Soccer newsletter: What have we learned from the MLS season?
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 look at the MLS season to date and what, if anything, it’s trying to tell us.
What we do know with certainty is that the regular season — at 23 games, the shortest in MLS history — will be made up of three distinct segments: the first two games, which was followed by a four-month COVID-19 suspension in play; the Quarantine Cup, Major League Soccer’s 24-team, single-venue tournament in Florida, in which each team played three games that will count in the standings; and the league’s 18-game season reboot in home markets and empty stadiums, a sprint to the finish that will see teams play at least 12 games in 52 days to finish the schedule by Nov. 8.
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“This season,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said “is a little different.”
Teams are playing schedules determined by geography not competitive balance. In the next three-game phase, which begins this week, the league’s three Canadian teams won’t even be playing in their home country, much less their home cities.
The players have already made their own mental allowances for what will largely be remembered as a season in name only.
“Any team [that] gets to the end of the road, the other teams might be looking at them like ‘ah, it was 2020. It was that year’,” Galaxy defender Daniel Steres said earlier this year.
So what else can we infer from the season so far? Not much.
If you only looked at the standings, you’d assume the Columbus Crew is the best team in the league. And it may be: Columbus has the best record (7-1-3), the most wins, the fewest goals allowed (4, half of which came in last Saturday’s draw with the Chicago Fire) and the league’s second-leading scorer in Gyasi Zardes, who has eight goals, second-most in MLS.
But five of the Crew’s 11 games were against either FC Cincinnati or Chicago, teams that finished in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference table last year and are ahead of only Inter Miami in the overall league standings this year. And the Crew’s next home game will be against Toronto FC but that game will be played in East Hartford, Conn., not Canada.
Compare that to the Galaxy’s schedule. They’ve played LAFC, the reigning Supporters’ Shield winner, three times already and will face their crosstown neighbors at least once more in this irregular season. The Galaxy will also play the Seattle Sounders, the defending MLS Cup winner, at least twice and have already played Portland, the MLS Is Back tournament champion, twice. (They’ve also played lowly San Jose twice and their next game is against Colorado, which isn’t much better. So there’s that.)
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The COVID-19 pandemic is blame for this mess. When Major League Baseball started its regular season in late July, its teams played in empty stadiums but traveled as before, spending multiple nights in road cities. In the first two weeks of the season, positive coronavirus tests among players on multiple teams forced 24 games to be postponed.
MLS learned from that experience so in the six-game first part of its return to play, teams took charter flights to road games and played only close geographic rivals so as to avoid overnight stays.
The league divided its season reboot into phases, hoping that the coronavirus would eventually be brought under control, allowing teams to make trips across multiple time zones and play before fans. That hasn’t happened yet so the next three-game phase, which runs through Sept. 27, will follow the same model as the first phase, introducing additional peculiarities into the schedule.
Because the U.S.-Canada border is closed to non-essential travel, the league’s three Canadian teams will this week head south. Montreal will move to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., Toronto to Rentschler Field in East Hartford, while Vancouver will share Portland’s Providence Park with the Timbers. In that way MLS is again following the lead of Major League Baseball, whose Toronto Blue Jays are playing their home games in Buffalo, N.Y.
The hope is those travel restrictions will soon be lifted but in the meantime each Canadian team will play at least two road games and one “home” match in the U.S., although Vancouver, in the most 2020 example of MLS’ creative scheduling, will play its “home” game against the Timbers in Portland’s Providence Park.
That’s the Timbers’ home stadium.
“For Canadian teams right now with COVID, to win the MLS Cup, they have to go through a kind of ‘Mission Impossible’ kind of role where they’re going to have to grind, find solutions, never be home, always playing on the road. And we have to be incredibly strong mentally,” Vancouver coach Marc dos Santos said.
And if all that wasn’t wacky enough, the Whitecaps are relocating to a city surrounded by wildfires with air so polluted it will be unhealthy for the team to train outdoors. Yet in a videoconference with reporters, Dos Santos made it clear that wasn’t the most pressing issue with his team’s move to the U.S.
“My concern is more on the political side. It’s not a country that I trust today. It’s not a country that is stable,” he said. “I’m more concerned on that side than the fires or anything like that. We have to make sure we stick together as a group [and] we’re very careful with what we do.”
The vagaries of the COVID-compromised MLS schedule go beyond Vancouver playing a “home” game on the visiting team’s field or LAFC and the Galaxy playing nearly a fifth of their games against one another.
Inter Miami, an expansion franchise, played its two pre-COVID games on the road and its only three home games were held behind closed doors, meaning it has yet to play before any of its supporters in its inaugural season.
The Philadelphia Union hasn’t traveled farther than 470 miles since returning from MLS Is Back – yet that’s twice as far as the longest trip the New York Red Bulls or New York City FC have made.
Minnesota United’s three road trips, on the other hand, have averaged about 850 miles.
Yet despite the difficulties of same-day travel and the fact that just a handful of MLS teams have allowed small, socially distanced crowds to attend matches in the season restart, there hasn’t been much of a change in the home-field advantage from last season.
There have been 76 games played leaguewide since teams returned to play in their markets and the home teams are a combined 36-20-20, a 60.53% winning percentage. Last season MLS home teams were a combined 213-103-92, a winning percentage of 63.48%.
LAFC gets a win, Galaxy get a point
LAFC and the Galaxy, which have been heading in different directions in the MLS reboot, both saw those streaks halted Sunday when LAFC beat Portland 4-2, braking a slide that had seen it lose four of its last five, while the Galaxy played San Jose to a scoreless draw in an ugly contest, snapping its four-game winning streak.
LAFC (4-4-3) was unbeaten when it came back from Florida but has been eminently beatable since, getting shut out twice by the Galaxy, once by Real Salt Lake and losing on the road in Seattle. And while Sunday’s win didn’t erase all those bad memories, the way the team played showed it hasn’t completely forgotten how to do things right.
The attack was unrelenting with goals from Mark-Anthony Kaye, Diego Rossi and Bradley-Wright Phillips in the final eight minutes of the first half making up for a defense that continues to play with the coherence and discipline of a kindergarten class.
Brian Rodriguez set up two of those goals, tying him for second in MLS with six assists on the season. Rodriguez remains wildly inconsistent in finishing his own chances, however, so when Danny Musovski scored his second goal deep in stoppage time, it gave him two goals in his last 105 minutes, twice the number Rodriguez has in 1,264 minutes.
Afterward Musovski talked about the team and how it has struggled to right itself after a horrible three-week stretch in which it stumbled through two two-game losing streaks, dropping under .500 for the first time in franchise history.
“The only way you can do that is game by game,” he said. “I don’t really think that the adjustments were that much different compared to the other games. It was just a good mentality.”
For Rossi the goal was his MLS-best 10th of the season in 11 games. That’s just a goal off the pace teammate Carlos Vela set last year when he broke the single-season scoring record and won the league MVP award.
“We’re really not a team that talks about things like MVPs until the season’s over,” coach Bob Bradley said. But Rossi, he added, has not only filled the hole the injured Vela left in the attack, he’s also assumed Vela’s role as captain, with Bradley handing him the armband Sunday.
“What we love is the way Diego has taken more responsibility. He’s become more of a leader,” Bradley said. “He’s growing as a player.
“I’m really proud to see the way Diego just keeps focused on the right things. He’s a really good team guy and I think he’s getting better and better.”
The three goals gave LAFC a league-leading 25 for the season, just slightly off the pace the team set last year when it matched the league record with 85 goals. But the team has conceded 24 times – only San Jose has allowed more. That doesn’t seem to be a problem LAFC will solve soon.
Although Andy Najar has played in five games, he’s gone more than 25 minutes just once, leaving midfielder Latif Blessing – who made his 100th MLS appearance Sunday – as the first choice at right back. Two other defenders – Tristan Blackmon and Mohamed Traore are injured and Danilo Silva hasn’t dressed for a game since coming out in the first half of a match at Seattle two weeks ago.
Holding midfielder Eduard Atuesta did return from a five-game injury absence Sunday and was solid in a 10-minute cameo. If he can go further on Friday against the Sounders, that will help stabilize a defense that continues to be plagued by mental errors. And the team will need the additional manpower given the difficulty of the crowded schedule ahead and the injuries that had riddled the back line.
As for the Galaxy (4-3-3 and tied with LAFC in the table despite having played one fewer game), they took four straight wins to San Jose, where they had a chance to match the franchise’s longest winning streak this century. But they managed to put just two shots on goal against the league’s worst defense and had to settle for a scoreless draw in a game that was poorly played on both sides.
“When you go on the road and you can get a shutout, you give yourself a chance to get at least a point. If we put up a shutout, you kind of expect us to get three points. But off night for the offense,” said goalkeeper David Bingham, who made two saves to earn his third clean sheet in five games.
The field, which gave way whenever a player cut sharply, contributed to that off night, especially for Cristian Pavón. The Argentine winger came in riding a streak that had seen him get a goal or an assist in seven straight games but on San Jose’s turf he had trouble keeping the ball down and put just one of his four shots on target.
“No excuses. We just weren’t sharp passing the ball and finishing,” captain Daniel Steres said.
“Pavón had three shots he usually buries and for some reason, just went over. So it was one of those days.”
Maybe. But it was nowhere near the kind of days the Galaxy were having earlier this summer. The team returned from the MLS Is Back tournament winless and off to the worst start in franchise history. Those days are just a distant and bad memory now because even with the off night, the Galaxy extended their unbeaten streak to six games. And they got further good news when striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández came on in the 57th minute, his first appearance in two months.
“It’s good to have him on the roster,” coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “He will get better and better every game and I hope to have the best version of him very soon.”
Hernández’s return and the continued progression of Jonathan dos Santos, who played 33 minutes off the bench Sunday, means the Galaxy are the closest they’ve been to 100% healthy since the first half of the season’s second game in early March. Dos Santos came out of that game at halftime and the Galaxy hasn’t been whole since.
Schelotto is likely to need a full roster going forward. Because the Galaxy have a game to make up with Seattle they will play 13 times over the season’s final 51 days, beginning with Saturday’s home match with the Colorado Rapids.
No time to waste in World Cup qualifying
We reported in this space last week that the next phase of a CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, a 30-team tournament that would fill out the field for the final eight-nation pentagonal round, would probably be delayed because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Unfortunately we were right.
The competition, which was to start in the October and November international windows, has been pushed back to March and that will probably push back the final round, which was to kick off in June, to September. The U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras are already in the field for that competition based on the FIFA rankings from earlier this summer.
“Many parts of the region continue to have very challenging public health situations, and that has been a key factor in this decision,” CONCACAF said in a statement. “Additionally, several countries across the confederation have travel restrictions and quarantine requirements, which would make international football involving 30 national teams extremely difficult.”
As ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle pointed out, without further schedule changes the three-month delay in the start of the final qualifying round would mean just 10 of the 14 match days would be completed by March 2022. Either additional fixture dates will have to be added, compacting an already tight schedule, or the intercontinental playoff, currently set for June 2022, will need to be pushed back.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the first to be played in the winter, will start Nov. 21.
The U.S. national team, which has played just once this year, had hoped to secure at least one additional friendly for the fall international windows but no games or training camps have been announced. Mexico, meanwhile, is scheduled to play Costa Rica in Mexico City on Sept. 30 and the Netherlands in Amsterdam seven days later.
Kate Markgraf, general manager of the women’s national team, said last week she was hoping to organize a training camp this fall but that could be complicated by the fact that six players from last summer’s World Cup championship team – Emily Sonnett, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle – are playing in England.
A handful of others – including Julie Ertz and reigning World Player of the Year Megan Rapinoe -- have opted out of the NWSL Fall Series, calling into question their fitness for a fall camp.
The USWNT figures to have a busy 2021, beginning with the SheBelieves Cup Feb. 8-25 and the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics, which starts in July.
Hardly a Solo opinion
This should go without saying, but there is no way to justify Hope Solo’s exclusion from the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Former UCLA defender and national team captain Carlos Bocanegra was a worthy winner of induction in the voting announced last week. Bocanegra had 110 caps with the national team, played in two World Cups and helped the U.S. to a pair of Gold Cup titles. He also played in the top divisions in England, Scotland and France as well as in MLS and in his post-playing career, as technical director at Atlanta United, he built the club that won an MLS title in its second season.
But he was the only person elected from a player ballot that also included Solo. Those eligible to vote are select members of the media, current Hall of Famers, MLS, NWSL and present and former senior national team coaches, and other MLS, NWSL and U.S. Soccer representatives. Voters can select up to 10 nominees and players must be named on 66.7% of the submitted ballots to be inducted.
Bocanegra, in his third year of eligibility, barely made it, getting named on 68.5% of the ballots cast. Still, that’s 11% better than Solo, who was ignored by more than 42% of the voters.
Yes, Solo had a – shall we say challenging? – life away from the field, one that included multiple suspensions from the national team. But she wasn’t running for Miss Congeniality, she was standing for induction into the Hall of Fame, which is now greatly diminished by her absence.
Solo was arguably the greatest goalkeeper in history, male or female. Sure, the women’s game lagged well behind the men’s game in terms of quality during Solo’s career but she can only play the opponents put before her and no one did that better: she had 202 caps and 195 wins, posting shutouts in 102 or her 195 starts. She won two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup title, was twice named the best keeper in a World Cup, made the FIFPro all-world team twice and was U.S. Soccer female athlete of the year in 2009.
There were other deserving players snubbed this year, Steve Cherundolo and Jaime Moreno chief among them. But there is simply not way to justify Solo’s omission.
“My love for the game. That’s it. I love playing this sport and I want to do the best I can. It’s just that, the love of the game.”
The Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who played Sunday for the first time in two months, on how he preserved through a two-month rehab of a torn calf muscle
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