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Soccer newsletter: CONCACAF Champions League resumes play this week

LAFC coach Bob Bradley on the sidelines during a game.
LAFC coach Bob Bradley
(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 the CONCACAF Champions League, which resumes play this week after a long break brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Less than 10 hours before LAFC was to kick off against Cruz Azul in the first leg of two-match quarterfinal at a sold-out Banc of California Stadium last March, the entire tournament was paused as part of an effort to discourage large gatherings and prevent the spread of the unique coronavirus.

The delay was expected to be a short one with MLS saying it would suspend training sessions for just a week; it would be nearly four months before the league played again.

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The Champions League break was even longer, nearly 280 days.

The tournament’s Final Four will finally begin returning to the field Tuesday night under a quarantine protocol in Orlando, Fla., with Olimpia of Honduras facing the Montreal Impact and Tigres UANL of Mexico’s Liga MX meeting New York City FC. LAFC will play Cruz Azul on Wednesday following the Atlanta United-Club América quarterfinal.

“It’s hard to believe it’s nine months [since] I did the press conference before Cruz Azul,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said last week. “Things changed very quickly that night.”

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And they still haven’t returned to normal. On the day LAFC was originally scheduled to play Cruz Azul, less than 1,400 Americans had tested positive for COVID-19 and 38 had died. By the start of this week more than 16.1 million people in the U.S. had the virus and more than 300,000 had died.

Nor have things returned to normal for either of the teams. LAFC last used its projected first-choice lineup against Philadelphia on March 8 – and would have used it against Cruz Azul four days later. Since then Carlos Vela’s decision to skip the MLS Is Back tournament, injuries to Vela, Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye, and positive COVID tests for seven other players have forced Bradley to get creative to come up with a starting 11.

He had hoped to have his original lineup Wednesday but forward Brian Rodríguez, who tested positive for the coronavirus while on international duty in Uruguay last month, did not return to the U.S. until late last week, raising concerns about his fitness level.

“There are still some COVID aftereffects,” Bradley said.

That’s not LAFC’s only problem. It’s been three weeks since the team last played a game, for instance, and it won just two of its last seven, including a playoff loss in Seattle. But that has only fueled the team’s resolve, Atuesta said.

“Being eliminated from the playoffs was a bitter blow,” the midfielder said in Spanish. “But we quickly turned the page and worked on correcting mistakes. Now we just need to go after the reward.”

LAFC did well the last time it played under quarantine conditions in Orlando, going unbeaten in five games at the MLS Is Back tournament despite the absence of Vela, last season’s scoring champion and MVP.

Still LAFC’s problems are minor compared to Cruz Azul’s complete implosion over the last 10 days, beginning with the second leg of the Liga MX semifinals where it gave up a 4-0 aggregate lead to Pumas UNAM and was eliminated on a tiebreaker. While that ranks as one of the most spectacular collapses in Mexican league history, the loss was the team’s sixth in nine games and it was followed by the resignation of Robert Siboldi, who was in his second stint as the team’s manager.

And if that wasn’t enough bad news, last week three players, including Mexican national team goalkeeper Jesús Corona, tested positive for the coronavirus, leaving the team shorthanded.

Cruz Azul, like LAFC, was in a much better place last March, before the Champions League was halted. Back then La Máquina was not only healthy and had a coach, it was also riding a nine-match unbeaten streak in all competition during which it averaged three goals a game.

That makes Wednesday’s elimination game a big one for both teams, each of whom needs a win if it is to have a chance at salvaging the season.

“We know how important it is to our fans,” said Bradley, whose team went 9-8-5 in the regular season, finishing seventh in the Western Conference standings. “A lot has happened. Start, stop, MLS Is Back and all the rest.

“But at the end of it we’re still playing with a chance to do something special.”

The winner will advance to Saturday’s semifinals where it will play the survivor of Wednesday’s other quarterfinal between Atlanta United and Club América. The tournament final will be played Dec. 22.

“The biggest motivation is that we can make history,” Atuesta said. “We’ve worked hard all year. We’re prepared and ready to leave it all out on the line.”

The Crew’s all here

The MLS Cup final wasn’t supposed to be in Columbus last Saturday. In fact the Crew, the team that hosted the game, wasn’t supposed to be there either.

Three years ago the club, an original MLS franchise, was bought by investment manager Anthony Precourt, who quickly announced plans to move the club to Austin, Texas, with the league’s full support.

That never happened and last week the team rewarded the fans who saved the franchise by bringing them a second league title with a 3-0 win over the Seattle Sounders.

“They’ll remember this forever,” Crew coach Caleb Porter told reporters afterward. “I believe in leaving legacies, making history. That’s what sports are about.

“We left a legacy. Everybody’s going to remember 2020. These fans are going to remember it and these players are going to remember it. Life is short and sports bring a group together to ignite a community. To make memories with that group of guys in the locker room, that is what it’s about.”

When Precourt shared his intentions to relocate the team in the fall of 2017 it caught Columbus’ civic leaders and the team’s loyal supporters by surprise. But rather than surrender they pushed back, launching a wide-ranging campaign to save the Crew.

More than 12,000 people promised to purchase tickets if the team stayed, part of a campaign to pressure Precourt and the league to reverse course.

That took just a year to pay off with MLS, embarrassed by the whole soap opera, brokering a deal that would see Precourt sell the Crew to Jimmy and Dee Haslam, owners of the Cleveland Browns, and Pete Edwards, the Crew’s physician, who promised to keep the team in Columbus.

The deal went through on New Year’s Day 2019 and two weeks later MLS awarded Precourt an expansion franchise in Austin, capping one of most unusual ownership transfers in U.S. pro sports history. When else has a league and owner begun packing to move only to have the city and the fans refuse to let them go?

(Interesting that Precourt’s expansion team will begin play in MLS next year, a season his old team will begin as the reigning league champs.)

The ink wasn’t even dry on the sales receipt for the Haslams’ purchase when the team made two decisions that made last Saturday’s win possible: hiring Porter, who once coached nearby at the University of Akron, and naming former Toronto FC executive Tim Bezbatchenko as the new president.

The pair set out on a multi-year rebuilding project but progress came sooner than expected. Last winter the team traded for national team midfielder Darlington Nagbe and paid a $7-million transfer fee to Tigres for Argentine midfielder Lucas Zelarayán, who had two goals and an assist in the win over Seattle.

The team, Porter suggested, may also have benefitted from the disruption COVID-19 brought to the MLS season. The Crew played two games before the season was halted for four months, then went unbeaten in the MLS Is Back tournament. And it kept winning when the league resumed its season in home markets, part of a streak that would see the team lose just once in its first 14 games, conceding only six goals in the process.

The Crew was even better in the playoffs, posting three consecutive shutouts. Two of those clean sheets went to Andrew Tarbell, who started only six games in the regular season but played in the Eastern Conference semifinals and final after regular keeper Eloy Room tested positive for the coronavirus.

What better symbol for Columbus’ championship season than a back-up goalkeeper who refused to back down? The Crew lost 10 players to the coronavirus some point during the playoffs including Nagbe, who was replaced by 19-year-old Aidan Morris, the youngest player to start in the league championship. It was just the third start of his MLS career, yet he played a key role in the win.

“I actually believe that you grow more than ever in adversity,” said Porter, who was hired by the Crew a couple of weeks after talks that would have seen him coach the Galaxy fell apart. “I grew more than ever this year. My team and my players have grown more than ever. When we have adversity …. we use it the right way.

“In life there’s a lot of adversity. There’s a lot of ups and downs. You get bloody. I’m an underdog, I’ve been bloodied a lot, won a lot. I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve gotten.”

The team’s supporters could say the same thing.

Despite loss, Schmetzer has brought a dynasty to Seattle

The Sounders were clearly not sharp in Saturday’s loss, which takes nothing away from Columbus’ win nor a five-year run by Seattle that ranks among the best in MLS history. It’s also one that has stamped Brian Schmetzer as one of the league’s great coaches.

Since taking over for Sigi Schmid midway through the 2016 season, Schmetzer, whose contract with the Sounders expires this year, has guided Seattle to four MLS Cup finals, winning two. Including the postseason, Schmetzer is 83-41-37 as an MLS coach, an average of 1.78 points per game, best of any manager with more than 70 games on the sideline.

And Saturday’s final may have ended differently if not for the COVID spread that forced much of the Colorado Rapids’ roster to quarantine for a month, wiping out an Oct. 14 game in Seattle. The Sounders, 7-1-2 at home during the regular season, likely would have won that game and finished the season with 12 wins and 42 points.

But the match was never played so Columbus, which finished with 41 points despite being winless on the road this season, was given home-field advantage for the final by virtue of a superior record. That forced Seattle, which hasn’t lost a home playoff match in regulation since 2013, on the road.

Welcome to the COVID Cup, a title game that may have been influenced by a team, Colorado, that didn’t qualify for it and a game that was never played. Just another reason why this season needs to go into the record books with a very prominent asterisk.

Play for the Galaxy … then coach for someone else

When the Galaxy began their search for a new coach to replace Guillermo Barros Schelotto, one of the first names mentioned was Robbie Keane, who won three league titles and an MVP award as a player in Carson.

Team officials moved quickly, if quietly, to knock down the speculation noting that, aside from a brief stint as player-coach for Indian club ATK, Keane has never been a manager.

The same can’t be said of Keane’s former Galaxy teammate Steven Gerrard, who has Rangers cruising to its first Scottish Premier League title in more than a decade after second-place finishes in his first two seasons as manager.

The team, based in Glasgow, is unbeaten at 15-0-2 and has a 13-point lead over Celtic after 17 matches, having outscored the opposition 47-4. Rangers haven’t lost a game in any competition this season, having won their five preseason games, their only Scottish Cup match and three Europa League qualifiers before going 4-0-2 in the group stage games to advance to the knockout phase.

In 2½ seasons at Rangers, Gerrard is 59-10-15 in the Premiership, the top tier of Scottish soccer.

It’s unlikely he’d consider a return to MLS, however. For starters he didn’t really seem to enjoy his first visit, with injuries limiting him to 34 games over parts of two seasons. More important, he seems well down a path that could see him follow the likes of Alex Ferguson and Paul Lambert, who began their managerial careers in Scotland before finding success in the English Premier League.

Keane will eventually get his shot too after stints as an assistant with the Irish national team and Middlesbrough, a second-tier English side. If that happens, he’ll join a long list of top managers who played for the Galaxy, beginning with the first team in franchise history in 1996 which featured five players -- Greg Vanney, Curt Onalfo, Cobi Jones, Chris Armas and Robin Fraser – who would go on become MLS head coaches. A sixth player, Jorge Salcedo, would become head coach at UCLA while three others, Ante Razov, Dan Calichman and David Kramer have all been MLS assistants. (Still another, forward Andrew Shue, starred on the TV show “Melrose Place” before joining the team.)

That’s five MLS managers, three assistants and a Division I college coach off one roster.

Later Galaxy teams would include Pablo Mastroeni, who managed Colorado for parts of four seasons and is now an assistant in Houston; Landon Donovan, who nearly got the San Diego Loyal into the USL Championship playoffs team this year, his first as a coach; Gregg Berhalter, who guided the Columbus Crew to an MLS Cup final before taking over the national team; Mike Muñoz, who manages Toronto FC II; Paul Caligiuri, who coached at Cal Poly Pomona and now manages the Orange County Football Club of the National Professional Soccer League; Simon Elliott, who managed the USL Championship’s Sacramento Republic for two seasons; and Edson Buddle, the first-year manager of the Westchester (N.Y.) Flames, which plays in the USL League Two.

Clint Mathis, Pat Noonan, Matt Reis, Jovan Kirovski, Tyrone Marshall and Ezra Hendrickson are among the former Galaxy players who became MLS assistant coaches.

With all that alumni talent to draw from it shouldn’t be too hard for Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese to find someone to come back and lead their old team with Vanney, who took Toronto to the only treble in MLS history in 2017, thought to be among the favorites.

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 regretted bringing him to MLS. It was a waste of time there.”

Mino Raiola, the agent for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, quoted by @goal on his client’s two seasons with the Galaxy

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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