For record-seeking LAFC, winning regular season and MLS playoffs would be tall task
Winning the long regular-season marathon and the short postseason sprint is one of the toughest doubles in North American sports.
Only twice this century has an NFL team finished the same campaign with sole possession of both the best regular-record and the Super Bowl trophy. It has happened only three times in the NHL.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Ante Razov said. “Playoffs [are] a completely different thing. Fortune plays a big part of it.”
Razov speaks from experience. In 2003, he played for a Chicago Fire team that was the best in Major League Soccer for 7½ months, finishing atop the regular-season standings and winning the U.S. Open Cup. Then it gave up two goals in the final 40 minutes of an MLS Cup final it lost.
“So you walk away feeling that was not a nice season,” he said.
Now an LAFC assistant coach, Razov is hoping this season won’t be a case of déjà vu — but there are similarities.
Going into a home game with the New York Red Bulls on Sunday, LAFC is the best team in MLS, leading the league in wins (16), points (52) and goals (61). It has a chance to break league records in all three categories and has a 10-point lead atop the standings with 11 games to play.
All that figures to do is get it a ticket to the playoffs, though, and if the team needs a reminder of how worthless that can be, all it has to do is look across the field Sunday. A year ago, the Red Bulls broke the MLS record for points to win the Supporters’ Shield, the trophy given to the league’s regular-season champion. But they were eliminated from the postseason in the conference finals and left the playoffs empty-handed.
“It’s a different tournament,” Razov said. “You grind all season to get home advantage, but that doesn’t always mean you’re going to wind up with what you want at the end.”
Soccer on TV this weekend: Liverpool and Norwich get the English Premier League started, while Monaco hosts Lyon in the opener of France’s Ligue 1.
In fact, the odds say you won’t. Only a third of the NBA’s best regular-season teams went on to win the title this century. It has happened only five times since 2000 in baseball and three times in the last 16 MLS seasons.
Walker Zimmerman and Steven Beitashour, who play side-by-side on LAFC’s back line, have experienced that from different sides.
Three seasons ago, Zimmerman played on a Dallas team that won the Supporters’ Shield and the U.S. Open Cup. But in the penultimate game of the regular season, it lost playmaker Mauro Diaz to a torn Achilles and was bounced from the playoffs in the second round.
“The Supporters’ Shield is a grind. It’s where you’re having to focus each and every week to put yourself in a position to win it,” Zimmerman said. “That’s taxing. ”
And it can make the playoffs seem anticlimactic because you’ve already beaten the teams you’re going to face in the postseason.
“It’s that feeling of, ‘We accomplished something.’ And now the foot is off the pedal a little bit,” said Beitashour, whose Toronto team fought off that complacency in 2017, becoming the last team to accomplish the Supporters’ Shield-MLS Cup double.
Beitashour also finds similarities between that team and LAFC. In 2016, Toronto lost an MLS Cup final it thought it should have won, falling to Seattle on penalty kicks despite not giving up a shot on goal. Fueled by that disappointment, it came back the next season and posted the best regular-season winning percentage in two decades, then gave up just two goals in five playoff games to win the MLS Cup going away.
Last year, LAFC had the best season for an MLS expansion team but was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round on a pair of quirky goals.
“Guys came back motivated,” Beitashour said.
Also helpful is the playoff format has changed this season, rewarding the Supporters’ Shield winner by giving it a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. That’s a big plum for LAFC, which has lost only twice in 28 MLS games at Banc of California Stadium.
But, Beitashour warns, that should only be considered a step toward the ultimate destination.
“If you have the mind-set amongst the entire team that MLS Cup is our goal, then everything else along the way is part of the path,” he said. “Supporters’ Shield comes along the way.
“The MLS Cup, you have to get a little lucky. You have to be healthy at the right time. Supporters’ Shield is way more difficult.”
One’s a sprint, one’s a marathon.
“It’s a challenge. But we embrace that challenge,” Razov said. “We want to be that team that says, ‘nope, we’re going wire-to-wire if we can and have no regrets along the way.’”