When it comes to the MLS playoffs, Ilie Sánchez says, it’s the mind that matters most.
“The strongest team is the one that is going to advance,” the LAFC midfielder believes. “And that’s not physically, tactically, technically. That’s mainly mentally.”
Sánchez is speaking from experience. Twice he played for Sporting Kansas City teams that finished the MLS regular season atop the conference standings, only to flame out in the playoffs. Twice his team came within a goal of an MLS Cup final.
“And I never got it,” he said, his teammates succumbing to a mental bobble here, a momentary loss of focus there.
He’ll give it another try Sunday when LAFC plays host to Austin FC in the Western Conference final at Banc of California Stadium. But what he won’t do is think about the past.
“You cannot have that in your mind,” he said after training Friday at Cal State L.A. “We cannot allow ourselves to get trapped on memories or feelings or emotions.”
LAFC has its own history of playoff disappointments. Since it entered the league five years ago, no team has won more games, earned more points or scored more goals in the regular season. But it’s won just twice in five games in the playoffs.
In 2019, just as it has done this season, LAFC won an MLS-best 21 games and beat the Galaxy in its playoff opener. That team lost in the conference final.
For first-year LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo, all that history is just that, history.
“There are zero connections between 2019 and now,” he said. “A different group of players. We haven’t spoken once about the game. We haven’t shown any video. It has nothing to do with this week.”
LAFC captain Carlos Vela, one of just three holdovers from that 2019 team, said even this year’s regular season has nothing to do with this week. And that might be a good thing because while LAFC (22-9-4 including the playoff win) finished with the league’s best record, Austin was the only team to beat it twice in MLS play and was one of just two teams to win at Banc of California Stadium.
“It’s a new tournament. It doesn’t matter what you did in the past. It doesn’t matter how good you did in the league or how bad you did against some teams,” he said. “This is a special game. You have to win, it doesn’t matter how.”
Behind MVP candidate Sebastián Driussi, who was second in MLS with 22 goals in the regular season, Austin was the second-highest-scoring team in the west with 65 goals. LAFC was first with 66, 16 coming from Cristian Arango. But with Sánchez, an offseason free-agent signing, anchoring a well-organized midfield, only two teams in the league allowed fewer goals than LAFC’s 38, one off the franchise record.
Still, history is not on LAFC’s side. Since MLS switched to a two-leg postseason format to single-elimination games in 2019, no team that finished atop the regular-season standings has won a conference title in the playoffs.
Defender Giorgio Chiellini, who is finishing his first year with LAFC after playing 17 seasons with Juventus in Italy’s Serie A, likened the playoff format to the UEFA Champions League, which has a two-leg format through the semifinals but a winner-take-all final — a game he lost twice.
That’s because the two tasks — regular-season dominance and postseason success — require different approaches. The regular season is a marathon, a race that requires patience, planning, purpose and a deep roster. Playoff games are a 90-minute sprint, a bare-knuckle brawl in which a superb individual performance, a bad call or a lucky goal can lift a poor team over a great one.
“You need to approach every game like there is no other for the season,” said Sánchez, 31, who made 33 regular-season appearances and had 30 starts for the first time in four years. “There is no other for the season if we lose.”
And while Sánchez says he doesn’t like looking back, there’s one bit of history he and LAFC can take comfort in. Over the last three seasons in Kansas City and Los Angeles, his teams have lost just 16 of the 77 games he’s started. LAFC was 0-4 in the four games he didn’t start this season.
Sánchez says he starting Sunday.
“This game has maximum importance,” he said in Spanish. “Now there is no margin for error. If you have a bad game, you don’t get another. If you have 45 bad minutes, the opponent will take advantage and we’re out.”
Sánchez is going to try to put that out of his mind, which at this time of year is what matters most.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.