LAFC weathers rain delay to outlast Houston at home 4-2

Despite a two-hour delay due to thunderous conditions, Carlos Vela led the Black and Gold with two goals and two assists to a win.

Recipient of 2019 United Soccer Coaches Game Story of the Year

It started as a downpour in the 30th minute and swiftly became a deluge, filling the front rows with puddles, turning the grass into a marsh. The sky above the stands was white, as light filtered through the sheets of rain that tumbled into Banc of California Stadium.

A flash of lightning split the sky, and the Los Angeles fans — so unaccustomed to any type of weather that doesn’t involve blue skies and warm sunshine — gasped in a chorus of oohs as the air rumbled with thunder.

For a few minutes, the game continued. Houston launched a counterattack, and offense and defense alike crashed to the ground as players struggled to maintain footing in the sloppy turf. The Houston attack wove its way through the Los Angeles backline, which struggled to backpedal into defense. Keeper Tyler Miller dove to make a save, but the ball squeaked out from his arms, and the rebound was volleyed mightily into the goal by Mauro Manotas for a 1-0 Houston lead.

 

The home team barely had time to reset and kickoff before a voice boomed over the loudspeaker, announcing the game was suspended in the 36th minute and urging fans to seek cover. The voice continued to plead with the fans, as the night wore on and the rain continued to fall, but the 3252 supporter group, persistent as always, remained standing in the North End, drums beating even when the thunder drowned it out.

Their support eventually helped LAFC (16-8-8, 56 points) to a 4-2 win Friday night at Banc of California Stadium, which lofted the LA club to second place in the Western Conference and tied it with the 1998 Chicago Fire for most points by an expansion team in its inaugural season. 

“Today was good weather for us,” LAFC forward Carlos Vela said. “We started the game off bad. After the two hours, we had more energy and we played better. We picked up the three points, so thank you to the weather.”

After half an hour of waiting for the match to restart, a few fans made a dash for the field, slipping across the soggy grass and dangling off the crossbar of the goal in front of the North End. They dashed to the opposite end of the field, mimicking Ronaldo’s jump celebration and sliding on their knees in the muck. They lasted a handful of minutes, dodging security to a flurry of cheers, before eventually each was wrestled to the ground.

Then, finally, the Banc of California stadium settled on the next best thing for the crowd to watch — the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first game in MLB’s NL West series. The game came on the Jumbotron, and immediately the crowd rallied with cheers.

 

When the Dodgers chipped in three runs in the eighth inning, the crowd exploded as if Vela had sliced in a winning goal. When Yasiel Puig stepped up to the plate, he was greeted with an effervescent “Puiiiiiig” chant, as if this crowd was meant to be in a different stadium seven miles north.

It wasn’t quite the Los Angeles sporting event the fans had paid for, but these were LAFC fans, and if there was beer and a Los Angeles team to support, well then, here they were, loud and proud.

Finally, a quarter after 9 p.m. PT, both teams jogged back on the field to cheers, and then boos when the Dodgers game was turned off one pitch before the Milwaukee Brewers clinched a 6-5 Game 1 win.

The wait quickly paid off for the fans who stayed behind. In the 44th minute, Vela wiggled free from the Houston backline and was dragged to the ground by the keeper as he pulled up to fire on goal. He immediately scrambled to his feet and to the penalty line, where he hesitated, stutter stepped, then slotted a perfect shot into the right corner.

“It shows how special our fans are,” LAFC defender Walker Zimmerman said. “To stick it out through this rain storm and this delay, and the fact that we could just hear them almost as soon as we stepped out of the locker room, it’s unique, it’s special and it definitely motivates us each and every game.”

The goal tied the score at 1-1, and although the North End’s smoke canisters fizzled out in the rain, the crowd that remained roared as the captain jogged back toward the packed section and waved his arms for them to cheer louder.

Vela delivered the spark early in the second half, as well, threading a weaving pattern with Diego Rossi through the Houston defense, then whipping a ball across the face of the goal, where Adama Diomande knocked it into the net. With the lead tucked away, both players now boasted 12 goals on the season, tied as scoring leaders.

The security of the 2-1 lead lent a confidence to LAFC. When it attacked off a corner kick minutes later, Zimmerman took a left-footed crack at the goal. His shot sizzled into the net for a 3-1 score. When Rossi took a bad touch and had a shot blocked in the 79th minute, Vela was there to tap in a gentle rebound to stretch the lead to 4-1.

“I didn’t think the weather impacted us, it’s our performance and their performance, and it was too easy,” Houston coach Wilmer Cabrera said. “As a player, you have to perform well, you have to do your job — and we haven’t done that. It’s too easy to go through the middle of our defense. When you concede eight goals in two games, that’s really bad, so I apologize to the fans.”

Houston (9-15-8, 35 points) battled back in its own way, using a counter to cut the lead to two goals, but LAFC controlled the night. It dominated 60 percent of total possession time, racking up 15 shots.

In a fairly sloppy game played on a fairly sloppy field, the team found control and its footing.

“Really excited with the way we pushed hard, added a lot of tempo, added intensity,’ LAFC coach Bob Bradley said during postgame interviews. “After the break, Carlos [Vela] picked it up another notch, and that was so important for us. Those kind of things, for me, really helped set the tone so that as a team we could play a little bit faster in certain moments, because Houston was trying to be organized and have a lot of guys behind the ball.”

Sports can be awful and wonderful, and just plain weird. Friday night at Banc of California Stadium was a little bit of all these things. The crowd stayed for two hours longer than expected, but it didn’t quiet, even when some fans left their flooded seats for the warmth of home.

The Dodgers lost. LAFC won.

It was chilly and wet, and raucous and victorious. And for a game that meant relatively little to both teams — LAFC a shoo-in for the playoffs, Houston without a chance at all — the evening provided more excitement than either side could have predicted.