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.
The league may not be playing any games for the foreseeable future but that doesn’t mean this has been a quiet time for Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese, who has been working the phones hard from his Redondo Beach home.
Go inside the L.A. pro soccer scene and beyond in Kevin Baxter's weekly newsletter.
MLS executives have been gathering for at least two conference calls a week to discuss league business. Te Kloese has also taken on added duties as part of a subcommittee of general managers that is are working on player development issues and he connects regularly with coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto and his staff.
“It’s difficult,” Te Kloese said. “I do appreciate the league being pretty formal in their weekly calls. There’s a business officer and soccer officer call every Tuesday. On Wednesday there’s normally time spent with all the general managers. Then I connect internally with Guillermo, with his staff.
“I speak to players but I try to leave it up to the coach. I think it’s important for the coach to be empowered to have a good relationship with the players.”
Te Kloese isn’t optimistic the MLS season, suspended March 12 after just two games, will resume any time soon and he doesn’t see the league – with teams in 17 states, three Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia -- playing a full 34-game schedule, something commissioner Don Garber had once considered a priority.
“Being realistic within the country, there’s different issues,” he said. “Obviously there’s federal things and there’s state-related things. For a league that’s so spread out, there’s a lot of travel involved, and there’s a lot of different restrictions in different parts of the country.
“It makes it a challenge to generalize things and it makes it a challenge to come to a conclusion that you can just put everybody together and just play as normal.”
Te Kloese’s hesitation followed comments from Dr. Jeffrey Smith, Santa Clara County’s executive officer, who told the county board of supervisors that he didn’t anticipate “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving” because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Garber is now changing course too, telling ESPN’s Taylor Twellman on Monday that he is looking at a number of ways to complete the season, from tournament formats and neutral locations “to get as many games” as possible. When play does resume, Garber said the games would probably be played behind closed doors.
Te Kloese said he doesn’t see full crowds returning until COVID-19 testing with quick results is widely available.
As for the Galaxy roster, Te Kloese said teams can make offers this summer on winger Cristian Pavón, on loan from Argentina’s Boca Juniors -- offers the Galaxy will have a chance to match in order to keep Pavón. But given the economic pain being felt throughout international soccer because of the coronavirus the Galaxy GM said an offer “is going to be a longshot.”
“For us,” he continued “it’s very clear that we hold off and we wait and we see what’s going on in the transfer market and how the MLS comes back.”
Te Kloese said the team remains interested in Argentina center back Alan Franco although so far a deal is “just beyond our possibilities.”
If there was a silver lining to the black cloud that is COVID-19, it’s that Te Kloese has been able to spend more time at home with his three children, daughters that are 13 and 11 years old and a son, 4.
“Normally when we’re at work it’s a lot of traveling for me,” he said. “I don’t know if they’re tired of me yet but so far they haven’t really shown any signs of ‘get the hell out of here’.”
As MLS waits for real games to start up again, the league has moved play online with a televised tournament kicking off Sunday featuring the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández versus LAFC’s Adama Diomande in a virtual El Trafico.
Galaxy assistant could be moving on
When the Galaxy do gather again one prominent piece of the team could be missing.
Te Kloese said assistant coach Dominic Kinnear, a two-time MLS champion and one of the winningest coaches in league history, has drawn attention from FC Cincinnati, a second-year team with a vacancy at manager.
“I know they have a formal interest,” said Te Kloese, adding that the team has inquired about multiple candidates in Europe as well.
Kinnear joined the Galaxy staff as an assistant under Sigi Schmid then took over when Schmid was fired late in the 2018 season, nearly leading the Galaxy to the playoffs. He stayed on under Schelotto to help the Argentine staff make the difficult transition to MLS last season.
“I really appreciate his work with us,” Te Kloese said of Kinnear. “The players positively relate to him. He is very valued at our club. I can see why Cincinnati would like to have him. That’s why we have him here.”
Smith’s pessimism about sports resuming in Santa Clara County before Thanksgiving apparently doesn’t extend to Germany, where professional soccer could be back as soon as next month. Christian Seifert, CEO of the German Football League (DFL), recently told the New York Times he hopes to have the Bundesliga and 2 Bundesliga playing televised games in empty stadiums in early May.
Germany’s top two leagues suspended play March 13 but German teams resumed training this month under strict social-distance guidelines.
“We are part of the culture in the country. People long to get back a short piece of normal life, and that could mean the Bundesliga plays again,” Seifert told the newspaper. “This is why we have to play our role here, and that means to support the government and to talk with the government about when we will be able to play again.”
If the DFL goes forward with Seifert’s plan it could have its domestic season wrapped up by the end of June. The other major European soccer leagues may not resume until the summer – if they resume at all.
The 36 teams in Germany’s top two leagues have played 25 of their 34 scheduled games.
Although Seifert says the return of soccer in Germany is important to the national psyche, it’s even more important to the DFL’s bottom line. If the season were to end here it would cost the DFL more than $815 million in lost broadcast revenue. Half the 2 Bundesliga’s 18 teams are already in danger of bankruptcy, Seifert said, while as many as five of the 18 teams in the first-division league are facing serious financial problems.
The DFL has estimated that even in empty stadiums matches would require 240 people, including players, coaching and medical staff, match officials and production staff. In addition, a protocol would have to be set up to handle a player testing positive.
Soccer in England’s top leagues are reportedly eyeing a June 6 return after a mini preseason camp. ESPN said the plan will be discussed on a videoconference call Friday.
The English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga have estimated their losses could top $1 billion each if televised games aren’t resumed.
More pain in Spain
The suspension of the La Liga season came at a particularly bad time for FC Barcelona, and not only because it was closing in on its third straight Spanish title and its fifth in six seasons. The lack of games also means there’s nothing to distract from an incredible implosion in the team’s executive offices that may eventually do more to dismantle the Barcelona dynasty than Real Madrid or any other league rival has been able to do on the field.
The club announced Monday it will take legal action against former vice-president Emili Rousaud, who said a high-ranking official has “their hands in the till” and has been taking money from the team’s coffers.
Rousaud was one of six directors who resigned from the Barcelona board last week, deepening an institutional crisis that has consumed the club all season.
In January, with the team atop the La Liga table, Barcelona fired coach Ernesto Valverde after a loss to Atletico Madrid in the Supercopa. Less than a month later sporting director Eric Abidal drew intense fire from captain and superstar Lionel Messi after Abidal said many players were not playing hard for Valverde, leading to his sacking.
Midfielder Ivan Rakitic, who has lost considerable playing time this season to the newly acquired Frenkie de Jong, joined the chorus Monday, lashing out at his treatment and saying “I’m not a sack of potatoes who you can do anything with.”
But the most serious challenge to Barcelona’s continued dominance is the feuding in the managerial suite. In February it was revealed that the club had paid a third party to smear players, potential presidential candidates and club legends online. President Josep Maria Bartomeu, whose term of president expires in 2021, denied any knowledge of the Facebook accounts in question and ordered an external audit of the company that manages the club’s social media accounts.
That audit has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rousaud was expected to run for president in Barcelona’s next election. Four of the six board members who resigned last week were reportedly asked to step down by Bartomeu who sources told ESPN, wants to surround himself with confidants in his final year in charge.
ESPN also reported that Victor Font, who will run for the presidency in 2021, says only the coronavirus crisis is stopping him from demanding early elections. ESPN said Font also accused the current board of steering the club towards “economic bankruptcy and moral decay.”
If the team was still playing, Messi and Co.’s pursuit of both another league title and Champions League crown – it was in the Round of 16 when that tournament was suspended – would take much of the focus off the boardroom soap opera. But with Camp Nou vacant, the ugly infighting not only takes center stage but it is allowed to grow and fester. Nothing good can come of that.
More pain in Spain, Part II
Speaking of La Liga, Sevilla – Chicharito Hernández’s old team – put its players on furlough last week to reduce labor costs during the league’s coronavirus shutdown.
The club said it reached an initial accord with the first-team players and coaches regarding their salaries but no details were immediately released.
The club says 360 employees in total will be affected.
Nearly all clubs in Spain are expected to undergo a reduction in salaries of their players to deal with revenue lost to the season’s suspension.
“In a crisis like this the only important thing is health. There’s no more,” Sevilla’s director of football Ramón Rodríguez, better known as Monchi, told me by email last month, before the furloughs were announced. He then went on to quote a legendary Liverpool manager.
“As Bill Shankly said, ‘soccer is the most important of the least important.’ I am the first who wants football to return. But the first thing that must come back is normality in society,” he said. “Anything other than putting the focus on ending the virus for me is a mistake.”
(Read more about Sevilla’s struggles to deal with the novel coronavirus here.)
The temporary cessation of soccer hostilities hasn’t just affected club teams. The FIFA windows for national team games in March and June have also been closed tight, wiping out the semifinals and final of the first CONCACAF Nations League. The COVID-19 crisis is also threatening the start of the hexagonal round of CONCACAF’S World Cup qualifying tournament, scheduled for September.
And because they have no games, the players and coach of Switzerland’s national soccer team have declined not to accept more than $1 million due them from their federation.
Team captain Stephan Lichtsteiner said the team “wanted to set an example and show solidarity.”
The team was scheduled to play in the now-postponed European Championship in June and had two games in Qatar canceled last month because of the coronavirus pandemic. The shutdown of games has cost the Swiss soccer body millions of dollars.
Federation chairman Dominique Blanc says it’s a “magnificent gesture” from the players. Blanc tested positive for the virus last month.
You could have bet this would happen
The COVID-19 shutdown has also brought unwanted attention to Skabersjo IF, a seventh-division Swedish amateur team located near Malmo. When the team played Vastra Ingelstad IS two weeks ago, Skabersjo chairman Mattias Andersson said people - presumably from the betting community – contacted the club on social media and in emails from Hungary, Denmark, England and in Asia asking for information about such things as the team’s style of play.
“After the game,” Andersson told The Associated Press, “we received a lot of threats, death threats, where they said they wanted us all to be killed by COVID-19. It’s insane.”
“We are all amateurs. Usually you cannot [bet] on our games,” he added. “It’s intimidating. The last days I have seen the dark side of the betting community, what it does to people.“
Top-level competitions and training matches have been canceled in Sweden during the pandemic but practice games between lower-league teams have continued because gatherings of fewer than 50 people are still allowed in the country. Andersson said there were no fans and just “a handful“ of reporters at the match.
Betting sites have been starved of live sports during the pandemic, so some have resorted to headlining their platforms with the Belarusian league and play in Nicaragua, where games have continued as scheduled.
Swedish teams Eskilstuna FC and Nashulta GoIF, from the seventh and eighth divisions, respectively, had a recent training match canceled on the recommendation of the Swedish soccer federation after staff members at the clubs were contacted by would-be gamblers.
“It is incredible that I am paid so much to do a sport and that people who try to find a cure against something that is stopping the world are not earning anything.”
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who will make $6 million with the Galaxy this season, on the front-line workers battling COVID-19