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Soccer newsletter: Everything remains uncertain in the wake of the novel coronavirus

MLS Commissioner Don Garber
MLS commissioner Don Garber.
(Mike Stobe / Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with MLS.

On Monday the league celebrated the 24th anniversary of the first MLS game, a 1-0 San Jose Clash win over Bruce Arena and D.C. United at Spartan Stadium in San Jose. When the league will play its next game remains unknown, but it surely won’t be May 10, the date Commissioner Don Garber choose last month to resume the season.

Garber was among the dozen commissioners and presidents of major sports organizations invited to participate in a conference call with President Trump last Saturday. (NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird was not invited, nor was anyone involved with U.S. Soccer or college sports.) The president’s message? Sure would be good to get the games going again!

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The response? No so fast.

Remember it was Trump who, two weeks ago, said he wanted everyone back in church on Easter, only to backtrack a few days later when, on the advice of his medical professionals, he extended his call for Americans to avoid groups of 10 or more until the end of April.

Now he wants full stadiums for the start of the NFL season this summer and once again the experts are urging caution.

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom, whose state is home to 18 teams in the top five professional leagues – among them three MLS clubs – said he isn’t sure the NFL will open on time.

“I’m not anticipating that happening in this state,” he said. “I’m not here to second-guess anybody, but I am here to say this: our decision on that basis, at least here in the state of California, will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts, will be determined by our capacity to meet this moment, bend the curve and have the appropriate community surveillance and testing to confidently determine whether that’s appropriate.

“That’s not something I anticipate happening in the next few months.”

What that means for MLS – and every other league for that matter -- is uncertain. Garber said the league wanted to play its full 34-game regular season followed by a full playoff tournament and was looking for creative ways to make that happen.

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That was unlikely to happen unless teams restarted the season in early summer, perhaps in empty stadiums.

Given Newsom’s pessimism, it’s even more unlikely now. Remember, too, that MLS has teams in 17 states, three Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia and the virus in advancing at different speeds in each place. Five states with MLS teams have yet to implement strict, statewide shelter-at-home policies, which means those areas could be weeks behind California, New York and Washington state in containing the spread of COVID-19.

In the meantime players continue to train, front offices continue to play and the league continues to be confronted with a difficult math problem: how to squeeze the league’s 416 remaining regular-season games into a smaller and smaller window.

And MLS may be the easiest part of the equation. The four-team championship bracket of the CONCACAF Nations League was postponed indefinitely on Friday. The U.S. national team had two friendlies in Europe canceled last month.

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“Given the circumstances, the decision makes complete sense,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said of the Nations League delay. “It’s a shame that we’re not going to be able to play and compete for a trophy in the June window, but the most important thing right now is that people are staying home and staying safe. Sport is part of our everyday life, sport gives us a sense of community, but in this time we all need to be following instructions and help as much as we can to stop the spread of this virus.

“When the timing is right, the priority is to get the leagues back up and running. National teams will come next. We have a close-knit group that continues to grow, and we are using this time to maintain our connections. When we do get back together we’ll regroup and be as focused as ever.”

It’s impossible to say when that reunion will be with the start of the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying, scheduled for September, now in danger as well.

Cheering the home team….from home


Stay-at-home guidelines limit public gatherings to 10 or more people. But LAFC, which has sold out all 39 of its MLS games at Banc of California Stadium, has had no problem drawing big crowds on the internet with 537,916 unique viewers turning in for the LAFC Gaming Charity Challenge Series in which the team’s eMLS player, Martin “RemiMartinn” Oregel, played representatives from the Galaxy and FC Dallas.

The largest crowd at one time for Sunday’s match with Dallas’ Ihab “i9ibbs” Abualneel was 18,143 while the audience for the March 29 three-game series with the Galaxy’s Giuseppe “The Godfather” Guastella peaked at16,675. The online games have raised $6,548 for the LAFC Foundation’s fight against COVID-19.

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The next LAFC eMLS match is Friday at 7 p.m. against Vancouver. Fans can watch here: twitch.tv/lafc

Guastella, who played Sporting Kansas City’s Alekzandur last weekend in a match that raised money for the L.A. Regional Food Bank, will face Minnesota United on Saturday 5 p.m. at twitch.tv/lagalaxy.

L.A. United?


The eMLS series wasn’t the only time LAFC and the Galaxy teamed up in the fight against the coronavirus. In a one-minute public-service announcement released Monday, Galaxy captain Jonathan dos Santos and LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta join players from Southern California’s 10 other major professional teams – as well as representatives from USC and UCLA – in urging people to wash their hands, practice social distancing, avoid public gatherings not to hoard food.

The video, which you can watch here, underscores directives issued by Mayor Eric Garcetti and was put together by Will Walsh, LAFC’s digital content manager.

In addition, this week the Galaxy and Chancho’s Tacos will send the team-branded food truck to schools and hospitals around the Southland to deliver free meals to medical workers and volunteers. The taco truck is scheduled to visit Northridge Hospital on Wednesday and two schools in Carson — Curtiss and Stephen M. White middle schools — on Thursday and Friday.

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Last month, the Galaxy and their supporters donated more than 300 pounds of canned food to the L.A. Regional Food Bank.

LAFC donated a pallet of fruits and vegetables to the Union Rescue Mission and partnered with Bodyarmor, Clif Bar and Old Spice to hand out 8,000 bottles of sports drinks, 50,000 bars and gels, and 1,000 personal-hygiene kits to staff and patients at Kaiser Permanente, the Red Cross and six other groups working with at-risk communities.

The team also is working with the Red Cross to set up a socially distanced blood bank at Banc of California Stadium.

Will the women’s game pay a bigger price for COVID-19?


The coronavirus pandemic has stilled soccer leagues all over the world – except, for some reason, in Belarus, Tajikistan and Nicaragua.

Most will eventually restart, hopefully just a little worse than where they left off. But the pause may have done serious damage to the women’s game, especially in Europe where it was riding a huge wave of momentum before COVID-19 flattened that curve, wiping out games all over the continent including a highly anticipated Merseyside Derby at Goodison Park.

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Seven of the eight quarterfinalists in last summer’s Women’s World Cup, the most competitive and most watched in history, were from Europe. And that spike in both talent and interest carried over to many domestic leagues this season.

In France, a November match between Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain drew 30,661, breaking a league record set by the same two teams seven months earlier. Before the World Cup, domestic attendance records were also shattered in Italy, where a Juventus-Fiorentina game drew 39,027, and Spain, with 60,739 showing up for Atletico Madrid-Barcelona.

Europe appeared poised to pass the U.S. as the epicenter of the women’s game at the club level, with big teams such as Real Madrid and Barcelona and sponsors like Barclays pouring tens of millions of dollars into the sport – an infusion of support that helped turn the Women’s Super League in England, Spain’s Liga Femenino and France’s Division I Féminine into three of the most competitive leagues in the world.

Perhaps the most encouraging progress was made in England, where the WSL attendance record was broken twice in as many months, first with 31,213 attending last September’s Manchester Derby at Etihad Stadium then again when 38,262 watched Tottenham-Arsenal two months later in a North London Derby played in the $1.25-billion stadium used by Tottenham’s men.

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“That just speaks volumes for how the game has grown,” Everton goalkeeper Sandy MacIver, who played college soccer at Clemson, said by phone.

In fact, the women were even outdrawing the men’s national team in England, with 77,768 packing Wembley for the Three Lionesses’ November friendly with Germany, nearly 500 more than the men drew to the same venue for a Euro 2020 qualifier five days later.

“Each year is a chance for England [and] Europe to really develop the game,” MacIver said. “I don’t think the women’s game will ever be a case of ‘OK, yeah we’ve done that. We’ve achieved the level we want.’ We’re always going to be looking to get better each season.”

Added Everton women’s coach Willy Kirk: “England has taken a lead in that, pushing the game to a completely new level. We were quite far behind the Americans at one stage but I think that gap’s closing.”

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However all that progress was stalled when weather, then COVID-19, shut down the WSL, indefinitely postponing the Tottenham-Arsenal rematch as well as the second leg of the Merseyside Derby, the first to be played at historic Goodison Park. That game would have been another highlight in a season-long trend that saw women’s teams playing regular league matches in the iconic stadiums long reserved only for the men.

Goodison, the oldest soccer-specific venue in England, has played host to a World Cup semifinal and more first-division men’s games than any stadium in the country. With the club scheduled to leave its Stanley Park home a new stadium near the Liverpool docks in 2023, the women may not get many more opportunities to play there.

“In terms of growing the game, these occasions help,” Kirk said. “I think we’ve all got joint responsibility to do that. It doesn’t matter if its Wembley, if it’s Anfield, if it’s Stamford Bridge. We’re playing a part in doing that.

“We’ve had a lot of stubborn people who have made sure this was not going to go our way. I think we’ve just normalized it. It’s almost just become normal now. And as soon as you normalize it just becomes part of people’s daily routine.”

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There is a cautionary tale that may be worth revisiting though -- and it too involves Goodison Park.

A hundred years ago women’s soccer was riding another huge wave of popularity, drawing large crowds in England so regularly the Football Association feared it would overtake the men’s game. So after a record 53,000 turned out for a Boxing Day game at Goodison in 1920 – 14,000 more were turned away -- the FA outlawed women’s soccer, arguing publicly that the game damaged women’s bodies.

Similar justification was given to support decades-long bans in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and France and elsewhere. Imagine where the women’s game would be if it hasn’t been repressed for half a century?

“I don’t think that will be the case this time,” MacIver said.

Moneyball


If you’ve been wondering why so many leagues seem eager to rush back, even if it means cutting fans – the lifeblood of the sport – out of the picture by playing in empty stadiums, the answer is money.

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TV has long called the shots in soccer and this week broadcasters began flexing their muscles with BeIN Media Group, one of the world’s largest rights-holders, telling France’s Ligue 1 it would withhold $5 million in payments due April 5 because of the suspension of league play.

The news follows a similar move by Canal Plus, which is withholding about $120 million from the French Professional League, and sends a major message of impatience that will be heard by leagues around the world.

Streaming company DAZN reportedly told leagues it holds rights for that it will not pay for any canceled fixtures, according to the Daily Mail.

The Premier League, the Daily Mail said, could face a loss of more than $920 million if it is unable to play out the EPL season, which is why the league working on a bold plan to restart the season next month, perhaps by sequestering players in hotels and playing behind closed doors.

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Podcast

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.

Quotebook

“Football will come back and when it does, we’ll celebrate coming out of a nightmare together, There is one lesson, however, that both you and me must have understood: the football that will come after the virus will be totally different ... [more] inclusive, more social and more supportive, connected to the individual countries and at the same time more global, less arrogant and more welcoming. We will be better, more human and more attentive to true values.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, in an interview with Italian news agency ANSA, on soccer in the wake of the coronavirus

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.

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