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Soccer newsletter: MLS players begin reporting to training camp

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber
(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 MLS, where the offseason came to an end Monday when players began reporting for the start of training camp.

The first week of camp was set aside for medical exams, COVID-19 testing and a coronavirus quarantine, although many players who voluntarily reported early have already fulfilled some of those requirements. Another five clubs -- Atlanta United, Columbus, Philadelphia, Portland and Toronto FC, which are playing in outside competitions before the MLS regular-season opener on April 17 -- were given permission to formerly open camp in February.

MLS marked its 25th anniversary in 2020 with a regular season shortened to 23 games by COVID-19, a virus commissioner Don Garber says cost the league $1 billion in lost revenue. And while that was a painful blow it was hardly the kind of knockout punch that would have staggered the league just a decade earlier.

Nigel Reo-Coker remembers those immature days of MLS. He watched the beginning of the league’s growth from England, where he made his professional debut while David Beckham was still at Manchester United. Then he began his own MLS sojourn a year after Beckham left the Galaxy, joining the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2013 for the start of a three-season, three-team tour of the league.

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He still follows American soccer from his new home in South Florida, where he does TV commentary. And he’s come away believing the best is yet to come.

“It’s got great potential,” he said of MLS. “The only little criticism I’ve got is I feel at times the MLS is thinking that they’re going to reinvent the wheel. Which isn’t the right way to go because football is the world’s game.

“If you’ve going to develop the next generation of football players and really be dominant as a nation, as you should, you just have to do it how it’s been done time and time again. Use the athleticism that you possess already but get them to really [have] technical understanding of the game and you’d have a fantastic league.”

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In addition to Vancouver, Reo-Coker, a midfielder also played for five teams in England – including three in the Premier League – and played for the Montreal Impact and in the final three games of the short-lived Chivas USA.

“A lot of the players, they didn’t know what was going to happen next. It’s never a nice situation to be in because it’s so hard to have a positive mindset,” he said of the late-season 2014 trade that sent him to a Chivas team that had already been marked for elimination. “I was told, basically, that the team will be reforming and there’ll be a new name and it’s going to happen a couple of years down the line.”

That new name proved to be LAFC.

“But there was no guarantee, so I knew it was going to be a lost cause,” he said of Chivas USA. “The difficult thing is obviously not knowing what was next.”

What was next for Reo-Coker was being picked first by Montreal in that winter’s MLS waiver draft. He appeared in 37 games for the Impact that season, including three in the playoffs and all six in Montreal’s run to the CONCACAF Champions League final.

Six years later he said it’s time for MLS to stop trying to mimic European leagues with more than a century of history and create its own unique soccer culture.

“MLS wants to be kind of like England [but] it has to grow its own history. Every football club is more about the city and the town where it’s from, it’s about community,” he said. “MLS clubs [should] use that same blueprint of building in around their community and making a name within the city and within the community.”

“Pretty much every club in the MLS has the opportunity. But again it has to be the club making the outreach to the community,” he continued. “America is so full of young, talented athletes and a lot of the athletes are being lost to the NBA and NFL. So if clubs made a bit greater effort to improve the coaching and got some good coaches who understand the game at that young level, then get these young players to envision a future in the MLS, America would seriously produce some unbelievable footballers.

“The athleticism is there. It’s just coaching them to understand the game and what it means to play at the highest level and what it takes to get to the highest level.”

A developing story at LAFC

LAFC continues to build its player-development system, announcing Monday that it has joined with Real So Cal in the formation of LAFC So Cal Youth, a partnership that will impact as many as 4,000 players in the Real So Cal and West Valley Soccer League program.

Then later this week the MLS club is expected to announce it has formed an affiliate relationship with the Las Vegas Lights of the USL Championship. The team will be coached by former national team defender Steve Cherundolo, who is currently as assistant with Germany’s U-15 team after working under Dave Sarachan with the U.S. national team.

Cherundolo, 42, played 15 years in Germany for Hannover 96, making 370 appearances, most of them in the Bundesliga. His hiring by LAFC was first announced by ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman.

LAFC previously had an affiliate deal with the Orange County Soccer Club, sending players there on loan. But the agreement really didn’t fit either club since OCSC was trying to win on the field while producing its own young players and LAFC wanted to loan its athletes down to get playing time.

So LAFC began sending players to USL Championship teams in Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and San Diego instead.

The partnership with Real So Cal, meanwhile, marks a major push into Southern California’s thriving youth market and comes less than a year after U.S. Soccer dissolved its development academy program.

“It feels like a natural fit,” LAFC academy director Todd Saldaña said in a statement. “For a long time, they have been a front runner and ahead of the game in the youth market. This partnership gives us an opportunity to work with even more players and impact their player-development program and get players even more prepared for the next level.”

The LAFC Academy launched in 2016, two years before the first team played it first game. It now has five teams from U-12 to U-17. LAFC signed three academy players – Christian Torres, Erik Duenas and Tony Leone – last season.

An ever-expanding Galaxy

New Galaxy coach Greg Vanney visited with the media on a teleconference call Monday after running his first official training session with the team. And he said he was generally pleased by the excitement and fitness level of his players.

But, he added, the roster he began training with may not be the one he begins the season with.

“I think we have between six and eight players left to add to this group,” he said.

One position he’s looking to fill is holding midfielder, which would allow Jonathan dos Santos to roam box to box and join in the attack. And one addition the Galaxy are nearly ready to announce is that of German-born Irish center back Derrick Williams who, as the son of an Army serviceman, has U.S. citizenship.

His acquisition, first reported by Josh Guesman of Corner of the Galaxy, could be made formal later this week or early next week.

Williams, 28, made one Premier League appearance for Aston Villa then played 248 games for Bristol City and Blackburn in the second-tier Championship and third-tier League One. He’s also earned three caps with the Irish national team.

Williams has been plagued by a quadriceps injury this season and hasn’t played in 2021, meaning he’s likely to join the Galaxy on a free transfer. His contract expires in June

Vanney is also hopeful of a positive resolution in the ongoing contract talks with Boca Juniors over winger Cristian Pavón, who played for the Galaxy on loan last season and led the team in goals (10) and assists (7) while playing every minute of every game. Pavón’s loan ended on Dec. 31 and negotiations to bring him to MLS permanently have become bogged down.

“We remain optimistic that it can get pushed over the edge,” Vanney said. “At the same time we also have to be considering what does life look like if we can’t. But I’m still hopeful that we can get it done.”

If Pavón does return it’s unlikely he’ll be available for selection before mid-May after undergoing surgery to remove bone fragments from both ankles.

The Galaxy will have at least five new starters under their new coach and Vanney said he wants the players he adds to the roster to be with the team throughout what could be a lengthy makeover.

“We still want to add to that veteran core that’s kind of in their 20s so we can build some longevity with this group. And once we lay down the foundation, we have a group of guys that hopefully can be here for a while,” he said.

Vanney and general manager Dennis te Kloese have previously said they are looking for help in the midfield, on the wing and at forward. Depth is also an issue.

“Positionally and the qualities that we’re looking for, we’re being very specific. That’s part of why this process is taking a little bit of time,” Vanney said. “It’s not just any opportunity that shows up. We’re looking for very specific qualities to fit into the group that we believe can help take us to the level that we need to be at. All of those targets are there. It’s just getting over the final hurdles and getting guys signed and here, and into training so that they can start integrating together as a group.”

And finally there’s this…..

Angel City will announce Tuesday that Birdies, a female-founded, direct-to-consumer footwear brand, will be the team’s founding sleeve sponsor. The company logo will appear on the right shoulder of Angel City’s home and away jerseys. Angel City had earlier revealed food-delivery service DoorDash would the team’s jersey-front sponsor. The club’s colors, crest and kit design will be announced this summer…. Galaxy defender Julian Araujo and goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann and LAFC defender Marco Farfan are among 31 players called into training camp with the national U-23 team ahead of the Olympic qualifying tournament later this month in Guadalajara, Mexico… The three women’s national games in last month’s SheBelieves Cup averaged 532,000 viewers for the English-language broadcasts on FS1 and ESPN. The audience peaked for the Feb. 21 game with Brazil, which drew 568,000 on FS1…. Former Galaxy assistant and national team interim coach Dave Sarachan is the new manager of the Puerto Rican national team… Rafael Garcia, a two-time MLS Cup winner with the Galaxy and the first captain for USL side LA Galaxy II, has retired. Garcia, 32, played the last two seasons with Oklahoma City Energy of the USL Championship…. Forward Chandler Hoffman, Garcia’s former Galaxy II teammate, has signed with the Los Angeles Force of the third-tier National Independent Soccer Assn. Hoffman, 30, played college soccer at UCLA before embarking on a pro career that included stints with 10 teams, including the Galaxy, LA Galaxy II and most recently the Orange County Soccer Club.

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 am very excited to get my first goal back with the national team and join that list of moms on the team who have scored goals and played as a national team player. I just want to be an example for other female athletes who are moms or want to become moms knowing that they still belong in the game after they have kids. You can be a mom and still be at the top of your game.”

Alex Morgan, on scoring her first goal for the national team since giving birth to a daughter last spring. The goal, in a 6-0 win over Argentina in the final game of the SheBelieves Cup last week, was the 108th of Morgan’s international career

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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