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Soccer newsletter: LAFC and the Galaxy are heading in opposite directions

Brian Rodriguez runs alongside a Galaxy player.
(LAFC)

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 LAFC and the Galaxy, teams once again heading in opposite directions and teams that will look substantially different as they continue toward the finish line of a compacted regular season.

LAFC lost four starters Monday with forwards Diego Rossi, the league’s leading scorer with 12 goals, and Brian Rodríguez, who is tied for third in assists with seven, joining the Uruguayan national team and midfielder José Cifuentes and defender Diego Palacios heading to Ecuador. Both countries will begin World Cup qualifying this week.

The quartet will miss as many as five games and the departures couldn’t come at worst time for LAFC, which is finally starting to find its stride. Sunday’s win over Real Salt Lake gave LAFC three wins in five tries for the first time this season; it was also the team’s first win on the road.

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The last-place Galaxy will be without defender Rolf Feltscher and midfielder Jonathan dos Santos for the next three weeks after Feltscher left to join Venezuela’s national team for its two qualifiers while Dos Santos is in the Netherlands, where Mexico will play a pair of friendlies.

Their absences won’t cost the Galaxy momentum, however, since the team doesn’t have any. The Galaxy haven’t won in a month and has just two goals – both from Sebastian Lletget – during its second five-game winless streak of the season.

The World Cup qualifiers and Mexico’s two friendlies will be played between Oct. 7-13. And with MLS requiring a 10-day COVID-19 quarantine for most players returning from international travel, it’s unlikely any of the six players will be available until the Oct. 25 El Tráfico at the earliest. Rossi was originally left off Uruguay’s final qualifying roster but was added Monday as an injury replacement for Cristhian Stuani of Girona.

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Although FIFA rules generally require clubs to release players summoned by their national teams, those rules have been relaxed because of COVID-19. If a call-up would require a quarantine before a player returns to his club, teams can contest it -- as New York City FC and D.C. United did when they declined requests to release players for qualifiers and European-based friendlies. But LAFC coach Bob Bradley, a former coach for both the U.S. and Egyptian national teams, chose not to do so.

“We’re excited when our players get called into their national team,” he said. “We hope that now they can go and do well. Then we’ll get them back and hopefully they are in good form and with a lot of confidence.”

In the meantime, their absences will leave LAFC dangerously thin at two key positions.

With Carlos Vela’s return from a knee injury uncertain, losing Rossi, an MVP candidate, and Rodríguez leaves Bradley Wright-Phillips as LAFC’s only true forward with more than 18 games of MLS experience. Among the backups is 16-year-old Christian Torres, an academy graduate who has played 24 minutes as a professional.

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Palacios’ departure further weakens a back line that has conceded 30 goals in 15 games – seven less than LAFC allowed in 34 games a year ago. The defense is so fragile Bradley has been using midfielder Latif Blessing at right back and started outside back Jordan Harvey in the middle in Sunday’s win over Real Salt Lake.

All this comes at the busiest time of the season for LAFC, which will play eight times in three states and two time zones in 32 days, beginning with Wednesday’s trip to mile-high Denver for a game with the Colorado Rapids. The calendar is so booked, in fact, LAFC will not have another uninterrupted week of training this month.

Bradley said the extra practice played a big part in his team’s 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake last Sunday.

“We had a really good week of training and it was nice to be able to have a Thursday training session were the tempo was faster and we could really push things,” he said.

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Wright-Phillips agreed.

“We had a nice seven-day week of training,” said Wright-Phillips, whose first-half goal was his eighth of the season, good for fourth in the league. He also assisted on a second-half score by Rodríguez, giving him four goals and three assists in his last five games.

With Rossi also scoring, it was the second time this season all three forwards scored in the same game for LAFC. The three road goals tripled the team’s output from its first four road games this season.

It was hardly a LAFC-style win though: the team was outshot, completed just three-quarters of its passes — far less in the attacking half — and only narrowly won the possession battle. But style points don’t really matter at this point of the season: the result left the team in the middle of the chase for a top-eight spot in the Western Conference standings and the playoff berth that goes with that.

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“Not our best football,” conceded Bradley, who called the win important. “Sometimes on the road you don’t play as well as you’d like but you find ways to win. I think that that’s a credit for the players.”

Things are even more complicated for the hapless Galaxy who, with a match against Seattle to make up, will play nine times in 32 days beginning with Wednesday’s home encounter with the Portland Timbers. How much the losses of Feltscher and Dos Santos will impact that is uncertain.

Mistakes by Feltscher led to both San Jose goals in last Saturday’s 2-1 loss. In his absence the Galaxy will likely slide Julian Araujo to right back, his natural position, and use the newly acquired Yony Gonzalez on the wing. On paper that would appear to make the Galaxy stronger although it leaves them with little depth if Araujo, who has been suspended for two games already this season, continues to draw yellow cards.

Dos Santos, who missed the MLS Is Back tournament after undergoing surgery to repair a hernia, has started just four games this season – none of which the Galaxy won – and has gone 90 minutes only once. The Galaxy have been outscored 10-6 in the 482 minutes Dos Santos has played this season.

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The Galaxy get to keep winger Cristian Pavón, who was on Argentina’s preliminary roster for its two qualifiers but did not make the final cut. Pavón is tied with Lletget for the team lead in goals with six and tops the Galaxy in assists with five, although he’s made the scoresheet just once during the five-game winless slide.

Also staying with the team – and this might be a bad thing – is Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the team’s most expensive off-season signing yet one who has so far proven to be a bust. Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, Hernández has just one goal for the Galaxy after his left-footed shot at a gapping net Saturday inexplicably hit the post.

But wait, it gets worse.

Hernández has fewer shots on goal – four – than Pavón or Lletget have scores and the Galaxy have yet to win a game he has played in, going 0-6-2 and getting shut out four times in his eight appearances and 4-1-1 when he watches from the sideline. That has made Hernández a focus of criticism during the team’s struggles – criticism he said he doesn’t hear.

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“I know nothing about that because people aren’t going to believe that I don’t read anything,” he said unconvincingly. “I just speak with the manager and the manager is happy with my performances.

“Obviously he would love for all of us to improve, you know what I mean? I always try to give my best effort. He said my stats are very good, that he’s very happy with that.”

That’s unlikely. With the seat under Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto once again growing hotter, it’s hard to see how he could be happy with no production from a player that cost the team a record transfer fee of nearly $10 million as well as a designated-player salary of $6 million annually.

What is certain is that the Galaxy are on pace for their second last-place finish in four seasons – they had never finished last before 2017. That would also leave them out of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, just the second time that has happened, while extending to six the number of years the team has gone without appearing in an MLS Cup final.

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The longest previous drought between Cup finals was three seasons, 2006-08.

Taking a stand, not a knee

Back when the Galaxy were good, Landon Donovan was often leading the attack, scoring 113 of his 145 MLS goals for the team while taking it to four league titles. He was so good, in fact, the league’s MVP trophy is named after him.

Now Donovan is raising the bar for what it means to be a coach, general manager and leader with the San Diego Loyal of the second-tier USL Championship. Twice in the last two weeks he refused to simply take a knee to make a statement against intolerance, choosing instead to stand for those values by giving up valuable points in the standings and a possible playoff berth instead.

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The first incident came after a 1-1 draw with LA Galaxy II at Dignity Health Sports Park on Sept. 23 when the Loyal asked to forfeit the point it earned to protest a racial slur Galaxy II defender Omar Ontiveros used against San Diego’s Elijah Martin, a former Galaxy II player who is Black.

“What’s the point of the BLM jerseys/armbands, the kneeling before every game and the commitment to ending racism if we don’t address it when it happens right before our eyes?“ Donovan wrote on Twitter. “This is NEVER acceptable and we will not stand for it.”

After an investigation in which the Loyal’s contentions were not challenged, the USL Championship suspended Ontiveros, who was later released by the Galaxy.

In San Diego’s next game last Wednesday, with the Loyal leading 3-1 over the Phoenix Rising in a game it had to win to have a chance at reaching the playoffs in its inaugural season, Donovan took his team off the field at the start of the second half to protest the homophobic slur Phoenix’s Junior Flemmings used against San Diego’s Collin Martin, who is gay.

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Donovan claimed Flemmings, a Jamaican, called Martin “batty boy,” a derogatory Jamaican term for homosexual. The epithet was reportedly heard by players and coaches on both teams at an empty University of San Diego stadium. Martin was expelled from the game for his response to the slur but the red card was rescinded after he explained to an official the context.

Flemmings denied making the comment.

“This accusation is false and my fellow teammates will support my claim,” he wrote on Twitter. “At no point did I say a homophobic slur towards Collin Martin. I stand in solidarity with the LBGTQ+ movement.”

Donovan didn’t wait for explanations. After an animated halftime discussion with Phoenix coach Rick Schantz, Donovan told referee Joseph Salinas that San Diego would not continue unless Flemmings was removed from the game. A video of the incident shows Donovan pleading “This is beyond soccer. We need to get this out of our sport.”

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Schantz, who never played soccer professionally, responded by challenging Donovan, the most decorated player in U.S. history. “It’s got nothing to do with racism. They’re competing,” he said. “How long have you been playing soccer?”

When Salinas refused to expel Flemmings and Schantz refused to substitute him out of the match, the Loyal came onto the field for the second half, took a knee, then returned to their locker room. The Rising were awarded a 3-0 forfeit win, eliminating San Diego from playoff contention.

“Our guys, to their immense credit, just said, ‘We’re not going to stand for this,’ Donovan said. “They were very clear in that moment that they were giving up all hopes of making the playoffs, even though they were beating one of the best teams in the league handily. But they said that doesn’t matter, there’s things more important in life and we have to stick up for what we believe in. And so they made the decision to walk off.”

The next day the Rising issued a statement saying Flemmings and Schantz were taking “administrative leave,” adding that the club “is actively anti-homophobia and anti-racist and has a zero tolerance policy for actions which run contrary to these core values.”

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Phoenix and LA Galaxy II will advance to the USL Championship playoffs but because Donovan and the Loyal stood up, those teams will be moving on without two players and a head coach.

“We made a vow to ourselves, to our community, to our players, the club, to USL that we would not stand for bigotry, homophobic slurs, things that don’t belong in our game,” Donovan, who is also the team’s executive vice-president of soccer operations, said in a video released by the Loyal. “So much so that on our sign boards we made a statement saying ‘I will act, I will speak’.”

“We don’t just want to talk about it,” he added “we actually want to do it and we wanted to send a message….If we wanted to be true to who we are as a club, we have to speak. We have to act.”

The young and the restless

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U.S. national team Gregg Berhalter spent the majority of his playing career in Europe with clubs such as Zwolle, Sparta Rotterdam, Cambuur Leeuwarden and Energie Cottbus – clubs most people have to Google.

“When we used to play, you line up against Ronaldo or Christian Vieri, you want[ed] their uniforms after the game,” Berhalter said in a recent interview with SiriusXM FC. “Now we have guys playing with these guys. They go back to the same club as these guys.”

Indeed. As the Washington Post’s Steve Goff pointed out last week, with Barcelona’s acquisition of teenaged defender Sergiño Dest, the U.S. national team could now field a complete lineup of players from major European clubs such as Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Leipzig. On the bench would be others from Fulham, Tottenham, Lille and Barcelona.

Dest, 19, became the first American to play for Barcelona in La Liga when he entered in the 75th minute of Sunday’s draw with Sevilla. That same day defender Chris Richards, 20. made his first start for Bayern Munich and assisted on one of Robert Lewandowksi’s four goals in a win over Hertha Berlin and Antonee Robinson, 23, made his Premier League debut for Fulham, starting at left back alongside American Tim Ream in a loss to Wolves.

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The day before Gio Reyna, 17, earned a standing ovation from a socially distanced crowd of 11,500 after assisting on three of Borussia Dortmund’s four goals in a 4-0 win over Freiburg. He’s the youngest player to record a three-assist game in the Bundesliga since the league began tracking that stat and has been involved in five of his team’s seven goals this season.

And the day before he did that, former Galaxy academy player Uly Llanez, 19, made his Eredivisie debut in Heerenveen’s draw with Utrecht.

There’s also Tim Weah, 20, who came off the bench for Lille in France’s Ligue 1, Reggie Cannon, 22, went the full 90 minutes in Portugal for Boavista in its Primeira Liga draw with Moreirense, and Weston McKennie, 22, who has started twice for Italian giant Juventus alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, earning praise from Berhalter.

“The dynamic that he’s able to play with, even at that level. It looks like almost a different level to everyone else there,” Berhalter said of McKennie. “In terms of his speed and his strength that he’s playing [with], that’s exciting.”

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It’s the deepest and most talented crop of young players in U.S. soccer history and the confidence they are getting from playing on the biggest stages in the club game can’t be overstated. Consider Christian Pulisic, who has already worn the captain’s armband at 22. Slowed by injury this season he played eight minutes for Chelsea over the weekend but he’s made Champions League appearances for teams from two leagues.

“You look at Christian,” Berhalter said. “It’s become very clear within the last year how he can make the biggest impact. And I think Gio [Reyna] is in the same boat. What I like about him is his ability to score goals, I like his physicality, he’s very fluid on the ball, good turning in the pockets. So there’s a lot of positive things to his performances.

“Now it’s about a couple things: can he continue that on and can he see this as an opportunity to just keep getting better instead of just maintaining status quo. Can he keep improving?”

Having that much young talent playing significant roles for major clubs would seem to make Berhalter’s job easier, but it also increases the pressure to win now.

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“That’s how you start winning consistently. You need quality. And when you have your players playing at that level, that’s certainly quality,” he said.

“It’s a different level,” Berhalter continued. “Now our job is to bring these guys together and get the most out of them.”

Don’t forget the ladies

As good as the U.S. men may be, the team has never made it past the quarterfinals of a World Cup. The U.S. women, on the other hand, have won four titles and their players are also taking Europe by storm.

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The jerseys of two-time champions Christen Press and Tobin Heath, who made their Women’s Super League debuts for Manchester United over the weekend, outsold those of every player on Man U’s men’s team in the days following their signing. Heath marked her debut with an assist in a 3-0 win.

Former UCLA star Sam Mewis had a goal in Manchester City’s win last weekend while teammate Rose Lavelle played 28 minutes off the bench. Alex Morgan, recently signed by Tottenham, was not available for selection in her team’s first match.

Closer to home fledging NWSL franchise Angel City began hiring its front-office staff this week, naming Jessica Smith, who spent four years with the MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes, head of corporate partnerships. Part of Smith’s job will include heading a unique collaboration with the team’s corporate partners that will require each to allocate 10% of the value of their sponsorship “for social impact.”

And for those who were hoping the team would partner with either the Galaxy or LAFC to share training space, there was this nugget buried in the news release: “The team is also exploring building a premier training facility to be utilized by the team as well as a resource for the community given market interest.”

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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

“When you turn up to stadiums or even at the Banc, it’s a weird one. I think I’m used to it now–it’s a game at the end of the day. We wish we could have the fans. I’m still angry I haven’t got to play in front of the fans of LAFC but it’s just how it is this year.”

LAFC forward Bradley Wright-Phillips on playing in empty stadiums – including his team’s home at Banc of California -- seven months after COVID-19 suspended play around the world

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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