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LOS ANGELES – It is, finally, almost over, with one last chance – the biggest one, for sure – to lift a trophy.

The Los Angeles Football Club will play its 53rd game of 2023 on Saturday in Columbus, in pursuit of back-to-back MLS Cup championships. Let’s put that in perspective: Fifty three games, the longest schedule ever for any Major League Soccer team, dating back to the league opener March 4 and encompassing five different competitions, including stretches of five games in 14 days, five in 16, seven in 21, eight in 25 and five in 15 up to July 15.

Even by soccer standards this was more manic a schedule than ever before, in large part due to MLS and Liga MX shoehorning the artificial Leagues Cup interleague tournament into the schedule in August. The 5½-week window needed for that tournament, plus LAFC’s advancement to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League, so severely truncated the early schedule that the players may have felt like they were on a treadmill that never stopped, only sped up, during the first five months of the season.

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“It was definitely difficult, because this is a season where we as players, a lot of us haven’t experienced this,” midfielder Kellyn Acosta said late Saturday night, after LAFC’s 2-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo in the Western Conference final ensured a second straight trip to the championship match, this one to take place in Columbus on Saturday.

Through adversity comes strength, right?

The defending champs had chances to lift six trophies this season, and missed out on the first five. They reached the final of the CONCACAF club championship but lost to León at home. They flamed out early in the U.S. Open Cup – largely because their second-round match against the Galaxy came less than a week before the home-and-home with León. They were an early out in the Leagues Cup, finished 17 points behind Cincinnati in the race for the regular season Supporters’ Shield, and lost on penalties to Tigres in the Campeones Cup in September, a meeting of the previous season’s MLS and Liga MX champions that is also, when you think about it, largely unnecessary but likely lines someone’s pockets.

Hey, that’s part of the sport’s culture.

But LAFC’s players learned, they grew, they bonded, and they’ve gotten their second wind at the ideal time. They swept Vancouver in the best-of-three first round MLS playoff series – another insane scheduling quirk which hopefully will be abandoned after this year – then had 21 days off between the first round and consecutive clean sheets against Seattle and Houston in the conference semifinals and finals to earn their shot at a repeat.

“Having these games have brought us opportunities to be together,” Acosta said. “I think we we’ve shown that we have a deep roster, anyone can can get thrown in there and play to the system and play well.

“And yeah, it was definitely tough because I think there was a stretch where we were playing every three days. And the thing about it is, with travel and all the tournaments and the emotional roller coaster, not only just physically, I think it just allowed us to just grow as a team and face all this adversity, face it head on and face it together.

“Having that willingness and that togetherness has brought us to this point. Hopefully, having this strong bond will push us on to MLS Cup.”

The results mattered in this sense: LAFC will be on the road for Saturday’s final in what’s expected to be a chilly, rainy environment in Columbus, thanks to a 14-10-10 regular season season record and a three-point deficit to the Crew (16-9-9).

But there was a sense throughout the season, expressed by opposing players and coaches as well as LAFC players themselves, that the defending champs were still elite, still destined to be in this spot at this time.

“You’ve got a starting XI that is just some of the best talent in the league, without a doubt,” said defender Ryan Hollingshead. “You’ve got guys like freakin’ Matty Bogusz coming off the bench right now. It’s crazy, just the caliber of player we have ready to step up at any moment.

“But I think I’ve been saying this from the beginning and trying to stress it. It’s the locker room that we have. Everybody is together. There’s no like, ‘I’m not starting, let’s throw an attitude,’ like there’s just a cloud of sorrow that you just take everybody down with you. There’s just none of that. Everybody’s like, ‘We got a job to do.’

“That sort of camaraderie, that locker room, I think it’s really hard to create because you’ve just got competitors, right? If you’re not starting you’re (ticked), if you’re a starter you’re happy. It just causes a divide. And they’ve done a phenomenal job here, bringing in the type of guy that just wants to win. And it’s like, ‘Whatever I can do to help the team win, we’ll all do it.’ That’s special.”

There might also be a sense that, for some players, time is getting short. Carlos Vela, the captain and an LAFC original going back to 2018, is out of contract at the end of the season and, because of salary cap pressures, could have played his last home game at what is now BMO Stadium Saturday night.

He had two great scoring chances early – one off the crossbar, the other wiped out by an offisde call – and was all over the place. And when he came out for a substitute in the 77th minute, he waved and applauded the LAFC fans, and as the “Car-los Ve-la!” chant echoed through the stadium, the emotions made it seem like an ending of sorts.


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