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Soccer newsletter: El Tráfico taught us a lot about Galaxy and LAFC

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 22: Carlos Vela #10 of Los Angeles FC controls the ball.
Carlos Vela of LAFC controls the ball as he is chased by Rolf Feltscher #25 and Perry Kitchen of the Galaxy in an Aug. 2020 game.
(Harry How / Getty Images)

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 Sunday’s LAFC-Galaxy game, a derby in which El Tráfico was mainly headed in one direction.

Which is to say it was going in whichever direction LAFC was headed since the Black and Gold outshot the Galaxy 27-5, won the possession battle nearly 2 to 1 and held the visitors without a shot on goal until stoppage time. The result was a 2-0 victory that included a goal from Carlos Vela in his first appearance in two months and lifted LAFC’s record in its last five games to 3-1-1.

Only one MLS team has done better over that span.

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The Galaxy, meanwhile, are speeding in the other direction and appear to have no one at the steering wheel, heightening speculation that coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto is on his way out. His team has won just one of it last nine games, has taken four of the 27 points available in those games and remains last in the Western Conference, six points and four places out of a playoff berth.

On Sunday, LAFC got Vela and defender Tristan Blackmon back from injury and four other players back from international duty. If midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye returns from a severe ankle sprain before the end of the regular season, LAFC could enter the playoffs riding a massive amount of momentum.

That has been concern in the LAFC camp this season because the attractive, dominant soccer the team played for much of its first two years has been missing – owing, perhaps, to the absence of Vela and a lack of rhythm in a season interrupted repeatedly by the COVID-19 pandemic. But those first two seasons ended in early playoff upsets; this year could be setting up for a long postseason run. Here’s why:

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With so many injuries and absences and the bizarre scheduling brought on by the unique coronavirus, LAFC coach Bob Bradley has used 30 players – including five teenagers – this season. That playing time has paid off in obvious ways by giving the roster added depth, but it has also given those on Bradley’s bench experience and confidence that has paid off in training sessions as well. There’s a little bit of a swagger that was missing earlier.

“That’s what makes training so competitive and that’s what keeps a good environment on the team, when everyone is competing and everyone wants to be the best,” said Danny Musovski, who made his first MLS start last month but scored his fifth league goal Sunday.

There’s also the fatigue factor. Vela, who set an MLS record with 34 goals en route to an MVP award last season, played more than 2,700 minutes and suffered 86 fouls, fourth most in the league, in 2019. This year, after skipping the MLS Is Back tournament to stay in Southern California with his pregnant wife and missing another two months with a knee injury, he’s played just 257 minutes.

That doesn’t appear to have affected his game much – his chip shot accounted for LAFC’s second goal Sunday and gave him three scores in four games this season. But the break could make him fresher, quicker and more durable in the playoffs.

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The same goes for midfielder Eduard Atuesta, who will play half as many minutes this season as last.

And then there’s the old-fashioned momentum that comes from finishing strong. LAFC has lost just once this month, has outscored its last seven opponents 17-7 and plays just one team with a winning record between now and the playoff opener in late November.

Last year LAFC won just two of its final eight in the regular season and in 2018 it won two of its final five games.

“We are hoping to be at our best as we move forward,” Bradley said. “There’s still a ways to go. The reminder is to keep pushing every day and make sure everybody is challenging teammates, encouraging teammates, and that there’s always room to improve in little ways. I’m satisfied that there’s enough guys that lead the way and push those thoughts, and we’re hoping that [we] go into the playoffs in a good way in terms of the way we’re playing and also in terms of confidence.”

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“We’ve got to keep pushing things along,” he added. “We can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

If LAFC is coming together, the Galaxy are falling apart. On Sunday the team was without its highest-paid player, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, whose absence was blamed on a hamstring problem picked up in training last Thursday. That drew raised eyebrows since the injury to the woefully underperforming Hernández, who spent part of the previous two games on the bench, didn’t merit mention in Friday’s media call with Schelotto and wasn’t disclosed until 90 minutes before game time.

That wasn’t the end of the back luck though. The Galaxy lost another player midway through the first half when defender Giancarlo González drew a red card and 30 minutes later Musovski scored what proved to be the game-winning goal at the end of a sequence that began with LAFC’s Eddie Segura playing a ball that was clearly out of bounds.

Although replays were definitive, the video-assistant referee allowed the goal to stand.

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“It’s very clear the ball is out. Even the player for LAFC checked with the linesman because he could realize that the ball was out,” Schelotto said. “That changed the game.”

Especially since the Galaxy, forced to absorb pressure playing a man down, didn’t take their first shot on goal until stoppage time. That left midfielder Sacha Kljestan searching to find a silver lining to the black cloud that continues to hover over the team.

“It would be pointless to focus on the calls that went against us. What I choose to focus on is our work rate,” he said. “Our attitude was really good, our mentality on the field, the way we battled, the way we tried to keep things tight and give ourselves a chance to get one or three points in this game was pretty good.

“The guys in the locker room are gutted. We’ve got to push forward…focus on the positives and move on.”

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Staying in the playoff chase could be difficult. Two of the Galaxy’s next three games are against Portland and Seattle, who are both just a point off the conference lead. Losing both matches would effectively end the Galaxy’s season.

“We still have a chance. That’s how we have to think,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “That’s how I’m thinking. I’m not giving up. I’m not writing us off. We definitely have a chance.

“We’re in a position where they’re must wins. The mentality changes, we have a sense of urgency. It’s not like we can have a lot of patience. I’m just focused on winning the next game and getting this team into the playoffs.”

Is anything that happens this season worthy of the record book?

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Speaking of the MLS playoffs, four teams in the Eastern Conference – Philadelphia, Toronto, Columbus and Orlando City – have already clinched postseason berths while in the much wilder West all eight spots are still open – although Sporting Kansas City, Seattle and Portland can earn invites on Wednesday.

In addition to chasing a conference title, Toronto and Philadelphia, tied atop the Supporters’ Shield standings with 12-3-5 records after 20 games, also have a shot at etching their names in the record books this season. If either team closes the schedule with three consecutive wins, it will finish the COVID-shortened 23-game regular season with 50 points or 2.17 points per game, best in MLS history.

Here’s how Toronto and Philadelphia stack up with the top teams in league history according to Soccer America:

1. Galaxy (1998), 2.13 points per game
2. LAFC (2019), 2.12
3. NY Red Bulls (2018), 2.09
4 (t). Philadelphia (2020), 2.05
Toronto (2020), 2.05
6. (t) Atlanta United (2018), 2.03
Toronto FC (2017), 2.03

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And that begs the question of whether anything that happens during this bizarrely abnormal season – one without fans, competitive balance or even a full complement of games – should be considered for posterity?

Alexi Lalas, a former MLS player and executive, says yes. And no.

The 2020 season, the shortest in MLS history, “bears little resemblance to any of the other 24 years that we’ve had in this league,” he said. “And so whether it’s team accomplishments or individuals accomplishments, they are going to have an asterisk.”

However, that asterisk, Lalas said, should only be used to put those accomplishments in context, not to lessen them. Yes, the season was shortened to 23 games, played mostly against close geographic rivals. There was a tournament played in a quarantine and other games that were wiped out by COVID-19.

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And when it’s over there will be winners and losers. They just won’t be remembered the same way.

“There’s going to be an MLS champion and there will be a champion of the regular season,” Lalas continued. “But whenever we talk about these things, it’s going to be ‘oh yeah but that happened in 2020.’ And all of us that have lived through this will know to attach more or less significance based on what 2020 has been.”

For some teams like the Galaxy, it will be used to dismiss a poor season, an excuse Schelotto has turned to frequently. For others, among them the league’s three Canadian teams who have been forced to take up temporary residence in the U.S., the hardships of 2020 have made their accomplishments all the more remarkable.

“There is no precedent, no template to follow,” Lalas said. “And I do think it deserves praise for the individuals and teams that have found a way through all the challenges.

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“Is it ideal? No. Is it something you want to go through again? Absolutely not. But you play the cards that you’re dealt and in 2020 those cards have been unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Avoiding an asterisk in 2021 may mean delaying the season

We mentioned in this space last week that discussions are underway about delaying the 2021 MLS season until fans are allowed to return to stadiums. And while Lalas said he has no knowledge of those talks, he believes such a delay would be wise given that game-day earnings – ticket sales, concessions, parking – account for the league’s largest source of revenue.

“From a practical perspective in terms of the revenue that it generates and the marketing and the experiencial types of things that it generates, it’s vital,” he said of playing in front of live fans. “And not having that for a league like MLS is that much more damaging because of the reliance that MLS has on ticket sales and sponsorships that are related to the game-day situation.

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“So it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that happens.”

Nor, given the dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases this fall, would it surprise him if the delay was a lengthy one.

“We all have this unfounded belief that come Jan. 1, 2021 everything’s going to return to normal. It’s not necessarily going to do that just because the new year arrives. From an MLS perspective for that 2021 season, you want to make sure that you give yourself as much chance to be successful as possible.

“And if that means delaying it, we’re constantly kicking things down the road when it comes to soccer.”

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Everton’s success has been well earned

Despite Sunday’s loss at Southampton, Everton (4-1-1) is off to its best start in the Premier League era and remains atop the league table, leading Merseyside rival Liverpool on goal differential.

“It’s been a long time since we lost a game and remained top of the league,” a team official told me Monday.

And Tim Howard, who played in more EPL games for the club than any player in history, said that success has been well earned.

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“Their start has been justified,” Howard said in a phone call last Thursday. “They are top of the table for a reason. There’s no luck involved there.”

But there was a difficult period of transition. After British-Iranian businessman Farhad Moshiri bought a 49.9% stake in the club in February 2016 – later increased to 77% -- he invested heavily, but not always wisely. As a result, Everton went through seven managers in less than four years and never finished higher than eighth in the EPL standings.

“You see it oftentimes. Money in and of itself does not buy success,” said Howard, the most successful goalkeeper in U.S. Soccer history and now a studio analyst for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League. “Sometimes a mistake is just throw money at it and it’ll happen.

“They had to go through a lot of players. The next manager comes in, he wants to get rid of the old players and all that kind of stuff. So that took about four years to get it right.”

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Italian Carlo Ancelotti, who has managed in all five of Europe’s major leagues, winning titles in four of them, is the one that finally got it right, though he had help from Marcel Brands, the Dutchman who was named the team’s director of football about 18 months before Ancelotti arrived.

Together they acquired James Rodríguez from Real Madrid on a free transfer then spent more than $78 million to land Adboulaye Doucouré from Watford, Ben Godfrey from Norwich City and Allan for Napoli – Ancelotti’s previous club – in the transfer window. The additions have helped.

“These are players who believe in the manager, who want to come in and wear the shirt proudly at Everton,” Howard said.

But Ancelotti, who signed a 4 ½-year contract when he came to Everton four days before Christmas last year, has probably had the biggest impact on a player he inherited. Dominic Calvert-Lewin had scored more than six goals in a season just once in his career, but he is tied for the league lead with seven after six games this year.

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“That speaks to the greatness of Ancelotti right?,” Howard asked. “You can’t stop him. He scores in every different way. He’s been absolutely sensational.”

As a result, so has Everton. And Howard doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“I do think it will continue,” he said.

Gooooooooooooooooooolllllllllllll!!!!!!!!!!

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Andres Cantor, whose trademark goal call has been imitated but never equaled, has won the 2020 Colin Jose Media Award, which recognizes journalists who have made significant long-term contributions to soccer in the U.S.

Cantor will be honored at next year’s induction ceremony at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas, where his name will listed among other winners, including former Los Angeles Times columnist Grahame Jones, Soccer America editor Paul Kennedy and George Vecsey of the New York Times.

Cantor is the first Spanish-language broadcaster to win the award, and the third commentator to be honored after JP Dellacamera in 2018 and Seamus Malin, who won the first Colin Jose award in 2005. The award is named for one of the most respected historians of soccer in North America and the official historian at the National Soccer Hall of Fame from 1997-2007.

Cantor, currently the lead play-by-play voice for Telemundo Deportes, has called thousands of games – including eight World Cups -- in a career that has spanned more than 35 years.

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A native of Argentina, Cantor has covered U.S. Soccer since the beginning of the USMNT’s modern era. He was the only Hispanic reporter on the sideline in Trinidad and Tobago in 1989 when the team qualified its first World Cup in more than 30 years. He also worked the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. and called games during the first MSL season in 1996.

“Over the past 20 years, Andrés has played a pivotal role in shaping Telemundo’s world-class sports coverage, and we look forward to his continued success as part of Telemundo Deportes. No one is more deserving,” Telemundo Deportes President Ray Warren

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

“The whole thing is so bizarre. But this is 2020. It’s all bizarre at this point.”

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Colorado Rapids’ coach Robin Fraser, speaking to The Athletic, on the COVID-19 outbreak that struck five players and 13 staff members and idled his team for a month before Saturday’s loss to Sporting Kansas City

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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