LAFC battle Sporting Kansas City to scoreless draw

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
LAFC remain in 8th place in the MLS Western Conference after a 0-0 stalemate against Sporting Kansas City Saturday night at BMO Stadium.

Sporting Kansas City and LAFC played to a scoreless draw at BMO Stadium on Saturday night, leaving the 2022 MLS Cup winners in 8th place in the Western Conference, with 4 points across their first three matches of the 2024 season.

The night marked a promising home debut of the 18-year-old Venezuelan newcomer David Martinez who subbed on in the final 12 minutes of the match showcasing his speed and attacking spark. The World Cup winning Hugo Lloris also made 6 saves on the night, displaying his solid prowess in goal to help give the home side a point from an otherwise lackluster evening. And Eduard Atuesta continued to impress with his instinctive leadership on the pitch in this second stint with the Black and Gold, registering a team high 81 passes across the full 90 minutes and aiming 2 shots on goal.

“He improves our football, and our amount of passing, the choice in passing, the quality of our passing,” head coach Steve Cherundolo explained afterwards, emphasizing that the season is still early and there’s room for improvement. “I think he also getting to know the group and before we can completely get Eduard’s qualities implemented into the group and at 100% I think we need a little more time. But he has that time, and we have that time too. We’re off to a very good start. The integration process has been fast. But there’s still time to go. I’m not worried about Eduard. He’s a fantastic player and we’re ecstatic to have him back.”

A day after the announcement of his contract extension, the club’s only Designated Player, Denís Bouanga, was kept at bay by SKC’s effective defense, allowing him just two good looks at goal over the course of the night. The deal includes a team option that permits LAFC to rely upon the 2023 MLS Golden Boot winner as their attacking centerpiece for at least four more seasons. Yet, Bouanga, who tallied a record 38 goals across all competitions last season, has not scored this season, despite his unsatiated desire to get his name on the scoreboard — of his 16 attempts this season, only 5 were on target. Without Bouanga at his best, LAFC unveil a distinct and gaping hole in their standards for excellence and trademark attacking style.

“Not his best performance today. Forcing things, making some poor decisions,” Cherundolo concurred. “For attackers, a lot of times it’s all or nothing. He needs to improve on the training field. For us to be successful, we need Denís in form. And there has been an uptick in training every day.” In his stellar 2023 performance, the 29-year-old Bouanga netted 20 goals in the regular season while earning an MLS All-Star berth and being named an MVP finalist, in addition to winning the league’s Golden Boot. The swift and deadly striker was also the top goal-scorer in the CONCACAF Champions League, while LAFC reached its second straight MLS Cup Final on the coattails of his pinpoint accuracy.

LAFC have now utilized the same starting lineup across each of the three matches they’ve played this season, and they show no signs of changing it up anytime soon. Unlike the heavily congested 2023 ripe with opportunity for trophies, this year LAFC are playing for potentially just three titles (the MLS Cup, Supporters Shield and the hotly debated U.S. Open Cup). “Playing week to week allows players to recover fully. If there’s no need, either tactically, physically or health wise, there’s no reason to rotate,” Cherundolo explained. “For now, searching for stability to start the season off with some consistency, I think not rotating is the right call.”

Lacking their talisman and former captain, who was also their first signing and first Designated Player, Carlos Vela, who remains out of contract and without a team, lingering questions remain about the future for the club and their leadership on the pitch. “Ilie [Sánchez], our captain, some of the continuity from the past couple years, has always taken a leadership role. Adding Hugo Lloris is a dream for us and is a born leader,” Cherundolo reflected. “Eduard Atuesta, in his return to LAFC is also a leader in the locker room and the training field, brings intensity every day brings a lot of quality.”

The question of how a Vela-less LAFC will look, remains present at the back of everyone’s minds though, and just how much of his personality reflected the club and their performance on the pitch. A quick look at their six-year history reveals this is their least impressive start to a season (1W-1D-1L). But they are asking their supporters for patience as they work to build a new identity.

“It just makes us different. I don’t think it makes us any less effective or dangerous. I think we created plenty of opportunity tonight and some real chances to score. I just think in the final moment, a little bit of quality or patience is lacking and all areas we can improve on,” Cherundolo concluded. Meanwhile, General Manager John Thorrington has promised a forthcoming conclusion to the “Will they or won’t they” question mark on Vela’s future, stating, “We’re days and days closer to clarity on the situation. Our position has not changed. We would love to see the story and narrative of Carlos and LAFC continue.”

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