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Soccer newsletter: Most popular sports league in history returns

Manchester City players celebrate with the Premier League Trophy.
Manchester City players celebrate after winning the Premier League title in May 2019.
(Mike Hewitt / Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we begin with the return of the most popular sports league in history.

And no, I’m not talking about the NFL.

English Premier League content was watched by an estimated 3.2 billion people last season. That’s about 40% of the planet. In just five countries -- Afghanistan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Cuba – are EPL games not broadcast locally.

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And five EPL teams have more than 34 million followers on Facebook, four times that of the Dallas Cowboys, the top NFL team.

So as the biggest and most-watched sports league in the world, the EPL’s return from a three-month suspension caused by COVID-19 is perhaps the most dramatic step towards normalcy for a sports world in which normal will need to be redefined.

How different will the new EPL be from the one that suspended play in early March? Well, the average attendance at EPL games through the first eight months of the season was 39,312. The league won’t draw another fan this year, playing its final 92 games behind closed doors.

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Here’s another reminder that the world has changed since March: For the first 12 matches of the EPL’s return – through next Monday, the end of the first full weekend of games – in place of surnames on the backs of players’ jerseys the slogan “Black Lives Matter” will appear. After that jerseys will be adorned with a Black Lives Matter logo and a badge paying tribute to the United Kingdom’s National Health Service for its work during the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, players who wish will be allowed take a knee before or during matches, a gesture that has become a global symbol of opposition to racism and police brutality but one that has brought the threat of sanction in other leagues.

“The Premier League believes there is no room for racism, anywhere,” the league said in a statement.

The restart will begin Wednesday with Sheffield United visiting Aston Villa (NBCSN, 10 a.m. PT) and defending champion Manchester City playing host to Arsenal (NBCSN, Universo, 12:15 p.m. PT).

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The weekend scheduled features a Merseyside Derby matchup between Everton and league-leading Liverpool at Goodison Park.

Police had asked the league to play its remaining games at neutral grounds, fearing that large groups of supporters would gather outside stadiums on game days, violating social-distancing guidelines even though no fans will be allowed inside. The EPL pushed back on that although some matches, including any game in which Liverpool has a chance at clinching its first EPL crown, could still be moved to neutral site.

“The Premier League’s ambition is to complete all of our remaining fixtures this season home and away, where possible,” the EPL said. “We are working with our clubs to ensure risks are assessed and minimized, while cooperating with the police at a local and national level.”

The EPL, which follows the German Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga and Italy’s Serie A teams in resuming play, followed a long and rugged path back. The 1,197 players and team staff members were subjected to more than a half-dozen rounds of COVID-19 testing – testing that will continue twice a week through the rest of the season.

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To simply return to full training teams had to agree to government guidelines that stressed “meticulous, time and date sensitive, written records of player groups and interactions” be kept to enable effective tracing should an individual test positive. Before that, the league’s 20 teams argued over everything from quarantined training sites to playing the rest of the season in a single, centrally located city in order to better prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The restart will largely be a victory lap for Liverpool, which is just six points shy of winning its first-ever EPL title. The once-beaten Reds (27-1-1) have dropped just five points all season and have a commanding 25-point lead over defending champion City with nine matches to play. Liverpool also has a chance at breaking several records, needing 18 points in nine games 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 claim the trophy quicker than any team in history – Manchester City twice clinched the title with five games left -- and can post the largest winning margin ever if it betters City’s 19-point bulge from 2017-18.

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. That tournament is scheduled to resume June 27.

The times they are a-changin’

Speaking of ways soccer has changed over the past three months, consider the EPL’s decision to sew Black Lives Matter on the back of team jerseys and allow players to demonstrate against police brutality before and during games. Those may seem like token gestures – and in some ways they are.

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But consider the discussion we were having about racism in global soccer just before the coronavirus drowned all that out.

The situation was especially vile in Italy where, in the first month of the season, Milan’s Romelu Lukaku was targeted for verbal abuse by fans in Cagliari, a match in Parma was suspended when racist chants were heard coming from the crowd and a TV commentator said of Lukaku “the only way to [stop] him is maybe give him 10 bananas.”

Two months later, Brescia’s Mario Balotelli threatened to leave the field after racist chants were directed at him in Verona, an incident Brescia president Massimo Cellino later appeared to minimize by saying of Balotelli, who has suffered repeated racist attacks in his native Italy: “What can I say? That he’s black and he’s working to whiten himself, but he has great difficulties in this.”

“You’re seeing it in England and many other countries,” Roma defender Chris Smalling, a member of the English national team, told me by phone earlier this year. “Obviously it’s a shame. Some people need to learn more.

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It’s not just a football problem, I think it’s maybe a generational problem.”

Taken in that context, the EPL’s gestures take on added significance.

So do the decisions of several Bundesliga teams and players to wear BLM armbands and T-shirts scribbled with tributes to George Floyd, the Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis last month, or to take a knee after scoring despite the threat of disciplinary action, take on added significance.

It was also significant that, in Italy, Juventus and Milan players wore shirts that said “No Racism” and “Black Lives Matter” before their Coppa Italia semifinal last week.

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Was there more symbolism than substance to the gestures? Sure. Was it more suggestive than sincere? Maybe.

That doubt was certainly on the mind of former U.S. international Jermaine Jones, who played in the Bundesliga.

“It’s brilliant that all the clubs and the players have come together and said that this is what they want. I think it’s a great message because the Premier League is one of the most powerful businesses in the world,” he said in an interview with BBC radio. “But I think the question on most people’s lips is: what next? What about the week after? Does it just fade out and it’s ‘OK, we did our little bit and it’s gone now.’ Or are we actually going to see some real change within our game?

“There’s been huge conversations about the lack of opportunities for Black coaches. We need to quash all of that by starting to implement [diversity] at the hiring level of management, at the top clubs and within the FA.”

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But given where soccer was earlier this season, the gestures may mark a change in attitudes. And the encouraging thing is it’s starting with the players, who are rightly taking control of their game.

This month EPL teams have taken a knee, Colin Kaepernick-style, at the center circle before training sessions. Compare that to six months ago when a London derby game between Tottenham and Chelsea was marred by racist abuse directed at Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger. That same month a man was arrested at the Manchester derby between City and United for “racially aggravated public order.”

“You can see how much of a movement it has become and how current the issue of racism is — not in the past but in the present,” defender Leroy Kwadwo of the third-division Wurzburger Kickers, who was exposed to racist abuse earlier this season, said in an interview posted on DW, the website of Germany’s government-funded broadcasting service. “Slowly I think people around the world are realizing that they have to speak out against racism.”

European soccer players have a unique platform since, even in normal times, millions watch their games. But now, with COVID-19 having shuttered leagues around the world and staggered their restarts, that stage has gotten even bigger.

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“A lot more people are speaking up and speaking about how it affected them,” Smalling said.

Many happy – and some not-so-happy - returns

From a global perspective, the EPL may be the biggest and more important league to comeback from its coronavirus suspension. But it’s not the first. In fact, with France’s Ligue 1 having canceled its season way back in April – more about which in a moment – the EPL is actually the last of Europe’s five major leagues to return.

The Bundesliga returned to play in mid May and its teams have already played seven matches. Spain’s La Liga came back last weekend, something first-place Barcelona celebrated with a goal and two assists from Lionel Messi in a 4-0 win over relegation-endangered Mallorca. And while Italy’s Serie A won’t officially restart until Saturday, four of its teams played in the Coppa Italia last week, the first games to be played in Italy since early March.

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Like the EPL, all three of those leagues are playing games in empty stadiums, under strict COVID-19 restrictions, including rigorous and frequent testing and social distancing measures.

Despite the ban on fans some 200 supporters, almost all masked against the virus, gathered around the Sevilla’s 43,000-seat stadium in the center of the city for La Liga’s return in the Seville derby with Real Betis. Police were deployed on horseback to greet them.

Spain has set the most ambitious schedule of any European league, with the Sevilla-Real Betis game the first of 99 La Liga games to be played on 32 consecutive days to complete the schedule by July 19.

There will be no return this season for Ligue 1, which was shut down April 28 when French prime minister Edouard Philippe prohibited all major public events until September. But France is in a much different situation now than it was in April.

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Philippe’s surprising announcement, which stunned the league’s 20 teams, came at the beginning of a steep downturn in coronavirus cases, a slide that led president Emmanuel Macron to declare a “first victory” over COVID-19 this week. That also allowed Macron on Monday to open cafes and restaurants in Paris and reopen the country’s borders to travelers from other European Union nations.

If France had waited, it’s likely its soccer season could have resumed this week.

“I think France was too early to quit,” said Fernando Cano, CEO of German club Bayer Leverkusen.

But that may be only one way in the which the coronavirus pandemic wounds French soccer. The New York Times, in an interesting analysis on Sunday, said the French players union prepared a study in April that claimed an early end to the Ligue 1 season could cost the league between $435-$800 million; Paris Saint-Germain, France’s richest club, could lose $113 million by itself.

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And that won’t be the end of the bloodletting. The Times noted that EPL clubs paid French teams more than $1 billion for players over the last five years, money that helped keep many teams afloat. Now many observers expect the financial losses all leagues experience as a result of COVID-19 will cripple the transfer market with the International Centre for Sports Studies’ Football Observatory predicting a 28% drop across Europe’s top five leagues.

Earlier in the coronavirus shutdown, Bundesliga president Christian Seifert and former Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness predicted a collapse of the summer transfer market that could take two to three years to recover. Those dire predictions have likely eased some but French clubs such as Lille, Marseille and Lyon and Spain’s Sevilla, which rely heavily on transfer revenue, could be adversely impacted long beyond this summer.

Was MLS too quick on the draw?

It was supposed to be a random draw. That’s what everyone was led to believe.

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But then, less than two hours before that random draw to set the groups for next month’s 26-team MLS Is Back tournament in Florida, the league announced that Orlando City would play Inter Miami in the opening game.

OK, fine. One group was a third of the way set before the draw had even begun. So maybe it was going to a “mostly random” draw?

Turned out it probably wasn’t even that because if the bracket MLS wound up happened solely by chance, Commissioner Don Garber should have taken the little money he says the league has left and headed straight to Las Vegas where – given the incredible odds he had beaten in his league’s “random” draw -- he could have parlayed it into $1 billion he says the league will lose to the COVID-19 shutdown.

That shutdown will end, by the way, on July 8 when Orlando City and Inter Miami kick off the 54-match, 35-day made-for-TV tournament to be played behind closed doors at ESPN’s sprawling Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla.

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I have no problems with the match-ups the “draw” produced. The group stage will be compelling and will feature some of the league’s best rivalries, headed by the El Tráfico between cross-town enemies LAFC and the Galaxy in Group F. Other group-play games will feature Vancouver vs. defending league champion Seattle, two-third of the Cascadia Cup, in Group B; a Canadian Classique between Montreal and Toronto FC in Group C; Real Salt Lake against both of its traditional rivals, Colorado and Minnesota United, in Group D; and an Ohio derby between FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew in Group E.

You couldn’t have drawn it up any better – which is kind of the point. MLS can set its tournament up any way it wants. And if it had simply announced the group pairings, no one would have complained. But when the league went to all the trouble of holding a live, random draw online, you kind of figured it was committed to having it be random.

Color me skeptical – especially with the draw consisting of representatives from each of the six seeded teams “randomly” picking their opponents from a group of balls that had been pre-numbered. (LAFC, take ball No. 4. That’s the one that has the Galaxy in it!)

If there is a group of death it’s probably Group F, with includes the Galaxy, LAFC and Portland, making it one of two groups with three 2019 playoff teams. LAFC and the Galaxy were both cleared to return to full team training this week for the first time since March 12.

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That gives both teams 23 days of training before the tournament opens next month. By contrast, the teams had more than seven weeks of pre-season camp last winter to get ready for an MLS regular season that was paused by the unique coronavirus after two games.

Each team will play three games in pool play of the MLS tournament with the two top teams in each group, plus the four best third-place teams, advancing to a single-elimination knockout stage. The title game will be played Aug. 11, with the winner earning an automatic berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

The group-stage results, meanwhile, will count in the regular-season standings when MLS teams return to their home markets to resume play in late summer. The group-play schedule will be announced later this week.

Players and staff, who can begin arriving in Orlando on June 24, will be quarantined in Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort, where they will be subject to frequent COVID-19 tests, for the length of their stay.

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The tournament groupings

GROUP A

Eastern Conference

  1. Orlando City SC
  2. Inter Miami CF
  3. New York City FC
  4. Philadelphia Union
  5. Chicago Fire FC
  6. Nashville SC

GROUP B

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Western Conference

  1. Seattle Sounders FC
  2. FC Dallas
  3. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
  4. San Jose Earthquakes

GROUP C

Eastern Conference

  1. Toronto FC
  2. New England Revolution
  3. Montreal Impact
  4. D.C. United

GROUP D

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Western Conference

  1. Real Salt Lake
  2. Sporting Kansas City
  3. Colorado Rapids
  4. Minnesota United FC

GROUP E

Eastern Conference

  1. Atlanta United FC
  2. FC Cincinnati
  3. New York Red Bulls
  4. Columbus Crew SC

GROUP F

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Western Conference

  1. LAFC
  2. LA Galaxy
  3. Houston Dynamo
  4. Portland Timbers FC

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

“It has become clear that this policy was wrong and detracted from the important message of Black Lives Matter….We apologize to our players – especially our Black players – staff, fans, and all who support eradicating racism. Sports are a powerful platform for good, and we have not used our platform as effectively as we should have.”

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The U.S. Soccer Federation, in a statement, after its board of directors voted 604-1 last week to repeal a policy requiring national team players to stand during the playing of the national anthem.

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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