“We’re a threat for every team if we play like this,” Ibrahimovic said after the Galaxy beat Vancouver. “I bet you whatever you want, nobody wants to get us in the playoffs because we are dangerous if we do what we do like we do it now. Just hope for them that we don’t make it to the playoffs.”
Ibrahimovic is right. An inspired and confident Galaxy side would be a difficult draw for any team in the playoffs. It would also be quite frustrating too. Frustrating that a team that has already sacked its coach, went through a four-game losing streak in April and May, and a seven-game winless skid over the summer is playoff material in this league.
For all the improvements Major League Soccer has made over the years, the one part that is still not right is the playoff system. This Galaxy team might be the model for how to win in MLS.
In this league, it’s not about building a powerhouse team. It’s not about creating a winning culture. Rather, it is about doing enough to get into the postseason and peaking at the right time.
The Galaxy’s overall body of work in 2018 has been inconsistent. The team’s recent stretch is proof of that. The Galaxy’s win over Vancouver came after a 3-0 win over Seattle. Those followed a 5-3 loss at Toronto and a 6-2 loss at Real Salt Lake, a result that cost coach Sigi Schmid his job.
At 12-11-8, the Galaxy is barely above average. Heading into October, the Galaxy sits on the brink of the postseason, just two points back of 6th-place Real Salt Lake. If the Galaxy can reach the playoffs, it will surprise nobody if the team runs the table and plays in the MLS Cup.
In a one-off match, there are reasons to like the club. Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of several talented players the club has on its roster. The defense is the largest area of concern. Consecutive clean sheets at home are reasons to hope that the defense can sort itself out even for one game or possibly a stretch of games.
That's the problem. The Galaxy has had plenty of games to prove it belongs and so far it has not. The Galaxy has been average or just plain bad for large stretches of the season. The team went winless over seven games from July 29 to August 23. During that stretch the Galaxy allowed an astounding 23 goals.
The playoffs should be a reward for teams who have shown well throughout an entire season. Teams like FC Dallas and LAFC have done well for most of 2018. Sure, the teams have gone through their share of low points. FC Dallas lost both its meetings with last-place San Jose this season while LAFC has a 5-0 loss at Atlanta and a 5-1 loss at Minnesota the club would rather forget about.
Overall, those teams have had good seasons. FC Dallas has lost consecutive games only once this season. LAFC is two wins short of equaling the MLS record for most points by an expansion team, set by the Chicago Fire in 1998.
The Galaxy meanwhile have not had an overall piece of work quite like those two or other bona fide contenders like Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls, or New York City FC.
Now, the team that's really has made a mockery of the MLS playoff system is Seattle. The Sounders were in last place and hopelessly out of it in early summer before the team made an astronomical run. Seattle won a league-best nine consecutive matches, climbing into a somewhat comfortable playoff spot. This is the third consecutive season where Seattle was in dire straits during the summer only to go on a tear and wind up in the playoffs.
The Galaxy though has a history in this as well as the club has benefited tremendously from the playoff system. The Galaxy’s second MLS Cup trophy came at the end of a stellar playoff run in 2005. The Galaxy sneaked into the postseason despite finishing in fourth place out of six Western Conference teams and with the ninth-best record in a league that only had 12 teams.
Now, if the Galaxy does somehow get into the playoffs and run the table, the supporters will not care much how the team got in. History will not look harshly on the team should that happen. Who even remembers how mediocre the Galaxy was over the summer of 2005?
Still, there's harm in a strong playoff run after an unispired regular season. The playoffs would hide the deficiencies that made it a forgettable regular season to begin with. The same defense that allowed Toronto FC to score five goals just a few short weeks ago is still present. The same defense that let in all those goals in August and, really, throughout the course of the season, is still here.
The Galaxy can erase those issues with a strong run in October. If the club is a notch above terrible, the attack might be able to compensate for that. The Galaxy after all has scored a conference-best 60 goals. Despite its horrid defense, the Galaxy still registers a +1 goal difference.
Should that playoff run happen, the Galaxy then could point to the defensive unit’s solid season-ending stretch as reasons to believe this same unit can continue to improve ahead of next year. They may not make the major upgrades needed to the backline.
No matter what happens in 2018, the defense needs a complete overhaul. Ashley Cole is nearing the end of his remarkable career. Michael Ciani is a liability. Jorgen Skjelvik is not much better. Rolf Feltscher has problems staying healthy while Daniel Steres and Dave Romney are inconsistent. With that backline protecting the serviceable David Bingham in goal, it is no wonder the Galaxy’s defensive stats are in such a sad state. Not exactly championship caliber, but that might be a defense hoisting the MLS Cup trophy come December 8.
In a better MLS playoff system, the Galaxy’s summer swoon would have been enough to see the team out of the postseason. The Galaxy was inconsistent early in the season but went on a strong run from the end of May to the end of July, winning five and drawing four in a nine-game stretch. The seven-game winless skid after that should have been enough to eliminate the Galaxy from contention.
For the club’s sake, the team will miss the postseason, a failure which will prompt the team to make the massive changes necessary to get the team competitive for next season. Any sort of playoff appearance and the team could be setting itself up for more problems in 2019.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com