SoCal Soccer Spotlight: Assessing the LA clubs’ postseason dreams

Also, the World Cup gets underway and an airplane snafu.

Endo in black kit jumps in the air with her hands above her head surrounded by teammates.

Predicting each club’s end-of-season fate

With the Women’s World Cup underway and the Leagues Cup just beginning, this week gives us a prime opportunity to step back and judge how the rest of the season could play out for LA’s three top-division clubs.

As discussed in last week’s issue, LAFC should be a lock for the playoffs but have stumbled in recent matches. Their issue, though, does not seem to be a simple attacking or defensive underperformance. In fact, the defense has admirably withstood injury issues while 2021 All-Star centerback Jesús Murillo and right back Sergi Palencia have been on the sidelines. Palencia — a new signing from the winter — has been a big miss. The Spanish defender is an adept passer who can provide control to LAFC’s build-up play.

That’s exactly what LAFC have lacked recently: control. LAFC’s summer matches have been turning into basketball games, all transitional play that leaves the midfielders running back and forth constantly, unable to slow things down. That has worked well for LAFC’s attackers, but leaves the team vulnerable on the counter. Against LA Galaxy on July 4, for example, LAFC had 17 shots and 5 “big chances” according to FotMob’s metrics, but the Galaxy just edged them on possession with 52% of the ball and won the game using Riqui Puig’s ability to control his team’s tempo. LAFC’s match against Minnesota on July 15 went similarly, with Emanuel Reynoso creating high-probability chances for the Loons and converting one himself.

In order to stay in contention for the MLS Cup, LAFC need to be comfortable slowing the game down and controlling the ball, especially against weaker teams who want to play transitional soccer. This break before their first Leagues Cup match should allow defensive midfielder Ilie Sánchez and box-to-box runner Kellyn Acosta to stay fresh and return to dominating matches once MLS play resumes.

Fortunately for LAFC, they have a relatively easy end to the season. Based on current Supporters’ Shield standings, LAFC’s upcoming opponents’ average league position is about 17th out of 29, including five of the bottom seven clubs. They should be able to rack up some confidence-boosting wins in the final weeks.

Prediction: LAFC finish first in the Western Conference and return to the MLS Cup final, where they’ll lose to the Eastern Conference champion.

Even if their form dramatically improves, LA Galaxy will need some luck in order to make the playoffs. With 12 games left to play, the five-time MLS Cup winners sit 13th out of 14 teams in the Western conference. It’s bleak!

Riqui Puig and Douglas Costa will need to go, and stay, supernova to propel their team into the postseason. For as excellent as Puig has been in recent weeks — enough to deserve an All-Star selection (we don’t need to talk about what Arsenal did to the MLS crew in that game…) — the roster construction demands that he scores goals and he started the season slowly on that front.

It’s unfair to demand that a midfielder become his team’s entire offense, but with Chicharito (a.k.a. Javier Hernández) injured for the rest of the season, it’s not clear who else head coach Greg Vanney expects to score goals. Costa has yet to score in 2023, and even when he was playing for some of Europe’s top clubs (Juventus, Bayern Munich, Shakhtar Donetsk), he never bagged more than six league goals in a season. The Brazilian winger can create chances for his teammates, but at the end of the day, he’s really just a dribbly boi, in the language of Tifo Football. So unless former frosted tips enthusiast Preston Judd starts scoring for fun, it’s hard to see how Puig can put a whole team on his 5′7″ back.

Adding to the Galaxy’s problems, they have a harder run-in than LAFC. The club’s final 12 games are against teams with a current average ranking of about 14th in the combined league table. But if the Galaxy can use the Leagues Cup as a springboard for MLS form, maybe they can pull off a minor miracle.

Prediction: The Galaxy climb a few places up the table to 10th, but fall short of the ninth place play-in berth.

Angel City need only a four-point swing to make the playoffs, but they have just five games left to accomplish it.

NWSL matches resume on Aug. 18, two days after the Women’s World Cup semifinals will have been played, so theoretically, most NWSL players on international duty will have returned to their clubs by that date. In Angel City’s case, however, they could still be missing two crucial players when they face Racing Louisville on Aug. 19.

U.S. women’s national team fans will be hoping their team makes the WWC final on Aug. 20, but if they do, ACFC will be without Julie Ertz and Alyssa Thompson for that first game. If post-World Cup celebrations and recovery lasts about a week — which would be reasonable — the Angel City duo could miss their club’s match against OL Reign on Aug. 27 as well.

In 2022, the Chicago Red Stars were the sixth and final team to make the playoffs, finishing the regular season with 33 points. At this point, it’s literally impossible for Angel City to hit that mark, but thankfully, considering the league is more competitive from top to bottom (I should also note that the league is playing 20 instead of 22 games this season), they don’t have to.

By my estimation, ten or more points (three wins, one draw, one loss) will probably be enough for Angel City to squeak into the postseason. Head coach Becki Tweed’s crew have a kind schedule ahead of them, too. Angel City plays both the clubs below them in the table (KC Current and Chicago Red Stars) and their most challenging opponent, based on the current NWSL standings, is fourth-place OL Reign. The stage is set for a late-season surge, but if ACFC drop points on the road in Kansas City or Chicago, the fans’ wait for the playoffs will continue to 2024.

Prediction: Angel City squeezes into sixth place and makes the playoffs with some final-day drama. In the first round, the three-seed knocks out ACFC.

World CUpdate (see what I did there?)

In an unnecessary boost to my ego, one of last week’s World Cup predictions came true on the tournament’s first day. World Cup hosts New Zealand, who had never won a Women’s World Cup game in their previous five tournament appearances, secured their first victory, shocking group favorites Norway 1-0 thanks to a goal from veteran striker Hannah Wilkinson.

After the match, team captain and LA-native Ali Riley gave this emotional interview about their long wait for a win. However, their ultimate fate remains in doubt after losing 0-1 to World Cup debutants the Philippines (including former Trojan Dominique Randle) in their second match.

Jun Endo and Japan launched their World Cup campaign with a five-goal demolition of Zambia. Endo, despite playing in a more defensive left wing-back position, scored a goal and provided an assist for Mina Tanaka in the second half, brushing aside my concerns about her or her team’s ability to score. Japan defeated Las Ticas of Costa Rica 2-0 this morning (Endo did not make an appearance) and Spain also put five on Zambia, so the group will come down to Spain vs. Japan on the final matchday. Whatever happens, Japan has already qualified for the knockouts.

After some hemming and hawing on my part last week, Julie Ertz did start the U.S.’s opening match … but not in the position I expected. Apparently, when Portland Thorns centerback and USWNT stalwart Becky Sauerbrunn was ruled out of the tournament through injury, manager Vlatko Andonovski viewed Ertz as a natural candidate to assume Sauerbrunn’s position.

It worked well. The USWNT beat Vietnam 3-0 in their tournament opener (it should’ve been four, had Alex Morgan converted her first-half penalty), dominating the game with 28 total shots and 66% possession. In fact, the U.S. was arguably wasteful with their striking, missing eight out 10 “big chances,” per FotMob.

Ertz at centerback could work going forward, but it certainly helped that Vietnam posed the U.S. little threat — the Golden Star Women Warriors (quite the nickname, eh?) failed to post a single shot. Against the Netherlands, it may be wise to move Ertz back into midfield (sorry, Andi Sullivan) and bring in a natural centerback to partner with Naomi Girma.

Alyssa Thompson also featured from the bench, coming on for Trinity Rodman. If the USWNT beats the Netherlands on matchday two, Thompson could start against Portugal in the final group match. Keep your eyes peeled.

Galaxy Leagues Cup opener rescheduled

I was going to watch LA Galaxy play Club León in their Leagues Cup debut and break it down for this column. Alas, like many travelers have experienced this summer, the airplanes did not cooperate.

On Friday, León beat the Vancouver Whitecaps on the road, with the match requiring 32 penalty kicks to settle (Leagues Cup matches go straight to penalties if tied at the end of regulation). The Mexican team was scheduled to play the Galaxy at 7:30 p.m. PDT on Tuesday, but a mechanical issue with León’s charter plane delayed the team’s departure from Vancouver and therefore affected their pre-match preparations. A video of the León players hanging at the gate like common folk went minorly viral.

The rescheduled game will take place at the same time on Wednesday. So far in the Leagues Cup, MLS clubs have a 6-3 record against Liga MX clubs.

Next games:


Angel City: Saturday, July 29 vs. Portland Thorns (home)

LA Galaxy: Wednesday, July 26 vs. León (home)

“SoCal Soccer Spotlight” is a column by Jack Hallinan about the professional soccer landscape in Los Angeles.