Carlos Vela and LAFC make history as they shift focus to MLS Cup playoffs
If there was any doubt — and there wasn’t much — LAFC officially stamped itself as the best team in MLS history Sunday. And Carlos Vela, its captain, became the league’s greatest scorer.
If you don’t believe me, you can look it up because with their 3-1 win over the Colorado Rapids at Banc of California Stadium, Vela and LAFC completed their extensive season-long rewrite of the league record book.
With the victory LAFC finishes with 72 points, one more than the previous best. Its plus-48 goal differential is also best-ever while the three goals gave the team 85 for the season, equaling the MLS record.
And Vela, with his second hat trick of the season, broke the individual single-season mark with 34 goals.
There should be asterisks behind all that, though, because those are regular-season records. And in MLS regular-season records have rarely paid off with postseason success.
Neither the New York Red Bulls, who set the old points record last season, nor the 1998 Galaxy, who set the goal-scoring and goal-differential marks, reached the MLS Cup final. In fact just three times since 2003 has a team finished the regular season with the best record and the playoffs with a trophy.
LAFC wants both.
Highlights from LAFC’s victory over Colorado on Sunday.
“It’s not like you didn’t accomplish [anything],” defender Steven Beitashour said. “But our goal has always been MLS Cup. Everything that you’ve seen, those accomplishments, that’s because of what we’re striving for.”
Sunday was “Decision Day” in MLS, with all 12 games kicking off at the same time – 11 of them with invitations or positioning for the playoffs at stake. The Galaxy were among those who didn’t get the decision they wanted, with two goals by former LAFC forward Christian Ramirez leading the Houston Dynamo to a 4-2 win that cost them home-field advantage in the postseason.
The Galaxy had a chance to secure home-field last week too but lost to Vancouver, finishing the season with back-to-back losses to teams at the bottom of the conference. Not a good way to prepare for the postseason.
“No disrespect to teams we’ve played, but losing both those games is embarrassing for us,” goalkeeper David Bingham said. “We have to be better and going in the playoffs now you can’t play games like that or you’re going home. That’s just the reality of it and we’ve got two weeks to kind of get healthy and get everyone feeling good.”
The Galaxy (16-15-3, 51 points), who will open the single-elimination playoffs at Minnesota United (15-11-8, 53 points) on Oct. 20 at 5:30 p.m., lost despite a first-half goal from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his 30th of the season. With Vela finishing with 34, this was the first season in MLS history in which two players scored at least goals.
By finishing with the league’s best record at 21-4-9 LAFC gets a first-round playoff bye and will open the postseason Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m. It will also have home-field advantage throughout the tournament – including the MLS Cup final, should the team make it that far.
Colorado’s game Sunday at LAFC likely will be the last for Tim Howard, and the 40-year-old will head into retirement as the greatest goalkeeper in U.S. history.
And Beitashour said after bowing out of the postseason in a stunning first-round upset last year, anything short of the final would be a disappointment.
“You haven’t seen anybody let up,” he said. “Everybody was determined to get back into the playoffs and get into MLS Cup final and win. We were so angry at losing last year. Because we thought we had a real good chance.”
Beitashour has been here before. Three years ago he played for a Toronto team that lost an MLS Cup final it thought it should have won. Fueled by that disappointment, it posted the best regular-season winning percentage in two decades the next season, then gave up just two goals in five playoff games to win the MLS Cup going away.
“With this team you saw that same fuel, that same fire in everyone’s eyes,” he said. “Everything you saw come along the way – from the points record, whatever – we don’t want any of that. We want to get to MLS Cup.“
Vela seems poised to carry them there after beating Colorado keeper Tim Howard with three of the four shots he put on goal Sunday, likely securing the league MVP award he said he’s been chasing all season.
The first goal, which broke Josef Martinez’s year-old league record, came on a left-footed curler from outside the penalty area in the 28th minute.
He extended the record three minutes later, using a scissor kick to knock in a Tristan Blackmon header from the top of the six-yard box. Kei Kamara halved the deficit for Colorado (12-16-6) just before the break but Vela got that back six minutes into the second half, completing the hat trick by poking in a low cross from Blackmon.
Vela’s 34 goals in 31 games are three more than FC Cincinnati scored as a team this season. But he didn’t celebrate the record long. By the time he showered and dressed he had joined Beitashour in focusing on the one thing LAFC hasn’t won this season: a league title.
“The most points in history is really important because we showed how good we are. But we want more,” he said. “If we don’t win the MLS Cup then the record is nothing so we have to keep working.
“Starting tomorrow we have to think about the playoff [game] and be ready.”
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