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Newsletter: Soccer! A lot to be decided this weekend in MLS

SOCCER: AUG 03 MLS - LAFC at New England Revolution
LAFC head coach Bob Bradley
(Fred Kfoury III / AP)

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.

The end of the MLS regular season will be a little more dramatic than expected with the final two spots in the expanded 14-team postseason tournament still up for grabs in the West and seven teams in both conferences battling to secure a home date for their playoff openers. As a result, 11 of the 12 matches that will be played on Sunday – which MLS has aptly dubbed “Decisions Day” – will have a direct impact on the playoff schedule.

One of those games will see the Galaxy travel to Houston looking to lock down home-field advantage for the start of their playoff run, something that slipped through their fingers in last Sunday’s loss to last-place Vancouver.

LAFC’s postseason schedule is already set: it has earned a first-round bye and will then play at Banc of California Stadium through the MLS Cup, provided the team makes it that far. Yet there will still be a lot to play for in its last regular-season game since the team is within reach of all-time league records for points and goals while captain Carlos Vela needs one score to break the single-season mark for goals.

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What’s more, LAFC will be facing a Colorado team needing a multi-goal win, and some help from Portland and Sporting Kansas City, to earn an improbable postseason berth of its own. If not Tim Howard, the Rapids’ brilliant goalkeeper, will head off into retirement rather than to the playoffs.

A Galaxy not so far away

With last week’s midweek win at Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2016 and positioned themselves to open the tournament at home – with the conference’s second seed well within reach. But all that went out the window with Sunday’s loss to Vancouver, just the team’s fifth at Dignity Health Sports Park this season. Now the team needs a road victory Sunday over the Dynamo – the team that knocked it out of the playoffs on the final day last year – to finish in the top four and earn the right to a home date for the playoffs.

That’s no minor distinction for the Galaxy, whose 11 home wins are tied for second-best in the league while their 5-9-2 road record is fourth-worst among the 14 current playoff qualifiers. Given the tightness of the conference standings, where four teams are separated by three points, the Galaxy could finish as high as second with a win and as low as fifth with a loss.

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“Of course, we would love to be in the second or third place,” midfielder Jonathan dos Santos said. “It’s important to be able to play at home because we can be stronger here. We know that playing on the road is complicated and more so during the playoffs.”

A draw last Sunday would have helped that cause but the Galaxy, pushing for a win late in the game, instead conceded a goal to Michaell Chirinos three minutes into stoppage time to lose 4-3 in a game they otherwise dominated. That wasn’t exactly the kind of playoff tune-up Dos Santos was hoping for.

“It’s worrisome given it’s the last part of the season,” he said. “We should have corrected these mistakes a long time ago. We should be a lot more focused. In the end, the playoffs will be single elimination and you can be out of them because of mistakes like [Sunday].

“We have some time to turn it around, train hard, correct these mistakes and learn from them, which is the most important. They can’t come and score four goals on us, not even in video games, honestly.”

Galaxy captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic certainly has played as if he’s in a video game lately, with his first-half goal Sunday giving him six in his last four matches – during which the Galaxy went 3-1 – and 13 in his last nine starts. He has scored 29 times this season, leaving him within striking distance of Josef Martinez’s MLS record of 31, which Vela equaled last weekend.

Even without a goal Sunday in Houston, Ibrahimovic would become the only player in league history to collect more than 26 goals and not win the Golden Boot as the leading scorer.

(Watch the highlights of the Vancouver loss by clicking here.)

It’s a performance that also pushed Ibrahimovic into the thick of the MVP conversation. But after Sunday’s disappointing loss, he said he’s not following the scoring race, only the league standings.

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“I don’t even know how it looks,” he said. “I am just trying to help my team win and today was not enough. Maybe I should have got more goals.”

The Whitecaps have won just eight games this season but two of them have come against the Southern California teams: a 1-0 win over LAFC in April and Sunday’s win over the Galaxy.

History still waiting on LAFC

A month ago LAFC was on pace to completely rewrite the MLS record book. Then it hit a rough patch beginning in late August, dropping points in six of its last seven games. That hasn’t affected Vela, who missed two of those games with a hamstring strain.

Take out those games and Vela has scored in eight consecutive starts and 12 of his last 13 appearances. That has already earned him a piece of MLS history since his 31 goals on the season equaled Martinez’s year-old single-season scoring mark. And the fact he’s gotten there in 30 games means he’s scoring at a pace of more than a goal a game, which would also be a record for a player with a minimum of five goals in a season. (Ibrahimovic is also averaging more than a goal a game.)

Vela also leads MLS with 154 shots (fifth all-time) and 67 shots on goal (tied for fourth in league history).

“Honestly I’m thankful for God, with my team, with my family and in the end I think this is a hard job that you must go a whole year staying healthy, prepared physically and mentally to be able to reach these heights late in the season,” Vela said after his record-tying goal gave his team a 1-1 draw with Minnesota United last weekend. “There is still much to fight for. There are still records to break and it’s something that’s speaks highly of the team and our work.”

(Watch Vela’s record-tying goal by clicking here.)

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Aside from Vela’s personal pursuit of the scoring record, LAFC needs a win over Colorado on Sunday to break the all-time points record and four goals to break the MLS scoring record.

Points

71 – New York Red Bulls, 2018

69 – Toronto FC, 2017

Atlanta United, 2018

LAFC, 2019

Goals

85 – Galaxy, 1998

82 – LAFC, 2019

Goal differential

46 – LAFC, 2019

41 – Galaxy, 1998

“I think both can be [broken],” Vela said. “It’s not a chance to say ‘I score goals, we are closer to win[ning] a game.’ It’s a good chance for the team. It’s a great season and I hope we can break both.”

More important than the records, however, may be getting the team back in gear. LAFC has won just once in the last six weeks. Once the playoffs start, it will have to win four games in a row to capture the MLS Cup. The good thing is it will go for that at home, where LAFC has the league’s best record at 12-1-3. Including last season’s playoff loss, LAFC is 21-3-10 at Banc of California in its two seasons.

“The fact that now we have secured home-field advantage in the playoffs is a testament to the season and that’s what the Supporters’ Shield is all about,” Coach Bob Bradley said. “We love playing in the Banc and certainly when our supporters are behind us, there’s that extra little bit and it goes a long way.”

What else is left to be decided on “Decision Day”?

More than half the 24 MLS teams will qualify for the postseason and as many as four of those team could advance without a winning record, mediocrity rarely achieved in the other four major sports leagues in the U.S., which saw no team reach the postseason with a losing record last season.

Five of the seven Western Conference playoff berths have already been decided but there’s still a lot to be determined Sunday on MLS “Decision Day.”

In addition to LAFC and the Galaxy, the Seattle Sounders, Minnesota United and Real Salt Lake have clinched spots in the postseason. Undecided is who will play at home and who will open on the road since all five teams could finish anywhere from second to fifth in the table depending on Sunday’s results.

With LAFC receiving a first-round bye, the next three teams will open the playoffs at home with the teams fifth through seventh playing on the road. But after that it gets tricky.

Portland and Dallas, playing at home, will enter Sunday trying to hang on to the last two postseason spots with Dallas facing Sporting Kansas City and the Timbers playing host to San Jose.

Portland is in with a win, a draw or a Dallas loss; Dallas advances with a win or a tie provided San Jose doesn’t also win. The Earthquakes, who have lost five straight and haven’t earned a point since August, are the most desperate of the three. They will begin play Sunday a point out of a playoff berth and needing a win over Portland or a draw combined with a Dallas loss and anything short of a two-goal Colorado win at LAFC to advance.

That’s right, the Rapids remain in the hunt – mathematically at least – but they need a lot of things to go right to make the playoffs for the first time since 2016. To advance, Colorado needs to beat LAFC and hope both Dallas and San Jose lose. It can also advance if Dallas loses, San Jose ties and it beats LAFC by at least two goals.

If all that happens it would mark the greatest turnaround in MLS history since the Rapids started the season 0-9-2. Colorado has gone 5-1-0 under former Chivas manager Robin Fraser, who was hired Aug. 25.

Speaking of great turnarounds….

….former Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who once shared the StubHub Center with Fraser, qualified New England for the Eastern Conference playoffs for the first time since 2015 despite the fact the Revolution was 2-8-2 and last in the table when Brad Friedel was fired as manager in mid May.

Arena was hired as general manager a week later and four games after that, he replaced interim coach Mike Lapper in the technical area, losing just twice in 18 games.

“It says a lot. Unless you’re blind and perhaps a little stupid -- and I’m not accusing you of that,” Arena said of what his players accomplished. “We were not in position to lose many games, starting from the middle of May. So they’ve done an exceptional job.”

This isn’t the first time Arena has turned a team around. Late in the 2008 season he took over a Galaxy franchise that was well on its way to a third straight losing season. A year later he had it in the MLS Cup final, starting a streak that would see the Galaxy make eight consecutive playoff appearances and win three league titles.

Arena admitted last weekend that the job in New England was more daunting.

“I had no idea what I was getting into, to be honest with you,” he said. “I still don’t know why the hell I took this job, but I’m here.

“I knew very little about the players, to be honest with you. A couple of them, I knew from being in and around the league and maybe the national team program.”

But, he added “they’re coachable. They’re just a good group of players in the locker room. Of all the teams I’ve had all the years, this is as good as any of them to coach every day, to deal with away from the field. That says a lot.”

New England will open the postseason on the road no matter what happens on “Decision Day.” New York City has already clinched the conference title and the first-round bye. Atlanta United and Philadelphia and tied for second and will open the playoffs at home while D.C. United, the Red Bulls and Toronto, separated by just two points, will battle for the final home opener.

None of the three play a team with a winning record in their regular-season finales.

Here are the MLS standings heading into Sunday’s “Decision Day”

Eastern Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

New York City-y 17 6 10 61 41 20 61

Atlanta-x 17 12 4 55 42 13 55

Philadelphia-x 16 10 7 57 48 9 55

D.C. United-x 13 10 10 42 38 4 49

New York Red Bulls-x 14 13 6 53 48 5 48

Toronto-x 12 10 11 56 52 4 47

New England-x 11 10 12 49 54 -5 45

________________________________________________

Chicago 9 12 12 50 45 5 39

Montreal 11 17 5 44 60 -16 38

Columbus 10 15 8 39 46 -7 38

Orlando 9 14 10 42 47 -5 37

Cincinnati 6 22 5 31 75 -44 23

Western Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

LAFC-s 20 4 9 82 36 46 69

Minnesota-x 15 10 8 52 42 10 53

Seattle-x 15 10 8 51 49 2 53

Galaxy-x 16 14 3 56 55 1 51

Salt Lake-x 15 13 5 45 41 4 50

Portland 13 13 7 49 48 1 46

Dallas 12 12 9 48 46 2 45

_________________________________________________________

San Jose 13 15 5 51 52 -1 44

Colorado 12 15 6 57 60 -3 42

Kansas City 10 15 8 49 61 -12 38

Houston 11 18 4 45 57 -12 37

Vancouver 8 15 10 37 58 -21 34

S – clinched Supporter’s Shield, first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason

y – clinched Eastern Conference title, first-round playoff bye and homefield advantage through the conference playoffs

x – clinched playoff berth

Sunday’s schedule

(all games begin at 1 p.m. Pacific)

New England at Atlanta United

New York Red Bulls at Montreal

Columbus at Toronto

Galaxy at Houston

San Jose at Portland

Cincinnati at D.C. United

Chicago at Orlando

Real Salt Lake at Vancouver

Colorado at LAFC

Minnesota at Seattle

Sporting Kansas City at Dallas

New York City at Philadelphia

(The only game that won’t impact either playoff qualification or seeding for the opening round is the Chicago-Orlando game since both teams have been eliminated from postseason consideration.)

Continental shift?

It’s a little too early to get overly concerned, but two of European’s most iconic clubs are off to troubling starts this season.

After Monday’s 1-1 draw with Arsenal, Manchester United (2-2-3) is mired in the middle of the Premier League table, closer to the relegation zone than it is to the top two teams. That’s refueled a campaign led by disgruntled supporters who want to force the Glazer family, the team’s American owners, to sell.

In Spain, Barcelona (4-1-2) is in fourth, just two points out of the top spot, but it’s not gotten no goals – and just one start – from an injured Lionel Messi. Luis Suarez and the newly acquired Antoine Griezmann have carried the bulk of the offensive load in Messi’s absence, scoring three times each.

And remember when Paris Saint-Germain (6-2-0) was trying to sell Neymar to a Spanish club – any Spanish club – but was frustrated at not being able to get a deal to stick? PSG’s last three wins have all been by 1-0 scores, with Neymar notching all three goals.

Bundesliga gets a new U.S. TV home

The German Bundesliga is jumping to ESPN next season as part of a six-year agreement that will result in select games airing on the network’s linear television networks while the bulk of the matches will be available, in English and Spanish, on the ESPN+ streaming service.

The deal is valued at more than $30 million a season, according to the Sports Business Journal. The jump in networks will take place next August, after the league’s five-year deal with Fox Sports expires.

“It was clear from the start that ESPN and ESPN+ shared our ambitious vision,” Bundesliga International CEO Robert Klein said in a statement. “They will help us build on the strong connections the Bundesliga has with the U.S. having welcomed more American players than any other European league.”

ESPN+ will feature exclusive live and on-demand replay coverage of more than 300 matches per season. Fox’s coverage featured only a handful of televised matches each weekend – mostly on cable outlets FS1 and FS2 – airing to disappointing ratings.

In recent years Fox Sports has lost the U.S. broadcast rights for the English Premier League to NBC Sports and the UEFA Champions League and Europa League to Turner Sports. Italy’s Serie A moved to ESPN+ last season. The Danish, Dutch and Swedish leagues are on the streaming service, along with England’s lower-tier Football League.

Quotebook

“They have a better attitude and more confidence. If you tell a Mexican-American player he’s going to be the best player, he believes you. If you tell that to a Mexican player, they’ll say ‘Really?’ It’s a cultural difference and in the USA you have a winning mentality. It is not easy to find that confidence in a Mexican player. The Mexican-American players have the determination, which maybe we can find here [in the USA], bring to our group, and it spreads.”

Jorge Tello Hernandez, the Mexican national team program’s head scout, explaining to Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla the difference between Mexican and Mexican-American players. The FMF held a boys national team ID camp for 2004-born Mexican-American players in Ontario last week

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast by clicking here.

Until next time

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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