Cristian Arango’s stoppage-time goal lifts LAFC over Galaxy in MLS Cup Playoffs
No MLS team has won more games, scored more goals or earned more points in the regular season than LAFC since it entered the league five years ago.
The playoffs, however, have been the team’s kryptonite.
Four times the team has made the postseason, and until Thursday it had only one win to show for it. Nineteen other MLS teams have won at least that often in the playoffs over that span.
Denis Bouanga and Cristian Arango weren’t there for any of that history though. And if they knew about it, they ignored it, with Bouanga scoring twice in his playoff debut and Arango getting the game-winner in stoppage time of a 3-2 win over the Galaxy that sends the team to the Western Conference final against the winner of Sunday’s Austin-Dallas game.
Three of the game’s five goals came in the final 10 minutes and stoppage time, a wild finish to a game that started slowly then closed with a flourish, with LAFC (22-9-4) twice blowing leads.
The Galaxy were struggling and out of playoff contention until a series of summer acquisitions.
“Big players show up in big moments,” LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta said. “We had that belief we were going to come away with the win.”
Asked what he thought when Arango’s goal went in, Acosta smiled.
“Relief,” he said.
Answered Arango in Spanish: “It was a team goal. It was the work of the whole team.”
For Bouanga, the goals were his way of saying thank you for the reception he received after joining LAFC from French club St. Etienne in August.
“It’s his way to give back to how he was treated, with staff, teammates and the organization, as well as the supporters, [who] made him feel that he was really welcome,” said LAFC goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who served as Bouanga’s interpreter.
LAFC finished the regular season with the league’s best record, winning the Supporters’ Shield for the second time in four seasons, but it staggered into the playoffs with little momentum, losing five of its final nine games.
The Galaxy’s season was the opposite. The team appeared out of the playoff contention before adding midfielders Riqui Puig, Gastón Brugman and defender Martín Cáceres for a stretch drive in which it lost only one of its last regular-season 11 games.
All that went out the window in the playoffs.
Bouanga gave LAFC an early lead in the 23rd minute, running on to a Carlos Vela pass in the center of the box, then using his body to shield the Galaxy’s Douglas Costa from the ball. When Costa tripped over Bouanga’s right foot, the LAFC forward had an easy left-footed finish from the edge of the six-yard box.
The goal appeared to be a good omen for LAFC, which had lost only once in the 18 regular-season games in which it scored first. But Samuel Grandsir erased the lead, latching on to a poor clearance from Eddie Segura at the top of the box and driving a right-footed shot into the bottom left corner, sending the teams into halftime tied.
That shouldn’t have been a problem, either. LAFC has ruled the second half this season, scoring a league-record 45 goals and giving up only 15, also a record.
Bouanga made it 46 second-half goals when he scored off a counterattack in the 80th minute. The sequence began with the Galaxy’s Julián Araujo losing the ball along the touchline in his own end. LAFC worked the ball around the box before Ryan Hollingshead sent a low cross for Mahala Opoku, who couldn’t reach the ball despite a late slide.
But Bouanga, who was trailing the play at the far post, did get to it, leaving him with an easy tap-in to give LAFC a 2-1 lead.
It’s clear LAFC is going all out in its quest to win an MLS Cup title, and the contracts of Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini prove it.
“Denis did what he has shown from day one,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “He’s a threat. He’s physically and mentally a monster.”
LAFC gave the lead back less than six minutes later on Dejan Joveljic’s shot from outside the box. Bouanga helped pull that back too, volleying Acosta’s corner kick on goal, where Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond made the save. However, the rebound bounded directly to Arango, who sent the ball into the roof of the goal to lift LAFC onto the conference final.
“We certainly had our moments where we were in control,” coach Greg Vanney said of the Galaxy (15-13-8). “I’m proud of the growth that the group made. We played a number of games down the stretch where we felt like every game mattered. That’s something this group needed to go through.”