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Soccer newsletter: MLS, eventually, makes the right choice

Dell Loy Hansen in 2014.
(Associated Press)

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 at the unavoidable intersection where sports and real life collide.

It’s an intersection MLS has generally tried to detour around. But last week, spurred on by actions taken in other leagues, MLS stopped at the intersection, took a look around and started to make some changes.

The biggest one was the decision to push out Real Salt Lake’s owner Dell Loy Hansen, a billionaire real estate developer who also owns the Utah Royals of the NWSL and the Real Monarchs, a USL Championship side. Three days after Hansen blasted his players for boycotting a home game with LAFC in support of the Black Lives Matter movement -- comments that led to an internet story exposing a history of racist comments about Black players -- a chastened Hansen announced Sunday he was selling his soccer holdings rather than endure probes from MLS and the NWSL.

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“I recognize that at times I have spoken too quickly, without pausing to consider the feelings or good intentions of others. This is not acceptable and I assume full responsibility for allowing my words to travel unfiltered as to their significance and impact,” Hansen said in a statement. “I believe that communities are strengthened by diversity. I am truly sorry for offending and being insensitive to the plight of others….

“After deep consideration and soul-searching, my wife Julie and I agree that the best way forward for the Real Salt Lake family is to assume new ownership and a refreshed vision.”

The fall from grace was a quick one for Hansen, one of the most engaged and powerful power brokers in U.S. soccer. It began six days ago when the Milwaukee Bucks chose to forfeit their NBA playoff game with Orlando to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man. That set in motion a series of moves that saw the NBA halt its playoff schedule, six Major League Baseball teams decide not to play and WNBA players refuse to take the court to protest racism, police brutality and societal injustice.

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MLS was a little late to the party and one game – Nashville at Orlando City – kicked off on time. But players voted not to play the other five matches, including LAFC’s game at Real Salt Lake, for which Hansen had opened Rio Tinto Stadium for as many as 5,000 fans, the largest crowd for an MLS game since COVID-19 suspended play in early March.

“Wednesday was a big moment,” LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “No one planned for it. It just happened and that shows that there is real passion around what’s going on and the change that we want to see.”

Well maybe not everyone wants to see that change because the next day Hansen gave interviews to two radio stations he owns. They did not go well.

“It’s like somebody stabbed you and you’re trying to figure out a way to pull the knife out and move forward,” Hansen said on X96, an alt-rock station based in Provo, Utah. “That’s what it feels like. The disrespect is profound to me personally.”

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“It’s taken a lot of wind out of my sails, what effort I want to put into recruiting players and building a great team,” he added. “It just seems that’s not a very good path to take.”

The blowback was immediate with former RSL legend Nick Rimando saying he was “disgusted” by the comments and Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore tweeted that Hansen needed to sell the team.

Hansen tried to walk the comments back during a second interview, this one on ESPN 700 in Salt Lake City, but by then The Athletic had already launched its writers on a story that would seal the fate of a man one former RSL player compared to Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner who was forced to sell the NBA team after his own history of racist comments was revealed.

The story was damning, with The Athletic quoting witnesses who accused Hansen of using racial slurs, referring to lynching and mistaking a Black player on his own team for a thug because he was wearing a hoodie.

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RSL defender Nedum Onuoha, one of the team’s most popular players, told the BBC he could no longer play for a team owned by someone like Hansen. And less than 24 hours after the LAFC-RSL was suspended, the MLS players assn. released a statement demanding Hansen be forced to sell the team if the allegations in the story proved true.

MLS and the NWSL released statements saying they would open investigations into Hansen’s conduct. Three days later Hansen made that unnecessary, announcing Sunday he would sell Utah Soccer Holdings, the umbrella organization that includes his three soccer teams. He also owns the Real Salt Lake Academy High School, the Zions Bank Real Academy and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.

RSL joined MLS in the league’s second expansion in 2005 and won a league title in 2009, a month after Hansen joined the ownership group. Hansen acquired full ownership in January 2013 and began investing heavily in soccer, founding the Monarchs, the reigning USL Championship winners, then buying and relocating FC Kansas City of the NWSL in 2017. That was the same winter he opened a $78-million academy and training facility in suburban Herriman – a facility MLS commissioner Don Garber once hailed as a benchmark for the league.

Now the league has forced Hansen out.

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“Nothing would be different if he hadn’t gone on the radio,” Kyle Sipple, host of the RSL Soapbox podcast, told Salt Lake City broadcaster KSL-TV. “I’m surprised in the way it happened. But not that it did happen.”

Lesson learned

Garber’s quick reaction to the Hansen debacle was crucial in preventing what might have become a drawn-out and damaging soap opera that could have done permanent damage to the league. And it may help repair some of the damage Garber himself had done to the relationship between the league and its players.

In fact, just one day before Hansen’s downfall began,Garber and the MLS board of governors badly misread the reaction to the NBA players’ decision to boycott their games, issuing a two-paragraph statement in which they condemned racism but mentioned nothing about postponing games, hoping the issue would go away.

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By then, however, momentum for a boycott was building among MLS players. Kaye said his team decided it wouldn’t play its game with Real Salt Lake shortly after hearing about the NBA’s decision. In San Jose, players with the San Jose Earthquakes and Portland Timbers voted unanimously not to play shortly after arriving at the stadium while the Seattle Sounders, in the South Bay for their game with the Galaxy, never left their hotel, heading back to the airport.

In Ft. Lauderdale, players from Inter Miami and Atlanta United warmed-up and were ready to go before calling off the game about 30 minutes after it should have started. Only then, after two games had already been called off and players had voted not to play the other three, did MLS issue a second statement claiming that the league, not the players, had made the decision to postpone the games.

The players were understandably irate. They were the ones who had the courage to put racism and social injustice ahead of a game – and their jobs -- acting forcefully while the commissioner had dithered. In response, Garber pushed the players out of the way in an effort to take the moral high ground, reopening wounds first inflicted in June, when the commissioner threatened to lock the players out if they didn’t agree to changes in a collective bargaining agreement the league had already accepted.

I get that the decision to postpone the games was a difficult and expensive one for Garber and the league. MLS, which suspended its season in March because of COVID-19, had just resumed play in individual markets last week and could ill-afford another break in that momentum.

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Because of the coronavirus, the league was footing the bill for teams to take charter flights to away games. It paid for six of those flights Wednesday, only to have five of those teams get back on their planes and head home. But once Major League Baseball and the WNBA decided to follow the NBA’s lead and postpone games, MLS really had no choice but to do so as well or risk being seen as putting money over morality.

Give Garber credit for changing course. When Hansen insisted playing should come before protesting, undoubtedly giving voice to opinions other MLS owners held privately, the commissioner quickly condemned the comments. And when the league’s Black Players for Change asked for a dialogue with the league as well as concrete action to advance their fight against racial injustice, Garber agreed to that as well.

That was a good move because Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who took part in a BLM protest with his family earlier this summer, said the players are united. And the league’s month in quarantine in Florida for the MLS Is Back tournament – a competition that opened with more than 100 of the league’s Black players surrounding the pitch, raising their fists and taking a knee in a solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement – was instrumental in creating that solidarity.

“With all of our planning and negotiating that went into going down to Orlando … we are very strong right now, we’re very united,” said Kljestan, who was fielding calls and texts from teammates and other players around the league as he was driving to Dignity Health Sports Park for last Wednesday’s game with Seattle, which was canceled before Kljestan got there.. “Our communication level has been very high. We all are speaking to each other more often.”

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Of the 10 MLS teams that didn’t play last Wednesday, the Galaxy were the only ones that didn’t get to vote on a postponement since Seattle’s refusal to leave its hotel made the decision for them. But it seems clear the team would have voted that way given the chance.

Kljestan, who said the MLS players are taking inspiration and guidance from their NBA brethren, believes athletes are uniquely qualified for the kind of work required to bring social change. Not only do they have visibility in the media but their pro lives revolve around setting goals, then putting in the hard work to achieve them – even if that takes years.

“Something that we can accomplish in the immediate short term is conversations with our ownership and having their support to push for different types of change,” he said. “The players, we’re together in this. Having the unity of the players is always one of the most important things.

“Combining the platform with the goal and the drive of a lot of us players right now, hopefully we can actually achieve something that is tangible.”

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The players gave in to Garber’s strong-arm tactics in June when he forced the union to accept concessions to its collective bargaining agreement with the league to make the MLS Is Back tournament happen. If it didn’t, Garber threatened to lock the players out, angering the union membership.

The union reluctantly agree to the changes but talk of a partnership between the players and owners vanished. The players made it clear they were calling the shots this time and Garber, to his credit, appears to have listened.

LAFC, Galaxy are teams in transition

LAFC played, and lost, its second consecutive game without its most valuable player Sunday. And we’re talking about Eduard Atuesta, not Carlos Vela.

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Vela, who broke the league’s single-season scoring record with 34 goals last season, skipped the MLS Is Back tournament to remain in Southern California to care for his pregnant wife. And LAFC did just fine without him; Diego Rossi led the competition with seven goals and LAFC made it to the quarterfinals where it took a one-goal lead into stoppage time before losing to Orlando City on penalties.

The team hasn’t won since. And that’s largely because Atuesta hasn’t played since coming out of the Orlando City game in in the 81st minute with an injury to his right foot.

Of greater concern for LAFC (2-2-3) is the lack of a timetable for the midfielder’s return.

“Eduard is not yet back in full training. He is working on the side, moving better but still not really striking the ball completely,” coach Bob Bradley said. “He is still not yet moving and cutting at full speed. He’s got some more work to do before he returns to full training.

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“I would think that means he is weeks away from getting back on the field.”

And that’s a problem for LAFC which lost Vela, the reigning league MVP, to a MCI tear in his right knee in a 2-0 loss to the Galaxy last month. There is no timetable for his return either, but he probably won’t be back until October.

Atuesta, with his biting presence on defense and his quarterbacking skills on offense, proved his worth to the team last season when LAFC won just one of the four games he missed. But his absence has been even more glaring this season because since he went out, not only has the team failed to win, it’s been outscored 6-1.

And the two losses since returning from Florida last month are the team’s first back-to-back losses in more than two years. The most recent came last Sunday in Seattle where Atuesta’s absence in the midfield and a pair of costly errors by goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer gave the Sounders a 3-1 win and their first regular-season victory over LAFC.

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LAFC didn’t get back to Southern California until early Monday morning, giving it little time to prepare for Wednesday’s home match with San Jose. And Bradley said they have a lot of work to do.

“We’re going through a very difficult stretch. You can see that we have a lot of guys who are not in good form, and mentally they’re just not where they need to be,” Bradley said.

There’s a been a noticeable difference, the coach said, since the team returned from Florida.

“The level has slipped a little bit in training,” he said. “It’s something different for this group here. All of a sudden it is not coming so easy. We set the bar high but it is still an interesting period with the day-to-day part with players. With everything going on in their lives and in the world lately we’ve tried everything we can to try to keep guys fully engaged. But you can just see that some of them are not.

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“That is the responsibility of the coaching staff to find the right ways to keep everybody going during a difficult period, both on and off the field.”

There were two bright spots, the first being Rossi’s 60th-minute goal off an assist from José Cifuentes. The goal was Rossi’s league-leading seventh of the regular season while the assists was the second of Cifuentes’ MLS career.

The other bright spot came in the 78th minute when 16-year-old forward Christian Torres came on for Brian Rodriguez, becoming the LAFC’s first academy player to appear in an MLS game.

“Just stepping on to the field knowing I had the team support behind me and I just had so much to look forward to in the next few years, it was amazing,” said Torres.

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The Galaxy meanwhile were awful in Florida, returning from the tournament without a win. But they’ve had a change in fortune since returning with consecutive wins over LAFC and the Earthquakes marking their second winning streak in nearly 15 months.

“We came back, we had some days off to refresh,” midfielder Joe Corona said. “We also had a talk [and] one of the things we talked about [was] step it up and try to get better in every way.

“You could feel that change.”

In Florida the Galaxy (2-3-2) so lacked for energy and enthusiasm their coach, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, accused them of quitting more than once. In the two games since, they pressed relentlessly from the opening whistle and played disciplined defense. What’s also helped is Schelotto’s decision to push Sebastian Lletget into the middle of field and use teenager Julian Araujo in his place on the right wing as well as the insertion of Nick DePuy at center back over Costa Rican international Giancarlo González, a Schelotto favorite who was never able to take advantage of the coach’s multiple second chances and appears to have finally lost his place in the starting lineup.

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Against San Jose the Galaxy twice rallied from deficits to win on Lletget’s second goal in as many games, this one coming in the 82nd minute. Lletget also assisted on the Galaxy’s first goal.

But almost as noteworthy as the goals themselves was how they were scored with all three coming on set pieces – a free kick, a penalty kick and a corner kick – and two bouncing off body parts.

Lletget’s goal went in off his chest while Daniel Steres scored the first by deflecting the ball in with his shoulder while facing away from the goal. It was a kind of opportunism and ingenuity not seen around the Galaxy in some time.

“Beyond just playing well, we have talked about maintaining character and pushing for results,” Schelotto, speaking in Spanish, said Monday of the team’s change over the last month. “In videos you could see how well we did but it did not impact the results.

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“Now we change a couple of things and with that character, the good things are more noticeable “

Upcoming MLS schedules

Galaxy

Wednesday at Portland, 7:30 p.m., Spectrum

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Sunday vs. LAFC, TBD. UniMas, TUDN, Spectrum

Sunday, Sept. 13 at San Jose, 8 p.m., UniMas

(Last week’s home game with Seattle, which was postponed, has not been rescheduled.)

LAFC

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Wednesday vs. San Jose, 8 p.m., UniMas, TUDN

Sunday at Galaxy, TBD., YouTube TV, UniMas, TUDN, Spectrum

Wednesday, Sept. 9 at Real Salt Lake, 6:30 p.m., YouTube TV, Estrella TV

Sunday, Sept. 13 vs. Portland, 8 p.m., YouTube TC, Estrella TV

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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

“The decision the player has come to is one that has matured over several years and is irrevocable. I don’t believe that there is any going back.”

Toni Freixa, a candidate for president at Barcelona, speaking to Goal.com on Lionel Messi’s decision to leave the club

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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