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Soccer newsletter: Looks like fans will be able to attend Galaxy, LAFC games sooner than expected

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 COVID-19, a once-in-a-century pandemic that has wrought profound changes to all parts of our daily lives.

Now, finally, there is some positive news, with daily vaccinations topping 2.5 million nationwide while statewide preparations are being made to permit paying customers to return to outdoor stadiums and amusement parks for the first time in more than a year.

Although it feels as we’ve been locked out forever, it was just 12 months ago this week that fear of the coronavirus’ rapid spread forced leagues around the world to shut down. In the U.S., the NBA was first. By early the following afternoon MLS, the NHL, major league baseball and the NCAA had done the same.

Just 1,300 Americans had contracted the virus and 38 had died from it when LAFC called off its CONCACAF Champions League match at Banc of California Stadium last March 12. Nearly a year later coronavirus infections in the U.S. have soared past 29.7 million and over 537,000 Americans have died from COVID.

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The virus has killed 2.6 million and sickened 39 times that many worldwide.

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Given that, it seems ridiculous to busy ourselves with worry over the fate of any game. But sports have a long history or distracting and entertaining us during times of great angst, which is why President Roosevelt insisted Major League Baseball continue to play during World War II.

And now there appears to be some light at the end of the tunnel, with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office last week saying outdoor sports venues could begin welcoming limited numbers of fans back beginning April 1.

Attendance will be limited to a percentage of a stadium’s capacity, based on the coronavirus numbers in each county. The Galaxy and LAFC play in Los Angeles County, which is the most-restrictive purple tier. If either team played today, attendance would be limited to 100 fans.

But the MLS regular season doesn’t begin until April 17, by which time, projections suggest, the county will be in the red tier, where the limit is 20% of capacity. For the Galaxy that means about 5,400 supporters at Dignity Health Sports Park, 1,000 more than LAFC can welcome at Banc of California Stadium.

That number will move to 33% in the orange tier and 67% in the yellow tier. Spectators will be required to wear masks and observe other health precautions. In the red and orange tiers, only in-state residents will be allowed inside the venues. There are no such restrictions in the yellow tier.

That’s welcome news for the two MLS teams, which privately were saying they expect didn’t any fans until early summer and were anticipating it would be late summer or early fall until a substantial number would be back. It’s also good news for MLS, which relies on game-day sales and sponsorships for the vast majority of its revenues. With COVID-19 forcing teams to play in empty stadiums last season, commissioner Don Garber estimated the league lost $1 billion in revenue in 2020.

MLS isn’t alone among soccer leagues and teams feeling the financial pinch of COVID-19.

Barcelona, once considered the richest soccer team in the world, hasn’t played a home game before fans in a year and is reportedly $1.4 billion in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy, according to the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. The team, which elected a new president Sunday, saw revenue fall 14% last year, largely because of the pandemic, the newspaper said.

The entirety of French club soccer, which wasn’t healthy before COVID, has been tip-toeing on the edge of a financial abyss since the virus struck. The French government forced an early end to last season and teams opened this one playing before limited crowds, only to have stadiums close again when the country went into lockdown in November.

And FIFA reported earlier this year that global transfer fees fell 23.4%, to $5.63 million, in 2020, a drop it blamed on the pandemic. The total amount spent was the lowest since 2016 while the number of global deals – 17,077, which included loans and free transfers – dropped for the first time in a decade.

It hasn’t gotten any better in the early going this year with more than half the 20 Premier League clubs failing to add to their first-team rosters -- and just five spending money on permanent transfers in the January window -- according to The Athletic.

The decision to begin allowing fans back into stadiums in California won’t solve all problems, of course. Not even for the clubs in California. But Newsom’s announcement, combined with the Biden administration’s promise to deliver enough doses to vaccinate every adult in the U.S. by May, suggests the worst of the virus crisis may be over.

And that’s welcome news after a long, painful 12 months.

Time for a change at Anfield?

It’s been a rough season for Liverpool. A year after winning their first Premier League title, the Reds have fallen to eighth in the table and out of contention for a European tournament invitation in 2021-22.

And that could be making things a little uncomfortable for coach Jurgen Klopp, especially given that Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard is compiling an impressive managerial resume with Rangers in the Scottish Premiership.

Is it time to make a change? Probably not. This is the first rough patch for Klopp in his long tenure at Liverpool and he has certainly earned some patience.

But given Gerrard’s history with the club and his success in his first managerial job in Glasgow, the club’s board may not enjoy that luxury.

While Klopp was losing his sixth straight match at home over the weekend, the longest home losing streak ever for a reigning EPL champion, Rangers were winning their first Premiership title in 10 years.

While Rangers are unbeaten in league play and 38-1-6 on the season – the only loss coming on a stoppage-time goal from St. Mirren in the quarterfinals of the Scottish League Cup – Liverpool is 19-11-10. But what is really worrying the folks around Anfield is Liverpool’s play since the start of the new year. The Reds has won just three times in 12 EPL games in 2021 – and haven’t won at all at home.

They entered the year unbeaten in 68 straight at home but how have lost six straight there, scoring just twice. Fortress Anfield has been sacked.

Yes, there are mitigating factors. COVID-19 has kept the Anfield stands empty, with just 6,000 fans total attending games there this season. The Reds have also been wracked by injuries with Virgil van Dijk -- the runner-up for the last Ballon d’Or runner-up -- Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez, Joel Matip all out of the season.

Given that, and the unusual circumstances caused by the coronavirus, Klopp, who maintains the backing of supporters and the team’s U.S. owners, probably deserves a pass after winning 62 games and that elusive EPL title in the last two seasons.

But there must be concern that Klopp has been unable to pull his team out of what has been a 2 ½-month death spiral and a compelling argument could be made that the coach, whose huge personality dominates his team’s dressing room, may have wore out his welcome.

His 5½ seasons at Anfield makes him the second-longest-tenured manager in the EPL behind only Burnley’s Sean Dyche; the average EPL manager last just 69 games. Pep Guardiola, who has taken Manchester City back to the top of the table, has always maintained that every team, no matter how good, needs an overhaul every four seasons.

Either the players have to change or the manager does, Guardiola believes. Yet Klopp is still there, as are 12 of the 18 men who played the most minutes for Liverpool four seasons ago.

Is Klopp still a great a manager? Yes. Is it possible his message is no longer resonating among the players? Absolutely. Consider his previous job, in which he coached Borussia Dortmund to two Bundesliga titles and a Champions League final, averaging more than 22 wins over four seasons, before going 13-14-7 the next season – his last in Germany.

Gerrard’s success could also weigh heavily in Klopp’s future. The former Liverpool captain grew up with the club and ranks in the top five in appearances and goals at the club. He also got his coaching staff with the Liverpool academy, the first step toward a position on the sidelines with the first team.

Liverpool probably thought that day was years off but Gerrard, who finished his playing career in MLS with the Galaxy, has progressed much faster than expected as a manager, taking Rangers to a pair of second-place finishes before breaking through this season, clinching the Premiership with six games left while outscoring opponents 77-9.

“I’m on a real, emotional high and it has been a journey that is not finished,” Gerrard told reporters over the weekend. “There is more to come and the next thing for me, when you win, it is always about what is next.”

Gerrard undoubtedly would like that next thing to be a return to Anfield but if that job remains unavailable for long, he’ll certainly find suitors with other clubs. And that will leave Liverpool with a difficult choice: hire him now or risk losing him forever.

Wait, they only get one day?

Coach Bob Bradley opened his teleconference Monday by name-checking five of his favorite female athletes while defender Tristan Blackmon wore a black Angel City facemask for his interview, part of LAFC’s effort to mark Monday’s celebration of International Women’s Day.

In addition, eight of Southern California’s pro teams, including LAFC, used their social media outlets to encourage their fans to take actionable steps to support women’s sports, including purchasing merchandise, tuning into games when they are on television – and making deposits toward tickets for Angel City’s first season in 2022.

“You look around the world and there’s so many examples of women that have done incredible things,” said Bradley, who has two daughters. He then went on to select his own Fab Five of female athletes.

“I’ve always been incredibly impressed with Venus and Serena Williams,” he said. “Lisa Leslie, Allyson Felix and Christen Press. Those are my big five shoutouts for the day. But it also is a way of saying to the women at LAFC and across the country and around the world, the talent and the ability keep shining through and moving forward.

“That part’s always very impressive.”

He may have some more local names to add to that list when Angel City joins the NWSL next spring, becoming the first women’s professional franchise in Southern California since the LA Sol folded in 2010 after one season. The LAFC-Angel City partnership is a close one since the teams will share Banc of California Stadium.

The public sale of seat deposits for Angel City’s first season will begin March 30 and as part of the team’s mission to have an impact beyond the pitch, it announced Tuesday that it will give a donated Nike sports bra to a girl in need for each of BOC’s 22,000 seats.

And finally there’s this…..

The MLS team formerly known as the Montreal Impact says it will be begin the season training and playing in Fort Lauderdale rather than in Canada, which probably means the league is closer to issuing a regular-season schedule. Last week Toronto FC said it would begin the season in Orlando. MLS had hoped there the current ban on non-essential travel across the U.S.-Canadian border would be lifted by opening day, April 17. As a result, the league has waited to release a regular-season schedule…. Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann was dropped for the roster of the U-23 national team after sustained a concussion in training for the Olympic qualifying tournament in Mexico… With a hat trick in last Saturday’s Der Klassiker win over Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski moved within striking distance of a Bundesliga record once thought untouchable. With 31 goals in 24 team games, Lewandowski can average less than a goal a game in Munich’s final 10 matches and still match Gerd Mueller’s 49-year-old league – and club -- record of 40 goals in 1971-72.

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

“Zlatan is a fool to think that sports aren’t political. He criticized LeBron for doing exactly what he is doing. And because of the political landscape through sports, in America we have had the ability wake the world up. To wake the world up about equal pay, to wake the world up about police brutality and racism. So if he wants to go around and run around the field and score goals, fine. The ones with actual courage will continue to provide opportunities and change for future generations….Silence never changed the world.”

Former women’s national team goalkeeper Hope Solo, speaking to BeIN Sports about Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s admonition that the Lakers’ LeBron James to stick to sports and stay out of politics

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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