This LAFC team, Sanchez says, is “built for these moments.”
“I looked around [one day], and the quality and the talent and the level of the players I'm surrounded with, it made me very happy,” he said. “Simple as that, you know, because I know I can count on any of them for the big moments. And so far, we haven't disappointed.”
LAFC's biggest moment so far arrived at the end of last week's 3-2 thriller over the LA Galaxy, with Cristian “Chicho” Arango blasting a rebound into the ceiling of the net three minutes into stoppage time. They've been best when it counts most, outscoring foes, 47-16, in the second half behind a versatile Carlos Vela-orchestrated attack that feasts on Arango's finishing, gained greater dimension with the August addition of winger Denis Bouanga, who netted the other two goals against the hated archrival, and has plenty in reserve, Gareth Bale included.
“And they do it,” Sanchez said. “It's not just that they can do it, but also that they deliver. Having these kind of players that can deliver any moment during the game, it keeps you alive no matter what happens, how many times you get hit. You know that If you keep fighting and you stay in the game, things can turn your way because of these kind of players.”
Chemistry has been sensational -- beyond all previous experiences, several players testify -- and much of it is down to Cherundolo's easy manner, simple but incisive communication and tactics that provide breathing space, in contrast to Bradley's. It all came together in the final preseason game, on Feb. 9 against the New York Red Bulls at the Coachella Valley Invitational in the desert about 125 miles east of Los Angeles. LAFC, with a new coach and five new starters brought in from around the league, had scored just twice and gone winless in their first three matches and were down, 1-0, at the first hydration break.
“We had a lot of changes,” Cherundolo said. “And so when you make changes, I think that adjusts things of the team ... adjusts cliques, adjusts responsibilities on and off the field.”
The “moment it clicked,” things were “not going our way.”
“Typical Red Bull, bothering us, fouling us,” Cherundolo said. “Our guys were complaining and maybe more or less acting like little divas out there. I think it was [backup goalkeeper] John McCarthy who said, 'Guys, what's going on?' In other words, but I won't say those words now. And after that, the players showed a reaction and they came together.
“They fought for each other, they stood up for each other and end up winning the game, 6-1, and in an emphatic way with some good football. And I think we all learned a very important lesson. I think the other preseason games prior to that, when we lost, we learned a very important lesson of how we win games. If we can match opponents' intensity and aggressiveness, our football will guide us to victory.”
Sanchez saw something different early on.
“Very early this season, we realized that we had a special group of people,” he said. “Not just players, but also with Steve, with [assistant coaches] Ante [Razov], with Marc [Dos Santos], with Oka [Nikolov], with everyone that works everyday with the team. I think that makes us tough.
“We struggled a little bit in preseason. We had kind of interesting friendly games and training sessions, and I think that was necessary for us to realize that the season was going to be exactly whatever we wanted it to be. If we wanted to work hard and create those relationships and be stronger everyday and improve, that the season was going to be a successful one. But if instead of that, we would just walk around and complain and, you know, and not work to our potential, it could be a very different one.”
Cherundolo goes way back with Austin FC coach Josh Wolff, his former U.S. teammate, and calls him “a great guy, first and foremost a good person” who happens to have “an incredible golf swing.”
“He was such a talented attacker and such a handful for defenders,” Cherundolo noted. “He always had a beeline for the goal, a knack for where the goal was. Very pacey. Good touch and finish. Just an incredibly dangerous forward, especially in our system. We defended a little more than [the U.S.] team does now and needed players with his attributes to finish plays off. Just a coach's counterattack dream.”
Wolff's team in Austin is an opposing coach's nightmare.
“It's a team that really believes in itself, first and foremost,” Cherundolo said, one that, like LAFC, can strike at any moment, a compact and connected collective. “Whatever they do, they do it together.
“And if I would describe them, it's like a pack of wolves. And they've been quite effective that way this year. And, obviously, with a few outstanding players, most notably [Sebastian] Driussi, and he's very key in their offensive efforts. ... A special player who can make plays and finish plays.”
Sanchez, too, thinks the world of Driussi, an MLS MVP finalist who has netted 25 goals this season, three of them in the playoffs.
“He can score, he can assist. He's a very complete player,” he said. “He understands the game very well. He knows where to position himself. And I think that he has a pretty good work ethic. It's not just one thing that makes him a good player, but he can manage different ways of play. Definitely, it's their most important player, I would say, or most dangerous player on the field, but he's surrounded by a strong team that make his job maybe easier ... or that he can shine within that environment.”
Austin won both meetings with LAFC, pulling out a 2-1 decision at the Banc in mid-May, a game in which the better side did not prevail, then romping to a 4-1 victory in Texas in late August. The defeats were the only times the Angelenos lost back-to-back games, the away loss in the middle of a season-worst three-game skid.
“The game in L.A., the result was misleading. But that also kind of describes Austin,” Cherundolo said. “I think they've had a lot of those results this season, or maybe they weren't the better team for 90 minutes, but they find a way to win games and to score goals. And that's something that we're aware of.”
He called LAFC's performance in Austin, in which a 1-0 halftime deficit ballooned to 4-0 with goals conceded in the 47th, 51st and 59th minutes, “very poor” but adds: “If you go back statistically and look at the game -- I look at expected goals and packing expected goals and non-shot expected goals -- we were actually the better team, which sounds crazy, but maybe that sums up Austin a little bit this year. And if you ask me, it's a quality of theirs.”
Sanchez says Austin is the “best team in the West.”
“Obviously, I cannot count ourself in that sentence,” he said, “but [they are otherwise the] best team in the West. Not just because of the results, but also because of the way they play and the players they have. I think that that, between players and the coach, makes it good for them. It works for them and makes it difficult for us to fight against.”
What does Austin do best?
“They feel confident when they feel that they are the main team on the field,” Sanchez said. “They try to build up from the back no matter what. They are very open. They are really good managing this relationship between being wide and have depth. So those middle spaces that they create because they are very wide and very long, they know how to take advantage with players like Driussi, Diego Fagundez, or [Maxi] Urruti when he comes off the backline.
“[Alexander] Ring, even [Daniel] Pereira or any other midfielder that plays in those half-spaces, they have an easier job because all the rest of the players are making the field bigger and wider for them. That's something that they do very well, but also that can play against them if they are not in their best day. If they start losing balls and [are] a little bit nervous because it's an important game, I think that if they want to maintain that way of play in those days, that they are not that good on the ball. The other team can take advantage of those bigger spaces that they leave.”
LAFC comes in with great confidence.
“We are confident since we started the playoffs,” Sanchez said. “I think that playing at home definitely gives us confidence. I wouldn't say that gives us an advantage, but I would say that makes us be able to prepare the week better. We are in our facilities. We will sleep in our beds. We won't have to travel. We are used to this weather, and, at the end of the day, we play in front of our fans, our families and our friends. That for sure gives us this extra ... call it motivation, call it confidence, call it whatever. ...
“We are in a situation where I think that this team has been built for these moments, because it's not just talent but also character. And I think that Steve and his coaching staff manage and know very well how to send the messages heading into the playoff games. But still, you know, the first round against the Galaxy could have been different and could have went to their way instead of our way. So they're going to be tough games.
“Austin is going to be probably the toughest team to play against for the conference final. But I would like to think, or I guess, that the Austin players and the Austin team in general, they think pretty much about the same about having to play against us. So whoever is able to manage better the emotions before, during and also after the game is going to advance and be more ready for MLS Cup.”
Photos (top to bottom): Cristian Arango, Ilie Sanchez and Ethan Finlay, Kwadwo Opoku and Alexander Ring. Credit: LAFC.