Saturday’s Western Conference final will be the 52nd game of the season for LAFC, more than any team has played in a single year in MLS history. In the locker room, however, it feels like a lot more.
“The 500 games we played this year,” is how assistant coach Ante Razov refers to a schedule that included six separate competitions.
Yet no one in that locker room is ready for vacation just yet. In fact, LAFC is hoping to extend its season another week with a win Saturday that would send it to a second MLS Cup final in as many years against the winner of the Eastern Conference semifinal between Cincinnati and Columbus.
“It was a long season, a lot of games, a lot of ups and downs,” said captain Carlos Vela, whose contract expires when the season does, likely making Saturday’s game the final home match of his LAFC career. “I don’t how many games I played. I will not be that fresh.
“[But] we’re still there. We’re still fighting for championships.”
And for history because if LAFC, the reigning league champion, makes it to the MLS Cup final it will have a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back titles in more than a decade. Standing in its way is the Houston Dynamo, the only Western Conference team LAFC hasn’t beaten this season.
Houston defeated LAFC twice in a five-day stretch in mid-June, winning 4-0 in Houston — LAFC’s most-lopsided loss of the year — and 1-0 in Los Angeles, part of a season-worst stretch that saw LAFC win just two of nine games. Those games were also part of the season’s most-exhausting stretch in which the team played eight times in 25 days.
“This year, you look at it in multiple parts, right?” midfielder Kellyn Acosta asked. “The Champions League, you had the Open Cup, Leagues Cup the first part of the season, now you have playoffs. So you look at everything in little tournaments.
“And we’ve had a lot of adversity this year in terms of injuries to some bad losses. But at the beginning of the year, this is where we wanted to be. Our goal was to give us a chance to compete for MLS Cup and we’re one game away.”
LAFC is not the slumping team Houston faced in June, having recovered to lose just once in 11 games in all competition since Sept. 9. But the Dynamo are different too. After a five-game winless stretch in midsummer left it clutching the conference’s final postseason berth, Houston went on a run that saw it lose just one of its final dozen regular-season games. It also went unbeaten in the U.S. Open Cup, beating Inter Miami in the final, before eliminating Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the playoffs.
“Momentum is something true in sports, it’s real,” LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau said. “They’ve been on a run. [It’s] not by luck or by chance. There’s a reason why. It’s a very good team.”
So is LAFC, thanks in large part to Denis Bouanga. The MLS scoring champion with 20 goals in the regular season, Bouanga has scored 10 times in his last six games for LAFC, including the game-winner in last week’s playoff win in Seattle. Of the 16 games against MLS competition in which Bouanga has scored, LAFC has lost just two of them. And his 37 club goals in all competition leaves him one short of Vela’s MLS record.
LAFC has nothing as a team to show for Bouanga’s production, however. The team had a shot at six trophies this season — which explains why it played 51 games — but it lost in the CONCACAF Champions League and Campeones Cup finals, in the League Cup quarterfinals and in the Open Cup’s round of 16 before finishing eighth in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
Now the MLS Cup is the last piece of hardware remaining on the table.
“Our first thought in the year was Champions League. And then we had Open Cup. And we had Leagues Cup. I’m losing track,” Acosta said. “We earned the right to play in all those tournaments and we obviously wanted a lot more. But sometimes that’s what football is. You can’t win them all.
“Right now we have a huge opportunity in front of us, and we’re putting our sights into Saturday’s game.”
Added Crepeau: “Postseason, there’s no tomorrow, there’s no lack of concentration and there’s no room for error. Everybody’s aware of what’s at stake.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.