Hello and welcome to a very stat-heavy edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer and today we’re going to look back on the just-concluded MLS regular season, ahead to the distant MLS playoffs and directly at LAFC’s rewriting of the MLS record book and the record-setting upheaval in the league’s coaching ranks.
We will also bid a fond and numerical good-bye to Jill Ellis, the most successful coach in women’s soccer history who managed the U.S. to a draw in her final game with the national team last Sunday, and at a record-setting performance at UCLA, the school where Ellis once coached.
But we start the only place we logically could start and that’s with LAFC, which pulled out of its late-season funk Sunday with a performance that felt like a celebration and a coronation all in one.
And fittingly captain Carlos Vela was the star of the show, with his second hat trick of the season capping off arguably the best year in MLS history.
“It’s hard for us to put it into words because we’ve never seen something like that,” teammate Tyler Miller said of a season in which Vela shattered MLS marks for goals (34) and combined goals and assists (49), then joined Diego Rossi to become the first tandem of teammates to score 50 goals.
“[He] can come in and he cuts in with his left foot and curls to the back post every time and it manages to go in. For me, it’s great to watch,” Miller continued. “He sets the defender up and cuts in, and then as soon as he cuts in I’m like, ‘this could be interesting.’ To be able to witness that this entire season has been something that’s amazing.”
The three points from the 3-1 win over Colorado gave LAFC 72 for the season, one better than the year-old record set by the New York Red Bulls. But more important is the fact the win gives LAFC (21-4-9) some momentum heading into the playoffs after a skid that had seen it drop points in six of its previous seven games.
By finishing the regular season with the league’s best record and winning the Supporters’ Shield, LAFC is assured home-field advantage through the playoffs, including next month’s MLS Cup – provided the team makes it that far.
Under the new single-elimination postseason format, LAFC must win three straight games at Banc of California Stadium – where it is a league-best 13-1-3 – to hoist the Cup. And even Vela, who seems certain to add an MVP award to his scoring record, said the season won’t be complete without a title.
“If we don’t win the MLS Cup then the record is nothing,” he said. “So we have to keep working.”
Maybe he should have said they have to start over. Because in MLS, the playoffs aren’t so much a continuation of the regular season as they are a new tournament. It will especially feel that way for LAFC, whose first-round playoff bye will leave the team idle for 17 days after a regular season in which it averaged a game every 5.9 days.
Winning the double – the regular-season and the playoffs – is tough since one is a marathon and the other a sprint. Which is why it’s been done just three times since 2002. But while the MLS Cup is the main, the Supporters’ Shield is hardly a consolation prize.
“Thirty-four games is an accomplishment. The three games coming up are a tournament,” LAFC assistant coach Ante Razov said of the team’s season. “The way things work in this country, in our league, is you’re judged by the tournament. But to say that we’ll be judged by three games over 34 would be ridiculous.”
Razov has been here before. In 2003, he played for a Chicago Fire team that was the best in MLS for 7½ months, finishing atop the regular-season standings and winning the U.S. Open Cup. Then it gave up two goals in the final 40 minutes of an MLS Cup final it lost.
“It’s a tournament,” he said of the playoffs. “In a tournament anything can happen in a one-off game.”
(Watch Vela break, then break, then break the scoring record again by clicking here.)
Where LAFC’s season ranks in the MLS record book
(Note: Games could not end in ties until 2000)
24 – D.C. United, 1998
23 – D.C. United, 1999
22 – New York Red Bulls, 2018
21 – D.C. United, 1997
4 – LAFC, 2019
San Jose, 2010
Real Salt Lake, 2010
72 – LAFC, 2019
71 – New York Red Bulls, 2018
.750 – LAFC, 2019
D.C. United, 1998
43 – New York Red Bulls, 2018
42 – Toronto FC, 2017
85 – Galaxy, 1998
48 – LAFC, 2019
41 – Galaxy, 1998
34 – Carlos Vela, LAFC, 2019
31 – Josef Martinez, Atlanta United, 2018
30 – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Galaxy, 2019
49 – Carlos Vela, LAFC, 2019
38 – Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC, 2015
37 – Josef Martinez, Atlanta United, 2018
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Galaxy, 2018
Most goals by teammates
50 – Vela (34), Diego Rossi (16), LAFC, 2019
43 – Josef Martinez (31), Miguel Almiron (12), Atlanta United, 2018
Playoffs give Ibra, Galaxy another chance
Razov, clearly, believes champions should be crowned base on what they do over a full season, not just in a few good weeks. That’s the way it’s done in Europe, where the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic has played most of his career.
But while Ibrahimovic has been outspoken – and profane – in his criticism of the MLS playoff format, it may work to his favor since the Galaxy, which finished well back in the regular-season standings, get a clean slate to start the postseason.
The Galaxy stumbled to the finish line, conceding eight goals to the two worst teams in the Western Conference in back-to-back losses to Vancouver and Houston. Earning just two of the six available points would have allowed the Galaxy to start the playoffs at home, where they are 11-5-1. Instead they start play Oct. 20 in Minnesota, where they played to a draw earlier this season.
But you can throw out the team’s 5-10-2 road record, tied for second-worst among playoff teams because a healthy Ibrahimovic, when inspired, makes the Galaxy perhaps the most dangerous team in the tournament.
“There is no one favorite, even if LAFC is doing what they’re doing,” he said. “Every game is a new game, especially in the playoffs. Totally different mindset, totally different pressure.
“Whatever you did in the regular season it will not help you because it’s different nerves in the playoffs. It’s win or lose.”
With a goal in Sunday’s 4-2 loss in Houston, Ibrahimovic became just the third player in MLS history in score 30 times in a season. And 14 of those goals have come in the last 10 games.
Remarkably for a player who has more than 500 career goals for club and country, MLS is just the second league in which Ibrahimovic has scored 30 times in a season. He did it twice with Paris Saint-Germain in France’s Ligue 1.
But as Ibrahimovic made clear last week, the playoffs are about team, not individual accomplishments.
(Watch his 30th goal by clicking here.)
“I’m trying to score goals every game. That is part of my responsibility and part of what I have to do to help my teammates,” he said. “[But] I prefer the collective win. With the collective success the individual success comes. Without my teammates those things would not be possible.”
The unusually long break between the end of the regular and the start of the playoffs may prove beneficial to the Galaxy. Although some players, such as Cristian Pavon, whose goal Sunday was his second in three games, may complain of lost rhythm, the down time will help goalkeeper David Bingham and midfielder Joe Corona deal with injuries. It will also give midfielder Romain Alessandrini, who last played April 19, extra time to rehab a knee injury that required surgery.
(all times Pacific and subject to change)
Saturday, Oct. 19
No. 7 Dallas (13-12-9, 48 pts.) at No. 2 Seattle (16-10-8, 56), FS1, Fox Deportes, 12:30 p.m.
No. 6 Portland (14-13-7, 49) at No. 3 Real Salt Lake (16-13-5, 53), (ESPNEWS, ESPN Deportes, 7 p.m.)
No. 5 D.C. United (13-10-11, 50) at No. 4 Toronto FC (13-10-11, 50), Univision/TUDN, 9 a.m.
No. 7 New England (11-11-12, 45) at No. 2 Atlanta (18-12-4, 58), Univision/TUDN, noon
Sunday, Oct. 20
No. 6 New York Red Bulls at (14-14-6, 48) at No. 3 Philadelphia (16-11-7, 55), Fox Deportes, noon
No. 5 Galaxy (16-15-3, 51) at No. 4 Minnesota (15-11-8, 53), ESPN/ESPN Deportes, 5:30 p.m.
(Conference champions LAFC (21-4-9, 72 points) and New York City FC (18-6-10, 64 points) receive first-round byes)
There was another MLS record extended Monday when Orlando City fired coach James O’Connor a day after missing the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
Orlando City, which finished 9-15-10 and was 11th in the Eastern Conference for a second straight year, is the seventh team -- more than a quarter of the league total -- to fire a coach since May.
Nine MLS teams changed permanent coaches in 2018 but only four of those changes were the result of firings. Just six MLS teams are still coached by the same man they started 2017 with.
Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes, who has been with the club since 2009, is the dean of league coaches but he may be on the hot seat now after finishing with a losing record for the second time in three seasons.
Sporting Kansas City finished 11th in the Western Conference – which it won last season – with 16 losses, the team’s worst performance this century.
Two of the teams that fired coaches, New England and Real Salt Lake, made the playoffs. The Revolution rallied from a 2-8-2 start under Brad Friedel to reach the postseason under Bruce Arena while Real Salt Lake played well under Freddy Juarez after Mike Petke was let go after he reportedly directed anti-gay slurs at referees following a July 24 Leagues Cup match.
MLS coaches fired in 2019
(record, position in conference table and record,date of firing)
Anthony Hudson, Colorado Rapids,12th 0-7-2, May 1
Alan Koch, FC Cincinnati, 2-7-2, 11th, May 7
Brad Friedel, New England, 2-8-2, 12th, May 9
Mike Petke, Real Salt Lake, 11-9-4, 6th, Aug. 10
Wilmer Cabrera, Houston, 9-13-3, 9th, Aug. 13
Remi Garde, Montreal, 10-13-4, 7th, Aug. 21
James O’Connor, Orlando, 9-15-10, 11th, Oct. 7
Expansion FC Cincinnati had a hat trick of coaches, starting its first season with South African Alan Koch on the sidelines. He won just two of 11 games before being replaced on an interim basis by Frenchmen Yoann Damet, who won three of 13 games.
The team then finished the season under Ron Jans of the Netherlands and while the results weren’t much improved – his record was 1-5-4 – the team played better, going unbeaten in its final three matches and giving up just three goals in the last five.
Cincinnati’s three shutouts in its final five games were one more than it posted over the rest of the season combined. And while that might not sound like much, consider that Cincinnati gave up more goals in 2019 – 75 – than any team in MLS history.
It also had the worst goal differential at -44 while its 31 goals scored were three fewer than Vela had by himself.
The final regular-season MLS standings
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
New York City 18 6 10 63 42 21 64
Atlanta 18 12 4 58 43 15 58
Philadelphia 16 11 7 58 50 8 55
Toronto 13 10 11 57 52 5 50
D.C. United 13 10 11 42 38 4 50
New York Red Bulls 14 14 6 53 51 2 48
New England 11 11 12 50 57 -7 45
Chicago 10 12 12 55 47 8 42
Montreal 12 17 5 47 60 -13 41
Columbus 10 16 8 39 47 -8 38
Orlando 9 15 10 44 52 -8 37
Cincinnati 6 22 6 31 75 -44-x 24
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
LAFC 21 4-y 9 85-y 37 48-x 72-x
Seattle 16 10 8 52 49 3 56
Real Salt Lake 16 13 5 46 41 5 53
Minnesota 15 11 8 52 43 9 53
Galaxy 16 15 3 58 59 -1 51
Portland 14 13 7 52 49 3 49
Dallas 13 12 9 54 46 8 48
San Jose 13 16 5 52 55 -3 44
Colorado 12 16 6 58 63 -5 42
Houston 12 18 4 49 59 -10 40
Kansas City 10 16 8 49 67 -18 40
Vancouver 8 16 10 37 59 -22 34
x – MLS record
y – ties MLS record
Ellis goes out on top
Fittingly Jill Ellis’ final game as coach of the U.S. women’s national team came during something called “The Victory Tour.” It was organized to celebrate the team’s second consecutive World Cup victory last summer in France, but it was also a proper send-off for the most successful coach in international soccer history.
Ellis is one of just two coaches to win a pair of world championships and the other, Vittorio Pozzo, the Italian men’s coach in 1934 and 1938, won just 64 games in his career. Ellis won that many since the middle of 2016.
‘My legacy, that’s someone else’s narrative to write,’' Ellis said after her final game Sunday, a 1-1 draw with South Korea. “It’s not about me writing my legacy or what I hope it to be. I’ve tried to always give everything I have to this job and with passion. I feel good about that.”
Ellis was also unbeaten in World Cup play, going 13-0-1 and her teams had unbeaten streaks of 24, 26, 28 and 21 games. She lost consecutive games just once, at the SheBelieves Cup in 2017.
There were two years – 2018 and 2016 – where she didn’t lose at all (although a penalty-kick shootout loss to Sweden knocked the U.S. out of the Rio Olympics in 2016).
Her teams averaged more than three goals a game during her career; nearly two-thirds of the time, the U.S. didn’t concede a goal.
Ellis teared up in her final news conference but it was the friendships she built and not the results she got that inspired the emotion.
“The best part of this job has been building relationships,” she said. “I’m not going to remember games so much as I’m going to remember all these people that helped me where I am.”
Before taking over the national team Ellis, who was born in England, led UCLA to the final four of the NCAA tournament eight times and won six straight conference titles. But she never won a national championship despite going 229-45-14 with the Bruins, who will induct into their athletic Hall of Fame later this month.
The U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame is certain to be knocking on her door soon.
The USSF has yet to name a successor nor has Ellis, 53, announced what’s next for her.
U.S. women’s national team coaching records
106 – Ellis, 2012; 2014-19
105 – Tony DiCiccio, 1994-99
132 – Ellis
124 – April Heinrichs, 2000-04
Most World Cup wins
13 – Ellis
10 – DiCiccio
Iloski sets UCLA record with five goals
This hasn’t been the best of years for the UCLA men’s soccer program, which saw highly successful coach Jorge Salcedo resign in March in the wake of his alleged involvement in accepting $200,000 in bribes to help enroll two students using fake athletic profiles.
But junior Milan Iloski gave the Bruins reason to cheer Sunday, scoring a school-record five goals in less than 80 minutes of a 5-2 win over San Diego State. Iloski, who entered the week tied for second in the nation in goals with nine, scored twice in the first half and then had a hat trick in the second to give UCLA (5-4-1, 1-2) its first Pac-12 win of the season, extending the team’s modest streak to two victories in a row.
Iloski’s 14 goals in just 10 games are the most by a Bruin since Chandler Hoffman‘s 18 in 2011.
(Watch the performance by clicking here.)
“‘It’s a sense of feeling like it’s a story written and it’s a chapter closed and it’s on to other things. But it’s been an unbelievable journey…the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”
Jill Ellis on her final game as coach of the U.S. women’s national team
Until next time