LOS ANGELES — A pair of Los Angeles Football Club players were called on to pitch last week – in a slightly different capacity than usual.
Footballers Gareth Bale and Kellyn Acosta made the ceremonial pregame tosses before the Dodgers hosted the Minnesota Twins, turning the mound into an impromptu, de facto winner’s summit.
Just a couple of L.A. clubs, having a couple of special seasons. The Dodgers and LAFC, the class of their respective sports this summer, dominant and dangerously unsatisfied.
Since “LAFC Night” last Wednesday, the MLB club added a couple of victories to extend its winning streak to 12 games and the MLS club ran its win streak to a franchise-record six.
Although Kansas City snapped the Dodgers’ spell at a dozen Sunday, L.A. entered play Monday with a major league-best 79-34 record, and with a best-in-baseball plus-247 run differential.
On the pitch, LAFC enters its match against D.C. United on Tuesday night at Banc of California Stadium with equally eye-popping marks.
First-year coach Steve Cherundolo’s squad is 17-3-4, for an MLS-best 54 points – which means the Black and Gold are steadily closing on the league record they held until the New England Revolution broke it last year with 73 points.
Regaining that record? “It’s something that we’ve brought up and spoke about briefly,” Eddie Segura, a Colombian defender, said via an interpreter after Monday’s training session at LAFC’s headquarters at Cal State L.A.
“But,” Segura said, “with our main objective, that’ll be one of those things that takes care of itself as we go along working for that main objective.”
The object of their desire: the organization’s first MLS title.
With a retooled roster, a balanced attack and a healthier Carlos Vela, that feels utterly attainable this season – although the utterly matter-of-fact Cherundolo insists it might as well be 10 years away.
It’s an objective that is, at least, on the other side of a potential second Supporters’ Shield, which also would also be a real triumph after LAFC missed the playoffs last season for the first time in its four-year history.
But even that is beyond the team’s more immediate concern: D.C. United, another upset-minded foe.
“They all want to beat us,” said Ilie Sánchez, an All-Star and a gentleman from Spain who patrols the midfield for LAFC. “They come with their best lineups, with their best energy and intensity. I don’t know their mentality, but what I guess is beating LAFC for them is important, it can be a turning point for every team that comes to play us.”
Appreciating as much, LAFC has developed a knack for using opponents’ best intentions against them.
“I believe that … it’s tougher to maintain that kind of intensity for the rest of the 90 minutes,” noted Sanchez, with a nod to LAFC’s second-half mastery: 37 of 53 goals have come after intermission. “So it’s kind of both, that we can make adjustments at halftime, but also just maintaining or even raising a little bit our level, it makes it much harder for our opponents.”
Sánchez credits Cherundolo’s leadership for raising LAFC’s overall level, as well as his coach’s willingness to deliver timely analysis. There are his halftime adjustments, sure, but there are also his postgame pointers, which are as welcome as they are rare, Sánchez said.
“He doesn’t wait until the next training session to address what he saw during the game,” said the 31-year-old veteran, who is in his seventh MLS season. “Maybe that’s also an advantage, that we can go home and reflect on the game – and not just self-reflect, but also having our boss’ opinion, it’s helpful.”
That Cherundolo delivers instant feedback is likely a reflection of his 12 seasons playing for Hannover 96 in Germany, Sánchez theorized.
Those playing days informed much about how Cherundolo approaches his job now. Along the way, he figured out how to face the man in the mirror and peek over his shoulder at the same time: “I was always trying to do better; I had to in order to stay on the field, because there were players coming that were better and you’re always trying to improve the end product.”
It’s the same energy now.
On Cristian “Chicho” Arango, whose 12 goals lead the squad: “It’s been a pleasure coaching him so far this year and I still think there’s room for improvement.”
What about last weekend’s fourth goal, a Harlem Globe Trotters-esque display of fast-breaking keep-away in which five LAFC players had a role? It’s the type of play you can’t watch just once. Or thrice.
— LAFC (@LAFC) August 14, 2022
“It’s what we expect of this group,” Cherundolo said. “So it shouldn’t be a surprise. It shouldn’t happen every minute, but it should happen a few times a game.”
For all LAFC has going for it, it might be Cherundolo’s insistence that, despite everything, there’s always room to improve – and plenty of it – that could be the secret to the team’s success so far.
He believes so.
“We wouldn’t be where we are now if that wasn’t the case,” he said. “It’s great to see how hungry they are every game.”
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 10, 2022
Shoulder to Shoulder. ⚽️⚾️
— LAFC (@LAFC) August 11, 2022