LOS ANGELES — It should have been different. Most thought so, anyway.
Thursday night at Banc of California Stadium was a testament to the brutality of the sport of soccer. In the first playoff game of Los Angeles FC’s young history, the club fell 3-2 to Real Salt Lake — a team it had beaten twice before in the regular season.
RSL will now advance to the Western Conference semifinals and play top-seeded Sporting Kansas City in the first leg of the two-leg series Sunday at 10 p.m. LAFC will go home and reflect on its inaugural MLS season.
“Soccer’s a cruel sport and we felt that tonight,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “We really felt like we had a team that could make a good run at the MLS Cup. It’s hard to digest, but it’s still only year one.”
In a game dominated by fouls, LAFC controlled possession and shots, but failed to string together an attack Thursday. The story of the night for LAFC was a series of missed opportunities. Everything was there — through passes, off-ball movement, redirection in the box — all that was missing was the ball in the back of the net. Shots curved wide, fell short, dropped directly into the gut and arms of the keeper.
LAFC took 21 shots and placed eight on frame, and that statistic was eclipsed by the number of crosses in the box that were just a touch too slow or an inch too long. Real Salt Lake brought an aggressive style of play that racked up 20 fouls and five yellow cards, but also disrupted the LAFC attack thoroughly.
Neither team waited long to start scrapping. Less than 90 seconds into the game, Latif Blessing took a hard foul and immediately squared up chest to chest with a Real Salt Lake attacker, leading to shoving and shouting from both sides. As teammates dragged the two apart, it quickly became clear the visiting team would refuse to go down without a fight.
LAFC possessed the ball for 61 percent of the first half, took six shots to Real Salt Lake’s two, and yet couldn’t finish on its copious scoring opportunities.
Despite the disparity in possession, one sloppy back-end coverage put the visiting team on the boards first. A cross soared over Zimmerman’s head. Danilo Silva leapt through the air to clear it with his head, but he mistimed his jump, wildly swiveling his arms as the ball dropped neatly into the chest of RSL’s Damir Kreilach. The attacker collected the ball and sent it sizzling past LAFC keeper Tyler Miller, and in a moment the tone of the game changed entirely.
LAFC outshot and outpossessed its opponent, but it didn’t matter; with a 1-0 lead, Real Salt Lake controlled the game.
“We made a big mistake on the first goal,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “The thing that’s hardest more than anything, it’s not that all the sudden the game changes… it’s just that our ability to really get in control and finish the game has haunted us all year.”
It was Carlos Vela, as always, who leveled for his team. After getting bodied back and forth by Real Salt Lake defenders, he picked up a yellow card for swinging an elbow. But relentless pressure on the captain soon paid off in the opposite direction.
Nov 1, 2018; Los Angeles, CA, USA; A general view during sunset of Banc of California Stadium prior to the game between Real Salt Lake and the Los Angeles FC. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Two fouls on Vela were called for a yellow card in the first half; the first gave him the outrage and the free kick positioning to even the score. He whipped the kick into the box, where Silva this time connected as he jumped for the header, crushing the ball into the back of the net.
But Vela’s energy didn’t last for long. LAFC continued to struggle to turn possession in the box into strikes, whiffing on point-blank shots and sending through balls just inches shy of their targets.
And as the attack broke down, the game quickly devolved into a chippy affair. By the end of the first half, the two teams had racked up 15 fouls and three yellow cards. The referee was forced to stop play after fans threw cans of beer at Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando. Even cool-headed players, such as Vela, began chirping and shoving at opponents in the final minutes of stoppage time.
“We hope this is the last time it happens,” Christian Ramirez said of the fans’ behavior. “You don’t want that side of the game to show. We were building such momentum we don’t want the game to stop. It’s a learning experience from our fans. We know that’s not who they are.”
That intensity carried over into the second half, as did the home team’s struggle to capitalize on scoring opportunities. The point-blank shots weren’t coming, so Ramirez tried something different — a stunning strike from well outside the box. The ball curled into the top corner, lighting up the crowd as LAFC finally took the lead in the 55th minute.
But Real Salt Lake responded less than three minutes later, with Kreilach slicing in a karate kick of a volley to level the score 2-2. Twenty minutes later, a ball from Jefferson Savarino ricocheted off Walker Zimmerman to give the visiting team the advantage by one goal.
LAFC seemed consumed by a sense of desperation. The team continued to dominate possession and work plays into the box, but couldn’t line up a third goal to stay in the game. That desperation filled the stands, too, as fans continued to throw beers and began to yell booming [expletive] chants as the minutes wore down.
With the final whistle, the crowd in the North End stayed in their seats, refusing to believe the season was over. Sullied by yellow cards and beer cans and slurs, the night marked the close of the team’s historic first season.
“Losing at home and the way that we did is never fun,” Ramirez said. “It took an own goal and a wonder goal to take us out. Just sometimes how cruel it is… I’m going to make sure to add to my game and make sure this never happens again.”