Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer and we start today with the two best players in MLS, who once again appear to be on a collision course toward a rematch in the playoffs.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic put on another in a long series of description-defying performances in the Galaxy’s 7-2 win over Sporting Kansas City on Sunday, scoring a hat trick to lift the flagging team to fifth in the tight Western Conference race.
That came a day after Carlos Vela returned from a hamstring injury to score LAFC’s only goal in a 1-1 draw with the Philadelphia Union, padding his MLS scoring lead and moving the team a point closer to finishing the regular season with the league’s best record.
If Ibrahimovic, whose 26 goals trails only Vela’s 28 in the Golden Boot competition, gets his team to the postseason – far from a done deal with four games left – the cross-town rivals could meet as early as the second round of the playoffs at Banc of California Stadium.
And that’s a scenario the Galaxy captain is looking forward to.
“Absolutely,” said Ibrahimovic, who has eight goals but no losses in five games with LAFC. “I enjoy when I play them. I enjoy to play in [their] stadium.”
The Galaxy haven’t made the playoffs since 2016 and their chances of ending that drought seemed fleeting entering the weekend. The team was eighth in the Western Conference standings, one spot shy of a postseason berth, and had won just one of its previous eight matches.
But four of the six teams the Galaxy are chasing had already lost before the team took the field at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday, opening a path for the team to charge right into the middle of the tightly-bunched pack. And Ibrahimovic would not let the opportunity pass, erasing a 1-0 deficit in the 32nd minute by scoring off the rebound of his own missed penalty shot.
After Joe Corona’s first MLS goal gave the Galaxy the lead three minutes into the second half, Ibrahimovic gave the team some breathing room, banging home a Rolf Feltscher cross in the 51st minute to break Carlos Ruiz’ single-season franchise scoring with his 25th goal of the season.
He then closed the Galaxy scoring with a left-footed strike from just inside the penalty area with five minutes left in regulation, moving to third on the team’s all-time scoring list behind only Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane. For the team, the seven goals were the most in a game in 21 years and the six second-half scores came on seven shots on goal.
(Check out all three of Ibrahimovic’s goals by clicking here.)
The hat trick was his second of the season and gave him eight multi-goal games on the year, four coming in his last six starts. And his 48 goals in less than two seasons in MLS is equal or better than his total at five previous stops in his career:
Club Goals (games)
Malmo 18 (47)
Ajax 48 (110)
Juventus 26 (92)
Inter Milan 66 (117)
Barcelona 22 (46)
AC Milan 56 (85)
PSG 156 (180)
Manchester United 29 (53)
Galaxy 48 (52)
“I am the best ever to play in MLS. And that’s without joking,” Ibrahimovic said afterward.
No one disagreed.
“In big games, he appears,” coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “In the moments that are very hard for his own team, he is on the pitch. That is the reason he is Zlatan, obviously.”
There are likely to be more hard moments for the Galaxy, who play Eastern Conference playoff hopeful Montreal on Saturday at home before taking a midweek trip to altitude to play Real Salt Lake, the team directly in front of them in the Western Conference table. They then finish the season with Vancouver and Houston, who are at the bottom of the conference standings.
As emphatic as Sunday’s win was, Schelotto refused to call it a statement.
“I prefer to wait,” he said.
That’s probably wise since his woefully inconsistent team hasn’t won consecutive games since mid April and has won just seven times in its last 21 tries. The defense remains unimpressive; goalkeeper David Bingham has faced 180 shots, 21 more than any keeper in the league, and only one of the 14 teams currently in playoff position has allowed more goals than the Galaxy’s 49.
But the Galaxy have Ibrahimovic and, as happened Sunday, that may be enough.
LAFC: the league’s best can get better
While the Galaxy are still chasing a playoff berth, LAFC made its reservation for the postseason weeks ago. It is assured of finishing atop the conference table as well, giving it a first-round bye. And with a win over Toronto at home this Saturday, combined with a New York City FC loss at Dallas, LAFC would guarantee itself of finishing the regular season with the league’s best record, earning home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
But the team has a lot of work to do before next month’s playoff opener if it hopes to win an MLS Cup. Saturday’s draw with Philadelphia extended the team’s winless streak to a season-long four games – a span in which it has scored just six goals.
LAFC had scored five or more goals in a game three times earlier this year.
Gone is the unprecedented level of dominance the team displayed in spring and early summer, when it lost just one of its first 16 games and was on pace to break every significant MLS single-season record.
Back, however, is Vela, whose return to a forward line of Diego Rossi, Adama Diomande and newly acquired Brian Rodriguez gives LAFC the deepest, deadliest attack in the league.
Vela’s goal Saturday – which bounced off a defender after Vela collected the rebounded of a Mark-Anthony Kaye shot that struck the crossbar -- extended his scoring streak to five consecutive starts and gave he and Rossi 43 scores combined on the season, equaling the MLS record by two teammates.
2018 Atlanta United (43):
Josef Martinez, 31
Miguel Almiron, 12
2019 LAFC (43):
Carlos Vela, 28
Diego Rossi, 15
“It’s not possible to completely stop him. He’s been able to dominate our league and is a special player,” Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin said of Vela, who left after 66 minutes. “When you watch on TV and you say ‘why don’t they just get closer? Why don’t they foul him? Why don’t they get more physical with him?’
“It’s the same thing with the special players, Neymar, Messi, whoever you like. You can’t get close to these guys. It’s difficult.”
(Watch Vela’s goal by clicking here.)
That dominant Vela is the one LAFC needs back for the postseason.
“Obviously Carlos is a fantastic player, a world-class player,” defender Steven Beitashour said. “He’s our captain and he’s our leader. So it’s always good to have a player of his caliber back.”
Despite the team’s recent struggles, LAFC (19-4-7) needs just eight points to break the New York Red Bulls’ single-season record and nine goals to set a scoring record. The team’s goal differential of +44 is already three better than any other team in MLS history.
None of that will be easy, though, since LAFC faces two playoff contenders in Toronto and Minnesota in its final four games ahead of what could be a postseason reunion with Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy.
“That’s not our focus, just to make the playoffs,” Kaye said. “That’s really the minimum. You have to reach playoffs to reach the goals that we set.”
Here are the MLS standings
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
New York City 16 5 9 56 37 19 57
Philadelphia 15 8 7 55 43 12 52
Atlanta 15 11 3 48 36 12 48
Toronto 12 10 9 53 49 4 45
D.C. United 12 10 9 40 38 2 45
New York Red Bulls 12 13 5 49 48 1 41
New England 10 10 10 45 52 -7 40
Montreal 11 16 4 42 57 -15 37
Chicago 9 12 10 48 43 5 37
Orlando 9 13 9 40 44 -4 36
Columbus 9 15 7 36 45 -9 34
Cincinnati 6 21 3 30 72 -42 21
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
LAFC 19 4 7 77 33 44 64
Seattle 14 9 7 50 47 3 49
Minnesota 14 10 6 49 40 9 48
Salt Lake 14 12 4 42 38 4 46
Galaxy 14 13 3 49 49 0 45
San Jose 13 12 5 49 46 3 44
Portland 13 12 4 45 42 3 43
FC Dallas 12 11 7 47 42 5 43
Kansas City 10 13 7 44 54 -10 37
Colorado 10 15 6 51 58 -7 36
Houston 10 16 4 41 51 -10 34
Vancouver 7 15 9 32 54 -22 30
Change (sometimes) for the better
A record six MLS coaches have been fired this season. And if you go back to last fall and the wake of the 2018 season, 11 of the 24 teams, including the Galaxy, have changed managers.
Many of those clubs have enjoyed a significant bounce following those changes.
The New England Revolution was 2-8-2 and at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings when Brad Friedel was fired in early May. Under interim coach Mike Lapper and Bruce Arena, the team has gone 8-2-8 and climbed to sixth in the table. It’s likely the team will make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
Real Salt Lake has won five of eight games since suspending, then firing Mike Petke after an incident with officials following a Leagues Cup match. Under Freddy Juarez RSL is 5-3-1 and seems headed to the playoffs as well.
“I think Freddy Juarez has brought a few guys back to life,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said of the impact the coaching change has made. “When there’s a managerial change sometimes you give a guy a chance again. That part has definitely paid off. You can see that there’s confidence in what they’re doing.”
The Galaxy has also been a success story. The team fired Sigi Schmid last September and finished the season with Dominic Kinnear managing the team on an interim basis. Schelotto then took over in January, becoming the fourth manager in 25 months.
After remaking the roster, Schelotto has already topped last year’s win total at 14 with four games to play and he also has the Galaxy positioned to end a two-year playoff drought.
And while the Colorado Rapids are a loss away from postseason elimination, they have played well under Robin Fraser, winning their first three starts for the former Galaxy player and Chivas USA coach.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, has tried three coaches with the current manager, Ron Jans, winning Saturday for the first time in six tries.
Liverpool aiming to be champions of another league
Speaking of MLS coaches, former Montreal and New York Red Bulls head man Jesse Marsch will become the first American to coach in a Champions League group-stage match Tuesday when he leads Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg against Belgian power Gent. But that’s just a warm-up because Marsch’s second Champions League game will take him to Liverpool for a match with the defending European champions in two weeks.
Yahoo’s Doug McIntyre has a nice profile you can read by clicking here.
And while we’re on the subject of Liverpool, just five games into the Premier League seasons the unbeaten, untied Reds already hold a five-point lead over Manchester City, the two-time defending champions, atop the domestic table. That’s more than double the margin in any of the other top four European leagues.
Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the CEO of German giant Bayern Munich, told me a conversation he had last season with a Liverpool official convinced him that, Champions League aside, the league title is the one the team really wants since it’s something the Reds haven’t won in the Premier League era.
“They are suffering about this fact,” Rummenigge said of Liverpool, which finished a point back of Manchester City last season. “Such a long time. I believe they will especially focus on the Premier League. Because that’s in their mind.
“The Champions League, I believe, is much more difficult to win than probably the Premier League. But Premier League for them, they were so obsessed to win it. I was a bit surprised about that fact because normally all the clubs in Europe – Real, Barcelona, if they win the Spanish league or Paris is winning the French league -- that is quite normal. But the Champions League is the cherry on the cake for everybody.”
“I said from the first day I came that I’m not here for vacation. I’m here to perform and show everybody what the game is about. I think the two years I’ve had here, I’ve done good things. Amazing things. Perfect things. I just have to keep doing, keep being in shape and help my team in the best way, and that is by scoring goals.”
Zlatan Ibrahimovic after his hat trick led the Galaxy to a 7-2 win over Sporting Kansas City on Sunday
Until next time