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Soccer newsletter: Galaxy beginning to learn how good they can be

Cristian Pavón
(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 with the Galaxy’s victory over LAFC on Sunday in this season’s third renewal of El Tráfico.

For the Galaxy the 3-0 win was their fourth in a row since returning from the MLS Is Back tournament, where they were dismal. And it once again raised the bar for a team that is only beginning to learn how good it can be.

“We are going step by step and getting the wins, which is what we were lacking,” said winger Cristian Pavón, who is making an argument he may be the best player in the league. “We are moving forward like we wanted.”

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The win was the Galaxy’s second in 15 days over LAFC – both wins coming by way of shutout – and fourth in less than three seasons over their neighborhood rivals.

Only three other teams have beaten LAFC more than once.

The win also pushed the Galaxy ahead of LAFC in the Western Conference standings for the first time since LAFC’s first month in MLS in the winter of 2018.

So just imagine how good the Galaxy (4-3-2) will be when newly signed Colombian winger Yony González arrives and the team’s two best players are fully fit.

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Captain Jonathan dos Santos has started once this season because of injury and played just 116 minutes in the team’s winning streak, its second-longest since 2016. (In Dos Santos’ 116 minutes, the Galaxy have outscored the opposition 5-2.) And Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, has missed the last six games and remains out indefinitely with a torn calf.

How much has changed in the Galaxy locker room since the MLS Is Back tournament? In Florida, the team seemed to be waiting to lose. On Sunday they were outshot 14-1 in the first half yet said they took strength from that.

“To come out of that 0-0 was a little surprising. But we knew that was good for us,” said defender Daniel Steres.

Added Pavón: “We came out in the second half with more confidence.”

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That confidence is clearing missing for LAFC (3-3-3), which has lost three times in four games for just the second time in franchise history. Like the Galaxy, LAFC is also missing two key starters in captain and reigning league MVP Carlos Vela and midfielder Eduard Atuesta.

It’s unlikely either will be back until at least October and their absences have exposed a lack of depth, which was compounded by poor decisions made over the winter when LAFC traded center back Walker Zimmerman to Nashville, sent goalkeeper to Tyler Miller to Minnesota and declined to re-sign right back Steven Beitashour, greatly weakening a defense that allowed a league-low 37 goals in 2019.

LAFC has conceded a league-high 19 goals in nine games this season.

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The trade that sent Zimmerman to Nashville less than three weeks before the start of the season was probably too good to pass up since it brought LAFC up to $1.25 million in general allocation money and a much-needed international roster spot.

But it proved costly just the same when LAFC started the season with Dejan Jakovic at center back and Tristan Blackmon at right back. That pairing wasn’t working and Jakovic lost his starting spot three games ago, with first Danilo Silva then Blackmon sliding in the center and midfielder Latif Blessing taking over at right back.

LAFC has given up seven goals in those three games – two fewer than Zimmerman and Nashville have given up all season.

Miller admittedly lost his confidence midway through last season after he was called up to the national team but was never called on to play. As a result, more than half the 28 goals he allowed last season came after he returned from international duty.

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But given Miller’s youth, he was just 26, and salary – he made just $77,565 in 2019 – he seemed worth a second chance.

Instead, LAFC traded him for $200,000 in allocation money and signed Kenneth Vermeer, an athletic 34-year-old Dutch keeper who lost the starting job after poor decision-making led to 11 goals in five regular-season games. Miller, meanwhile, straightened out his confidence issues over the winter and was unbeaten in five games, giving up six goals, before his season was ended by a hip injury.

But the most damaging departure may have been Beitashour, if only because it proved LAFC had no respect for the “Beitashour Effect” -- which, in MLS lore, has proven every bit as damaging as baseball’s Curse of the Bambino, the spell that damned the Boston Red Sox to 85 years without a title.

Consider the history:

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As a rookie Beitashour joined a San Jose team coming off two straight losing seasons. Three years later, the Quakes set franchise records for wins and points, won the Supporters’ Shield and made the playoff quarterfinals.

The Quakes let Beitashour go after the 2013 season and have been to the playoffs just once since, losing in the first round.

Beitashour, meanwhile, went to Vancouver, which had made the playoffs just once previously. In his two seasons there the Whitecaps reached 50 points both times, advanced to the conference semifinals and won a Canadian championship.

Vancouver, too, elected not to re-sign Beitashour and have had just once winning season since.

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Toronto had gone nine seasons without a winning record before Beitashour joined in 2016. In his two years there he helped the team to two MLS Cup finals, a league-record 69-point season in 2017 and the only treble — an MLS title, a domestic cup win and a Supporters’ Shield — in league history.

But Toronto – you guessed it – did not re-sign him and lost 18 games in the next season. LAFC, which did sign him, made consecutive playoff appearances, won a Supporters’ Shield and had the best regular-season record in MLS history last year.

The reason Beitashour keeps moving is money. His base salary has grown from $49,612 in 2013, his final season in San Jose, to $298,375 last season, according to the MLS players union. That’s a lot for a right back, even one who has made more starts than any defender in LAFC history and was named to the MLS all-decade team last year.

I talked to Beitashour earlier this month and he declined to comment on either the “Beitashour Effect” or the latest team to fall under its spell. But he did say he’s still a free agent, has been training every day and, at 33 – which makes him younger than three defenders currently on the LAFC roster -- is as “fit as ever.”

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So John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager and interim president, might want to consider making a call. After all, he has a midfielder playing Beitashour’s position now. And 85 years is a long time to live under a curse.

Even a global pandemic can’t slow the women’s game

There was concern that the momentum women’s soccer built during the 2019 World Cup in France would be lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, which wiped out the second half of the European club schedule, reduced the NWSL season to a 23-game tournament without fans and postponed the Olympic Games, the second-most important competition in the women’s game.

Turns out that was much ado about nothing; the women’s game is proving far more resilient than we thought.

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Although Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga was the only Top 5 European women’s league to return to play after the COVID-19 shutdown, the Champions League resumed with the final three rounds of knockout play in August. Not that that changed anything: Lyon beat Wolfsburg in an empty stadium in San Sebastián to win its fifth consecutive title.

The NWSL regrouped and play a wildly successful tournament under quarantine conditions in Utah, drawing a record television audience for a club game on CBS. In fact, that event went so well, the NWSL has returned for an encore, kicking off the seven-week Fall Series last Saturday on CBS.

And how’s this for a twist: with COVID-19 pushing back the start of some college football schedules, CBS is giving the airtime football vacated to women’s soccer, scheduling NWSL games on its main broadcast network on all four weekends in September.

The open airtime undoubtedly played a role in CBS’ decision to offer prime network real estate to the NWSL, but the record-setting audience – one FIFA estimated at 1.12 billion -- that tuned in for the World Cup last year also showed that viewers will watch compelling games regardless of whether they are being played by women or men.

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CBS is not the only U.S. broadcast to come to that conclusion. This season NBCSN and NBC Sports streaming services will offer games from England’s Super League, which recently got a boost statewide from Manchester City’s signing of U.S. national team stars Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle and Manchester United’s acquisition of Christen Press and Tobin Heath.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jonathan Tannenwald, between the cable network and the network’s streaming platforms, NBC Sports will offer 50 and the Super League’s 132 games.

Another sign that women’s soccer is finally getting the respect it deserves came last week when national soccer federations in both Brazil and England said players on its women teams would be paid the same per diems and bonuses as the men’s team receive.

The Australian and Norwegian national teams have reached similar agreements with their federations

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But the pay may not really be equal, Soccer America reported, since the agreements suggest the men and women will actually receive equal shares of vastly different pots of money. Reconciling the huge gap in FIFA bonuses -- $38 million for the 2018 men’s World Cup champion vs. $4 million for the 2019 women’s champion -- has been at the heart of the ongoing pay dispute between U.S. Soccer and members of the women’s national team, Soccer America said.

Celebrity apprentice

Speaking of women’s soccer, Eva Longoria, one of the many A-list owners behind Angel City, the Southern California expansion franchise scheduled to join the NWSL in 2022, participated in a teleconference call last week to hype the La Liga season, which kicks off Friday.

Investing in Angel City, she said, is consistent with her work on women’s empowerment, a campaign she expanded with She Se Puede, a digital platform she and fellow Angel City owner America Ferrera launched last week.

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“This really fit in with my activism,” said Longoria, one of the team’s many first-time owners. “Women should have equal power in in this world in businesses and governments, in our societies.”

“Sports also helps women to empower themselves. And this is a huge part of why I am part of Angel City,” said continued. “Natalie Portman came to me and said ‘we’re gathering a group of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. We want to bring a professional women’s soccer team and we want most of the founding investors to be women.’ And I thought, Oh my gosh, this [has] never been done.”

In addition to Longoria, Portman and Ferrera, the team’s nearly three dozen owner-investors includes actresses Jennifer Garner and Jessica Chastain and athletes Mia Hamm, Serena Williams, Abby Wambach and Julie Foudy.

“I didn’t realize the ripple effect it would have,” Longoria said. “I’ve gotten more calls about founding the soccer team than I have for any work I’ve ever done. Sports is a way to bring together people. And this is why I wanted to join.”

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Longoria, 45, grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, at a time when future Mexican national team star Mónica González, four years her junior, was starring on boys teams around the city. But the sport had little pull on her, Longoria admitted.

“I didn’t grow up with soccer,” she joked. “I’m American.”

In fact, it wasn’t until David Beckham signed with the Galaxy in 2007 that she started paying attention.

“When he came to MLS, it changed soccer in the United States,” she said. “I don’t know another person who had such an influence on a country in a particular sport because after that, there was a soccer explosion. Not only with boys but with girls.”

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So when the U.S. women’s national team filed a lawsuit against its federation last year, claiming its players weren’t being paid the same as the men, that caught Longoria’s attention.

“We want our players to be able to make a living playing professional soccer alone,” she said. “As it currently stands, in addition to playing soccer, players often run camps or clinics and play soccer in other leagues… just to make ends meet. And so we need to make sure that there’s a rise in revenue.

“All of us founders believe players should share in that success. And so that’s really why we wanted to do it. It was more than ‘Hey, let’s just start a soccer team. That’d be cool.’ It actually is founded in the basis of pay equity.”

Those are quotes Longoria and the rest of the ownership group are sure to be reminded of the first time they enter contract talks with a player.

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The owners of Angel City – the name officially remains a working title – haven’t decided where the team will be based and continue to talk with the Galaxy and LAFC. But Longoria, who has been to MLS games at Dignity Health Sports Park and Banc of California Stadium, said she knows what kind of atmosphere she wants for home games.

“LAFC..it feels like you’re at a European game,” she said. “We don’t have that culture of football in the United States. That’s probably the first time I have felt the same level of engagement from the fans.”

Crowded road again for USMNT

Europe returned to international play this month with the 55-country Nations League tournament and FIFA windows for national teams in the rest of the world will open in October and November. Yet the U.S. national team still has no firm date for its second game of 2020.

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“We’ve been focused on trying to compete in the United States, trying to find a safe environment where we could play games,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said last month. “We’ll switch focus in November and try to play two high-level games in Europe.”

A federation spokesman said last week that U.S. Soccer hopes to have something to announce shortly.

Berhalter’s team hasn’t gathered since its January winter camp, which concluded with a 1-0 win over Costa Rica at Dignity Health Sports Park. Mexico already has two friendlies on its schedule: Sept. 30 in Mexico City against Costa Rica and days later against the Netherlands in Amsterdam.

And while we’re talking about the USMNT, the schedule for World Cup qualifying did come into somewhat fuzzy focus last month. Because of COVID-19, qualifying has been delayed and expanded with eight teams, rather than the usual six, playing in the final round beginning next spring.

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The top five CONCACAF teams in the July 2020 FIFA world rankings -- the U.S., Costa Rica, Mexico, Jamaica and Honduras -- are all in the field for a 14-game home-and-away qualifying competition. The three remaining berths will be determined in a tournament involving the confederation’s other 30 countries. Teams were drawn into six groups for round-robin play beginning next month with four games scheduled for the two fall international windows.

But now that tournament is almost certain to be delayed because of travel restrictions and quarantine requirements tied to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It likely won’t go ahead in October. We’re actually looking at what even November would look like,” CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani said last week.

Any delay in that tournament figures to push back the eight-team “octagonal” round of qualifying, which is scheduled to begin next June. The preliminary schedule has the U.S. playing host to Mexico in October 2021 and playing in Mexico City in January 2022. The U.S. hasn’t won a qualifier in Mexico in 17 tries.

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The final match will come in March 2022 in Costa Rica, where the U.S. has lost nine consecutive qualifiers.

“For us, every game is pressure,” Berhalter said. “You have a lot of pressure to win your home games. Hopefully, towards the end we’ll be in a good position to qualify.

The top three finishers in the eight-team final round will automatically qualify for to the World Cup in Qatar while the fourth-place team will advance to an inter-confederation playoff in June 2022, where a final World Cup berth will be at stake.

The World Cup is scheduled to kick off Nov. 21, 2022, the first time soccer’s quadrennial championship will be played in the winter.

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U.S. World Cup qualifying schedule

May 31-June 15, 2021

at A/F winner

vs. B/E winner

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at Honduras

vs. Jamaica

Aug. 30-Sept. 7, 2021

at C/D winner

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vs. Costa Rica

Oct. 4-12, 2021

vs. Mexico

at Jamaica

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Nov. 8-16, 2021

vs. A/F winner

at B/E winner

Jan. 24-Feb. 1, 2022

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vs. Honduras

at Mexico

March 21-29, 2022

vs. C/D winner

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at Costa Rica

In other CONCACAF news, the confederation announced last week that Qatar, host team for the 2022 World Cup, will participate in next summer’s Gold Cup. It will be the first time since 2005 that the Gold Cup has included a team from outside the federation.

The reigning Asian champion, Qatar will also play in next year’s Copa America.

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.

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Quotebook

“Pavón is at a very high level. In Boca Juniors he reached this level. Now he has more experience and can make better decisions. Hopefully he can keep this moment.”

Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto on winger Cristian Pavón who, with five goals and three assists in his last six games, has emerged as a contender for Major League Soccer’s MVP award

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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