Los Angeles Football Club are in the MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time — in their first season. With three games left in the regular season, the postseason ticket is booked. Now what? Do they just play out the string and wait for the playoffs? Not exactly.
It’s all about the seeding
Sure, a No. 6 seed can win MLS Cup, and so can a No. 1 seed. But LAFC have seeding to pay attention to in the final weeks of the regular season.
At present, LAFC sit in 3rd place in the Western Conference, on 53 points. They are level on points with Sporting Kansas City, who are in 2nd place on the second tiebreaker, goal difference, +3 better than LAFC. And they are only four points behind West leaders FC Dallas, on 57 points.
All three teams have three games left in the season, so no team holds a possible advantage on that front, and while Dallas would need to drop points for Sporting or LAFC to catch them, all three teams have dropped points in recent weeks so it’s certainly possible.
2 is better than 3
There is a big distinction between the final No. 1 and No. 2 seeds compared to No. 3. The top two seeds get a bye for the opening round (in MLS parlance, the “Knockout Round”), thereby guaranteeing passage to the final 8 of the playoff field.
The 3-6 seeds, however, need to play in the Knockout Round. It’s a one-game, winner-moves-on match-up, so the stakes are high. A No. 3 seed hosts their respective game, against the bottom, No. 6, seed. But it’s still an additional game. For some teams, it’s the start of a run to MLS Cup. For others (like, say, Atlanta United in their inaugural season last year), it’s one and done, a real shock to the system of teams that believe they’re contenders for the title.
For teams that advance in the Knockout Round, they have a meeting against one of the top two seeds in a two-game conference semifinal series. Two games gives the better team a better chance of advancing, avoiding the fluke that a single elimination game provides.
Bear in mind, as well, that the Knockout Round games take place midweek, before the conference semis start on the following weekend. The teams that advance are on short rest, while the teams that get a bye remain in the usual weekly rhythm of playing.
And that’s why the difference between the No. 2 and No. 3 seed is so big. It’s the difference between hosting a single-elimination game, midweek, and waiting for the next round. And this is going to be the primary target for LAFC in the final three games.
No place like home
Is there a chance LAFC could slip down the seeds? Yes, there is currently a two-point gap between the black-and-gold and the Portland Timbers in 4th place. They haven’t even wrapped up 3rd place, let alone secured anything higher than that.
For anyone who knows about American sports, the advantage given to teams with a higher seed (most of the time, anyway) is home-field advantage. As I outlined above, the higher (No. 3 and No. 4) seeds in the Knockout Round host the single-elimination game, while the higher seed hosts the second game of the following two two-game rounds (conference semifinal and conference final).
Some teams are horrible on the road, others are decent, and some are very good. LAFC have the most road wins in the Western Conference to date, with seven, so they can perform on the road. Still, when margins are thin, as they get in the playoffs, playing at home is often an advantage, and the higher the seed, the better shape LAFC will be in regarding their home field advantage.
Entering with form
The final aspect of importance for the final regular-season games is more intangible, but perhaps most important for a team’s prospects: Being in good form going into the playoffs.
Can a team play great to finish the regular season and still lay an egg in the playoffs? Yes. What if a team plays badly to finish the regular season and then turns it on to perform in the postseason? Also possible, but it’s harder to play poorly and then turn it on when things get really serious.
LAFC are in solid form right now, only losing once in their last eight games, and posting five wins. If they can maintain that momentum in the final three games, they should feel confident when the playoffs roll around. But if they lose two of three to end the regular season, with their postseason ticket booked? It’s going to be a red alarm for this team’s psychology heading into the biggest game or games. That will be a test for the group in the remaining games.
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