With their main offensive cog fully healthy, Los Angeles FC looks to possibly secure the MLS Supporters’ Shield on Saturday night with a win over Toronto FC and some help the following day from FC Dallas.
Though LAFC (19-7-4) are enduring their worst stretch of the season with three draws and a defeat in their last four matches, they are already assured of the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the playoffs and – at worst – six points from clinching the Supporters’ Shield as the league’s best team.
There is an outside chance Bob Bradley’s side could clinch the No. 1 overall spot this weekend, needing a victory over the Reds and for the Hoops to defeat Eastern Conference leader New York City FC at home Sunday.
Even with last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Philadelphia, there was plenty of optimism as striker and MLS leading scorer Carlos Vela punctuated his return from a two-match absence due to a hamstring injury with the equalizer late in the first half. The Mexico international suffered the injury during LAFC’s 3-3 draw with the Galaxy in the second “El Traffico” derby Aug. 25, and the huge lead atop the West allowed Bradley to be conservative in holding out Vela until he was 100 percent healthy.
While Vela restored a two-goal lead over 2018 winner Josef Martinez and Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the race for the MLS Golden Boot with his 28th goal, Bradley is looking to fine-tune a defense that has shipped 16 of the team’s overall 33 goals allowed in the last 10 matches.
“When we look at the defensive record in this last stretch, it’s not that we’re giving away many chances,” he told the club’s official website. “In many games, still shots on goal are low. But there are key moments and it’s just the reading of a play, the decision, and being able to react to a moment. We’ve paid for a lot of little things that we’ve done wrong.
“Now we’re trying to correct some of those things. And defensively, we’re trying to really make sure we’re in a confident way in the last couple of games.”
Vela’s presence helps in that regard because LAFC usually maintains a lion’s share of the possession when he is in the game and tormenting opposing defenses with Diego Rossi. A return home also could do some good – the Black and Gold have dropped just eight points in 14 home matches (11-1-2) while ringing up 41 goals, scoring three or more on eight occasions.
LAFC took a blow to its depth in attack Friday when Adama Diomande voluntary entered the league’s substance abuse and behavioral program. Diamoande is third on the team with eight goals and fourth with seven assists, and the Norway international’s 0.94 points per 90 minutes rank second only to Vela.
Bob’s son and midfielder Michael Bradley leads Toronto FC (12-9-10) into this match looking to clinch a playoff berth with a victory. The Reds are fourth in the East on 45 points, narrowly ahead of D.C. United on goal difference and eight points clear of Montreal and Chicago with three matches remaining.
Greg Vanney’s club is unbeaten in its last seven league matches (3-4-0) but looking to bounce back from a 1-0 loss at Montreal in the first leg of the Canadian Championship on Wednesday night. Vanney held out top strikers Alejandro Pozuelo and Jozy Altidore until introducing them as second-half substitutes, but Toronto was second-best for long stretches of the match even without the duo.
“Our losses of possession were deadly for us in the first half,” Vanney told the CBC. “Too many straight passes and they were jumping on them. It was setting off their transitions, which is always something they’ve been good at. For us, it was getting that organized.
“We wanted to get a goal and we didn’t. But 1-0 is doable for us. It didn’t get away from us tonight. Now we go home and we know what we have to do.”
Altidore and Pozuelo have combined for 21 of TFC’s 53 goals in league play, with Pozuelo totaling two goals and two assists in his last three league contests.
The elder Bradley gained bragging rights last season as LAFC recorded a 4-2 victory north of the border. Vela had a brace on either side of halftime, canceling out two second-half markers by Altidore.
(Carlos Vela and Michael Bradley photo courtesy Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports)