LOS ANGELES — All that LAFC achieved in this most remarkable of seasons, in which they ran away with the Supporters' Shield with immense style and grace, didn't mean much in the Western Conference Final against the Seattle Sounders on Tuesday night — which they lost 3-1 — and that calls for a reassessment of their record-setting campaign.
LAFC, in just its second season, made a strong case as the finest side to step onto a Major League Soccer field, rolling to a 21-4-9 record, amassing a record 72 points, tying the league mark with 85 goals and posting an astonishing plus-48 goal difference. Great stuff, but what does it matter now?
Bob Bradley's team had nearly all of the ball Thursday night at Banc of California Stadium but were outclassed by the Sounders, which head to its third MLS Cup final in four years, either at defending champion Atlanta United or at home against Toronto FC, with which they split title-game showdowns in 2016 and 2017.
LAFC heads into its second offseason feeling deprived, disappointed, devastated.
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“Yeah, it's tough, obviously,” midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said during a subdued postgame news conference. “Throughout the season, we were the best team. Throughout the history of MLS, we've been the best team. Obviously, those are big accolades. You want to win as a club, because it shows that you're doing something right."
Across most of Europe LAFC would have celebrated a championship a little more than three weeks ago, but balancing the MLS Cup against the Supporters' Shield, the honor that goes to the regular-season champion, has always been a somewhat uneasy arrangement.
The Shield might honor the season's best team, but, it's generally agreed, it's the MLS Cup that most matters. Can a team that wins the first but not the second be considered the finest?
“You know, I don't think we care about what people say,” said Kaye, who returned from a hamstring injury to replace Latif Blessing just before halftime. “Obviously, people are going to have their opinions. There's going to be an MLS Cup winner, and it's not going to be us. So that's that.”
The conversation on the greatest team in MLS's 24 seasons involves several single-season teams. The 1998 Chicago Fire, 2001 Miami Fusion, 2012 San Jose Earthquakes and 2018 New York Red Bulls — who previously held the points record — all belong in that conversation.
But it's not just those teams the belong in the conversation as eras are also lauded. D.C. United, under Bruce Arena, won three of the first four MLS Cups, but arguably its best team in that span, in 1998, lost to former D.C. assistant coach Bradley's Fire in the title game.
The LA Galaxy won three of four titles under Arena at the start of this decade, but the 2010 team, beaten by FC Dallas — by Galaxy legend Kevin Hartman's brilliance in FCD's nets — was on par with the 2011 champs. Toronto FC might have won back-to-back titles if not for Stefan Frei's miraculous save in 2016, and the system Greg Vanney and Robin Fraser devised for those Reds teams have had no equal. Atlanta United completed a terrific first two seasons with a championship last year, and can still win two MLS Cups in three years, but they have never finished first in the Eastern Conference.
Had LAFC handled the Sounders and then gone on to beat Atlanta United or Toronto, would the discussion have been put to rest? Is there such a thing as the “greatest” team, or is that only determined over a span of several seasons? Will next year or the following year have something to say on the subject?
“Nobody expected this end for our season, but we know playoffs is one game, 90 minutes, and if they make some better plays than you, you're out,” said Carlos Vela, who scored 36 goals and assisted 15 more during the regular season and Western semifinal win last week over archrival LA Galaxy but managed just one shot Tuesday night. “I think in the end, we have to be proud of how we done all year and learn. We have to learn.
“We have just two years like a club, we have a lot of things to improve, but I think we are in a good way. Of course, in a day like [today], you see everything bad, but we have to see what happens. We have to change some things and get strong and come back next year and be better. It's the only way to be a good club.”
What is LAFC's legacy this year? Don't ask Bradley.
“Look, the one word I never use is 'legacy,' ” he said. “It's one of my least-favorite words. I don't think about team's legacy, my legacy. It's a season where there's a lot of good things, but it ends in a disappointing way.
“From day one, we set out to be a good team, to have an idea football-wise what we wanted to be all about and to build on that everyday, so it's frustrating to have a home game in the semifinals with a chance to host the final and not get it done. We all feel that right now. But we're going to try to take the football ideas that we have, challenge guys, find ways to make guys better and continue to develop."
Does the loss preclude LAFC from the “greatest” conversation?
“I've never been in that conversation,” Bradley replied. “So I have a perspective on football. We're a second-year team, we never get ahead of ourself, we're proud of what we are trying to do, and we're going to keep trying to do it.”