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Soccer newsletter: LAFC and Galaxy are on different paths

FILE - In this March 4, 2018, file photo Los Angeles head coach Bob Bradley walks across the pitch.
Bob Bradley
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

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 a challenging MLS season that ended very differently for the two Southern California teams.

LAFC (9-8-5) weathered a four-month pandemic break, a quarantined tournament in hot and humid central Florida and an inconsistent regular-season reboot at home to squeeze into the playoffs, grabbing the seventh spot in an eight-team Western Conference bracket.

Along the way Diego Rossi, at 22, became the youngest player to lead the league in scoring and the first player to claim the Golden Boot from a teammate, following Carlos Vela, whose 34 goals set a single-season record last year. The team’s nine wins also moved coach Bob Bradley moved into a tie for third place all-time with 170.

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There was far less to cheer with the Galaxy (6-12-4), who got off to the worst five-game start in franchise history, followed that with a five-game unbeaten streak, then imploded, losing nine of their last 12, firing a coach for the third time in four seasons and missing the playoffs for the third time since 2016.

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LAFC: A different road again


First the good news. Carlos Vela is back from his knee injury, playing 90 minutes for the first time since early March in the season-ending draw with Portland and scoring a goal to get on the scoresheet for the third time in four games. That also gave him 22 goals in his last 22 home games – which doesn’t mean much since LAFC could be on the road throughout the postseason.

Defender Tristan Blackmon also played 90 minutes against Portland, his first full game in more than two months, anchoring a back four that held the second-best offensive team in MLS to three shots on goal, all in the final 10 minutes.

But that’s pretty much it for the good news because LAFC, for the first time in franchise history, will open the playoffs on the road against Seattle, the team that knocked it out of the postseason last year. And it will do so without four starters, including Rossi, who will still be in quarantine after returning from World Cup qualifiers in South America.

You know who won’t be in quarantine? Seattle’s Raul Ruidiaz, who scored 12 goals in the regular season to finish two behind Rossi the scoring race. Ruidiaz, a Peruvian, is also in South America for World Cup qualifiers this week but he’ll get to skip the quarantine when he returns because he contracted COVID-19 on his trip home last month and, in MLS medical parlance, that makes him a “recovered person” because he has the antibodies.

That’s not the end of the bad news for LAFC, which is 1-6-1 away from home this season while Seattle is 7-1-2 at CenturyLink Field, including two victories over LAFC in which the Sounders outscored the visitors 6-1.

“We’ve had odd moments that have cost us,” Bradley said. “But I’m hoping that the inconsistencies that drive us crazy still in some ways serve as lessons and that we can take advantage and be a really good team in a few weeks when we play in Seattle.”

Bradley guided his team to the playoffs in each of its first three seasons but that’s nothing compared to Seattle’s MLS-record streak of postseason appearances. In 12 years the Sounders have yet to miss the playoffs, winning two of the last four MLS Cups.

Coach Brian Schmetzer believes that gives his team (11-5-6 and second in the Western Conference) an edge this time of year.

“We’re awfully proud that we’ve had the consistent success we’ve had,” Schmetzer said. “My expectations and the bar I set for myself and the coaching staff is a very high one.”

Seattle’s experienced roster also helped the team deal with the vagaries of the COVID-interrupted season.

“We have an advantage because I do have a veteran team. I think the team gets it,” Schmetzer said. “We have highs and lows but we don’t have too many lows. We’ve been pretty consistent.

“The guys are all good pros. I’ve got good leadership and staff . [But] we don’t take anything for granted. Let’s just make sure we keep our eyes on the prize and don’t think that it’s going to be easy.”

Those ups and downs have also plagued LAFC, which got off to a great start but never seemed to regain its balance after COVID-19 forced it to take the spring off. The team won consecutive games just twice after the regular-season start in August and while it led the league with 47 goals, it also conceded 39 in 22 games, two more than it allowed in a full 34-game season last year.

Then, in the final two weeks of the regular season, it saw three of its players test positive for the coronavirus, leading to the postponement of one game and the disruption of multiple training sessions.

“There are things that happened this year. But you know that I’ve not spent any time ever talking about them or using any of that as an excuse,” Bradley said. “It’s on us when we show up every day to push ourselves, see the things that need to get better and become a top team. And we’ve hurt ourselves this year.

“But when all is said and done, we saw it in Los Angeles with the Lakers and the Dodgers, with everything that’s gone on in the country and in the world this year, some teams with leaders just still at the end have something special, something different. There’s a mentality. There’s a concentration. There’s a determination. And I’m hoping we can find that.

“I believe we are capable of winning the MLS Cup, but again, you go a game at a time. So we know that we start in Seattle.”

Galaxy: Real change is needed

While LAFC is getting a start on playoff preparations, the Galaxy is once again using November to start preparing for another offseason remake – the third one in four seasons.

The fact that they’re having to do it again is proof it didn’t work the first three times — and likely won’t work again unless the team makes the kind of significant changes that are demanded by the worst four-year stretch in franchise history.

Let’s examine the wreckage.

Since Bruce Arena left for the U.S. national team following the 2016 season, the Galaxy have missed the playoffs three times in four seasons. They lost 57 games and conceded 236 goals and have gone six years without an appearance in an MLS Cup final.

Breaking it down further the Galaxy’s loss percentage in 2020 – defined here as the percentage of games that ended in a loss – was 54.5 and the results percentage, games that yielded a win or draw, was 45.5. Both totals are the worst in franchise history as well.

No matter where you look or how you measure it, the Galaxy’s last four years bear no resemblance to the first 21. And general manager Dennis te Kloese and team president Chris Klein have scheduled a Wednesday conference call with reporters to discuss how they intend to fix that.

The two most pressing needs are a coach and a resolution of the Cristian Pavón drama. For the second time in three seasons Dominic Kinnear finished the year as the team’s interim coach, going 1-1-1 and keeping the team in the playoff race until a stoppage-time goal in the penultimate game.

Kinnear didn’t appear to get serious consideration for the permanent job before the Galaxy hired Guillermo Barros Schelotto ahead of the 2019 season. So Te Kloese should listen to his players this time because many endorsed Kinnear after Sunday’s season-ending surrender to Vancouver in Portland.

“The guys respond very well to how Dom wants to set up the team,” veteran midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “He seriously has to be considered for the role. He definitely had control of the locker room and the guys respect him very much so.”

Goalkeeper David Bingham, who played for Kinnear in San Jose, agreed.

“When the Galaxy were at their peak, they had an American coach that had fairly simple tactics and then they put a team on the field that was competitive and were able to bring home championships,” he said. “And when you try to replicate that model, I think Dom fits that mold better than anyone.”

Bingham went on to suggest Schelotto, who was fired last month after going 21-26-6 in two seasons, had trouble communicating with the team and did not treat everyone equally.

“I think he kind of speaks the player’s language. He knows what buttons to push at the right times,” Bingham said of Kinnear. “And Dom holds every player to the same accountability. When you look at how other coaches coach and some players have different levels of accountability, it never really works throughout the team....

“Dom holds everyone accountable — it doesn’t matter if you’re a DP making $10-million or if you’re a minimum (salary) guy. He doesn’t care. He holds a standard across the board. And players respect that. You can just see how the attitude switched when he came in, just the respect he demands, and he simplifies the game for you, and then you play better.”

Speaking of designated players, Te Kloese must decide what to do with Pavón, the team’s leading scorer and the only one who played every minute of every game. His loan from Argentina’s Boca Juniors – Schelotto’s old team – will end on New Year’s Eve and public reports put Boca’s asking price at $20 million, far beyond the Galaxy’s budget. Boca would probably have to cut that in half for the Galaxy to have a realistic shot – and the Argentine team is so cash-strapped, that just might happen.

The other DP situation Te Kloese will have to address is that of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who had a horrific debut season in MLS, starting just seven times and scoring only twice. That’s not the production the team was hoping for when it spent a franchise-record transfer fee of nearly $10 million to bring him to MLS from Sevilla in January.

And since Hernández reportedly has two seasons and about $12 million left on his contract, Te Kloese will have to figure out a way to make him useful.

Hernández did show a spark of life under Kinnear, which may be another point in the coach’s favor should he decide to apply for the job. Hernández – perhaps at the suggestion but certainly with the approval of the Galaxy brass - also embarked on a series of media sessions and online posts in recent days in which he said he was taking responsibility for his poor performances.

“It was a bad season for me,” he said. “I did not give you my best version.

“I had two injuries in a four-month period and I have not had these types of injuries in my entire career. I am not a player who is known for having injuries. I assume that responsibility and my part in it.”

The injuries were only part of it. Hernández also displayed diva-like tendencies and seemed distracted for large parts of the season, alluding at the end of the year to off-the-field issues.

“This year has been negative in every way,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about anyone but me. I have gone through many factors that have harmed me and made it difficult for me to get the best out of myself.

“But I am making decisions in my life with a lot of responsibility, with love, to be able to give my best, to give back after all the trust that this team has placed in me.”

On Wednesday we’ll get an indication of whether the front office intends to take responsibility as well.

The playoff schedule:

Eastern Conference Play-In Round

(All times Pacific)

Friday, Nov. 20

3:30 p.m. -- No. 8 New England Revolution vs. No. 9 Montreal Impact (FS1/FOX Deportes)

6 p.m. -- No. 7 Nashville SC vs. No. 10 Inter Miami CF (ESPN2/ESPN Deportes)

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

Saturday, Nov. 21
9 a.m. -- No. 4 Orlando City SC vs. No. 5 New York City FC (UniMás/TUDN)

3 p.m. -- No. 3 Columbus Crew SC vs. No. 6 New York Red Bulls (UniMás/TUDN)

Tuesday, Nov. 24

3 p.m. -- No. 2 Toronto FC vs. higher advancing seed from the play-in round (FS1/FOX Deportes)

5 p.m. -- No. 1 Philadelphia Union vs. lower advancing seed of the play-in round (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)

Western Conference Quarterfinals

Sunday, Nov. 22
1 p.m. -- No.1 Sporting Kansas City vs. No. 8 San Jose Earthquakes (FS1/FOX Deportes)

4:30 p.m. -- No. 4 Minnesota United FC vs. No. 5 Colorado Rapids (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)

7 p.m. -- No. 3 Portland Timbers vs. No. 6 FC Dallas (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)

Tuesday, Nov. 24

7:30 p.m. -- No. 2 Seattle Sounders FC vs. No. 7 LAFC (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)

Final MLS standings

Eastern Conference

Team W L T GF GA GD Pts. PPG

Philadelphia-x 14 4 5 44 20 24 47 2.04

Toronto-x 13 5 5 33 26 7 44 1.91

Columbus-x 12 6 5 36 21 15 41 1.78

Orlando City-x 11 4 8 40 25 15 41 1.78

New York City-x 12 8 3 37 25 12 39 1.7

New York Red Bulls-x 9 9 5 29 31 -2 32 1.39

Nashville-x 8 7 8 24 22 2 32 1.39

New England-x 8 7 8 26 25 2 32 1.39

Montreal-x 8 13 2 33 43 -10 26 1.13

Miami-x 7 13 3 25 35 -10 24 1.04

Chicago 5 10 8 33 39 -6 23 1

Atlanta 6 13 4 23 30 -7 22 0.96

D.C. United 5 12 6 25 41 -16 21 0.91

Cincinnati 4 15 4 12 36 -24 16 0.7

Western Conference

Team W L T GF GA GD Pts. PPG

Kansas City-x 12 6 3 38 25 13 39 1.86

Seattle-x 11 5 6 44 23 21 39 1.77

Portland-x 11 6 6 46 35 11 39 1.7

Minnesota-x 9 5 7 36 26 10 34 1.62

Colorado-x 8 6 4 32 28 4 28 1.56

Dallas-x 9 6 7 28 24 4 34 1.55

LAFC-x 9 8 5 47 39 8 32 1.45

San Jose-x 8 9 6 35 51 -16 30 1.3

Vancouver 9 14 0 27 44 -17 27 1.17

Galaxy 6 12 4 27 46 -19 22 1.1

Salt Lake 5 10 7 25 35 -10 22 1

Houston 4 10 9 30 40 -10 21 0.91

x – clinched playoff berth

Scoring leaders

Goals

1. Diego Rossi (LAFC), 14; 2. (t) Gyasi Zardes (Columbus), Raul Ruidiaz (Seattle), Robert Beric (Chicago) 12; 5. (t) Cristian Pavón (Galaxy), Jordan Morris (Seattle), Chris Mueller (Orlando City), 10; 8. (t) Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto), Kevin Molino (Minnesota), Ayo Akinola (Toronto), 9.

Assists

1. (t) Alejandro Pozuelo (Toronto), Nicolás Lodeiro (Seattle), Darwin Quintero (Houston), 10; 4. Cristian Espinoza (San Jose), 9; 5 (t). Yimmi Chara (Portland), Mauricio Pereyra (Orlando), Jordan Morris (Seattle), Pedro Santos (Columbus), Lewis Morgan (Miami), 8; 10. (t) Seven tied at 7 including Brian Rodriguez (LAFC), Cristian Pavón (Galaxy)

Goalkeeping

Clean sheets

1. Joe Willis (Nashville), 9: 2 (t). Andre Blake (Philadelphia), 8; 3 (t). Eloy Room (Columbus), Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Jimmy Maurer (Dallas), Tim Melia (Kansas City), 7; 7. (t) Dayne St. Clair (Minnesota), Quentin Westberg (Toronto), Stefan Frei (Seattle), Matt Turner (New England), Brad Guzan (Atlanta), 6.

Saves

1. Sean Johnson (NYFC), 81; 2. Marko Maric (Houston), 79; 3. Clement Diop (Montreal), 73; 4. Joe Willis (Nashville), 69; 5. Matt Turner (New England), 68; 6. Steve Clark (Portland), 64; 7. Andre Blake (Philadelphia), 63; 8. Stefan Frei (Seattle), 60; 9. Brad Guzan (Atlanta), 59; 10. Tim Melia (Kansas City), 56.

Channel surfing

Last week’s news that ESPN was shedding 500 jobs in response to economic pressures brought by the COVID-19 pandemic could not have been good news in the Manhattan offices of MLS.

The league has a paltry broadcast deal with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision that pays it just $90 million annually through 2022. Compare that with the NFL, which gets $7 billion (with a ‘B’) a season for its broadcast rights, or the NBA, which gets $2.6 billion.

MLS says it makes more from game-day sales such as gate receipts and concessions – both of which have been all but eliminated during the pandemic – than it does from TV. The league needs stronger and more robust revenue streams if the league is going to continue to grow and attract top players in their prime and broadcasting is the most obvious avenue for that - which is why ESPN’s belt-tightening should be concerning.

Commissioner Don Garber, in an interview with CNBC conducted last February, said the league’s TV package was “upside down compared to all the other leagues.” The league had already begun positioning itself for a new broadcast deal before COVID hit, instructing its clubs to ensure their local TV deals do not extend beyond 2022, giving the league the leverage and flexibility to negotiate a more lucrative national agreement.

The Galaxy have the best local deal, a 10-year $55-million agreement signed in 2012. LAFC’s partnership with YouTube TV, which includes kit sponsorship, is worth even more, at $6 million a year. But that pales in comparison to the Dodgers’ local TV deal, which pays it more than $2 million per game.

So how do ESPN’s troubles impact all this? The network is an original MLS broadcast partner and the league needs it to play an active role in negotiations for a new deal. Colleague Stephen Battaglio, who wrote about the ESPN layoffs last week, said he thinks that will happen.

“They will look at the property and figure out how much money they can make on it with advertisers and sponsorships and then bid accordingly,” he told me.

But how high would a cash-strapped ESPN go? MLS ratings are down on cable and NWSL’s games on CBS outdrew the MLS on ABC which, like ESPN, is under the Disney umbrella, in both the summer and fall.

MLS does have a strong hand to play, though. There are plenty of platforms besides ESPN looking for content and live sports is among the most attractive offerings for advertisers. Plus the new deal won’t go into effect until 2023, by which time stadiums figure to be full again and the league will have expanded to Charlotte, Sacramento and St. Louis – all top 25 TV markets – as well as Austin, Texas.

Finally, the deal will presumably extend beyond 2026 when the World Cup returns to North America, bringing added attention to the sport and the league. MLS and its broadcast partners should be perfectly positioned to cash in on that soccer craze, even if it is short-lived.

But there are a number of hurdles to clear between now and then and another poor broadcast deal would significantly hobble MLS going forward. The league needs a financially strong ESPN at the table when those negotiations begin.

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

“I would say everyone’s quite behind because we’ve had eight months off to a pandemic. But other than that, it’s just about coming in and taking as much information as possible because with such limited training, you don’t have the opportunity to have repetition.”

Midfielder Tyler Adams on the U.S. national team’s first gathering since February ahead of Thursday’s friendly in Wales

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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