May 24, 2024

LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo was asked Friday for one word to sum up the year that has passed since his team’s triumph in the MLS Cup final.

“Maybe fast and furious,” he offered.

Uh, that’s actually four words, coach. But if Cherundolo has trouble succinctly describing the 12 months since his biggest win for LAFC, he knows how he’ll be celebrating it: by trying to win another title.

Sunday marks the anniversary of the team’s penalty-kicks win over the Philadelphia Union in arguably the most dramatic MLS championship game played. And at virtually the same time that game ended a year ago, LAFC will kick off a first-round playoff game in Vancouver, needing a victory to advance to the Western Conference semifinals.

“The time, unfortunately, to sit back and think about the past year and reflect was quite short,” Cherundolo, unfettered from his word limit, added. “It’s hard to replicate that moving forward, exactly how it happened. But we will do our best to try.”

So hard to replicate, in fact, no team has won back-to-back MLS titles since the Galaxy in 2012. The league has seen nine teams win the 10 championships since then. However, if history is any guide, LAFC is well-positioned to challenge that trend.

Last season LAFC hit a late skid in which it won only once in six MLS games before rebounding to win two of its final three regular-season matches. It then ran the table in the playoffs, winning its first title.

This season LAFC hit a late skid in which it won only once in six MLS games before rebounding to win two of its final three regular-season matches. It then opened the playoffs last weekend with a one-sided 5-2 win over the Whitecaps in the opener of a best-of-three series. Another win Sunday and LAFC moves on; a loss and, under the league’s new forgiving playoff format, it returns to BMO Stadium on Thursday to try again.

Want some more history? The Whitecaps have beaten LAFC only once in five games this year and have won only one playoff game in nine tries in franchise history. In an effort to turn that around, Vancouver is hoping for some help from its 12th man, opening the upper bowl at BC Place, the 54,500-seat stadium it shares with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. As of Friday morning, the Whitecaps said 26,000 tickets had been sold.

Vancouver midfielder Richie Laryea, rear, passes the ball in front of LAFC forward Cristian Olivera.

Vancouver midfielder Richie Laryea, rear, passes the ball in front of LAFC forward Cristian Olivera during LAFC’s win on Oct. 28.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

The reason for LAFC’s late-summer slide this season was a punishing schedule that saw the team play a franchise-record 48 times in 33 weeks — averaging a game every five days. Along the way it had a shot at six trophies, but lost in the finals of the CONCACAF Champions League and Campeones Cup, was eliminated in the early stages of the U.S. Open Cup and Leagues Cup and finished eighth in the Supporter’s Shield race. That leaves the MLS Cup playoffs as its last chance at some hardware.

“Because of the number of games and the injuries, the team struggled because it wasn’t complete,” defender Jesús Murillo said in Spanish, referencing the team’s slump. “We had a lot of games in a short period. But now we have just one tournament and the team is complete.”

During its slump, LAFC was shut out five times in six games across all competition. But it has scored 15 goals over its last four matches, with Dénis Bouanga, the league’s scoring champion, accounting for eight of those goals. In the 21 games in which Bouanga has scored this season, LAFC has lost only four of them.

Cherundolo credited patience for the team’s turnaround. For Bouanga, it might just be a matter of enjoying the game again.

“Playing with passion and enjoyment and not treating this as a job where we’re nervous for every touch or play or pass,” he said. “It’s a game we’ve all played since we were children. In some ways, that is the easiest way to improve performances.”

To make room for the first fall World Cup, the MLS season ended in early November last year, a month earlier than usual, which is why LAFC opened this playoff tournament a calendar week before it ended the last one. However, the success of last season hasn’t lessened the team’s desire to win again this fall, Cherundolo promised.

“Teams or organizations or people can [become] complacent. I don’t see that with this group,” he said. “I still see a hunger in their eyes. And they know they can do it because they’ve done it before.”

Doing it again will become a lot easier with a win Sunday, leaving Cherundolo with only one word to sum his mission for the month ahead: repeat.

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