Best in the West – United faces LAFC in USOC Quarterfinal

Best in the West – United faces LAFC in USOC Quarterfinal

There are few things better in the world of sports than an underdog story. That’s what makes national tournaments like the FA Cup in England or the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup magical. Much has changed since New Mexico United’s first Cinderella run in 2019, from the faces to the competition’s format. What hasn’t changed is the sense of magic or joy of beating an MLS side. Having done that once this time, United hopes to do it again against LAFC.

This isn’t United’s first turn at the rodeo. In 2019, they ran through multiple MLS opponents to get to the Quarterfinal round. In 2024, they’ve only come across one so far. But that was, at the time, the Western Conference-leading Real Salt Lake. Wednesday’s opponent, LAFC, is arguably tougher. Under the guidance of Steve Cherundolo, LAFC won their first MLS League Cup in 2022 and were the runners-up in the 2023 CONCACAF Champions League.

Long-time followers of the USL will be familiar with Cherundolo. He spent the 2021 and 2022 seasons at the helm of the Las Vegas Lights. While the Lights as a club have not been great in its past, they have had a partnership with LAFC when it comes to player development. Cherundolo oversaw the movement of multiple players to the MLS level and beyond during his time in Sin City. Despite his short tenure as a head coach at the first tier, his name has already come up in some circles as a potential replacement for a much bigger position.

For the uninitiated, the US Men’s National Team is expected to make a decision this week about the status of its current coach, Greg Berhalter. After a lackluster result in the Copa America, one source mentioned Cherundolo’s name alongside that of former Liverpool FC coach Jurgen Klopp as a potential replacement. It would be a big step forward for Cherundolo, but one that may ultimately not happen.

Coach Quill on facing a possible USMNT appointment

Much like United, LAFC has been unstoppable at their home field, BMO Stadium. Carrying a 9-0-2 record from league play, the LA-based club Is going to be quite the challenge for United. It was originally thought that schedule congestion could be an issue for LAFC with them having the Open Cup being sandwiched by two league matches, including one on Sunday. LAFC was in Houston over the weekend for an expected match before it was postponed due to inclement weather. Even without having to play and put additional wear and tear on their legs, the club was forced to travel back on short notice. That in itself can take a toll on a player.

No matter what their situation is, LAFC will be difficult for United to overcome. The teamsheet won’t be revealed until Wednesday night, but the club has a roster that is dangerous from top to bottom. In their first Open Cup match of 2024, they hosted Loudoun United, defeating them handily, 3-0. Denis Bouanga was deadly that night, providing two assists and being an all-around menace to the USL club. Playing off the left wing, Bouanga will be a handful for United, and they’ll need to be persistent in their defending in order to prevent him from finding space to attack.

If United can slow them down on the left, that may open up opportunities for the Black & Yellow to get out on the counter. This will be an area of concern for United. If Eric Quill has his club attempting to play out of the back, they will have to manage the pressure from the forwards and midfield of LAFC. There’s a chance that United will have to play more direct in order to find open lanes.

Coach Quill LAFC Presser

But, United has been in this position before; on the road against a superior team in an environment that they aren’t used to. In 2019 they beat both the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas on the road. This is a different team with a different mentality. United has found ways to beat clubs in different ways.

In recent weeks, it’s been the play of Abdi Mohamed, a player who came to the club on a 25-day contract. It’s been the play of Talen Maples, who converted a penalty after a major miscue the week before. The next man up mentality has never been more prevalent with this club. Quill is pushing this club to improve upon the results of the past and shows an innate ability to unlock the best from his players.

One thing that United has going for them in this match is their fitness level. This club is designed to play well at altitude, which can undo many opponents. Capitalizing on that fitness at home has given United an advantage on the road as well. They have a tendency to out-run their opponents, lasting longer and showing more endurance. Between that and the fact that United has had the week to prepare, they could be able to take advantage late, but they have to be patient and pick their moments.

Players to Watch

Tomas Angel (LAFC) – Angel joined LAFC after three seasons with Atletico Nacional in Colombia. He broke into the first team earlier this season but has spent most of his time with the 2’s. He was given a start in their round of 16 match and made the most of it with a goal to his credit.

Mukwelle Akale (NMU) – Akale has been dynamic for United this season, creating chances from the wide areas. After serving a suspension against Orange County SC, Akale will likely get a start in the Cup. Akal’e ability to be technical on the ball causes opponents to misread his hips and turn the wrong way. This will create opportunities for United to play the ball into the area and pressure the goal.

The TEAM will be live from LA starting at 4 p.m. (MT) with TEAM Talk LA. Adam Diehl and Andy Hageman will be onsite with the live pregame show starting at 8 p.m. with the match scheduled to kickoff from BMO Stadium at 9 p.m. Catch every minute of every play all season long on ESPN Radio 101.7 FM The TEAM, The TEAM website, and The TEAM apps.