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LAFC find their footing in debut U.S. Open Cup win

Team learn lessons with another USL showdown looming.

MLS: Banc of California Stadium Ribbon Cutting Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Football Club continued their season of firsts on Wednesday with their first competitive meeting against lower-league opposition. Taking on a fellow expansion team, USL side Fresno FC, LAFC defeated them 2-0, in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup at Banc of California Stadium.

Even with the disparity in levels between the teams, and Fresno being a new team, LAFC learned on Wednesday that the underdogs will make MLS teams work for their wins.

LAFC head coach Bob Bradley made it clear the win was not without considerable effort.

“Open Cup, never easy, a team like Fresno, well-coached, they’re prepared. We had to find ways to open them up, took a little while, but it’s good to move on, and we look forward to the next part of the Open Cup,” he told reporters after the game.

LAFC, playing a mix of reserves and regulars on the night, struggled in the opening 20 minutes or so, allowing Fresno several opportunities inside their box before locking down possession and taking control as the opening 45 went on.

With the Open Cup being a single-elimination tournament, letting an opponent, especially an underdog, keep the game scoreless at halftime can be dangerous. LAFC finally found production for their increased dominance on the game shortly after the break, with goals from Diego Rossi and Latif Blessing four minutes apart giving LAFC the margin needed to post their first win in the USOC.

Bradley elaborated on the tricky test Fresno posed for his team.

“When you look at Fresno’s roster, Frank Yallop and Adam Smith have put together experienced guys,” he explained. “It’s not like playing a team of players that are in awe of MLS teams. These guys have all been in and around MLS level with different teams. They’ve kept going because they love to play. So when you play against them, you know it won’t be an easy game. It takes awhile to start to open them up a bit.

“I thought as the first half went on we got better, found some ways to play through lines, started to create a little bit more. And then the goals come and there’s a stretch where with the ball we keep possession and I’d like to see the third goal...I thought over the last 10 minutes, we were sloppy.”

Those lessons are likely to be useful for LAFC’s next U.S. Open Cup game, in two weeks against another USL side, Sacramento Republic FC. While Fresno are a new team on the scene, Sacramento are one of the most successful clubs in the wave of USL expansion that’s taken place the last five years. Not only did Republic win the USL league title in their expansion season, they are consistent contender in their league and have now posted Open Cup wins over MLS opponents the last two years, including Wednesday’s 2-1 win in extra time over the Seattle Sounders.

The players were also reflecting on the initial struggles in the game.

“It’s probably a combination of everything,” midfielder Lee Nguyen said. “Sometimes the passing is a little off or they were in good spots, and then its whether we move the ball quick enough and try to exploit those open gaps, because they are not going to stay open forever. I think we started to find our footing a little bit more in the second half as it opened up, and also getting that goal too helped. It was just a matter of closing out the game after that.”

One strategy that lower-league opposition often use to try to level the playing field against MLS teams is play physically. Nguyen remarked that was present against Fresno, but also that LAFC found a way to get around a physical approach.

“They had a couple big guys. Our guys were up for the challenge, but at the same time, I feel like this is a game where we controlled possession, and tried to eliminate that physicality by moving the ball and keeping the ball in motion.”

Fresno and Sacramento aren’t identical teams, but finding a way through the Central Valley side should give LAFC their bearings against another USL team ahead of a higher stakes game in the U.S. Open Cup.

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