CARSON, Calif. —The LA Galaxy have kicked it into another gear during the final stretch of the Major League Soccer season, clinching their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth in three years with successive wins — their first since late May — at home the past two weekends and Wednesday night at Real Salt Lake.
One more victory, and they're home for the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Two more, and they could – should Supporters' Shield winner LAFC, their crosstown rival, falter – stay at Dignity Health Sports Park until the very end.
And the schedule is most favorable, for what it's worth.
The Galaxy (16-13-3) can assure themselves a home playoff opener Sunday against visiting Vancouver Whitecaps FC (7:30 pm ET | TSN4, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US), who have won just twice on the road this season and are certain for the bottom spot in the West.
“We feel really good that we get playoffs,” head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said following LA's training session Tuesday morning. “But now we want more. We are in [the] playoffs, and nobody knows what is the final. So we are fighting to get to play all the playoffs. The first goal we [established] in the first day [of training] in January, we get. Now [we must] work for to get [a] very long stay in playoffs.”
The Galaxy, third in the West, finish Oct. 6 at Houston Dynamo (11-17-4), which also have been eliminated from postseason contention, but have been good – 9-3-5 – at BBVA Stadium. Second-place Minnesota United FC (15-10-7) are a point ahead, but face a much rougher finish: home Sunday against LAFC (20-4-8) and Oct. 6 at Seattle Sounders FC (14-10-8), who also are vying for a home playoff opener.
Is playing against eliminated teams an advantage?
“Yes and no,” goalkeeper David Bingham said. “It kind of depends on the team and their situation, I think. When teams are already out, the reality is coaches' jobs are on the line, players' jobs are on the line. So these guys are playing to have a paycheck next year. Sometimes it helps, but a lot of times these guys are playing for jobs, and that makes them more difficult.”
Schelotto expects the Whitecaps and Dynamo to “be professional.”
“They will try to beat us, because this is soccer,” he said. “And maybe some players [are] thinking about the next year — how is it coming, what possibilities do they have — and they have 90 minutes to show for their own coach or other people [who might want to bring them in].”
Teaming up with Golden Boot presented by Audi contender Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristian Pavon, acquired on loan in August from Boca Juniors, has been a difference-maker, and Favio Alvarez's injury has spurred Schelotto to team Jonathan dos Santos, Sebastian Lletget and Joe Corona together in what might be LA's most effective midfield trio.
“We've done the little things a lot better. I think we've kind of found a rhythm,” Bingham said. “When you have Seb, Joe and Jona in the middle, that's helped a lot, and the big guy up top keeps scoring. ... [Pavon] is good one-on-one, but people are scared of him, so they pay attention to him a lot, too.
“You can't pay attention to him and Ibra. That's just not possible. You don't have enough guys on the field to do that, so that kind of eases up the big man to get a little more space, and when that happens, he finishes the ball.”
Schelotto says he expects more from Pavon, who has two goals and seven assists in just nine games. He was asked Tuesday how close the Argentine winger is to his best form.
“He's far. He's far,” said Schelotto, who was in charge at Boca Juniors during Pavon's best spell as a pro. “I know him, I have seen him play in Argentina better than this moment. I hope he can reach that level I am talking about, for sure. ... He will be much better, for sure.”
The Galaxy aren't thinking MLS Cup yet, but they're streaking toward the playoffs, and the hottest team often has gone on to win the title. There's booming confidence within the group.
“It's all about attitude,” Bingham said. “If we go out there and play our best game and have the right mentality, then it's going to be very hard for teams to beat us.”