SANTA CLARA, Calif. — LAFC, the reigning champions of MLS, succumbed to the forces of grueling schedule fatigue after playing five road matches in April, followed by a crucial CCL Champions League semifinal second leg, and lost their first regular season match of the season to the San Jose Earthquakes.
The Earquakes, a club that is seeking their first playoffs appearance since 2020. defeated LAFC 2-1 at Levi Stadium on Saturday in front of a crowd of 45,112.
It was the 14th matchup between the two clubs, and while LAFC owns the all-time head-to-head record (8W-0D-6L) the loss at Levi was their fifth consecutive away loss to the Earthquakes. Yet, LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo was reticent as he declared, “I don’t believe in series. Every game has its own story.” Prior to the match, he forewarned that the Earthquakes, who now sit alongside LAFC, tied for 3rd in the Western Conference standings, are one of those teams that are not beatable unless their opponent is at 100%. True to his prediction, LAFC’s starting XI showed signs of physical fatigue from opening whistle and were first to concede a goal.
Within eight minutes, Cristian Espinoza capitalized on a sluggish Los Angeles side, scoring to give the Quakes an early upper-hand. By doing so, he expanded upon his career season becoming the first since Chris Wondolowski to contribute at least one goal in six straight matches for San Jose. Unfortunately for LAFC, it wouldn’t be his last that evening either.
LAFC MLS Golden Boot candidate, Dénis Bouanga, eventually equalized for the visitors in the 30th minute, unassisted, to get his eighth MLS goal of the regular season. In total, Bouanga made the majority (five) of LAFC’s 17 attempted shots. But, without better finishing touches, LAFC’s shots were mostly all for naught. San Jose didn’t outshoot LAFC, they simply outmaneuvered them in moments in the final third where lapses in judgement likely brought on by physical exhaustion led to easy mistakes.
Espinoza then converted a penalty kick in the 83rd minute to break their tie and gave the Quakes the 2-1 win. It was San Jose’s fifth victory of the MLS season, and it lifted them into a tie (18 points) with LAFC for third place in their conference, but LAFC still have two games in hand having played only 9 up until league Matchday 11.
The tie for third place in their conference isn’t the only draw that resulted from the evening. Both Espinoza and Bouanga are also now tied (along with Seattle Sounders’ Jordan Morris) for 8 goals in regular season play. Both have played in all possible matches for their teams so far this season – Bouanga’s played in all 15 and Espinoza’s played in all 11 for San Jose. As Bouanga pointed out in the post-match presser, “He’s a very similar player [to] me. He likes to play deep like me and to score.”
But it’s not all they have in common. For both Designated Players, 2023 is their breakthrough season. Both Bouanga and Espinoza did not get off to a hot start in MLS when they initially arrived. Espinoza, wasn’t more of a threat until the Earthquakes new head coach Luchi Gonzalez saw the potential to push him into more central positions.
Similarly, Cherundolo explained the shift in Bouanga’s position from last year, has opened up a world of possibilities for him. “Denis showed us his potential last year, and he has kind of connected the dots this season and has become very prolific for us. He is an incredible individual player who has now understood our system a little better, and we are getting him into better positions than last season.”
Traditionally a winger, Bouanga’s proving more prolific in a central role. He now has 18 combined goals and assists this season in 15 games across all competitions. “If we could teach him how to set up goals more often a little better, then he’s hands down the best player in the league,” Cherundulo asserted. For both Golden Boot contenders, the only way from here is up.
LAFC return to competition on Tuesday in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Monterey Bay FC (USL), and then continue their MLS regular season on May 13 with a road game against Real Salt Lake at 6:30 p.m. PT.
True to Cherundolo’s principles of living in the present but allowing the past to inform them without overwhelming them, Ilie Sánchez asserted, “having the next opportunity in three days is challenging for our legs, our bodies, but for our minds, it is good for us.” Onwards and upwards.