LAFC’s players have been universal in talking about the effect last season’s early playoff exit has had on this year’s team, even if they can’t agree on exactly how that disappointment tasted.
“We underachieved in terms of how we finished,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “We probably left at the end of the season with a little bit of a bitter taste in our mouth.”
Defender Steven Beitashour experienced a different flavor.
“We still have a sour taste in our mouth,” he said.
Either way, the team will get a chance to savor some sweet revenge Saturday when Real Salt Lake returns to the scene of the crime for the first time since its upset win over LAFC in the first round of the MLS playoffs at Banc of California Stadium.
LAFC and Real Salt Lake are two of 10 MLS teams that will play during this weekend’s FIFA break. The league’s schedule makers have punished them in other ways as well.
LAFC, which played New York City FC to a draw last Sunday, took a cross-country flight home, then had just five days to prepare for Real Salt Lake. The travel was even more complicated for Real Salt Lake, which was routed at D.C. United on Saturday, returned to Utah for a few days, then flew to L.A. on Friday.
Both teams also will be short-handed. Unbeaten LAFC (2-0-1) is missing forward Christian Ramirez and midfielders Mark-Anthony Kaye and Peter-Lee Vassell because of international duty with the U.S., Canada and Jamaica, respectively. In addition, midfielder Lee Nguyen (hamstring) and Beitashour (concussion symptoms) did not travel to last Sunday’s game in New York, and designated player Andre Horta has not played this season because of right quadriceps strain.
Goalkeeper Tyler Miller downplayed the absences.
“Guys come and go all the time,” he said. “That’s something that’s normal for us. This is just another opportunity for a lot of guys that may not necessarily get a lot of minutes to step up and show that they belong here.”
Real Salt Lake is in worse shape, having lost four players to international duty: midfielder Albert Rusnak (Slovakia) and forwards Corey Baird (U.S.), Sam Johnson (Liberia) and Julian Vazquez (Mexico under-18). They also will be without forward Jefferson Savarino and defender Marcelo Silva because of red cards.
The loss of Rusnak will be especially painful since he has the only two goals this season for Real Salt Lake (1-1-1).
Yet for LAFC, the focus on avenging the playoff loss remains strong regardless of who Real Salt Lake suits up.
“It’s payback time. These guys just ended our dream,” midfielder Latif Blessing said. “We are ready … we’re going to score five goals. Five goals to one. You’re going to see. I promise you.”
Coach Bob Bradley isn’t so sure. Last year is over, he said, and the stakes will be different on Saturday.