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LAFC stumbles against Real Salt Lake

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LOS ANGELES — Splitting opposing center backs, Cristian “Chicho” Arango found the space he needed before leaping into the air.

As the Colombian repeatedly did during two years as a fan favorite with the Los Angeles Football Club, Arango found a way to put his team on the board at BMO Stadium.

Except this time the bullish forward lowered his head and stood in silence after executing a perfect header, quietly brushing aside the hair falling in front of his face rather than celebrating how he usually does, joyously throwing up peace signs and sticking out his tongue.

“It’s for respect,” said Arango, who served as captain for Real Salt Lake on Sunday. “Respect for the fans and the team, LAFC. It’s respect.”

Arango’s 99th professional goal made it 1-0 for RSL (13-11-7, 46 points) late in the critical Western Conference showdown.

At halftime, after studying images of the LAFC defense, Arango asked his teammates “to please have the confidence and to cross any ball I could possibly notice.”

“Fortunately,” he said, “I was able to follow through.”

A give-and-go near the sideline allowed RSL forward Rubio Rubin to drive a ball into the heart of the LAFC box, where Chicho, darting between defenders Aaron Long and Jesus Murillo, redirected the shot across goal to beat goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau.

The scoreline held through regulation and seven minutes of stoppage time, rendering LAFC (12-10-9, 45 points) goalless in four consecutive matches as the defending MLS Cup champions try to sort themselves out with the postseason in sight.

Outside of a 4-2 victory on Sept. 16 over the L.A. Galaxy — the worst defense in the league — LAFC is 1-5-2 since the end of August, scoring twice otherwise.

The two longest droughts in club history have taken place this year, and Carlos Vela’s crew is currently on a run of 366 minutes. They went 408 minutes without getting on the board during the first half of June.

“I don’t remember in six years having four games with no goals,” said Vela, who played 90 minutes for the first time in five games. “Of course when you have four games like that it is because you are not doing the right things. I think we can improve.

“Maybe sometimes also we don’t play as a team. When you make the right decisions and you can see who is in the right position, everything can be easy. Right now I think we are looking for other things. We are making everything tough for ourselves and when you are like that it’s tough to win games.”

Last year, when LAFC won the Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup, Arango netted 16 regular season goals. That team’s lengthiest stretch without scoring was 184 minutes.

LAFC transferred “Chicho” to Liga MX side Pachuca in Feb., deciding against meeting his contractual demands as a Designated Player, before RSL acquired him in June.

Asked if he recognizes this struggling version of LAFC, Arango said his former club “will always be a competitive team at home. They will always be strong. Unfortunately, not all games can be won.”

On Vela’s bobblehead night, the lone league contest of the day dropped LAFC to fourth place in the West, four points above the playoff line with a trio of games remaining in the regular season to cap a year with 46 matches in all competitions — the most ever for an MLS team. Qualifying for the playoffs — a win on Sunday would have secured a berth — would guarantee at least 50 this season.

“A month ago we were fighting for multiple tournaments, multiple trophies,” Vela said. “When you start to lose trophies your confidence goes down but I think we have the last chance to win something and have to fight until the end. I think this club set the bar really high and we don’t expect nothing less than being in the playoffs fighting for championship.

“Doing our best is really the only way to give something back to this club and these fans. We know how good they are always. I always say thank you to them because in bad games like today, when you are losing, they are there. And that is so important for us. We have to give something back. At least what we can do is fight every single game and try to improve and come back to our game, our model, and win games again.”

The 13th time LAFC did not score in 2023, after doing so 19 times the previous five seasons combined, made them 1-10-1 after conceding first in MLS play.

“Some of our attackers are not performing at their highest ability and that’s somewhat understandable, somewhat explainable,” said LAFC head coach Steve Cherundolo, “but these are professionals and that needs to improve.”

The coach again mentioned the fatigue that has crept into his players legs, leading to a lack of concentration and coordination to produce poor first touches and passing in the group.

Vela took personal responsibility, declaring that the group needs more from him and his 34-year-old body, which, like the rest of the team, has slowed since the start of the year.

The Black & Gold’s last regular season home game is Wednesday against 11th place Minnesota United, which stands three points below the line.

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