Los Angeles FC could not have won their first MLS Cup in a more dramatic fashion. Penalties ultimately clinched the victory over the Philadelphia Union, but everyone – certainly those of a black and gold persuasion – remembers that game last year for Gareth Bale’s iconic equaliser in stoppage time of extra time. That was effectively the moment LAFC won it.
Steve Cherundolo’s team will do well to replicate the spectacle of last year’s MLS Cup, but they can retain their title by beating the Columbus Crew on Saturday. Only three teams (DC United, Houston Dynamo and LA Galaxy) in MLS history have ever pulled off a championship repeat. LAFC can make themselves the fourth.
Not since the days of David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane at the LA Galaxy has MLS produced a true dynasty. The Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC both made three MLS Cup finals in four years between 2016 and 2019, but the three MLS Cups won by the Galaxy between 2011 and 2014 established a level of dominance not seen in MLS this century.
LAFC can only win a second MLS Cup in two years this weekend, but victory over Columbus could mark the start of a new dynasty, certainly when the two additional Supporters Shield’ triumphs between 2019 and 2022 are factored in. This is a club that knows how to win. It’s also a club that values winning more than any other in MLS.
Under Bob Bradley, the Black and Gold were renowned for their dynamic, possession-based style of play. LAFC surged to the Supporters’ Shield in only their second season as a MLS franchise, setting a new standard for expansion teams, but faltered in the post-season, only making the Western Conference semi-finals. What worked in the regular season failed in the playoffs.
This season, they’ve taken a different approach under Cherundolo. While LAFC aren’t as dynamic, even compared to last season when they won a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup double, their more pragmatic style has helped push them through the post-season and possibly to another championship. Knockout soccer brings the best out of a group of players now used to turning it on when it matters most.
Saturday’s MLS Cup will be the ultimate test of LAFC’s winning resolve. The Columbus Crew are the ideologically purest team in MLS at this moment in time. Wilfried Nancy’s high-energy, high-risk approach has made Columbus the league’s most entertaining team. Their controlled chaos makes them dangerous in every phase, as demonstrated by last weekend’s thrilling comeback win over FC Cincinnati. To topple Columbus, LAFC must do more than just win a soccer match - they must win the philosophical argument too.
Dynasties almost never happen in MLS because of the league’s restrictive roster rules. LAFC, however, are better at navigating the transfer market than anyone else. Their recruitment strategy accounts for the inevitable squad turnover that happens every season - see how they have absorbed the departure of players like José Cifuentes and Diego Rossi while still moving forward. Carlos Vela’s departure will be next to be absorbed.
LAFC’s current squad might be the strongest ever assembled in MLS. From front to back, they boast quality. In Vela, they have a reliable source of attacking creativity who has set the tone for the club ever since their expansion season with Denis Bouanga the league’s best finisher. They also have unparalleled depth through the midfield and defence, as proven by the fact USA international Aaron Long isn’t even a guaranteed starter.
All this is in stark contrast to the recent fortunes of the LA Galaxy who finished second-bottom of the Western Conference this season. Having dominated MLS a decade ago, the Carson club has now missed out on the playoffs in three of the last four seasons and there’s no sign of a quick turnaround happening any time soon.
Despite this, the LA Galaxy remain Los Angeles’ biggest club globally, largely due to the lingering legacy of Beckham. It was once said that the Galaxy look bigger the further away you are from it and that still rings true even as they struggle for results. The LA Galaxy are still internationally seen as LA’s marquee franchise.
The more LAFC win, though, the closer they get to a changing of the guard. This might have already happened in a local sense – although the LA Galaxy still attract more fans to their home games on average - and it has certainly happened in a soccer sense, but the sight of another trophy in black and gold ribbons would have an impact.
Bale’s big moment last year was the culmination of a lot for LAFC. It won them their first MLS Cup and gave the club its first truly iconic moment - Bale’s goal was viewed millions of times around the world. That’s the thing about dynasties, though - they aren’t defined by just one triumph or iconic moment. They keep producing them. LAFC will arrive in Columbus this weekend as defending champions, but they could leave as much more.