LAFC treats U.S. Open Cup like a top prize as it reaches semifinals

Last season the U.S. Open Cup was little more than an afterthought for LAFC, when the club thought about the tournament at all.

The team’s run to the final of last spring’s CONCACAF Champions League, combined with the start of the MLS schedule, meant LAFC played a game every four days through the first three months of the season. By the end of the year, the team had played an MLS-record 53 games in four countries and two continents, traveling far enough to circumnavigate the globe 2½ times.

There was simply no room for the U.S. Open Cup. But that’s not the case this season; with Wednesday’s 3-1 win over New Mexico United sending LAFC on to next month’s semifinals of a tournament, it’s suddenly being taken very seriously.

“I wouldn’t say that we prioritize certain competitions. It’s really just kind of when do you need to rest, guys? When can you rotate?” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “Last season it just wasn’t physically possible to push the guys for another game.

“That’s different 1720710570.”

Is it ever. Last season Cherundolo used teenagers from the club’s MLS Next Pro team in LAFC’s two-game Open Cup run. On Wednesday, he started four current or former MLS all-stars, including Denis Bouanga, the league’s reigning Golden Boot winner; Kei Kamara, the second-leading scorer in league history; and Hugo Lloris, who has started more World Cup games — including the last two finals — than any goalkeeper in history.

The goals came from Timothy Tillman, David Martínez and Mateusz Bogusz, extending LAFC’s unbeaten streak in all competition to 13 games and sending it on to next month’s tournament semifinals against the Seattle Sounders.

It was an effort that was more blue collar than blue ribbon.

“Our objective was to advance and we did that,” Cherundolo said. “I think we jumped just as high as we needed to. Tonight, we just cleared the bar, which is OK.

“We checked all the boxes, so I’m happy with that. And that we advanced. But certainly we can play better.”

This will mark LAFC’s second trip to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals; the first came in 2018, the team’s inaugural season, when it lost on penalties to eventual champion Houston.

And the reason the team is all in on the Open Cup this season is the same reason it tapped out early last year — the schedule. Without the stress and travel of the CONCACAF tournament and with the start of Leagues Cup, the other in-season North American tournament, more than two weeks away, LAFC has played just 24 times in 20 weeks this year. Players who were gassed at this point last summer are relatively fresh now.

Plus the Open Cup provides the easiest way back to the CONCACAF championship (now called the CONCACAF Champions Cup), the region’s most prestigious club competition. Win the tournament and LAFC qualifies for next winter’s Champions Cup, gets a check for $300,000 and wins a trophy.

That last point is also important for a team hungry for some hardware. LAFC has gone empty-handed since winning the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup in 2022, playing for six trophies last season but winning none.

“The Open Cup is very important for us this year,” Tillman said.

The team could also grab a Champions Cup invitation by winning MLS Cup, placing in the top three in the MLS Supporters’ Shield, finishing atop the Western Conference table or by finishing in the top three in the Leagues Cup. But with new rules limiting the Open Cup field to just eight MLS teams, five of which have already been eliminated, this tournament offers the path of least resistance.

Then there’s also the long history associated with the Open Cup, the oldest national soccer tournament in the U.S. and one of dozens of domestic cup competitions held around the world.

“The Cup is very important in every single country,” continued Tillman, who grew up in Germany and played five games in the DFB-Pokal, that country’s domestic cup competition. “It’s an opportunity to win a trophy in just a couple of games. So if you focus on the right things at the right moment, there’s a chance of winning a trophy.

“It’s single elimination, so whoever plays better on that day is going to go through.”

On this day that was clearly LAFC. But then what else is new? The team hasn’t lost since May 4, shares the top spot in the MLS Western Conference standings and is unbeaten at home. It is also chasing a second Supporters’ Shield in three seasons and a third straight appearance in the MLS Cup final, something that hasn’t been done in 17 years.

But it needs just two more U.S. Open Cup wins to get back to the Champions Cup. And this time it’s taking those games seriously.

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