LAFC entered the final match day of the MLS regular season with more questions than answers.
It knew the playoffs would begin on the road but didn’t know where, when or against whom. Also unknown was how much the team would be able to lean on their captain, reigning MVP Carlos Vela, who hadn’t played more than 45 minutes in a game since early March.
When those answers came late Sunday only one was pleasing to coach Bob Bradley because Sunday’s 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers left LAFC seventh in the Western Conference standings and facing a late November playoff opener in Seattle. However, Bradley did get 90 minutes and a goal from Vela, which ultimately might make everything else moot.
“When Carlos is there, when as many guys as possible are fit, sharp and good form, we still believe that we have a team that can win MLS Cup,” said Bradley, who gave Vela his first start in 2½ months Sunday. “As we get to this time of the year, we think we are getting closer.”
“We have a good team,” he added. “We have to prove it in the playoffs,”
LAFC (9-8-5) ended the shortest regular season in MLS history with more wins and more points than Colorado, but finished two places behind the Rapids in the table because the league, after canceling more than a half-dozen games because of COVID-19 infections, used points per game to determine final positions. That also allowed Sporting Kansas City to finish atop the Western Conference despite having played fewer games than nine of the 11 trailing teams.
The Philadelphia Union beat New England to finish atop the Eastern Conference and win the Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record.
LAFC won the Shield home-field advantage throughout the playoffs a year ago but it made little difference, with visiting Seattle ending LAFC’s season a game short of the MLS Cup. Now comes a rematch on CenturyLink Field’s artificial turf, where LAFC hasn’t won since the franchise’s first game in 2018.
Vela missed both of LAFC’s losses in Seattle this season after sustaining a Grade 2 sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Even with his return LAFC won’t be at full strength for its playoff opener since four starters — including Diego Rossi, the league’s scoring champion — are expected to miss the playoff opener because of a COVID-19 quarantine following World Cup qualifying matches in South America.
Rossi, 22, finished with 14 goals in 19 games to become the youngest scoring leader. With Vela having won the title a year ago, they become the first teammates to lead MLS in goals in consecutive seasons.
A home playoff date was beyond LAFC’s reach at kickoff with the Timbers but they could have avoided a trip to Seattle with a win. Vela had the team pointed that way when he banged in the rebound of a Steve Clark save in the fifth minute.
The goal was the fourth in seven games and 337 minutes for Vela, an average of one every 84 minutes. Last season, when Vela broke the MLS scoring record with 34 goals, he averaged a score every 80 minutes. He came within a whisker of lowering that 2020 number when his right-footed shot from the top of the box beat Clark but hit the crossbar in the 37th minute.
He also lost an assist early in the second half after teeing up a shot for Rossi, only to see that try hit the right post.
The Timbers didn’t put their first shot on target until Diego Valeri’s point-blank try was smothered by LAFC keeper Kenneth Vermeer in the 80th minute. They would get just two more and Jorge Villafaña made the final one count, nodding home a long Valeri cross from the right wing in the final minute of regulation.
“We are not happy with where we finished in the standings,” Bradley said. “We have a better team than that.
“We are capable of winning MLS Cup, but again, you go a game at a time, and so we know that we start in Seattle. Last year they came here and knocked us out of the playoffs in the conference finals. So we’ve got to see if we can settle that score and go there and be at our best.”