Then there's midfielders Jose Cifuentes (7 goals, 7 assists) and left back Diego Palacios (7 assists), both 23-year-old Ecuadorans. The attack springs from everywhere.
Vela, now 33, no longer needs to be the man. He's evolved into a master facilitator who netted a dozen goals and a dozen assists while so often making the pass before the pass before the pass.
“We have a really deep team, so I don't have to be 90 percent every single match going like crazy to win games,” he told Soccer America. “I think now my role is more about make the team better, help the young guys, be the leader inside the field ... and play like as a playmaker. I think I'm playing more for make my teammates better and put them in the best position. Sometimes before, I was looking more for goals or assists. Now I try to make the best I can for the other guys.”
LAFC has cruised along, mostly, atop the Western table all season but for one week way back in March. They're 17-1 when scoring first and have netted multiple goals 21 times. From halftime on, they've scored 45 goals and given up just 15. Only Philly (72) has scored more than LAFC's 66 goals, and only Philly (26) and FC Dallas (37) have surrendered fewer than LAFC's 38.
“For me, success is maximizing our potential,” Cherundolo said. “I'm very clear with the guys: If we play to our potential, we're going top win a lot of games. And I believe we'll win the most games in the league if we play to our potential. In order to do that, you need to stay focused, you have to understand that the most important game or half is the next one, and nothing else matters.”
There were two poor stretches, the first a three-game winless skid in May that culminated in back-to-back losses at Colorado and home against Austin and was followed by an 11-1-1 run in which it outscored opposition, 20-4, in the second half. That was followed by three losses to start a 1-4-1 skid, in which they played well but struggled to finish. Cherundolo says he and his staff -- Marc Dos Santos, Ante Razov and Oka Nikolov -- “came up with solutions” for what was ailing LAFC and “come out on the good side.”
“We look back on some games [in which] we lost points, and we're kicking ourselves for those points lost and knowing that we could have won the Supporters' Shield already had we taken care of some business,” Ryan Hollingshead said after LAFC beat Houston in mid-September to overtake Philadelphia in the Shield battle. “That's tough, but you can't look back at those and feel sorry for yourselves. ...
“When the [new guys] first come in, there's maybe the excuse that they're new, they're getting adjusted. A lot of times you don't think about it, but some of these guys are moving their entire families from a country that they've never left to a country they've never been to, and now their families [are adjusting], kids getting into schools. There's a lot that goes on off the field, as well, that's hard to adjust to. But all that's done. There's no more excuses. Everybody's been here now for long enough, and so it's time to put in the work and go win some trophies.
“That's the expectation. Nobody's thinking otherwise.”
It's down to that “rebuild,” engineered by co-president/general manager John Thorrington and Will Kuntz, the club's senior vice president/assistant general manager for soccer operations, one heavy on MLS veterans with keen understanding of how things work in MLS.
Ilie Sanchez, maybe the club's MVP this year, was an upgrade at the 6 and is the fulcrum around which all revolves. Kellyn Acosta's intelligent running from midfield and set-piece skills have been deadly. Maxime Crepeau is by far the best goalkeeper the club has employed. Hollingshead has added mightily to the attack -- he's got seven goals as an outside back -- and fellow right back Franco Escobar, when healthy, has been solid. The moves patched every hole in the lineup and provided extensive depth and talent around the field.
Then came the summer moves -- with Bale, Bouanga, Tello, legendary Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini and Ecuadoran midfielder Sebastian Mendez -- and suddenly the Dodgers (R.I.P.) no longer had the best roster in SoCal sports.
Nobody might have a better roster in MLS.
“I was observing my teammates [as we walked off the training field], counting each one of them, the positions they play in, and I couldn't believe how good they are individually for each position on the field,” said Sanchez, a Barcelona product who played at 1860 Munich and Elche before joining Sporting Kansas City in 2017. “It's something that I've never had in my career, not in MLS, but also not in the other clubs I've played for, and it makes you feel as a player very confident.”
What does it say when the Welshman Bale, the most celebrated acquisition in LAFC's short history. is merely a reserve attacker (with just two goals while averaging less than a half-hour per appearance)?
“It's hard as a player just watching some of these guys that haven't been starting recently, and you're like, 'You're a starter at any other team in this league,' ” Hollingshead said. “If you played a second team, an LAFC II out there, I think both LAFC teams are in the playoffs right now.
“It's just crazy the amount of talent we have, the amount of consistency we have. I don't think I've ever seen a roster put together in the way that this roster has been put together, and that's what we've been going for all year, is that balance. And then you take into consideration a new coach who's come in and brought his own new style to the game.”
Cherundolo might have be the most important acquisition. LAFC brought in the former U.S. national team right back last year to manage Las Vegas Lights, the club's USL Championship affiliate, and he took charge of the first team when Bob Bradley departed last fall to join his son, Michael, in Toronto. It seemed a bit of a surprise -- the Lights were the first pro side he'd led -- but his coaching resume includes a couple of years in the Bundesliga, with Hannover and VfB Stuttgart, and he learned plenty in 17 years on Hannover's backline.
He won the players' affection immediately.
“It's a big difference [from Bradley's tenure],” Vela said. “Of course, with Bob we had great years. He made really, really good work building our team, building a club, a culture. But right now, with this team, we have more freedom to play. He's a really cool guy, always having a smile. His approach with the players is really different than Bob's. I'm not saying it's better or worse, but it's different.
“[Steve is] more of a friend, come in to say, 'Hey, come on, I trust you. Do your things. I know you can do better than this game' or 'You can improve here,' but always in a chill way. [in which it's] like, not a pressure. With Bob, was more like he was really, really intense. Always trying to get the best. 'Oh, you have to step here. You have to go here.' [He utilized us] sometimes like as a robot. With Steve is more natural. [With him] everything flows in a good way.”
Hollingshead, who arrived in L.A. after eight seasons with FC Dallas, also lauds Cherundolo's approach.
“One of the things that I really praise him for is his ability to give every one of us this feeling of freedom and confidence to go and express our personality on the field,” Hollingshead said. “A lot of coaches want to have control, and they want to have a huge impact themselves on the game. So they're trying to manipulate everything and control everything. And he's one of the very few coaches that is equipping us and setting us up for the game, but then giving us the personality. So, like, 'Now you guys go execute, and we've got your back.' That balance, I think, is pretty special.”
That helped unify what already was a tight group, and Chiellini's arrival from Juventus amplified that immediately. At 38, he's not a full-time starter -- Eddie Segura and Jesus Murillo are the favored center backs -- but has made a big imprint on the field and a bigger one off the field.
It's borne from the late, great Clive Charles' philosophy, which Cherundolo experienced in two seasons at the the University of Portland before taking off for Germany. Charles, an NASL standout from England who remained stateside after his playing career and became one of the country's most revered coaches, approached the college game unlike nearly every colleague. Rather than directing from the sideline and using frequent substitutions to keep fresh legs on the field, he created players who could make decisions, put them out there and let them solve the challenges opponents presented.
Cherundolo's German education, especially under Ralf Rangnick, Ewald Lienen and Tayfun Korkut at Hannover and as an assistant to Korkut at VfB Stuttgart, added dimensions to how he saw the game and how he teaches it.
“For him, it's so simple,” Hollingshead said. “He'll stop training and just be like, 'Guys, it's this, this and this.' Like, look how simple that is. And we're all looking around like, 'Well, now that you say it, it's simple, but it wasn't that simple when we were playing.'
“He's got a way of just simplifying the game. He's like, 'Hey, instead of dribbling and trying to do too much of the ball, if you just done this pass and this pass, you would have gotten everywhere you wanted to get with the ball, and instead you're trying to dribble four guys.' The way he sees it and as quickly as he sees it, I mean, he's breaking it down in real time and digesting that to us on the field. And it's pretty special to be a part of that.”
Chiellini might be the most popular player in the locker room.
“He came in right away and he needed two and a half days to adjust,” Cherundolo said. “I've never seen somebody adjust that quickly and be part o the group, be accepted by the group as a leader and as a player. Truly amazing.”
“He's a special guy,” Hollingshead said. “I think everybody knew that, bringing him in, but it's a different thing seeing it from afar and seeing it up close and personal. He's professional in every sense of the word. First guy in the stadium and working on everything he can work on, making sure his body is ready for every training.
“One of my favorite things about him was day one, the guy came in ready to talk, ready to lead, ready to be vocal, ready to help the team do whatever. The guy doesn't have a selfish bone in his body. Doesn't have an ego. You talk about guys who should have an ego, he's one of them.”
Chiellini embodies what LAFC believes it's about. Chemistry is vitally important, and most successful teams benefit from strong unity. The Angelenos may have taken it to another level.
“We were talking a little bit about what they've done here in bringing in guys not only with a ton of quality, but bringing in guys who just good people, people you want to be around,” Hollingshead said. “It's hard to do that. I've never been on a club where there's not someone [who is] a bad apple, and in this locker room we have something special I've never had before.”
They're tough to beat anywhere, but especially at Banc of California, where they're 13-2-2. One of the defeats came in the only meaningless game LAFC played this year, a 1-0 Decision Day defeat to Nashville SC that was followed by a raucous on-field celebration as the Supporters' Shield was paraded to the rabid fanbase. Cherundolo noted the discrepancy when asked afterward about LAFC's dominant showing at home and what it could mean during the playoffs.
“I would have said we're very hard to beat at home,” he said, “but that's not fitting today.”
Might it not be fitting Thursday? The Galaxy have been the better side through El Trafico's history, with an 8-4-4 record in all games and two victories in three meetings this year, including a U.S. Open Cup home triumph. LAFC has been better at the Banc, at 3-1-3 -- its other win in the series came in Orlando during the MLS is Back event during the pandemic shutdown -- and, of course, won the previous postseason meeting.
None of it means a thing, Cherundolo says: “I'm definitely not one to draw specifics from past results or seasons in the past. I really don't see the point in it. I see why it's done, but I, personally as a coach, get nothing out it, and nor do the players.”
“We have forgotten that, we have put that on a shelf in the building, and we have got to move on,” he said. “It means nothing. ... We know there's only two options. It's either us advancing or the Galaxy advancing, and that's just the reality of this competition.”
LAFC Photos: top to bottom: 2022 Supporters' Shield, Bouanga, Ilie, Cifuentes, Hollingshead, Chiellini, Cherundolo.