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Soccer! Galaxy have gone from also-ran to playoff contender

Soccer! Galaxy have gone from also-ran to playoff contender
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (Reed Saxon / Associated Pres)

Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times’ weekly soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and we’ve got another busy week to talk about, beginning with the Galaxy’s improbable drive toward a playoff berth, LAFC’s dangerous slide toward a possible first-round knockout game, the unveiling of the new National Soccer Hall of Fame building and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s jersey sales — as well as his future in MLS.

We’re so overbooked with news we can’t even get to Lionel Messi’s broken arm (he’s out three weeks and will miss this week’s Champions League game with Inter Milan and Sunday’s El Clasico with Real Madrid) or Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho’s meltdown at Stamford Bridge.

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Let’s start with the Galaxy, who will go into Sunday’s final regular-season game needing a home win over the struggling Houston Dynamo to reach the playoffs.

Seven weeks ago the team’s playoff picture was so clouded the team fired manager Sigi Schmid and promoted top assistant Dominic Kinnear to the head coaching role on an interim basis. That didn’t appear to make much of a difference: In Kinnear’s first game, the Galaxy gave up five goals in a loss to Toronto.

After that result, Nate Silver’s analytical website 538 gave the Galaxy just a 9% chance of reaching the postseason. Real Salt Lake, one of the teams they were chasing, was a virtual lock with its playoff chances at 83%.

Apparently that did the trick because the Galaxy haven’t lost since those odds came out, while RSL has won just once in six tries. As a result the Galaxy woke up Tuesday, two days after a 3-1 win at Minnesota, to see their chances of reaching the postseason now at 56% — about the same as a coin flip, perhaps, but still better than RSL, whose chances Silver now pegs at 44%.

Here are the current Western Conference standings:

Team Pts W L T GD

x- Sporting KC 59 17 8 8 +24

x – LAFC 57 16 8 9 +17

x – FC Dallas 57 16 8 9 +9

x - Seattle 56 17 11 5 +14

x - Portland 54 15 9 9 +7

y - Real Salt Lake 49 14 13 7 -3

__________________________________________

Galaxy 48 13 11 9 +3

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x – clinched playoff berth

y – finished regular season

Tie-breaking procedures (wins, then goal differential, then goals for)

It has definitely been a roller coaster,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “The beginning of the season seems like it was a couple of seasons ago. We are finally showing how good this group can be and how good we know we can be.

“We know that we have some things to do. We have to keep doing what we’re doing.“

What they’ve been doing mostly is watching Ibrahimovic score since the Swedish superstar has had a hand in seven of the team’s 10 goals during their four-game unbeaten streak. For the season, the Galaxy are 9-2-4 in games in which Ibrahimovic scores and 4-9-5 when he doesn’t.

His first-half goal Sunday not only gave the Galaxy a lead it would never lose, but also gave him six goals in the last five games and a conference-best 22 for the season. He also had an assist on the Galaxy’s last goal, giving him a team-high 10 of those. And he is only the second man in league history to have two five-game goal-scoring streaks in the same season.

It’s been a tour de force for a 37-year-old who was told 18 months ago he might never play again after he shredded ligaments in his right knee. Instead he endured as many as six hours a day of rehab exercises — reportedly declining his paychecks until he regained fitness — and returned to the field with Manchester United six months after reconstructive surgery.

“He’s been an outstanding player,” Minnesota coach Adrian Heath said of Ibrahimovic, who joined the Galaxy in March and famously scored the tying and winning goals in his 19-minute debut. “We all know how big and strong he is, but people forget he’s all talent.

“For some younger people who had probably been at the game for the first time, they got a chance to witness one of the great players in the last 20 years in European and world football.”

Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy still have some critical work to do though. While Real Salt Lake’s late struggles — one win since Sept. 2 — have left the door to the postseason wide open, the Galaxy haven’t crossed the threshold yet. In fact they’ll enter Sunday trailing RSL, which holds the conference’s sixth and final playoff spot, by a point.

A draw, which would leave the teams tied in the standings, does the Galaxy no good since the first tiebreaker is wins — and RSL has one more of those. As a result, the Galaxy must beat Houston.

And while their record at home — 8-4-4, worst among playoff contenders — inspires little confidence, the Galaxy haven’t lost at the StubHub Center since May. Houston, meanwhile, has lost three in a row and 10 of its last 14, and has just one win on the road this season.

“Now it’s in our hands,” midfielder Romain Alessandrini said. “Everyone is happy but it’s not over.

“Everyone wants to get into the playoffs, so everyone works hard on the field. Everyone works defensively. Now we have to continue like that.”

The first-year Los Angeles Football Club, the Galaxy’s cross-town rival, already has a ticket to the playoffs. But its final regular-season game Sunday in Kansas City will determine whether the team starts the postseason with a first-round bye or with a knockout-round game at home — possibly against the Galaxy.

LAFC lost a chance to strengthen its postseason positioning last Sunday when it blew a 2-0 lead to Vancouver in a game that ended in a 2-2 draw.

So with total victories serving as the first MLS tiebreaker and goal differential the second, here are the scenarios facing LAFC, which enters the final game trailing first-place Sporting Kansas City by two points, leading FC Dallas for second on goal differential and leading the surging Seattle Sounders by a point:

If LAFC wins: With a victory, LAFC would vault over Kansas City and finish atop the Western Conference standings, assuring itself of a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the conference final.

If LAFC and SKC draw: A tie would leave Kansas City atop the table no matter what FC Dallas and Seattle do in their final games -- but it would also leave LAFC in position to be passed by both teams. If Dallas wins at Colorado and Seattle also wins against last-place San Jose, LAFC would drop to fourth. If only one team wins, LAFC would fall to third but in either case it would be forced to host a mid-week knockout round game.

If LAFC loses: With a loss, the only way LAFC can hold on to second place and a playoff bye is if both Dallas and Seattle also lose.

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“There’s everything to play for in the last week of the season and that will determine how the playoffs work,” coach Bob Bradley said. “We’re a good team but we’re looking for a little more consistency when it really counts to become a great team.

“We get a chance to finish strong and when it’s all said and done, see what that means for playoffs.”

A call for the Hall

JP Dellacamera had several memorable calls during more than three decades as the broadcast voice of soccer in the U.S. But two stand out above the others: Paul Caligiuri’s 1989 goal against Trinidad and Tobago that qualified the U.S. for its first World Cup in half a century, and his description of the penalty-kick shootout in the 1999 Women’s World Cup that ended with Brandi Chastain taking her shirt off on the floor of the Rose Bowl.

Last weekend those calls, and the rest of an unparalleled career that included 14 World Cups — nine straight men’s tournaments and five women’s competitions — received the ultimate honor when Dellacamera was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. And as anyone who has listened to the Fox Sports broadcaster can attest, his timing remains perfect: his enshrinement coincided with the opening of a new 19,350-square-foot, $56-million home for the Hall in Frisco, Texas.

“This makes it better,” Dellacamera said.

Few broadcasters in any language can match Dellacamera’s resume, which includes not just World Cups and other international competitions. He was also the voice of the Philadelphia Union and did national MLS games for Fox, ESPN and ABC; he called the NASL’s New York Cosmos on television; did years of indoor soccer; and was the lead announcer for the now-defunct Women’s United Soccer Assn.

Dellacamera could have made more money doing other sports — he did professional hockey at several levels, including a long stint as the play-by-play voice of the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers — but none moved him like soccer, a game he didn’t play until he became an adult.

“It was always my favorite sport. Soccer was the passion,” Dellacamera said before breaking into a shrug and a smile and adding, “you know somebody had to do it.”

The same could be said about building a physical home for the Hall of Fame and its artifacts, which had been stored in a North Carolina warehouse since the previous building in Oneonta, N.Y., closed its doors for good more than eight years ago. The Hunt family — whose patriarch, Lamar, was instrumental in the creation of the NASL and the salvation of MLS and is a Hall inductee himself — finally stepped up, adding the Hall of Fame to the south end of Toyota Stadium, home to FC Dallas, the MLS team the Hunts own.

The Hall of Fame and museum, which opens to the public Nov. 2, will have 400 items on display but Djorn Buchholz, the executive director, said there are another 80,000 pieces that remain in storage. The painstaking job of cataloging them fell to Jim Trecker, a longtime media relations specialist.

“Things weren’t necessarily labeled appropriately,” Buchholz said. “He had a manifest but he’d go and look for, like, box 12. And there was no box 12. So he spent the better part of a year just opening up boxes on shelves and finding things we think would make sense inside a Hall of Fame.”

One of the things Trecker would have found at the Hall of Fame last weekend was his name on the wall as the 10th recipient of the Colin Jose Media Award, one year ahead of Dellacamera.

Trecker’s brother Jerry was the first to win the award.

The shirt off his back

Ibrahimovic is, from all appearances, a pretty nice guy. And while he might not give you the shirt off his back, MLS would gladly sell you one that looks just like it.

That has actually worked out quite well for MLS — and Ibrahimovic — since the Galaxy forward’s jersey is the top-selling shirt across the league, according to MLSstore.com. Exactly how many Ibrahimovic shirts have been sold the league didn’t say, but it’s more than 1,000 because that’s how many the Galaxy said they sold from their team store at the StubHub Center in Ibrahimovic’s first week last spring.

LAFC’s Carlos Vela was second in sales, according to MLSstore. Wayne Rooney, who didn’t play his first game until July, is fourth, just behind Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez, the league’s scoring leader.

LAFC’s Diego Rossi ranked 12th and the Galaxy’s Gio dos Santos also cracked the top 15, with his shirt sales ranking 14th. That’s one more game than the team’s best-paid player has appeared in this season. Rooney’s been in 19 and played nearly twice as many minutes as Dos Santos.

The top 10

1. Ibrahimovic (Galaxy)

2. Vela (LAFC)

3. Martinez (Atlanta United)

4. Rooney (DC United)

5. Almiron (Atlanta United)

6. Schweinsteiger (Chicago)

7. Villa (NYCFC)

8. Giovinco (Toronto)

9. Dempsey (Seattle)

10. Barco (Atlanta United)

Better get your Ibrahimovic jerseys while you can, though, because he continues to drop hints he may not be back next season unless he gets a new contract.

“Let’s see. We have another game and hopefully we can make it through the playoffs,” said Ibrahimovic, who has drawn the interest of clubs across Europe. “I’m not focused on next season. This isn’t the moment to focus on that and we have to see what happens.”

But, he added pointedly “to dance tango it takes two parts. So we will see what happens.”

Ibrahimovic will make $1.5 million this year, a paltry sum for a guy who reportedly made more than $26 million a season in Europe. And his MLS salary is just a quarter of what Dos Santos will earn.

But the Galaxy don’t have an open DP spot to give Ibrahimovic, limiting what they can offer him.

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Podcast

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.

Until next time

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