Soccer newsletter: Was LAFC built for short-term success?
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 two clubs – LAFC and Atlanta United – that joined MLS as expansion teams and quickly dominated, only to crash and burn this year.
Atlanta United, which began play in 2017, averaged 18 victories in its first three seasons, winning an MLS Cup, a U.S. Open Cup and a Campeones Cup. LAFC won 37 games and a Supporters’ Shield in its first two years, breaking the league record for points in a season, tying one for goals and becoming the only team to finish atop the conference standings in its second year.
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Both teams appeared to have the same successful blueprint: spend on young, talented Latin Americans (Miguel Almiron, Josef Martínez, Ezequiel Barco in Atlanta; Diego Rossi, Eduard Atuesta, Eddie Segura and Brian Rodríguez in L.A.), mix in some worldly veterans (Brad Guzan, Jeff Larentowicz and Michael Parkhurst in Atlanta; Carlos Vela, Benny Feilhaber and Steven Beitashour in L.A.) and then add in players whose skills were underappreciated elsewhere (Julian Gressel in Atlanta; Tyler Miller and Mark-Anthony Kaye in L.A.)
The result was a fast-paced, attractive, attacking style of soccer that packed stadiums and won games.
And while it’s probably not fair to draw sweeping conclusions from a season that has been interrupted repeatedly by a global pandemic and protests over racial injustice, the recipe for success the two teams followed appears to have an expiration date. Both enter the second half of this season Wednesday with losing records and in danger of missing the playoffs.
Not surprisingly, money may be the reason why.
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Expansion teams are given a one-year infusion of $1.1 million in allocation funds from the league, money that is intended to help teams fill out a competitive roster. In LAFC’s case, that funded a roster that had seven players with annual contracts worth at least $500,000 in each of the team’s first two seasons.
The MLS players’ union has not made the figures for this season public – and given the changes to the salary structure caused by COVID-19, those figures may never be released. But we do know that five of the LAFC players making at least $500,000 in 2018 and five of those who began last season earning that much are gone, with only Vela and Rossi remaining.
Lee Nguyen was left unprotected in the expansion draft and was selected by Inter Miami. Feilhaber left as a free agent. Christian Ramirez and Walker Zimmerman were traded. Adama Diomande and Laurent Ciman went back to Europe – although Ciman eventually returned and now sits on Toronto’s bench.
And now Rodríguez – who last summer signed a contract with an annual value of more than $1 million -- could be leaving too with reports out of Uruguay saying he may soon be heading to Torino, which would leave LAFC woefully shorthanded at forward.
Six of the 11 players who started LAFC’s first game in 2018 are no longer with the team and five starters from last year’s opener are gone, among them Beitashour, a right back, and Miller, a goalkeeper. Such turnover isn’t uncommon in MLS, where players due raises often can’t be accommodated under the league’s salary cap and wind up getting traded or released. (In LAFC’s case, paying those raises may have been a better use of its limited funds than spending more than $612,500 on goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, who has lost his starting job.)
So while LAFC has been able to hang on to its most important players – Vela, Rossi, the versatile Latif Blessing and midfielders Kaye and Atuesta – its strength the first two seasons was its back line and its depth, especially in the midfield. That’s gone now and in its place is a roster with five teenagers.
“It’s the diminishing marginal return of the smart use of expansion allocation money,” said Steven A. Bank, the Paul Hastings professor of business law at UCLA. “I tend to think the issue is the allocation money helped with strong mid-level depth and ‘glue’ players. And the automatic raises those players get with seniority intersects with the decline in allocation money.
“All that makes LAFC and Atlanta less deep and more susceptible to injuries to their star players.”
Atlanta United had five players making at least $568,000 in its first season and eight that earned that much in 2018, when it won the MLS Cup. But just three of those players remain and only five starters from the 2018 championship game are still on the team.
One of those is Martínez, the Golden Boot winner in 2018. But he was injured in the second half of this season’s opener and will miss the rest of the year. Without him Atlanta is 3-7-2 and listed 25th among 26 teams in ESPN’s latest MLS power rankings.
Bank said teams can mitigate the budget crunch by selling players, as LAFC did when it sent Zimmerman to Nashville for as much as $1.25 million in allocation money and a valuable international roster spot. But that also proved costly since LAFC has yet to find a dependable replacement at center back and now finds itself stung by a series of injuries that has sidelined three defenders.
As a result LAFC (4-5-3), which allowed a league-low 37 goals last season, has conceded 27 goals in 12 games.
Obviously the additional allocation money doesn’t guarantee success for expansion teams. Cincinnati won just six games in its first season last year and finds itself three points from the bottom of the Eastern Conference again this year. And Inter Miami and Nashville, the two newest MLS teams, are a combined 6-12-5.
Clearly LAFC and Atlanta United had a strategic plan for how they wanted to spend their money and both executed it perfectly over the short term. But it’s not a blueprint everyone can follow, nor is it one that guarantees success over the long term.
“My theory is that Cincinnati and Nashville never got the stars that LAFC and Atlanta did and they may have overpaid for some of their depth,” Bank said. “That diminished any expansion bump.”
Speaking of blueprints…
A couple of obvious patterns have emerged for LAFC and the Galaxy, who both lost last weekend and are now separated by goal differential in the battle of the Western Conference’s final playoff berth.
Consider LAFC: In 10 of the team’s 12 regular-season games, including the three played during the MLS Is Back tournament, it has conceded first and been forced to play from behind. And excluding the games in Florida, which were played at a neutral site, LAFC is winless on the road, where it has been outscored 12-1 and shut out three times in four games. But it is 3-1-1 at home, where it has outscored opponents 15-6.
LAFC had one of the league’s best home records through its first two seasons but much of the credit for that went to the team’s rambunctious supporters and the streak of 39 consecutive MLS sellouts, including playoffs, at Banc of California Stadium. Maybe that wasn’t as big a factor as advertised though since LAFC has played three games there without fans this summer and scored nine goals.
Kaye said that doesn’t necessarily mean LAFC’s season has been a tale of two cities, one being Los Angeles and the other being the road.
“We’ve had trouble at home too, so I don’t think it’s just road games,” he said. “We are not as sharp as we need to be. There is a lack of concentration on certain plays, myself included. So I have to raise my level and hopefully that will help other guys in the games.
“It is just a difficult time for the team.”
How difficult? Well two of the three goals LAFC conceded in last week’s loss at Seattle came on penalty kicks. And the shutout loss left the team with a losing record for the second time in nine days – LAFC had never had a losing record entering this month – and a negative goal differential of -2, largest in franchise history.
The loss also left LAFC ninth in the 12-team Western Conference standings with 11 gaming remaining. On the positive side, six of LAFC’s final 11 regular-season games will be at home, beginning with Wednesday’s match against Vancouver.
The team may also be getting healthier. Although Vela remains several weeks away from returning from a torn MCL, Atuesta was able to play 45 minutes in Seattle, his longest outing since injuring his right foot in Florida.
With Atuesta on the field, LAFC was unbeaten through seven MLS games, including two in the knockout round of the Florida tournament that won’t count in the standings. Since his injury, the team is 2-5-0.
“Facing adversity and having a real way as a group to play through it, that is the challenge for us,” coach Bob Bradley said. “When you go through a tough stretch it just seems like no matter what, things go against you.”
For the Galaxy the patterns are tougher to spot and may be more a curiosity than a bellwether. The team is winless in the five games Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the team’s biggest offseason acquisition, has appeared in but were unbeaten in the six he missed with a calf tear.
Hernández, the Mexican national team’s all-time leading scorer, has just a goal and no assists in five games and is averaging a shot on target every 113 minutes – not exactly the production the Galaxy anticipated when they spent nearly $16 million in transfer fees and salaries on him this season.
“Obviously we expect a little more,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “He’s coming from an injury, didn’t play in the last two months. Sometimes you need some games to get better.”
The home field seems to be neither a boost or a burden for the Galaxy this season: they are 2-2-0 at Dignity Heath Sports Park and 2-2-3 on the road, including three games in Florida. They’ve been shutout three times and goalkeeper David Bingham has pitched three shutouts of his own. And after opening the season by going winless in their first five games, the Galaxy ran off a four-game winning streak and are now winless in their last two.
Now the degree of difficulty picks up. Wednesday’s trip to Salt Lake City will be the team’s longest since returning from Florida more than two months ago. It’s also the first of 12 the Galaxy will play between then and Nov. 8, six of which will be on the road. Also ahead are two home games with the defending league champion Seattle Sounders and probably one in Seattle on the artificial turf.
Under the league’s new COVID-19 travel restrictions, teams do not stay overnight in road markets, meaning they leave the morning of the game, spend the afternoon resting in a hotel, then return home immediately following the match.
That makes for long days of up to 20 hours between the time a player leaves his house on game-day morning and his arrival back home well after midnight the next day.
“It takes a toll on your body,” Bingham said. “But at the end of the day every team’s doing the exact same thing. It is what it is this year. Some trips are harder than others, but it’s no excuse for the 90 minutes on the field. You’ve got to go there and you’ve got to perform.”
MLS has made one major concession to the difficultly of same-day trips by paying for charter flights. Until this season MLS teams flew commercials on all but a small handful of trips each season.
“Going on a charter flight compared to a commercial flight is night and day,” Bingham said, confirming the opinion of everyone who has ever flown both ways. “Going on a commercial flight is the worst situation for a pro athlete, to be honest. In regards to sleeping after the game, I don’t think any player can sleep after a game. You’re up to 3, 4, 5 in the morning regardless.
“That actually kind of works out with this schedule because you’re usually landing around 2 or 3 a.m. depending where we’re coming from. It’s a long day, but the exciting part is you get to play games. Plus the way the year is going, playing games is the most important thing and the most fun as well. It kind of makes it all worth it.”
LAFC’s lack of depth figures to be severely tested in October, which is shaping up to be a pivotal month in the team’s drive to a third consecutive playoff appearance.
Vela’s return remains uncertain and it looks like the team could be missing Rossi and Rodríguez for as many as three games after both forwards were named to Uruguay’s 26-man preliminary roster for World Cup qualifiers with Chile and Ecuador on Oct. 8 and 13.
Rossi leads the league in scoring with 10 goals while Rodríguez is tied for second in assists with six. Rodríguez, of course, could be gone much longer if the deal with Torino goes through.
The next phase of the MLS schedule is expected to be released Tuesday but with LAFC needing to play 11 games in 46 days beginning with Wednesday’s match against Vancouver, it’s likely the team will play three times a week throughout October.
If Vela is unable to play, the loss of Rossi and Rodríguez would leave Bradley Wright-Phillips as the only available forward with more than 18 games of MLS experience.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, will lose winger Cristian Pavón, a league MVP candidate, and defender Rolf Feltscher. Pavón has been called up for Argentina, which has qualifying matches with Ecuador and Bolivia, while Feltscher will play for Venezuela against Colombia and Paraguay.
Pavón leads the team in goals (6) and assists (4) but the Galaxy are hopeful they will have newly acquired Colombian attacker Yony González available as soon as this weekend. González, who arrived in the U.S. from Brazil this week, must go through a short COVID-19 quarantine before joining the team in training.
In meantime Schelotto said Hernández and midfielder Jonathan dos Santos are ready to start after recuperating from injuries and could help make up for Pavón’s absence.
The loss of Feltscher, who missed last Saturday’s loss to Colorado with a minor injury, may be even easier to absorb with Julian Araujo available to step in his spot. However Araujo won’t make the trip to Real Salt Lake after getting a red card in the Colorado match.
COVID-19 losses…and gains
Remember when COVID-19 temporarily stilled elite soccer in Europe last spring, leading some of the top leagues and richest teams to predict financial ruin so great the sport might never recover?
I know five months feels like an entirety in 2020, but here’s Andy Pilley, chairman of third-tier English team Fleetwood Town, speaking with ESPN in April:
“We run the real risk of losing many famous football clubs. It could destroy the integrity of the competitions we love as football supporters. Ultimately the crisis may threaten the very existence of our football clubs if sufficient action is not taken. My concern is that we might have double figures of clubs that go to the wall.”
That panic led owners to demand concessions from players and those with Barcelona, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund and Union Berlin, among other teams, quickly agreed to pay cuts to protect clubs and/or their employees. But the union representing players in the English Premier League declined, partly because it didn’t trust some of the billionaires running the EPL’s teams, owners who seemed disinclined to make real sacrifices of their own.
The financial damage the pandemic did is real. The European Clubs’ Association, which represents 232 teams, estimates COVID-19 will cost the sport between $4.3-$4.5 billion. (That makes Don Garber’s prediction MLS and its 26 teams will lose as much as $1 billion specious at best.)
So with all of Europe’s major leagues already back for the new season, the dire predictions of financial ruin appear to have been a bit overstated. That led Rory Smith of the New York Times to look at the seeming disconnect between the calls for COVID-19 belt-tightening and some teams’ wild spending.
Consider the EPL. Smith says the league will have to pay back $212 million in rights fees to Sky Sports, its principal domestic broadcast partner, and has canceled a $734-million TV deal with China. Teams could take a further $900 million hit if the entire season is played without fans.
And those as just the big-ticket items. As COVID-19 continues to impact economies around the world, cable and satellite TV subscriptions will fall, advertising revenues and jerseys sales will dip and sponsorships will be canceled. All that will impact the bottom line eventually, a revenue decline for which teams should be preparing
Yet when Smith visited the transfer market, he found the clubs in Europe’s five top leagues had spent a combined $2.5 billion as of mid-September. Tottenham, which borrowed $226 million from the government to offset COVID-19 losses, spent nearly a quarter of that loan amount on just two players.
Arsenal, which laid off 55 employees in August, opened September by spending $30 million for Lille center back Gabriel. It also gave captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang a new three-year deal.
What does it all mean? For one, it suggests wealthy teams -- as well as smart, well-managed ones like Sevilla, which last month won its sixth Europa League title – will probably survive the worst of the financial harm wrought by the virus. In fact, they may actually strengthen their positions if lesser clubs are forced to sell players cheaply to stay in the black.
But it also proves the EPL players’ union was right when it refused to trust the owners’ cries of poverty and requests for sacrifice.
“I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more hidden talents out there that people don’t know about because some kids aren’t given opportunities. Take for instance in MLS. The coaches, they feel no type of pressure when it comes to promotion and relegation and they’re still struggling to play their young players.”
National team player Weston McKennie, who debuted for Italy’s Juventus last weekend, talking to SI.com about the level of young talent in the U.S.
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