Wednesday, February 28 2024
Los Angeles FC midfielder Ryan Hollingshead, center, celebrates his goal with teammates.

Minutes after LAFC won its second MLS Western Conference title in as many years, a stage was hastily erected on the field at BMO Stadium for a victory ceremony, complete with a trophy and a rain of confetti.

About an hour later, striker Denis Bouanga and goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau filed through the interview room wearing gray championship T-shirts and caps while deep into the night fans and team employees lined up on the grass to pose for pictures behind what remained of the podium.

Few teams do celebrations better than LAFC, which will load up the confetti canon at the drop of a championship hat. But if Saturday’s 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo in the conference final felt like a coronation, that was only half true because the team’s work is only half done. Still ahead is Saturday’s MLS Cup final in Columbus, Ohio, where LAFC has a chance to become the first team to win back-to-back league titles in more than a decade.

“Today’s a huge step,” defender Ryan Hollingshead, who scored the go-ahead goal, said afterward. “It was a game we had to win. So there’s a moment where you just celebrate and you look at the guys that are on the field with you and you take a moment to say ‘look what we’ve done.’

“Then on Monday we get back to work and it’s all eyes focused on winning a Cup.”

The fact that LAFC has made it this far is certainly worth cheering because the team didn’t so much thrive as it did survive this year. The MLS Cup final will be its 53rd game in 41 weeks; no team in league history has faced such an arduous schedule. Along the way the team played in frigid rain and searing heat, traveling to four countries and covering more than 63,000 miles — enough to circumnavigate the globe 2 ½ times. It sustained so many injuries, captain Carlos Vela was the only player to start more than 28 regular-season games.

Read more: Defending champion LAFC defeats Houston to return to the MLS Cup final

“We faced a lot of adversity this year,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “Sometimes different variables get thrown at you but it’s about how you overcome them. We put our head down and kept working and stayed true to ourselves and really had that belief.”

For Acosta, LAFC’s success wasn’t so much a result of what happened on the field but what happened in the locker room.

“From top to bottom, we have a great group of guys here,” he said. “That’s why we’re in this position.”

Hollingshead agreed.

“Clearly individual talent, right? You’ve got a starting 11 that is just some of the best talent in the league without a doubt,” he said. “But I’ve been saying this from the beginning and trying to stress it: it’s the locker room that we have. Everybody is together. There’s no ‘I’m not starting, let’s throw an attitude.’ Just a cloud of sorrow that take[s] everybody down with you.

“That sort of camaraderie, it’s really hard to create. They’ve done a phenomenal job here bringing in the type of guy that just wants to win.”

Read more: How Denis Bouanga, Maxime Crepeau continue to deliver for LAFC

Like Bouanga, the league scoring champion who was excused from an early-season game to play with Gabon’s national team, only to travel 24 hours back from Africa, arriving at BMO Stadium 45 minutes before kickoff. A couple of hours later he came off the bench to score the game-winning goal.

Or center back Giorgio Chiellini, who won everything there was to win in an unparalleled career in Italy. With LAFC he’s taken on a part-time role on the field — five defenders have played more minutes this season — but in the locker room he’s become a full-time coach and mentor.

“This guy is just next level,” Hollingshead said. “I don’t think I’m stretching by saying he’s the favorite player I’ve ever played with. This guy loves the game, knows the game, interacts with every one of his teammates. Makes himself better and the team better with the way that he talks, the way that he organizes, the way that he just is reading everything at all times.”

Or Vela, the last remaining member of LAFC’s inaugural 2018 team and the MLS record-holder for goals in a single season. In mid-summer he was moved from a wing to the No. 9 role, a position he doesn’t like, then went a career-long 15 games without a goal in all competitions. Rather than complain, he responded with a team-leading 12 assists, setting up Hollingshead’s goal Saturday with an exquisite corner kick.

“His role as a leader has changed,” coach Steve Cherundolo said. “He has more to give and he is giving more. He wants to win games. That’s it. We’re all in this to win a trophy.

“It’s a special group,” he added. “I’m very proud of the players, who have been mentally through a lot this year. A lot of ups and downs on and off the pitch. I thank them every day.”

Read more: Hernández: Carlos Vela wants to stay with LAFC, but antiquated MLS rules might force him out

LAFC started the season with a shot at six trophies, but it lost in the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League and Campeones Cup, in the quarterfinals of the League Cup and in the U.S. Open Cup’s round of 16 before finishing eighth in the Supporters’ Shield standings, a competition it won last season.

That leaves the MLS Cup as the last prize on the table. Winning it would not just be cause for another celebration, it would be historic, making LAFC just the fourth team in league history to win consecutive titles.

“We’ve got one game left,” Hollingshead said, “to do something special here.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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