An MLS regular season consists of 34 games and, stoppage time notwithstanding, 3060 on-field minutes. It's a nine-month grind filled with economy flights, excessive travel and, most importantly, absolute battles each and every week.
The cruel part of it all? Those 34 games, those nine months, can come down to one split second. A whole season, a whole team, can be defined by how they handle one fleeting moment.
For those nine months, Los Angeles FC may have just been the best MLS team we've ever seen. They were better in every phase of the game than every team they competed against. Led by a player that put together the best single-season campaign in recent memory, LAFC made history, but they won't be champions.
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Such is the cruel world of MLS that LAFC's nine-month demolition of the league came to an end thanks to one bad night and one opponent tailor-made for this moment.
LAFC's historic run ended with a thud on Tuesday night as they were outbattled, outdueled and, ultimately, outscored by the Seattle Sounders, who left Banc of California Stadium with a 3-1 victory and yet another MLS Cup berth. Seen as massive underdogs heading into a hostile environment, the Sounders didn't look second-best as they played like a team that will now head to a third final in four seasons.
At the start, though, LAFC's coronation appeared to be going as planned. Eduard Atuesta's 17th-minute stunner sent the crowd into a frenzy while seemingly kickstarting a match that would serve as just another step towards glory.
And then, the collapse. Those nine months, those 3060 minutes followed by the 90-minute heavyweight fight against the rival LA Galaxy last Thursday, were undone in just four minutes. It began with a Raul Ruidiaz spin, as the Peruvian found the lower corner in the 22nd minute. It ended with a Nicolas Lodeiro snipe, leaving former Sounder Tyler Miller reaching as his team's season was thrust into danger.
It was a vintage Sounders performance. This is a team that has proven, time and time again, that they can win in the playoffs. Their run to the 2016 MLS Cup sealed that, as did their stunning victory in the finale despite failing to fire a shot on target. The next year, they nearly pulled it off again. This is a team that features many of those same players, players that know how to win at this level.
Perhaps the one piece that was missing from those Sounder teams was an out-and-out No. 9, and that's what they've found in Ruidiaz. His first goal was pretty. His second, which came in the 64th minute, wasn't as stunning, but it was just as vital. It gave the Sounders a two-goal lead while showing the difference between this team and the ones of yester-year: this one has a striker.
In this match, they made a statement. LAFC was the darling all season long, but that doesn't count this time of year. The Sounders have tasted glory, both regular season and postseason, and they showed LAFC what the difference was. This is a team that has been in the playoffs every year of their history, and they showed it. On a night that was supposed to be another chapter in a storybook LAFC season, the Sounders showed that their own story is still being written, despite all of the twists and turns that have come over the past five or so seasons.
And, while the Sounders star forward stepped up in the biggest of moments, LAFC's suddenly went quiet. Carlos Vela broke virtually every record in the book this season, contributing to more goals than any MLS player in history. But, on this occasion, he was anonymous, especially as the second half wore on. With LAFC in need of a spark, Vela struggled.
The match wasn't without controversy, though. LAFC saw two handball calls denied midway through the second half, leading to a frenzied response from the home fans, who threw beers onto the field in protest. But those handball calls are opinions, and LAFC have to face the facts.
The fact is that they were outplayed by a team that has a reputation for stepping up in these very situations. The fact is that they conceded multiple times at home once again, making it their third playoff game in three that has seen the second-year side ship three goals. The fact is that they waned as the season went on, winning just two of their final eight games while offering a sign of what was to come. And, the most important fact of all is that LAFC's season is now over.
You could argue that LAFC could beat any team in MLS history. You could argue that they could go toe-to-toe with Donovan's Galaxy or Moreno's D.C. United or Giovinco's Toronto FC. But, on Tuesday, they couldn't beat the Seattle Sounders, and their legacy will always be incomplete because of it.