Despite all the firsts, LAFC would settle for second in conference table
Bob Bradley has achieved a number of firsts as coach of an expansion team in MLS.
In 1998, with the Chicago Fire, he was the first to reach the playoffs, the first to win 20 games and the first to capture a league title. With a draw or better in its final two regular-season games this year, his Los Angeles Football Club would become the first to top 56 points in an expansion campaign.
But when it comes to the conference standings, second is just as good as first for Bradley’s team since it means a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage for the second round.
“I don’t care about finishing first. I care about finishing top two,” said midfielder Benny Feilhaber, whose team has already clinched a postseason berth but has a lot of work to do regarding seeding when it plays host to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday afternoon at Banc of California Stadium.
“We’ve set a goal for ourselves in where we want to finish. We’ve set goals in terms of how many points we want to try to achieve. Sixty is a very good number. That would be the goal right now.”
In MLS, the top six teams in each conference advance to the playoffs. But the top two go directly to the conference semifinals, while the other four play midweek knockout-round games.
LAFC (16-8-8) entered the penultimate weekend of the regular season trailing conference-leading Dallas by a point, trailing second-place Sporting Kansas City on goal differential and leading fourth-place Seattle by three points. That opens up myriad possibilities.
If LAFC wins its final two games, it would finish no worse than second in the table. A win and a draw would give it 60 points and no worse than a third-place finish. Anything short of that and the team could fall as far as fourth, depending on how Seattle and Kansas City — LAFC’s opponent next week — do in their last two games.
“It all comes down to taking care of our business. And if we do that then we’ll be in a position we want to be in,” goalkeeper Tyler Miller said.
Few players are better versed in the importance of that than Feilhaber. In 2013 he played for a Kansas City team that finished second in the conference, avoided the play-in round and went on to win the MLS Cup.
In each of the next four seasons the team finished outside the top two and had its season ended in the knockout round.
“We’re still trying to take six points,” Bradley said. “Six points would certainly guarantee that we’re top two.”
First place in the conference would also guarantee another milestone for Bradley, since no expansion team has ever finished atop the conference table. But, like Feilhaber, Bradley professes little interest in that.
“I don’t care for myself,” he said. “What I care about is that, first of all, it would put us in a good position going into the playoffs. And second it would be very important for the group. That as we moved along, we continued to improve and we finished the season on a real strong note.”