexico’s Pachuca earlier this month a victim of the strict MLS salary cap, has left big boots to fill up front, LAFC will have a full season with designated player Denis Bouanga, who joined from Saint-Etienne last summer score the goal that clinched the Supporters’ Shield and then added two more in the play-offs. Behind him, Thorrington has added 20-year-old Croatia forward Stipe Biuk, who was signed under the league’s U-22 initiative.

The returning midfield of Kellyn Acosta, José Cifuentes and Ilie Sánchez is arguably the strongest in MLS, while the addition of USMNT defender Aaron Long, the re-signing of Ryan Hollingshead and a full season of timeless veteran Giorgio Chiellini – all of whom played multiple times have played positions throughout their professional careers — gives LAFC a versatile backline. LAFC may have even improved as a goalkeeper, a concern going into the winter after starter Maxime Crepeau broke his leg late in the MLS Cup. John McCarthy, who took over for Crepeau and made two saves in the penalty shootout to clinch the MLS Cup, will open as the starter backed by Eldin Jakupovic, who played six seasons in the English Premier League.

LAFC forward Carlos Vela, third from right, celebrates his goal with teammates during the first half against the Seattle Sounders on July 29, 2022 in Los Angeles.

(Ringo H. W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The added versatility will be critical as with an expanded playoff format, the addition of the month is long League Cup Tournament and the US Open cup and CONCACAF Champions League, LAFC could play more than 60 games in about 42 weeks if they make deep runs in all four competitions.

“It’s going to be a matter of balancing priorities,” Thorrington said. “We want to win everything we’re in, but sometimes logic and reason have to prevail. Given what happened with player contracts and where we were, I don’t think we have the depth that we had at the end of last year. So if you don’t have the depth of the team, in terms of the number of players, you have to tackle it through versatility.

Still, Cherundolo, the coach, is perhaps the most important player for LAFC. Cherundolo, who won a record 21 regular season games on his debut, had a Midas touch, with virtually every halftime adjustment.

Including the playoffs, LAFC outscored their opponents 51–18 in the second half and 17 of the team’s 75 goals came from substitutes. Only one MLS team in the past 24 years has gotten more offensive production from its bench. But none of that will mean anything as LAFC takes on the Galaxy to kick off the new season.

“There’s a reason why the standings start at zero every season,” said Cherundolo. “We are in a different league and different rules and regulations than the rest of the world.”

“Frankly it doesn’t affect this season for us,” he continued of the championship. “For me, I’ve already forgotten.”

Five LAFC players to watch in 2023

Carlos Candle: At LAFC, everything starts and ends with the captain. Since the team’s debut in 2018, LAFC is 46-12-17 in regular season games with Vela recording a goal or assist. He came to MLS to win a title, an MVP award and break the single-season scoring record; he did all three.

Denis Bouanga: The Gabon international will be counted on to take much of the deficit created by the departure of Cristian Arango and he showed he is up to the task in pre-season by scoring four times in the last three matches of LAFC.

Ilia Sanchez: It’s not often that a defensive midfielder is a team’s most important player, but that’s the case with Sánchez, 32, who led outfield players in starts and minutes, played every minute in the postseason and converted the penalty kick which gave LAFC its first MLS Cup. Do you want more proof? Including playoffs, LAFC lost only six of 36 games in which Sánchez played more than 25 minutes.

Ryan Hollingshead: Primarily an outside defender, Hollingshead has played seven positions in his MLS career, which will come in handy as versatility will be key during a season that sees a record number of games. He also scored six goals last season, which is a career high and the most tied by a defender.

Maxime Crepeau/John McCarthy: Crepeau had the third-best goals-against average (1.09) in the MLS last season, as he scored a career-high nine shutouts before breaking his leg deep in overtime of the MLS Cup final. McCarthy closed out the win and was rewarded with the starting job this season as Crepeau rehabs. In a season where depth will be key, having two starting goalkeepers – backed up by a third who played six seasons in the English Premier League – will give LAFC a huge advantage.