The media center overflowed with legends and locals.
The ‘3252’ stood shoulder to shoulder, singing in full voice for 90-plus minutes. The pungent smell of Pizza Hut’s pan pies hung heavy in the air.
One of North America’s top soccer rivalries was set up for another big night and yet something was clearly missing – Los Angeles FC’s marquee players.
The stars hadn’t come out.
Carlos Vela, Aaron Long and Denis Bouenga did not dress for the latest edition of ‘El Trafico’, leaving a collection of young and old to lose 2-0 to L.A. Galaxy in a marquis Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 meeting on Wednesday, May 23 at BMO Stadium.
“It doesn’t matter who’s playing for [LAFC],” said Galaxy manager and 2021 Open Cup champion Greg Vanney. “Anytime you’re on the road against your rival and it’s a knockout game; they’ve got a great crowd and this is still a tough place to play.”
The Galaxy have now bounced LAFC, 2022 MLS champions, in the Round of 16 in back-to-back years.
That one Spark
Already a rivalry that’s proven explosive on and off the field, there was again that one spark – this time in the first half – when referee Allan Chapman was forced to take control of a spiraling scene.
After a series of increasingly harsh fouls from both sides about a half-hour into the match, LAFC midfielder Daniel Crisostomo had seen enough.
“He came at me [and] I reacted. It is what it is,” said Crisostomo, who was cautioned by Chapman for his reaction.
Last year’s Open Cup ‘El Trafico’ – a 3-1 victory for the Galaxy that featured both sides’ top names – saw a mass confrontation in the opening 15 minutes and five yellow cards in all.
This year, each side was issued three yellows but nothing more as tempers were cooled by two unexpectedly acrobatic saves by Galaxy keeper Jonathan Klinsmann before the halftime whistle.
Two Classy Goals
The Galaxy pressured LAFC’s young backline early in the second half and it paid immediate dividends.
Two stylish goals coming out of halftime, the first from an untouchable left-footed blast by Tyler Boyd and the second on the end of a delightfully shifty run into the box from Riqui Puig, were enough to deflate LAFC’s youngsters.
But Puig, the former FC Barcelona starlet, drew criticism for celebrating his splendid finish by removing his jersey and pointing to his name on the back.“I’m happy for the goal [and] the truth is that it just happened, it just came about,” said Puig through the Galaxy’s translator. “Sometimes, in these games, the fan bases can be a little intense but we want to make sure they know Galaxy owns this city.”
For a Galaxy team desperately needing goals and positive results, another Open Cup victory has extra meaning. It briefly relieves some of that internal and external pressure the club has experienced since president Chris Klein announced he would step down from his role if the team did not qualify for the MLS playoffs this season.
‘Does He Think He’s Messi?’
Following a match that did not lack for drama or goals, reaction to the result – from the grizzled media and the earnest on-site service workers, to the fans, coaches and players, was predictably mixed.
Overheard in conversation in the halls of BMO Stadium:
“He beat a bunch of academy kids.”
“LAFC’s backline is a bunch of 17-year-olds.”
“Just shows their small-club mentality right there.”
“Does he think he’s Messi?”
LAFC’s reserve team and academy players, the same squad that pulled a shootout victory from the clutches of defeat against Monterey Bay FC (of the second-tier USL Championship) in the Round of 32, showed up again with more of that same pluck.
And 39-year-old goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic, the hero of the shootout in Monterey Bay, was stout over the first 45 minutes as LAFC’s second team looked confident and competent against a Galaxy starting lineup that featured Chicharito and a host of first-team talent.
Decisions Were Made
While the will was there for LAFC, the talent on the field was ultimately not enough. The Black and Gold have not advanced past the Round of 16 since 2019 when they reached a thrilling Semifinal.“There are a lot of factors that play into decisions that we have,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, when prompted by a question about his roster choices in consideration of the club’s upcoming matches against Leon of Liga MX in the Concacaf Champions League.
“We make decisions for the good of the club and unfortunately for us this game came very close in the schedule to a very important couple of games,” Cherundolo said after the loss to their city rivals who sit rock-bottom in the western side of the MLS standings.
LAFC travel to Mexico on Wednesday, May 31, for the first match of the two-leg CCL final. The return leg in Los Angeles is Sunday, June 4.
“It’s one of those things where you choose not to risk something,” he said.
Dennis Pope writes about local sports for the SoCal Newspaper Group and serves in a communications role for both NISA Nation and the Southwest Premier League. Follow him at @DennisPope on Twitter.