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LAFC eager to build on promising 2018 debut after finish left them with 'sour taste'

LAFC eager to build on promising 2018 debut after finish left them with 'sour taste'
LAFC forward Carlos Vela, second from right, is congratulated by teammates after scoring the first of his two first-half goals against the Galaxy on Mar. 31, 2018 in Carson. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

In its first season the Los Angeles Football Club did what no other MLS expansion team had ever done — it set a record with 57 points, tied a record with seven road wins and, if playoffs are included, equaled the MLS record for goals by a first-year team with 70.

But it’s what the team didn’t do — win in the playoffs — that has haunted defenders Walker Zimmerman and Steven Beitashour this winter.

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“We underachieved in terms of how we finished,” Zimmerman said. “You can talk about the most expansion points in MLS history. You can talk about making the playoffs in your first year. But at the end of the day, expansion team or not, we knew that we were one of the most talented teams in the league.”

Added Beitashour: “We still have a sour taste in our mouth. Last year was a good year but didn’t necessarily finish the way we wanted it to.”

Instead, the year finished with LAFC blowing a second-half lead in a 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake, a team it had outscored 7-1 in two regular-season games. And Beitashour said Wednesday the team is taking the memories of that game into the opening match of season No. 2 Sunday against Sporting Kansas City.

“Sunday can’t get here soon enough,” he said. “You can sense a little bit of urgency. A little bit more intensity. Everyone’s stepped up their game a little bit.”

At this time last year many of LAFC’s players were still getting to know one another. Others, such as midfielder Lee Nguyen and forwards Christian Ramirez and Adama Diomande, hadn’t arrived yet. So Beitashour says the familiarity with both one another and with coach Bob Bradley’s complex playing style will give LAFC a boost this season.

“Last year was the first year we were together. There were moments throughout the year we kind of dropped off,” he said. “We want less of those moments.

“We’ve got that camaraderie going from last year. Anytime you can get that from a team, it’s a good start.”

Continuity doesn’t hurt either and 12 of the 14 players who started more than a dozen games for LAFC last season return, as do the players responsible for all but eight of the team’s goals.

The two most notable absences are center back Laurent Ciman, whose spot will be filled by Colombian Eddie Segura, and midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who appeared in all 35 games before leaving for Colorado as a free agent. He will be far tougher to replace.

“Benny gave us an excellent year,” Bradley said. “He helped get us going.”

In Feilhaber’s absence, Nguyen and Mark-Anthony Kaye, back from ankle surgery that ended his season in August, will steady the midfield behind a front line that returns leading scorers Carlos Vela (14 goals, 13 assists) and Diego Rossi (12 goals, nine assists).

“The guys that returned came in knowing that the work from last year, we had to get right back on track,” Bradley said. “But you only keep going when the season starts.

“Preseason is just to lay a foundation. And then you get into a season and you get tested in different ways.”

One test LAFC struggled with last year was holding leads. Of the 55 goals the team gave up, more than 60% came in the second half — including the final two in the playoff loss to Salt Lake.

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“We just need to be better. To be a top team you need to concentrate for 90 minutes,” Bradley said. “The most important thing when we start the second year is every player knows that the way we become a better team is that the work to make each player better continues. If every guy is 5%, 10% better, then probably our ability to be a better team and close out games and do all the rest of the things goes up.

“There were high expectations last year. We had moments where we did some very good things. But I still look at every part of the game and I can still look at every player and see things that need to be pushed and improved. And that’s the work that continues.”

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