Rise of Underdog Expansion Teams Helping to Popularize MLS
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Zlatan Ibrahimovic has the statue and the superstar status, but Carlos Vela has the new goal-scoring record for Los Angeles FC.
Even Ibrahimovic was lost for his normally flamboyant, boastful and probably tongue-in-cheek words when the bronze effigy depicting him was unveiled near the soccer stadium in his hometown of Malmo in Sweden on Tuesday.
“No matter where you come from, the statue is the symbol that anything is possible,” he said with rare, heart-felt humility at the ceremony in his home town.
Right now, however, it is Vela’s new prize which is considered to be more valuable as the USA’s Major League Soccer season heads towards its play-offs next week.
When player-of-the-week Vela scored a hat-trick for Los Angeles in the 3-1 victory against Colorado Rapids on Sunday, it took his goals tally for the regular season to 34.
That surpassed the previous best total of 31 set by Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez last season.
After a record-busting campaign in which they set a new benchmark of 72 points for a regular season campaign, Vela’s goals and the team’s runaway win in the Western Conference table means LA are favorites to win the MLS Cup.
Their total goals tally of 85 was also a record. Now, if they are successful, they would become champions in only their second year of competition. They are priced at 6/4 (+150) to triumph, according to multiple major sportsbooks.
Ibrahimovic, who hit 30 regular season goals, may simply have to accept that he must take second billing in the city once again.
His own LA Galaxy team are well down the pecking order when it comes to assessing who will triumph in the final on November 10. Rated only seventh across the board by the oddsmakers, in fact.
MLS Cup Latest Outright Odds
|Los Angeles FC||+150|
|New York City FC||+400|
|Minnesota United FC||+2000|
|New York Red Bulls||+2000|
|Los Angeles Galaxy||+2000|
Instead, it is the Manchester City backed New York City FC who are second favorites for the prize at 4/1 (+400).
The possibility of a West Coast versus East Coast final between LA FC and New York City – the nation’s two major cities – would produce never-before-crowned champions.
It would be a dream scenario for MLS’s marketeers as the competition continues to grow in popularity in the US and gain more attention worldwide.
Soccer is booming in the USA, helped most recently by the presence of players such as Ibrahimovic and Wayne Rooney of DC United.
Since 2004, MLS has more than doubled in size from 10 teams to the 24 currently competing. Next season, two more teams – David Beckham’s Inter Miami and Nashville FC – are scheduled to join.
Further expansions into St Louis and Austin, Texas are planned soon.
Last season’s champions, Atlanta, won the championship in only their second season of existence and are regularly watched by home crowds of more than 50,000.
Should LA FC follow up with another “expansion team” triumph, it would provide another significant piece of evidence about the strength of the league’s growing size and attraction.
Admittedly, the US play-off format and Conference structure of MLS is alien to many European and South American soccer viewers.
But it has proven popular on Britain’s Sky TV network – the leading soccer broadcaster – with new deals recently struck for the streaming service DAZN to show live matches in Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany and Switzerland as well as Brazil.
MLS Cup: Head-To-Head Records
Reigning champions Atlanta finished second in the Eastern Conference and are third favorites across the board at an average of 10/1 (+1000) for a repeat MLS Cup success.
They meet seventh-placed New England Revolution in the opening first round play-off match at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Georgia on October 19.
It is a repeat of the final match of the regular season last Sunday when Atlanta won 3-1 at home. After finishing 13 points ahead of New England, Atlanta are priced at 4/9 (-225) favorites to win with Betfair.
Atlanta won 12 of their 17 home matches last season while New England won away only three times.
Also in the East, fourth-placed Toronto FC take on Rooney’s fifth-placed DC United, also on October 19. The sides drew 0-0 in Canada in May and 1-1 in Washington in June.
Toronto finished the regular season on a 10-game unbeaten run while DC did not concede in their final five games, which makes Toronto -189 favorites.
In the third Eastern play-off game, third-placed finishers Philadelphia Union meet sixth-placed New York Red Bulls on October 20.
Union staged a comeback from two goals down to beat Red Bulls 3-2 at home in June, while New York triumphed 2-0 in the return match in September.Philadelphia are 5/6 (-120) favorites to win.
The first Western play-off sees second-placed Seattle Sounders – fourth favorites overall at an average of 14/1 (+1400) – host seventh-placed FC Dallas on October 19.
It was tight between the teams in the regular season. Dallas won 2-1 in Texas in June and there was a goalless draw in Seattle in September. Sounders are 7/10 (-143) with Betfair.
Third-placed Real Salt Lake meet sixth-placed Portland Timbers on October 20. Portland won twice against Seattle in the regular season – 2-1 away in May and 1-0 at home in August. Salt Lake are favorites at Evens.
Ibrahimovic’s fifth-placed LA Galaxy are away at fourth-placed Minnesota United in the third Western play-off.
Los Angeles won 3-2 at home in March with the return fixture finishing 0-0 in April.
After Los Angeles lost their final two regular season games while conceding seven goals, Minnesota are narrow favorites at Evens (+100) with William Hill.
About the Author
John Dillon is a freelance sports journalist covering, among other things, boxing and football. His work has appeared in The London Evening Standard, USA Today, NPR, The Sun, Daily Express, The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, Bleacher Report, Yahoo and more.