EDITORIAL — The MLS Cup Playoffs are just around the corner. With just four matches left in the regular season, there are still plenty of teams around the league vying for a place in the postseason.
Right now, LAFC sit comfortably, perched atop the league standings, as they have for much of the season. However, in the midst of a rough patch, with teams finding their stride around them, LAFC need a win for the first time all season.
LAFC need a win, and momentum, heading into the Playoffs
With the Western Conference already won, a first-round bye in hand and the Supporter’s Shield so close you can see Carlos Vela’s reflection, LAFC are golden. However, the recent stretch of games have begun to raise questions around how far this team can go in the postseason.
To be clear, LAFC are still far and away the best team in the league this season. However, they wouldn’t be the first team in sports to dominate an entire regular season, only for it to end in disappointment when it mattered the most. For all the praise, publicity and even with several veteran players, this team is still a fairly young team.
More importantly, the club as a whole is only in its second year of play. In regards to playoff experience, they have none. Literally, zero. Last season, Real Salt Lake put together a scrappy performance that, with self-inflicted error, saw then expansion-side exit the playoffs before it really began.
That has proved to be the fuel to the rocket-ship start they went on this year. That fuel propelled them to the top, where they have remained without a worry — until now. In theory, LAFC could go winless the remainder of the season and still lift the Shield. They could go on a run in the playoffs and lift the MLS Cup.
However, when has theory ever worked in sports?
“This is my Club, this is Los Angeles’ Club!” @jaimecamil knows ?
— LAFC (@LAFC) September 19, 2019
The Final Push
Of the four matches remaining, three will take place over the course of eight days. Two of those matches will be against teams still fighting for playoff positioning, like Toronto FC and Minnesota United. LA will have a chance to preview their postseason home-field advantage, as they enjoy three of their last four at The Banc. LAFC holds a record of 11-1-2 at home.
Things could not be better for the black and gold. In addition to all the aforementioned luxuries, they also come into the final stretch healthy. No injury to Mark-Anthony Kaye this time around. Carlos Vela is fully recovered from his slight hamstring injury. The stars couldn’t be aligning more. If LAFC plan on planting their flag amongst the MLS elite, there couldn’t be a more right time than this year.
It’s a quote that I have used when describing this team in the past, but I think it’s still worth mentioning. When asked what it would be like to beat the Milwaukee Bucks four games in a row, then Toronto Raptor, Kawhi Leonard, responded with “I don’t know. I haven’t done it yet.”
That’s a bit where LAFC sit. All season long this team has used the disappointment of last season as motivation for their dominance, which may be why the recent rough patch has brought a slight air of anxiety.
There is no question that this team has the talent to win, but they have yet to prove they have the “championship mentality” it takes to win the important matches. In truth, they’ve yet to beat their cross town rivals, a poor performance ended their Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup hopes in the quarter-finals, and with two chances to clinch the Western Conference for themselves, failed to do so, clinching only after those around them lost.
What LAFC have proven, is that on their day, when they play the style of free-flowing, precise passing football they are accustomed to, they are miles ahead of everyone in the MLS. They don’t need to win every game leading up to the postseason, in truth, they only need to put in one great performance. Once match where they score over three goals, where black smoke billows from The 3252, where Vela scores a highlight goal and they remind the league what awaits them come October.
The first chance LAFC have to make a statement will be this weekend at home, when they host Toronto FC. The Eastern Conference side sit in fourth, six points back of Atlanta United, but only five points clear of entering the postseason as the bottom seed. Toronto come to Los Angeles unbeaten in their last seven MLS matches.
Tsubassa Endoh and Alejandro Pozuelo will be the ones to keep an eye on throughout the match. The Toronto attack can catch fire quickly, and these two have proven to be the spark that sets it off. LAFC come into the match with a struggling defense, and no doubt Pozuelo will look to take advantage along the wings. Endoh will see more playing time as he replaces and injured Nicolas Benezet. In addition to maintaining playoff position, Toronto are navigating the Canadian Championship, with a huge Finals match shortly after this LA affair.
“They’ve got a lot going on but they’re a team that has played with confidence.”
Back at full strength, Bob Bradley and #LAFC are ready for Toronto.
— LAFC (@LAFC) September 18, 2019
Outlook and Prediction
The black and gold will be back to defending The Banc this weekend. Toronto may be the team in form, but LAFC still have the weapons in attack to outmatch anybody. The biggest concern will be the defense for the home side. If they continue their struggles, and find themselves out of position, Toronto will waste no time in piling up the goals.
LA is a squad that have not been shy about their notice to outside doubt, and will have heard the whispers regarding recent form. Expect a full strength squad, and even the possible debut of defender, Diego Palacios. More importantly, expect LAFC to finally put one up in the win column behind the energy of that home crowd.
In the long run, LAFC should be fine. For all the talk of their recent form, their job for the regular season is done. They’ve won the conference, they have home-field throughout the playoffs, they are the best in points and have the most goals. They are led by an MVP lock in Vela, and have a coach who has won the MLS Cup before. They have earned the right to have a bad stretch and to ease off the gas a bit. However, they mustn’t rest too much.
It almost never works out for teams who assume they will just “turn it on” come postseason. While they don’t need to win out, one victory would go a long way in calming the nerves not just of the fans, but of the players. In just two short years, this club has made claim to the throne of the MLS, the only thing they need now, is their crown.