Editorial — With Phase One in the books and Phase Two set to begin, so too does the playoff push for LAFC. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this season has shortened to 23 matches, with eight teams per conference getting a postseason spot.
While LAFC currently sit in fourth place — with 12 matches left in the regular season — they still have plenty of work to do. While 2019 saw several records shattered en route to an easy one seed, this year has been a grind. One that LAFC hope ends, with a championship.
LAFC Begin Playoff Push With the Start of Phase Two
While we will take a look at what lies ahead for the black and gold, it’s important to review how we got here. With many writing off this season as a one-off, ‘weird’ year, the writing may have been on the wall before the pandemic put a halt to play.
The narrative goes, that LAFC were rolling in their 2019 form, having just come off a comeback victory over one of Liga MX’s top clubs. Which, in large part, is very true. After falling down two goals on the road, LAFC bounced back, in a then full Banc of California Stadium, to win the round 3-2 aggregate. However, that wasn’t the last match prior to there pandemic. LAFC played in two MLS matches at the start of March. The season opener saw them host the expansion side Inter Miami in their first MLS appearance.
While LAFC did win that match 1-0, it wasn’t as easy as it perhaps should have been, and Inter exposed a problem that would plague the side all season: defense. Rather, defending on the counter after losing possession in midfield. Inter Miami finished that match with 16 shots, seven of those on goal.
To this day, it’s their highest amount of shots and shots on goal in a match. In addition, LAFC finished with 21 shots, nine on target, but only one goal. A goal that must be said was more a moment of brilliance from a great player than it was structured. However, it was a win, and wasn’t of any concern considering it was just match day one.
The following week, the team hosted the Philadelphia Union in a six-goal thriller. Immediately, Philadelphia found chances, breaking down the defense and peppering the goal within the first five minutes. While two of Philly’s three goals were just moments of brilliance, the final goal and several chances were products of what we’ve seen recently, with dispossession in the midfield, leading to counters and teams getting multiple shots on goal from close range. It also marked the first match questions were being asked of Kenneth Vermeer.
— Eduard Atuesta (@EduardAtuesta) September 15, 2020
Pandemic and MLS is Back
Just days after the Philadelphia match life as we knew it changed. What started as a canceled NBA game due to a positive COVID test soon snowballed into all sports being brought to a halt. It was four months before LAFC took the pitch again and it was under extremely odd circumstances.
MLS is Back provided a safe bubble environment, proven effective by their NWSL counter-parts. While each team wanted to win the tournament, it was group stage that was most important. Those three matches in group would count towards the regular season.
Due to safety concerns, the team travelled without their MVP Carlos Vela, which only added to the strangeness of the moment. As the matches were concerned, LAFC finished their group stage with a record of 1-0-2. LAFC eventually was eliminated by the tournament Cinderella, Orlando SC, in the Quarterfinals on penalties. It was during this stretch of matches that the small issues from earlier in the year became bigger. The loss of possession led to lethargic starts, sloppy play and results that were far below their standard.
Perhaps most disappointing, the team didn’t look terrible without their main goalscorer. After a 3-3 draw in their opener against Houston Dynamo, LAFC put six goals past their rival LA Galaxy. They would finish the tournament with 16 goals. However, it was the lapse in defensive as well as goalkeeper performance that kept them from winning it all.
LAFC Begin Playoff Push Against Seattle Sounders
Which brings us to the here and now. Shortly after the MLS is Back Tournament, it was announced the season would return in phases. Phase One, a grouping of six matches, and Phase Two, recently announced, a grouping of three matches. Phase one for the black and gold unfortunately raised even more concerns for their season goal of winning the MLS Cup.
LAFC finished the phase with a record of 2-4-0 , with the second win coming last night against the Portland Timbers. However, two important factors to consider when discussing this phase. Eduard Atuesta and Carlos Vela were out for the majority of Phase One due to injury.
While Atuesta returned with 10 minutes left in last night’s match, Vela is expected to return at some point during Phase Two. While it’s easy to point to their absence for the recent run of poor form, consider this. They were both healthy at the start of the year, during the Inter Miami and Philly matches previously discussed.
Atuesta was the star of the MLS is Back Tournament, emerging as arguably the most important piece of this team’s attack. Even with their presence, this team wasn’t the record-shattering side that we saw in 2019.
Last night we axed the Timbers.
— LAFC (@LAFC) September 14, 2020
Last night’s match was a must-win for LAFC. A loss or draw would’ve kept them outside of playoff contention, near the bottom of the West, while the win catapulted them into fourth. However, as it stands they sit five points back from first, but only six points clear of last. Meaning, this small stretch of matches, leading into the conclusion of the season, will be critical. First, they play a Seattle Sounders side that is in second place, and have won three of their last five matches, which includes a 3-1 win over LAFC.
This time will be different, as LAFC will have a healthy Atuesta, who should see a full 90, if not a majority of it. Unfortunately, the problems with the back four, and the uncertainty around goalkeeper, haven’t been properly addressed. Pablo Sisniega is the number one, for now, while the defense is still a massive liability during set-pieces.
Those are the questions surrounding this team, resulting from all all the poor results. For the rollercoaster that this year has been, and for the injuries that have piled up, I still have faith. Albeit dwindling, the faith is there that this team can turn it around.
They don’t need to finish in first place, they just need to get a spot in the playoffs. They don’t have to win by five goals each match, but they have to put together a run if they will have any hope of achieving their ultimate goal.
“I think that this year anything that is not winning the title would be a failure for us” Vela said prior to LAFC starting Phase One.
While he did suffer an injury, that sentiment remains. With his return approaching, whether it will be enough to achieve his goal, remains to be seen.