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Soccer newsletter: Galaxy will see what could have been in MLS final

Caleb Porter
Caleb Porter
(Steve Dykes / 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 the MLS playoffs, a tournament Galaxy fans may be viewing through a different lens since their team is without a manager while the Columbus Crew are on their way to the MLS Cup final with a coach the team almost hired.

After Sunday’s 1-0 win over the New England Revolution, Caleb Porter has Columbus in the league title game for a third time. The Crew will play host to the Seattle Sounders, 3-2 winners over Minnesota United in Monday night’s thrilling Western Conference final. And though Columbus won the right to play the game at home by the narrowest of margins, that looms huge heading into Saturday’s game.

Columbus played all 23 of its regular-season games, going 12-6-5 while Seattle (11-5-6) had a home game with Colorado – one the Sounders were favored to win – canceled by a COVID-19 outbreak among the Rapids. As a result, the Crew were two points better, earning the right to play at home before a crowd limited to around 1,500 in the final playoff game at MAPFRE Stadium. The team is scheduled to move into a new downtown home next summer.

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Here’s why that’s big: Columbus is 12-1-0 at home this season, including playoffs, but winless on the road. Seattle, which hasn’t lost a home playoff match since 2013 after rallying from a 2-0 deficit Monday to win in stoppage time, is 10-1-2 in Seattle and 3-3-3 on the road this season.

Less than two years ago none that seemed likely since Porter was thisclose to taking the vacant coaching job with the Galaxy.

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The team, which manages its personnel moves carefully, sometimes uses courtside seats at Staples Center to deliver news the same way the Vatican uses smoke from its chimney. So when team president Chris Klein, general manager general Dennis te Kloese and Dan Beckerman, CEO of the team’s parent company AEG, attended a Laker-Miami Heat game with Porter the message was obvious: the former Portland Timbers coach was joining the Galaxy.

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Porter seemed a logical choice. Not only did he know MLS, having made the playoffs four times while winning a league title with the Timbers, but he was Klein’s college roommate at Indiana. Some in the Galaxy’s orbit were so sure the deal was done they began planning a news conference for the following week.

But then Te Kloese pulled the plug on the deal. The general manager, then less than a month into the job, wasn’t sure Porter, who had coached at the University of Akron and in Portland, could succeed with a big club in a major market.

We “didn’t like everything we saw,” a front-office staffer said at the time.

Another report had the Galaxy balking at Porter’s demands regarding the length of his contract. At the time the Galaxy were paying former managers Curt Onalfo and Sigi Schmid not to coach the team, so they were adverse to give Porter a long multiyear deal that might leave them exposed again if things didn’t work out.

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Whatever the reason, by the time the Lakers played their next game the talks had broken down. Porter quickly turned his focus to the Crew and Te Kloese turned his to Boca Juniors coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who two weeks later signed a three-year contract reportedly worth $3 million – the final $1 million the Galaxy will now pay Schelotto, 47, for not coaching the team.

The Argentine didn’t last two seasons in his MLS coaching debut, going 21-26-6 and winning one playoff game. Meanwhile Porter, 45, missed the playoffs in his first season in Columbus but has the Crew playing for a championship this season.

Te Kloese appears to have learned from the experience, saying Schelotto’s replacement will have to have MLS experience and a deeper understanding of the league’s complexities – you know, kind of like Porter, the guy he didn’t hire, has.

It’s weird the way the personnel and playoff histories of the Galaxy and Crew are intertwined. Columbus’ first two MLS Cup appearances came under former Galaxy coaches, with Schmid winning in 2008 and Gregg Berhalter losing in 2015 to the Porter-managed Timbers.

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Plus Columbus needed to beat another former Galaxy coach, Bruce Arena, in Sunday’s Eastern Conference championship just to get to Saturday’s title game.

That’s not the end of the Galaxy connections though. Gyasi Zardes, the Eastern Conference scoring leader with 12 goals, signed with the Galaxy as a homegrown player and spent five seasons in Carson before being traded to Columbus. Midfielders Emmanuel Boateng and Hector Jimenez and goalkeepers Jon Kempin and Matt Lampson also played for the Galaxy as did assistant coach Ezra Hendrickson, academy coach Laurent Courtois, and Frankie Hejduk, the team’s manager of strategic partnerships. Andrew Schwepfinger, the Crew’s director of digital media, did the same job for two years with the Galaxy.

Unfortunately for Galaxy fans, Porter’s ties to the team were far more fleeting. But he did get to see a Lakers game.

A favorite emerges

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Speaking of the Galaxy’s coaching vacancy, the search got a lot more interesting last week when Greg Vanney and Patrick Vieira suddenly became available. Vanney resigned after seven seasons with Toronto, where he led the team to one league title, a Supporters’ Shield trophy and three MLS Cup appearances while Vieira, who took an expansion New York City FC to the playoffs in its first two seasons, was last week sacked by Ligue 1 club Nice.

A defender in his playing days, Vanney starred for Schmid at UCLA and was a member of the original Galaxy roster in 1996, appearing in 219 games in two stints with the team. He also played with D.C. United, the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas in an 11-year career that saw him win two Supporters’ Shields, a U.S. Open Cup and a Champions League title.

Vanney began his coaching career as an assistant in Carson with Chivas USA then managed Toronto for 250 games; only Sporting Kansas City’s Peter Vermes and Philadelphia’s Jim Curtain have been with their current teams longer.

That certainly seems to be the kind of MLS experience for which Te Kloese is searching.

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Vanney, 46, said in October that a contract extension in Toronto was agreed to but it was never signed. The timing is interesting because that was the same month the Galaxy fired Schelotto, creating a desirable opening with a big club that has substantial resources.

After missing the playoffs in three out of the last four seasons – the worst four-year stretch in franchise history – the Galaxy are a mess. And in an exit interview, Vanney suggested that might just be the kind of situation he’s looking for.

“I’m a builder, I like to build things,” Vanney said. “I like projects.”

“This was a difficult decision, one that I processed for an entire difficult year and came to a conclusion that it’s the right time for myself and my family to move forward and take a different step,” he continued, referring to his resignation in Toronto. “This profession is about a journey, and in this journey, we have different experiences. I’ve taken every ounce of what I can from this experience and I think it’s time for myself and my family to move on.”

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Vanney hinted that he didn’t expect to be unemployed long but one possible hitch in a move to the Galaxy is the presence of Te Kloese. In Toronto, Vanney was the technical director as well as coach his last two seasons and he may not want to give up part of that power to work under another general manager. On the other hand, Vanney’s best season in Canada came when Tim Bezbatchenko was the team’s GM so perhaps the freedom to concentrate on managing is a plus.

Vieira, a World Cup champion with France who won trophies as a player at Arsenal, Inter Milan and Manchester City, may not be as good a fit as Vanney, but he’s close. Not only has he had success as an MLS manager, he’s a big name, which sometimes seems more important to the Galaxy front office than anything else.

Vieira was 35-32-22 in 2½ seasons with Nice but five straight losses – three coming in Europa League play, eliminating the team from the tournament with one group-stage game left to play – led to his sacking.

Te Kloese spent part of November out of the country and is reportedly still conducting interviews. Among those expected to be given a long look is Dominic Kinnear, 53, the third-winningest coach in MLS history. He finished the 2018 and 2020 seasons as the Galaxy’s interim coach.

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The Galaxy may also consider Brian Schmetzer, who Saturday will take Seattle to its fourth MLS Cup in five seasons. Schmetzer is out of contract in Seattle and while the team wants to re-sign him, the coach is unhappy general manager Garth Lagerwey has not made much progress in getting new deals done with his staff.

Getting Schmetzer to leave the Seattle area, where he was born, played and is the only place he has coached, might be too a heavy lift though – especially after he directed a record-setting playoff win Monday, getting the tying goal in the final minute of regulation and the second in the final minute of stoppage time.

On the roster front the Galaxy appear to have made substantial progress toward landing Cristian Pavón, the team leader in goals and assists last season. Pavón’s loan from Boca Juniors expires on New Year’s Eve and the team publicly set the purchase price at $20 million; the Galaxy countered with an $8 million offer. Expect the sides to compromise at a figure much closer to the Galaxy’s offer.

Last week the team also agreed on a new deal with midfielder Sacha Kljestan and exercised contract options on four other players, including forward Ethan Zubak. Options were declined on five players although the team continues to talk with midfielder Joe Corona, defender Emiliano Insua, goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann and forward Yony Gonzalez.

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When the Kljestan contract is completed, the Galaxy will have 13 players signed for 2021.

Now all they need is a coach.

In the national interest

Efraín Álvarez has scored just once in three seasons with the Galaxy, yet the teenager now finds himself at the center of a tug-of-war between Mexico, his parents’ home, and the U.S., where Álvarez was born.

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Álvarez made his first three international appearances for the U.S. U15 team in 2016, then jumped to Mexico’s age-group program a year later after being left off the roster for a U.S. training camp. Álvarez eventually made 14 appearances for Mexico, last year playing in the U19 World Cup, an official FIFA competition that cap-tied him to the country.

But that didn’t stop Berhalter, now the national team coach, from inviting him to camp in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., last week ahead of Wednesday’s friendly with El Salvador. Until Álvarez files paperwork with FIFA requesting a one-time switch of allegiance, he can’t play with the American team. But he can practice with it, get to know his teammates and work with the coaching staff, which is why Berhalter invited him in.

“For us, all it’s about is saying ‘listen, there is an open door.’ We want to create an environment that players want to be in. We want to attract good quality players and then the rest is up to the player to decide,” he said. “It’s up to the player and his family to decide in the end where they’re going to [play].”

That is also true be with Mexico, whose coach Tata Martino says Álvarez has a “bright future.”

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Four other players on Berhalter’s original camp roster, including Galaxy defender Julian Araujo, are also eligible to play for the U.S. and Mexico. Goalkeeper David Ochoa spent some time in Mexico’s youth system but, like two of Álvarez’s former Galaxy academy teammates, Uly Llanez and Alex Mendez, he was on the U.S. roster for last year’s U20 World Cup.

For years Mexico has crossed the border to raid the U.S. youth ranks with impunity, holding auditions and openly recruiting U.S.-born players with Mexican roots. Four players from Southern California alone – Miguel Ávalos, a 16-year-old midfielder now training with Galaxy II; Tony Leone, a 16-year-old on LAFC’s first-team roster; 17-year-old Galaxy II defender Jonathan Perez; and 15-year Alex Alcala, who has reportedly signed with the Galaxy – are playing for Mexican youth teams.

Now the U.S. is fighting back – and not just with Mexican-American dual nationals.

Last month, 11 of the 23 European-based players Berhalter called up for a pair of friendlies were eligible to play for other countries, among them Chile, Portugal, Italy, Jamaica and England. The coach said he has resisted pressuring any of the players to pick a side but he clearly believes once they’ve had a taste of things with the U.S. they’ll commit to the stars and stripes.

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“It’s common today to have players with multiple passports,” he said. “They’re still young players, they still have the world in front of them. We’ll be fine with whatever decision they make but I think it’s important that players are able to see what we do and how we work.

“You’re talking about players with cultural ties to other countries where emotion is involved. I can understand a player making a decision like that one time in his career.”

Álvarez, Berhalter said, has been impressive in training.

“What I’ve seen from him is a maturity, a development as a player over this last year,” he said. “He looks much more physically fit, he’s able to impact games for longer this season. It was unfortunate he didn’t play more.

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“He’s a guy you want to be around the ball, a very creative player, has a good change of pace, very good in tight spaces,” he continued. “I can see him in an attacking midfield role, in a winger role, even in the No. 9 role because of the way we’ve been using the [false] No. 9 at times. To me, he’s a quality player.”

Most of all, however, Berhalter would like to see him in a U.S. uniform.

And finally….

On Saturday three different Americans – Gio Reyna, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie – scored in one of Europe’s five major leagues on the same day for the first time since Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and Jermaine Jones did so on Aug. 27, 2005, according to @OptaJack

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Reyna scored the tying goal in Borussia Dortmund’s 1-1 draw with Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, McKennie scored the equalizer in Juventus’ 2-1 win over Torino in Italy’s Serie A and Pulisic had the insurance goal in stoppage time in Chelsa’s 3-1 win over Leeds.

In the Women’s Super League, national team captain Alex Morgan bagged her first goal for Tottenham in a 3-1 win over Brighton.

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

“It’s been difficult. The players – not only our players, all the players within the league – the coaching staff, none of us have had a year like this. It’s certainly been the most trying, taxing year that we have had. Every single day, there’s something. Your phone goes in the morning at 6:30 and your heart sinks. You go, ‘oh no, please, it’s not COVID’.”

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Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath on the 2020 MLS season, which ended for his team in a 3-2 loss in Monday’s Western Conference final

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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