By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Nov 7, 2018) US Soccer Players - Normally, a season in which a team loses its regular-season finale and a knockout-round match within a span of five days would be a failure. In most instances, that would certainly classify as one. Especially since the regular season finale was for the conference title and a playoff top seed.
2018 is far from a failure for LAFC even if its inaugural season ended in a playoff exit against Real Salt Lake in the knockout round. Even though the end was bitter, it did not take away from what was otherwise a successful expansion year.
LAFC exceeded expectations in its first year. The building blocks for success are firmly in place. The team has a beautiful new stadium, a committed ownership group, strong coaching and high-priced players who yielded returns on their club’s investment. That is what set this team apart this season and what will set the team apart for years to come.
To compete in MLS now and in the near future, clubs will not only need to spend money but spend it wisely. Just look a few miles down the 110 Freeway to see how spending millions of dollars does not equate to success. The LA Galaxy’s payroll featured five players earning $1 million or more in 2018. The club missed the postseason altogether, got rid of its head coach during the season, and fired a team executive earlier this week.
Money is important but the infrastructure needs to be solid as well. That is what helped Supporters’ Shield winners the New York Red Bulls not just stay afloat but surge to the top of the league after coach Jesse Marsch left for Germany over the summer. It is also what helped NYCFC survive the exit of coach Patrick Vieira. A strong club infrastructure is what helped LAFC get to this point.
LAFC’s ownership secured a place for Banc of California Stadium and helped get it built in downtown Los Angeles, something that did not seem likely before LAFC’s existence. The stadium was a hot-ticket item in LA, which is a big deal considering how many options people in the City of Angels have within reach. The club sold out all 17 regular-season matches, averaging 22,042 per game. They also drew 17,898 to a US Open Cup quarterfinal match against Portland, an Open Cup record for that round. In total 452,864 fans showed up to watch LAFC this season.
That home support came in handy during the season. LAFC went 9-1-7 at home. They tied NYCFC for fewest home losses this season. Of course, that meant nothing to RSL who came in and won at Banc of California Stadium in the playoffs. Still, LAFC figures to be tough at home next season. One of the challenges for LAFC next year will be to turn more of those seven draws into wins.
LAFC also had three players finish with double-digit goal totals. Carlos Vela led the team with 14 while Diego Rossi and Adama Diomande each had 12. Diomande reached that number despite playing in just 18 games. All three had not played in MLS prior to this year as well.
That strong expansion season mirrors the start of Atlanta United. In 2017, Atlanta became the first expansion team since Seattle in 2009 to reach the playoffs in its inaugural season. The club opened a new stadium as well, also to much fanfare. Now, Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium is on a much grander scale than LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium. That stadium met the needs of its ownership group and the club’s market much in the same way that Banc of California did to LAFC’s owners and supporters as well.
Atlanta played an attractive brand of soccer last year and looked like it could be dangerous in the postseason. They finished fourth in the Eastern Conference with 55 points and a 15-9-10 record while scoring 70 goals, second-best in the league a year ago. Atlanta’s biggest blemish was the finish as the club lost at home to Columbus on penalties in the knockout round.
Now in its second year, Atlanta has one-upped its accomplishments. Even though Atlanta lost the regular-season finale which would have meant a Supporters’ Shield title, they still finished second in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta again scored 70 goals but this time, good for best in MLS. Atlanta’s finish meant avoiding the knockout round. Now the club has taken a 1-0 lead over NYCFC in the Eastern Conference semifinals by winning at Yankee Stadium.
Atlanta, of course, is about success over the long haul. The club will be losing manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino and that exit might also lead to some roster turnover. That's life in pro sports, but the club will be a contender next year and for years to come.
That will be LAFC too. Coach Bob Bradley does not seem poised to make any such exit but this team is successful because of more reasons than Bradley. LAFC already has solid footing and a proven track record of collecting strong talent. The team’s offseason will certainly bring talented players ready to fill the club’s needs. Sellouts will likely continue as the team’s results will keep fans coming out.
LAFC did raise the bar for itself. Come March 2019, the club will likely be the favorites to win the Western Conference. Given the club’s first year, the team is ready to meet and exceed expectations.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Photo by Michael Janosz - ISIPhotos.com