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Soccer newsletter: MLS season is hanging in the balance

Galaxy forward Cristian Pavon plays against the Houston Dynamo on Feb. 29.
(Bob Levey / 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, which may or may not still exist by the time you read this.

As the clock ticked toward midnight Monday the league appeared intent on destroying itself rather than joining the players in making the financial concessions necessary to resume its 25th anniversary season, which was suspended March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hopefully this will all have changed by the dawn’s early light. But before the sun went down, MLS had given its players a noon Tuesday deadline to accept its offer -- take it or leave it – or risk being locked out.

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In what passes for a sign of movement, ESPN reported late Monday that the deadline was pushed back 24 hours, to high noon on Wednesday.

The showdown began late Sunday when the owners sternly rejected an offer from the players, who voted to accept a series of wage reductions and modifications to its hard-won collective bargaining agreement with MLS in an effort to restart the season. It’s been nearly three months since any team in the league has held a full training session, much less played a game, so the players’ offer was a good-faith effort in which they offered to tighten their belts and give up more than $100 million in pay and bonuses to get back on the field.

In a statement released Sunday, the players union said its members agreed to accept “salary reductions across the entire player pool, reduced team and individual bonuses and additional concessions to existing and future terms of the CBA.” They also agreed to the league’s plan to quarantine themselves in a Disney hotel for up to six weeks to play in a televised tournament beginning in early July in Orlando, Fla., allowing MLS to become the first of the five major professional leagues in the U.S. to return.

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Participation in the tournament had split the union with many players voicing opposition to a long quarantine and concerns over health and safety issues such as COVID-19 testing.

According to the Washington Post, ESPN, The Athletic and others, the package the players sent to the owners called for a 7.5% pay cut for their entire player pool; the league wanted 8.75%. The union also asked to extend the five-year CBA both sides approved in January through 2025.

But the main point of contention is a force majeure clause the owners want included that would allow them to back out of the CBA in the case of a catastrophic event like, oh say a global pandemic.

According to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, the owners want the ability to invoke the clause if five of the league’s 26 teams suffer attendance declines of 25% or more from the previous season. The players’ proposal did not include that language.

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The league also wants to change terms of the agreement relating to broadcast revenue from a new broadcast deal that will start in 2023.

Turn on your TV or pick up a newspaper and you’ll realize that, given the really important stuff going on in the country, a squabble between millionaire and billionaire team owners and people who play a game for living is pretty close to inconsequential. Except when it’s not, except when the game exists to give us a diversion from those other more serious topics and a chance to smile, yell or scream and let out the emotion a lot of us have been holding inside for a long time.

That’s when both the importance and the pettiness of the negotiations become maddening. You may not think you need soccer – or some other diversion – right now. But you do.

The truth is, everybody is going to lose this year, players and teams. Fans too. It’s unlikely many teams will play a game in anything other than an empty stadium this summer – and may not again this year.

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So how much are both sides willing to give up to play again?

On the surface the players’ concessions seem deep, made in what appears to be a sincere attempt to save the season. In contrast the owners look cheap, putting money ahead of the players and fans, both of whom want to see games again.

Many players reacted to the owners’ intransigence by refusing to show for voluntary workouts Monday. Among the teams skipping workouts were the Galaxy, Atlanta United, D.C. United, the Columbus Crew, FC Cincinnati and Minnesota United. Nashville and LAFC had scheduled off days.

The Athletic’s Sam Stejskal tweeted a statement from agent Chris Megaloudis of Mega Sports USA, who tried to sum up the mood of his clients.

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“This is the moment for everyone who loves the game to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the players,” Megaloudis wrote. “If we are serious about MLS becoming a top-five destination, we cannot continue to ask our athletes to make concessions during these difficult times…My hope is Major League Soccer recognizes the window of opportunity staring us all in the face and that it backs its players.”

If the owners don’t recognize that and refuse to budge from their hard-line position, they run the risk of losing more than the players’ faith. If the league can reach an agreement that would get its teams back on the field in Orlando in early July, it would likely beat the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball back, giving it the national spotlight in a summer television landscape starved for live sports. It would also give the owners considerable bragging rights by being the first league to come back from COVID-19.

Locking the players out, on the other hand, would not only stall the considerable momentum that has seen MLS grown from 15 teams in 2009 to 30 by 2022 – with one new franchise, Charlotte, paying a record $325-million expansion fee – but it would severely muddy the standing the league has built around the world. Accomplished stars such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane and Frank Lampard and up-and-coming talents like Diego Rossi, Miguel Almirón and Ezequiel Barco have been lured here in recent years by the league’s reputation for taking care of its players. Locking them out in the middle of pandemic over 1.25% in salary cuts and an attendance clause is short-sited.

MLS has widely given its owners an extra 24 hours to calm down and think things over. Let’s hope they use the time wisely and do what’s right not just for the league, but for the game as well.

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Bowed heads, heavy hearts

They may have been playing in empty stadiums, but every Bundesliga player knew the world was watching on TV last weekend. And four of those players took advantage of that stage to honor George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died in police custody last week, touching off violent protests across the U.S.

Weston McKennie, a U.S. national team player, wore a white armband that read “Justice for George” in Schalke’s loss to Werder Breman on Saturday. After the match he tweeted out a picture of the armband below the hashtags #justiceforgeorgefloyd and #saynotoracism.

On Sunday, French forward Marcus Thuram walked away from his teammates and dropped to his left knee at the edge of the six-yard box, bowing his head for about six seconds, after scoring the second goal in Borussia Monchengladbach’s 4-1 win over Union Berlin (watch the tribute here). Also on Sunday, English winger Jadon Sancho pulled off his jersey after scoring in Borussia Dortmund’s rout of Paderborn to reveal a yellow T-shirt on which he had scrawled the message “Justice for George Floyd.” Sancho, who finished with a hat trick, was given a yellow card from referee Daniel Siebert for removing his jersey but he also got a congratulatory elbow bump – high fives are forbidden under the Bundesliga’s COVID-19 protocol – from a Paderborn player.

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Nor did the caution worry Sancho’s teammate Achraf Hakimi, with the Moroccan pulling up his jersey to display the same message after scoring in the 85th minute.

All four players could face disciplinary action from the Bundesliga which, in a terribly boneheaded moved, announced Monday it was looking into the tributes. League rules prohibit players from making political demonstrations on their equipment while on the field but it’s hard to see what’s political about opposing police brutality.

You’d think they would understand that in Germany, of all places.

Former German Football Association president Rainer Koch came out against any penalties, saying he was “proud” of the players.

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“I can absolutely understand the actions last weekend,” Koch said. “What happened in the U.S. can’t leave anyone indifferent.”

Sancho was certainly undeterred. (Watch his tribute here.)

“Delighted to get my first career hat trick, a bittersweet moment personally as there are more important things going on in the world today that we must address and help make a change,” he wrote on Instragram. “We shouldn’t fear speaking out for what’s right. We have to come together as one and fight for justice. We are stronger together!”

Sanjay Bhandari, chairman of the UK-based anti-racism organization “Kick It Out” urged every Premier League team to take a knee in honor of Floyd when the EPL season resumes later this month. Liverpool’s players did that Monday, surrounding the center circle at Anfield before a training session.

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U.S. Soccer, meanwhile, used its official social media accounts to send out the hash-tagged message “UnitedAgainstRacism.” But this is the same organization that banned its players from kneeling in 2017 after Megan Rapinoe respectfully took a knee during the national anthem before a game with the women’s national team. Rapinoe was acting in support of Colin Kaepernick’s campaign against the very same racism that now has U.S. Soccer tweeting in anger.

Picking up where they left off?

The Bundesliga was the world’s first major professional league to return from its coronavirus suspension and it reaped record TV ratings for its boldness. But that successful comeback has paved the way for a number of other leagues to crash the party this month.

“The whole of Europe is happy to see the Bundesliga back,” said Bayer Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro. “We are trying to do things properly. We are trying to do things well. We are happy that we are motivating other countries to follow and try to do it as well.”

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Spain’s La Liga is scheduled to return behind closed doors on June 11, six days before the English Premier League. Italy’s Serie A is scheduled to come back June 20.

In Spain, where there are 99 games left to be played, it will be a sprint to the finish, with the federation approving a plan that will allow matches to be played daily – on 32 consecutive days – to complete the schedule by July 19. That will put a premium on fitness and squad depth, especially with tight races at both ends of the table.

A strict safety protocol approved by the Ministry of Health will be followed and kickoff times will be adjusted to take summer temperatures in different parts of the county in account.

La Liga president Javier Tebas said the league, in tribute to COVID-19 victims, is encouraging fans to make audio recordings of themselves applauding the fallen, recordings that will be played in the empty stadiums and on TV in the 20th minute of each match.

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Play will resume with two-time defending champion Barcelona leading Real Madrid by two points atop the table. Two more points separates third-place Sevilla from sixth-place Atletico Madrid in the fight to decide the league’s Champions League and European League qualifiers.

At the bottom Espanyol, Leganes and Mallorca will restart in the relegation zone but Eibar and Celta Vigo are just a couple of points out of danger. Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, who leads the league with 19 goals and 12 assists, needs 16 scores in his team’s final 11 games to extend his record of finishing with at least 40 goals to 11 consecutive seasons.

The English Premier League is tentatively scheduled to return June 17 with Aston Villa playing host to Sheffield United and Arsenal playing at Manchester City. Those four teams have played one fewer match than the rest of the league.

A full round of games, all in empty venues, will be played June 19-21. The EPL has 92 games left on its schedule and no two matches will be played simultaneously, giving fans the opportunity to watch every one on TV.

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It is unclear where those games will be played with police saying only neutral venues should be used over concerns fans would congregate outside the stadiums. However the idea of neutral sites is opposed by more than half of the league’s 20 clubs.

The restart will largely be a victory lap for Liverpool, which is just six points from its first EPL title. The once-beaten Reds have a commanding 25-point lead over defending champion City with nine games to play.

Liverpool also has a chance at history, needing 18 points to tie City’s record of 100 points in a season and 10 points in four games at Anfield to tie the mark of 55 home points in a season. The Reds are also on pace to clinch the league title quicker than any team and can post the largest winning margin ever.

Manchester City and Leicester City have comfortable grips on the next two EPL berths in the Champions League ahead of fourth-place Chelsea and fifth-place Manchester United, who are playing for the next two European berths. At the other end of the table Norwich will likely be demoted but just four points separate the five teams trying to avoid the other two relegation spots.

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Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, with 19 scores, had a two-goal lead over Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the race for the Golden Boot while Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne is tops in assists with 16, leaving him just four shy of Thierry Henry’s 17-year-old EPL record.

Eight teams are still alive in the FA Cup, which was paused before the quarterfinals.

Italy, Europe’s first COVID-19 flashpoint, will see soccer return on June 13 with the second leg of the Coppa Italia semifinals, with Milan facing Juventus in Turin and Napoli playing Inter Milan at the San Paolo. The Serie A league schedule will resume the following week, beginning a 43-day, 124-game dash to an Aug. 2 finish. Games, which will take place nearly every day, will kick off as late as 9:45 p.m. local time to avoid the summer heat.

The restart comes with conditions, however. Sports minister Vincenzo Spadafora said coronavirus testing of players “should not affect the general needs of all Italian citizens.” If there are signs of an increase in coronavirus cases in general, the league may have to stop again, he added.

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Juventus, chasing a record ninth consecutive Serie A title and 36th overall, has a one-point lead over Lazio with 12 games to play in the two-team race for the scudetto. Inter Milan and Atalanta hold the league’s other two Champions League invitations. Roma has a firm grip on one Europa League berth while five teams, led by Napoli, are separated by five points in the battle for the other spot.

Brescia and SPAL are locks to be relegated; five other teams are bunched within three points of one another for the third ticket down.

Lazio’s Ciro Immobile leads the scoring race with 27 goals, matching Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski for the European league and leaving him with an outside shot of tying Gonzalo Higuain’s five-year-old record of 36 goals in a season.

Portugal’s Premiera Liga will resume its schedule Wednesday; each team has 10 games remaining. France’s Ligue 1 and the Dutch Eredivisie both canceled the remainder of their seasons last month.

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“I think France and the Netherlands,” Carro said “were too early to quit.”

Ladies first

Regardless of what happens with MLS, the first professional sports league scheduled to resume play in the U.S. is the NWSL, whose nine teams will gather in Utah to kickoff a 25-game, 29-day tournament at two stadiums around Salt Lake City.

Each team will play four group-play matches with the top eight teams advancing to a single-elimination knockout stage. All matches will be broadcast or streamed by CBS.

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Many players, including several veterans of the U.S. Women’s World Cup-winning team, have raised concerns related to COVID-19 and testing so the league is allowing players to skip if the tournament if they’re uncomfortable taking part.

“Each player will have her own decision to make,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird told reporters. “We will not require anybody to play in the tournament. “

Quotebook

“From George Floyd, to Amy Cooper, to Tom Austin...it is beyond exhausting. You can choose to be blind about the injustices, broken systems, and privileges...or choose to educate yourself and overcome your biases.”

Minnesota United defender Ike Opara on the death of George Floyd while in custody of the Minneapolis police department

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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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