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Soccer newsletter: MLS Is Back tournament seems to have answered the coronavirus questions

Logo for MLS Is Back tournament
(Twitter / @MLS)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and once again we’re coming to you from just outside Major League Soccer’s quarantine in Orlando.

It wasn’t so long ago that the league’s elaborately designed protective bubble seemed about as porous as the Galaxy defense, which we’ll get to in a minute. Before the MLS Is Back tournament was even a day old, 20 players from three teams tested positive for COVID-19 and two clubs had to withdraw, raising doubts over whether the competition was a good idea and whether it would survive until next month’s scheduled title game.

Those questions have largely faded. MLS says it has done nearly 6,800 tests since July 10 and none of them have come back positive – remarkable results given that Florida remains the epicenter of the nation’s coronavirus surge.

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As for the competition, the level of play has been far from artful and more like a preseason tournament, which was expected given the four-month layoff, the lack of fitness and the punishing heat and humidity of a Florida summer. But what the games have lacked in style has been more than made up for in excitement.

Through the first 27 games, 27 goals have been scored in the final 20 minutes. More than half those late scores have been either tying or winning goals with six of those coming in stoppage time.

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Some teams haven’t been able to keep up. New York City, a conference semifinalist the last three seasons, isn’t likely to get out of the group stage. Nor is Atlanta United, the MLS Cup champion two years ago. Those teams are a combined 1-4 in Orlando.

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Meanwhile San Jose and Columbus, neither of whom had a winning record last year, are on to the knockout round as is Orlando City, which lost 37 games combined the last two seasons.

The top two finishers in each of the six groups will move on to the round of 16 as will the four best third-place teams. LAFC (1-0-1) seem poised to go through, needing either a point in its group-play final with the Portland Timbers or some good fortune elsewhere in the tournament. The Galaxy (0-2-0) have only the narrowest of paths forward and will probably return to Los Angeles on Friday after their star striker, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, went home Monday after sustaining a calf injury in training.

He’ll be out at least a month.

No Vela? No problem

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There were questions surrounding LAFC when its charter flight touched down in Orlando two weeks ago – mainly because Carlos Vela, the league’s reigning MVP, wasn’t on the plane.

Vela scored 34 goals to break the single-season scoring record last year and had goals in both of the team’s league games this season. But he accepted MLS’ offer to skip the tournament in Orlando to be with his wife Saioa, who is due to give birth to the couple’s second child this summer.

That figured to be a big loss since Vela had scored or assisted on nearly 60% of LAFC’s league-leading 89 goals in 2019-20 and the team has won just four of the nine games it played without its captain. But apparently someone forgot to tell Diego Rossi.

After spending the last two years largely obscured in Vela’s shadow, Rossi has taken advantage of his teammate’s absence by showcasing his own considerable skills, picking up a goal and assist in a 3-3 draw with Houston, then doing something Vela has never done in an MLS game, scoring four times in a 6-2 rout of the Galaxy. He also had an assist in that game.

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He then channeled Vela in the postgame news conference.

“I’m happy with my goals but I am more happy about the result, the attitude of the team,” said Rossi, who scored the first goal in franchise history and has 33 others since then, more than all but four players in MLS over that span.

That left it to goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega, who was sitting next to Rossi, to put the night in perspective.

“Diego had an amazing performance,” he said. “To score four goals is something that’s at the reach of very few players and obviously he’s a special kind of player. He’s stepping up right now.”

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And the rest of the team is following.

In LAFC’s two games in Orlando, the team has outshot opponents 42-15, dominated possession and made more than 1,000 passes. Its eight goals leads the tournament.

“Diego, he’s in excellent form,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “We saw it early in the season and he worked very hard during the period when we couldn’t train. You could see as we got back into team training how sharp he was.

“He continues to grow as a player. His maturity, obviously his speed, but also his movement, his way of coming away from defenders, his threat to go deep — these are all things that, for me, you can see. And his finishing just gets better and better.”

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LAFC has also proven better at adapting to the unique circumstances in Orlando. The games are played largely in silence, without fans, at a youth soccer complex at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. More challenging though may be the heat, humidity and daily thunderstorms. When LAFC’s win over the Galaxy finished after midnight Saturday, it was still 80 degrees.

Bradley’s team has clearly been the better second-half team in both games, rallying from a two-goal halftime deficit to draw Houston then scoring four times in the second half against the Galaxy.

“When you go a long time without a game, the first games back are a challenge,” said Bradley, whose team went 126 days between matches due to the COVID-19 shutdown. “I saw the same thing in La Liga and Bundesliga and EPL. You miss the games and finding the right sharpness, getting the fitness back, all the little details do take some time.

“Early on you see teams at different levels. You see that some of the different young players are stepping up. And we always go back to trying to get our ideas right, looking for ways to improve. We try to find an honest way to make our team better and I really appreciate the way the players continue to work and respond.”

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Consider that fair warning for the teams LAFC will play going forward.

A Galaxy far, far away

As for the Galaxy, whatever optimism that existed after their tournament opener with Portland was largely swept away by the deluge of second-half goals from LAFC in the most one-sided of Southern California’s seven derby games.

Yes, the Galaxy scored a season-high two goals in the first 31 minutes, but both seemed more fluky than well-earned with the first coming on an own goal and the second on a penalty kick Cristian Pavón needed two tries to complete.

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Yes, the Galaxy were missing both of their captains, Hernández and midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, who had surgery to repair a sports hernia. Neither is expected back until next month.

But that’s pretty much it for the positive spin because the Galaxy, who started the season with so much promise, look lost. The attack has no creativity, the defense – especially center back Giancarlo Gonzalez – is flailing and ESPN, which recognizes a train wreck when it sees one, now seems fixated on video of Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the sidelines staring straight ahead, expressionless, like a deer caught in the headlights.

If that wasn’t bad enough, with the group-stage games in Orlando counting in the regular-season standings, the winless Galaxy are off to the worst start in franchise history with one point through four games.

When Saturday’s game mercifully ended, Galaxy keeper David Bingham, frustrated and exhausted after facing 12 shots on goal, squatted in the penalty area and shouted a profanity that echoed through the empty venue.

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Given the sauna-like conditions in Orlando, teams are allowed five substitutions each game yet Schelotto made just two in the opening loss to Portland, then didn’t make his first against LAFC until the 28 minutes into a second half in which his team was outshot 11-2.

He didn’t make another there were six minutes left in regulation; by then LAFC led 5-2.

“We were playing well. We made some mistakes in the second half but I didn’t see the fitness going down because [of] the humidity or heat,” Schelotto said. “I think everyone is ready to run. I didn’t see the fitness going down.”

Everyone else did.

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Pavón blamed the long break, no doubt aware that every other teams had been off since March as well.

“We have to keep in mind that we haven’t played in four months and we played two intense and physical games where we tried to play and ran a lot,” he said. “More than anything it’s because of this, not our physical form or anything like that. Only because we haven’t played in four months and we just started playing right off the bat.”

So the coach says fitness wasn’t an issue but his star player hints that it was. Something besides the excuses have to change because halfway through what general manager Dennis te Kloese called a three-year rebuilding project, the Galaxy’s foundation is still shaky and some of the promised improvements haven’t appeared.

Remember Javier Valdecantos, the intense trainer known as “The Butcher” who was supposed to toughen up the soft Galaxy, making them impervious to injury? Well the team’s two captains are out with injuries and center back Dan Steres missed the first two games of the season with an injury of his own.

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Sebastian Lletget said the Galaxy were simply outnumbered in the midfield, a complaint most of LAFC’s opponents have made. But isn’t Schelotto, the master tactician who took Boca Juniors to two Argentine titles and Copa Libertadores final, supposed to have an answer for that?

Barring a miracle the Galaxy will limp back to Los Angeles after Thursday’s group-play finale, giving them extra time to figure things about before the MLS regular season is scheduled to resume in late summer.

It’s extra time the organization appears to need.

You can find MLS Is Back group standings here

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In City’s case, fair play wasn’t fair

Manchester City fought the law. And the law lost.

That may be the best way to interpret the club’s win in The Court of Arbitration for Sports, which last week overturned a two-year ban from European competition and a $35-million penalty against the EPL club for violating UEFA’s financial fair play (FFP) regulations. Instead City walked away with the equivalent of a parking ticket: an $11.5-million fine.

The court was apparently persuaded that the violations either had not been proven or may have been “time barred.” Whatever the reason, City’s victory earned enthusiastic cheers in the executive suites at every other free-spreading European club.

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FFP is a necessary piece of legislation that limits the debt – therefore spending – a club can carry over a certain period by barring them from spending more than they earn.

This is the second time City and its wealthy Abu Dhabi-based ownership group has been accused of breaking the rules. And it was that first case in 2014, which end with City accepting punishment after reaching a settlement with UEFA, that led to the new charges.

Documents obtained by the German magazine Der Spiegel alleged that City did not get entities such as the Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad, whose name graces the team’s uniform and stadium, to sign inflated sponsorship deals. Instead, the documents claim, the club’s owners gave the money to the companies and then received the cash back in sponsorship deals.

In other words, they cooked the books.

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UEFA may have waited too long to bring its case; there is a five-year statute of limitations that had expired before UEFA announced the two-year European ban and fine against City last February. If that’s the case, City got off on a technicality. But however you slice it, the fact remains another rich, powerful club skirted the rules and got away with it.

FFP was put in place nine years ago, at a time when European clubs were losing a combined $2.28 billion a year and half the continent’s teams were in the red. Rich oligarchs were pouring money into their teams, overwhelming more modest clubs who had to choose between living within their means and losing or going into debt to compete.

FFP appears to be having the desired effect because after running up that massive deficit in 2011, European football clubs are now turning a profit collectively.

Now that may be all undone. City’s “victory,” if you can call it that, marks the third time an FFP violation has been leveled against one of Europe’s mega club only to see the club prevail on a technicality.

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“I don’t think it was a good day for football, to be honest,” said Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp, who has coached at two clubs that rank among Europe’s 13 richest. “FFP is a good idea. It is there for protecting teams and the competition, so that nobody overspends.

“If the richest clubs and countries can do what they want to do, then that makes it difficult. That would lead to a world league, it would depend on who owns the clubs and not the names of the clubs.”

Showing the flag

If you’re going to elope, what better place to do so than Paris, the city of love? And if you’re both soccer fans, what better time to elope to Paris than during the Women’s World Cup?

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At least that’s what Lindsay and Mark Rojas thought when they went to France last summer to get married and watch the U.S. women’s national team win a second straight championship. Neither Rojas will say which activity was more important but it’s worth noting that Lindsay took time during the trip to pose in front of the Eiffel Tower with a gold and black banner that read “Bring NWSL to LA,” the same one she waves at LAFC games back in Los Angeles

That caught the attention of actress Natalie Portman, who began putting together a star-studded group of partners that Tuesday announced they have secured the exclusive rights to bring a professional women’s soccer team to Southern California.

“We had evidence already that there were passionate fans because they were waving their flags at the World Cup in Paris,” said Portman, one of the fledgling franchise’s 29 owners, a majority-woman group that includes actress, tech entrepreneur, venture capitalists and former World Cup and Olympic-champion players. “There are passionate supporters who are ready to ready to have a team here.”

Women’s professional soccer left Southern California in 2010 when the Sol, the Galaxy’s sister club, folded. Two years later so did the league the team played in. The NWSL replaced it in 2013 and after some unsteady times it is beginning to grow, with Louisville scheduled to start play next spring as the league’s 10th club and the as-yet-unnamed L.A. franchise joining in 2022.

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“We had to basically either wait for the women’s national team to come to Southern California or we had to travel around the world to watch professional women’s football,” said Lindsay, 28, who is also a charter member of the 3252, LAFC’s main supporters’ group. “We were like ‘you know, we should have a team here.’ This is just something that the community needs, is something that the community deserves.”

So the Rojas’ started an online petition and pushed for an NWSL franchise on social media. They were soon joined by more than four dozen like-minded fans and Tuesday their pleas were answered.

“They have gone from being posts to my social feed to now what I consider friends,” media and gaming entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, another principle members of the ownership, said of the couple.

In fact, when Uhrman was first approached with the idea of bringing a team to L.A. she went to see an LAFC-Galaxy game at Banc of California “and right in the center of the 3252 was Lindsay and Mark Rojas waving their flag saying bring an NWSL team to L.A,” she remembers.

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“That definitely inspired us to keep going and not give up.”

Neither did the Rojas’. And Tuesday they finally got what they were hoping for.

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

“My son plays soccer and is really passionate about it. And that was one of the revelations for me when I saw him and his soccer friends, all little boys, really freaking out over the Women’s World Cup. They were wanting to wear Rapinoe jerseys and Alex Morgan jerseys. It wasn’t different for them. They just wanted to see great athletes.”

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Actress Natalie Portman, part of ownership group that is bringing an NWSL franchise to Southern California, on when she knew women’s soccer had truly crossed over

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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