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Soccer newsletter: Galaxy still seeking that roadmap to success

Javier Hernandez of the Galaxy.
(LA 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 surprising statistic, one that may go a long way toward putting the Galaxy’s current struggles in perspective:

Since the team’s last MLS Cup championship in 2014, the Galaxy have lost more games than they’ve won. They aren’t under .500 by much – the team is 67-68-48 over that span, with 18 of those losses coming in the disastrous 2017 season -- but they’ve done that despite fielding a glittering array of talent.

In the last 5½ seasons, no other team is MLS has seen a procession of stars like Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, Steven Gerrard, Gio dos Santos, Omar Gonzalez, Jonathan dos Santos, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristian Pavón and Javier Hernández file through its locker room. Yet in each of the last two years the Galaxy won just one more game than they lost, making the playoffs only once since 2016.

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And they haven’t made an MLS Cup final in nearly six seasons, the longest drought in franchise history.

That might qualify as success in some places. The Colorado Rapids, for example, have had just two winning seasons since 2011 and have lost at least 18 games four times in a season since then. But this is the Galaxy, the five-time league champions and the gold standard by which MLS teams were once measured.

That last part, by the way, is no longer true now that mediocrity has replaced excellence

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What’s been missing since coach and general manager Bruce Arena left in 2016 is a true club culture – a mission statement that defines what the club stands for, how it plays and serves as the prism through which all its decisions are made.

Culture doesn’t guarantee success of course – Atlanta United has a well-defined club culture and it’s a mess this season. But without one, it’s hard to build momentum and it’s hard to maintain a structure.

The Galaxy have had neither in the last 3½ seasons, when it has played under four managers and used at least that many playing styles.

In 2017, after Arena left to coach the U.S. national team, team president Chris Klein promoted Galaxy II coach Curt Onalfo to the first team and cut the payroll nearly in half, saying good-bye to Keane, Gerrard, Donovan, Alan Gordon, Jeff Larentowicz, Dan Kennedy and Mike Magee – all of whom were over 30 and had played at least 125 games in MLS. Replacing them were Nathan Smith, Bradley Diallo, Hugo Arellano, Ari Lassiter, Jaime Villarreal and Clement Diop, none of whom had participated in more than four MLS games entering the season.

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This was to be the club’s new direction. But with academy and Galaxy II graduates accounting for nearly 40% of the playing time, Onalfo – and that new direction -- lasted just 20 games. The coach was fired and replaced by Sigi Schmid, who made a hard U-turn and took the team back in the other direction.

The next season, 36-year-old Ibrahimovic led the team in goals and assists, 37-year-old Ashley Cole was second on the team in minutes – yet Schmid, too, was fired. His assistant, Dominic Kinnear, finished out the season.

Ahead of 2019 the front office upended things yet again. Dennis te Kloese came in as general manager and Guillermo Barros Schelotto as coach to begin what Te Kloese said was a three-year rebuilding project. But the playing philosophy basically remained “get the ball to Zlatan” and for the most part it worked, with Ibrahimovic scoring more than half the team’s goal and leading the team back to the playoffs.

That was hardly a foundation on which to build a future, however, and when Zlatan left the team had to reinvent itself again.

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Which brings us to this season. With Ibrahimovic gone, the Galaxy have gone to the pressing 4-2-3-1 style preferred by Schelotto, the first man since Arena to start consecutive seasons as the Galaxy manager. The lineup is a mix of young (Julian Araujo, Ethan Zubak, Nic DePuy) and old (Hernández, Emiliano Insúa, David Bingham, Jonathan dos Santos). The results, however, remains mixed.

The season started with a five-game winless streak followed by a four-game winning streak, equaling the longest in MLS this season. Now the team is on the skids again, having lost three straight while scoring just once in the last four games.

Hernández, who cost the team a club-record transfer fee of nearly $10 million, has one goal, hasn’t played in a game the team won and sometimes appears disinterested. Pavón, who leads the team in goals and assists, has put just one shot on target in the last three games. And without a club culture, the principles that guide a team through difficult times, the Galaxy have no roadmap to help them get back on track.

Last year they relied on Zlatan for that and he’s gone, leaving the players grasping both for reasons to explain the latest skid and for ideas on how to stop it.

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“You know soccer, and with most sports, you’re always going to have mistakes, you’re always going to do some things that are wrong in that moment but you need to overcome, show that personality,” Hernández said. “You need to learn quick. I think that’s what we are lacking in the moment.”

It’s a little more complicated than that said Sebastian Lletget, the longest-tenured Galaxy player.

“I wish it was just one thing where we could fix one point, and everything would just fall in place,” he said. “Getting everyone on the same page, unfortunately that takes time and we don’t really have time. It’s unfortunate in that sense but it’s just back to the drawing board.

“Our attitude, as well, including myself. We all need to start better. We need to be that much sharper, that much more intense.”

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DePuy focused on a lack of focus.

“We’ve had mental lapses as a group. When we went on that run and that winning streak, I think everybody was focused the whole game,” he said. “We’ve got to learn; we have to get better.”

That’s especially true of a front office that no longer seems able to define who the Galaxy are or where they are going.

Speaking of struggles, what about LAFC?

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While the Galaxy attempt to explain away their inconsistencies as a lack of attitude and focus, LAFC’s season defies description.

If you leave out the MLS Is Back tournament in Florida, which was played at a neutral site, LAFC hasn’t won a road game in four tries this season – and didn’t even score in three of them. Nor has it won consecutive games, something it had a chance to do Sunday when it was stunned by cellar-dwelling San Jose 2-1 at Banc of California Stadium.

A year ago, LAFC had separate winning streaks of five, four and three games en route to the best regular season in MLS history.

“We lost this game. Simple as that,” midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “We know that. Our standard is very high and I think we let ourselves down.”

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Only it’s not that simple. Even with the loss, LAFC is 4-2-1 at BOC with a league-high 20 home goals. On the road the team is 0-4 and has been outscored 12-1.

Sunday’s loss, on a backheel goal deep in stoppage time, was LAFC’s first in six games with San Jose and the Quakes’ first win since the Florida tournament, ending a nine-game winless streak that included three losses by five or more goals and one by four scores.

Just as maddening for LAFC is the fact it scored just once against San Jose, which has conceded a league-high 39 times this season, five days after matching a franchise high with six goals in a 6-0 win over Vancouver. In that game, Bob Bradley’s team tied or broke a number of records.

—Dejan Jakovic’s goal in the second minute was the fastest in club history

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—LAFC’s four goals in 14 minutes made it the quickest team to four goals in a game. When it scored again in the 33rd minute, it became the fastest team to five goals

—The margin of victory was the greatest in club history.

—Two of the first three goals were scored by Bradley Wright-Phillips, who jumped over LAFC assistant Ante Razov into sixth on league’s all-time scoring list with 115 goals.

The brace gave Wright-Phillips seven goals in 11 games after scoring only twice in 24 appearances while battling a groin injury last year. When the New York Red Bulls failed to re-sign him, LAFC swooped in and offered him a roster spot.

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Razov -- and offseason surgery -- have been key in helping Wright-Phillips get back to form, with the coach getting rewarded for his work by watching his protégé push him down a spot on the league’s scoring list.

“He’s a real goal scorer. He just has a way of finding space in the box,” said Bradley, who coached Razov with three MLS teams. “Ante was a player that if he got any kind of chance on his left foot, he was deadly. Not exactly the same kind of players, but both great strikers. And I know Ante has really enjoyed working with Brad.”

Bradley could have used one of those goals Sunday, with the loss to San Jose dropping LAFC to seventh in the 12-team Western Conference, just two points ahead of Houston in the battle for the final playoff spot. And the road ahead doesn’t get any easier. After a week’s break, LAFC will play its final nine games in 35 days, five of them on the road.

And it may have to do most of that without four starters.

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Forwards Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez are on Uruguay’s preliminary roster for next month’s World Cup qualifiers while defender Diego Palacios and midfielder José Cifuentes are on Ecuador’s. If all four are called up, they would likely leave immediately after Sunday’s game at Real Salt Lake and miss the team’s next three MLS matches.

And because the league is requiring players who leave the U.S. to quarantine for at least 10 days upon return, they could three more games when they get back.

The next round of South American qualifiers will be played in November, conflicting with the early round of the MLS playoffs.

Are the Whitecaps getting caught napping?

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Even before last week’s one-sided loss to LAFC it had been a long season for the Vancouver Whitecaps, who have played just four games at home this season. Like the rest of league, the Whitecaps had their season paused four months by COVID-19, then spent more than three weeks in quarantine in Florida for the MLS Is Back tournament.

Then things really took a turn earlier this month when MLS relocated its three Canadian teams – Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver – to the U.S. for the remainder of the season because of a coronavirus-related ban on non-essential border travel. The Whitecaps wound up in Portland, which led to the strange scenario of Vancouver playing what was designated as a “home” game Sunday in Province Park against the Timbers, who began playing in that stadium 21 years before the first MLS season.

That’s one of six home games the Whitecaps will play in Portland, twice the number the team will play in Vancouver.

But the unusual surroundings, separation from family, a compact schedule that will see the team play nine games in the next 36 days and the exhausting MLS road trips, which must be completed in a day to conform with the league’s COVID-19 protocol, have resulted in other hurdles for the Wandering Whitecaps: boredom and fatigue.

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Coach Marc dos Santos said the team is battling those with a decidedly low-tech remedy: naps.

“We don’t have to tell them to go for naps. They actually love to nap,” he said of his players.

“It’s hard for me to think that the teams are playing at their full physical and mental capacity,” he continued. “Because right now, playing every three days, such a condensed schedule, with the type of travelling in and out, for sure it affects fatigue, it affects fitness levels, concentration levels in some moments. And that is something that is a new experience for all of us.”

Defender Ali Adnan agreed.

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“Most of the players, they need to sleep in the afternoon,” he said. “We need to rest. That’s the reason why we are not going outside a lot. We have so many games coming up right now we need to take care about the body.”

I thought lions couldn’t get COVID

Forget Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. The unique coronavirus may have finally met its match in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

“COVID had the courage to challenge me. Bad idea,” the former Galaxy captain wrote on social media.

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Ibrahimovic, in his second season at AC Milan, said he tested negative last Wednesday but positive the next day in a second round of swab tests ahead of the team’s Europa League match with Norway’s Bodo/Glimt in Milan. He said he felt fine and showed no symptoms of the virus either day.

As a result of the positive test he was required to quarantine at home. No other team or staff member tested positive. Ibrahimovic, who scored both goals in Milan’s 2-0 Serie A-opening win over Bologna, also missed Sunday’s league game with Crotone.

Ibrahimovic, who turns 39, set up an online fundraiser in March to help hospitals at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy. He launched that campaign with a video message he ended by saying: “And remember, if the virus doesn’t go to Zlatan, Zlatan goes to the virus.”

Looks like the two finally met.

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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

“It’s a bad loss.”

LAFC coach Bob Bradley after his team was beaten by last-place San Jose, just its third regular-season loss at Banc of California Stadium in 30 games.

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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