LOS ANGELES — LAFC hosted and battled the San Jose Earthquakes well into the final minutes of their second match in two weeks, to a 2-1 conclusion won in stoppage time by a penalty kick from their captain, Carlos Vela. Just two weeks prior, in the reverse fixture hosted by San Jose, their duel had resulted in the exact opposite score, and in a similar pattern with the visiting team scoring first, the hosts equalizing, and a late penalty kick going to the home side.
The soccer gods have restored balance. This could truly be the sign of a true rivalry. With LA Galaxy languishing towards the bottom of the conference table, it’s likely the 2023 iteration of the Earthquakes offer a more engrossing and thrilling California opposition for LAFC. But the win wasn’t just about perfect balance sheets between the two sides, LAFC’s 3-points gained also meant they are now at the top of the Western Conference table with two matches in hand ahead of the Seattle Sounders who lost to the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0.
LAFC’s 20-year-old signing from Hajduk Split, forward Stipe Biuk, who earlier in the week told reporters he was eager to lend more help to his team, did just that when he scored off an assist from José Cifuentes and Ryan Hollingshead in the third minute against the Earthquakes. It was Biuk’s second goal of the season. San Jose defender Miguel Trauco found the equalizer in the 52nd minute firing in a long distance shot in a moment of defensive unawareness from LAFC through a crowded penalty box that bounced right past a bewildered John McCarthy. Super subs – Carlos Vela, Dénis Bouanga and Timothy Tillman – were unable to reply with a goal in the remaining minutes of regular time. The difference maker was a stoppage time handball VAR decision on San Jose’s Tanner Beason that led to a penalty kick by Vela in the dying minutes of the match, the 20th of his MLS career, that lifted the home team to a 2-1 finish.
Stipe Biuk’s second goal of the season coincidentally came just days after an assertion to the media about wanting to score more. “I want to help the team to score more goals and assists, and I’m working hard and I hope that it will start soon,” he said ahead of LAFC’s midweek match against Sporting Kansas City. He then reiterated a message head coach Steve Cherundolo has hammered into the team mindset, “It’s a lot of games. That means all players need to be ready so everybody will get their chance, and I hope I will get my chance. I would like to improve for sure in the final touch, the final shot. I train every day so it will come.” While it’s still relatively early in the MLS season, with decisive matches in both U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League tournaments approaching, his resolute and hard-working nature is paying off. Head coach Steve Cherundolo, content with Biuk’s progress offered more insight afterwards. “He should’ve been on the scoreboard a few more times this season already but right there we saw exactly what we’ve been working on with him. Control. Short touches. Pulling the trigger. And not taking long steps. Smaller steps, smaller touches, more touches, makes it really difficult for a defender and goalkeeper to react when the trigger is short. He’s been playing extremely well. So I’m very happy for him. He had a good game tonight.”
The Black and Gold have had a rigid schedule in May logging in miles and minutes for two road and three home matches in a month’s time (not including the USOC meeting against Monterey Bay on May 9th), playing three of those all in the past week. Yet, for their captain, managing those minutes is about more than math. It is dependent on open communication and a level of trust he and his teammates share.
“Every single guy is different because you have a very young guy and an old guy like me – we can’t be in the same place,” Vela explains. “We have to find a balance. We have to know our bodies and be honest with [each other], say ‘I have to rest, I played a lot of minutes so physically and mentally I need a rest. I need a break.’ When you are honest with your team, and everyone is really connected I think it’s [easier].”
There are what are arguably more difficult challenges ahead for the defending MLS champions. Next week, they face their El Tráfico rivals in Open Cup action at BMO Stadium, and aim to show their home base on their own grounds, that their previous win against the Galaxy wasn’t an anomaly or one-off, and that they can compete (á la Manchester City’s model) for a treble of their own. A week afterwards, they focus the brunt of their efforts on winning the CONCACAF Champions League to become the second MLS team in history to win the tournament. Two trophies are at stake with no margin for error.
It’s intense, but for now, as Vela is more than eager to point out, “everybody is really happy in the point and place we are in right now because we saw in other years other teams playing different competitions at the same time, [they were] struggling most of the time. The way we are managing that kind of game, with tiredness and everything. I think we are doing a really good job.” Smiling, appearing more at ease than he has in previous years, he proclaims, “we are a really good team. I think every single player is doing his part, trying to help. I’m really proud of all my teammates, all of my team.”