The MLS season is just six weeks old, far too early to crown a champion. But it’s not too early for a team to stake a claim to being the league’s best.
And LAFC did that in emphatic fashion Saturday when it administered an old-fashioned beat-down on previously unbeaten D.C. United, winning 4-0 before a sun-splashed crowd of 20,600 at a sold-out Audi Field.
What started as a matchup of conference leaders quickly dissolved into a mismatch, one LAFC won in every statistical category.
It also won the much-hyped individual battle with Diego Rossi scoring three times while Carlos Vela added to the league-leading totals he brought into the game with a goal and an assist. On the other side United captain Wayne Rooney collected as many red cards as he did shots as United lost for the first time in 11 regular-season games at home.
It should have been worse. Vela was stopped on a penalty-kick try in the 12th minute and three other LAFC shots struck the goal frame.
Yet in the LAFC locker room, the mood was more cautious than celebratory. No one was declaring the team league champion just yet.
“It’s very early in the season,” defender Jordan Harvey said. “We’re playing very well. I believe we’re one of the top teams in the league. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say something other than that.
“If we can continue this at the end of the season, ask me that same question and I’ll give you a good answer. But right now we’re just trying to stay focused on how we play. We can get better. I know that.”
LAFC (5-0-1) didn’t need much help getting started but United provided some anyway, with Russell Canouse and Frederic Brillant watching a soft back pass go between them, allowing Adama Diomande to pounce on the loose ball and launch Vela on a breakaway up the right wing, which LAFC exploited all afternoon.
After pulling up at the top of box, Vela bent a left-footed shot around defender Steven Birnbaum and into the back of the net in the 16th minute, erasing the bad memory of the failed penalty try minutes earlier.
“The only thing I had in my mind was to get back that lost goal,” he said in Spanish. “And we did it quickly.”
The goal was Vela’s seventh of the season and just the second Bill Hamid has allowed in five games but the United keeper would be beaten again 11 minutes later, this time by Rossi, who split two defenders and used his left foot to redirect in a low Vela cross from the center of the box. Rossi made it 3-0 in the 32nd minute, this time using his right foot to one-time a feed from Mark-Anthony Kaye over Hamid and into the side netting at the far post.
Any thoughts United (3-1-1) may have had of mounting a comeback evaporated seven minutes into the second half when Rooney was sent off for the first time in his brief MLS career for a rough challenge on Rossi.
“It was a red card,” Rooney said. “It wasn’t malicious; I didn’t try to hurt him. But obviously I caught him. It’s the right call.”
Rossi then closed out the scoring in the 76th minute with the goal giving him six for the season. Only Vela, among MLS players, has more.
And the hat trick, like the win, left Rossi happy — but not satisfied.
“Day by day we’re getting better,” he said. “And we’re not going to settle for anything until we’re champion.”
LAFC has a league-leading 19 goals for the season, making Tyler Miller’s splendid play in goal almost unnoticed. His shutout Saturday was his second in as many games, running his scoreless streak to 235 minutes.
In fact, the only bad news on the day was the loss of Diomande, who came out with a tight hamstring in the 28th minute. As everyone in the LAFC locker room stressed, however, the team’s journey is just beginning.
“It’s hardly a day where we feel like we’ve arrived,” coach Bob Bradley said. “We’ve got a long ways to go.”