LOS ANGELES -- The Union lead the Eastern Conference. LAFC top the Western Conference. Neither team proved more dominant when they clashed Saturday night in Los Angeles at Banc of California Stadium.
It may not have hit the heights of their earlier epic 3-3 tie, but the Union and LAFC battled to a standstill in the war over the bragging rights for the label of the best team in Major League Soccer. A 2-2 entertaining draw left the question still open to interpretation.
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“LAFC threw everything at us,” manager Jim Curtin said. “We held up, did a good job. On a different night, maybe could have got the third goal.”
Early in any MLS season, it’s less important to claim first place because that’s a points total that can be affected by the quality of opponents in one’s conference as much as the quality of a team’s play.
Sure, winning the Supporters’ Shield (which the Union have done before) matters, as it also guarantees home field advantage in the MLS playoffs, but just ask last season’s winner, the New England Revolution, how far that ultimately got them in the postseason. They were eliminated in the quarterfinals by the eventual 2021 MLS Cup champion, New York City FC.
In other words, being the top team in the league in the first half of the season is a bit like leading a game in the first half.
That’s what the Union did against LAFC, getting on the board against the run of play in the 9th minute.
Julián Carranza picked up the ball near midfield and did well to attack, advancing the ball almost to the top of the box before passing to his left to Kai Wagner. Wagner lofted a precise cross that carried to the right of the goal, where Dániel Gazdag outpaced his defender for a crisp finish.
After scoring, Gazdag immediately pointed to Wagner, giving him credit for the excellent pass as well as running over to hug Wagner in celebration.
LAFC fought to equalize and eventually managed it with a nifty passing play of its own in the 57th minute, as Kwadwo “Mahala” Opoku tucked in a goal past Union goalie Andre Blake.
The Union again showed their counterattacking prowess in the 67th minute, this time with Gazdag as the provider of the pass that set up Carranza for the finish.
“Julian certainly has had a great season so far,” said Curtin. “He has that kind of South American savvy and intensity in the box.”
Again, LAFC was able to respond after falling behind.
Off a Carlos Vela corner kick in the 82nd minute, Blake did well to save an initial header, but couldn’t control the rebound, which fell to Franco Escobar, who shot a rocket from close range that left Blake helpless.
More than the benefits of winning, what matters most for teams at the start of a long season are avoiding injury to their top players and gelling as a squad.
The Union have partially achieved that goal. The team has lost Mikael Uhre for a number of games because of a quad issue, which kept him out against Los Angeles. It’s likely a precautionary move by Curtin ahead of a brutal stretch of games for the club, but missing games is also not going to help Uhre get into a scoring rhythm. He’s managed to bag just a single one for the squad so far.
However, it’s to the Union’s credit, and especially Gazdag’s and Carranza’s, that they’ve been able to steadily supply goals in Uhre’s absence or throughout his scoreless games.
“We are the first defender of the team,” Carranza said, emphasizing how the Union’s defense sets up their offense. “Most of the games, we show that we are super dangerous in our press.”
LAFC produced 22 shots to the Union’s 9, and yet on the final scoresheet, the teams were even.
Besides also having the majority of possession, LAFC generally had the flashier individual plays, with cheers going up every time team captain Vela was on the ball. Curtin’s squad won’t always impress with slick dribbling plays or cutbacks, but the Union are effective in what they do, which is primarily defend hard and counter deftly.
The Union are willing to do the little, often workmanlike things that add up to making a difference. As the road team against LAFC and with travel fatigue possibly working against them, avoiding a loss is a tolerable result. They’ve already proven this season that they can scrape out a win, even an ugly one if need be, and now show they can maintain their nerve to cling to a valuable draw.