LAFC trounces Austin FC in Western Conference final, will host MLS Cup

Los Angeles FC forward Denis Bouanga (99) keeps the ball from Austin FC defender Julio Cascante (18) during the first half of an MLS playoff Western Conference final soccer match Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/John McCoy)

LOS ANGELES — The third time is indeed a charm. LAFC played Austin FC three times this year and lost the first two games, being completely embarrassed in one. But the revenge was sweet Sunday at Banc of California Stadium as the Black and Gold trounced the Verde 3-0 in the Western Conference final.

The dream this franchise has had finally turned into reality — playing host to MLS Cup in the heart of Los Angeles. The East's top seed Philadelphia Union will visit on Saturday Nov. 5.

In a way this LAFC victory was more impressive than others because they jelled as a team. No player singularly stood out — instead it was as complete of a team performance we’ve seen from Steve Cherundolo’s squad all year. They wanted to set the tone and establish dominance from the jump, and that they did with a suffocating high press that barely allowed Austin to settle in through the first 45 minutes.

Denis Bouanga was flying all over the pitch, beating his opponents to the ball and creating immense danger in the final third. It was his quick run that allowed him to slip past goalkeeper Brad Stuver and nearly score the opener. That resulted in a corner kick and Cristian “Chicho” Arango sent L.A into a frenzy in the 29th minute when Carlos Vela’s curling corner kick found his head for the set-piece goal.

Austin was lucky to escape the one-sided first half down by only a goal. Stuver, time and again, made incredible saves to deny LAFC of extending the lead in a half that ended with the Black and Gold outshooting the visitors 16-1.

"We've known from the start of the season that when we play our best football, nobody can match us," said defender Ryan Hollingshead.

Austin FC coach Josh Wolff’s midfield was spread too apart and not able to get any cohesion as LAFC broke them down and kept the back line on its heels with multiple long balls that would’ve resulted in more if it wasn’t for Stuver.

Wolff also surprisingly started designated player Emiliano Rigoni but he was as underwhelming as he’s been since arriving in Texas. In the 61st minute Wolff finally subbed him out, and moments later LAFC was celebrating their second goal of the game. Another Vela corner kick found a header in the box, this time it was Austin FC’s Maximiliano Urruti, who had just subbed on, scoring the own goal.

Not how they drew it up, but they celebrated it tremendously because they knew what the moment meant. Vela amped up the sold-out crowd and told them to get louder than they already were.

Four minutes after Vela was subbed off, his replacement Kwadwo “Mahala” Opoku brilliantly played a bounce, faked out defender Julio Cascante and slotted a low shot right past a still Stuver for the dagger.

The closing 10 minutes were a complete party. The cheers and claps multiplied in noise. The final whistle made way for a long-awaited roar. Four seasons worth of waiting to be exact.

But this fifth one is different. This isn’t 2019. LAFC are Western Conference champions. Add that trophy to the list next to the two Supporters’ Shields. That’s not the one they really want, though.

"Everybody is content with the win today, but there's still the bubble in our head that the job is not done, not satisfied enough," said goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau.

One more.