Soccer newsletter: There’s still some life left in the Galaxy
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 a milestone because this newsletter, born shortly after the 2018 World Cup in Russia, turns 100 editions old today.
But since I’m not sure whether that calls for a celebration or a few moments of silent reflection, let’s press on to the soccer where the Galaxy are cheering one of the most important wins of the Guillermo Barros Schelotto era, LAFC may be preparing for life without Carlos Vela once again, Bayern Munich is delighting in the most dominant performance in Champions League history and Seattle is still remembering Sigi Schmid.
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Triumph and tragedy
When the winless Galaxy limped out of Orlando after being eliminated from the MLS Is Back tournament last month, they were a demoralized and depressed lot. They had just one point to show for their three weeks in quarantine, had lost Chicharito Hernández to a severe calf injury and were mired in the worst five-game start in franchise history.
The future of manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who saw his team quit on him repeatedly in Florida, was so uncertain the Ecuadoran national team reportedly offered him its head coaching job.
All that left the team in a desperate situation when it headed up the freeway to face unbeaten LAFC last Saturday in the latest stage of Major League Soccer’s season reboot.
“There’s urgency to get the win. No doubt about it,” Sebastian Lletget said.
So the team left no doubt in its response, putting in its most complete effort in nearly a year in a 2-0 win. The shutout was the Galaxy’s first since last August while the victory was the first for a road team in eight editions of El Tráfico, as the neighborhood derby with LAFC is known.
MLS announced the first six games of its return-to-play schedule Aug. 8, giving Schelotto and the Galaxy two weeks to devise and practice a game plan for an opponent that had embarrassed them 6-2 just weeks earlier. Schelotto’s answer was to bunch the midfield and back lines deep in the Galaxy’s defensive end, clogging LAFC’s passing lanes, and it worked, with LAFC dominating possession but managing just three shots on goal.
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The challenge now is maintaining that momentum because while the schedule doesn’t get any easier, it does get more congested. On Wednesday the Galaxy will welcome the reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders into an empty Dignity Health Sports Park for the second of five games the team will play in 15 days.
“The two weeks, more than just planning for one game, it was kind of resetting and figuring out how we’re going to be best as a team,” defender Daniel Steres said Monday. “We can say that’s all fixed and we got it right but it’s just one game. You’ve got to continue it.
“It’s good to have another game because we can just continue what we’re doing instead of sit back and think on things.”
On the other end of the field Ethan Zubak made his second MLS start in place of Hernández and got his first league goal in the 26th minute. But he wasn’t the only offensive player to step up. Cristian Pavón had a spectacular game at left wing, helping set up both goals; Lletget moved back to the center of the midfield where he belongs and scored for the first time this season; and teenage defender Julian Araujo, pushed up to the right wing, had two assists.
“It was a different case than when we played in Orlando,” said Araujo who, along with Pavón, was voted onto the MLS team of the week. “We came back with the mentality that we had to win and we needed to be better. Everyone needed to be better and we needed to be better as a group.”
And they were. The Galaxy played physically and with confidence and ambition against a team that had dominated them a month earlier. But as Steres said, the key now is proving they have truly turned the corner and not simply entered a cul-du-sac.
“Wednesday, once the whistle goes, we’ve got to be ready to fight and we have to come out with the same intensity we did against LAFC,” goalkeeper David Bingham said. “We’re on our home field so we need to win this game and we’ve got to get points [and] start climbing the leaderboard again.
For LAFC, the first loss of the season wasn’t even the most painful setback of the day because the team also lost captain Carlos Vela, the 2019 league MVP, to a knee injury early in the second half.
Vela skipped the MLS Is Back tournament to stay in Southern California with his wife, who is nearing the end of a difficult pregnancy. As a result he hadn’t played in five months before Saturday, then exited in the 58th minute with what coach Bob Bradley called a “MCL-type situation” in his left knee.
LAFC declined to update Vela’s condition Monday, saying Bradley would address that Tuesday. Early indications are the injury isn’t as serious as originally feared but Vela almost certainly won’t accompany the team to Utah for Wednesday’s game with Real Salt Lake and could miss the four games that follow, the only ones currently on LAFC’s schedule.
Vela missed multiple games with knee injuries at both Real Sociedad (2017) and Arsenal (2010) and was sidelined nearly two months after undergoing surgery to remove damaged cartilage to his right knee in 2015.
It’s unclear exactly how Vela got hurt. He attempted a shot – his only try of the afternoon -- in the 56th minute but pulled up immediately the next time he touched the ball, hobbling off the field, then waiting for a trainer to help him to the locker room.
If Vela is out for an extended period LAFC’s depth at forward could become a problem since Adama Diomande left the team earlier this month and returned to Norway, saying he needed to be with his family. That leaves the 35-year-old Bradley Wright-Phillips as the first option off the bench; after Wright-Phillips the team doesn’t have another true forward with as many as 240 minutes of MLS experience.
Upcoming MLS schedules
Wednesday, Aug. 26 vs. Seattle, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 29 vs. San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 2 at Portland, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 6 vs. LAFC, TBA
Sunday, Sept. 13 at San Jose, 8 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 26 at Real Salt Lake, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 30 at Seattle, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 2 vs. San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 6 at Galaxy, TBA.
Sunday, Sept. 13 vs. Portland, 8 p.m.
Setting an example
Araujo grew up in the Lompoc Valley, an agricultural community north of Santa Barbara where his mother Lupe worked as a translator for the school district and his father Jorge drove trucks. But it was hard to miss the legions of day laborers who trudged into the fields each morning to work long hours under a blistering sun.
His parents used to be among them, which is why he posted this message on Twitter last Friday:
“I want to use my platform to bring attention to the grueling conditions and low pay that our field workers are experiencing every day. If anyone has any further information on ways that I can help, please reach out. These men & women deserve better!!!”
It’s not the first time Araujo has reached out to help farm workers, having previously donated food and other materials, turning to his mother to organize his one-man campaign. But “this one has hit me a lot more just because of all the fires and everything that’s going on. The heat. I’m at practice and I’m dying. I can only imagine them. They’re working countless hours.”
They’re dealing with COVID-19 as well.
“It’s just crazy,” Araujo said. “They deserve better. And I want to do everything in my power to help them. And I’m going to continue to help them. I had to tweet what was on my mind.”
Keep in mind Araujo turned 19 earlier this month and has made just 13 MLS starts. But he said he’s been researching ways to make a bigger, more concrete impact on farm workers whose lives, he said, are not so far removed from those of his relatives.
“My grandparents, my dad, my mom, my uncles and aunts, just the stories that they’ve told me,” he said. “As young adults, coming from Mexico, they all worked in the fields. For me it was something that really hit my heart.”
His activism drew social media praise from DC United goalkeeper Bill Hamid, who responded with the hashtag “leader”, and former national team player Herculez Gomez, among others. That was nice, Araujo said, but it wasn’t the point.
“I really don’t do it for recognition,” he said. “I just bring [it] back to the conditions that my parents and all my family had to go through.”
He smiled when asked if the good karma might have helped him in the LAFC game, where he not only picked up two assists but became a cult hero of sorts for mixing it up with Diego Palacios in the second half.
“I can definitely agree with good karma though because I definitely did have a game,” said Araujo, a confident player who bears little resemblance to the shy, painfully quiet one who made his Galaxy debut two years ago. “He choked me so I reacted the way I did. I want to be feisty. It was definitely a whole different Julian.
“I want to give everything to the crest. I’ll just continue to do that.”
But what will he do for an encore?
Hans-Dieter Flick has been the manager at Bayern Munich less than 10 months. And he didn’t lose the “interim” tag until April. Yet in that time he’s already done something no other coach has accomplished, running the table in Champions League play and leading his club to just the ninth treble in European soccer history by winning continental, league and domestic cup titles in the same season.
Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Paris Saint-Germain was Bayern’s 11th straight in Champions League play, making it the first team to finish the competition unbeaten.
The only goal came from Kingsley Coman, a Parisian who spent his youth career at PSG and played three Ligue 1 games for the team. But PSG thought so little of Coman they let him leave on a free transfer in 2014; he’s won 16 trophies since then.
Flick and Bayern’s record will get an asterisk since the team played two fewer games when the quarterfinals and semifinals were shortened from two-leg playoffs to single-elimination matches because of COVID-19. But the coronavirus arguably made Flick’s job harder, not easier, because it interrupted the season for more than two months and forced the team to play deep into August.
Yet Bayern finished the longest season in its history with a flourish, winning its final 21 games and going unbeaten since Dec. 7.
The team went 15-0 since the COVID-19 break and in the final four Champions League game this month, it outscored the opposition 16-3 -- half those goals coming in an 8-2 rout of Barcelona.
No one saw any of that coming when Flick, the longtime assistant of German national team coach Joachim Loew, was hired as Bayern’s top assistant last summer. When the team got off to slow start under Niko Kovac, winning just five of its first 10, Kovac was sacked as Flick was made the interim manager.
Bayern lost two of its next four games to fall to seventh in the Bundesliga table; the team was floundering and morale was poor so management accelerated its search for a permanent coach before the season got completely out of hand.
“When I saw the headlines in November, all I read was that nobody is afraid of Bayern anymore,” Flick told reporters Monday. “The development since then has been crazy.”
That’s because the coach’s style – relentless pressing, smart passing, productive possession and quick transitions – soon took hold. Flick’s success also depended on both his trust in veterans such as Thomas Mueller, 30, Manuel Neuer, 34, and Jerome Boateng, 31, and the confidence he showed in youngsters such as Coman, 24, Joshua Kimmich, 25, and Alphonso Davies, 19.
Davies is the biggest revelation in soccer. After making just two starts under Kovac this season, he got regular playing time under Flick and became arguably the best left back in the world.
He undoubtedly has the best backstory.
Born to Liberian parents in a refugee camp in Ghana, Davies was given permission to emigrate to frigid Edmonton when he was 5. He entered the Vancouver Whitecaps residency program at 14, made his MLS debut at 15, then moved to Bayern Munich on an MLS-record transfer before making his Bundesliga MLS debut 18 months ago.
Now he’s the first Canadian – he became a citizen in 2017 – to win a Champions League title.
“It’s everything you dream about as a kid: coming to Europe and winning Champions League with a great club like Bayern,” Davies said in a postgame interview, a winners’ medal draped around his neck and Canadian flag wrapped around his waist.
“My story, it just goes to show you if you set your mind to it, you can do anything.”
Sigi’s gone but not forgotten
With Seattle coming to town to play the Galaxy on Wednesday, I’m reminded that it has been 20 months since the Christmas Day death of legendary UCLA and MLS coach Sigi Schmid, who did more than any other person to make the Bruins a national soccer power before guiding the Galaxy to its first MLS championship.
Although Schmid had been in poor health, his passing at 65 came as a shock. He was honored less than a month after his death in an emotional memorial at American Martyrs Catholic Church in Manhattan Beach, a service that drew a Hall of Fame-worthy roster of U.S. Soccer’s elite. MLS moved quickly to name its annual coach of the year award – one Schmid won twice – in his honor.
The tributes largely stopped after the opening weekend of the 2019 season. But Schmid lives on in Seattle, the MLS city where he coached the longest.
“We don’t forget about Sigi up here,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer, Schmid’s longtime assistant. “We just miss him being around all of us because he was a big part of our careers. So maybe nationally or maybe in L.A. or other places the buzz has died down a bit. But he comes up in our thoughts.”
Schmid, who was born in Germany but grew up in the South Bay, was a starting midfielder for four years at UCLA, then became the school’s head coach in 1980.
He took the Bruins to the NCAA tournament 16 times in 19 years, amassing a 322-63-33 record and winning three national titles. In MLS he had two tours with the Galaxy and also coached in Columbus and Seattle, winning a record 266 games and two league titles, three Supporters’ Shields and a record five U.S. Open Cups.
His first U.S. Open Cup and his first MLS title came with the Galaxy.
But Schmid’s true legacy goes far beyond the numbers. During his time at UCLA he used to scrape together per diems so players could occasionally eat at Denny’s rather than at a fast-food joint. He continued that in MLS, where he was generous with his time and his money.
The first time Schmetzer approached him with a question he was a USL coach and Schmid was already an MLS Cup winner. That one question led to a two-hour chat and five years later Schmid made Schmetzer his assistant.
“I think you’re going to get that from the people that he had contact with throughout his career, both at the collegiate level and the professional level,” Schmetzer said. “That’s always my go-to story about Sigi and the influence that he had with people.”
For goalkeeper Stefan Frei, Schmid’s word was his bond. The coach, then with Seattle, had watched Frei during the combine after his final year at Cal and said he was impressed. The Sounders were set in goal but Schmid remembered their conversation and five years later, with Kasey Keller retired in Seattle and Frei out of favor in Toronto, Schmid traded for him and helped turned him into an all-star keeper and MLS Cup MVP.
“He kind of rescued me out of a dark place,” Frei recalled. “In my first year with the Sounders I made so many really, really frustrating mistakes. I’d be down on myself and he called me into his office and instead of putting more pressure on me, he put me at ease. ‘You’re our guy and we believe in you.’ And I would walk out of there with a big smile on my face.
“That human element, I think, is vital. You see that in the top coaches in the world. [Liverpool’s Jurgen] Klopp is the No. 1 example. There’s a connection there. And I think Sigi was always trying to find a connection on a human level.”
Frei said he, too, thinks about Schmid most days
“Absolutely. 100%,” he said.
Including college, Schmid won titles in four different decades from 1985 through 2014, when he won the Open Cup-Supporters’ Shield double. But he lost more than he won at the end of his 38-year career, going 18-30-14 in parts of three seasons with Seattle and Galaxy and getting fired by both clubs. That led to whispers that perhaps the game had passed him by.
Frei said that misses the point.
“The sport keeps evolving and it makes it very difficult,” Frei said. “As the sports evolves you have to adapt. Some keepers can’t do it and they’re labeled as archaic and old school. For coaches it may be the same thing.
“For any athlete or coach to stay at the top level for as long as he did, it’s a testament to him as a coach but also as a person. And I hope saying ‘Sigi Schmid, coach of the year’ also speaks to the character and not just the record of whoever wins that trophy.”
“I’ve not set a deadline for when the party has to stop. It’s only right to celebrate when you win something. You have to have a party and I don’t know when that party will end.”
Bayern Munich manager Hans-Dieter Flick on his team’s celebration of Sunday’s Champions League win. The team is scheduled to open the Bundesliga season Sept. 18
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