Galaxy coach Greg Vanney has long insisted the MLS season doesn’t really start until the final 10 games, which is good thing because his team’s first 24 didn’t go all that well.
Down the stretch, however, the Galaxy were among the hottest teams in the league and they were rewarded for that Sunday when a 3-1 win in Houston earned them their first home playoff date in six seasons.
There was far less drama surrounding LAFC’s regular-season finale. The team had already clinched the best overall record in MLS and assured itself of home-field advantage throughout the postseason, and Sunday’s 1-0 loss to Nashville changed none of that. In fact, it only slightly dampened the red-carpet postgame ceremony in which LAFC was presented with the Supporters’ Shield, its prize for finishing atop the league table for the second time in four years.
But all of that — LAFC’s relentless regular season, the Galaxy’s mad dash to the finish — goes out the window in the playoffs. The 14 qualifiers will start the postseason with the same record, although LAFC and the Philadelphia Union, which finished first in the Eastern Conference, will get a 12-day break and a first-round bye.
The Galaxy will open the postseason at noon Saturday against Nashville at Dignity Health Sports Park. The last time they had a playoff game there Landon Donovan started, Robbie Keane came off the bench and Giovani dos Santos scored in a 1-0 win over Colorado.
The last time they competed in a playoff game anywhere, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was their leading scorer and no one had yet heard of COVID-19.
Vanney, who helped the franchise to its first playoff berth as a defender in the inaugural season of MLS 27 years ago, came back two years ago determined to return the team to glory.
Returning it to the playoffs is a good first step.
“What players ultimately come to L.A. for is to try to win the championship,” he said. “And now we have the tournament to go win the championship.”
The Galaxy (14-12-8) got there thanks to a closing sprint that saw them lose only one of their final 10 games, jumping two places in the Western Conference standings and edging Nashville on a tiebreaker — total wins — for the right to host the playoff opener. That turnaround began with the arrival of midfielders Riqui Puig and Gastón Brugman, who started the final 10 games together.
“Their successes coincided with the group’s success,” Vanney said. “The character of the group is strong again. It’s about momentum, it’s about finding some rhythms together.”
It was unsurprising, then, that both players made big contributions to Sunday’s win, with Puig’s third goal of the season erasing a 1-0 deficit in the 31st minute, and Brugman’s assist on Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s score a minute later — Hernández’s career-high 18 of the year — putting the Galaxy ahead to stay.
“We’re finishing on a good note, but the next game won’t look anything like the last 34,” Vanney said. “Now we’re into a tournament where it’s a knockout event. And we’ve got to come with even higher intensity than what we’ve seen through most of the season. But this group, when I look in their eyes, they envy the challenges in front of them.”
For LAFC, playoff success will mean bucking history. The team has made the playoffs four times in its five seasons but has won only one game once it got there. And the Supporters’ Shield, which the team welcomed in a lengthy celebration after Sunday’s loss, might be an even bigger albatross.
Only seven teams have won a Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. In the last 10 years, it has been done only once.
“That tells you how difficult it is,” midfielder Ilie Sánchez said. “We cannot do anything about history. The first goal that we had this season was to become Supporters’ Shield champion. Now our second, and main goal, because it’s the one that comes next, is to become MLS Cup champion.
“But other than that, I don’t see any difference between us and any other team that will head into the playoffs.”
Well, there is one difference: LAFC and Inter Miami were the only playoff teams to lose their regular-season finales, and for LAFC (21-9-4) that kept it from becoming just the third team in the modern era to win 22 games, and the fourth to reach 70 points in a season.
In addition, the loss was just the team’s second at home this season while the shutout marked the first time in 41 games LAFC failed to score at Banc of California Stadium — despite taking a season-high 29 shots.
Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis was largely responsible for that, making a career-best 14 saves.
Coach Steve Cherundolo said neither the result nor the arrival of the playoffs will alter how his team approaches its next game, against the Galaxy-Nashville winner in the conference semifinals on Oct. 20.
“We’ve approached every game this season in the same fashion. And we’ll do the first playoff game in the same way,” he said. “We want to win every game we play, especially at home, so it doesn’t change much for us.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.