It's not just about securing a top-three spot for the LA Galaxy any more. Following Sunday's loss at Portland, their aim is simple: Make it to the playoffs.
The Galaxy (13-11-6) sit fourth in the Western Conference, good for a spot in the Knockout Round, but have little wiggle room after they conceded another set-piece goal – with Maximiliano Urruti scoring from a corner kick early in the second half – and manufactured nearly nothing from an attack featuring Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan up top in a 1-0 defeat to the Portland Timbers.
Third-place Portland are four points clear, fifth-place Colorado are even on points and sixth-place San Jose are just one point behind – with Vancouver and FC Dallas not much further back.
Could the two-time defending champions actually miss the postseason?
“We have three games in a row now at home, and realistically to put ourselves in good position, we need to win all three,” Donovan told reporters in Portland. “We feel like we can win all three, we should win all three, but we can't keep giving up goals like we did today.
"As the season gets toward the end and get tighter, those are the plays that matter. And we have to make sure we're on the positive end of those, not the negative end.”
Two of the three home games come against archrivals: Sunday's SuperClasico with Chivas USA (6-17-8) and the Oct. 20 California Clasico against San Jose (12-11-8), who have rallied to beat LA in three of the last four regular-season meetings. Montreal (13-9-7), third in the East, are the other foe, on Oct. 16.
“At home, we can't drop any points,” defender Omar Gonzalez said. “We've got to get, hopefully, nine points out of those three games, and if we do that, we'll be sitting OK.”
And if they don't?
“We know [the landscape],” midfielder Marcelo Sarvas said. “We're fighting. Nobody's safe for the playoffs [in the West], aside from maybe Salt Lake and Seattle. The other teams are fighting for three spots, and we're in the same situation. We have to make the points now.”
The Galaxy last missed the playoffs in 2008, the last in a three-year skid between the 2005 MLS Cup title and the Bruce Arena era. They've lost 15 points this season by conceding 19 goals from the 75th minute on, enough to give them a huge lead in the Supporters' Shield race, and a big issue has been their troubles defending set pieces. It's something they have to get right if they want to defend their title.
“Still another 12 points to get,” said Keane, LA's captain. “We're certainly quite capable of doing that, but we need to starting kicking on now because there's not much time left. We can't [keep making] mistakes – we keep conceding from these set pieces, we can forget about getting to the playoffs.”