Soccer newsletter: LAFC can’t seem to get the job done
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and and we begin today with LAFC.
The team’s success in its first two-plus MLS seasons is unparalleled. Last year LAFC finished with the best regular-season record in league history, won the Supporters’ Shield, equaled the MLS mark for goals in a season with 85 and became the first team in the expansion era to finish atop the conference standings in its second season.
What it hasn’t done is play in a championship game, losing in its playoff opener in 2018 and in the conference final last year while bowing out in the semifinals and quarterfinals of its only two U.S. Open Cups. It kept that perfect record of imperfection alive last week when it was eliminated by Orlando City on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the MLS Is Back tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports.
LAFC led the tournament in goals and had the tournament’s most prolific scorer in Diego Rossi, yet couldn’t get past the final eight. That’s a problem for a team that was built to win trophies.
Coach Bob Bradley pointed to a tournament schedule that had this team playing three games in eight days in hot and humid conditions.
“You could see from the start that, physically, we weren’t at our best,” he said after the Orlando City game. “So it’s a lot of games in a short amount of time. It certainly wasn’t our sharpest football night.”
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The margin of error was slim, with Orlando City tying the game on a corner kick in the final minute of regulation, then winning in penalties when LAFC’s Jordan Harvey bounced his try off the crossbar. But it’s worth noting that Orlando City was the only team in the tournament to go toe-to-toe with LAFC and it wound up dominating the stat sheet, doubling LAFC in shots, leading in possession and passing, taking more corners and holding the team without a shot for more than an hour.
So are the big-game struggles a blemish on an otherwise sterling record or will they become a characteristic of this team? It’s not like LAFC needs a drastic makeover -- the team is unbeaten in MLS play this season at 3-0-4. And in the five games in which it has been eliminated from tournaments over the last two-plus seasons, two times it went down on penalties and another time it lost on an own goal deep in the second half.
But there’s definitely something missing.
In the MLS Is Back tournament LAFC was plagued by defensive errors, giving up seven goals in three group-stage matches. Only the Galaxy conceded more. In the five games LAFC has played that will count in the regular-season standings it has allowed 10 goals; it took the team 15 games to give up that many last season.
Only the Galaxy and Houston Dynamo have conceded more this year.
One difference between this year and last is the absence of right back Steven Beitashour, whom the team did not re-sign over the winter, and center back Walker Zimmerman, who was traded to Nashville. In their places Bradley has been using Tristan Blackmon, Diego Palacios, Dejan Jakovic and at times midfielder Latif Blessing.
The transition hasn’t necessarily been a smooth one.
The pressing 4-3-3 style Bradley plays requires the outside backs to get involved in the offensive build-up and that can leave the defense open to counterattacks, which burned LAFC more than once during the tournament.
“There’s been a couple of little hiccups that we’ve run into,” Jakovic admitted before the Orlando City game.
“The philosophy and our game model doesn’t change. But a little bit of the rust, it was kind of easy to see in the first couple of games with the little mistakes that we were making.”
Over a seven-month period last year LAFC was the best team in MLS history. Over a 90-minute period last week at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports it wasn’t even the best team on the field. Which one of those facts will come to define this team?
Not the usual suspects
With LAFC’s elimination, the Final Four of the MLS Is Back tournament lacks any of the league’s previous Supporter’s Shield winners as well as the last four MLS Cup champions. Two of the four teams have never even won an MLS playoff game.
So it’s worth revisiting a prediction printed here more than a month ago when Gavin Benjafield, LAFC’s performance director, said the competition looked ripe for surprises. None of the teams had played a game in four months, Benjafield said, and some hadn’t even trained regularly for much of that time.
Add in the weather, the fact teams were quarantined in COVID-19 bubble and the unusual nature of the World Cup-style tournament and Benjafield just didn’t see things going to form.
“Teams that have a group of players that are able to perform under this stressful environment” will do well, he said. “It may not necessarily be the most technically gifted team or [have] high-ranking performances from previous seasons.”
He was right. Atlanta United, the winningest team in the league the last two seasons, didn’t win a game – or score a goal -- in Florida while Orlando City, which has never made the postseason, is in the semifinals. San Jose, which hasn’t had a winning record since 2013, won its group, while the Galaxy didn’t win a game.
“If they can pull together as a team and not focus on all the negatives, there could be some surprises in the tournament,” Benjafield said. “There’s some teams that are just going to pull out some surprises because they just have a group of guys that have gone ‘Hey, our focus is 100% on the football.’ ”
MLS Is Back
Philadelphia 3, Sporting Kansas City 1
LAFC 1, Orlando City 1 (Orlando City advances on penalties)
Minnesota United 4, San Jose 1
Portland 3, New York City FC 1
Portland vs. Philadelphia
Orlando City vs. Minnesota United
MLS Is Back tournament….Part 2
MLS is expected to announce this week a plan to return to regular-season play later this month, although much of what the league will say is already common knowledge following reports in the Washington Post and The Athletic.
According to the reports, the league hopes to resume a full schedule of games the weekend of Aug. 21, 10 days after the MLS Is Back tournament concludes. Teams will play 18 games over 11 weeks, with the schedule broken into two phases, The Athletic wrote. Add in the two games each team played before COVID-19 interrupted the season on March 12 and the three group-play games in Orlando and that means a 23-game regular season.
That truncated season would be followed by an expanded 18-team single-elimination playoff tournament. Teams will fly charters instead of commercial, limiting their time out of market. And because the schedule will be geared toward conference play, at least in the first phase, the league expects teams to travel and return home on the day they play.
MLS hasn’t commented publicly on the two reports but there are many questions left unanswered.
With the border between the U.S. and Canada closed, for example, what would the participation of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver look like? Whether games will be played in front of fans would likely be up to local authorities, but would the league approve a plan that allows some teams to welcome supporters while others can not?
Testing protocols would be similar to what the league followed inside its quarantine bubble in Orlando, but the speed in which tests will be processed will likely vary by market. After a rugged start to its tournament in Florida, one which saw two teams – FC Dallas and Nashville SC – withdraw from the tournament in the first two days, MLS has gone three weeks without a player or staff member testing positive for COVID-19.
But trying to replicate that success outside a quarantine will be difficult, as both the USL Championship and Major League Baseball has shown. The second-tier USL Championship had to postpone two games just hours before kickoff last week when 11 members of Galaxy II tested positive. That also led the Galaxy to cancel three first-team training sessions and give the players a weekend off in an effort to keep them from becoming infected.
The COVID-19 situation could look a lot different in a month than it looks now but without a vaccine, playing outside a bubble still looks like a gamble. An MLS official told me the league is optimistic about its second restart of the summer, saying it learned a lot during its time in the Orlando quarantine. But, he admitted, how that will play without the bubble is unknown.
Déjà vu all over again
The European league season finally wrapped up last weekend when Italy’s Serie A completed its schedule.
In Italy, Juventus won its ninth consecutive scudetto and its 36th overall, giving it twice as many championships as any other team in Serie A. Bayern Munich won its eighth straight Bundesliga title and 30th overall. No other German team has won more than nine first-division crowns.
Paris Saint-Germain won France’s COVID-shortened Ligue 1 for a third season in a row and the seventh time in eight years while in Spain Real Madrid dethroned Barcelona, the two-time defending champion. But that was hardly a changing of the guard since Real Madrid and Barcelona have won 15 of the last 16 La Liga titles combined.
The results have become so mind numbingly predictable even those benefiting from their team’s dominance are growing concerned about what it could mean for the sport going forward. Before the season I asked Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge about this and he admitted the EPL, which has had four winners in the last five seasons, is a much more compelling league for fans.
“France is done from the very first match day. Italy is as well,” he said. “Bayern is dominating the Bundesliga. Domination never is good for a league. So it’s better what is happening in England.
“There are five, six clubs able to win the Premier League.”
The problem, Rummenigge said, lies not with the clubs that are winning but rather with those who are chasing. Success brings in sponsorships and other sources of revenue, attracts top transfers and makes it easier to recruit young academy players. Offsetting that often requires massive investment, something other clubs may not find necessary if they can spend less but still finish high enough in the standings to qualify for a lucrative European tournament invite.
“The most important thing is that the others try to strengthen their quality,” he said.
There are signs – faint one, perhaps, but signs nonetheless – that a changing of the guard could be on the horizon. In Italy, Juventus won the Serie A title by just a point this year; its average margin of victory over the last eight seasons was more than nine points. Bayern Munich clinched the Bundesliga title by April 7 three times between 2013 and 2018; two years ago, the team wasn’t even in first place entering April.
So other teams are closing the gap, just not catching the leaders. Their best hope now, Rummenigge suggested, is that the leaders become slowed by their success.
“It’s not easy if you are winning every year. It’s not easy to keep always being hungry,” said Rummenigge, whose team has gone through five managers since the start of the 2016-17 season. “I’ve been a long time in the club and always when we finished second it was never good. Never.
“Everything is questioned then because Bayern didn’t win the Bundesliga. That is a fact and that is a task we have to fulfill.”
Champion: Bayern Munich (26-4-4, 82 points; 8th consecutive league title)
Domestic Cup winner: Bayern Munich
Champions League group stage: Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Borussia Monchengladbach
Europa League: Bayer Leverkusen, Hoffenheim
European League qualification: Wolfsburg
Relegated: Dusseldorf, Paderborn
Promoted for 2020-21 season: Arminia Bielefeld, Stuttgart
Goals per match: 3.21
Scoring leaders: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich) 34, Timo Werner (RB Leipzig) 28, Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund) 17
Assist leaders: Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich) 21 - *, Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund) 16, Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig) 13
Clean sheets: Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich) 15, Roman Burki (Borussia Dortmund) 12, Lukas Hradecky (Bayer Leverkusen) 10.
Opening date of 2020-21 season: Sept. 18
(season halted April 28)
Champion: Paris Saint-Germain (22-3-3, 68 points; 3rd consecutive league title)
Domestic Cup winner: PSG
Champions League group stage: PSG, Marseille
Champions League qualification: Rennes
Europa League group stage: Lille, Nice
European League qualification: Reims
Relegated: Amiens, Toulouse
Promoted for 2020-21 season: Lorient, Lens
Goals per match: 2.52
Scoring leaders: Wissam Ben Yedder (Monaco) 18, Kylian Mbappe (PSG) 18, Moussa Dembele (Lyon) 16
Assist leaders: Angel Di Maria (PGS) 14. Islam Simani (Monaco) 8, Yoann Court (Brest) 7
Clean sheets: Mike Maignan (Lille) 12, Steve Mandanda (Marseille) 12, Predrag Rajkovic (Reims) 12.
Opening date of 2020-21 season: Aug. 21
Champion: Juventus (26-7-5, 83 points; 9th consecutive league title)
Domestic Cup winner: Napoli
Champions League group stage: Juventus, Inter Milan, Atalanta, Lazio
Europa League group stage: Roma
European League qualification: AC Milan
Relegated: Lecce, Brescia, SPAL
Promoted for 2020-21 season: Benevento, Crotone; the third promoted team will be determined in a playoff
Goals per match: 3.04
Scoring leaders: Ciro Immobile (Lazio) 36 - #, Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus) 31, Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan) 23
Assist leaders: Alejandro Gomez (Atalanta) 16, Luis Alberto (Lazio) 15, Domenico Berardi (Sassuolo) 10
Clean sheets: Juan Musso (Udinese) 14, Samir Handanovic (Inter Milan) 13, Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan) 12.
Opening date of 2020-21 season: Sept. 18
Champion: Real Madrid (26-3-9, 87 points; 1st title since 2016-17)
Domestic Cup winner: Real Madrid won the Supercopa de España. The Copa del Rey final was postponed by COVID-19
Champions League group stage: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Sevilla
Europa League group stage: Villarreal, Real Sociedad
European League qualification: Granada
Relegated: Leganes, Mallorca, Espanyol
Promoted for 2020-21 season: Cádiz, Huesca; the third promoted team will be determined in a playoff
Goals per match: 2.48
Scoring leaders: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 25, Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) 21, Gerard Moreno (Villarreal) 18
Assist leaders: Lionel Messi (Barcelona) 21 - *, Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad) 11, Santiago Cazorla (Villarreal) 9
Clean sheets: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid) 18, Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid) 16, David Soria (Getafe) 15.
Opening date of 2020-21 season: Sept. 12
Champion: Liverpool (32-3-3, 99 points; 1st title of the Premier League era)
Domestic Cup winner: Arsenal
Champions League group stage: Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea
Europa League group stage: Leicester City
European League qualification: Tottenham
Relegated: Bournemouth, Watford, Norwich City
Promoted for 2020-21 season: Leeds United, West Bromwich Albion; the third promoted team will be determined in an Aug. 4 playoff between Brentford and Fulham
Goals per match: 2.72
Scoring leaders: Jaime Vardy (Leicester City) 23, Danny Ings (Southampton) 22, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal) 22
Assist leaders: Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City) 20 - #, Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool) 13, Andrew Robertson (Liverpool 12
Clean sheets: Ederson (Manchester City) 16, Nick Pope (Burnley) 15, David de Gea (Manchester United) 13.
Opening date of 2020-21 season: Sept. 12
* - league record
# - ties league record
Making Italy great again
Although there was no change at the top of the table, Italy’s Serie A had an interesting season. With 36 goals Lazio’s Ciro Immobile tied a league scoring record set in 1929. Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined AC Milan halfway through the season with the team stuck in the middle of the table, then scored 10 goals – second-best on the team -- and assisted on five others, helping Milan climb to sixth, good enough for an invitation to the qualification rounds of the Europa League.
It was also the first season in Italy for English national team defender Chris Smalling, who was loaned by Manchester United to Roma. He says the league, unquestionably the best in the world a generation ago, may be returning to its past glory.
“Towards the end of the [transfer] window we discussed opportunities and Roma was one of those,” he said. “I had the choice of wherever I wanted to go for this season. Serie A was already a great league but especially this year a lot of players have come over to Serie A. It’s great to be a part of.”
Between 1989 and 1999, Italian teams won four European Cup/Champions League titles and eight UEFA Cups. According to the Independent of London, of the 66 places in European finals over those 11 years, 28 of them were divided among 10 Italian clubs. And Serie A rosters featured the likes of Diego Maradona, Jurgen Klinsmann, Ruud Gullit, Lothar Matthaus, Roberto Mancini, Roberto Baggio, George Weah, Alessandro Del Piero and Ronaldo.
In the last two seasons Serie A has added Cristiano Ronaldo, Romelu Lukaku, Lautaro Martínez, Ibrahimovic, Alexis Sánchez and Smalling – although given the age of some of those players, it makes the league look like something of a retirement league.
Smalling, 30, disagreed.
“To be honest I think it was already a great league. It was a league I always wanted to play in,” he said in a phone conversation from Roma. “It’s a time where a lot more players want to come to Italy. It’s a great time to be a part of it.
“It’s a league that is very strong, very quick. The strikers in Italy are very similar to England; sometimes they can be powerful, sometimes they can be quite big, strong [and] run in behind.”
As for how Serie A compares to the EPL, where he spent the first 11 years of his professional career, Smalling was reluctant to say. With the exception of France’s Ligue 1, he said, the rest of the continent’s top leagues are fairly even.
“It’s very difficult to compare,” he said. “Each of those leagues has the merit to be considered one of the best. If you’re playing in any of those four leagues, you’re definitely very lucky.”
“I’ve definitely learned a lot. Coming to a new league, a brand-new team, a lot of things changed for me. I think I had a lot of stuff to overcome as well with an injury in the middle of it. Obviously COVID-19 changed a lot of things as well. To be here in this position after my first season, I think I can say I’m happy. I think I’ve come a long way.”
U.S. national team star Christian Pulisic, speaking to ESPN on the eve of last week’s FA Cup final
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