LOS ANGELES — Strange things happen in the playoffs. LAFC was reminded of that again Tuesday night, in brutal fashion.
Brutal, as in the way Carlos Vela was banged, bounced, jolted and otherwise had his path impeded by the Seattle Sounders, who came in with a game plan to disrupt LAFC’s explosiveness and particularly its best player, and performed it brilliantly. Brutal, as in Latif Blessing being helped off the field twice late in the first half and eventually subbed out because of a leg injury.
Brutal, as many in Banc of California Stadium – including a lot of players wearing black jerseys – considered the eyesight of referee Jair Maruffo, pointing to two particular instances of apparent handballs that were overlooked by the eyes on hand and weren’t corrected, in their opinion, by the Video Assisted Refereeing system that is supposed to rectify such errors.
Brutal? It also describes the way L.A. fans have too often seen magnificent seasons end.
This time it was LAFC’s turn. It was overwhelmingly the best team in Major League Soccer during the regular season, setting records for standings points and goal differential. But in the unforgiving world of the postseason, the only numbers that counted were those on the scoreboard Tuesday night: Seattle 3, LAFC 1.
“Nobody expected this end to our season,” said Vela, the likely MLS MVP who was limited to one shot on Tuesday. “But we know in the playoffs it’s one game. And if they make some better plays than you, you’re out.
“I think in the end we have to be proud of (what) we’ve done all year, and learn. We have to learn. We’re just two years (as) a club, and there are a lot of things to improve. But I think we are in a good way. We have to see what happened. We have to change some things, get strong, come back next year and be better.”
It’s hard to imagine many things that needed changing throughout the first 38 games of 2019. But Tuesday night’s slog of a performance brought back memories of the first-round elimination by Real Salt Lake that ended their first season, or the club’s elimination by Portland in the U.S. Open Cup this past July, both also one-and-done situations.
The postseason is mercurial in any event. Walker Zimmerman talked earlier in the week about his experience in Dallas in 2016, when that club won the Supporters Shield for the best regular-season record but was ousted by Seattle in the Western Conference semifinals.
That was a two-leg series. Dallas gave up three goals in eight minutes of the second half of the first game in Seattle and wound up losing the series 4-2 on aggregate goals.
“Anything can happen in this game, especially in a one-game series – one bad bounce, one thing going their way,” Zimmerman noted earlier in the week. “But our job is to do our best to control every moment that we can, do everything we can to make sure none of those things happen.”
So what happened Tuesday night? Two Seattle goals in four minutes of the first half, by Raúl Ruidiaz and Nicolás Lodiero, and suddenly LAFC was in trouble. Ruidiaz scored again in the 64th minute and the Sounders were in complete control.
“We did well to get the lead (on Eduard Atuesta’s goal in the 17th minute), but I thought we gave up two soft goals,” midfielder Lee Nguyen said. “Credit Seattle for coming out with a game plan that made it tough for us. We spent the whole second half trying to chase the game. … If we hadn’t given up that third goal, I felt like we were pressuring and we were going to get that tying goal. That one kind of deflated us.”
This probably shouldn’t be as surprising as it seemed. Of the last 10 teams to win the Supporters Shield, just two have gone on to win the MLS Cup: the Galaxy in 2011 and Toronto FC in 2017.
This year’s change to a single-elimination format throughout the postseason, with the higher seed always at home, was born of necessity as a way to work around international play without killing the momentum of the playoffs. It has turned out to be a benefit competitively as well, although those in attendance Tuesday night might not agree. (Especially those who threw what appeared to be beer onto the field as things slipped away in the second half.)
The fact is, there should be pressure, and tension, and the risk of losing it all in 90 minutes. That’s the beauty of the North American postseason system. If you survive, you’ve earned it, and it means you were the best team when it mattered most, with the stakes at their highest.
“Anywhere else in the world you wouldn’t have anything like this, unless you’re fighting for promotion,” LAFC’s Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “So it’s a different game when you enter the playoffs.
“We didn’t necessarily do the right things all the time, but I think we still tried to play our football, which is a positive thing. We didn’t try to stray from what we’re good at. But in games like this, you can’t let yourself go behind the game too early, because then you’re just trying to claw back the whole time and it’s a stressful period.
“… If we play this game 10 times, we probably win nine out of 10. But the playoffs are just different.”
There was some concern going in that LAFC, having survived a mega-intense battle with the crosstown rival Galaxy last Thursday to reach the conference semifinal, might let down its guard a little bit emotionally. That might have been a factor, though it was helped along by the Sounders’ intensity and physicality.
“It wasn’t a surprise to us at all,” Kaye said. “We knew coming into the game what it was going to be like, and we just didn’t match it enough throughout the game, even though we possessed the majority of the ball.”
It was a hard lesson. A team that some thought might be the best in MLS history instead left the field wondering what had hit them.
By then, again, a visiting team was celebrating on an L.A. field. Sometimes the postseason is simply cruel.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter
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