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LAFC must weigh roster health vs. U.S. Open Cup match against Galaxy

As lineup choices go, it doesn’t get much weightier than the options LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo faces for Tuesday night’s U.S. Open Cup match against the Galaxy.

Eight days out from the first leg of the big-as-it-gets CONCACAF Champions League final in Leon, Mexico, avoiding injury is the obvious concern.

The last time LAFC faced the Galaxy in Open Cup play, nearly one year ago to the day, Carlos Vela was hurt 20 minutes into the match and missed several weeks. Anything resembling that now would be an avoidable worst-case scenario for the Black & Gold.

LAFC is in a terrific rhythm and, for the majority of its opponents so far, has been too much to handle. Along the way, the club has managed through some injuries, particularly at center back where Giorgio Chiellini and Jesus Murillo are slow to recover while Aaron Long returns to full strength.

But the inevitable knocks of professional soccer haven’t diminished the club’s results, in large part because neither captain Carlos Vela nor league-leading goal scorer Denis Bouanga has missed any action over the first third of the season.

So considering the value of the Champions League final and all that comes with winning, including spots in the 2023 and 2025 FIFA Club World Cup, does an Open Cup match, even against your biggest rival on your home field, warrant playing anyone who would be counted upon against Leon?

Bouanga meant it when he said he was ready, willing and able to play every four days. He has done so, with a hand in 21 goals in 18 appearances across all competitions.

Vela, too, was serious when he put in extra work with a personal trainer during the offseason to be fit for LAFC as it traversed MLS and Champions League, a combination that derailed many teams in their opening months.

Like Bouanga, Vela has played 18 of LAFC’s 19 games. Their lone DNPs occurred two weeks ago when LAFC played its first U.S. Open Cup and defeated Monterey Bay FC on PKs.

Cherundolo turned that match in Seaside into an off day for everyone except veteran goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic and a contingent of young talent. Because the group returned to L.A. with an emotional and unexpected victory that rippled across the organization, Tuesday’s contest against the Galaxy came on to the schedule ahead of the CCL final.

Through 13 MLS games, the Galaxy has floundered, including losing to LAFC in Carson for the first time. The Galaxy is the only MLS team without at least 10 points and sits at the bottom of the Supporters’ Shield standings. The five-time league champions have lost consecutive shutouts, and their 10 team goals match Bouanga’s MLS-leading individual total.

Despite the poor play, the Galaxy stood up in the Open Cup to grab a 3-1 win over the rotated Seattle Sounders.

Choosing between trying to bury the desperate Galaxy with LAFC’s stars or leaning on Uncle Eldin and LAFC’s kids stacks up among Cherundolo’s most important decisions so far.

“I’m going to focus like I play,” said Jakupovic, a 38-year-old Bosnian who was raised in Switzerland and played professionally in Europe prior to joining LAFC. “If the young kids are playing, hopefully they can show to the home fans that they belong in the club.

“We just have to make sure we don’t have more players on the injury list.”

GALAXY AT LAFC

What: U.S. Open Cup, Round of 16

When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: BMO Stadium

TV/Radio: CBS Sports Golazo Network, Paramount+, 710 AM, 980 AM

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