LOS ANGELES – The opportunity to host an MLS Cup Final doesn’t come around very often. And when the chance presents itself, the pressure is on to ensure it doesn’t slip through your grasp.
That’s the scenario LAFC will confront in Sunday’s Western Conference Final against Austin FC at Banc of California Stadium (3 pm ET | ABC, ESPN3). As the No. 1 overall seed in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs and Supporters’ Shield champions, the Black & Gold will guarantee the league’s title match occurs in Los Angeles on Nov. 5 with a victory.
“It’s fantastic,” midfielder Ilie Sanchez told MLSsoccer.com on Friday. “We see this as a unique opportunity of being able to play an MLS Cup Final. We see it also as an opportunity to become Western Conference champions, which is also a trophy that the winner is going to lift on Sunday.
“Those two things keep us focused and motivated for this game. I think LAFC deserve this after this regular season, to be fighting for MLS Cup. That’s what we are trying to do and that keeps us focused for the next game.”
The Conference Finals are set.
Sunday:@LAFC vs. @AustinFC: 3pm ET on ABC@PhilaUnion vs. @NYCFC: 8pm ET on FS1 pic.twitter.com/ymAulnML2k
LAFC have been in this situation before, when in 2019 they entered the Western Conference Final under similar circumstances as Supporters’ Shield winners. Yet that year, they bowed out 3-1 to eventual champions Seattle Sounders FC.
In terms of atoning for that history, the inevitable roster turnover over three years gives LAFC almost an entirely new squad. Only four players from that 2019 side remain: Captain/forward Carlos Vela, midfielder Latif Blessing, and defenders Eddie Segura and Diego Palacios.
“Different team, honestly, a lot of new faces,” said goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, who arrived via a trade with Vancouver Whitecaps FC ahead of the 2022 season. “A more experienced group that we have at the moment. And in the locker room players are more experienced within the league and know what the feelings of Banc of California Stadium [are], feel the environment and know what is waiting for us.
“So it’s a team that is more experienced overall and more calm and trusts each other and knows exactly the game plan. We will go there to respect the game plan in order to go all the way.”
Should LAFC lose, hosting priority would flip to the Philadelphia Union as the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed, welcoming NYCFC in the other Conference Final on Sunday (8 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes). A Philly win combined with an Austin win brings MLS Cup to the City of Brotherly Love, while an Austin win combined with a Cityzens win means the championship match is Texas-bound.
Vela, an original LAFC signing from before their 2018 expansion season, knows what’s at stake.
“Everyone knows how important this game is not only for us, but for the club, for the fans, for the city,” Vela said. “I think when you are in that stage, you are two more games to win a trophy, it’s not much to say. Everybody is excited, everybody is ready, everybody is waiting for Sunday’s game.”
– If #LAFC wins: MLS CUP in LA.
– If #Verde & #Doop win: MLS CUP in Philadelphia.
– If #Verde & #NYCFC win: MLS CUP in Austin.
– #NYCFC can’t host
Now, it’s about managing the emotions of the moment and procuring a positive result at home, where the Black & Gold were nearly unstoppable during the regular season. LAFC sported a blistering 13W-2L-2D record at the Banc in 2022, also topping arch-rivals LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinals by a 3-2 scoreline to earn their Conference Final appearance.
LAFC center back Giorgio Chiellini likened the occasion to a UEFA Champions League knockout match, a testament to his lengthy Juventus and Serie A career. And fullback Ryan Hollingshead underscored the importance of getting a domestic double, saying the fifth-year club is “two steps away” from a shot at history.
Only seven (of 26) teams have won both Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in the same season, with Toronto FC the last to do so in 2017.
“For the fans, being able to not only get to a Cup, but to get to a Cup at home, potentially lift a trophy at home in front of our fans is just – it would mean the world to us and to them,” Hollingshead said. “So having that in our grasp I think gives us a little bit more motivation.”
In a historic first for sports, fans can stream every single MLS match through the Apple TV app, without any local blackouts or restrictions.