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LAFC wins season opener against Austin FC after Carlos Vela exits early

LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, left, and Austin FC midfielder Cecilio Dominguez battle for the ball.
LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, left, and Austin FC midfielder Cecilio Dominguez battle for the ball during LAFC’s season-opening 2-0 win at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

LAFC enjoyed one of the best three-year starts of any expansion franchise in Major League Soccer history. Since it began play in 2018, no team has more regular-season wins, points or goals than LAFC, which won its first three season openers.

What it doesn’t have is an MLS Cup, and the window to make that happen might be closing, putting added importance on a season LAFC opened Saturday with a 2-0 victory over Austin FC, the league’s latest expansion team.

Just seven players remain from LAFC’s first roster, and with some in that core — midfielders Eduard Atuesta and Latif Blessing and forward Diego Rossi — repeatedly being linked to transfers overseas, it’s clear the band won’t be together much longer.

What could be these players’ farewell tour got off to bit of a shaky start, though, before being rescued by second-half goals from Corey Baird and substitute José Cifuentes and three stellar saves from goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega.

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Highlights of LAFC’s 2-0 win over visiting Austin FC on Saturday.

“You always want to start off the season with a win,” said forward Danny Musovski, who assisted on Baird’s goal. “We knew Austin was a new team and they were going to come out with a lot of energy and they want to start their season off right. We just wanted to match that intensity.”

But Saturday’s opener was also a game in which coach Bob Bradley reached deep down his bench after being forced to play without two of his brightest stars.

Rossi, the league’s reigning Golden Boot winner, was held out as a precaution after tweaking his left hamstring in training, while captain Carlos Vela, who holds the MLS season scoring record, didn’t last much longer, leaving midway through the first half after hurting his right leg reaching for a pass.

Fans sit in groups while watching LAFC play Austin FC at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

LAFC, the first team in MLS history with back-to-back scoring champions, had neither on the field 22 minutes into its season opener.

Bradley said Vela, who was angry at being removed, could probably have continued. But the coach, who lost Vela to surgery on his left knee last season, saw no reason to push things in the first game of the year.

“There might be just a little knot in there,” he said. “Sometimes you take a guy off because you don’t want it to get worse.”

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Playing before a socially distanced crowd of 4,900, the first fans to attend a game at Banc of California Stadium in more than 400 days, LAFC was hardly punchless even without its offensive leaders, outshooting Austin 24-12 and putting nine of those tries on goal. But it couldn’t get any of those past Austin keeper Brad Stuver until the 61st minute — and even then it needed help with Baird’s low shot deflecting off the leg of defender Nick Lima and into the goal at the right post.

Kim Moon-hwan faces a somewhat steep learning curve getting used to life in Los Angeles and MLS, but the Korean standout is determined to help LAFC win.

That’s where the score stood when Sisniega made a spectacular stop on Jon Gallagher in the final minute of regulation, a save that not only protected the lead but helped set up LAFC’s second score. Kwadwo Opoku made that one happen, stripping the ball from Matt Besler at the other end, then feeding Cifuentes, who tapped the ball into an open net in the first minute of stoppage time.

Opoku was on the field only because Vela was not, having landed awkwardly when he lunged for a pass from Baird deep in Austin’s penalty area. Vela limped past the end line and waved to bench for a trainer. A minute later, walking normally again, he signaled to the officials that he wanted to come back in.

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Take a closer look at every 2021 LAFC player and video of all the goals the team scores throughout the MLS season.

By then, Bradley had sent Opoku to check in as Vela’s replacement. When a frustrated Vela reached the LAFC bench, he handed the captain’s armband to Bradley and walked away.

“If he gives a little bit of a look like, ‘I need to come off,’ and then he comes over and at the last second, says, ‘No, let me try.’ It’s too late at that point,” Bradley said. “I can take responsibility if I make a move too fast. There’s no problem for me saying I jumped the gun on that one.”


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