As the opening salvos rolled on, the start of Major League Soccer’s 2022 regular season presented the new Los Angeles Football Club with a chance to make several statements.
Three goals from captain Carlos Vela and a decisive effort from a team that included four starters who played elsewhere last year produced a 3-0 win over the Colorado Rapids at Banc of California on Saturday afternoon.
The resounding result over last year’s MLS Western Conference champions has kept LAFC perfect in five opening days since joining the league in 2018 and in doing so has allowed the coach -first-year leader Steven Cherundolo from three points on his debut patrolling the sidelines for the Black & Gold.
“As I told the players in the dressing room, I hope this is one of many and we start our journey,” Cherundolo said. Giving full credit to the players after the game, Cherundolo stressed that he was “not important. This is a message that I will always pass on.
Whether or not Cherundolo, 42, tried to distract, played coy or was genuinely candid in assessing his role, expectations for the club’s chances this season have only risen. since being named LAFC coach in January.
Depth across various positions spurred strong competition for playing time during pre-season as Cherundolo implemented his vision following the departure of the club’s only other manager, the venerable Bob Bradley, following a ninth-place finish in 2021 which prevented the club from reaching the playoffs for the first time.
Cherundolo’s line-up on Saturday included a healthy Vela in attack after two injury-plagued seasons. The Mexican lined up alongside fellow Designated Player Brian Rodriguez and youngster Kwadwo Opoku, who started in place of Chicho Arango while the Colombian nursed a strain of kidnapper.
Newcomers Ilie Sanchez and Kellyn Acosta joined Jose Cifuentes in the middle of the park.
And at the back, where Cherundolo played for the United States men’s national team and in the German Bundesliga, the coach placed Diego Palacios and Franco Escobar on the outside, while Mamadou Fall teamed up with Jesus Murillo in central defence.
Goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, acquired in a trade with Vancouver earlier this month, has rarely come under pressure from the Rapids (0-0-1) and the Canadian international needed a stoppage to keep a sheet white in his LAFC debut.
“There’s always room for improvement, but defending the box our positions were pretty good, which is an improvement from pre-season,” Crepeau said. “It’s just one out of 34 games. You know, in this league, you have to try hard. There is no single easy game. It’s a long term.
For the first 20 minutes, LAFC (1-0-0) played compact and conservative as new and old got their feet wet.
“We came out a bit cold and we made some marking errors on the pitch,” Cifuentes said. “In the second half we were able to be calmer, that’s what helped Carlos [final] goal and helped define the game. It gave us confidence and calm to play our game.”
While the club’s varied moves have brought proven MLS talent to LAFC, the club’s centerpiece undoubtedly remains Vela for as long as he’s in uniform.
Now in his fifth year in Los Angeles, the 32-year-old Mexican star, whose birthday is Tuesday, gave his club the lead in the 29th minute.
Stepping in to intercept a pass, Fall quickly pushed the ball towards Vela who found Acosta in the box.
Making his first appearance for LAFC against his former club, the United States international hit a cross that slammed into the hand of Rapids defender Lalas Abubakar, prompting referee Armando Villarreal to immediately point to the spot.
Six minutes after converting a penalty, Vela scored his second goal when Cifuentes created a turnover and kicked the ball over the top. As Abubakar raced from behind, Vela kept the ball at his feet long enough to dribble into the box and sneak it past Colorado keeper William Yarbrough.
Early in the second half, Vela netted the hat trick – his third with the club and seventh in LAFC history – taking him to 60 goals in Major League Soccer regular season competition.
Going on offense, Sanchez, who signed as a free agent after five years in Kansas City, took an online pass from Crepeau. The Spaniard brought the ball to his chest and calmly gave it to Cifuentes, who touched it to Vela on the right side for his second assist of the match.
After receiving the ball, Vela brought down a final defender and, stepping inside the box, used his world-class left foot to guide the ball into the net at the far post.
“For us there is a noticeable difference when Vela is in the squad,” Sanchez said. “When you work defensively and get possession you create chances, but the difference with this team is that you have someone like Carlos Vela to score goals. We want to take advantage of his quality and his work and we are happy to have him as a teammate. He helped me in the locker room and it was great to have him as a leader.
Three years after winning the MLS Most Valuable Player award, Vela remains under contract with the club until June. After clearly stating his desire to stay in Los Angeles, the club said ongoing contract negotiations would depend on his performance on the pitch.
So far, so good.