LOS ANGELES — This Saturday could mark the potential beginning of a new era for LAFC, as they host Philadelphia Union in a battle of the titans for supremacy in MLS.
They share many traits and timelines. Both teams are No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences. Both teams were tied for points at the end of the regular season. Both just won their first conference title last weekend after coming close just once before. Now, both teams are playing in their first MLS Cup Final. Both are coached by 43-year-old men. For all their similarities, however, they are starkly different. Different cultures. Different coaching styles. Different team strengths.
LAFC has, from their inception, branded themselves in the sleekest of color combinations – black (or, the absence of color, how meta) and gold (Hollywood, where the starry-eyed dream of fame). Even though they have built bonds with their communities by fostering a unified supporter club culture, LAFC aligns itself with celebrities, from their star-studded ownership group to their regular special guests. On the other side of the spectrum, if you have ever lived in the City of Brotherly Love, you have dealt with the good, the bad and the ugly side of unions.
They epitomize life in Philly. The Philadelphia Union kits, their rambunctious crowds cheering and jeering with equal adamancy, and their stadium in Chester (not Philadelphia with the rest of the city’s pro sports teams), speak volumes to the blue-collar and gritty nature of the city they represent. The blue and gold of their uniforms pays homage to the American Revolutionary roots of Pennsylvania. The snake represents a revolutionary cartoon by Ben Franklin.
The name “Union” itself recalls a proud colonial history that is a part of the culture of Philadelphia. They literally have the words, “JOIN or DIE” across the crest. The Union are embedded in roots. LAFC, is from the next generation of MLS expansion teams, one where modernity and flashy stadiums rule with an eye towards an inclusive future instead of a glorified past, and its roots are wide, but not yet deep.
These opposing natures of the two contenders for the MLS Cup this year is also reflected in their team salaries. While Goalkeeper of the Year and the longest-tenured player for the Union, Andre Blake, is the second highest paid goalkeeper in the league, the sum of the Union players’ salaries total is nearly $10 million less than LAFC’s. While LAFC boast high profile signings like Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, they can afford to bench them because they are in surplus. They are a team of riches.
Rather than develop an overinflated ego to match the wealth of their roster depth, they have opted to follow their new head coach, an MLS-newcomer, Steve Cherundolo. He may be an outsider to MLS, but he has developed within the USMNT system (even having been coached in 2010’s World Cup by former LAFC coach, Bob Bradley) and the Bundesliga where he once held the record as the longest serving player in the league.
He has coached on nearly every level, including LAFC’s USL affiliate, the Las Vegas Lights. His experiences abroad are shaping his team’s own development now, increasing their defensive awareness and focus on strategy as a team, while bolstering their midfield through the new signings this year, Ilié Sanchez and Kellyn Acosta. He’s also had no trouble in keeping players progressing, not becoming complacent or driven by big names.
It doesn’t matter if your name is Carlos Vela or Kwadwo Opoku. It is about what you can contribute to the team. Part of what makes LAFC special this season is that sense of equality across the roster. In the playoffs match against Austin, 10 different players shot at goal. Even though Chicho Arango leads the team in goals, it’s not a one-man show. That is pure Cherundolo who is always driven by results.
To listen to Sanchez and Acosta talk about one another, is not just heartwarming camaraderie, it is testimony to the culture of teamwork that Cherundolo has built. “He’s the one that gives us the confidence to move forward.” Kellyn explains. “Midfield wins the game.” And, Ilié spoke equally glowingly about Kellyn. “For me, both Kellyn and Cifu have been tremendous… the work they have put in was everything to me and to the team.”
Ilié Sanchez, signed as a free agent in early 2022, has been crucial for his team’s transformation this season. The Colombian not only effectively replaced Eduard Atuesta, he also upgraded the role using his experiences for Sporting Kansas City as a midfielder/defender and two-way midfielder to bolster LAFC’s defenses. As long as the midfield keeps shielding their defensive backline, they’ll be able to block the brunt of Philadelphia Union’s offensive onslaught. Their best offense against a currently surging Union is a good defense in the midfield, and an ability to not give away loose balls.
Other key players to LAFC will inevitably be the franchise’s first signing, Carlos Vela and his fellow teammates up top, Cristián Arango and Denís Buoanga who have been excellent in the past three matches.
Philly’s Jim Curtin has been coaching the Union since 2014. He’s an MLS-man through and through. He’s here in Los Angeles now making his second MLS Cup Final appearance – his first was as a player in 2003 which was also the last time the final included the No. 1 seed from each conference. Curtin is one of MLS’s longest-running managers, and now boasts two Sigi Schmid MLS Coach of the Year awards (2020, 2022) as well as the 2020 Supporter’s Shield.
The Union are tied for points with goal hungry LAFC, but they actually have a more centered and solid defensive style. They’re led by their longest-tenured player, Andrew Blake who had 15 clean sheets in the regular season, set a career high, and finished in a respectable third place for the 2022 Landon Donovan MVP Award.
Philadelphia Union’s captain, former USMNT midfielder Alejandro Bedoya signed as a Designated Player in 2016, has been at the heart (and brain) of the team since, and excels at finding hidden spaces. But he’s also facing hip injury recovery and if he doesn’t make the start, it’s likely to change their dynamics. But they also have high-scoring, two-way attacker Dániel Gazdag leading their team with 22 goals and generating 10 assists. They’re highly dangerous on the counter, so LAFC cannot afford any sloppy passes and ball-chasing. Possession will mean everything.
Both teams can argue they outright deserve this MLS Cup. They each ended the season with 67 points, and while, Philadelphia had the better goal difference (+46 vs. +28), LAFC had more wins (21 vs. 19). Based on tiebreaker rules, the MLS Supporters Shield and home advantage for the MLS Cup Final went to LAFC.
Philadelphia will bring their trademark grit and determination. LAFC will bring their passion and power. The last time they met this season, it ended in a 2-2 draw. Obviously, that is not an option this time. It will come down to which side loses their focus first. Bring on the best of the best MLS Cup Final in 19 years!