Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at LAFC’s recent stumbles, the Galaxy’s newfound rumble, Seattle’s likely playoff tumble and Angel City staying humble as it hangs in the NWSL playoff race.
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But we start with the Orange County Soccer Club of the second-tier USL Championship, which is being rewarded for giving Milan Iloski a chance to return to Southern California and restart a pro career that appeared to have hit a dead end.
Iloski’s childhood home in Escondido is about 70 miles from the Orange County Great Park, where OCSC stages its home matches. Iloski has played for four pro teams in four leagues and two states, but the fiercest games he ever played came in the backyard of the home in which he grew up.
“I’m the smallest and the youngest, so I had to fight for everything,” Iloski remembers of those pick-up games with brothers Brian and Eric. “We’d leave that backyard bleeding, someone always crying.
“It installed that competitiveness in me and wanting to win and fight for everything. I give a lot of credit to those backyard battles we had.”
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Milan won few of those battles, but he’s apparently won the war. Though all three boys went on to play at UCLA and then turned pro, it’s the youngest brother who is having the most success. In his first season with Orange County, he leads the USL Championship with 19 goals in 25 games and, with eight games left in the regular season, the league record of 25 goals is within reach.
And to think he wasn’t even on the team until three weeks before the opening game. He owes his brothers for that, too.
Milan left college after three seasons — he led the Pac-12 with 17 goals in 16 matches in his final year — to sign a homegrown contract with Real Salt Lake in 2020.
“I wanted to stay. I loved UCLA, every minute of it,” he said. “[But] the opportunity came and I jumped on it. It was always my dream to play professionally.”
However, he played just two MLS minutes in two seasons. And when RSL declined his contract option last winter, he found himself needing a place to play.
Eric, 24, was in the USL Championship with the Las Vegas Lights last season while Brian, 26, played two seasons for Orange County. He went 64 minutes in the USL Championship final victory over Tampa Bay last December. Both encouraged their brother to come back to Southern California and join the OCSC team in training camp.
“I guess I helped bring him over,” Brian said. “But it was his decision.”
Actually, it was a decision for coach Richard Chaplow and general manager Oliver Wyss, and it wasn’t necessarily an easy one. The team already had Haitian international Ronaldo Damus, the MVP of the league championship game, at forward and had just signed former Mexican international Cubo Torres to play next to him.
But they took a flier on Milan, who scored Orange County’s lone goal in the season opener. Five days later, Damus left on a transfer for Sundsvall in Sweden’s top division. Milan has since taken over his spot, scoring six times in five games in July to earn league player of the month honors.
He has had five multi-goal games this season, one short of the league record, and needs just two more scores to break Thomas Enevoldsen’s four-year-old team record of 20 goals in a season.
“The skill was always there,” Brian, a winger who has been limited to six games and 175 minutes by a knee injury, said of his brother. “He’s now finally getting the attention he deserves.”
Business opportunities, too. Last month the three brothers joined former UCLA teammate Andrew Paoli in forming the One Touch Academy, which offers private training sessions for youth players.
Soccer always had a big place in the Iloski house. Father Mike, who coached his boys’ youth teams, played indoors with the San Diego Sockers. So for Milan, signing with a second-division club and moving in with his brother in Orange County — Brian does most of the cooking — wasn’t so much retreating as it was regrouping.
“The idea was to come to a club like this, where I knew there’d be an opportunity for me,” Milan said. “All these guys in the locker room are great guys and people I knew would push me and make me play at the level I demand of myself.
“Right now I’m focused on here, focused on helping Orange County make a run at the playoffs and doing whatever I can to help.”
That might be beyond even his reach. Orange County (6-11-9) is last in the 13-team Western Conference standings, 10 points below the playoff line. But regardless of how the season ends, Milan, who just turned 23, is convinced he has a future beyond the USL Championship.
“I think I could do this at any level. I think I could go to MLS and do this. If I was given the same opportunity, I think I could go to Europe and do this,” he said. “I’ve always been a big believer in myself.
“That’s not a cockiness. That’s more just confidence in myself and the work I put in every day, the work in the offseason I put in to build my body and get stronger year by year and faster.”
Not to mention all those bloody afternoons in the backyard with his brothers.
Three seasons ago, LAFC broke the MLS record for points en route to a Supporters’ Shield, only to have the season end in the playoff semifinals.
The team again is on pace to challenge league records en route to another Supporters’ Shield. But it was LAFC’s dismal playoff history — the team has won just one game in three trips to the postseason — that was invoked Friday after a second consecutive loss, this one an embarrassing 4-1 defeat at Austin.
“Everyone on the team is bothered by the loss. But it’s at times like this that we really find out how good our team is,” captain Carlos Vela said in Spanish. “When you’re winning and everything is incredible, it hides the reality a little bit. Now is when we have to go forward and demonstrate that we’re a good team.
“To get strong we have to see what we’re lacking and fix it before the playoffs, which are life and death.”
LAFC (18-6-3) has seen its once-comfortable lead over Philadelphia drop to three points in the Supporters’ Shield standings. And it has just seven regular-season games left to rebound from its second two-game losing streak of the season, meaning it can’t afford any more performances like Friday’s, when it was pretty much run off the field while falling behind 4-0 before the hour mark.
The four goals were the most LAFC has given up in an MLS game since the final match of last season and double what it had given up in a league game this year.
“We got outrun, out-pressed. It was too many poor performances from a lot of guys who have been solid all year,” said coach Steve Cherundolo, who has seen five of LAFC’s losses come on the road, where it will play three of its next four games.
“There were some uncanny errors, errors that we haven’t seen all year. Which is a bit reassuring because those probably won’t be done again.”
Getting midfield motor Ilie Sánchez back from injury would help. Four of LAFC’s six losses this season have come in games Sanchez did not start. But the most glaring problem Friday was a lack of chemistry. LAFC has added five players this summer, two of whom haven’t even suited up yet, and integrating them into the squad hasn’t been easy.
Gareth Bale made his first MLS start in Austin and he and Vela — both left-footed players who prefer the right wing — got in each other’s way all night.
“We’re still working on that. When some new guys come to your team, you have to play some games together to really understand how we can help each other,” said Vela, who played 60 minutes beside Bale and did not manage a shot for the second game in a row.”
“The way we lose, it’s not good. But it’s at the right time because it’s seven games from the playoffs,” he continued. “In the playoffs we can’t have this kind of game. If we want to be a really good team, we have to show up in these games.”
Defender Giorgio Chiellini agreed.
“Now is better than October,” he said. “The most important mistake was in our head. The concentration, the spirit. This is the most important stuff on which we have to work.”
Speaking of October, if the Galaxy want to join LAFC in the playoffs they still have some work to do. But their chances got a lot better with Sunday’s 2-1 win in New England.
The Galaxy entered the weekend just above the playoff line, fell below it when Portland beat Seattle on Friday, then moved back into position for a postseason berth with the win over the Revolution. Expect that back and forth to continue for the rest of the season.
But entering the new week, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, which uses statistical analysis to make predictions, gives the Galaxy (11-11-4) an 81% chance to make the playoffs, the team’s best odds in weeks.
“The three points are huge,” coach Greg Vanney said. “I think people are keeping an eye on the table, but for us, it’s just one game at a time. One final at a time.
“Let’s put everything out there to the best of our abilities and get as many points as we can, and move on to the next one and try to do the same thing. And if we can do that, we’ll be in a good spot in the end.”
The win extended the team’s unbeaten streak to three games and ended a four-game losing streak and five-game winless streak on the road dating to May.
Both goals came in the first 15 minutes, the first from Daniel Aguirre in the fourth minute and the second from Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who has scored in four consecutive games and has five goals and two assists over that span.
The latest Chicharito assist came on the goal by Aguirre while newly acquired Riqui Puig, making his first MLS start, set up the second score with a perfect through ball from the Galaxy half to a wide-open Hernández on the edge of the penalty area.
New England tried to make a game of it after that, outshooting the Galaxy 19-7 on the night. But Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond was up to the challenge, making a season-high seven saves.
Now the schedule becomes an advantage — sort of. The Galaxy are locked in a tight playoff race, one in which seven teams are separated by just seven points in the battle for the final three Western Conference berths. But the Galaxy have a game in hand on three of those teams and two games in hand on the other three.
On the negative side, they play five of their final eight games on the road, beginning with Wednesday’s match in Toronto.
Galaxy’s remaining schedule
8/31: at Toronto; 9/4: vs. SKC; 9/10: at Nashville; 9/14: at Vancouver; 9/17: vs. Colorado; 9/24: vs. San Jose at Stanford; 10/1: vs. RSL; 10/9: at Houston
Speaking of the playoffs, Seattle is among the teams the Galaxy is competing with for an invitation and after Friday’s loss at Portland, the Sounders (10-14-3) are in 10th place, three points below the line with seven games left. That’s an unusual position for them, especially this late in the season.
The Sounders, who entered MLS in 2009, have never missed the postseason, which makes their 13-season playoff streak not only the longest in league history but the third-longest active streak in U.S. and Canadian pro team sports. Seattle also never has had a losing record nor finished lower than fourth in the conference standings. Since 2016 it has been the most successful team in the league, reached four MLS Cup finals and won two championships.
The team topped all of that last spring when it routed Pumas to become the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League. However that victory might be one reason the team is struggling now: Seattle has gone 8-10-2 since that victory and coach Brian Schmetzer said the early season fixture crunch — which included eight Champions League matches — is at least partly responsible.
“The guys were dead on their feet,” said Schmetzer, whose team hasn’t won consecutive games since June. “Lack of energy, just lack of sharpness. We were running on fumes.”
Two of Schmetzer’s key players — midfielder Cristian Roldan and forward Jordan Morris — didn’t get a real break in nearly a year. Both played in Seattle’s final playoff last November, were called into camp for the national team two weeks later, then played for the U.S. in World Cup qualifying last winter and spring. That finally caught up with Roldan, who had groin surgery last week and could miss the rest of the regular season.
Add to that the loss of midfielder João Paulo, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Champions League final, and the recurring injuries that have limited forward Raúl Ruidíaz, the team’s leading scorer the last four seasons, to just 10 starts and it’s been a frustrating season for Seattle.
So Schmetzer altered the team’s training by upping the intensity but dialing back on the volume. That has yet to pay off on the field, though, since Seattle has won just two of its last 10 matches.
“Physically I think we’re kind of coming out of it. Mentally we’re still not there,” he said, citing lapses in concentration that have resulted in costly mistakes.
Even good luck apparently has abandoned the Sounders. Questionable calls have led to penalty-kick goals against Seattle in its last two games, probably costing it three points in the standings.
The road ahead is a daunting one with four of Seattle’s next five games coming against teams it trails in the standings. But if the Sounders survive that, sneak into the postseason and keep their playoff streak alive, no team will be able to match their experience, which will make them dangerous.
Longest active postseason streaks in U.S. and Canada
Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL
Calgary Stampeders, CFL
Seattle Sounders, MLS
NY Red Bulls, MLS
Phoenix Mercury, WNBA
Boston Celtics, NBA
Speaking of playoff berths, no expansion team in NWSL history has made the postseason in its first season. This year there could be two: The San Diego Wave lead the table with four games remaining while Angel City is one point below the playoff line and has a game in hand over the four teams directly above it.
The team got there with a 3-1 road win over Gotham FC on Sunday, a result that ran its unbeaten streak to a season-best four games. The three goals — which came during a 15-minute span of the first half — also matched a season high.
Savannah McCaskill got the first, her team-leading sixth of the season, in the 16th minute. The other two came from Cari Roccaro and Claire Emslie.
“This win was huge for us,” said manager Freya Coombe, who was coaching against her old team. “If you are looking at our journey and what we wanted to accomplish this year, that was a crucial step for us and one that keeps us in the hunt for playoffs.”
Angel City (7-5-4) doesn’t play another league game until Sept. 11 in Houston, the start of a streak that will see the team play its final six games over 22 days with four of them coming on the road.
In an effort to return a sense of normalcy to a war-plagued country, Ukraine’s Premier League returned to the field last Tuesday for the first time since the Russian invasion last February. The season opened in Kyiv with Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 Kharkiv, teams from eastern cities that are fighting for their very existence. The season was organized to start on Ukraine’s national flag day, the day before the country celebrated its 1991 independence from the former Soviet Union. The first game finished in a scoreless draw in an empty 65,000-seat stadium; fans were banned for safety reasons and rules called for the players and referees to be rushed to shelters if air-raid sirens sounded. The 16-team league will not include Desna Chernihiv and Mariupol, teams from cities that have suffered brutal destruction. All games will be played in and around Kyiv and further west and will be shown on YouTube … Former World Cup referee Howard Webb is stepping down as general manager of the New York-based Professional Referees Organization after six years to become the first-ever chief refereeing officer in England. Webb will remain at PRO, a 10-year-old organization responsible for managing officials in pro leagues in the U.S. and Canada, through the end of the MLS season.
Mexico unveils historical symbolic away kit for this fall’s World Cup in Qatar
On a team loaded with stars, Cristian Arango has become LAFC’s surprise MVP
How two Hollywood stars plan to save a team, and a town, ‘desperate for a lifeline’
LAFC sending Brian Rodríguez to Mexico’s Club América, Galaxy adding Martín Cáceres
Meet UCLA’s Margueritte Aozasa and USC’s Jane Alukonis, the new soccer coaches in town
Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.
“We had to prove a point. We had to prove a point for ourselves. In the end, it was the perfect football afternoon for us.”
Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, whose winless team beat Bournemouth 9-0 on Saturday, equaling the Premier League record for most emphatic win.
Until next time…
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Kevin Baxter writes about soccer and other things for the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for 24 years. He has covered five World Cups, three Olympic Games, six World Series and a Super Bowl and has contributed to three Pulitzer Prize-winning series at The Times and Miami Herald. An essay he wrote in fifth grade was voted best in the class. He has a cool dog.
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