LAFC might miss top players during crucial MLS playoff race

LAFC forward Diego Rossi attempts a shot.
LAFC forward Diego Rossi attempts a shot during the second half against the Houston Dynamo on July 13 in Kissimmee, Fla.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

With Wednesday’s 6-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, LAFC not only set a record with its most lopsided win and tied another for most goals in a match, but it also improved its chances of earning a berth in the expanded MLS playoffs as the league begins the final 6½-week sprint to the end of the regular season.

However it may have to make most of that journey without two of its best players. Forwards Diego Rossi, the league’s leading scorer, and Brian Rodríguez, second in the league with seven assists, are on Uruguay’s 26-man preliminary roster for a pair of World Cup qualifiers next month, meaning they could miss five of LAFC’s final eight games.

And LAFC isn’t alone. A dozen MLS teams – including the Galaxy, who may lose top scorer Cristian Pavón (Argentina) and defender Rolf Feltscher (Venezuela) – could be short-handed for much of what remains of the regular season.

FIFA rules require clubs to release players to their national teams during international competition windows, a big reason why most of the world’s first-division leagues schedule around FIFA breaks. MLS rarely does that and with the 10-team South American qualifying tournament opening with two games between Oct. 8-13, players called up will miss at least three league matches.


But because of concerns over COVID-19, the league has quietly decided to require players returning from international duty to quarantine for 10 days. That will sideline players an additional two games, perhaps more.

Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach scored second-half goals and Real Salt Lake beat the LA Galaxy 2-0 on Wednesday night.

“In discussions with our medical experts and infectious disease advisors, it has been determined that players who leave to compete in matches for their national teams need to quarantine for 10 days upon returning to their MLS club,” Dan Courtemanche, the league’s executive vice-president for communications, said in a statement.

That decision only came to light publicly this week and the league declined comment beyond the statement. Both Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese and John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager and interim president, declined public comment as well. One reason for the silence, said an MLS official with knowledge of the league’s discussions, is the hope the qualifiers will be canceled by COVID-19.

If not, the effect could be devastating for LAFC, which may have to chase a playoff spot without Rossi, who scored his MLS-best 11th goal Wednesday, and Rodríguez.

“Diego has been our best player throughout the year,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “Diego has been super. His ability to step up when we have been without Carlos [Vela] has been fantastic. He’s grown as a player [and] a leader.

“Brian has been more up and down, but I thought it was a really good night for him. He’s a talented player.”

LAFC could also be without Ecuadorans José Cifuentes and Diego Palacios. Ecuador is one of six teams that has not released its qualifying roster but both players were called up for Ecuador’s last international game.

MLS already mandates a quarantine for newly arrived players, which is why the Galaxy remain without winger Yony González more than a week after he left Brazil. The league’s general managers recently agreed to extend that protocol to players returning from international games.

Neil Buethe, communications officer for U.S. Soccer, said the challenges that could create for MLS clubs was one of a number of considerations in the federation’s decision not to schedule a game of its own in FIFA’s October window.

The Vancouver Whitecaps, currently located in Portland because of the pandemic and fires, are headed to Los Angeles to take on LAFC.

Those challenges could extend beyond October since another series of South American qualifiers is scheduled for Nov. 12-17, just ahead of the start of MLS Cup playoffs Nov. 20.

LAFC (5-5-3) has to yet to qualify for those playoffs but the odds of that got better Wednesday when two Bradley Wright-Phillips’ goals staked it to a 4-0 lead in the opening 14 minutes.

That made LAFC the fastest team to four goals in MLS history while the two scores for Wright-Phillips moved him past LAFC assistant coach Ante Razov and into sixth on the league’s all-time leaderboard with 115 goals.

In addition to Wright-Phillips and Rossi, LAFC also got a goal from Dejan Jakovic in the second minute, his first in MLS since 2012 and just his second in 127 league games. Vancouver contributed the other two scores on own goals from Ranko Veselinovic and Andy Rose.

Goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega was not called upon to make a save in earning his first MLS shutout.

“It was important for us to have a shutout tonight. We haven’t had one for a while,” Bradley said.

Vancouver keeper Bryan Meredith, making just his second appearance in an MLS game since 2012, made seven saves.

He faced 19 shots, 11 of them on target.