By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Oct 30, 2019) US Soccer Players - MLS Cup is heading back to the West Coast, but in Seattle rather than Los Angeles. LAFC took care of the Galaxy and then Seattle took care of LAFC to set up an unlikely Sounders vs Toronto MLS Cup. Both clubs are playing for their second league title. In a league where only five clubs have won more than once, it's an accomplishment. It's also less than half of the all-time leader.
The LA Galaxy sits atop that particular list with five MLS Cups keeping each other company in the trophy case. It's a figure Galaxy executives and team personnel love to point out. Five MLS Cup certainly count, but the Galaxy is in danger of having that as its moniker for a long time.
In this version of MLS, the LA Galaxy could quickly become a relic, stuck on five titles and watching helplessly as the Sounders, Toronto FC and Atlanta continue to fight for MLS Cups year after year.
After missing the playoffs for two consecutive years, the Galaxy was certainly closer to getting back to MLS Cup this year than before. Closer to reality, the team did not stand out in the postseason and was never really a threat to add to its championship haul. The way the league is shaping up that might not change. The league's standard-bearer. The first to five. The team that only plays for championships. All good, but all relics.
It took some time for the Galaxy to win its first MLS Cup. The club reached MLS Cup in 1996, 1999, and 2001 before breaking through in 2002 and winning its first league championship. The Galaxy won again in 2005 and had a mini-dynasty earlier this decade, winning titles in 2011, 2012, and 2014.
The last time the Galaxy won, though, the league was very different. In 2014, MLS had 19 clubs. Since then, the league subtracted one of those clubs and added six more. Nashville and Inter Miami join next season, with the league soon hitting 30 teams.
The question for the Galaxy is whether or not they can keep up. Based on the last few seasons, the answer would be, probably not. The club underwent a complete makeover after the 2016 season and was the worst team in MLS the year after. 2018 was slightly better, but the club lost its grip on a playoff spot in the final game of the season. This year, the Galaxy reached the playoffs, won its first match, and fell to LAFC in the conference semifinal.
At no point over the last three years did it feel like the Galaxy was close to returning to MLS Cup. The defense has been terrible. Even with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the frontline over the last two years wasn't the high-powered attack it had been during its championship runs.
From 2009 through 2014, Galaxy reached MLS Cup four times and reached the conference final another time. This was after three consecutive miserable seasons of missing the playoffs and piling up the losses. The Galaxy had nothing to base its swagger on in 2009 but the badge on the jersey. That was enough.
It's no longer enough. This year's team is different. For the most part, that old combination of inspiration and rallying around each other in key moments was missing. Still, the Galaxy had enough to get through Minnesota and beat them 2-1 in the semifinal match. LAFC was different.
Despite its amazing regular season, LAFC seemed like a rival that the Galaxy would enjoy playing. The Galaxy had previously gotten the better of them nearly every time out. While the team kept it interesting, there was never a defining moment, never a time where it felt that the Galaxy was in control of the match. There was a feeling that the game would turn the Galaxy's favor, certainly, but that was because of what the Galaxy teams of yore had accomplished. That feeling was courtesy of the team's colors and five stars versus this current squad's actual abilities. In the end, the best the Galaxy could do was to hold a 2-2 draw early in the second-half. Eventually, the game and the season got away from them.
The Galaxy heads into the offseason needing serious work. The biggest star is likely gone with Ibrahimovic's contract up. Without him, the Galaxy will recoup a large salary. They'll also lose a 30-goal scorer and their most dangerous weapon. Cristian Pavon remains. He could blossom into a star, but he needs a supporting cast around him. The Galaxy's championship years always featured strong scoring duos, from Carlos Ruiz and Cobi Jones in 2002 to Donovan and Keane in 2014.
Who can the team line up alongside Pavon next year to try and match teams from previous seasons? If the Galaxy land some major talent, can the team really rely on two players in their first full season in MLS to bring home the championship?
Quite a few factors are working against the Galaxy now, aside from the ever-present challenge of spending money wisely on foreign talent. Earlier this decade, the Galaxy dominated a league with fewer teams. Even as it grew to 19, MLS' newer teams entered the league in terrible shape then. Toronto, for instance, joined MLS in 2007 but did not make the playoffs until 2015. Philadelphia entered in 2010 and had one playoff appearance in its first six seasons. Vancouver joined MLS in 2011 and had just two knockout-round appearances in its first four seasons.
Bad expansion teams joined MLS and watered down the product, but not any longer. Atlanta won MLS Cup in its second season. LAFC finished third in its first season and won the Supporters' shield in season two. NYCFC overcame a tough first season to reach the playoffs now for four consecutive seasons.
The Galaxy now is in a much tougher position than it was in 2014. For the short term, it's likely the club will continue to watch MLS Cup from afar.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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Logo courtesy of the LA Galaxy