LAFC has found its form since pair of June losses to Dynamo – Orange County Register

Houston Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen wishes there were similarities between the Los Angeles Football Club team his players beat twice in a five-day stretch in June and the test they face Saturday night in the Western Conference final at BMO Stadium.

“L.A. in the playoffs is different,” Olsen said. “They just turn it up. That’s what they’ve been able to do for the last few seasons. They’re a different animal, at least this year in the regular season from our experience of seeing them.”

Third-seeded LAFC improved to 6-0 in the postseason under second-year head coach Steve Cherundolo with a 1-0 win against the second-seeded Sounders last weekend in Seattle. Looking more like the tough, confident group that captured the 2022 MLS Cup, LAFC’s well-timed form feels far removed from the fatigued side that visited Houston on June 10.

Reeling from the CONCACAF Champions League failure against Club León less than a week before, LAFC dropped its worst performance of the year, with temperatures at kickoff in the 90s, a 4-0 no-show.

Thinking as individuals, not as a team, was the nexus for the disconnect on the field. Everyone was bad, said midfield leader Ilie Sanchez. That was what operating with disparate ideas and missing team principles looked like, he noted at the time.

“We should be clever enough and we should work hard enough for us to play as a team,” Sanchez surmised.

Giorgio Chiellini, among Italy’s greatest winners for club and country, said he hoped the experience would provide a good lesson for players who clearly had a way to go to get where they are today.

Under Olsen, fourth-seeded Houston has found consistency and success as a group, regardless of what it was doing at any particular time.

“That goes a long way in this game and is elemental if you want to be successful long term,” said Cherundolo, whose players this year eventually did the same. “Benny has done a fantastic job making sure that everybody’s on the same page and they’re staying true to it and implementing their style more often than not onto teams than teams onto them.”

At BMO Stadium, in the second clash between the two, Olsen admitted that his side played cynically. The original date for the match, April 29, was postponed so LAFC could catch its breath between Champions League semifinal matches against Philadelphia, giving the club its only week-long break for the two months leading up to the final with León.

Houston, meanwhile, appeared to catch a break with the switch.

LAFC had gotten off to a strong start, going 9-1-4 through the opening two months, but was suddenly in the doldrums.

Each side offered rotated lineups on June 14th. LAFC trotted out a starting lineup that featured fullback Diego Palacios in the midfield.

Returning from the listless effort in Texas, LAFC fell behind by a goal at home to the Dynamo in the opening half hour. The hosts showed some pep, dominating with 71% of the possession as Houston “hung on for dear life,” Olsen recalled.

It helped the visitors that just one of LAFC’s 14 shots hit the target, leading to a fourth straight shutout loss.

For just the second time in six years, an MLS opponent held LAFC scoreless in two regular-season contests.

Winning the conference final – LAFC’s third in six years, and Houston’s eighth since 2006, two more than any team over that span – would make the Dynamo the first team to win consecutive away matches at BMO Stadium.

The bar will be much higher this time around.

In four home playoff matches under Cherundolo, LAFC has 14 goals and is the only MLS team to score at least three goals in four straight home playoff games.

Houston’s success against LAFC was born out of the same thing that led to a positive turn after finishing second to last in the division in 2022: a talented, dynamic and experienced group of midfielders who look like they love playing together.

Olsen’s results with Houston, following a decade in charge at D.C. United, opened with wins dispersed by dropped points until a 9-1-4 stretch of its own in the wake of the Leagues Cup.

That included a U.S. Open Cup title by beating Inter Miami (without Lionel Messi) and a load of confidence as the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket.

Led by Mexican star Hector Herrera, who was second in the league with 17 assists and earned a spot in the MLS Best XI, “I think this year, Houston is the most improved team compared to last season without a doubt,” Cherundolo said. “It’s been fun to watch.”

Meanwhile, LAFC captain Carlos Vela, Herrera’s good friend and fellow Mexican international, could appear in his final home game for the Black & Gold, as the MLS title match will be played in either Cincinnati or Columbus.

And Denis Bouanga’s ferocious goal-scoring appetite has obviously been felt in nearly every positive result LAFC delivered in 2023.

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