Soccer newsletter: With a week to go, things aren’t clear in MLS
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer.
This has already been the wackiest and wildest season in MLS history, but it got both wackier and wilder for Southern California’s two teams since we last visited a week ago. Here’s what has happened in the last six days:
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Wednesday: LAFC beat the Houston Dynamo 2-1 at Banc of California Stadium to clinch a playoff berth and give coach Bob Bradley his 170th MLS victory, breaking a tie with Dominic Kinnear for third place on the all-time MLS list. At halftime, the team announced a player had tested positive for COVID-19 a day earlier.
In Portland, the Galaxy are embarrassed 5-2, leaving them with one win in their last 10 games under coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Thursday: The Galaxy fire Schelotto with more than a year and $1 million left on his contract. His entire coaching staff is sacked as well — with the exception of Kinnear, who is appointed interim coach for the second time in three years.
Friday: LAFC announces that two more players have tested positive for COVID-19. Those tests were taken after Wednesday’s game — potentially leaving members of the Houston Dynamo exposed — but not disclosed until Friday. LAFC cancels all team activities at its training center.
Saturday: Sunday’s LAFC game at San Jose is postponed by MLS over the COVID outbreak although the team says all players and staff members tested Saturday are negative. No make-up date is announced, although the schedule for both teams is wide open midweek.
Sunday: The Galaxy win for just the second time since Sept. 6, beating Real Salt Lake 2-1 and moving Kinnear back into a tie on the all-time wins list with Bradley, who graciously sends a congratulatory text moments after the game. The win also keeps the team’s flickering playoff chances alive.
Monday: In the run-up to Decision Day, the final match day of the MLS regular season, the league, in another example of its trademark opacity, says it still can’t decide whether the LAFC-San Jose game will be played despite the fact it will have a big impact on LAFC’s seeding for the playoffs and the four-team race for the final two Western Conference playoff berths. In the Galaxy camp the team’s flickering playoff plans dim when captain Jonathan dos Santos, who limped off the field in the 60th minute Sunday, is diagnosed with a left calf strain that leaves him questionable for Wednesday’s must-win home finale against Seattle.
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And that brings us to today, where things are a lot less clear than they were just a week ago.
The Galaxy, who had a coach but not much hope seven days ago, now have hope but not a coach. The players responded to Kinnear and many played their best game in the last two months, pressing high, battling for every 50-50 ball and displaying a grit and determination that has been lacking all season.
“It’s never easy seeing one of your head coaches or the coaching staff having to get let go. And obviously you as a player feel you played a part in that and you feel like you’ve let them down,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget, whose long bending free kick set Giancarlo González up for the first Galaxy goal. “But I guess a change was necessary and I understand what happened.
“Dom took the group really well. He’s only had two days to make some changes and incorporate his style of play, which isn’t a very long time. [There’s] hope. Two games left, if things go our way, we could be in. And what more do you want as a player? You just need that little bit of hope.”
With more than a half-dozen MLS games canceled by COVID-19 this season, the league is using points-per-game to determine which teams will advance to the postseason, That, plus the league’s indecision over the San Jose-LAFC, makes it tough to calculate the Galaxy’s path through.
Here’s what my math says:
Colorado, which had five games canceled by a COVID outbreak, will finish the season having played just 18 games. That makes the math easy for the Rapids, who will qualify for the playoffs with just a point in their final two games.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, advance if they win their final two games with Seattle and against Vancouver in Portland and Colorado loses its final two games at Portland and Houston OR if San Jose fails to win in its final two with LAFC and at Seattle. The Earthquakes must play both matches for that equation to work.
If the Galaxy win out and the LAFC-San Jose game is not made up, San Jose would finish the regular season with 22 games. In that case, San Jose would advance with a draw in Seattle. But the Galaxy and San Jose be tied on points-per-game in the case of a Seattle win and the first tiebreaker, wins per match, would send the Galaxy on to the postseason. San Jose could still advance if Colorado loses if final two games.
The final team in the mix, Vancouver, has the toughest road ahead and that road closes without a win over the Galaxy on Nov. 8, a result that would eliminate the Galaxy. If the Whitecaps win and San Jose plays two games, losing both, Vancouver advances on the tiebreaker and takes the final playoff berth.
So there you go, clear as mud.
Whenever the offseason starts for the Galaxy, the team will enter it once again looking for a new coach. Schelotto was the Galaxy’s fourth manager in as many years – and the only one to complete a full season in that time. And despite the team’s recent struggles, the Galaxy’s size and available resources make the manager’s job a desirable one.
Given the way the players responded to Kinnear, both last Sunday and in his first interim stint two years ago, he should be an obvious candidate. But Kinnear hasn’t indicated he’d be interested and the team hasn’t said whether he will be considered.
That may be partly because Kinnear is the safe choice and the Galaxy have a reputation for swinging big. Hiring a new coach this winter, a decision that falls to general manager Dennis te Kloese, will be the club’s most important hire since Bruce Arena came onboard in 2008, inheriting a team in the midst of a third straight losing season and taking it to four MLS Cup finals in the next six seasons.
Given Te Kloese’s long experience with the Mexican national team program, among the names that have already surfaced are Mexico’s last three World Cup coaches — Javier Aguirre, Miguel Herrera and Juan Carlos Osorio. Of the three, Osorio is the best fit since he’s bilingual, has 67 games of MLS coaching experience and has made no secret of his desire to return to the U.S.
A longshot worth watching is Seattle’s Brian Schmetzer. He has taken the Sounders to three MLS Cup finals, winning two, since 2016 but he and Seattle general manager Garth Lagerwey have not agreed to a new contract to replace the one that expires when Seattle’s season does.
In a phone conversation late Monday, Schmetzer sounded hopeful a deal would get done but admitted being troubled by the holdup, especially the delay in re-signing his assistant coaches. If they don’t stay, perhaps the whole staff could become a package deal.
“Garth and myself made it pretty clear that there’s a strong possibility a deal is going to be done. But I have not signed anything yet,” he said. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t resign the best staff in the league. Gonzo [Gonzalo Pineda], Djimi [Traore], Preki, Tommy [Dutra], they are all, in my opinion, super talented. I don’t know why the Sounders wouldn’t want to re-up these guys’ contracts.
“And so, you know, as far as myself is concerned and the rest of the group, I mean, look, we’ve had a lot of success here in Seattle. And contracts are ongoing. But I haven’t signed anything.”
How much rest is too much rest?
Given the discipline that is the hallmark of any Bradley-coached team, LAFC would have been my 26th pick if someone had asked me to list the MLS teams I thought would experience a COVID-19 outbreak this season. So the fact that three of Bradley’s players tested positive last week is not a sign LAFC is doing something wrong as much as an indication that the coronavirus is a determined, difficult and pervasive foe that is once again on the march.
“Guys have done an excellent job throughout this whole thing and so the club is doing all the right things and hopefully we can move forward with that,” Bradley said after the first positive test was revealed.
Although LAFC is already assured a playoff berth, the league’s indecision on whether to make up the San Jose game will have an impact on where and when the team opens the postseason.
LAFC entered the weekend fifth in the Western Conference table; the top four teams will start the playoffs at home and the more games LAFC plays, the greater the chances for advancement. Additional games also means more match fitness for Carlos Vela and Tristan Blackmon, who are returning from long injury absences.
If the game isn’t played, it will mean LAFC will go 10 days without a match at a time when other teams are playing three times a week. The team will play Portland at home on Decision Day, then have nearly two more weeks off before starting the playoffs. That’s two games in 23 days. It’s hard to stay sharp with that much down time.
Or is it a welcome chance to rest and recover for the sprint to the MLS Cup that lies ahead? We’re about to find out but keep in mind that in 2018, LAFC had three days between the end of the regular season and the playoffs and lost its postseason opener. Last year the gap was 17 days and LAFC won its first game.
MLS standings with one week to play
(top 10 teams, based on points per game, advance)
Team W L T GF GA GD Pts. PPG
Philadelphia-x 13 4 5 42 20 22 44 2
Toronto-x 13 4 5 32 24 8 44 2
Columbus-x 11 5 5 33 18 15 38 1.81
Orlando City-x 10 3 8 36 21 15 38 1.81
New York City-x 11 8 3 33 22 11 36 1.64
New England-x 8 6 8 26 23 3 32 1.45
Nashville-x 7 6 8 21 19 2 29 1.38
New York Red Bulls-x 8 9 5 27 30 -3 29 1.32
Montreal 7 13 2 30 41 -11 23 1.05
Chicago 5 9 7 28 33 -5 22 1.05
Atlanta 6 12 4 22 28 -6 22 1
Miami 6 13 3 23 34 -11 21 0.95
D.C. United 5 11 6 23 38 -15 21 0.95
Cincinnati-e 4 14 4 11 34 -23 16 0.73
(top 8 teams, based on points per game, advance)
Team W L T GF GA GD Pts. PPG
Portland-x 11 5 5 45 33 12 38 1.81
Kansas City-x 11 6 3 36 25 11 36 1.8
Seattle-x 10 5 5 39 21 18 35 1.75
Minnesota-x 8 5 6 31 24 7 30 1.58
LAFC-x 9 7 4 44 35 9 31 1.55
Dallas-x 8 5 7 27 21 6 31 1.55
Colorado 6 6 4 29 27 2 22 1.38
San Jose 7 8 6 31 45 -14 27 1.29
Vancouver 8 14 0 24 44 -20 24 1.09
Galaxy 6 11 3 26 42 -16 21 1.05
Salt Lake-e 5 9 7 25 33 -8 22 1.05
Houston-e 4 9 9 29 38 -9 21 0.95
x-clinched playoff berth
e-eliminated from playoff consideration
1. Diego Rossi (LAFC), 13; 2. Gyasi Zardes (Columbus), 11; 3. (t) Raul Ruidiaz (Seattle), Cristian Pavón (Galaxy), Robert Beric (Chicago), 10; 6. (t) Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto), Jordan Morris (Seattle), Chris Mueller (Orlando City), Ayo Akinola (Toronto), 9
1. Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto), 10; 2. Darwin Quintero (Houston), 10; 3. Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle), 9; 4. (t) Cristian Espinoza (San Jose), Yimmi Chara (Portland) 8; 6. (t) Brian Rodriguez (LAFC), Jordan Morris (Seattle), Pedro Santos (Columbus), Cristian Pavón (Galaxy), Lewis Morgan (Miami), Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia) 7
1. Joe Willis (Nashville), 9: 2 (t). Andre Blake (Philadelphia), 8; 3 (t). Eloy Room (Columbus), Sean Johnson (NYCFC), 7: 5 (t). Jimmy Maurer (Dallas), Tim Melia (Kansas City), Quentin Westberg (Toronto), Stefan Frei (Seattle), Matt Turner (New England), Brad Guzan (Atlanta), 6.
1. Sean Johnson (NYFC), 77; 2. Marko Maric (Houston), 75; 3, Matt Turner (New England), 65; 4. Clement Diop (Montreal), 64; 5. Andre Blake (Philadelphia), 63; 6. Joe Willis (Nashville), 62; 7. Brad Guzan (Atlanta), 57; 8. Stefan Frei (Seattle), 56; 9. Steve Clark (Portland) 55; 10. Tim Melia (Kansas City), 53.
England’s WSL riding wave of momentum in women’s soccer
Two years ago, Everton’s women’s team had just three players from outside the United Kingdom. The Women’s Super League was a largely domestic league then, with the top eight goal scorers all hailing from England.
Compare that with this year’s Everton team, which started players from seven countries in Sunday’s FA Cup loss to Manchester City, a team with two U.S. national team players – Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle – among its first 11.
Valérie Gauvin, who scored Everton’s lone goal in a 3-1 overtime loss, is among the new arrivals. Born on the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, Gauvin played her first nine professional seasons in France, where she scored 83 goals in 121 games, then jumped to Everton in August because she wanted to discover “a new culture and a new style of football.”
And that mix of cultures and styles, she said, has not only improved her game, it made the league better as well.
“Playing with players from around the world is all about bringing your own culture to the table. Every league has its own unique characteristics but we are all bringing, if you like, our own brick to build a better club, a better football,” Gauvin, a 24-year-old forward, said through a translator.
“Experience really helps as well,” she continued. “The American players, who have won the biggest trophies in the world, they bring that experience and we can learn from it. They’re able to improve us as players. And ultimately that’s the goal here. We’re all trying to improve every day.”
Unsurprisingly that improvement in play has also coincided with improved investment. At least two major private-equity firms have expressed interest in financing the WSL, which last year signed a record three-year $13.2-million sponsorship deal with the British bank Barclays. In Spain, iconic men’s clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid are funding women’s teams while in France, Lyon made Ada Hegerberg, Amadine Henry and Wendie Renard among the best-paid women players in the world.
In the U.S., the NWSL not only survived the COVID-19 shutdown it thrived, staging two successful tournaments, drawing record TV ratings and landing Google, P&G and Verizon as corporate sponsors.
The impetus for much of that growth came from last year’s Women’s World Cup in France, which FIFA said was watched by 1.12 billion people worldwide. And while the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic have staggered the global economy, in many places women’s soccer has at least managed to tread water.
“There was a huge investment in France on the media side of things to create the right conditions so that people could discover women’s football,” Gauvin said in a phone interview from England. “Clubs are investing in their facilities and also bringing in players from international leagues in order to improve the game in their domestic leagues.”
Few places have made as much progress as England. When Lucy Bronze, arguably the best right back in women’s soccer, played for Everton eight years ago she had to moonlight at a pizza joint and sleep on a friend’s sofa to make ends meet.
When she returned from Lyon to sign with Manchester City this summer, her reported net worth topped $1 million.
“In terms of the effort that you can see is being put in and the improvement in the level, you can see the English league is improving,” Gauvin said. “That’s also because of the resources the teams are making available to make sure their players are in the absolute best condition and giving them conditions to improve every day and improve year on year.”
Those conditions led not only Mewis — who scored Manchester City’s first goal Sunday — and Lavelle to leave the NWSL for England but it lured World Cup champions Christen Press and Tobin Heath to Manchester United and Alex Morgan to Tottenham as well.
“I was really happy and in some ways surprised to see so many big American players come to England,” Gauvin said. “It really is a great thing for the league. The American league is one that plays at the highest level. We’re lucky to have these players in our league contributing to improving it.”
Age is just a number – and so is goals scored
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally retires he won’t be remembered for scoring the most goals or winning the most trophies. But he will be remembered for some of the most amazing and inexplicable accomplishments in soccer history.
Perhaps that should be if Zlatan Ibrahimovic finally retires. Because the way the former Galaxy captain is playing at 39, it would be foolish to start sizing him up for a rocking chair and slippers just yet.
Despite missing two of his team’s six matches while in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, Ibrahimovic leads Serie A with seven goals after scoring the game-winner on an overhead kick Sunday. And that has pushed unbeaten Milan (5-0-1), which hasn’t won the scudetto in a decade, to the top of the Italian table.
Before the game Ibrahimovic, who staged an online fundraiser for hospitals at the center of the Italian COVID outbreak in March, posted a warning to his 26 million Facebook followers to beware of the coronavirus.
“The virus has challenged me and I won. But you are not Zlatan, do not challenge the virus,” he says in Italian. “Use your head, respect the rules. Social distance and masks, always. We will win.”
Ibrahimovic isn’t the only senior citizen COVID survivor who is lighting it up in Serie A after returning from quarantine. Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo, who spent 19 days in isolation after testing positive, came off the bench to score twice Sunday in a 4-1 win over Spezia.
“The first thing I said to them was we have to understand that we are in the locker room because of Guillermo, whether it’s being a player or a coach or a staff member. And on the other hand we’re all responsible for him not being in the locker room when this happened. We have to take responsibility.”
Dominic Kinnear, the Galaxy’s interim manager, on his first meeting with the team after taking over for Guillermo Barros Schelotto
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