Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times’ soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer.
The first signs that LAFC would be in trouble against the Galaxy on Sunday night came three days before kickoff when Galaxy captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who treats each meeting with the media like an open-mic night at a Hollywood comedy club, suddenly became serious, twice giving one-word answers and at another point offering nothing more revealing — or entertaining — than “I play my game.”
One reporter walked away shaking his head. “He’s getting his game face on.”
You think Ibrahimovic is dangerous when he lets his oversized ego run roughshod over news conferences? Hearing him talk softly should be even more unsettling to opponents.
LAFC had less than two minutes to figure that out Sunday, with Ibrahimovic getting the Galaxy on the scoreboard 106 seconds into the match. He added another goal less than 13 minutes later, helping the Galaxy to a 3-1 lead after 16 minutes and giving him five scores in two games against LAFC this season and eight in five editions of the electric cross-town rivalry overall.
All of which should concern LAFC with the possibility of a playoff rematch in October growing.
Sunday’s game ended in a 3-3 draw, which left neither side completely satisfied, the Galaxy because it blew a 3-1 lead and LAFC because its winless streak in the “El Trafico” series was extended to five matches. Of more immediate consequence for LAFC, however, was the loss of its captain, Carlos Vela, the leading scorer in Major League Soccer, to a hamstring issue early in the second half.
(See all the goals and highlights by clicking here.)
Eight minutes after scoring the tying goal — his 27th of the season — Vela was subbed off by LAFC coach Bob Bradley, a decision that angered the player. Vela ripped an armband off, threw it to the ground, then left the pitch shouting a pair of profanities at Bradley followed by the question, “What are you doing?”
Vela, who has started 26 of LAFC’s 27 games this season and is second on the team in minutes played, had an MRI exam Monday that, according to the team, showed “a minor injury” to his right hamstring. He will continue to receive treatment this week, and his status for Sunday night’s home game against Minnesota United is uncertain.
“I don’t think it’s a real bad one, but we weren’t taking any chances,” Bradley said. “Obviously, he’s a huge competitor, so he’s not too happy when he comes off, but we’re not going to take a bigger risk and leave him out there when we know by the reaction that he’s now felt a little something.”
Vela’s status aside, neither team was completely disappointed with Sunday’s result either — the Galaxy because it left them unbeaten against the league leaders and earned them a valuable point in the playoff race, and LAFC because it rallied from a two-goal deficit to remain unbeaten at home.
It was a duality that Bradley tried to sum up afterward.
“Two parts to this thing,” he said. “Obviously, there’s just what’s hanging over our heads, which is beating the Galaxy. When you don’t do it, there’s a part to it that still stings, and it will continue to hang over our heads.
“But what goes with that is the part of continuing to grow as a team, and I still think that the package of things it takes to be a great team, most are going in the right direction. The last part is still this understanding of in the biggest games, with the emotion and everything, how to still make sure that you try to win, but you don’t do it in a crazy way. So that’s one of our steps still.”
Will it be the step that ultimately trips up LAFC? The team has already clinched a playoff berth and is two points away from clinching first place in the Western Conference, guaranteeing it home-field advantage for the first two games of the playoffs.
Last year, LAFC lost its biggest game of the season, dropping its postseason opener to Real Salt Lake on an own goal. If the current standings hold, LAFC’s playoff opener this fall would be a rematch with the Galaxy.
And that could be a huge problem for LAFC because if the Galaxy aren’t in the team’s collective head, they certainly have LAFC thinking.
“They’re a team that brings a lot of intensity,” LAFC defender Eddie Segura said. “We tried to play our game, [but] the truth is that we were surprised by the first goal. The goals being so quick surprised us.”
For Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the duality of the match was evident in what happened on either side of the intermission. The Galaxy played well in the first half, for example, taking an early two-goal lead and controlling the ball nearly two-thirds of the time. But LAFC, which turned the momentum in its favor with a goal in first-half stoppage time, dominated the second half, outshooting the Galaxy 13-2.
“It’s soccer,” Schelotto said. “It’s about 90 minutes, not just about the first half.”
His players agreed.
“We were winning 3-1,” defender Rolf Feltscher said. “We have to win the game.”
The Galaxy had their own injury scare when midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, who was key to the team’s first-half domination, signaled that he had to come out in the 82nd minute. Schelotto said Dos Santos complained of cramping and the injury is not considered serious.
Unlike LAFC, the Galaxy finished the game with some work to do to get to the playoffs, something Schelotto said has been the team’s priority all year. Although the team is fourth in the conference standings, it has won just once in its last six matches. And at minus-3, its goal differential is the worst of any playoff contender, leaving a postseason berth far from guaranteed.
But after Sunday’s game at Seattle, the schedule gets far easier with the Galaxy playing just one team currently in playoff position the rest of the way. And if they qualify, the game-changing presence of Ibrahimovic will make the Galaxy one of the most dangerous teams in a postseason made up entirely of elimination games.
“If you’re in a playoff series against the Galaxy and they show up like they did versus LAFC, no team is going to want to play them,” former Galaxy keeper Dan Kennedy said on the Bleav Podcast Network.
Added current Galaxy keeper David Bingham: “I think everyone wants to see us play each other in the playoffs. If we play LAFC in the playoffs, that’s the league final right there.”
Speaking of records …
We’ve talked a lot in this space in recent weeks about the all-time MLS records LAFC is chasing — a chase that slowed considerably Sunday in “El Trafico.” Here’s an update as to where that race stands after the draw with the Galaxy, a result that ended the team’s winning streak at five but extended its unbeaten streak to six:
24 – D.C. United, 1998
23 – D.C. United, 1999
22 – New York Red Bulls, 2018
21 – D.C. United, 1997
Kansas City Wizards, 1997
Atlanta United, 2018
20 – Tampa Bay Mutiny, 1998
Chicago Fire, 1998
Colorado Rapids, 1999
Seattle Sounders, 2014
Toronto FC, 2017
19 – LAFC, 2019
71 – New York Red Bulls, 2018
69 – Toronto FC, 2017; Atlanta United, 2018
68 – Galaxy, 1998
67 – Galaxy, 2011
66 – San Jose Earthquakes, 2012
64 – San Jose Earthquakes, 2005; Seattle Sounders, 2014
63 – Seattle Sounders, 2011; Sporting Kansas City, 2012
62 – LAFC, 2019
.796 – LAFC, 2019
.750 – D.C. United, 1998; Galaxy, 1998
.721 – Toronto FC, 2017; New York Red Bulls, 2018
14 – D.C. United, 1998; New York Red Bulls, 2018
13 – Chicago Fire, 1998; Dallas Burn, 1999; San Jose Clash, 1999; Chicago Fire, 2000; FC Dallas, 2015; New York Red Bulls, 2016; Toronto FC, 2017; D.C. United, 2018
11 –LAFC, 2019
85 – Galaxy, 1998
74 – D.C. United, 1998; Toronto FC, 2017; LAFC, 2019
46 – LAFC, 2019
41 – Galaxy, 1998
But LAFC isn’t the only team rewriting parts of the record book this season. FC Cincinnati, an expansion club, is having one of the worst years in MLS history and seems certain to make some history of its over its final seven games.
With 64 goals allowed, FC Cincinnati is just 10 short of the highest single-season total, set by Orlando City in 2018. And the team’s goal differential of minus-37 is tied for worst ever with the 2013 teams from Chivas USA and D.C. United. Cincinnati’s two shutouts — in back-to-back victories in March — is tied for the league’s all-time low in that category, a record shared by 11 teams.
Here are the MLS standings
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
Atlanta 15 9 3 46 30 16 48
Philadelphia 14 8 6 51 41 10 48
New York City 13 5 8 48 33 15 47
New York Red Bulls 12 11 5 47 42 5 41
D.C. United 10 10 9 36 38 -2 39
New England 10 9 8 40 46 -6 38
Toronto 10 10 7 43 44 -1 37
Montreal 10 14 4 40 52 -12 34
Orlando 9 12 7 35 36 -1 34
Chicago 8 12 9 43 42 1 33
Columbus 8 15 6 32 43 -11 30
Cincinnati 5 19 3 27 64 -37 18
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
LAFC 19 3 5 74 28 46 62
Real Salt Lake 13 10 4 40 34 6 43
Seattle 12 8 7 42 40 2 43
Galaxy 13 11 3 38 41 -3 42
Minnesota 12 9 6 44 37 7 42
San Jose 12 10 5 45 43 2 41
Dallas 11 10 7 44 37 7 40
Portland 11 11 4 42 40 2 37
Kansas City 9 11 7 40 45 -5 34
Houston 9 14 4 38 48 -10 31
Colorado 7 14 6 43 54 -11 31
Vancouver 6 13 9 28 48 -20 27
Speaking of the MLS standings …
If the season were to end today — which it won’t — two teams would advance to the playoffs without a winning record, while three others would be just a game above .500. Four teams, including the Galaxy, would advance with a negative goal differential.
Yet we’re to believe they are all among the best in MLS.
That’s an unhappy byproduct of the league’s decision to expand the playoff field to seven teams in each of the 12-team conferences, meaning the main purpose of the 34-game regular season was to eliminate just 10 of the league’s 24 teams.
That makes the MLS playoffs by far the easiest to reach in professional sports. The NHL, which sends 16 of its 31 teams to the postseason, and the NBA, which advances 16 of 30, are the only other leagues in which more than half the teams advance. But no team, in either league, advanced with a losing record last season. There’s a good chance that will happen in the MLS this fall.
Twelve of 32 teams make the playoffs in the NFL, while a third of baseball’s 30 teams advance.
But wait, there’s more math. Because after playing a 34-game regular season to eliminate just 10 of 24 teams, six more will go out in 90 minutes in the first knockout-round games.
The lopsidedness of all this is as obvious and will be exciting and unpredictable come October.
“I like how it’s single elimination,” LAFC’s Steven Beitashour said. “[But] you’re not putting any emphasis on the regular season. It’s almost like, ‘Half the teams are getting in anyways, so it doesn’t matter.’
“I would like to see more emphasis on the Supporters’ Shield. It’s the hardest to do.”
The Supporters’ Shield goes to the team that finishes with the best regular-season record, something LAFC is almost certain to do. That will get the team a first-round bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. But it will also mean the team will go more than two weeks between its final regular-season match and its first playoff game, an unusually long break for athletes who are used to playing once or twice a week.
Only three of the last 16 Supporters’ Shield winners have gone on to claim the MLS Cup.
“MLS Cup,” Beitashour said “you can get lucky and win.”
Ain’t that a kick?
Although Philadelphia’s Jake Elliott was 20th in the NFL in field-goal percentage last season, the Eagles insist they weren’t in the market for a kicker when they invited Women’s World Cup star Carli Lloyd to a preseason practice with the Baltimore Ravens last week to try her hand — well, foot — at place-kicking.
But they might want to keep Lloyd — a New Jersey native and diehard Eagles fan — on speed dial just the same because she made a number of field-goal tries, including one from 55 yards. (Watch the video by clicking here.)
And the audition apparently got some people to thinking. Gil Brandt, who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as an executive, retweeted the video of Lloyd’s kick, adding “Honestly, I don’t think it will be long before we see a woman break through this NFL barrier.”
That might have happened this week if not for the fact Lloyd’s regular job with the women’s national team got in the way.
The U.S. will play Portugal as part of its post-World Cup Victory Tour on Thursday at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field — an NFL stadium, it should be noted — and Lloyd is contractually obligated to participate. If not, James Galanis, Lloyd’s personal coach, said the soccer star likely would have accepted an offer from an NFL team to be added to its roster and participate in a final preseason game that night.
That would have made Lloyd the first woman to play in the NFL.
Galanis refused to name the teams but confirmed more than one franchise reached out.
“It’s legit. For real,” said Galanis, who said he and Lloyd are “considering [it] for the future.”
On the 55-yarder, Lloyd takes an extra-long six-yard run-up and, with Ravens punter Sam Koch serving as the holder, drills her right-footed kick through the center of the practice-field uprights, which are narrower than the ones used in games.
If you’re wondering how Lloyd, a two-time world player of the year in soccer, would stack up in the NFL, at 5-foot-7 and 141 pounds she would tower over the smallest kicker in league history. That was Jack Shapiro, who was 5-1 and 119 pounds when he played his only game for the Staten Island Stapletons in 1929.
A women’s place …
… is in the owners’ suite. If she’s not going to kicking field goals, that is.
At least that’s how it will be in St. Louis when the MLS’ 28th team begins play in 2022. The club will be the first female majority-owned club in league history.
The group, which paid an MLS-record expansion fee of $200 million, is led by Enterprise Holdings Foundation president Carolyn Kindle Betz and other female members of the Taylor family, which owns Enterprise Holdings, the company behind rental-car brands Enterprise, National and Alamo.
Enterprise Holdings executive chairman Andy Taylor and World Wide Technology chief executive Jim Kavanaugh, founder of the USL’s Saint Louis FC, are also co-owners. The MLS bid is not connected to the USL team, and it is unclear what will happen to Saint Louis FC after the 2021 season.
“St. Louis is a city with a rich soccer tradition,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “It is a market we have considered since the league’s inception. Our league becomes stronger with the addition of the city’s deeply dedicated soccer fans and the committed and innovative local ownership group.”
The new team will play in a 22,500-seat, $250-million stadium that will be built largely with private funding. The team name, crest, colors and uniforms will come at a later date.
“I am thrilled that St. Louis will have the first female-led majority ownership group in professional soccer — and one of the few female-led ownership groups in all sports,” Lyda Krewson, the mayor of St. Louis, said at the news conference that welcomed the team to MLS.
Former Women’s World Cup star Mia Hamm is part of LAFC’s ownership group. Other MLS teams with female owners include San Jose (Katie Hill), Seattle (Lenore Hanauer), Columbus (Dee Haslam) and Minnesota United (Wendy Carlson Nelson).
Women’s World Cup: The gift that keeps on giving
The NWSL’s Washington Spirit and Portland Thorns both drew crowds of more than 17,500 this past weekend, suggesting the post-World Cup bump is still strong.
The Spirit played before a sellout crowd of 19,470 in a rare appearance at Audi Field, home of MLS’ D.C. United. That’s just slightly less than the Miami Marlins drew for a pair of weekend games with the Philadelphia Phillies combined.
And speaking of Philadelphia, the World Cup-champion U.S. national team will set a record when it plays there Thursday in the match that will keep Lloyd from making history of her own. With more than 45,000 tickets already sold, the game will break the record for largest crowd at a women’s friendly set in Pittsburgh during the last World Cup victory tour in 2015.
That game drew 44,028.
The U.S. team will be missing five big contributors from the roster that won in France with Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, Alex Morgan and Mallory Pugh all sidelined by injury. Casey Short and Kristen Hamilton have already been added to the roster as replacements; more reinforcements are expected to be named to the team before Thursday.
Former Galaxy academy player Uly Llanez scored six goals in his first three appearances for Wolfsburg’s U-19 team but came out of Sunday’s win over Chemnitzer in the eighth minute with an apparent injury. He is tied for second in scoring in Germany’s A-Junioren Bundesliga Nord/Nordost.
“In Argentina, Clasicos are do or die, like Boca Juniors vs. River Plate. And games like today are played like that too, because you can’t relax.”
Galaxy forward Cristian Pavon, who scored his first MLS goal in Sunday’s “El Trafico,” on how the atmosphere of that game stacks up against what he experienced playing in Argentina with Boca Juniors
Until next time