Soccer newsletter: There is a lot of blame to go around on the Galaxy
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with the Galaxy, where Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s job as manager hangs by a thread after Sunday’s 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps.
But the team’s troubles go far beyond the technical area and the responsibility for restoring the franchise to past glory will depend on more than just who the coach is.
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The victory, on Kai Koreniuk’s stoppage-time goal, his first in MLS, snapped the team’s losing streak at six games, one short of matching the 14-year-old franchise record for futility. It also ended a seven-game winless streak.
However it did little to restore confidence in Schelotto or the front office he’s working for since the Galaxy (5-9-3) remain last in the 12-team Western Conference, four places and three points out of a playoff berth with three weeks left in the season.
And the team they barely beat leads the league with 12 losses.
Handpicked by general manager Dennis te Kloese to help guide a three-year rebuilding project, Schelotto joined the Galaxy in January 2019 after leading Boca Juniors to two first-division titles in Argentina. But he’s failed to implement a cohesive playing style or inspire his players and the Galaxy have languished as a result.
Admittedly it’s been an unusual season with COVID-19 forcing a four-month pause that was followed by a quarantined tournament in Florida and a return to play in empty stadiums. But Toronto FC has had an even tougher time, being forced to relocate to Hartford, Conn., after the Canadian border was closed, and it has the best record in the league at 12-2-5.
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In Schelotto’s first season, the team’s strategy was little more complicated than sending the ball forward for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. And he made that work, scoring 30 goals and leading the Galaxy to the playoffs.
This season, with Ibrahimovic gone and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández playing most of the season as the target striker, Schelotto has failed to find a new plan that works.
The blame isn’t all Schelotto’s. Hernández has been such a bust that Koreniuk’s goal Sunday gave him as many scores in four minutes as Chicharito has in 692. Injuries and international duty have limited Jonathan dos Santos to four starts, Gianacarlo González struggled so mightily at center back he was benched after four games and goalkeeper David Bingham’s goals-against average of 2.0 is second-highest in MLS among keepers with at least five appearances.
Of greater relevance is the fact the Galaxy’s failures this year are part of the pattern that dates to Bruce Arena’s departure as coach and general manager after the 2016 season.
In eight full years under Arena the Galaxy won three MLS Cup titles, played in four finals and made the playoffs every season. The team’s overall record was 123-65-76, a winning percentage of 61%.
Since he left, the team has made the playoffs as many times as it has finished last, going 42-54-23 for a winning percentage of 45%. With one loss in the final five games the Galaxy will match the worst four-year stretch in franchise history despite playing just 22 times this year.
That kind of ineptitude can’t be pinned on a coach who has been here less than two seasons. Nor can it be blamed solely on Te Kloese, the general manager hired two months before Schelotto arrived. The dysfunction goes much higher, which is why Dan Beckerman, president of AEG, the Galaxy’s parent company, and team president Chris Klein, need to take responsibility.
The death spiral of a once-proud franchise began in the wake of Arena’s departure when Beckerman and Klein trimmed $10 million in designated-player salary, cut the payroll nearly in half and gave homegrown players and products of the Galaxy’s USL affiliate nearly 40% of the playing time.
They insisted the plan was genius yet pulled the plug on it after 20 games, firing coach Curt Onalfo and making a U turn. The result was an 18-loss season from which the team has never fully recovered.
Yes, the front office has made some brilliant moves since, such as bringing in Ibrahimovic, who gave the Galaxy 52 goals in two seasons and cost less than $10 million. But the list of high-priced failures since 2017 – González, Hernández, Joao Pedro, Jorgen Skjelvik, Michael Ciani, Jermaine Jones, Jack McInerney, who have cost the team more than $20 million combined – is far longer.
Under Beckerman and Klein, who has two full seasons left on a contract extension he signed after the disastrous 2017 season, the Galaxy have lacked a coherent strategy. The pieces simply don’t fit together, so even if the team rallies to make the playoffs this fall, then goes on a long run once there, it won’t mark a step forward as much as it will mark another season hovering in place.
Schelotto and Te Kloese aren’t responsible for all of that since they weren’t here for most of it. That doesn’t mean they won’t be scapegoated though: during the Galaxy’s futile four-year run Beckerman and Klein have had four coaches and three general managers, yet the results haven’t improved.
Firing the coach alone isn’t likely to bring change either. And the fans know that, which is why a coalition of supporters’ groups wrote a letter to the team last week demanding action. “Do something different,” it read. “Keep your staff accountable for their mistakes and poor decisions.”
One supporter stood outside Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday with a sign that read “Klein Out.”
Te Kloese and Schelotto are among those who need to answer for the season. They aren’t alone though. This time that accountability needs to expect beyond the technical area.
Where are they now?
Speaking of turnover, LAFC’s 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers on Sunday was the 100th game in franchise history in all competition (the team is 52-24-24 over that time). Yet just two players who suited up for that game – defenders Dejan Jakovic and Jordan Harvey – were in uniform when the team made its debut in 2018.
There are several reasons for that, many of which help explain why the team used four teenagers in each of its last two games. One of them, defender Erik Dueñas, was the third-youngest player in MLS history when he made his debut earlier this month, four days shy of his 16th birthday.
So where did everyone go?
Goalkeeper Tyler Miller and defender João Moutinho, who started in the 2018 opener, were traded. Defender Steven Beitashour, midfielder Benny Feilhaber and forward Marco Ureña were not resigned when their contracts ran out. Forward Diego Rossi is on international duty, forward Carlos Vela and midfielder Mark Anthony Kaye are injured and center back Laurent Ciman went to French club Dijon on a transfer that first summer only to return to MLS with Toronto four months later.
Midfielder Latif Blessing’s whereabouts remain a mystery. He is not injured or on international duty, so when he missed Sunday’s trip to Portland it was believed he was close to a deal to join Vasco da Gama in Brazil’s first division, a move first reported in Blessing’s native Ghana. LAFC has been mum.
In the meantime, the kids have been alright. Dueñas, who joined the U-12 academy roster before the first team was formed, is the longest-tenured player in LAFC history and he followed his 19-minute debut with 15 minutes off the bench in Sunday’s draw.
Christian Torres, who has played in six games this summer, made his first start and scored his first goal in separate appearances last week. The goal, in stoppage time, was his team’s only score in the draw with the Timbers and it kept LAFC (7-7-4) in fourth place in the Western Conference table.
Bryce Duke, a 19-year-old midfielder, make his 10th MLS appearance in Portland while Mahala Opoku played a career-high 32 minutes off the bench in his third straight game.
“[It’s] step-by-step with our young players,” coach Bob Bradley said. “We continue to try to move them along in a smart way when opportunities present themselves. It’s great to see them show confidence, show personality. We’ve seen good things for all the guys.”
Take that to mean the four teenagers won’t see much playing time when LAFC returns to full strength. But given the rate of turnover at the club, their time probably isn’t too far off.
A woman’s place is in the coach’s box
When Vlatko Andonovski, who we’ll get to in a minute, took over the national team last fall he became the sixth man to coach the U.S. women. And eight of the nine NWSL managers are also men.
Yet there still has never been a woman coach for a major men’s team in the U.S.
That may soon change. D.C. United is reportedly considering Jill Ellis, Andonovski’s predecessor and the winningest coach in U.S. national team history, for its managerial vacancy. The Galaxy should do the same if they decide to part ways with Schelotto because, as I pointed out just before Ellis began her second undefeated run through a World Cup last year, there’s no reason she couldn’t do the job.
Well, no valid reason. As Marjorie A. Snyder, director of research and programs for the Women’s Sports Foundation, told me then there are reasons – though they sound more like excuses.
“There are cultural reasons why. There are environmental reasons why. And it’s a statement obviously about competence,” Snyder said. “Are women competent? Can they do it? It seems like a ridiculous question on the face of it. They’re doctors and lawyers and they’re senators and Congress people.”
So why can’t they coach? Why were all 32 teams in the 2018 World Cup coached by men while nine of the 24 teams in last year’s women tournament led by female coaches?
There are differences between the men’s and women’s games, sure. The men’s game is faster and more physical, for example. But the objectives, the strategies and the Xs and Os remain the same.
And there are few coaches anywhere in the world who have mastered them better than Ellis, 54.
As for managing personalities, Ellis’ teams had big egos -- Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Sydney Leroux. Yet she got them all to buy into the team; she even got Wambach and Lloyd to play off the bench.
“A team that competes, that over the course of time has consistency, everybody can see it,” Bradley, the LAFC manager, said. “In terms of how they play, their style of play, their commitment, their way of competing, this is the craft of coaching. And so you appreciate the people that do it well.”
One of those people, Bradley insists, is Ellis.
“Jill Ellis is a great coach. She’s done a great job,” he said. “Good coaches, in any sport, there’s carryover.”
Bradley isn’t alone in that assessment. When Ellis completed the U.S. Soccer Pro licensing course in 2017 – the lone woman among 17 graduates – many of the MLS coaches in the class came away impressed.
D.C. United is a mess, it’s three wins and 15 points are last in the league, and if Ellis is hired but doesn’t turn things around quickly, critics will cite her performance, and not a lack of talent and resources, as evidence she wasn’t up to the task.
It would be a shame if that happened because if she is given a fair shot there’s little doubt Ellis would succeed. The only thing holding her back is the lack of courage on the part of MLS teams to give her a shot.
World Cup champions get back to work
The women’s national team Ellis turned over to Andonovski a year ago, idle since winning the SheBelieves Cup in March, gathered Sunday in Colorado for its first training camp of the COVID-19 era. And the 26-woman roster is a good indication just how much has changed in the last seven months.
Because of travel restrictions owing to the coronavirus the camp was limited to domestic players, 22 from the NWSL and four from college teams. As a result five members of last summer’s World Cup-winning squad – Morgan, Cristian Press, Tobin Heath, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle – are missing after joining teams in England’s Women’s Super League in the last two months.
“For this camp, it just did not make sense for the players in Europe to leave their club environments, where they are getting quality training, as they are just starting to get settled,” Andonovski said. “But this opens up the important opportunity for other players to step up and show if they can contribute.”
Also uninvited were Lloyd, 38, a two-time world player of the year who is recovering from a knee injury, and Rapinoe, 35, the reigning player of the year. Neither has played a game since March.
Among the 10 uncapped players getting a look are former UCLA midfielder Ashley Sanchez, current Bruin forward Mia Fishel and Stanford midfielder Catarina Macario, a Brazilian native and two-time Hermann Trophy winner who revealed she had secured his U.S. citizenship the day she was called up to the national team.
“We’re very happy and excited for her to start a new chapter in her life,” Andonovski, 44, a native of Macedonia and naturalized U.S. citizen, said.
“For me [the goals] of this camp will be twofold,” he continued. “One is to get everyone up to speed and help them adjust to what is the new normal. And then the other one is going to be a little bit of evaluating to see where some of the new players are.”
According to U.S. Soccer, the training camp will be conducted under strict protocols established by the federation’s medical team. That team is led by chief medical officer Dr. George Chiampas, who helped define the guidelines for the NWSL Challenge Cup and NWSL Fall Series.
When not at training the team and staff will operate inside a controlled environment at a Denver-area hotel, with everyone entering that environment required to undergo multiple COVID-19 tests.
The team will not play a game during the 11-day camp and it’s unclear when it will play again. Its date with destiny in Tokyo, where the U.S. had a chance to become the first team to win World Cup and Olympic titles in consecutive years, was wiped out when last summer’s tournament was canceled by COVID-19.
Given the spiking number of infections worldwide (more about which in a moment), it seems increasingly doubtful the Summer Games will go forward next year either.
The training camp roster
Goalkeepers: Aubrey Bledsoe (Washington Spirit), Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
Defenders: Abby Dahlkemper (NC Courage), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Star), Crystal Dunn (NC Courage), Naomi Girma (Stanford), Sarah Gorden (Chicago Red Stars) Ali Krieger (Orlando Pride), Kelley O’Hara (Utah Royals FC), Margaret Purce (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC)
Midfielders: Shea Groom (Houston Dash), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Morgan Gautrat (Chicago Red Stars), Jaelin Howell (Florida State), Catarina Macario (Stanford), Kristie Mewis (Houston Dash), Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit)
Forwards: Bethany Balcer (OL Reign), Mia Fishel (UCLA), Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC), Kealia Watt (Chicago Red Stars), Lynn Williams (NC Courage)
Apparently President Trump isn’t the only major world figure who has beaten COVID-19 in the last month. Ibrahimovic, the former Galaxy captain now playing in Italy, returned from a four-match coronavirus absence Saturday to score both goals in AC Milan’s Derby win over Inter.
“I was so hungry. They locked the wrong animal in the house,” said Ibrahimovic, who scored both goals in the game’s opening 16 minutes.
However at about the same time Ibrahimovic was returning, Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo was going into isolation after testing positive for the coronavirus while with Portugal during last week’s international break. He joins Ibrahimovic on a long list of top players who have tested positive in the last two months, one that includes Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba, Paulo Dybala, Ángel Di María, Raul Ruidiaz and Diego Costa.
In the U.S., ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle reported last week that 24 MLS players and staff members have tested positive since Sept. 23, leading to the postponement of 10 matches – seven involving the Colorado Rapids. As a result the league may use points per game, as opposed to the conference standings, to determined playoff seedings.
But the stubbornness of the global pandemic could impact MLS far beyond this fall’s playoffs by pushing the start of the 2021 season back. A league official not authorized to speak about internal discussions publicly said privately MLS may be hesitant to start a new season in empty stadiums since income is its largest source of revenue.
The delay would presumably last until a majority of teams were given permission by local health officials to allow spectators back into their stadiums. That could be a while given the ominous trends in Europe. Spain’s La Liga and the English Premier League are still playing in empty stadiums while the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 are playing before limited audiences.
In the Czech Republic, games aren’t being played at all. With a recent spike in COVID-19 cases leaving the health-care system is in danger of collapse, the country’s top-flight soccer league last week suspended play until at least Nov. 7.
“Yes, players spoke -- especially tonight, at different parts. During the warm-ups, before the game, when we are in the huddle, in the locker room we are all talking. Guys have been supporting each other, we’ve been urging each other to give a little bit more.”
Galaxy veteran Sacha Kljestan, speaking after Sunday’s 1-0 win, on the responsibility the players have taken to try to turn around the team’s slide
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