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New York City gives LAFC a chance to prove how good it can be

Bob Bradley doesn't put much stock in what reporters think or rankings say about his soccer team.

"I don't pay any attention to anybody's power rankings or much of what gets said or written," he said Friday, punctuating the thought with a dismissive chuckle.

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That's too bad, because much of what is being said and written about Bradley and his Los Angeles Football Club would turn that chuckle into a wide smile. LAFC is riding a Western Conference-best five-game winning streak and playing some of the most attractive soccer in MLS heading into Sunday's match with New York City FC at Banc of California Stadium.

And people have noticed.

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LAFC has the conference's top goal-scorer in Carlos Vela, the league's co-leader in assists in Diego Rossi and a goalkeeper in Tyler Miller who is tied for second in the league in shutouts. Add it together and Bradley's team entered the weekend second in MLS in wins and, at 6-2-1, second in the conference in points with 19.

It's the best start for an expansion team in league history.

As good as Bradley and LAFC have been, we really don't know how good they are. Only three of their first nine games came against teams with a winning record at the time — and LAFC beat just one of them, Vancouver.

Even Bradley seems uncertain what to think. While he clearly likes his team, he goes out of his way to temper any praise with an acknowledgement that things are far from perfect.

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"I see things that are going in a good direction. I still see things that still need to get better," he said after a brisk training session last week. "I don't think we're a complete team yet. That's what we work toward."

Sunday's game might give Bradley a good idea of how far he has to go. New York City (6-2-2) is second in the Eastern Conference and a point better than LAFC, having played one more game. Though it has struggled lately, losing two of its last three games, NYC is a team with a playoff pedigree, having reached the Eastern Conference semifinals each of the last two seasons.

In some ways New York City, with a big-name coach in Patrick Vieira and a roster of big-name players led by David Villa and Sean Johnson, is what Bradley and LAFC aspire to be.

"When you play against good teams it tests your football ideas," Bradley said. "Players look forward to these kinds of matches."

Another thing that makes this game one of LAFC's biggest of the young season is the fact that it comes with the club at a crossroads: The match is the first of two consecutive games LAFC will play against 2017 playoff teams and the third of six that Bradley's club will play in a 22-day period.

Finding early success with an expansion team is difficult, especially one like Bradley's squad, which is still adding players 2½ months into the season. The coach has done a phenomenal job teaching his short-passing, ball-control offense to players who, in many cases, are still getting to know one another.

But how will it do against a team that has limited opponents to 40% possession this season?

On defense, Miller and his veteran back line have four shutouts. But they've given up 14 goals combined in the other five games, and Sunday they'll be facing Villa, a former league most valuable player and a wily World Cup champion who has scored more than 400 times for club and country.

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It might be too soon to tell whether LAFC's great early start is more miracle or mirage. There's no doubt it's been unusual though: Just three MLS expansion teams have made the playoffs in their first season and just one — the Chicago Fire in 1998 — won a title.

That team, also coached by Bradley, endured a five-game losing streak early in the season, one the coach said united the roster and eventually fueled the title run. LAFC has yet to be challenged like that.

It figures to be tested Sunday. How it does on that test could go a long way toward determining whether Bradley's current team should be considered a legitimate title contender as well.

Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11

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