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Analyzing MLS playoff picture: LAFC is set; the Galaxy need to win

LAFC forward Carlos Vela celebrates after scoring against the Galaxy on Aug. 25.
LAFC forward Carlos Vela celebrates after scoring against the Galaxy on Aug. 25.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The Galaxy head into their regular-season finale in Houston on Sunday knowing they’ll be playing in the MLS playoffs. They just don’t when, where or their opponent.

LAFC, meanwhile, will take the field Sunday against visiting Colorado as the best team in the league and with a chance of becoming the best regular-season team ever.

Welcome to “Decision Day” and the conclusion of the MLS regular season, when all 12 games will kick off just after 1:20 p.m. Pacific time with something — from a playoff berth to playoff seeding to league immortality — at stake in 11 of those matches.

“You’re either playing a team pushing to get into the playoffs or playing a team that isn’t, but still pushing for something,” Galaxy defender Dan Steres said. “It’s the same sort of challenge. It’s on us to take the game to them and be the better team.”

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The Galaxy (16-14-3), fourth in the Western Conference and in position to begin the postseason at home, can jump as high as second in the crowded standings with a win. But a loss to Houston coupled with a Real Salt Lake victory over last-place Vancouver would drop the Galaxy to fifth place, forcing them to open the playoffs on the road.

There’s more at stake than the inconvenience of a road trip, though: The Galaxy are second in MLS with 11 home wins while their nine road losses are fourth-worse among playoff contenders. Last year, Houston rallied from a 2-0 halftime deficit to beat the Galaxy on the season’s final day, knocking them out of the playoffs for a second straight season.

There are also a couple of personal milestones within reach for the Galaxy. With a franchise-record 29 goals, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one short of becoming the third player in MLS history to finish a season with 30, while forward Cristian Pavón needs an assist to tie the 19-year-old league record for consecutive games with an assist at eight.

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LAFC (20-4-9) has already claimed its first major trophy, winning the Supporters’ Shield and guaranteeing it will finish the regular season with the league’s best record and a first-round playoff bye no matter what happens in its game with the Rapids at Banc of California Stadium. A win would give it an MLS-record 72 points, while four goals — LAFC has scored that many in a game 10 times this year — would lift its season total to 86, which also would be a record.

Individually, captain Carlos Vela, the league’s scoring leader, needs one more goal to break Josef Martinez’s year-old record of 31 in a season.

LAFC’s Walker Zimmerman and Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget were among those named to the U.S. men’s national team roster for the Nations League tournament.

Coach Bob Bradley is well aware of the history at stake Sunday but said he’s more interested in how his team plays. LAFC has dropped points in six of its last seven games and the Colorado match will be its final tuneup before its playoff opener Oct. 23 or 24.

“We want to be at our best,” Bradley said. “Given how well we’ve played, given the possibility of still having the most points ever for an MLS team, given the possibility of Carlos to have the most goals ever; going into the last match there’s things there that we’re proud of and we want to finish off the right way.”

What’s left to be decided on “Decision Day”

For LAFC

Team: With a win, LAFC will finish the regular season with a record 72 points. And with 82 goals entering Sunday, it needs three to tie and four to break the all-time MLS record in that category.

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Individually: With 31 goals, Carlos Vela needs one to break Josef Martinez’s year-old single-season record. He leads the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic by two in the race for the Golden Boot.

For the Galaxy

Team: With a win in Houston, the Galaxy, who enter the day fourth in the Western Conference, can finish as high as second and no worse than third in the standings, guaranteeing home-field advantage for their playoff opener. A loss or draw, combined with a win by Real Salt Lake, would drop the Galaxy to fifth and require them to start the postseason on the road.

Individually: Captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic needs one goal to become the third player to MLS history to score 30 times in a season. With three goals, he could pass LAFC’s Carlos Vela, break the league single-season record and win the scoring title. Forward Cristian Pavón has registered an assist in seven consecutive games; with one more Sunday, he would tie Martin Machon’s 19-year-old league record.


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