LAFC’s bid for MLS Cup history undone by disastrous stretch in loss to Columbus

LAFC entered Saturday’s MLS Cup final 90 minutes from history.

It finished the game looking ahead to next year after losing 2-1 to the Columbus Crew on a chilly, rainy night in central Ohio.

“The season was a success for us, regardless of the result tonight. I don’t think any other teams has done what we’ve done,” said LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, whose team was trying to become the first repeat MLS champion in 11 seasons. “Are we disappointed? Absolutely. Did Columbus deserve to win tonight? Yes, they did. They played a fantastic game.”

Yet despite the result, Cherundolo was conceding little.

“Do I think they’re better than us? No,” he said. “They were better than us tonight. We made a couple errors defensively that led to their two goals. And that’s pretty much it.”

Last year it was the Philadelphia Union that watched LAFC celebrate on its home field after the championship game. This time it was the Crew who mounted an elaborate two-tier victory platform backed by a 40-foot-high likeness of the MLS Cup as a shower of bright gold confetti filled the rainy skies. Nearby, LAFC players looked on, hands on hips, heads down.

They competed for a league-record six trophies over an exhausting league-record 53 games, yet they left Columbus with nothing more than their pride and some good memories to show for it.

“It’s better to lose in the final than to lose in the first round. Trust me,” defender Giorgio Chiellini said with a pained smile. “It’s a fantastic journey that remains in our mind and our heart. It’s probably in the history or in the books, but it’s in our hearts for life.”

The winter ahead, which began when the game ended, could mark a turning point for LAFC. Five starters had their contracts expire at the final whistle, among them Carlos Vela, the captain and the last player remaining from the inaugural roster in 2018. He is now a free agent, as is goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, midfielder Kellyn Acosta and defender Diego Palacios. Meanwhile, Denis Bouanga, who is under contract, is expected to entertain offers to return to Europe, although LAFC general manager John Thorrington said it would take a massive transfer fee to pry the league’s leading scorer away.

“There is a lot of work for them to do,” said Chiellini, the fifth starter out of contract after becoming, at 39 years 117 days, the second-oldest player to appear in an MLS Cup final. “But the organization has to be proud of what we have done in this season. Unfortunately, we did not lift a trophy but we gave 100% every time.”

LAFC was undone by goals from Cucho Hernández and Yaw Yeboah four minutes apart late in the first half; the first on a penalty kick, the second on a breakaway. Going down 2-0 left LAFC chasing the game for the rest of the night and it didn’t find life until Bouanga banged into the rebound of his own shot in the 74th minute. That allowed him to match Vela’s single-season MLS record with 38 goals in all competition but that was only history LAFC would make on the night.

The match kicked off in front of a sellout crowd of more than 20,000 under gray skies that gave way to rain between the two Columbus goals, rain that grew in intensity as the night wore on. And with more than 1,700 vocal LAFC supporters filling the upper deck behind the north goal, the game started in a riot of sound as well.

The Crew, the league’s highest-scoring team with 67 goals during the regular season, embraced the raucous atmosphere, playing on the front foot from the start. But they weren’t rewarded until the 33rd minute when Hernández, the game MVP, put his team in front to stay on a penalty kick. Referee Armando Villarreal awarded the penalty without consulting a replay after Columbus’ Diego Rossi got a boot on Yeboah’s long cross from the left wing and lifted it into the air, where it struck LAFC defender Diego Palacios in the shoulder and caromed off his bicep.

The goal was the first LAFC goalkeeper Crepeau had given up in 353 playoff minutes, but it wouldn’t be the last. Four minutes later, Yeboah got behind the LAFC defense and ran onto a Malte Amundsen through ball, then beat Crepeau again with a left-footed shot from close range.

“They played exactly how you need to play against LAFC if you want to beat us,” Cherundolo said. “They created enough moments where we were forced to make mistakes.”

“We didn’t play a very good first half tonight,” he added. “That’s the story tonight.”

LAFC’s lone goal came from a Columbus mistake, with the Crew turning the ball over deep in their own end.

Defender Jesús Murillo then fed Bouanga in the center of the box, only to see Columbus keeper Patrick Schulte make a brilliant save on his first shot. But the rebound bounced straight to Bouanga, who had an easy left-footed finish for the goal.

Saturday’s title was the third for the Crew, one of the 10 original MLS teams. It also marks something of a renaissance for a team that won only 10 games last year and was playing in the postseason for only the second time since 2018.

For LAFC, meanwhile, the loss starts off a short offseason with a lot of work to do.

“The disappointment sits deep for now,” Cherundolo said. “But I think we’re all looking forward to a little time off, regrouping and then giving this another go next year.”

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