LAFC didn’t take the most direct route nor did it have the smoothest of journeys, but the team got where it wanted to go Wednesday, clinching an MLS playoff berth with a 2-1 win over the Houston Dynamo.
But the celebration at an empty Banc of California Stadium was muted because reaching the playoffs is just the first step on a much longer journey, one coach Bob Bradley said the team won’t finish if it doesn’t clean some things up quickly.
“We have high standards and I don’t think a game like tonight is good enough in any way,” he said. “You’ve really got to try to hit the playoffs with confidence, with sharpness and with a mentality that we’re a team that’s going to fight every game.
“So we were pretty critical after the game tonight because it’s a message that everyone has to understand.”
Also souring the mood was the fact the team was dealing with its first positive test for the coronavirus. A player failed a test Tuesday, a spokesman said, and remains in isolation. The rest of the team and staff underwent rapid tests Wednesday that came back negative, allowing the match to go forward as scheduled.
“There’s no celebrations tonight,” Bradley said
As for the playoffs LAFC has been there before, reaching the postseason in its first two seasons — then winning just one game once it got there. This season it waited until there were two games left to accept its playoff invitation, the deepest it has gone into a season without one.
And that’s fitting since this season has also been the team’s most challenging.
Wednesday’s victory marked just the second time LAFC (9-7-4) has won back-to-back games this year; three times it entered a game with a losing record. That never happened in the team’s first two years.
LAFC appears to be gaining momentum at just the right time though, having lost just one of its last six games while outscoring opponents 12-6 over that stretch. The team is getting healthy too with Carlos Vela, who is returning from a knee injury, playing consecutive games for the first time since early March. Vela, the reigning league MVP, played 30 minutes off the bench Wednesday.
But Bradley said his team was also sloppy.
“I want the passing to be sharper,” he said. “When we have advantages, I want to finish chances. When we lose balls, I want reactions to be faster.
“This is how you become a really good team. We’ve been able to do that at times but tonight there was very little of any of that.”
The goals, both in the first half, came from Diego Rossi and Eddie Segura while Kenneth Vermeer, starting in goal for the first time in two months, made a smothering stop of Mauro Manotas’ penalty try in the 33rd minute.
Houston thought it had another chance at the PK in the closing moments but that was overturned after a video review.
The first score, in the ninth minute, came at the end of a pretty five-pass sequence that finished with Rossi tapping the ball in at the left post for his league-leading 13th goal of the season. Segura doubled the lead a short time later when he right-footed a pass from Jesús David Murillo through traffic and into the net.
The assist was the first for Murillo in his third MLS appearance.
Ariel Lassiter came off the Houston bench at the intermission and halved the lead a minute later. But the Dynamo, which played the final 30 minutes short-handed after Matias Vera was given two yellow cards for unsporting behavior and ejected, got no closer.
The victory was Bradley’s 170th in MLS, breaking a tie with Dominic Kinnear for third on the league’s all-time wins list. Only the late Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena, now with New England, have won more often as a manager.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.