LOS ANGELES — On Saturday, with Banc of California Stadium filled to the brim as it often is to watch MLS’s best team, Los Angeles FC Coach Steve Cherundolo rested the league’s biggest midseason signing, Welsh superstar Gareth Bale.
There was some minor risk to it. Though the opponent, Charlotte FC, is an expansion team, the visitor has earned notable victories and remains in the playoff chase.
Would Cherundolo’s decisions derail his club’s summer fun?
Final score: LAFC 5, Charlotte 0.
Compared to the famous European circuits, the gap between top and bottom in MLS’s 28-team jamboree is shallow. Financial guardrails prevent runaway spending and, in turn, narrow the chasm that exists in the Bundesliga, La Liga and elsewhere.
On Tuesday, MLS’s long-standing parity will be put to the test when LAFC will host D.C. United, whose victory total (six) is the same as LAFC’s winning streak. United’s goal tally over eight matches is the same as LAFC’s in the second half against Charlotte (five).
On its third coach of the year and with an influx of new players finding their way, United is pedaling down the sidewalk with training wheels. LAFC is a Maserati on the 405.
“Oh, yeah, this is a lot of fun,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said. “When you’re winning, everything’s much more enjoyable, but it’s how we’re winning.”
They’re doing it by scoring a lot. With nine goals in the past two matches and 18 during this winning streak, LAFC (17-4-3) is the favorite to win the Supporters’ Shield (most regular season points) for the second time in four seasons and raise the MLS Cup trophy for the first time in its five-year existence.
With 10 games left, the club needs 20 points to break the league’s single-season record, set by New England last year (73).
Being in the L.A. sports market, especially being the new guy in the L.A. market, the organization was cognizant of entertaining the public.
John Thorrington, LAFC’s co-president and general manager, is from the area. “Growing up here with the ‘Showtime’ Lakers and everything,” he said, “that was absolutely the priority and winning with style.”
His first-year coach, Cherundolo, was a longtime defender with German club Hannover and the U.S. national team. And while defending remains his core principle — LAFC has conceded the second-fewest goals in the league — Cherundolo has sustained the club’s ambition of playing with speed, fluidity and ruthlessness.
“Play as fast as possible at all times but remaining in a controlled, safe state — that is how I would describe it best,” he said. “We want to play fast. We want to play goal oriented, so everything should be moving towards the end product. We’re not interested in meaningless possession.”
Even with an already strong roster, the team was not interested in standing still during the summer transfer window, either. With reserves stored up for the right moment, Thorrington pounced. He signed Chiellini, a Juventus and Italian national team legend, and Bale, from Real Madrid.
At 38, Chiellini perpetuates the stereotype that MLS is a place only for the older European players. But he has also brought value, leadership and, with a two-handed volleyball slap to stop a Real Salt Lake counterattack, a touch of that L.A. entertainment.
“He acts like he’s like 18, and not in a bad way,” Acosta said. “He radiates positivity, energy.”
Bale, who in June helped guide Wales to its first World Cup berth in 64 years, comes at age 33 — an immense talent who rotted on Madrid’s bench, if he was even invited to the bench. First linked with a move to D.C. United, then eyed by Inter Miami, Bale has brought pace and menace to a team already stuffed with it.
He has made four appearances as a sub and scored twice. Minor physical issues might prevent him from playing Tuesday.
Here again, though, the L.A. factor came into play.
“There’s a duality to L.A. where you have a Hollywood star, which Gareth is more that way, coupled with this grit and American Dream to come to L.A. and make it, which defines a lot of our other players,” said Thorrington, a former Manchester United prospect and MLS midfielder. “It’s the combination of those two and finding the right balance that is a key objective.”
Cristian Arango (Colombia), Carlos Vela (Mexico) and Jose Cifuentes (Ecuador) have combined for 27 goals and 19 assists. Acosta, who is almost assured of a place on the U.S. World Cup roster, and Ilie Sánchez (Spain) hold down the midfield. Maxime Crépeau (Canada) has recorded seven shutouts.
As fun as it’s been, there’s also the need to take this intoxicating run through the postseason. Soccer people value the Supporters’ Shield for excellence over the course of a long season. And in almost all leagues around the world, there are no playoffs. But in U.S. sports circles, it’s how the campaign ends. And in Los Angeles, it’s also about the thrill.
“It’s still mid-August, so we’re not celebrating or getting complacent, by any means,” Thorrington said. “We’ve put ourselves in a great position, and the way Steve and his coaches have managed the group and rotated a deep roster, I think it will continue to bear fruit as we get to the latter days of the season.”