For the first time in his soccer-playing life last week, Ilie Sanchez agreed with being taken off the field.
During a 1-1 tie in Portland, Los Angeles Football Club head coach Steve Cherundolo pulled the Spanish midfielder with a quarter of an hour plus stoppage time to go. Before the final whistle, forward Denis Bouanga gave LAFC the lead and, along with it, the coveted Supporters’ Shield.
Bouanga started alongside Sanchez, who, after being substituted off for more offensive options, watched his teammates and the coaching staff aggressively pursue a result that would seal the club’s second trophy and home-field advantage throughout the MLS Cup playoffs.
“Once I sat on the bench, I realized that movement was the right one to do and it worked,” Sanchez said ahead of LAFC’s final regular-season contest, a Decision Day matchup at Banc of California Stadium against playoff-bound Nashville SC.
Nashville lost 2-1 to LAFC on its field in July, and will visit L.A. ranked fifth in the Western Conference. Depending on the outcome, Nashville (12-10-11, 47 points) can claim a home playoff match or drop to the seventh seed.
MLS MVP candidate and Golden Boot leader Hany Mukhtar scored nine times during a recent six-match unbeaten streak, giving him 23 goals on the year, prior to suffering an ill-timed defeat against the eliminated Houston Dynamo last weekend.
For LAFC, securing the Shield changed the Nashville contest from a high-stakes tension-filled day to an assured celebration and a dress rehearsal of sorts for the forthcoming single-elimination postseason.
Cherundolo noted that the Portland result drastically influenced the atmosphere in training this week. Noticeably more relaxed than LAFC would have been if they had something tangible to play for, the record-setting first-year MLS coach does not expect the Supporters’ Shield presentation or happy feelings around the club to be reflected in his starting lineup or the team’s mindset.
“We would love to end the season at home with a victory and a good performance,” said Cherundolo, who can make it an MLS-best 22 wins by a coach during their initial regular season. “Those two elements are very important moving into the playoffs.”
Though the 10-month-long Supporters’ Shield pressure valve was released after another successful second half in which it outscored an opponent for the 23rd time in 33 contests – LAFC ranks first in goals following halftime with 45, and, at 14, has allowed the fewest – Cherundolo’s side aims to win a third consecutive game leading into its well-earned bye to the conference semifinals.
LAFC clinches MLS Supporters’ Shield with victory over Portland
LAFC prepares for ‘difficult opponent’ in Portland
Galaxy to return to Rose Bowl to kick off 2023 season against LAFC
Carlos Vela leads LAFC past Houston
LAFC clinches top seed in Western Conference, prepares for Houston
A win Sunday would also set the LAFC mark for best home record over a single season, topping the 13-1-3 ledger established by the 2019 Supporters’ Shield winners. If so, LAFC (21-8-4) will accomplish additional objectives by averaging at least two points per match and finishing with 70 points, “which is a pretty good number for a regular season of 34 games,” noted Sanchez, who in his first season with the Black & Gold helped the club to a 21-4-4 record when he played 20 or more minutes in a match.
“We want to celebrate with our fans the way we celebrated with fans who were in Portland,” Sanchez added. “There is no better way to celebrate than winning the game, spending time with them after, and closing this chapter heading into the bigger one in 15 days.”
NASHVILLE SC at LAFC
When: 2:18 p.m. Sunday
Where: Banc of California Stadium, Los Angeles
TV/Radio: KCOP 13, Estrella TV (Spanish)/710 AM, 980 AM