LOS ANGELES — LAFC have not been on a roll. Two huge defeats in the span of five days. A fall to fourth place in the Western Conference. A goal against them by their former star Cristian “Chicho” Arango who helped lead them to their 2022 MLS Cup and Supporters Shield. So many disappointments this week highlight that the former champs have lost their attacking sheen, not scoring a single goal in their last four matches. LAFC are now just two points from 7th place Portland Timbers. Their once Teflon-grade armor at BMO Stadium has worn down to yield 9 wins in 16 matches played, in stark contrast to their prior season’s 13 victories in 17 home matches.
On Wednesday, golden fireworks went off against a sea of yellow jerseys, the home crowd faded into the background, and Liga MX’s Tigres UANL made history, lifting their second Campeones Cup upon defeating LAFC 4-2 in penalty kicks after playing to a 0-0 draw. LAFC had lost their second final to a Liga MX side in the span of four months. Yet there was reason to believe. The rhetoric was there. The ambition was there. Could the team that once yielded win after win, onslaught after onslaught playing attacking style soccer that enthralled fans that made everyone’s mouths water with anticipation, not score in four straight matches? It seemed implausible. But, tonight, with a top-2 berth at stake, an almost-prophetic outcome came to life. Former LAFC number 9, Chicho Arango, soared above defenders heading in a goal that outdid Maxime Crépeau’s perfect start to his season, and helped his current team, Real Salt Lake, jump into second place, while pushing LAFC down to fourth. It was Salt Lake’s second win against LAFC in 13 regular season matches against them.
Arango’s goal in the 72nd minute set up by Rubio Rubin’s cross, was his sixth goal in 10 appearances, and his 99th career goal. Zac MacMath made seven saves to record his eighth clean sheet of the season for RSL. While at LAFC, Arango scored 30 goals in two seasons but was sold to CF Pachuca after the 2022 MLS Cup-winning season. Real Salt Lake acquired Arango from Pachuca during the MLS secondary summer transfer window. Tonight was his first time back at the pitch where he once celebrated MLS’s biggest trophy with the Black and Gold. “You couldn’t have scripted it any better,” Salt Lake head coach Pablo Mastroeni said afterwards. “It’s a fantastic story for Chicho. He’s really important – his leadership and his drive in this group.”
With three matches remaining in the regular season and just one last trophy in contention, LAFC’s goal is clear – “We have to fight until the very end,” Carlos Vela announced, attempting to hold back his deep personal disappointment. Perhaps no one knows the Black and Gold better than their captain and first signing. “In my six years here, I don’t remember having four games without a goal,” he continued. When the week began, he foretold the reality of the end of the season scramble as all teams fight to make a mark. “Some games are more important than others, but when you really want to be a good team, you have to play every single game as if it were a final,” he emphasized. “You have to give your best, even if the other team will sometimes beat you – that’s part of football.” Arguably, the Black and Gold did give it their best this week – but their best was not good enough.
Their best has not been good enough for now the CCL trophy, the USOC trophy, the Leagues Cup and the Supporters Shield. For a team that started the year on a 9W-4D-1L record, they have not scored a goal in 5 of their last 6 matches across all competitions. The once surefire fluid attacking style soccer fans had grown accustomed to since their inception, where matches regularly featured 20 shots at goal, have slowed to a crawl, now leading to often fewer than 10. In their match against Tigres, LA had a meager 8, only 3 of which were on target. Tonight, against RSL, they registered 15 total, 7 of which were on target. Better, but not good enough for a single goal. “It’s because we’re not doing the right things. I think [in] the final product we are making a bad decision. Maybe sometimes we also don’t play as a team,” Vela concluded.
Six teams have qualified for the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup – Inter Miami, Nashville SC, Philadelphia Union. Houston Dynamo, Vancouver Whitecaps, and FC Cincinnati. LAFC, who won both the Supporter Shield and MLS Cup last year, are all but excluded unless they win the last trophy remaining in their reach, the 2023 MLS Cup. LAFC are not yet mathematically guaranteed one of the playoff spots in the Western conference with three matches remaining, two of which are away. But for Vela, the battle is unending and his promise to the supporters is one he strives to keep despite their current spell of poor form. “I will fight for this club until the last day I play for LAFC,” he concludes.