Soccer newsletter: MLS hopes to get season started in early April
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer and we have a lot to get to today starting with MLS, which is battling on two fronts in an effort to get its 2021 season started in early April.
The first battle, against COVID-19, actually appears to be the easier one – for now. The league announced Monday that teams would be permitted to open training camps on Feb. 22 with the regular season slated to being April 3 – a month later than normal.
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In accordance with MLS health and safety protocols, players as well as technical and essential club staff will be tested every other day and teams will use chartered flights for all road trips.
The league will return to a 34-game schedule with the regular season ending Nov. 7 and the playoffs beginning Nov. 19. The MLS Cup is set for Dec. 11. The U.S. Open Cup is also expected to be played after it was canceled last season for the first time in more than a century.
Individual team schedules will be released at a later date.
Simple? Well, not really.
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MLS, which gets the vast majority of its money from game-day sales and sponsorships, welcomed only a small number of fans to a handful of stadiums last season, a big reason why, commissioner Don Garber said, the league lost $1 billion in potential revenue. Leading health experts don’t expect much of the country to be ready to welcome large crowds back into stadiums until late summer – if then.
The league said it will continue to abide by the directives of local authorities.
Another problem is what to do with the league’s three Canadian teams – although that question may be heading toward a solution. The border between the U.S. and Canada remains closed to non-essential travel because of the pandemic but President Biden has already signed an executive order tasking his administration to work with Canadian officials to develop health and safety measures to reopen the boundary.
And finally there’s the schedule itself. With CONCACAF countries scheduled to play eight World Cup qualifiers each between early September and mid-November, many MLS clubs could be forced to play their most important games without their best players.
All in all, however, MLS has probably done the best it can with a bad situation. It has to start the season sometime and even with a month’s delay, it is already committing most teams to playing at least half their games without fans, assuring more steep financial losses – yet it did so in order to return to a 34-game schedule.
And it had to end the season sometime, even if that meant losing players to international duty.
The other battle MLS is waging may wind up forcing greater compromise – although who will do the majority of the compromising remains unknown.
Last month the league invoked a controversial force majeure clause in its collective bargaining agreement with the players union, allowing it to reopen talks for 30 days in the case of a catastrophe... such as a global pandemic.
MLS has offered to pay the players their salaries in full for 2021 in return for a two-year extension in the current CBA, which would essentially erase wage increases that the league already agreed.
The union submitted its first response to those proposals last week and the league answered in kind Monday, releasing a statement in which it said it was “prepared for around-the-clock negotiations to get a deal done.”
If a deal is not reached by Thursday the existing CBA, which sets working conditions for next month’s return to camp, could be nullified leaving the two sides without a working agreement.
“This is not a unique situation,” the MLS statement continued “as MLS and the players have negotiated more complicated issues in prior CBAs and managed to meet the deadline.”
True. Left unsaid, though, is the fact the players were on the verge of a strike on at least two of those occasions. And they remain angry with what they view as strong-arm negotiating tactics recently used by MLS, first last summer and again this winter.
The deadline established this week by the force majeure clause isn’t the real one since both sides can continue negotiating after it passes. The more critical one is Feb. 22, when the league wants everyone back in training.
The union and the league face pressures in trying to get something done by then and the talks are certain to be acrimonious. But the framework of a new season is on the table now so at least they know what they’re talking about.
A national effort at redemption
After what was, at best, an up-and-down MLS season for LAFC, defender Tristan Blackmon played perhaps his best soccer of 2020 in last month’s CONCACAF Champions League, earning himself an invitation to his first training camp with the national team.
But that stay was cut short when Blackmon sustained a concussion in Saturday’s practice and was sent home to Southern California a week early, costing him a chance to play in the Jan. 31 friendly with Trinidad and Tobago. Even so, Blackmon said just being called up was a career high point.
“It’s definitely a confidence boost. It’s a first for me and [it’s] showing that I’m doing some things right,” he said.
It would difficult for Blackmon to say that about much of 2020. The season was interrupted for four months by the COVID-19 pandemic and when MLS returned to play, it was under quarantine conditions in Florida. When LAFC resumed its season at home in late summer, it did so in an empty stadium.
At 23 games, it was the shortest regular season ever and for the first time Blackmon spent it entirely in MLS; in his first two years, LAFC had sent him on extended loans to Phoenix Rising of the USL Championship. But if that was the good news, the bad was Blackmon still missed seven games with a hamstring injury, returning in time for another disappointingly early playoff exit.
Looking back Blackmon wonders if the team went into last season overconfident after a 2019 in which it won its first trophy and finished with the best regular-season record in MLS history.
“Maybe there was some complacency, which isn’t a good thing,” he said. “You’re never supposed to be in that headspace.”
Yet if the regular season didn’t go as planned, the schedule reconfigurations necessitated by the coronavirus gave LAFC and Blackmon a chance at redemption when the last three rounds of the CONCACAF Champions League, which are normally finished by late spring, were delayed until mid-December.
“Throughout the year, battling through injuries, I just knew that I had to turn it up a notch,” he said. “There is no excuse for not executing at the end of the year. And I looking to do that in those games in CONCACAF.”
More important, perhaps, was the fact that Blackmon, who finished the MLS season at center back, was moved to right back for the Champions League.
“Going into CONCACAF at the end of the year I wanted to make a statement,” he said. “I need[ed] to show what I can do and I think I had a mentality to just go and get it. Whoever I was playing against I wasn’t going to be the one that was inferior. I was going to try to dominate, whatever side of the field, whatever position I was playing.
“I think for the most part I showed that and it was a huge confidence booster against those players in CONCACAF. You see the level and how good these players are. I’m looking to use that mentality that I ended 2020 with and running with it and not stopping.”
Those three performances likely played a big part in the decision to call Blackmon into his first national team camp, where he was used almost exclusively at right back.
“It’s not the easiest to come in for the first time,” coach Gregg Berhalter said of the camp, which included senior players and U-23 players auditioning for a spot on the U.S. for the Olympic trials. “He’s the only one of the senior players that hasn’t been in camp so there is a little bit of that uncomfortable feeling.
“But I saw that he has quality. We know why he’s done well. For him it’s just about getting used to the way we play, the way we do things and he’ll be fine.”
Keeping their Games faces on
It looks like the only thing that can stop the U.S. from winning another gold medal in this summer’s Tokyo Olympics is COVID-19, which is threatening to again postpone a competition it has already delayed once.
Last week the Times of London reported that government officials in Japan have privately concluded the Games, scheduled to being in late July, are doomed and have begun focusing on securing the competition in 2032, after the 2024 Paris Games and the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
That report drew swift rebukes from government and Olympic officials, who insisted the Games will go on as scheduled. But in Japan, where a state of emergency exists to fight the pandemic, public opinion is leaning strongly the other way with just one in five people surveyed in favor of the event going forward as planned.
For many athletes, the clock is ticking. U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, who won a gold medal in 2012, will be 36 this July, making Tokyo probably her last shot at a second title. But whether she gets that chance, she acknowledged, is out of her hands.
“We just do everything we can to keep our environment safe [and] prepare the way that we can fully understanding, much like last year, it could very likely not happen again,” Rapinoe said after the team opened 2021 with a pair of wins over Colombia. “That would be awful. Personally, I would be devastated. I think a lot of my teammates would be devastated to just kind of miss out fully on a major championship.”
The U.S., the two-time reigning World Cup champion, will continue its preparations next month when it plays Brazil, Japan and Canada — all ranked among the top 10 — in the SheBelieves Cup.
The U.S. was without three of its top offensive players in Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Alex Morgan in the two games with Colombia, which the U.S. won by a combined 10-0, extending its unbeaten streak to 34 games. The U.S. is 67-4-5 since being eliminated by Sweden on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the last Olympic tournament in 2016.
If those three players return for the SheBelieves Cup, they will find a much different team than the one they played for last November. Veterans Carli Lloyd and Rapinoe returned from 10-month absences to combine for two goals and four assists in the wins over Colombia. And newcomers Margaret Purce and Catarina Macario each collected their first international goals.
That figures to complicate things for coach Vlatko Andonovski who, if there is an Olympic tournament this summer, will have to cut his roster to 18 players.
“The decision, it gets even tougher,” Andonovski said. “But I would rather be on this side then the other side. I hate it but I love it. Ultimately, the best ones will go. “
Until then Rapinoe said the players will continue to prepare hoping the Olympics will go forward – while knowing they may not.
“Eventually someone will tell us if the Olympics are happening, if they’re not happening,” she said. “Obviously we all understand we are in a global pandemic. And we understand the implications that has for bringing the global community together for technically, I think, a non-essential kind of thing.
“Someone will tell us at some point. But up until then we just keep training and keep playing these games.”
A Frank assessment at Chelsea
U.S. international Christian Pulisic has a new club manager.
With Chelsea mired in a slump that has seen it win just two of its last eight Premier League games, the team on Monday sacked former club legend Frank Lampard as coach and is expected to replace him with German Thomas Tuchel, fired as the head man at Paris Saint-Germain four weeks ago.
As a player, Lampard is Chelsea’s all-time leader in goals with 211 and ranks fourth in appearances with 648. But he was just 44-23-17 in all competition in 19 months as manager and leaves with Chelsea in ninth place, 11 points back of league-leading Manchester United at the season’s halfway point despite spending nearly $300 million on new players this season.
Chelsea topped the table on Dec. 5.
Compare Lampard’s record with that of Steven Gerrard, his former England teammate in three World Cups and later an MLS rival, Gerrard with the Galaxy and Lampard with New York City FC.
With last Saturday’s 5-0 win over Ross County, Gerrard is 98-20-32 in his first 150 games with Scotland’s Rangers, who are overperforming as much as Lampard’s Chelsea was underperforming. Gerrard’s team is unbeaten at 22-0-3 in the Scottish Premiership this season and have outscored opponents 65-7. They also won their group in the Europa League.
A managerial opportunity in the Premier League can’t be far away for Gerrard. As for Pulisic, if Tuchel gets the job it will mark a reunion with the manager that helped him get his start in Europe at Borussia Dortmund as a teenager in 2017.
Pulisic went on to score 19 goals in four seasons in all competition before moving to Chelsea on a $72 million transfer in 2019.
“He knows him very well. And that’s always important. He’s coming in with a real good understanding of what Christian can do and his skill set,” Berhalter said of the relationship between Tuchel and the national team’s leader. “He also has seen Christian develop and improve over his time at Dortmund.
“And for Christian, it’s the familiarity with how he coaches, his communication style, and that’s all helpful. There’s not that uncomfortable period when you’re getting to know the coach.”
Still Berhalter, who was sacked from his first coaching job with Sweden’s Hammarby in 2013, sympathized with Lampard.
“In terms of Frank not being the coach anymore, it’s a really tough business,” he said. “Chelsea is a top club and they expect wins in all the games they play and it’s very difficult for managers to deal with that.”
And finally there’s this….
In addition to the havoc COVID-19 has played on the Olympic Games, the pandemic has had a measurable impact on club soccer with FIFA reporting a 23.4% decline, to $1.734 billion, in international transfer fees in 2020. That’s down 10% from 2017. The number of transfers also declined 5.4%, to 17,077, the first decline in year-over-year numbers since 2010. On the women’s side global transfers rose nearly 24%, though the overall number was relatively small at just 1,035….With a second-half strike in a 4-0 rout of Schalke last Sunday, Bayern Munich’s Frank Lewandowski joined Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, Juventus’ Cristiano Ronaldo and Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic as the only active players with 500 goals for club and country. At 32, Lewandowski, who leads Europe’s major leagues with 23 goals in 17 Bundesliga games, is also the youngest of the four. He has scored 272 of his 437 club goals for Bayern Munich and has a national-team record 63 goals for Poland. Ibrahimovic, by the way, scored his 500th goal for the Galaxy. His 12 goals this season at age 39 are tied for third-best in Italy’s Serie A.
“The U.S. is the land of opportunity. I don’t have the words to describe how wonderful this moment was. I’m definitely living the American dream.”
New U.S. citizen Catarina Macario, who left Brazil at 12 with the intention of playing for the national team, after making her first appearance and scoring her first goal against Colombia. She plans to give the game balls from the two matches to her parents as thanks for their sacrifices
Go beyond the scoreboard
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