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Los Angeles FC is Clear Front-Runner at MLS Midway Point

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    File Photo: Carlos Vela #10 of Los Angeles FC at Banc of California Stadium on April 13, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

    The break for the Gold Cup and other international tournaments represents a midway point for Major League Soccer's new condensed schedule.

    The league might want to consider chiseling Los Angeles FC into the Supporters' Shield for 2019 during the time off. The second-year franchise has a six-point lead over Philadelphia and is nine points clear of El Trafico rival LA Galaxy in the race for the overall regular-season title.

    The black and gold have just one loss in the first 16 games, that coming in a 1-0 setback to Vancouver in mid-April. They also have a plus-26 goal differential; Philadelphia is second-best at plus-11.

    "We're a good team, but we still can be better," LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. "We love what we're doing. We love stepping on the field, having an idea what we want to be about, trying to move the ball quick, trying to get chances, trying to move up the field. We enjoy the work that goes into it and the results so far have gone well. But we all know we can be better."

    While it's clear LAFC is the class of the West, the more interesting races may end up being for the final playoff spots in both conferences. Places five through 11 in the Eastern Conference are separated by eight points. In the West, fifth-place Dallas and ninth-place Vancouver are separated by just four points. One team to watch out West will be Portland. The Timbers played their first 12 games on the road while Providence Park was undergoing an $85 million renovation that added 4,000 seats.

    Portland was able to take 14 points from those 12 games and now gets the reward of playing the majority of its remaining schedule in its larger home stadium. After losing 3-2 to LAFC in its home opener on June 1, Portland will play four of its next six at home and has a streak of 10 straight home matches in August and September.

    "You can feel the difference of those extra 4,000. Not only because they're loud, but the presence," Portland coach Giovanni Savarese said. "That building that feels like it's on top of you is fantastic."

    INTERNATIONAL BREAK: Even with MLS taking a two-week break for the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, there will still be a decided league influence. A record number of MLS players are on the final 23-man rosters for the tournament, which begins this weekend. Sixty MLS players are representing 12 countries taking part in the championship.

    The United States has 17 MLS players on its roster, the most of any country, which may or may not be a good thing as the team tries to recover from its failings of two years ago and missing the World Cup. Canada has 12, not including former Vancouver and current Bayern Munich midfielder Alphonso Davies.

    Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama all have five MLS players, while Trinidad and Tobago (three), El Salvador, Guyana and Haiti (two) and Martinique and Mexico (one) also have MLS representatives. The previous high for MLS players taking part in the Gold Cup was in 2015 with 50 players representing 10 countries.

    It's not just the Gold Cup that siphoned off a significant chunk of the league's talent. Fourteen players were called in for Euro 2020 qualifiers and another 11 were pulled away for the Copa America taking place in Brazil.

    SALARY REPORT: While LA Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic tops the list at $7.2 million in guaranteed compensation in the latest salary report from the MLS Players Association, salaries across the league are rising.

    The league's average guaranteed compensation for players has risen to $417,643. Taking designated players out of the equation, the guaranteed compensation is still at $345,867. Not every team is spending equally, but almost every team has hit one threshold.

    Twenty-three of the 24 teams have at least one player making more than $1 million. The lone exception: Vancouver, which has Fredy Montero at $968,000 in guaranteed compensation as its highest-paid player.

    DEEP IN THE HEART: Austin's expansion franchise won't join the league until 2021 but the franchise remains on track for a groundbreaking on its 20,500-seat stadium in late summer or early fall.

    The Austin City Council awarded zoning approvals for the stadium last week and the team followed with a new series of renderings for the proposed stadium.

    The proposed venue is being designed by Gensler, the same firm that designed LAFC's Banc of California Stadium. The franchise was also scheduled to begin a season-ticket deposit campaign this week.

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