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LAFC won a Western Conference-best 37 games in its first two MLS seasons, earning home-field advantage for the playoffs twice. It didn’t help, with LAFC bowing out early both times.
So this year it tried something different, stumbling across the finish line seventh in the standings and starting the postseason on the road. That didn’t work either, with the Seattle Sounders sending a short-handed LAFC home once again Tuesday with a 3-1 victory on a chilly, rainy night at an empty Lumen Field.
Raúl Ruidiaz had a goal and two assists and Jordan Morris and Nicolas Lodeiro each had a goal and an assist, for Seattle, extending the Sounders’ playoff winning streak to a league-record 13 matches dating to 2013.
Eduard Atuesta had the goal for LAFC, which saw a second score from Mark-Anthony Kaye waved off following a video review in the closing minutes.
The Sounders, the reigning MLS Cup champions, will play host to FC Dallas in a conference semifinal on Dec. 1 while LAFC, with one win in four playoff games in its brief history, turns its attention to next month’s CONCACAF Champions League.
“It’s difficult to gather all my thoughts right now,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “Getting knocked out of the playoffs is a hard thing. In this start-stop season, we still thought coming into the end of the year the guys were training in a good way.
“I take the responsibility that the development of our team, the improvement of our team, the ability to get to the next level,” he continued. “Maybe we were close, but when you look at everything this year, you would say we didn't get to the next level, which was to go far in MLS playoffs.”
The Sounders ended LAFC’s season last fall at Banc of California Stadium and opening this year’s playoffs in Seattle, even in an empty stadium, left LAFC with a big hill to climb: Not only has it not won there in more than two years, but the Sounders had the best home record in the conference during this coronavirus-interrupted season, losing just once in 10 games.
That hill grew into a mountain when LAFC headed north without six players, four who tested positive for the coronavirus and two others who were injured. Among the missing was Diego Rossi, the league’s leading scorer with 14 goals, and Brian Rodríguez, who led the team with seven assists. Both were unavailable after testing positive for the virus while on national team duty last week.
Ruidiaz also tested positive while on international duty this fall, but his positive came last month and, after quarantining in Peru, he is considered a “recovered person” by MLS, which cleared him to play.
LAFC’s absences forced Bradley to start 16-year-old Christian Torres at forward and move solid center back Eddie Segura to the right side of a shuffled back line. Neither move really worked with Seattle going in front to stay on Lodeiro’s goal in the 18th minute.
The sequence began with Ruidiaz running on to a loose ball near midfield and driving up the right sideline before bouncing a long pass through the box to Morris on the left wing. When Segura raced over to defend, Morris laid the ball off for a wide-open Lodeiro, who slotted home a left-footed shot from about 14 yards out.
The Sounders, unbeaten in 12 games when scoring first this season, nearly gave the lead up minutes later when Seattle’s Nouhou tripped Carlos Vela entering the 18-yard box. But the resulting penalty kick was a poor one, with Vela sending a soft left-footed try into the arms of Sounders’ keeper Stefan Frei.
“Carlos was angry with himself,” Bradley said afterward. “He was disappointed with that opportunity, something for him that is normally automatic.”
It didn’t get much better for LAFC in the second half, which started with 19-year-old Kwadwo Opoku coming on at forward for veteran Bradley Wright-Phillips, who was inadvertently punched in the head early in the game. Opoku had 52 minutes of MLS experience. Wright-Phillips, 35, has 116 MLS goals.
Seattle needed 21 minutes to double the lead, with Ruidiaz drilling in a right-footed shot from the center of the box following a Lodeiro corner.
Then minutes after Atuesta halved the deficit, sliding into the six-yard box to deflect in a perfect Vela cross in the 77th minute, Ruidiaz and Morris teamed up on a breakaway, with Morris getting the goal and Ruidiaz the assist.
“The No. 1 thing this year is we haven't been consistent enough,” Bradley said. “We've had moments when we've played good football, but we still have hurt ourselves with not always finishing advantages in the best way. We've hurt ourselves giving up certain kind of goals. Set-piece goals hurt us this year, and then some other moments just were some defensive errors.
“So for me, the work to become a more consistent team, that's the key. And maybe this year, that work was a little bit more difficult but that's no excuse."
Added Kaye: “So we go home empty-handed. We're disappointed. Every time we don't win a game, we're disappointed. Obviously the mood is not very high right now, which is normal. But we do have Champion's League in three weeks, so we have to think about this game, try to improve from it and move past it and then get ready for our next challenge.
“It's not fun right now, but we have something to look forward to.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.