By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Aug 8, 2018) US Soccer Players - For as great of a debut MLS season as LAFC is having, nothing is certain. LAFC seems poised for a playoff spot, but that is not a sure thing yet. If the playoffs do happen, the team is not guaranteed a spot in the conference final or MLS Cup. History says the expansion club will not even reach the playoffs.
Right now, there is one thing that is certain. LAFC has a realistic chance of playing for silverware in its first season of existence. In fact, the club is 90 minutes away from making that a reality.
LAFC will play Houston in a US Open Cup semifinal on Wednesday and a win would get the club one step closer to a trophy. By beating Houston, LAFC would become just the third MLS club to reach the final in its first year of existence. The other two - DC United in 1996 and the Chicago Fire in 1998 - each won.
If LAFC can beat Houston, a task the club failed to achieve in their lone meeting, played on July 3, the possibility of winning a championship would become more concrete.
Already, this team is going in a great direction. The roster is solid, comprised of Designated Players Carlos Vela, Andre Horta, and Diego Rossi, international talents like Adama Diomande Laurent Ciman and Marco Urena as well as MLS veterans like Walker Zimmerman and Benny Feilhaber. The roster is a good mix of veterans and youth, of experience and potential.
Management is also continuously trying to improve the squad. The club added Christian Ramirez over the weekend. Ramirez, who has scored 21 goals in hist 50 MLS games, joins the club via trade with Minnesota United FC.
LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium is not the league’s newest stadium, thanks to DC United’s Audi Field. The stadium is nevertheless a jewel of a building in the heart of Los Angeles. Thanks to the deep-pocketed owners who financed the stadium and the roster, the team is seemingly in a strong position to continue at this rate for years to come.
However, there is the pressure of playing in Los Angeles. LAFC must compete for attention and dollars not only against the LA Galaxy but against the likes of Major League Baseball's Dodgers and the NBA’s Lakers, not to mention the myriad of other professional and collegiate teams that reside in Los Angeles and Southern California.
That pressure only subsides a bit when teams are successful. The US Open Cup has not always been highly regarded even in MLS circles. That said, a trophy is a trophy and LAFC has taken this tournament seriously thus far.
LAFC has had a bit of fortune on its side. While the three other semifinalists have each played and defeated two MLS rivals, LAFC’s run has included just one. LAFC beat USL sides Fresno FC and the Sacramento Republic in previous rounds before a meeting against Portland Timbers in the quarterfinals, a highly-contested match the expansion side won by 3-2.
Against Houston, LAFC will face a team that has also been fortunate. The Dynamo has hosted all three of its Open Cup games thus far. LAFC visited Houston on July 3 and tied 2-2 in a match that LAFC led by 2-0 in stoppage time.
While LAFC is in a better position in the table than Houston - tied for third place on 36 points versus 10th place on 27 points - there are no safe spots in mid-August in the Western Conference table. FC Dallas sits atop the conference with 42 points, the only team to surpass the 40-point mark, and seems to be in the most comfortable spot for now. Just 10 points separate second-place Portland and 10th-place Houston. Only the top six teams reach the postseason.
LAFC and Sporting KC are level on points, a point ahead of the Galaxy and two ahead of Real Salt Lake. All signs are pointing to LAFC reaching the postseason, something that puts them in rare company. Getting a trophy in year one in MLS is even rarer.
A late-season collapse does not seem likely, but nothing is out of the question in MLS. For instance, Seattle is in eighth place in the table, but the Sounders have amassed 17 points in their last seven matches and seem poised for yet another stunning turnaround and run to the playoffs. If that happens, then someone from the top six will drop out.
For now, LAFC's focus is on the other cup. That's more than a trophy, also getting them into the Concacaf Champions League. This is a team that doesn't seem interested in taking baby steps. Not only would it give the team a championship and confidence it can take back to league play, it would book passage to next year’s CONCACAF Champions League. LAFC is two wins away from reaching that goal and putting something on its trophy case just six months after playing its first meaningful game.
Success is really the only option for LAFC. The pieces are in place. Now the club just has to take advantage.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com