One of the curiosities of Major League Soccer is that the best team doesn’t always go on to lift the trophy at the end of the season.
That’s because the campaign is split into two halves: the first is the ‘regular season’ matches, in which the best teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences go on to battle it out in the play-offs.
Here, each Conference is concluded in a series of knockout matches, before the victors from both sides of the MLS meet in an all-or-nothing final for the chance to hoist the MLS Cup.
In 2019, you would be hard-pressed to argue that Los Angeles FC weren’t the best team by a considerable margin – despite the fact that they didn’t go on to win the MLS Cup.
They won the Supporters’ Shield by a comfortable margin of eight points, highlighting their dominance in the West from a campaign that saw just four defeats. In the end, they topped their Conference by a considerable gulf of 1
But, as noted, there’s no real kudos in doing so, because all of the glory comes at the end of the play-offs.
Nicolás Lodeiro and the Seattle Sounders lift MLS Cup pic.twitter.com/JPsBsy8mOr
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) November 10, 2019
And it was there that Bob Bradley’s outfit were found wanting, edging past LA neighbours Galaxy in the semi-finals before going down 1-3 to Seattle Sounders in the Conference final.
Incidentally, this would be the Sounders’ third MLS Cup match in the space of four seasons – and their second victory, after they defeated Toronto FC in front of nearly 70,000 people at CenturyLink Field.
That in itself explains why regular-season form is not all that important, and being able to produce your best under pressure in knockout conditions – as Seattle have continued to do – is the key differentiator.
Righting Some Wrongs
However, a year older and wiser, you would expect Los Angeles FC to have learned plenty of lessons from their post-season disappointment, and they will surely come on much stronger for that in 2020.
Their work in the transfer market has been straightforward and clinical. Lee Nguyen and Walter Zimmerman may have been tempted away by expansion teams Inter Miami and Nashville SC, but in their place have come Uruguayan Under-23 international Francisco Ginella, Ecuadorian ace José Cifuentes, former Ajax goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer and, most eye-catchingly, Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored 108 goals in 195 MLS appearances for the New York Red Bulls.
All of which means that if you enjoy betting on football you will find Los Angeles FC to be a warm favourite in the outright MLS winner market, and as if to cement that idea further if you click on the Top Goalscorer category you will note that three of the top nine candidates – Wright-Phillips, Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi – are all on the books of the Black and Gold.
A great player, and an even better leader.
— LAFC (@LAFC) February 26, 2020
Looking at the other main suspects for glory this season, you can pick holes in all of them.
Atlanta United may have hung on to the prolific Josef Martinez, but a curious set of business in the off-season has seen the likes of Gressel, Nagbe, Ambrose, Pirez, Meram and Villalba leave the club to be replaced by largely unheralded talents from South America. How quickly will they adapt to life in the MLS?
Seattle should be a force once more – especially in the play-offs, while New York City are expected to build on a solid season if their squad can handle the rigours of playing in the CONCACAF Champions League as well.
LA Galaxy will look to replace the goals and force majeure personality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic with former West Ham flop Javier Hernandez, and Toronto FC will have to make do without midfield talisman and captain Michael Bradley for months after he suffered a ‘very severe and complicated’ ankle injury.
The door is certainly ajar then for Los Angeles FC to prosper in 2020, and as long as they keep key figures fit and firing they will absolutely take some stopping.