After the most successful regular season in MLS history, LAFC’s run toward a title ended in a 3-1 loss to the Seattle Sounders in a Western Conference final played before an unhappy crowd of 22,099 at Banc of California Stadium.
It was a frustrating end to a magical season, one in which the second-year team broke the MLS record for points and tied the record for goals while its captain, Carlos Vela, became the all-time single-season scoring leader.
But Vela managed just one shot Tuesday, didn’t score for the first time in 11 starts, and his teammates failed to pick up the slack, leaving LAFC two wins short of a championship. So as the players trudged off to their locker room for the final time this year, workers hastily erected a platform in the center of their home field to present Seattle with the conference trophy and a berth in next month’s MLS final, two prizes LAFC figured would be theirs.
“It’s a season where there’s a lot of good things but it ends in a disappointing way,” coach Bob Bradley said.
“We all feel that right now. In the moment the only thing every one of us feels is disappointment.”
Added Vela: “Nobody expected this end. In the playoffs we know it’s one game, 90 minutes. [But] in the end we have to be proud of what we did all year and learn.
“We have to come back next year and be better.”
Next year seemed a long way off when Eduard Atuesta’s bending free kick gave LAFC a lead in the 17th minute.
But that proved to be LAFC’s only score.
Seattle, meanwhile, answered with goals off transition from Raul Ruidiaz and Nicolas Lodeiro four minutes apart midway through the first half and a second score from Ruidiaz 19 minutes into the second half.
LAFC had beaten the crosstown rival Galaxy five days earlier in an emotional playoff game both the team and its supporters embraced with fervor. Banc of California Stadium seemed oddly subdued by comparison Tuesday, with many in the stands booing at the final whistle.
“We tried to play a good game but we couldn’t match their intensity,” midfielder Mark Anthony-Kaye said. “There’s going to be a team that wins MLS Cup and it’s not going to be us.”
Ruidiaz, facing LAFC for the first time, erased its early lead by spinning away from defender Eddie Segura at the top of the penalty area, then splitting Jordan Harvey and Walker Zimmerman on a dash into the box that ended with a right-footed shot over LAFC keeper Tyler Miller.
Four minutes later, the Sounders (19-10-8) took the lead for good with Lodeiro bouncing a low, left-footed shot by Segura and into the side netting from about 20 yards.
The speedy Ruidiaz, who gave LAFC (22-5-9) fits all night, then put the game away in the 64th minute, gaining a step on Segura while running onto a pass from Lodeiro near the top of the area before one-hopping a right-footed shot by a diving Miller.
The assist was Lodeiro’s second of the night.
“They made us pay for not making plays,” Bradley said.
“We put the responsibility on ourselves.”
Because while Seattle was scoring three times, LAFC, which dominated in time of possession, managed to put just four shots on goals — none in the final 22 minutes.
“In terms of our attacking play it’s pretty simple,” Bradley said. “I don’t think we were good enough.”
LAFC’s inaugural season ended in similarly disappointing fashion a year ago with a 3-2 upset loss to Real Salt Lake in a game decided by an own goal.
For Seattle, which finished second to LAFC in the regular-season conference standings, it will advance to its third MLS Cup in four seasons.
In 11 MLS seasons, the Sounders have never missed the playoffs.
“As disappointed as we all are, tonight football-wise wasn’t our best night,” Bradley said. “It’s our responsibility to try to take control of the game, to make the right decisions, make the right plays. We love trying to play that way.
“Tonight, when all was said and done, we weren’t good enough.”