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Soccer newsletter: Inside what went wrong for the Galaxy and LAFC

Carlos Vela, left, and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez run on the pitch
LAFC’s Carlos Vela, left, and the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez could not lead their teams to the MLS playoffs.
(Ashley Landis, Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer. We start today with the MLS playoffs, which won’t include a team from Southern California for just the second time since 2008.

And with the San Jose Earthquakes also failing to make the not-so-difficult cut — more than half the Western Conference’s 13 teams qualified for the postseason — this year’s tournament will be the first in 13 years to exclude California completely.

LAFC and the Galaxy were officially eliminated during the regular season’s final afternoon, with the Galaxy’s fate decided by a Real Salt Lake goal deep in stoppage time — and a blown handball call in the dying seconds of regulation — 1,600 miles away in Kansas City. The RSL goal and the Galaxy draw left the teams on points at 48 with the Western Conference’s final playoff berth went to Salt Lake on a tiebreaker, marking the first time the Galaxy (13-12-9) had fallen below the playoff line all season.

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LAFC, meanwhile, was above the playoff line for just a day in the season’s final 2½ months. Yet in the final weeks a playoff berth appeared tenuous for both.

The Galaxy entered the final day of the regular season needing a win to assure themselves a postseason invitation. But as was the case much of the season, they couldn’t rise to the occasion, managing just a draw on two second-half goals from Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and leaving RSL the oh-so-narrow path it needed to get by.

The ending was emblematic of a season during which the Galaxy let too many opportunities get away.

First-year coach Greg Vanney inherited a team that had made the playoffs just once in four seasons, losing more often than it won. So he remade it, bringing in 15 new players, including many who knew little of MLS or the Galaxy. The summer additions gave the Galaxy the highest payroll in the league, but it didn’t buy them success, leaving Vanney uncertain what lessons to draw from the season.

Galaxy forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (14) celebrates in front of the Sounders supporters section
Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (14) celebrates in front of the Sounders supporters section after he scored a goal Nov. 1 in Seattle.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

“I would probably be better emotionally and in a better position to answer that question in a couple of days,” he said.

“It’s been a learning process, handling these big moments, handling the expectations of being with the Galaxy and also for guys to learn our league and to understand how to get results in our league, but also how each game matters. There’s never a moment that doesn’t matter. This is an unfortunate lesson, but it’s one that we have to take forward and use to grow from.”

On too many occasions the Galaxy appeared to shrink from those moments that mattered. After winning seven of their first 10 games, for example, the Galaxy won just six of their final 24.

A nine-game winless streak in August and September saw them fall from the top of the table to sixth place. Included in that slump were three road losses in 11 days that saw them score just once, get shutout by last-place Austin and lose another game on a goal in the 95th minute.

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They gave away points on a late own goal in San Jose, were shut out six times and conceded 54 times on the other end; only two teams in the conference gave up more goals. Now comes a winter full of tough decisions.

Captain Jonathan dos Santos is out of contract and likely out of a job. He’ll be 32 early next season and the Galaxy have already figured his designated player spot into their offseason plans.

Decisions also loom for veteran Sacha Kljestan, who played more games at 36 than he has since 2017 but is out of contract, and Victor Vázquez and Ethan Zubak, the who have options that must be picked up or declined.

Meanwhile defender Giancarlo González, who got $850,000 but didn’t play a minute for the Galaxy this year, is still on the team’s books for another season even though he’s playing in Costa Rica for Alajuelense.

The future is also uncertain for general manager Dennis te Kloese, who has seemingly grown tired of what has long has been a dysfunctional front office. The Galaxy have reportedly activated its option on Te Kloese, who has been listening to offers from other teams just the same. He is expected to make a decision by the weekend.

For Hernández, meanwhile, Vanney made progress in his first year. But not enough for big club like the Galaxy.

“There’s a lot of stuff that we did much, much better than in the last season,” he said. “But the thing is, we need to realize that we are the L.A. Galaxy. The aspirations and accountability are massive, it’s huge.

“Whoever doesn’t have that in mind shouldn’t be in this organization, starting from me.”

LAFC forward Carlos Vela (10) reacts to a call during a match against the Whitecaps
LAFC forward Carlos Vela (10) reacts to a call during a match against the Whitecaps in Los Angeles on July 24.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

LAFC’s year began heading south 22 minutes into the regular-season opener when Carlos Vela was taken out with a leg injury. Vela protested the decision, but the right quadriceps problem would hobble him for the rest of the schedule, limiting him to 15 starts and five goals.

Injuries would be an important theme to the season, with the team losing center back Eddie Segura to a torn ACL in July and midfielder Eduard Atuesta to a shoulder injury in October. In between forward Diego Rossi, then the team’s leader scorer, left MLS on loan to Turkish club Fenerbahçe, As a result, coach Bob Bradley was forced to mix and match, starting defenders in the midfield, midfielders upfront and rarely using the same lineup in consecutive games.

A seven-game winless streak in the middle of the season dropped the team to ninth in the conference, where it eventually finished. The fact that LAFC, which finished 12-13-9, even had a shot at a playoff berth with a game remaining is the result of a season-long six-game winning streak and some spectacular play from newcomer Cristian Arango, who scored 14 goals in 16 games after arriving from Colombia in early August.

Arango, naturally, scored in the team’s must-win final game but Colorado scored more often, winning 5-2 to eliminate LAFC and push the Rapids to the top of the standings, giving them a first-round playoff bye.

Rapids defender Danny Wilson, left, covers LAFC forward Cristian Arango who drives with the ball toward the net
Rapids defender Danny Wilson, left, covers LAFC forward Cristian Arango who drives with the ball toward the net Sunday in Commerce City, Colo.
(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Arango, who cost the team just $659,000, gives LAFC some options should it engage in serious discussions on a new contract for Vela, who made a league-high $6.3 million in 2021. It could be a short conversation since Vela missed more games than he played in the last two seasons and has been acting like someone heading for the exit.

Bradley’s contract is up as well.

Building a team, as Bradley did in 2018, is more appealing than rebuilding one and so with LAFC heading into the offseason with more questions than answers, the time may be good for him to leave as well. (If defender Jordan Harvey doesn’t return at 38, LAFC could open camp next year with just three holdovers — Atuesta, 24, Latif Blessing, 24, and Tristan Blackmon, 25, — from its first roster in 2018. All three are signed through next season, according to the tranfermarkt website.)

The good news is Arango, 26, will give Bradley, or whoever follows him, something to build around but with Brian Rodríguez, 21, also seeming eager to leave, LAFC will need to find someone to pair the Colombia with.

There are also questions in the midfield, especially if the team follows through in its plans to move Atuesta to fund its roster makeover. And while the return of the 24-year-old Segura will make the backline a strength again, the team is unsettled at goalkeeper.

LAFC’s payroll has risen slightly in each of its four MLS seasons, to just under $16 million this season, fifth-best in the league. But that spending wasn’t efficient with the team spending about $355,000 per point, among the highest figures in the league.

After missing the playoffs and posting a losing record for the first time in its short history, LAFC would appear to have a busy offseason coming up, one that will test whether it wants to be an elite franchise or one that is content to fill its stadium and simply contend for a postseason berth.

“At the end of every season there’s important conversations. And when you had a disappointing year, those discussions take on a different tone,” Bradley said. “So we’ll see what comes from all of them.”

Final MLS standings

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Team Pts. W L T GF GA GD

Colorado 61 17 7 10 52 35 16

Seattle 60 17 8 9 53 33 20

Kansas City 58 17 10 7 58 40 18

Portland 55 17 13 4 56 52 4

Minnesota 49 13 11 10 39 41 -2

Vancouver 49 12 9 13 46 45 1

Salt Lake 48 14 14 6 55 54 1

_________________________________________________________________

Galaxy 48 13 12 9 50 54 -4

LAFC 45 12 13 9 53 51 2

San Jose 41 10 15 12 47 56 -8

Dallas 33 7 15 11 46 55 -9

Austin 30 9 21 4 35 56 -21

Houston 28 6 16 12 36 54 -18

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Team Pts. W L T GF GA GD

New England 73 22 5 7 65 41 24

Philadelphia 54 14 8 12 48 35 13

Nashville 54 12 4 18 55 33 22

New York City 51 14 11 9 56 36 20

Atlanta 51 13 9 12 45 37 8

Orlando 51 13 9 12 50 48 2

Red Bulls 48 13 12 9 39 33 6

_______________________________________________________________

D.C. United 47 14 15 4 56 54 2

Columbus 47 13 13 8 46 45 1

Montreal 46 12 12 10 46 44 2

Miami 41 12 17 5 36 53 -17

Chicago 34 9 18 7 36 54 -18

Toronto 28 6 18 10 39 66 -27

Cincinnati 20 4 22 8 37 74 -37

Tiebreakers: 1. Wins 2. Goal differential 3. Total goals 4. Fewest disciplinary points

Playoff pairings

WESTERN CONFERENCE

  1. Colorado, first-round bye
  2. Seattle Vs. (7) Real Salt Lake, Nov. 23
  3. Sporting Kansas City Vs. (6) Vancouver, Nov. 20
  4. Portland Vs. (5) Minnesota, Nov. 21

EASTERN CONFERENCE

  1. New England Revolution, first-round bye
  2. Philadelphia vs. (7) Red Bulls, Nov. 20
  3. Nashville vs. (6) Orlando City, Nov. 23
  4. New York City vs. (5) Atlanta, Nov, 21

(postseason seed in parentheses)

NYCFC midfielder Valentín Castellanos controls the ball against CF Montreal on July 7
NYCFC midfielder Valentín Castellanos controls the ball against CF Montreal on July 7 in Orlando, Fla.
(Gary McCullough / Associated Press)

GOAL LEADERS

19 - Valentín Castellanos, NYCFC

Ola Kamara, D.C. United

17 – Javier Hernández, Galaxy

Raúl Ruidíaz , Seattle

16 – Adam Buksa, New England

Damir Kreilach, Real Salt Lake

Hany Mukhtar, Nashville

Dániel Sallói, Kansas City

15 – Gustavo Bou, New England

Johnny Russell, Kansas City

14 – Cristian Arango, LAFC

The Columbus Crew's Pedro Santos, left, puts pressure on New England Revolution's Carles Gil, center, May 16
The Columbus Crew’s Pedro Santos, left, puts pressure on New England Revolution’s Carles Gil, center, on May 16 in Foxborough, Mass.
(Steven Senne / Associated Press)

ASSIST LEADERS

18 – Carles Gil, New England

16 – Djordje Mihailovic, Montreal

13 – Julian Gressel, D.C. United

12 - Hany Mukhtar, Nashville

Jack Price, Colorado

11 – Aaron Herrera, Salt Lake

João Paulo, Seattle

Maxi Moralez, NYCFC

Albert Rusnák, Salt Lake

(four players tied with 10)

Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis stops a shot during a against Inter Miami on Aug. 8
Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis stops a shot during a against Inter Miami on Aug. 8 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

GOALKEEPING LEADERS

Shutouts

13 – Carlos Coronel, Red Bulls

Joe Willis, Nashville

William Yarbrough, Colorado

11 – Tyler Miller, Minnesota

10 - Brad Guzan, Atlanta

9 - Sean Johnson, NYCFC

8 – Bill Hamid, D.C. United

7 – Steve Clark, Portland

Pedro Gallese, Orlando

Eloy Room, Columbus

USC, UCLA and Pepperdine punch playoff tickets

Speaking of the playoffs, while LAFC and the Galaxy were stumbling USC, UCLA and Pepperdine earned seeded spots Monday in the 64-team NCAA women’s tournament, which kicks off this weekend.

The undefeated Bruins (16-0-3), champions of the Pac-12, were given a No. 2 national seed and will open at home with UC Irvine (15-5-0), the Big West Conference champion, on Friday at 6 p.m. USC (13-4-2), a No. 3 seed, will play host to Grand Canyon (16-3-2) on Saturday while Pepperdine (15-3-1), a fourth seed, will face South Dakota State (17-3-1) at noon Saturday in Malibu.

The start time for the USC game will be announced later this week.

UCLA players celebrate with head coach Amanda Cromwell, center, after beating Florida State to win a national championship
UCLA players celebrate with head coach Amanda Cromwell, center, after beating Florida State to win a national championship in Cary, N.C., on Dec. 8, 2013.
(Ellen Ozier / Associated Press)

UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell, who won a national title in her first season at the school in 2013, thought she had a team that could make another deep playoff run last spring, but the Bruins were eliminated from the tournament on penalty kicks in the round of 16. The memories of that loss have fueled this team, which beat USC last Friday to win its second consecutive conference title.

“Obviously the postseason is tough. Everyone’s good,” said Cromwell, whose team has lost just two of its last 46 games dating to the middle of the 2019 season. One loss came in the NCAA semifinals and the other in overtime.

“You’ve got to win games and you’ve got to put away your chances. We’ll have a lot of momentum and the girls will be mentally ready for the next leg.”

UCLA will be making its 25th appearance in the NCAA tournament, where the Bruins are 69-19-6 with appearances in the Round of 16 or beyond in seven of the last eight seasons. The team, unbeaten in its last 26 games, is led by Hermann Trophy candidate Mia Fishel, who leads the team with 12 goals, and goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy, who is giving up half a goal a game and has nine shutouts.

For USC, which had an 11-game winning streak and a 15-game unbeaten streak earlier this season, the national tournament invitation is the school’s 20th and the eighth in a row under coach Keidane McAlpine.

The Trojans lost their regular-season finale to UCLA, costing them the conference title. But McAlpine said that result is something the team can use in its NCAA run.

“Now we’ve got to start over,” he said. “Now they remember what it is to hurt a little bit from a loss. Sometimes that hurt can really get you going. And so we’ll be better, we’ll be full.

“We’ll be more energetic will be more determined. We’ll tackle harder, we’ll run harder, we’ll press harder, simply because we won’t want to feel that feeling again.”

Senior Penelope Hocking, whose 10 goals were second only to junior Croix Bethune’s 13, broke the school’s career scoring record last month and has 52 scores for her college career.

The Trojans made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament in the spring before falling on penalty kicks.

Pepperdine, meanwhile, will be hosting a tournament game for the first time since 2017. The school has made it as far as the Sweet 16 three times, the last visit coming in 2014.

Pepperdine goalkeeper Zoe Clevely stands on the field during a practice
Pepperdine goalkeeper Zoe Clevely’s 10 shutouts are tied for second in Division I.
(Courtesy of Jeff Golden / Pepperdine)

Senior goalkeeper Zoe Clevely was a freshman redshirt the last time the Waves played an NCAA game at home and she’s eager to make up for that last time.

“We’ve been showing the nation the program that we’ve always meant to be,” said Clevely, who believes Pepperdine often is overlooked because it shares a city with two other major programs.

Clevely is tied for third in the nation with 11 shutouts this season, including seven in a row during an 11-game winning streak, longest in Pepperdine history. Senior Joelle Anderson leads the offense with nine goals and five assists.

Playoff berth earns Chaplow a permanent job at OCSC

Also in the playoffs after a year’s absence is the Orange County Soccer Club of the second-tier USL Championship.

OCSC (15-10-7) finished second to Phoenix Rising in the eight-team Pacific Division, then beat Colorado Springs in its postseason opener on Ronaldo Damus’ score in first-half stoppage time. It will play again Saturday in the Western Conference semifinals, where it faces the Oakland Roots at Championship Soccer Stadium in the Irvine Great Park. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

Haiti forward Ronaldo Damus (18) is held by Martinique defender Jean-sylvain Babin during a CONCACAF Gold Cup Group A match
Haiti forward Ronaldo Damus (18) is held by Martinique defender Jean-sylvain Babin during a CONCACAF Gold Cup Group A match on July 18 in Frisco, Texas.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)

A good deal of the credit for the playoff invitation goes to former midfielder Richard Chaplow, who replaced Braeden Cloutier as head coach in August and led the team to an 8-3-2 record down the stretch.

Chaplow entered the playoffs as the team’s interim manager, but that tag will be removed Tuesday when OCSC announces Chaplow has been signed to a multi-year contract as the team’s permanent manager. Terms of the deal were not announced.

“We have been very impressed with Richard’s leadership and professionalism since taking over as interim coach,” said Oliver Wyss, OCSC’s president of soccer operations. “Richard has been a true winner throughout his entire playing career, and I am convinced he will continue his successful ways as our head coach. He is fully aligned with the goals and expectations of our club and we are looking forward to seeing Richard lead our team for years to come.”

Chaplow, 36, was captain on the 2018 OCSC team that went 20-8-6 and finished atop the regular-season standings before losing to Phoenix in the USL Championship final.

He retired after the season and joined Cloutier’s staff as an assistant, fulfilling a plan to become a coach after a 13-year career in England that included 10 Premier League appearances.

OCSC was floundering when Chaplow took over for Cloutier last summer, having gone 1-5-2 and falling to fourth in the division at 7-7-5 overall. But the team lost just one of its first six games after the switch, then closed the season even stronger while allowing only a goal in its final five games, including the playoff opener.

OCSC won all four of its regular-season games with Oakland, a first-year USL Championship team, conceding just once. The winner of Saturday’s match advances to the conference final against the winner of the second semifinal between Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio.

U.S. hopes new home brings same results vs. Mexico

It’s been 24 years since the U.S. played a home World Cup qualifier with Mexico anywhere but Columbus, Ohio. Friday’s game still is in Ohio and won’t be far away, just 100 miles down I-71 in Cincinnati.

But coach Gregg Berhalter is hoping that’s far enough to erase the memory of the 2016 qualifier, a 2-1 Mexican win that helped keep the U.S. out of a World Cup for the first time since 1986.

U.S. players celebrate their extra-time victory over Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final
U.S. players celebrate their extra-time victory over Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final on Aug. 1 in Las Vegas.
(David Becker / Associated Press)

Berhalter worked alongside Amy Hopfinger, U.S. Soccer’s vice president for events, in choosing the venues for the home qualifiers this time around. They decided to play October’s match with Jamaica in the new MLS stadium in Columbus and the November qualifier with Mexico in the MLS stadium in Cincinnati, which is just two months older.

“Our priority was finding a venue that we know we’d have a pro-U.S. crowd,” Berhalter said. “It’s not always cut and dry when you’re talking about the United States. We have a rich Hispanic heritage in our country.

“For us it was about getting this right. We know it’s going to be important to have a great crowd.”

The U.S. may get some help from the weather, too, with temperatures forecast to drop to near freezing Friday night.

TQL Stadium, which opened in May, has nearly 6,000 more seats that Columbus’ Lower.com Field and U.S. Soccer sold them all despite prices that ranged as high as $1,000. Monday afternoon the asking price for a ticket on the secondary market was 10 times higher.

According to U.S. Soccer, which controlled sale of the tickets to assure a friendly crowd, tickets were sold to buyers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. And they could have sold more had the game been scheduled for a massive NFL stadium instead an intimate, 26,000-seat MLS venue.

“We know we are leaving money and financial opportunity on the table,” Hopfinger said. “But there are games that that’s always worth doing. Making sure that we qualify for the World Cup is first and foremost.”

The home-field advantage is critical in World Cup qualifying. The loss five years ago marked the Americans’ first at home in a qualifier with Mexico since 1972. In Mexico, meanwhile, the U.S. never has won a qualifying match.

The United States' Christian Pulisic (10) holds the championship trophy while celebrating the Americans' win over Mexico
The United States’ Christian Pulisic (10) holds the championship trophy while celebrating the Americans’ win over Mexico during the CONCACAF Nations League championship soccer match, on June 6 in Denver.
(Jack Dempsey / Associated Press)

The U.S. will take a two-game winning streak into Friday’s game, having beaten Mexico in the finals of last summer’s CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup. But Berhalter isn’t banking on that momentum carrying over.

“This is a completely different animal,” he said. “We’re not thinking at all of what happened in the summer. Our focus is what’s going to happen on Nov. 12.”

Christian Pulisic, who scored the deciding goal in extra time in the Nations League win over El Tri, is back in camp with the U.S. after missing October’s qualifiers with an ankle injury. He has played in just two of six games in the tournament.

The U.S. (3-1-2) trails unbeaten Mexico (4-0-2) by three points in the CONCACAF qualifying table. The top three teams in the eight-team tournament qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup in Qatar.

And finally there’s this …

Chris Wondolowski announced his retirement Sunday and he went out in style by scoring the only goal in the San Jose Earthquakes’ 1-0 win over FC Dallas. The goal, the 171st in a 17-year career spent mostly with San Jose, extended his all-time MLS record. Wondolowski scored 11 times in 35 appearances with the U.S. national team.

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.

Quotebook

“What is incredibly disappointing, what is a stab to the heart of every single person that is associated to our club and all the clubs that are competing, [is] this result affects them as well. Salt Lake gets in, L.A. gets knocked out. L.A. is now sitting on the outside because of a call, as well.”

Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes after a handball violation by Real Salt Lake’s Justen Glad was not enforced by the center referee or VAR official in Sunday’s 1-0 loss. RSL won the game on a goal five minutes into stoppage time, costing Kansas City a first-round playoff bye and giving RSL the Western Conference’s final playoff berth in a tiebreaker with the Galaxy, who were eliminated.

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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