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LAFC's inaugural season is over, but they have made their claim as L.A.'s soccer team

LAFC's inaugural season is over, but they have made their claim as L.A.'s soccer team
LAFC's Danilo Silva celebrates his goal against RSL. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Bob Bradley squinted at the video scoreboard in disbelief.

The play didn’t make sense in real time. The replay didn’t, either.

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What actually happened only became clear after multiple viewings.

Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino flicked the ball from the right side of the penalty box. His pass struck defender Walker Zimmerman in the face. Goalkeeper Tyler Miller sailed in one direction. The ball went in another.

And, like that, the inaugural season of Los Angeles’ soccer team was over.

Los Angeles Football Club was one and done in the playoffs, upset by Real Salt Lake at Banc of California Stadium, 3-2.

This happens in soccer. Force the initiative and dictate the action for 90 minutes, but slip up a couple of times on defense and lose.

Seeded sixth in the Western Conference, RSL advanced to a home-and-home series with top-seeded Sporting Kansas City.

Third-seeded LAFC will have all winter to reflect on what went wrong Thursday night, but also celebrate what went right over the entire season.

“We’re thrilled with the first season,” LAFC co-owner and team president Tom Penn said.

The expansion team failed to win a postseason game, but did something considerably more difficult.

LAFC made itself a player in one of the most competitive sports markets in the country.The franchise opened a stadium within the city limits that established a new standard for Major League Soccer venues.

It developed a loyal fan base that was responsible for an unusually boisterous game atmosphere.

And under Bradley, a former U.S. national team coach, it played the kind of attacking soccer that won over fans of the sport who were skeptical of the league.

In only one season, LAFC has overtaken the five-time MLS Cup champion Galaxy as the city’s premier team.

LAFC has the better stadium.

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LAFC has a more engaged fan culture.

And LAFC has the superior team.

The Galaxy has become a horror show, missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

The team was worth watching only because of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and every indication is that the Swedish forward will play elsewhere next season.

LAFC posted a 16-9-9 record and finished behind only Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders in the 12-team Western Conference.

More important was how LAFC did it.

The team was second in the league in scoring, with an average of two goals per game. But LAFC also gave up plenty of goals, 52 in 34 games.

The game Thursday was a microcosm of the season.

LAFC dominated the early action, only to concede the opening goal in the 21st minute when an unmarked Damir Kreilach buried a pass from Brooks Lennon.

Defender Danilo Silva, who was out of position on Kreilach’s goal, leveled the score in the 31st minute, heading in a free kick by Carlos Vela.

LAFC moved in front nine minutes into the second half. From a couple of strides past the half line, Lee Nguyen threaded a pass through the RSL defense to a streaking Christian Ramirez. The substitute forward blasted a high shot past goalkeeper Nick Rimando that gave LAFC a 2-1 lead.

Like so many times before, LAFC appeared to be in control. And like so many times before, LAFC couldn’t close out the game.

A failed clearance by Silva in the 58th minute dropped in front of Kreilach, who volleyed a shot off the right post and into the goal.

RSL won the game in the 69th on Zimmerman’s own goal.

LAFC had 21 shots, RSL only four.

“Hard to lose a game like that,” Bradley said.

But this is who LAFC was. And if given a choice between a team that scored plenty and conceded plenty or a team that rarely scored and rarely conceded, this is what the public would have demanded.

“Bob was able to come up with this attacking mentality, which is electric and exciting,” Penn said. “It fits Los Angeles. It’s the city itself. It wouldn’t make sense for us to hunker down defensively and try to eke out a 1-0 win.”

And if LAFC improves its defense in future seasons, it won’t come at the expense of the attack.

“The football we tried to play, we believe in it,” Bradley said. “It’s not a one-year project.”

If the next step on the field is to win an MLS Cup, the next step off it is to increase the fan base beyond soccer’s bubble.

“I think we need to continue to perform both on the pitch and in the venue,” Penn said. “This experience is second to none. Anyone who comes here seems happy and spreads the word. It will take a little time.”

Penn is upbeat. After this season, he has every right to be.

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