• The LA Galaxy are in danger of missing the MLS playoffs for a third straight year, something that seems unfathomable given the league's expanded format, the amount spent on the club's roster and the sheer presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
By Avi Creditor
September 12, 2019

When it comes to MLS, there's no club with more historical clout than the LA Galaxy, but the big-spending, five-time champions are teetering on the cusp of making the wrong kind of history in 2019.

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic spearheading one of MLS's highest-priced collections of players, it seems unfathomable to think that the Galaxy could miss the playoffs for a third straight season, and the second straight with Ibra in uniform. Yet here they are, with five games to go, sitting on the outside of the expanded playoff picture in the Western Conference. Wednesday night's 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids was shrouded in controversy, but that's not the reason the Galaxy find themselves in their current position.

A club with a .500 record at this point in the season can't be pointing fingers at one dubious result. The Galaxy, aside from when they play city rival LAFC, have underperformed, and they've been doing it for some time. Since starting the season 7-1-1, LA has gone 6-12-2. They've posted a negative goal differential on the season and, through 29 games, have only managed to score 19 non-Zlatan goals. The overreliance on Ibrahimovic and the bewilderness on defense coupled with a number of improved sides around the Western Conference have LA a point out of the playoff places.

Before the addition of Argentina international Cristian Pavon, the Galaxy had spent $22.6 million constructing its first-team roster, including transfer fees, allocation money and player salaries (which include Ibrahimovic's MLS single-season record of $7.2 million). That's a figure that places the club at the upper echelon of total roster expenditure, though you wonder if the name-brand purchases have come in areas that unbalance the club too much. But in this era of expanded playoffs–remember, the league added a seventh spot in each 12-team conference, meaning it's mathematically more difficult to miss the playoffs than it is to make them–that shouldn't matter. On top of that, the leadership of manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who enjoyed success as a coach in Argentina after being an MVP-caliber player in MLS, was supposed to correct one glaring needs area. As things stand, it's uncertain whether that's the case.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Last season's failure is at least explainable, if not still littered with excuses. The club cycled through a pair of managers, with the late Sigi Schmid's midseason firing setting the stage for Dominic Kinnear to take over. The two-time MLS Cup winner steadied the ship some, but the club still needed a flurry of wins down the stretch and then a result in the season finale at home against a nothing-to-play-for Houston Dynamo team in order to reach the playoffs. A 2-0 Galaxy lead turned into a 3-2 Dynamo win following a second-half collapse, and the Galaxy, in stunning fashion, were out.

That followed the debacle of a 2017 season, in which the Galaxy finished last in the Western Conference and posted the worst record in the entire league. Schmid took over midseason for Curt Onalfo, who was tabbed as Bruce Arena's heir in a decision that can, at best, be described as misguided given his first-team track record in the league.

Before that, the Galaxy hadn't missed the playoffs since 2008, upon which it went on its run of reaching four out of the next six finals, and winning three of them. MLS is in a different place, now, though. The Galaxy can't just load up with high-priced talent and big-name stars and expect the results to follow anymore. The way the likes of LAFC and Atlanta United conduct their business is far more sustainable than the Galaxy's current approach, and there's a real risk that the league's most storied franchise is in jeopardy of being another also-ran unless it evolves in its approach.

But then, of course, there's the "it's MLS" caveat. As poor as LA has been, all that's required to win it all is a four-game winning streak (not even, technically, with the potential of penalty kick shootouts), starting in mid-October. 

In order to keep playing at that point in the calendar, the Galaxy need to flip the switch, and they have the schedule with which to do that. Of their remaining five games, four come against teams not currently in the playoff picture. The volatilty and congestion of the Western Conference, where teams No. 2-7 are separated by three points, mean that when all is said and done, the Galaxy could still theoretically wind up as high as the second seed and never have to leave Southern California en route to MLS Cup. It seems like a California Dream right now, but it's within reach.

The season ends, for a second straight year, against the Dynamo, a team that should be mathematically eliminated, again, by the time Decision Day rolls around. In order for the Galaxy not to squander two years of Zlatan, it may take avoiding a repeat of recent history to keep the league's most well-known brand from a third straight winter of figuring out how it went so wrong.

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