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Soccer! The playoff matchup everyone wanted (Galaxy-LAFC) is almost here

MLS Soccer - Los Angeles FC v Colorado Rapids
Carlos Vela and Tristan Blackmon of LAFC.
(Getty Images)

Hello and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer and we start today with El Trafico VI. That would be Thursday’s MLS playoff game between the Galaxy, the winningest franchise in league history, and LAFC, the best single-season team of all-time.

The two will meet in the Western Conference semifinal after the Galaxy scored twice in a four-minute span late in the second half Sunday to upset Minnesota United in a first-round match, earning their first postseason win in nearly three years.

(Watch the highlights by clicking here.)

LAFC and the Galaxy have met five times before with the Galaxy winning twice and three games ending in draws. But the two wins came in Carson and Thursday’s game will be played at Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park, where two previous derby games have finished in ties. The asking price for tickets on the secondary market was as high as $3,600 Monday night.

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“I think the whole world was waiting for this game,” said Galaxy midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, whose 75th-minute goal proved to be the game-winner in Minnesota. “I do not think they have the desire; in the last matches they could not win. Anything can happen in the playoffs, everything is 50-50.

“We are playing at their field, against the best MLS team in my opinion and everyone else in the world’s opinion.”

LAFC (21-4-9), in just its second year in MLS, broke the league record for points with 72, equaled the single-season best with 85 goals and outscored opponents by 48, shattering the record in that category as well. And its captain, Carlos Vela, broke the individual goal-scoring record with 34.

Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto seems unimpressed.

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“Those were the statistics,” he said dryly.

“We know they were the best team in the regular season,” he continued. “They played very well; they won the Supporters’ Shield. But now it’s playoffs and it’s just 90 minutes.

“We know what team we are going to play but we have a lot of confidence about ourselves.”

The showdown will not only be the most heated of the MLS season but the most star-studded as well, matching MVP candidates Vela (34 goals, 15 assists) against the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic (30 goals, third-most in MLS history) in a one-game, winner-take-all contest.

Ibrahimovic, 38, made his MLS debut against LAFC last year, scoring the tying and winning goals in a 19-minute cameo off the bench. If the Galaxy don’t win Thursday, his last league game could come against LAFC as well.

“They are the two stars, the two-goal scorers,” Dos Santos said of his captain, Ibrahimovic, and his best friend, Vela. “In the end we know that Zlatan is very important for us and that in any given match he can be a decisive factor.”

In fact Ibrahimovic led MLS with nine game-winning goals, three more than Vela. And Ibrahimovic has eight goals in the five matches with LAFC, including five this season; Vela has seven against the Galaxy, at least one in every game.

“We have to play against everybody if we want to win,” Ibrahimovic said. “Whoever comes in the way, we have to play against them. I think everybody’s excited for this game and I think everybody wanted this game.”

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LAFC, by virtue of its conference-best record, got a first-round playoff bye, meaning Thursday’s game will be the team’s first in 17 days. The Galaxy had to earn their way in with Sunday’s 2-1 win in Minnesota, with Sebastian Lletget and Dos Santos scoring four minutes apart late in the second half. And even though he had one of his most difficult games of the season, Ibrahimovic was right in the middle of that with his deflection of a weak shot bouncing right to Lletget, who banged it home to break open a scoreless game.

Dos Santos’ long curler off a feed from Romain Alessandrini made it 2-0 in the 75th minute and proved to the game-winner when Minnesota’s Jan Gregus scored with three minutes left in regulation. For Alessandrini, the game marked his first appearance since knee surgery in April. And Dos Santos was in position to score his goal only because Perry Kitchen, playing for the first time since Aug. 11, took the defensive midfield role, allowing Dos Santos to join the attack.

If the Galaxy can get midfielder Joe Corona back by Thursday, they’ll go into the LAFC game healthier than they have been in months – good timing since they’ll have to win two games in the space of five days to make it back to the MLS Cup final.

“We have to play against everybody if we want to win. Whoever comes in the way, we have to play against them,” Ibrahimovic said of the LAFC match. “I think everybody’s excited for this game and I think everybody wanted this game.”

Game on.

Playoff results and pairings

First round

(all times Pacific and subject to change)

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Western Conference

Saturday, Oct. 19

Seattle 4, FC Dallas 3 (et)

Real Salt Lake 2, Portland 1

Eastern Conference

Atlanta 1, New England 0

Toronto 5, D.C. United 1 (et)

Sunday, Oct. 20

Eastern Conference

Philadelphia 4, New York Red Bulls 3 (et)

Western Conference

Galaxy 2, Minnesota United 1

Conference semifinals

(all times Pacific)

Wednesday, Oct. 23

Toronto FC at New York City FC, 4 p.m., (FS1, Fox Deportes)

Real Salt Lake at Seattle 7 p.m. (FS1, Fox Deportes)

Thursday, Oct. 24

Philadelphia at Atlanta United, 5 p.m. (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)

Galaxy at LAFC, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)

One and fun

MLS will use a one-and-done, single-elimination format throughout the playoffs for the first time this fall. And if the rest of the tournament plays out the way the first weekend did, it figures to be the best postseason in league history.

Five of the six games were decided by one goal and three went to extra time, with the top seed winning five times.

“Maybe Eurosnobs hate the playoffs... but if you turned on the TV and watched MLS this weekend, I think it’s been incredible for the game,” Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtain told The Athletic’s Pablo Maurer after his team twice rallied from deficits to beat the New York Red Bulls in extra time.

In the past, MLS played two-leg series, decided by aggregate score, for the conference semifinals and final but it did away with that this year largely to fit the entire playoff tournament between the October and November international breaks. But the league was also hopeful the change would also make the games more dramatic by removing the margin for error.

“When we looked at it, we realized that often one of the two games was not a compelling game. Either because teams were playing tight in the first game or if there was a lop-sided score in the first game, the second game became meaningless,” said Mark Abbott, the league’s president and deputy commissioner . “We think this is going to be a more compelling format and one that teams will play really exciting soccer and aggressively to win those games.”

So far it’s worked with Seattle beating FC Dallas in time extra on Jordan Morris’ third goal of the game; D.C. United getting a score from Lucas Rodriguez three minutes into stoppage time to force an extra period with Toronto, only to give up four goals in a 5-1 loss; Real Salt Lake’s Jefferson Savarino scoring with three minutes left in regulation to eliminate Portland; and Philadelphia’s Fafa Picault’s goal in the 78th minute forcing an extra period in Philadelphia, allowing Marco Fabian to win it midway through overtime.

The Galaxy was the only road team to win.

“Home-field advantage has a more significant meaning because of the single-elimination,” Abbott said. “That has made the regular season and your performance in it more impactful and gave you more to play for.

“Since it’s not a home-and-away any more, it really is meaningful to be in a position to host.”

Whoa, Canada?

Gregg Berhalter, hand-picked by general manager Earnie Stewart to guide the long-needed renovation of the U.S. national team, has been on the job less than a year. Yet after last week’s embarrassing 2-0 loss to 75th-ranked Canada in a CONCACAF Nations League match, there are serious questions about whether Berhalter is the man for the job.

The U.S. was awful, lacking for inspiration, ideas and, at times, desire. In many ways it resembled the lackluster 4-0 loss to Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying, the game that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job as coach.

Even Christian Pulisic, who was battling the flu, couldn’t save Berhalter, leaving in the 60th minute with the game scoreless having completed just 11 passes.

But the result, Canada’s first victory over the U.S. in 34 years, was no fluke. If anything, it would have been more one-sided had Canada finished more than just two of its five shots on goal, the goals coming on second-half tries by Alphonso Davies and Lucas Cavallini.

That marked the first time Canada scored multiple goals against the U.S. since 1993.

“I think the first thing that stands out to me was desire, the desire of Canada,” Berhalter said. “Give them credit. But having said that, the minimum we expect is to match that.

“I don’t think it was lack of effort. I don’t think it was purposeful. But I wasn’t happy with the desire that we displayed tonight to win the soccer game. Too many 50-50 balls we lost, and that hurt us.”

That sounds a lot like a coach saying his players weren’t willing to play for him.

Berhalter, a former Galaxy player and assistant coach, was hired away from the MLS Columbus Crew more than a year after Bruce Arena resigned in the fall of 2017 following a failed World Cup qualifying campaign. Berhalter’s job was to establish an identity for the U.S. team by making it younger, more athletic and more dynamic.

But the U.S. hasn’t progressed under his leadership; if anything it’s gone the other way. The team has struggled to grasp his complicated possession-based playing style, one his players seem ill-suited for, and as a result it has won just one of its last five games. Another loss in November’s Nations League rematch with Canada would leave the U.S. facing relegation to the tournament’s second tier.

“It’s been nine, 10 months now. There’s been some good parts, some bad parts. It’s not just one person’s fault. It’s the group,” said Lletget, who is refusing to panic. “We’re in it together. And in our way, we are progressing. We’ve just got to stick with it.

“Of course people are going to be impatient. They’re always impatient with the U.S. national team. I know they want results. But we want to change the entire game. We’ve got to be behind the coach. We can’t just throw it all out just over one game or two games. We’ve got to stick with it.”

While they’re doing that, the gap between the U.S. and Mexico is widening. El Tri beat Panama 3-1 last week to run its record to 13-1-1 under Tata Martino who, like Berhalter is a former MLS coach but unlike Berhalter was never interviewed for the U.S. job.

Mexico has scored at least three goals 11 times in 15 games under Martino. The U.S. (9-5-2) has scored three goals just four times and has been shut out five times in 16 tries under Berhalter.

Martino, like Berhalter, was tasked with refreshing a national team roster that had grown old. And by all accounts he’s done that -- the roster he called up for Nations League wins over Bermuda and Panama featured 17 players younger than 24 and 16 with fewer than six international caps – while winning a Gold Cup title and beating the likes of Chile, Paraguay and Ecuador.

For Canada, meanwhile, the win over the U.S. continues its remarkable growth under English-born manager John Herdman, who guided the Canadian women to two Olympic bronze medals and the quarterfinals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Since taking over the men’s team in January 2018, he’s won eight of 10 games, reaching the Gold Cup semifinals last summer.

Now Herdman has Canada on the verge of a spot in the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying for the first time this century.

“We’re going in the right direction,” said LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, one of Herdman’s regular call-ups. “And it’s exciting. I’m glad to be a part of it.”

(View the highlights – at least from Canada’s perspective – by clicking here.)

A woman’s place is on the field

Last week we chronicled the declining attendance in MLS. Well, it’s a different story in the NWSL. Thanks in large part to a bump in fan interest following last summer’s Women’s World Cup, the league sent an attendance record this season, averaging 7,386 fans a game.

As Soccer America reports, that’s a 23% increase over the previous high of 6,024 set in 2018. Contrast that with MLS, which has seen attendance fall the last two seasons.

NWSL attendance in 2019 was also the second-highest average in the history of women’s pro soccer behind the 8,116 set in WUSA’s inaugural season in 2001. And the Portland Thorns drew 24,521 to their final regular-season, boosting their season average to 20,098 a game, making them the first women’s team to average more than 20,000 fans. The Thorns’ 2019 average tops that of 15 MLS clubs and six Major League Baseball teams.

(They couldn’t reach the NWSL title game, though, losing Sunday to the Chicago Red Stars on a goal by Sam Kerr. Chicago will play the North Carolina Courage -- which eliminated Megan Rapinoe’s Reign FC in extra time – in the Oct. 27 championship match.)

Seven of the nine NWSL teams -- all but Houston and Orlando -- broke their season record for average attendance and every team registered double-digit gains year-over-year, Soccer America says.The league experienced a similar jump in 2015, the last Women’s World Cup year, when attendance increased almost 22%. And speaking of the World Cup, FIFA announced last week that last summer’s tournament in France was watched by a record 1.12 billion viewers.

Interest in the club game isn’t growing nearly as fast in the rest of the world though. Although Mexico’s Tigres averaged 13,107 fans, including three playoff crowds, in the Liga MX Femenil’s 2019 Torneo Clausura, the league as a whole averaged just 1,825 fans for the season. Average attendances in 2018-19 for the major European leagues were also meager: England (1,010), France (911) and Germany (833), according to Soccer America.

2019 NWSL Average Attendance

1. Portland 20,098 (+19%)

2. Utah 10,774 (+14%)

3. Washington 6,105 (+57%)

4. NC Courage 5,875 (+15%)

5. Orlando 5,565 (+15%)

6. Chicago 5,451 (+36%)

7. Reign FC 5,213 (+36%)

8. Houston 4,053 (+13%)

9. Sky Blue FC 3,338 (+32%)

League Average: 7,386 (+23%)

Quotebook

“I’m pretty sure they are afraid of us. I think so because they never beat us. And it’s a good opportunity for us to show who owns L.A.”

Galaxy midfielder Romain Alessandrini on cross-town rival LAFC, Thursday’s opponent in an MLS Western Conference

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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