LAFC wins the West, advances to MLS Cup again

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports
LAFC defeated Houston Dynamo, 2-0, to advance to the MLS Cup and become back-to-back MLS Western Conference champions.

LOS ANGELES — LAFC is headed back to the MLS Cup Final after a 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference Final, LAFC will head to Ohio to face the Columbus Crew in the Final on Dec. 9.

Entering the match, most eyes were on the captains, former teammates with the Mexican National Team, Carlos Vela and Houston’s Hector Herrera, but their teammates stole the show.

“Very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the last two years, I’m very proud of the players who have been mentally through a lot this year,” LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo said afterwards. “A lot of ups and downs on and off the pitch and the effort they give in training the focus they give… this is a special, special group and I thank them for that every day and tonight they were able to reward themselves.”

Just before the half, Vela took a corner kick that bounced off Giorgio Chiellini’s head, where it was deflected by Houston’s Clark, but he couldn’t save Ryan Hollinghead’s rebound, which put the hosts ahead, 1-0 and sent the crowd at BMO Stadium into a frenzy.

Although Hollingshead plays in the backline, he has been a scoring threat on set pieces for LAFC, as his finish marked his third goal of the postseason.

”Somebody told me I’m catching (Denis Bouanga) on playoff goals,” Hollingshead said jokingly. “That’s crazy. Our goals are very different.”

The intensity from the first half continued in the second and nearly boiled over after a late tackle from Houston’s Herrera on Timothy Tillman, but the referee was quick to issue Herrera a yellow card.

After numerous empty build-ups and shot attempts by LAFC, Houston’s defense would make a costly mistake that put the game out of reach.

Following a build-up from Diego Palacios and MLS Golden Boot winner Denis Bouanga, Houston’s Franco Escobar found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as the ball deflected off his feet and into the back of the net, doubling LAFC’s lead.

“For us it was imperative to protect the middle first and to not let them through or find a rhythm in that combination play,” Cherundolo said afterwards.

Houston played its typical style of soccer, dominating possession, 70% to LAFC’s 30%, yet couldn’t finish scoring opportunities nor stop LAFC’s attack in the final third, which was by design according to Hollingshead.

”I think we know what it takes to win these games and we know how to just wear teams down like that,” Hollingshead said after the win. “How frustrating it is for a team like this, to have the ball 70% of the game and create nothing, right? They’re so frustrated. They’re like, ‘we’re playing well,’ they think, but it’s not leading to anything and it’s a very strategic play for us.”

The Dynamo also entered the contest having defeated LAFC twice within a five-day span during the season, shutting out the Black and Gold during both encounters in June.

Yet it was LAFC who finished with more shots on target, more corners and ultimately, two more goals than the Dynamo when it mattered the most in December.

Nearing the 80th minute, Vela was subbed off for what could be the final time at BMO stadium, as his contract with LAFC ends at the end of the season. The crowd sent him off with an ovation.

Looking ahead, one game and one opponent stand between LAFC and the elusive trophy they’ve been chasing all season. After falling short in the U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF Champions League and Leagues Cup competitions this year.

Kellyn Acosta is confident in his team’s form and has an old phrase in mind when he thinks of the team’s championship aspirations.

”I think just the collectiveness of the group and the willingness and doing all the dirty work. It’s the aspects of the game that people don’t really notice, but it goes a long way,” Acosta said. “I think the whole saying is ‘defense wins championships,’ right? Well in the last two games we’ve kept it at zero.”