Soccer newsletter: Galaxy, LAFC and Orange County SC push to add ‘difference-makers’
Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we’ll explore the Galaxy as they open their second preseason training camp of the Greg Vanney era, look at ambitious moves by LAFC and the Orange County Soccer Club and address U.S. Soccer’s attempt to call the bluff of the men’s and women’s national teams over the subject of equal pay.
First, the Galaxy. At this time a year ago, Vanney, six weeks into his new gig, was just beginning to put together his first roster, a job that wasn’t completed until early August. On Monday, when the Galaxy gathered on the field together for the first time in 2022, the core of his team was largely present.
“Massive progress,” the coach said. “Last year we were just trying to find players and then to know those players and then figure out kind of what that plan looked like. So we’re in a much better position.”
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That’s good and bad. The Galaxy return the majority of their 2021 team, but that was a team that finished 13-12-9 and missed the postseason by a point after winning just two of its final 15 games.
“Many of our guys didn’t really have that experience of that training camp, where we really set the foundation for what you want to do,” Vanney said. “Players who come from outside MLS don’t really feel the stress of MLS until the latter part of the season. So we’re learning.
“There may even have been a little bit of complacency at one point, thinking we were in such a good position that we were going to make the playoffs.”
They’re not finished with the 2022 roster though. With a designated player spot open and more than $4.3 million in salary relief from the departure of midfielders Jonathan dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget and defenders Daniel Steres and Giancarlo González, Vanney said the team he trained with Monday won’t be the one it takes into next month’s MLS regular-season opener.
“We’ve got a group coming back that we like, but there are still a handful of pieces that we want to add,” he said.
“We’re going to pick up one difference-maker for sure. We’ll probably add a couple more good, quality pieces that serve a real role in what we’re trying to do. But also bring some experience to our group.”
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That winter home-improvement project has been slow in developing. So far Vanney has made a couple of minor tweaks to the back line and re-signed a pair of midfielders, both of whom are in their mid-30s. Not exactly season-changing moves. And without at least one major addition, it’s hard to see how this year’s team will be better than last year’s — especially since this one is without two national team midfielders in Dos Santos and Lletget, who each made 26 appearances in 2021.
But making the team better means getting the right player, not simply getting a player right now. Among those the team has looked at are former Galaxy forward Cristian Pavón and Brazilian midfielder Douglas Costa.
“We’ve done our due diligence on both of them because people have either presented them to us or we knew them or, in the case of Pavón, he was obviously here,” Vanney said. “Costa was and is one of the best players in the world when he’s fully fit and ready to go. So the ideas are there. But that’s one of many guys that are out there.”
The Galaxy are unlikely to get either. The market for Pavón, an Argentine World Cup veteran who turns 26 this week, is one the Galaxy once had largely to themselves. But the competition has grown in recent weeks despite the fact he’s still facing rape charges at home. Pavón denies any wrongdoing.
His contract with Boca Juniors expires in June, meaning it could be cheaper to wait and sign him this summer. But the season will be half over by then, making any delay potentially costly for the Galaxy.
Meanwhile Costa, 31, who is on loan from Juventus to second-division Brazilian club Gremio, said last week he’s no longer interested in moving, although that could be a ploy to get a better contract. Transfermarkt lists his current value at $4.4 million.
The bigger issue may not be who the Galaxy will get, but rather who they missed out on. When Vanney traded Lletget to New England last month, among the possible replacements were free agents Ilie Sánchez and Albert Rusnak and Colorado standout Kellyn Acosta, who the Rapids were willing to trade.
All three went to division rivals instead, with the Seattle Sounders signing Rusnak and LAFC getting Sánchez and Acosta. That puts additional pressure on the Galaxy to make an impact signing — as does Toronto FC’s four-year, $60-million deal for Italian attacker Lorenzo Insigne, which has significantly raised the ante for MLS clubs who want to be considered major franchises with big aspirations.
You know, like the Galaxy used to be.
Instead Vanney’s most significant midfield signings actually were re-signings, with Sacha Kljestan, 36, and Victor Vázquez, 34, agreeing to return. And the most significant winter additions have been free-agent defenders Kelvin Leerdam and Raheem Edwards.
“We feel like we’re getting closer every day,” Vanney said of the prospects for landing a big-name player. “There’s a lot of variables [with] these bigger deals that we’re having to navigate through. But we’re hoping that within the next couple of weeks we’ll be able to have something for people; a name and a face.
“It’s definitely something that’s going to happen with the early stages, I believe, of the preseason.”
LAFC, Orange County make aggressive additions
LAFC last week landed two players the Galaxy reportedly had their eyes on in Acosta, a U.S. national team standout, and Sánchez, who they signed as a free agent. Acosta, who has just a year left on his contract, cost the team a potential $1.5 million in allocation money, plus his salary. He was guaranteed $1.115 million in Colorado last season. Sanchez made $1 million in Kansas City.
LAFC easily can afford those costs, having pocketed $1.75 million in allocation money from last summer’s deals involving Mark-Anthony Kaye and Corey Baird. And each player’s salary is less than LAFC team paid Eduard Atuesta, whose December sale to Palmeiras created the hole at defensive midfielder that Sánchez will fill.
Imagine: LAFC acquired two MLS all-stars to shore up a shaky midfield and still have allocation money, salary and a designated player spot they can use to make further upgrades.
Remaining on the to-do list is signing a goalkeeper. The team started training camp this week with Tomas Romero, 21, who played 18 games for LAFC last season, as the only keeper on the first-team roster.
“We are in a strong position to improve the team, which is what we plan to do,” said John Thorrington, the team’s co-president and general manager.
If LAFC gets a solid season from Romero and a full year from captain Carlos Vela, whose contract expires in June, it could be the Western Conference’s most improved team under first-year coach Steve Cherundolo. However, those are big “ifs.” Romero had an up-and-down rookie season in which he posted four shutouts, then gave up an average of two goals a game in his other 14 starts before spending the final five weeks of the regular season on the bench.
Vela, who missed more than half of LAFC’s games the last two seasons to injuries and personal issues, was the league’s top-paid player last year at a guaranteed $6.3 million. Vela probably would have to agree to a substantial discount to stay past June, something he doesn’t appear inclined to do.
The second-tier Orange County Soccer Club also made a huge splash last week when it signed former Mexican national team forward Erick “Cubo” Torres, who has cycled through seven teams in the last eight years. But, just shy of his 29th birthday, he still appears to have a lot of productive soccer left.
The signing of a Torres to a one-year contract with a second-year club option followed the signings of former San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Kevin Partida, 26, and Honduran national team defender Danilo Acosta, 24, who spent the last two seasons with the Galaxy. The three additions strengthen a team that is less than two months gone from winning its first USL Championship title.
“I feel at my best mentally in terms of the experience I have acquired,” Torres, who spent the last two seasons in MLS with Atlanta United, told Times en Español reporter Jad El Reda.
But Torres has a lot to prove. He’s scored in double digits just twice in his career, the last time with Houston in 2017 when he had a team-leading 14 goals. He’s scored just five times in 63 games, split between MLS and Liga MX, since then.
“Football is often not so fair,” he said. “Sometimes you get the chance, sometimes you don’t. You have to put up with that and accept it. You have to have that mentality, that attitude to not let yourself fail.
“[My recent performances] do not reflect the work that I have done on and off the field. It is my need to demonstrate on the field that I want to play. I am at a great age and highly motivated.”
Torres will probably team up front with Haitian international Ronaldo Damus, who scored four of his team’s five postseason goals last season after bagging a team-high 14 goals in the regular season.
For men’s and women’s national teams, talk proves cheap
Remember when the women’s national team sued U.S. Soccer seeking to be paid what members of the men’s national team get? And remember when the men’s team backed the women in their call for equality?
Apparently they were just kidding.
The federation proved neither side really meant what it said when it proposed nearly identical collective bargaining agreements to both teams last September, only to have the two players’ associations choose to negotiate separately. Now that process has broken down with talks on a new CBA for the men’s team stalled while discussions with the women’s team moved forward.
Both national teams, among the best-paid in the world, according to U.S. Soccer, appear less interested in equality than in protecting their own interests. That makes the hypocrisy of their politically correct public statements misleading at best.
“While we haven’t received a commitment from either union to move forward with a single pay structure, we have been encouraged that they are willing to join us in discussions about that possibility as we continue to negotiate separate CBAs with each for now,” federation president Cindy Parlow Cone wrote last week in an open letter to fans.
“We’ve told both players’ associations that we will not reach a deal unless we find a way to equalize the World Cup prize money,” Cone added in a conference call with the media after the release of her letter. “So we’ve asked the men and the women to get together to find a place that is best for them. U.S. Soccer has made proposals on ways that we should get there, but obviously we need the help of the men and the women to get there. We can’t unilaterally do it.”
Revenue sharing, she clarified, doesn’t mean the CBAs will be identical.
“What we’re talking about here is equalized prize money, identical game bonuses, identical commercial revenue sharing agreements,” Cone said. “But will there be differences in the contract? Yes, because the teams are different and they have different needs.
“It doesn’t mean that the contract has to be exactly the same, as long as everyone agrees that it is equal.”
Added UCLA law professor Steven A. Bank: “The WNT players would probably gladly agree to get what the men’s deal looks like currently as long as the World Cup prize money was the same as what is available to the men. And the MNT players are happy to back the WNT players’ call for equality, just so long as it doesn’t mean potentially sacrificing any money they would get under their own deal.”
Meanwhile, U.S. Soccer struggles to find that elusive middle ground.
The men’s contract with the federation expired in 2018 and U.S. Soccer CEO Will Wilson last week confirmed he had negotiated a deal with the men’s union last summer only to see it rejected by the federation’s board of directors. The union rejected the board’s counteroffer and threatened a strike. That was quickly averted.
The women are working under a three-month extension of their deal, which was set to expire last month. Negotiations over the new agreements with both unions have continued into what will be a key year, with both teams playing for spots in their respective World Cups, the men’s tournament this fall and the women’s competition in the summer of 2023.
“I tend to think that neither side wants to commit to a single pay structure yet because that locks them into a dispute with each other about the details,” Bank said. “They don’t want to negotiate with themselves.
“They want U.S. Soccer to figure out how to fund the FIFA World Cup prize money inequity itself.”
As negotiations continue, some members of the women’s team are moving forward with their lawsuit against the federation over claims of past pay discrimination. A hearing is scheduled for March in that case.
“We would happily agree to settle that so we can focus on working together to chart a more positive and collaborative path forward,” Cone wrote in her letter.
And finally there’s this …
After scoring his 300th Bundesliga goal as part of a hat trick last weekend, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski was honored Monday as FIFA Best Men’s Player for the second consecutive year. Barcelona midfielder Alexia Putellas was named the top women’s player after leading her club to a treble. USWNT players Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd were named to the FIFA world Best XI … Speaking of women’s soccer, here’s another sign the game is growing: Barcelona Femení announced that tickets for its Champions League quarterfinal with Real Madrid at Camp Nou have sold out. Around 85,000 tickets for the March fixture went scooped up in three days. The Messi-less Barcelona men’s team has yet to sell out a game this season….Last week FIFA released its annual transfer report, which tracks the cross-border movement of men’s and women’s players in pro and amateur leagues around the globe, and the figures show the sport rebounding slightly from 2020, when financial losses from the COVID-19 pandemic limited spending. Some 18,068 men’s transfers, involving a record-high 4,544 professional clubs in 185 associations, were registered by FIFA in 2021, although the combined values of the transfer fees declined for a second year in a row to $4.86 billion. That’s down 13.8% from 2020 and more than 33% from 2019. On the women’s side the number of international transfers grew by more than 26%, although the sample size remained small and involved just 414 clubs and 1,304 transfers.
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.
“I’m super excited about the move. I think it’s come at a good time. I had a lot to do with the decision, so it wasn’t something that was just kind of thrown at me. The way the year went, among other things, I just think it was just the right time.”
Former Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget on the trade to New England that reunited him with coach Bruce Arena
Until next time...
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