LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Football Club struggled for a month to lock down the Western Conference title and assume control over the Major League Soccer Supporters’ Shield.
But that wasn’t anything a good weekend couldn’t cure.
A day after clinching the top seed in their conference when second-place Austin failed to win, LAFC reasserted its liberty in the season-long points battle by defeating Houston 3-1 Sunday evening at Banc of California Stadium.
Two first-half goals on penalty kicks by LAFC captain Carlos Vela held up as the Black & Gold went level with the Philadelphia Union and secured the first tiebreaker thanks to its 20th win.
“I’m very clear with the guys,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo, “if we play to our potential we’re going to 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. Nothing else matters. Staying disciplined and focused has been our message to the group and our challenge the entire season and I think we’ve been pretty good at it.”
Bucking a trend of slow starts, LAFC wasted no time taking the lead. Vela slotted his first penalty past Dynamo goalkeeper Steve Clark in the eighth minute after Denis Bouanga was fouled in the box.
Vela also showed up defensively in the 19th minute when he protected the near post off a corner kick and headed away a sure Houston equalizer.
The visitors momentarily found their way back into the match when midfielder Adalberto Carraquilla picked out former LAFC attacker Corey Baird with a beautiful long pass into the box prior to the half-hour mark.
Traded to Houston (9-17-6, 33 points) during the 2021 summer transfer window for $750,000 in general allocation money and an international roster spot, Baird was subdued in celebration following a deft chip over Maxime Crepeau.
Prior to halftime, a video review confirmed a handball in the Houston box by forward Fafa Picault, offering Vela an opportunity at his first multi-goal performance since an opening day hat trick.
The brace gave Vela 11 goals to go with 10 assists in 30 appearances, improving LAFC’s record to 13-1-2 this year when the Mexican contributed to the scoresheet. Three goals in the last two matches following a six-match drought should make opponents nervous, Cherundolo said.
“I think it is very important moving forward that all of our attackers are prolific, which makes it very difficult to handle,” he noted regarding LAFC’s offensive prowess.
Defender Ryan Hollingshead also continued his impactful play by blasting a shot past Clark early in the second half. Hollingshead’s sixth goal increased his league-leading tally for defenders, and, in 1,200 fewer minutes, tied a career high from 2019.
“This league, I’ve been in it for a long time, is all about running into playoffs with a ton of momentum,” Hollingshead said. “There’s not a lot of Supporters’ Shield winning teams that have also won the Cup, so it’s not always about finishing the regular season on top but it’s about going in with that momentum.”
The result marked LAFC’s ninth straight win at the Banc, where they have scored in 41 consecutive matches and are assured of hosting throughout the conference playoffs.
“During the whole season the team has demonstrated great quality and unity,” said Colombian center back Eddie Segura, who started alongside Giorgio Chiellini. “It is reflected in the standings. All that confidence and hard work is a result of what we have been building all season.”
With two regular season contests left, LAFC (20-8-4, 64 points) has grabbed hold of its Supporter Shields’ destiny and can earn a potential home MLS Cup final if they remain at least tied with Philadelphia when action resumes following the upcoming FIFA window.
Eleven players on the squad — including Canadian Crepeau; Ecuadorians Seba Mendez, Diego Palacios and Jose Cifuentes; American Kellyn Acosta; Welshman Gareth Bale; and Gabon’s Denis Bouaga — will depart for national team duties, while the rest remain in L.A., to recover and prepare for their final road date of the year, Oct. 2, in Portland, prior to hosting Nashville on Decision Day.
“If we can put a string of wins together here, home against Houston, win in Portland and beat Nashville,” Hollingshead said, “not only will that get us the Shield it will set us up well with some good rhythm going into playoffs, and obviously that’s of major importance as well.”