Newsletter: Soccer! LAFC completes first step of journey
Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times’ weekly soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and once again we’re up to our ears in stuff to talk about.
This week I’m in Tampa, Fla., with the U.S. national team, which is preparing for a Thursday friendly with Colombia, a match that could be played in the remnants of Hurricane Michael. The storm is expected to make landfall in the Florida panhandle on Wednesday, a little more than 24 hours before game time.
After that, the team will head to Connecticut for an exhibition with Peru next week while I will fly to Dallas for the semifinals and final of the CONCACAF qualifying event for next summer’s Women’s World Cup in France.
But we’re going to start with the MLS playoff picture, which has come into sharp focus for the Los Angeles Football Club but remains a bit fuzzy for the Galaxy.
With Saturday’s 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids, LAFC clinched a playoff berth with three games left on its regular-season schedule, becoming just the fourth MLS team to reach the postseason in its first year. But the celebration was a subdued one because LAFC considers playoff qualification just the first step on a much longer journey.
“We think we have a good team,” coach Bob Bradley said. “So if you want compete at the end of the year the first thing you have to do is make the playoffs.”
And Bradley’s team is heading toward those playoffs with momentum, having lost just once since Aug. 15; Saturday’s shutout was the fourth in eight games for keeper Tyler Miller.
“Everyone in the group is getting more confident,” said forward Adama Diomande, whose two goals gave him a team-high 11 for the season. “[But] we still have some important matches ahead of us.”
Indeed they do. Because if LAFC has a playoff berth secured, when, where and who it will play is still to be determined. And how the team plays in its final three games will go a long way toward answering that.
LAFC is tied with Sporting Kansas City for second in the Western Conference standings with 53 points, four behind first-place Dallas. While six teams will make the playoffs, the top two avoid the one-game knockout round, advancing directly to the conference semifinals where they will have the home-field advantage.
Obtaining that is LAFC’s goal now — although whether it succeeds probably won’t be determined until the final day of the regular season, when the team plays in Kansas City.
Here’s how the top of the Western Conference table looked Tuesday:
Team Pts W L T GD
x- Dallas 57 16 6 9 +13
x - Sporting KC 53 15 8 8 +18
x - LAFC 53 15 8 8 +15
Portland 51 14 9 9 +4
Seattle 50 15 11 5 +12
Real Salt Lake 46 13 12 7 -3
Galaxy 45 12 11 9 +1
Vancouver 43 12 12 7 -11
x – clinched playoff berth
“We’ve got to start playing our best football here toward the end of the season,” midfielder Benny Feilhaber said. “Right now it’s about winning games. It’s all about this season and about winning now.”
The Galaxy could say the same thing. After Saturday’s gutty 1-1 draw with Kansas City — a team they haven’t beaten on the road since 2007 — the Galaxy remain in seventh place, a point behind Real Salt Lake in the battle for the final playoff spot with two games left.
But there’s plenty of reason for hope. Although the team doesn’t control its own destiny — even if they were to win out, the Galaxy would miss the postseason if RSL also won its last two — there is a viable way forward.
The Galaxy’s final two games are against Minnesota and Houston, teams that have been eliminated from postseason contention, while RSL faces playoff hopefuls in New England and Portland. If RSL loses either game, a win and a draw could send the Galaxy through on goal differential.
“We’re fighting for everything,” coach Dominic Kinnear said.
But there is a catch: The Galaxy, who are idle until Oct. 21, play their next game on the uneven artificial turf of TCF Bank Stadium, and Minnesota United is expecting a sellout crowd of more than 50,000 to be there to greet them. Midfielder Baggio Husidic broke his leg on that field last season and the Galaxy have limited striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his 37-year-old surgically repaired right knee to just 18 minutes on artificial turf this season.
Limiting Ibrahimovic’s minutes in Minnesota will be difficult since he has five goals in his last four games and the team is 8-2-4 when he scores. But using him for 90 minutes could make it difficult for him to come back for the season finale a week later.
With the season hanging in the balance, expect Ibrahimovic to start in Minnesota — but if the Galaxy get a lead, don’t expect him to finish.
Can the Galaxy top this?
The playoff race isn’t the only competition the Galaxy find themselves in. A month after firing Sigi Schmid as manager and naming Kinnear as the interim replacement, the team is still searching for a full-time coach.
On Monday, the San Jose Earthquakes, who also fired their coach last month, got a jump on the Galaxy by giving their job to Argentine Matias Almeyda, which puts pressure on the league’s marquee franchise to make an equally big splash with its new manager.
Almeyda, 44, won five trophies, including the CONCACAF Champions League crown, in the last four years with Chivas of Mexico’s Liga MX. He follows countryman Tato Martino to MLS, where Martino has Atlanta United on pace to finish with the best regular-season record in league history.
Galaxy president Chris Klein has been tight-lipped about his third coaching hire in less than two years.
“We’re making progress,” he said.
Gregg Berhalter, a former Galaxy player and assistant coach and now the manager of the Columbus Crew, is believed to be high on Klein’s list. But he’s also reportedly being pursued by the U.S. national team. Klein wouldn’t comment on whether Caleb Porter, his college roommate at Indiana and an MLS Cup-winning coach with the Portland Timbers, was under consideration. But that would seem likely since the embattled Klein is likely to consider loyalty an important trait in his new coach.
After striking out with Curt Onalfo and Schmid, who combined to lose 29 games over the last two seasons, tying a franchise record, Klein can ill afford another mistake with his next coaching hire.
Speaking of teams searching for coaches, the U.S. national team is about to mark one year since the departure of Bruce Arena following the last cycle’s failed World Cup qualifying campaign. Dave Sarachan, Arena’s top lieutenant, has held the job on an interim basis since then, guiding the U.S. to a win over Mexico and draws with France and Portugal.
But Sarachan’s main job has been to drive the renovation of a national team that had grown old, and he’s had success there as well, giving international debuts to 18 players, among them teenagers Tim Weah, Josh Sargent and Tyler Adams. This week, Sarachan moved to Phase II of that project by reintroducing veterans Michael Bradley and Brad Guzan, whose 198 international caps are nearly as many as the rest of the roster combined.
“They understand what their role is,” Sarachan said of the veterans. “First and foremost, they’re competing for a job and they want to play. So their role isn’t to coach, their role isn’t to mentor. But it is part of the big package when you have experience.”
Bradley, the team’s longtime captain, said one of the things he hopes to teach the young players is the importance of wearing the national team uniform.
“The most important thing is that when you come into the national team you understand what it means,” he said. “What it means to be part of something bigger than yourself. You understand what it means to represent your country.
“As we start to put all the pieces together, it’s exciting.”
Earnie Stewart, the team’s general manager, has promised to have a new coach, which is the final piece of that puzzle, in place before the end of the year.
The women’s national team, meanwhile, is doing just fine with the manager it has. Jill Ellis led the U.S. to a Women’s World Cup title three years ago and already has the team on the cusp of winning a place in next year’s tournament just two games into the regional qualifying competition.
The U.S. beat Mexico 6-0 and Panama 5-0 in its first two group matches and will conclude pool play Wednesday against Trinidad and Tobago with a spot in Sunday’s semifinals already assured. Since three CONCACAF teams will qualify for France, the U.S. could punch its 2019 World Cup ticket with a semifinal win.
That’s a likely result since the U.S. hasn’t lost since July 2017.
So far the tournament hasn’t been competitive. Not only has the U.S. won its two games by 11 goals, but Cuba lost to Costa Rica 8-0 and to Canada 12-0 while being outshot 74-6.
The major European leagues will pause this weekend for the FIFA international break, which will also give some struggling teams time to take stock of their situations.
Bayern Munich, the six-time defending Germany champion, is beginning to show its age after losing two in row for the first time since 2015 to fall to sixth place in Bundesliga table. In four of its six championship years, Munich didn’t lose more than two games all season.
It took just one loss and one draw in the first six games last season for the team to sack Carlo Ancelotti and bring back Jupp Heynckes for a fourth spell as manager.
That won’t work this year since Heynckes, now 73, has ruled out another comeback.
Real Madrid is even worse off. The three-time defending Champions League winner lost coach Zinedine Zidane and captain Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer, then apparently lost its way this fall, scoring just one goal its last 319 minutes. That’s more than 3½ games without a shot finding the back of the net.
That hasn’t happened since the 2006-07 season.
There’s been no scoring slump for Ronaldo, though, since he has four goals and four assists in eight games for his new club, Juventus, which is unbeaten in Italy’s Serie A.
There are three unbeaten teams in England’s Premier League after Manchester City and Liverpool played to a scoreless draw Sunday, joining Chelsea atop the standings with identical 6-0-2 records.
But the most dominant club on the continent has been Paris Saint-Germain, which is not only perfect nine games into the French season, but has outscored opponents 32-6, giving it a plus-26 goal differential.
No other team in any of Europe’s top leagues has scored as many as 26 times this season, much less put up a goal differential that high.
Not surprisingly, PSG’s Neymar and Kylian Mbappe top the league in scoring with 13 goals combined.
Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.
All times Pacific
Oct. 12 vs. Houston, 7 p.m., YouTube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Oct. 21 vs. Vancouver, 2 p.m., YouTube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Oct. 28 at Sporting Kansas City, YouTube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Oct. 21 at Minnesota, TBD, Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Oct. 28 vs. Houston, 1:30 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Until next time
Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter @kbaxter11
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