About halfway through the season, with the playoffs looking like a likely destination for the Los Angeles Football Club, coach Bob Bradley held a team meeting in which he raised the bar for his players.
“We talked about 60 [points] as a goal,” Bradley said.
Never mind it was a goal no MLS expansion team had ever met — and one just 12 teams in league in history had achieved. Yet after Saturday’s methodical 2-0 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes at Banc of California Stadium, it’s a goal that’s well within reach.
The win extended LAFC’s unbeaten streak to six games, lifted it to second place in the Western Conference and left it with 50 points with five games remaining.
“That means there’s 15 [points] left to play for,” Bradley said. “So hopefully we can keep pushing ourselves along.”
Center back Walker Zimmerman accounted for both goals — one in each half — off Carlos Vela corner kicks. The goals were his first of the season and the two-goal game was the first of his career. Goalkeeper Tyler Miller made them stand up by pitching his third shutout in his last four games at home and his seventh in 14 starts at Banc of California, lowering his goals-against average there to 0.62.
But LAFC (14-7-8) has lacked the kind of signature wins that will make it a feared playoff opponent.
“You keep working on all details. There’s a lot to keep trying to improve,” said Bradley, whose team has played consistently enough to have three six-game unbeaten streaks this season. “There’s a part of games late in the season and in the playoffs that involve mentality. For me, there’s a next level of intensity that we can bring.
“At the end of the year you can look at the standings if you want, but then you’d better quickly get back to work to become better. When you finish strong it’s put you in good position going into the playoffs.”
Finishing first or second in the standings would also put LAFC in a good position going into the six-team conference playoffs since that would allow them to skip the one-game knockout round. And LAFC got another boost of momentum Saturday since both goals came off set pieces, which have bedeviled the team this season.
“It’s a nice threat, especially going into the playoffs right now, where set pieces are huge,” defender Jordan Harvey said.
LAFC had nine corners in the first half but didn’t take advantage of those opportunities until its eighth try, with Zimmerman getting on the end of Vela’s bending left-footed cross in the 41st minute.
Zimmerman, charging toward the six-yard box, ducked his head at the ball and missed, but it struck him on the left shoulder and caromed into the net for LAFC’s third goal off a corner this season.
It wouldn’t be the last with Zimmerman doubling the lead on a nearly identical Vela cross in the 68thminute. Vela has three goals and four assists in LAFC’s six-game unbeaten streak, with two helpers Saturday giving him a team-high 10 on the season.
The best scoring chance for San Jose (a league-worst 4-18-8) came in the 54th minute when Jackson Yueill’s right-footed chip of a Joel Qwiberg feed went just wide of an open net at the right post. Other than that it was a quiet afternoon for Miller, who was called on to make just one save despite missing key defender Danilo Silva to a hamstring injury.
Bradley insists his players can do better, though, and he’s going to keep raising the bar to keep them from getting complacent. Harvey said that won’t be a problem.
“Any win’s a good win,” he said. “And getting three points is the momentum that we need going forward into the playoffs. But we’ve won multiple ways this year. And I thought this was one of our most dominant performances even if it was just 2-0.
“It was big for our confidence going forward. And hopefully, getting to that number that we want, 60 points, will give us that momentum going into the playoffs.”