LOS ANGELES — After four matches without scoring a single goal, LAFC clinched a spot in the 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs with a resounding 5-1 victory against Minnesota United in their final regular season match at BMO Stadium.
The evening began with a disappointing gasp from the crowd as Minnesota’s Hassani Dotson scored first in the 4th minute. After all, LAFC had only won one regular season match after conceding the first goal this season, so history was against them.
But, their golden boot contender, Denís Buoanga, who scored just 2 goals in his last five matches, had a statement to make on behalf of his entire team – he replied with his own feat by scoring a hat trick in the remaining minutes of the first half. It helped ensure a win for the home side, their first win since El Tráfico on September 16.
“It’s what I expressed in the pre-game presser and last week’s post-game, you just continue the course, keep working, put your head down, put the hard work in the training field. And that’s it,” head coach Steve Cherundolo recounted. “It’s a little bit like riding a bike and the guys know how to do it, they know how to play, they know how to score.”
On Wednesday, Dotson gave the Loons the short-lived lead in the fourth minute on a close-range header after a deflection from Maxime Crepeau. In swift response, Bouanga scored in the 6th and 36th minutes, and then again in first-half stoppage time to complete LAFC’s first first-half hat trick in regular season history. Bouanga’s accomplishment was his fourth hat trick this season across all competitions, and with his 17-MLS goals, he now leads the league Golden Boot race.
As the second half opened, Minnesota United’s Miguel Tapias scored an own goal (originally credited to Crisitian Olivera) just a minute into action when he deflected an LAFC pass into the back of the net. Filip Krastev scored in the 67th minute, his first MLS goal in his seventh match for the Black and Gold.
Minnesota had little left to counter with as Crepeau only needed to make one save, whereas fellow Dayne St. Clair had to stop 10 shots for Minnesota United. LAFC, back to their old ways of 2022, outshot the visitors 29 to 7 in shots. It was their highest goal attempts of the year. It was also the most shots on goal (14) they’ve managed all year. Cherundolo explained why the sudden upshift in their attack.
“The speed of play was a little quicker. The speed of passing, it was faster, less touches on the ball, which will increase speed of play automatically. And then the result of trying to get off the edge and create chances was more of what we like to see and what we’re striving for.”
LAFC’s regular season at home concluded with 10 wins, 3 draws and 4 losses. They have two final matches to play both on the road, the first being this Saturday against Austin. Currently, positioned in 2nd place, they are guaranteed an advantage in the expanded playoffs schedule which involves three matches in the first round, two of which will be hosted by the higher seeded team.
But, it also brings about more questions about general overscheduling of matches and tournaments by the league. LAFC struggled for most of the season to keep up with a continuing increase in matches and tournaments, along with all their MLS counterparts, to maintain fitness, form, and on the field performance, without any changes in roster rules.
“Coming from a season where we became champions of the Suppoters’ Shield and MLS Cup, we are not asking for any help. We don’t want anyone outside of these walls to help us win games,” Ilie Sánchez voiced in post-match interviews. “I personally feel we have been punished by these organizations that call the games and make the schedules.”
Sánchez joins a growing number of voices in the league shedding light on the impact of too many tournaments impacting the quality of the product on the pitch. Yet he is also first to voice his belief in his teammates and organization that they can persist and compete at a high level. “One thing that we have learned from this tough season is we cannot get stopped by the past. So, moving forward, we show that with this mentality that means intensity at the highest, it means focus, and it means selflessness and effort from all of us.”