With just three weeks left in the MLS season, much remains to be decided.
LAFC, a league-best 19-4-6, this week clinched first place in the Western Conference standings and the first-round playoff bye that goes with that. But behind it the postseason picture is jumbled with seven teams, including the Galaxy, separated by just four points in the battle for the conference’s final six playoff spots.
Here’s what’s at stake as the race enters the final stretch:
Home sweet home: With a win Saturday at Philadelphia, combined with a New York City loss to San Jose and a loss or draw by Atlanta United vs. Columbus, LAFC would be guaranteed of finishing with the league’s best record and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. That’s a big perk for a team that is 11-1-2 at Banc of California Stadium, where it sold out all 32 MLS games it has played there.
However LAFC isn’t exactly sprinting to the finish, bogged down instead by a season-worst three-game winless streak during which it has missed MVP candidate Carlos Vela, the league’s scoring leader with 27 goals. Vela is expected to return Saturday, resuming his pursuit of the league’s single-season record of 31 goals, set last year by Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez.
Work to do: If the playoffs started this weekend the Galaxy, eighth in the conference standings, would miss out for a third straight season. But the postseason doesn’t start for another month and that leaves the Galaxy with five games to make up the point separating it from a playoff berth – and the three points separating it from a home playoff opener.
Of the seven teams competing for the final six postseason berths, the Galaxy have the easiest remaining schedule: Beginning with Sunday night’s game with Sporting Kansas City at Dignity Health Sports Park, just one of the team’s final five opponents entered the weekend with a winning record.
Contrast that with the Portland Timbers, who are a point ahead of the Galaxy but play five of their final six games against playoff teams. Or the San Jose Earthquakes, who are two points ahead and play all five of their remaining games against playoff teams.
“If we really want it we need to step it up and play with a lot of will, and play with the pressure,” said Galaxy captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who missed training Friday with Achilles inflammation, the same ailment that sidelined him for two games earlier this year. “The pressure is good. I know we can handle it. But everyone deals with it differently.
“We need to show that we want it every day. Not just in games, but also in training. “
The Galaxy (13-13-3) haven’t shown much fight lately, winning only one of their last eight. That mirrors last season’s summer swoon when the team won one of eight and missed the playoffs by a point.
A little help from their friends: There is a drawback to the Galaxy’s remaining schedule. Because they will face just one team currently ahead of them in the standings, the Galaxy can’t make up ground on their own and will have to rely on the help of others to climb into a playoff spot.
In fact the race is so tight and the possibilities so endless, the Galaxy could go unbeaten over their final five games, finish second and open the postseason at home. Or they could go unbeaten, finish seventh and watch the postseason from home.
That’s partly because the process for breaking ties in the conference standings goes against them. The first tiebreaker is victories and the Galaxy have more wins than just one team above them in the table. The second tiebreaker is goal differential and the Galaxy, at minus-5, are the only playoff contenders with a negative number.
The Galaxy have only themselves to blame for their plight; after going 7-1-1 to open the season, they’ve won just 6 of 20 games since. The Houston Dynamo eliminated the Galaxy from the playoffs on the final day last year and Houston will likely decide the team’s fate this season as well since the teams meet again on the final weekend, this time in Texas.
Record chase: Despite its current struggles, LAFC needs just nine points in its final five games to break the MLS single-season points record of 71. And with 76 goals it needs 10 more to break the league record in that category.
Vela’s quest to become the first MLS player with 20 goals and 20 assists in the same season appears over since he would need five assists in as many games to reach 20 – and he’s had just four in the last two months. Martinez’s single-season goal-scoring record is in reach, however, and if Vela and Diego Rossi combine for two more goals, they will become the most prolific teammates in league history with 44 scores.