LOS ANGELES -- All Bob Bradley could do was laugh. His LAFC side had just been beaten 3-1 by the Seattle Sounders (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.), its hopes of reaching the MLS Cup final dashed. And as those dreams disappeared, he was asked if the defeat took away from his team's season, one in which LAFC won the Supporters' Shield and set a record for most points in a single campaign. "Sure," he chuckled. "How could it not?"
Winning a Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double guarantees a team immortality. Instead, LAFC will now be lumped in with a host of other Supporters' Shield winners who couldn't get the job done in the MLS Cup playoffs. They are different kinds of competitions, to be sure. The Shield rewards consistency, while MLS Cup is about peaking at the right time and riding some luck as well. But the Cup is the one that is remembered, shunting the Shield winners into the background. It might not be fair given the respective efforts required, but it is reality.
This defeat will stick in the craw for LAFC as well for other reasons. Everything was in alignment for LAFC. Its bogey team -- the LA Galaxy -- had been dispatched in the previous round. That earned the Black and Gold the reward of a Western Conference final at home, with an MLS Cup final at Banc of California Stadium on the horizon. And yet LAFC couldn't seize the moment, and that kind of failure is one that history doesn't look kindly on. Not that Bradley is interested in things like "legacy."
He said postmatch: "It's one of my least favorite words. I don't think about a team's legacy, my legacy. Look, it's a season where there's a lot of good things, but it ends in a disappointing way."
Frustrating, too. Seattle came in with a game plan to sit back, soak up pressure, get its tackles in and then strike on the counterattack. It might not have been aesthetically pleasing, but it was effective. LAFC's only goal came on Eduard Atuesta's 17th-minute free kick. From open play, LAFC never did find a rhythm. Every time an opponent was beaten off the dribble, another Seattle defender was there to nick the ball away. LAFC had just four shots on target as a team, which tied for the third lowest all season. Its expected goals of 0.75 was the lowest in 2019.
LAFC's inability to create chances was encapsulated by the performance turned in by All-Everything forward Carlos Vela. He was held to one, measly shot on goal, was fouled four times, and on a night when referee Jair Marrufo took the let-them-play adage to the extreme, could have earned several other free kicks. LAFC howled in protest over two apparent handball infractions that could have resulted in penalties but weren't given. Vela refused to use the extra attention he received or the refereeing as an excuse.
"I think it's nothing crazy," he said about Seattle's style. "It's football. They play in that way. It worked for them. It's nothing about that. They scored three goals. They get the chances better than us and they win. That's the only thing I can say. I'm not worried about the referee, or [how] they play hard. It's football. There's nothing wrong with that."
That said, it will do little to alter Vela's reputation as one who doesn't deliver in big moments. In the previous round against the LA Galaxy, it was thought that he had put those criticisms to rest with two goals and an assist. But on this night, Vela was largely invisible.
But Vela didn't get much help. It seemed that as the game went on, a kind of mental asphyxia took hold of LAFC. Its approach work became narrower and narrower, which played right into Seattle's hands.
Defensively, the Black and Gold were guilty of subtle mistakes that morphed into bigger ones. On Raul Ruidiaz's 22nd-minute equalizer, Eddie Segura was guilty of overcommitting, allowing the Peruvian to dance around him and deliver a powerful finish. Nico Lodeiro's eventual game-winner four minutes later saw Atuesta guilty of dropping too deep into the back line when he needed to be further out. On Ruidiaz's clincher, Lodeiro was first to pounce on Walker Zimmerman's wayward header, and he quickly found the Peruvian, who sidestepped Segura once again to put the game away.
"In these situations, we had enough numbers," Bradley said. "As much as their idea was to play in transition, it's still that when certain plays develop, we had people to make plays but they were a little sharper or a little quicker to get to a play."
Seattle had a part to play in Vela's ineffectiveness as well, and if there was ever an example of perfection being ugly this was it. Possession was scarce, and there were plenty of wayward passes. And yet it worked. To be sure, there was plenty to admire about the visitors' performance, in particular their defensive solidity.
"We wanted to push LAFC into areas where they were less effective," said winning manager Brian Schmetzer. "That was the entire game plan, just to see if we could slow down their attack. On the attacking side, we knew we could create chances against this team. They take many risks when they defend or counter-press."
The razor-sharp finishing of Ruidiaz and the telling deliveries of Lodeiro, were huge factors, and gave the Sounders' attack a cutting edge. There were other contributions. Ruidiaz in particular was the ultimate pest, nicking in to recover loose balls that LAFC thought was theirs, and proving to be devastating on the turn. Even on those occasions when Ruidiaz collected the ball far from goal, he provided a subtle kind of value, giving the Sounders time to breathe, regroup, and get ready to defend again. Lodeiro was also buzzing, finding the sliver of space needed to be effective. Ruidiaz's sense of timing was exquisite as well. From the moment he put away Seattle's first goal, the Sounders confidence grew in direct proportion to LAFC's frustration.
"Give credit to our [Designated Players], who make the big bucks and who get half a chance and make something of it," midfielder Cristian Roldan said. "I thought they were fantastic tonight."
Roldan made no apologies for Seattle's approach. When asked if it was an ugly style, he said: "One hundred percent. But it's effective. We've gotten to MLS Cup in many different ways; playing pretty at home, grinding out away games. Even at home, conceding possession and finding ways to hurt teams on the counter. That was a bit of today. And it's fantastic to see that we're capable of winning in different ways."
Seattle has now reached the MLS Cup final in three of the last four years. That of course represents a different kind of consistency than what LAFC achieved this season. But it's one that the Black and Gold would give just about anything to duplicate. Perhaps in seasons to come that will be LAFC's fate. For now, it is Seattle that is moving on.