Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy knew what it would take to earn a playoff place on Sunday and a disastrous second half cost them a spot in the postseason following a 3-2 defeat to the Houston Dynamo.
Needing a victory to make the postseason, an Ola Kamara brace had put the Galaxy up 2-0 by halftime, with a playoff spot looking virtually assured to the crowd at the StubHub Center.
However, Romell Quioto brought the Dynamo back to within a goal in the second half, and then a brace from Mauro Manotas stunned the hosts and sent Real Salt Lake to the playoffs.
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic on board, expectations were high for the most storied franchise in MLS history, but the season had been something of a disappointment up until last month.
A 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders on Sept. 23 was the turning point, sparking a run of four wins in five that saw the club pick of 13 of 15 possible points to close the season.
Coming into Sunday's showdown with the Dynamo only a win would do for the Galaxy. Real Salt Lake, the only team in the league sitting idle on Sunday, had the advantage on points, but could do nothing other than sit back and watch as the Galaxy slipped in two first-half goals against the Dynamo.
Kamara's quick-fire brace around the half-hour mark appeared to leave little doubt against a Dynamo team limping their way to the finish line of a frustrating season.
A 27th-minute header following a cross from a well-worked short corner put the Galaxy out in front, with the 29-year-old pounding home an Ashley Cole cross three minutes later to double the lead.
But Quioto would get Houston back into the match, and things took a turn for the disastrous 15 minutes later when former Galaxy defender AJ DeLaGarza was fouled in the area for a penalty.
Manotas stepped up and slotted it past David Bingham to level the game at 2-2 and leave the Galaxy on the outside looking in.
Their exit was all but confirmed six minutes later as Manotas found the net with his second, leaving the Galaxy needing two goals to get the victory they needed.
It did not come, leaving Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy outside of the playoffs for the second straight season, despite the Swede netting an impressive 22 goals in 26 games during his debut MLS campaign.
“A bit empty right now," Galaxy interim head coah Dominic Kinnear said of his feelings after the match. "Even at the half I knew the game wasn’t over. We needed to keep on playing, because they have some players playing forward that can hurt you. And, like I said, our possession the first half kept them away from our goal, and then our lack of possession the second half brought them a little bit closer to our goal.
"You wish you could kind of take a timeout out every now and again and get the guys together. But, obviously you can't do that in this game. But, we still had chances at the end. We still had a lot of chance to score some goals. We were throwing everything forward. The guys gave it everything they had. It’s an empty feeling right now for sure."
Romain Alessandrini, who conceded the penalty that pulled the Dynamo level, was equally gutted with the result.
"We just have to blame ourselves," he said. "Now we just have to move forward. It’s hard to say that for the fans because a club like LA Galaxy has to make the playoffs every year, and two years in a row without playoffs is tough.”
This marks only the second time in club history that the Galaxy have failed to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, with the club having missed the postseason three times in a row between 2006 and 2008.
Elsewhere, the Eastern Conference playoff field is set as the Montreal Impact fell 1-0 to the New England Revolution, ensuring the Columbus Crew made the playoffs.
In the Western Conference, the Seattle Sounders' 2-1 win over the San Jose Earthquakes gave them the No. 2 spot and a first-round bye. Los Angeles FC finished third and will face Salt Lake in the knockout round. FC Dallas will host the Portland Timbers in the other matchup.