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Column: Los Angeles makes its push to be king of MLS

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- THURSDAY, JULY 26, 2018: Los Angeles Football Club defender Steven Beitashour
LAFC defender Steven Beitashour greets fans at Banc of California Stadium during the team’s inaugural season.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

It wasn’t all that long ago that Portland, Ore., dubbed itself “Soccer City.” The name fit, for a while.

The city, after all, is home to the Timbers and Thorns, who brought Major League Soccer and National Women’s Soccer League titles to the same stadium. Only one other city in the country has won championships in both the men’s and women’s leagues.

Portland is also home to some of the most passionate fans in soccer, led by the Timbers Army, a coalition of raucous supporters’ groups that pack the north end of Providence Park.

But these days, Providence Park is quiet. An $85-million renovation, the stadium’s third makeover in 18 years, has closed the facility and furloughed the Army until June.

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Soccer City has become a ghost town — which is probably just as well since the Timbers and Thorns, having played every game on the road this year, entered the weekend a combined 2-5-2.

That’s allowed Southern California to make a claim that it now deserves to wear the crown.

No, Southern California doesn’t have a woman’s team — not a professional one anyway, although Mia Hamm is working on that. But it does have the two best teams in MLS in the upstart Los Angeles Football Club and the five-time champion Galaxy. And it has the two best players in Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

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LAFC played its first game less than 14 months ago and returns Sunday to Seattle, the city where it made its debut with a win over the Sounders, leading the league in wins, goals, points, fewest goals allowed and goal differential.

In its short history, LAFC has won as many games (23) as any team in the league, and collected more points (79) and scored more goals (93). And Vela, its captain, who leads MLS with 10 goals and five assists, is off to the fastest nine-game start in history.

The team’s 11-game unbeaten streak at Banc of California Stadium — at $350 million, the most expensive privately-funded soccer-specific stadium in the league — is also best in MLS. With apologies to the Portland supporters who, after all, were there first, they no longer make up the largest or loudest standing army in MLS. That honor now arguably belongs to the 3252, the LAFC fan union that has turned the north end of their stadium into the biggest mosh pit in the league.

“It’s a club that has everything going right,” former LAFC assistant Marc Dos Santos, now the coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps, said earlier this month. “That’s the example. That’s the standard. How close can you get to that?”

A dozen miles away at Dignity Health Sports Park, the Galaxy (6-1-1) are unbeaten at home — a streak they’ll put on the line Sunday afternoon against Real Salt Lake — and trail only LAFC in the standings.

Ibrahimovic entered the weekend second to Vela with seven goals this season. Since entering the league four games into last season, Ibrahimovic has scored 29 times in 33 matches; no player has scored that often to start his MLS career in nearly two decades.

At the other end of the field, no team has given up fewer goals than the seven the Galaxy have surrendered. Fans of both clubs have responded: LAFC has sold out all 23 MLS games it has played at home, which has a capacity of more than 22,000, while the Galaxy rank second in the Western Conference in average home attendance this season and fifth overall at more than 23,000 a game.

“The city is definitely looking at soccer as the new hype,” Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “It’s awesome. Both teams are doing well. It’s a very exciting time for the city.”

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That can all vanish quickly though. So the best way to keep the momentum going is to keep the wins coming.

“It’s all about the results,” Ibrahimovic said. “From ice hockey or basketball or the soccer team, if you don’t bring out the results, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

That won’t be easy.

For LAFC, the return to Seattle on Sunday means a return to artificial turf, the team’s kryptonite. Its only loss this season came in Vancouver, on artificial turf, a surface that neutralizes the short-passing, possession-based game LAFC plays.

“We train every day on natural grass. It allows us to play with the ball on the ground. We can maintain possession and play very well,” midfielder Eduard Atuesta said in Spanish. “On artificial turf, we can’t take the same good touches. It is much more difficult for us.”

LAFC will also be playing the Sounders for the second time in a week; it won the first game 4-1 at Banc of California, handing Seattle its only loss of the season.

For the Galaxy, whose game with Real Salt Lake will be their third in 10 days, the challenges are more complex. The team learned Thursday that it will be without Romain Alessandrini until at least September after the midfielder, the team’s second-leading scorer over the last three seasons, underwent knee surgery. The availability of right backs Rolf Feltscher (groin) and Julian Araujo (ankle) may not be determined until shortly before game time.

The loss of Alessandrini is a major blow to the Galaxy’s attack, which has become decidedly one-dimensional this season. In the last five games, Ibrahimovic has taken just three fewer shots on goal than the rest of the team combined. As a result opponents have focused their defensive schemes solely on him.

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In their game in Minnesota on Wednesday, the Loons surrounded Ibrahimovic with three defenders, who collapsed on him each time he touched the ball. The result was a scoreless draw, the first time in more than a year the Galaxy failed to score with Ibrahimovic on the field.

“It’s unfortunate, but the next guy has to be up and ready to go,” goalkeeper David Bingham said of Alessandrini’s injury. “Each weekend is a new test [against] a new team.”

The residents of the new Soccer City wouldn’t have it any other way.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11


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