LAFC hosts unique MLS Cup final featuring league superpowers

LAFC forward Carlos Vela holds up a trophy after defeating Austin FC in the MLS Western Conference final
LAFC forward Carlos Vela holds up a trophy and celebrates with teammates after defeating Austin FC in the MLS Western Conference final Sunday in Los Angeles.
(John McCoy / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at the NWSL’s most successful season, the mounting injuries that continue to hurt the U.S. men’s national team and the chaos that reigns in Qatar less than three weeks before the World Cup.

But we start with the MLS Cup final, which LAFC will host Saturday when it faces the Philadelphia Union at Banc of California Stadium in a matchup the likes of which the league hasn’t seen in two decades.

The last time the top seeds in each conference met in the final, Landon Donovan scored twice to lead the San Jose Earthquakes over the Chicago Fire in 2003 and claimed the second of six MLS titles. That was before the Earthquakes moved to Houston and became the Dynamo and another franchise, also named the Earthquakes, sprung up in its place two years later.


George W. Bush was in his first term as president then, neither Twitter nor Facebook had been launched and a quarter of the current U.S. population — about 80 million Americans — hadn’t been born.

So it’s been a while but there’s little doubt the Union and LAFC are the two most deserving teams.

LAFC won its second Supporters’ Shield in four seasons this year, led the table most of the way and outscored the Galaxy and Austin FC 6-2 combined in the Western Conference playoffs. The Union won the Supporters’ Shield in 2020 and matched LAFC with 67 points this season, then routed defending league champion New York City FC in the Eastern Conference final.

Los Angeles FC players celebrate with the Supporters' Shield trophy after a match against Nashville SC.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Since LAFC entered MLS in 2018, its 79 regular-season wins are most in the league, one more than the Union’s 78, and the teams are tied for most regular-season points with 273. Fittingly the teams’ past three regular-season meetings have ended in draws.

“It’s quite clear why they are the Supporters’ Shield [winners] and the best team the entire year,” Austin coach Josh Wolff said of LAFC after his team’s 3-0 loss Saturday in the Western Conference final. “They’re a good team with loads of talent and in an extremely good position to win MLS Cup.”


But so is Philadelphia.

The Union led the league with 72 goals this season, LAFC was second with 66. The Union gave up the fewest goals, 28, and LAFC was third with 38. Union coach Jim Curtain made clear after Saturday’s Eastern Conference title game that his team isn’t intimidated.

“Finals are hard to get to,” said Curtain, the league’s coach of the year. “It’s not easy in a 28-team league. We’re going to go on the road and play an LAFC team who are as good as any in our league’s history. We have a chance, we can play with anybody.”

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Indeed, finals are hard to get to, which explains why LAFC and the Union, the winningest teams in their respective conferences during the past five years, are just now are playing in their first. MLS, with its parity-inducing salary cap and maddeningly complicated roster rules, has had eight different winners in the past nine seasons — and it likes it that way.

It’s a league that, in a huge contradiction, rewards both consistency — presenting the Supporters’ Shield to the best team during a 34-game regular season — and momentum, with the MLS Cup going to the team that is best during a month-long, single-elimination postseason tournament.

Since 2011, only one team has won both in the same season.

“A Supporters’ Shield, you have 34 chances to get the job done,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “In a knockout environment, you have 90 minutes, or 120 minutes and penalties, if you need. So it’s certainly different.”

Despite the drawbacks, this year’s matchup is an interesting — and uncommonly balanced — one.

The Philadelphia Union's Andre Blake directs his teammates during a match New York City FC on Sunday.
The Philadelphia Union’s Andre Blake directs his teammates during a match New York City FC on Sunday.
(Chris Szagola / Associated Press)

Philadelphia goalie Andre Blake, the best keeper in MLS this season, led the league with 15 clean sheets, a 0.76 goals-against average and a save percentage just a tick below 80%. The Union also had three of the best defenders in the league in Kai Wagner, Jack Elliott and Jakob Glesnes.

LAFC keeper Maxime Crepeau had a career-best 10 clean sheets, including the playoffs, and gave up 38 goals in 35 games. In front of him, holding midfielder Ilie Sánchez, a winter free-agent signing, was arguably the league’s most impactful player. Including the postseason, LAFC was 23-5-4 in games he started and 0-4 when he didn’t.

Up front, league MVP candidate Cristian Arango, who appeared to be on the trading block in midseason, led LAFC with 16 goals in the regular season, then scored the game-winner in both playoff victories. But depth really is the team’s strength: it outscored opponents 49-17 in the second half, including playoffs, and got goals from 16 players.

Philadelphia’s Dániel Gazdag, meanwhile, finished second in the league with 22 goals and the Union had two other scorers in double digits — Julián Carranza with 14 and Mikael Uhre with 13. Wagner (15) and Gazdag (10) finished in double digits in assists.

Los Angeles FC forward Gareth Bale (11) and defender Giorgio Chiellini (14) join their team celebrate.
Los Angeles FC forward Gareth Bale (11) and defender Giorgio Chiellini (14) join their team celebrate with the Supporters’ Shield trophy.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The final may ultimately prove to be a steel-cage match of the Union’s physical, grinding play and LAFC’s phenomenal depth and experience. What other team in MLS history has been able to bring a five-time Champions League winner like Gareth Bale off the bench?

“We’re not fun to play against,” Curtin said. “Call it what you want. You can call it attractive, you can call it entertaining, you can hate it, you can call it too physical, whatever you want to call it, we don’t really care. We know the opponent does not like playing against us. It wears them down over the course of 90 minutes.”

The team’s next 90 minutes could decide the MLS champion.

Six LAFC super stats

LAFC forward Cristian Arango and Sounders defender Jimmy Medranda vie for the ball
LAFC forward Cristian Arango and Sounders defender Jimmy Medranda vie for the ball on July 29 in Los Angeles.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Whether LAFC has the best team in MLS will be determined in Saturday’s MLS Cup final. But it’s unlikely any other club can match LAFC’s communications department when it comes to game notes, the package of pregame tips and tidbits reporters use to help tell the story of the match.

Here are some of the unique nuggets LAFC shared before Sunday’s game:

— Cristian Arango not only scored 30 goals in 50 regular-season games, second only to Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar over that stretch, but he also was second in MLS in shots off the goal post in 2022.

— Carlos Vela and Kellyn Acosta created 55 chances off set pieces in 2022.

— Diego Palacios ranked among the top four MLS defenders in duels won (170) and in tackles (87).

— Coach Steve Cherundolo used 32 different starting lineups in the regular season.

— LAFC’s 15 goals off the bench is the third-highest total in MLS history, but the last score by a substitute came more than two months ago. (Opoku ended that drought Sunday by coming on midway through the second half and scoring in the 81st minute.)

— Midfielder Ilie Sánchez ranked fifth in MLS for most long passes into the final third of the field with 176.

MLS attendance figures a mix of good and bad news

Los Angeles FC fans cheer before the team's match against the Colorado Rapids on Feb. 26
Los Angeles FC fans cheer before the team’s home match against the Colorado Rapids on Feb. 26.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

This was a good year for MLS for reasons that had nothing to do with the playoffs. The league topped 10 million in total regular-season attendance for the first time, while a Sportico survey estimated five teams — including LAFC and the Galaxy, who ranked 1 and 2, respectively — are worth at least $705 million.

Helped by league expansion, which added a 28th team in Charlotte, said 10,011,578 fans attended games this season. But that is tempered by the fact the average attendance of 21,033 is below the all-time record of 22,106 set in 2017, when the league had 22 teams. And 15 teams — more than half the league — saw a decrease in attendance, with seven of those drops averaging more than 10%. The league-wide average was down 3.7% since the last pre-COVID season in 2019.

Atlanta United led MLS in attendance with an average of 47,116 fans, just ahead of Charlotte (35,260) and Seattle (33,607). None of the three made the postseason. Twelve teams averaged more than 20,000 fans a game, including the Galaxy (22,841, seventh in the league) and LAFC (22,089, ninth).

2022 average MLS attendance

1. Atlanta United, 47,116
2. Charlotte FC, 35,260
3. Seattle, 33,607
4. Nashville SC, 27,554
5. Toronto FC, 25,423
6. Portland, 23,841
7. LA Galaxy, 22,841
8. FC Cincinnati, 22,487
9. LAFC, 22,089
10. New England, 21,221
11. Austin FC, 20,738
12. Real Salt Lake, 20,470
13. Minnesota United, 19,560
14. Columbus, 19,237
15. Sporting KC, 18,365
16. Philadelphia, 18,126
17. Orlando City, 17,261
18. New York City FC, 17,180
19. NY Red Bulls, 17,002
20. FC Dallas, 16,469
21. Houston, 16,426
22. Vancouver, 16,399
23. D.C. United, 16,256
24. Chicago, 15,848
25. CF Montreal, 15,769
26. San Jose, 15,260
27. Colorado, 14,473
28. Inter Miami, 12,637

Source: Soccer America

Most valuable MLS teams

1. LAFC, $900 million
2. Galaxy, $865 million
3. Atlanta United, $855 million
4. Seattle Sounders, $725 million
5. Toronto FC, $705 million

Source: Sportico.

(Sportico’s rankings are based on conversations with more than five dozen people in and around MLS during the past six weeks, including bankers and lawyers involved in team transactions as well as owners from 10 clubs. The average MLS franchise is worth $582 million, up 5.8% over last year’s Sportico count.)

A Wave washes over the NWSL

The San Diego Wave didn’t win the NWSL title. That went to the Portland Thorns, who beat the Kansas City Current 2-0 on Saturday on CBS, the first league championship game played in prime time on broadcast TV.

But it was a very good season for the Wave just the same.

Not only was San Diego (10-6-6) the first expansion team in league history to reach the playoffs, it also had the league’s Golden Boot winner in Alex Morgan, who scored a career-high 16 goals in 19 games, including the playoffs. Casey Stoney became just the second woman chosen as the league’s coach of the year, Naomi Girma was the league’s best defender and top rookie and Kailen Sheridan was named top goalkeeper.

Portland’s Sophia Smith, who scored what proved to be the winning goal in the final, finished the regular season with 14 scores and three assists and was named league MVP becoming, at 21, the youngest player to win that award.

It was a banner year across the league which, with the addition of expansion teams in San Diego and Los Angeles. topped 1 million in total attendance for the first time. The five playoff matches also set a record in averaging 21,730 per game.

Ali Riley, center, and Angel City teammates run to embrace Christen Press (23) after she scored a goal
Ali Riley, center, and Angel City teammates run to embrace Christen Press (23) after she scored a goal against the Portland Thorns on April 24.
(Courtesy of NWSL)

TV ratings and sponsorships are up as well, thanks to a growing list of big-name corporate partners such as Budweiser, Nationwide, Mastercard, Nike and Verizon which have stuck with the NWSL despite damning allegations of harassment and sexual coercion detailed last month in an investigation headed by former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Q. Yates.

“The last six months have really only validated, confirmed and inspired me to know and believe that this league has unlimited potential,” commissioner Jessica Berman, who took over in April, said in last week’s state of the league address.

“We’re going to continue to work quietly behind the scenes to put the league in a position to be successful and to bring the joint investigative process to a conclusion, which includes making sure that we and the players association are prepared to put our pencils down, and have the joint investigative team put their pencils down and release our report publicly,” continued Berman, who is awaiting the results of an internal league probe in the harassment scandal.

Berman has set a deadline of this Friday for applications for potential expansion owners. She said she expects five to 10 offers to be filed.

Injuries mounting for USMNT as World Cup roster selection looms

American Weston McKennie points across the field ahead of a match against Japan in Duesseldorf, Germany
American Weston McKennie points across the field ahead of a match against Japan in Duesseldorf, Germany, on Sept. 23.
(Martin Meissner / Associated Press)

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter will announce his 26-man World Cup roster on Nov. 9, but as injuries continue to mount the team may not be the one he had hoped to take to Qatar.

Five players Berhalter likely was counting on — midfielders Weston McKennie and Luca de la Torre, goalkeeper Matt Turner, defender Chris Richards and attacker Josh Sargent — are dealing with injuries that make their availability for the World Cup uncertain.

De la Torre and Richards are out with thigh injuries; Richards hasn’t played since August and De la Torre, who has played just 54 minutes this season for Celta of Spain’s La Liga, is out at a couple of weeks with a grade 1 tear in his left thigh.

Turner, who posted three consecutive shutouts for Arsenal in Europa League play, missed last Thursday’s game with a groin injury and did not dress for Sunday’s Premier League match against Nottingham Forest. McKennie was subbed off at halftime of Juventus’ win over Lecce on Saturday with a thigh injury and is expected to be sidelined at least two weeks.

Sargent, tied for second in the second-tier English Championship with eight goals, was held out of Norwich City’s squad for Saturday’s win over Stoke with a tight calf.

Meanwhile, midfielder Tyler Adams was back for Leeds on Saturday after missing the team’s previous game, defender Sergiño Dest returned from a muscle injury to play in the second half of AC Milan’s loss at Torino and Tim Weah started for the first time this season for Lille in a 1-0 loss at Lyon.

Injuries have been a concern for the U.S. since the end of World Cup qualifying. Center back Miles Robinson torn an Achilles in May and will miss the tournament in Qatar, while Cameron Carter-Vickers, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson, Zack Steffen and Weah all missed the U.S. matches in September because of injury. In addition Reggie Cannon and Gio Reyna, who were injured during the September international window, are back on the field.

American forward Tim Weah celebrates after scoring against Morocco on June 1 in Cincinnati.
American forward Tim Weah celebrates after scoring against Morocco on June 1 in Cincinnati. Weah is among the U.S. players who battled injuries ahead of the World Cup.
(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

“Do I think that we have the best players in each position identified? Yes,” Berhalter said after September’s loss to Japan. “Do I think they’re all going to be available for start of the World Cup? I don’t know.

“That’s just what every international manager will be dealing with right now. We’ll be holding our breaths, hoping that that’s the case.”

Last week Berhalter opened an 11-day mini-camp in Frisco, Texas, for MLS players no longer involved in the playoffs. Among the nine players invited were defenders Aaron Long of the New York Red Bulls and Walker Zimmerman of Nashville SC, midfielder Cristian Roldan of Seattle and forwards Paul Arriola and Jesús Ferreira of FC Dallas and Jordan Morris of Seattle.

Qatar continues doubling down on the chaos

Workers walk to the construction site for Lusail Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup stadiums
Workers walk to the construction site for Lusail Stadium, one of the 2022 World Cup stadiums.
(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

Speaking of the World Cup, the opening game is less than three weeks away, but Qatar still appears overwhelmed by logistical issues it had 12 years to solve.

Reuters reported last week that Qatar has emptied apartment blocks and evicted thousands of foreign workers to make room for some of the 1.2 million soccer fans expected to flood Doha for the 28-day tournament.

Some of those evicted said more than a dozen buildings had been evacuated and shut down by authorities, forcing the mainly Asian and African workers to seek what shelter they could — including bedding down on the pavement outside one of their former homes.

Around 85% of Qatar’s nearly 3 million residents are foreign workers. Many of those evicted work as drivers and day laborers or have contracts with companies but are responsible for their own accommodation, unlike those working for major construction firms who live in camps housing tens of thousands of people.

In one building residents said housed 1,200 people in Doha’s Al Mansoura district, authorities gave just two hours to leave.

“We don’t have anywhere to go,” one man, who declined to give his name fearing reprisal, told Reuters the next day as he prepared to sleep out for a second night with around 10 other men, some of them shirtless in the autumn heat and humidity of the Gulf Arab state.

A Qatari government official said the evictions are unrelated to the World Cup and were designed “in line with ongoing comprehensive and long-term plans to re-organize areas of Doha.”

“All have since been rehoused in safe and appropriate accommodation,” the official said, adding that requests to vacate “would have been conducted with proper notice.”

Those statements clearly were false, based on Reuters’ reporting.

Complained one evicted worker: “Who made the stadiums? Who made the roads? Who made everything? Bengalis, Pakistanis. People like us. Now they are making us all go outside.”

Qatar has been roundly criticized during its deplorable treatment of foreign workers, many of whom traditionally have toiled under a legal form of indentured servitude. The Guardian newspaper said more than 6,500 migrant workers died in Qatar between 2010-2020, many while working on projects related to the World Cup.

Trophy tour

Still speaking of the World Cup, the tournament trophy will be making a brief visit to Los Angeles on Saturday as part of a world tour. The trophy will be the center of fan fest sponsored by Coca-Cola at LA Live from 2-8 p.m. Tickets to attend the event can had by purchasing FIFA World Cup-themed bottles of Coca-Cola and Coke Zero Sugar and scanning the QR codes.

In case you missed it

LAFC still hungers for more after defeating Austin FC to reach MLS Cup final

Harvard-Westlake senior Alyssa Thompson, Alex Morgan highlight USWNT roster

Ilie Sánchez and LAFC determined to put past playoff disappointments behind them

Harvard-Westlake senior Alyssa Thompson, Alex Morgan highlight USWNT roster

SoFi Stadium to host 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament final

World Cup 2022: What to do, see and eat in Qatar

U.S. women’s soccer team to face Vietnam, Netherlands at next year’s World Cup

And finally there’s this …

Pachuca on Sunday won its first Liga MX title since 2016 by swamping Toluca 8-2 in the two-leg Apertura final … UCLA’s top-ranked women soccer team closes its regular season Friday at No. 18 USC. Both teams are playing under first-year coaches with the Bruins going 17-1, including 9-1 in Pac 12 play, under Margueritte Aozasa and the Trojans going 11-2-3 overall and 7-1-2 in Pac-12 play under Jane Alukonis. The 64-team field for the NCAA tournament will be announced Nov. 7. … On the men’s side Cal State LA (13-1-3, 7-1-3 in CCAA play), the reigning Division II national champion, ranks second in Super Region 4, one spot ahead of conference rival Cal Poly Pomona (11-2-6, 6-1-4). Unbeaten Cal State Dominguez Hills (13-0-5, 7-0-4) is fifth in the rankings. St. Mary’s of Texas (9-0-5) is No. 1.


“If people believe and they work together, magic can happen. And it did.”

LAFC founding owner Peter Guber on the five-year-old team reaching Saturday’s MLS Cup final

Until next time...

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