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Soccer newsletter: European Super League fallout continues to mar landscape

Stan Kroenke
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Hello, and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and once again we begin in Europe, where the wreckage of the ill-fated European Super League continues to mar the landscape.

The most dramatic example of this came Sunday when about 100 fans stormed the pitch at Manchester United’s Old Trafford Stadium as thousands of others rallied outside and forced the postponement of the scheduled Premier League clash between United and Liverpool, two of six EPL clubs that had signed on as founding members of the Super League.

The Super League idea essentially was an attempted money grab engineered by 12 of the richest clubs in the world. The idea called for a “closed” tournament in which the founding teams would be guaranteed entry – and a share of profits – every year, regardless of their team’s performance in other competitions.

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That’s in direct contrast to the way European soccer traditionally has been run, with teams needing to win their way into continental competitions such as the Champions League or Europa League and avoid the bottom of the league table, which spells regulation to a lower, less-profitable league.

The meritocracy inherit in promotion and relegation has been part of European soccer for more than a century, and most supporters consider it a foundation of the sport. But it’s also a system that’s foreign to many Americans like the Glazer family, which owns Manchester United and were the target of Sunday’s protest, and Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke, who drew the ire of several thousand protesters outside Emirates Stadium in London before the Gunners’ loss to Everton last month.

Supporters are demanding both teams be sold, but the Glazer family and Kroenke, who also owns the NFL’s Rams, said their clubs aren’t for sale.

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To say Manchester United is an iconic club would be an understatement. The closest example in the U.S. would be if the Red Sox and Yankees merged, times 10. But detractors insist it’s a gem that has been neglected by the Glazers, who bought the team in 2005.

The club more or less owed nothing when the Glazers bought it, but now carries $630 million in debt with payments on the interest and dividends to the family costing United more than $1.4 billion, according to the Associated Press. Supporters repeatedly have tried to force the family out and the Super League debacle – which also led to the resignation of Ed Woodward, the team’s executive vice chairman -- has reignited those demands.

In addition to the Glazers and Kroenke, two other American ownership groups – John Henry’s Fenway Sports Group, which runs reigning Premier League champion Liverpool, and the New York-based Elliott Management Corporation, which owns Italy’s AC Milan – signed on to the breakaway Super League concept.

But the outcry in Manchester perhaps was the loudest; fans have almost a religious reverence for their team’s home pitch, which made Sunday’s invasion so dramatic. The action comes, too, at the end of a calendar year marked by massive public protests worldwide, most of them inspired by Black Lives Matter.

You can’t compare the two causes. Unhappiness with the ownership of a soccer team, no matter how iconic, doesn’t hold a candle to systemic racism and police brutality. But I think the reactions to both are related.

The United supporters clearly saw the impact direct action can have in calling attention to grievances. It also gave the protesters, who wore scarfs of green and gold, Manchester United’s original 1878 colors, a chance to take their demands beyond petitions, newspaper advertisements and boycotts to something far more tangible and confrontational. They stormed the field and chanted slogans like “Glazers Out!” while setting off flares.

Joel Glazer, the co-chairman of Manchester United, looks on during the Barclays Premier League match.
Joel Glazer, the co-chairman of Manchester United, in 2015.
(Michael Regan / Getty Images)

And when the Premier League called off the match, it assured their message would be heard beyond the walls of the so-called Theatre of Dreams.

American ownership of European soccer clubs has long been controversial. They have been welcomed because of their money but often portrayed as uncouth and uncultured over a perceived lack of respect for the local soccer culture. The leadership of France’s Ligue 1 even designed a campaign to recruit U.S. owners to its financially troubled league a couple of years ago. And fans in Marseille originally saw Boston businessman Frank McCourt as a savior when he bought their club from billionaire businesswoman Margarita Louis-Dreyfus, who inherited the team from her husband and had little interest in running it.

Five years later, fans stormed the team’s training ground, confronted the players and staff and even set a small fire while calling for McCourt to sell.

Not surprisingly, American owners have borne the brunt of the anger over the Super League idea. Most, after all, came to Europe after running sports franchises in the U.S., where most were successful.

McCourt took the Dodgers to consecutive National League Championship Series; the Glazers own the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Henry won four World Series with the Red Sox; Kroenke’s family owns the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche in addition to the Rams and Fulham’s Shahid Khan owns the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. Those teams all play in closed leagues with either a salary cap or luxury taxes on payrolls designed to control spending.

European soccer is far less relegated. With only mostly toothless rules like UEFA’s Financial Fair Play constricting spending and promotion and relegation driving competition, the sport is an Old West-style survival of the fittest. There is no time or space for down years or rebuilding periods.

Before winning the Super Bowl this year, the Buccaneers had a losing record in eight of the previous nine seasons. That allowed them to sign Tom Brady and win a championship. In European soccer the Glazers would have been relegated long before Brady became a free agent.

Yet it wasn’t hubris or an ignorance of tradition that led a group of owners from three of the continent’s top five leagues to attempt to form their Super League. Eight of the 12 teams in the proposed league have European or Middle Eastern owners. So while the U.S. owners were the ones most vehemently attacked, the fact the financial model of European soccer is broken is a universal truth.

Barcelona, by some accounts the richest soccer club in the world is on the verge of bankruptcy and Real Madrid, the second-richest team is more than $1.08 billion in debt, according to published reports. Inter Milan and Juventus, two of the Italian architects of the Super League, each were more than $550 million in the red at the end of last spring. Tottenham, another English Super League proponent, is said to be more than $1.15 billion in debt.

All these clubs are successful: Super League teams share 27 of the 29 English champions during the Premier League era, the last 19 Italian champions and the last 16 La Liga winners. And they boast the three greatest active scorers in the game in Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Yet they can’t break even, much less make a profit.

That’s why the Super League concept won’t go away. Owners are looking for a way to save themselves from their own lack of discipline, planning and/or talent, but megaclubs can’t afford to cut payroll for a rebuilding year because they can’t afford not to win. So they came up with an idea to simply play among themselves, assure admission to their own tournament and keep most of the spoils to themselves.

The pushback to that idea was so severe the Super League disbanded in humiliation last month less than 48 hours after it was born. The beast isn’t dead though, and until European soccer’s dysfunctional financial model is fixed the elite clubs will continue to look for ways to manage the pressure of winning and the desire for profit.

In that light, you can look at the mob that descended on Old Trafford last weekend not as a coda to an ill-formed movement but, like Black Lives Matter, as a call for change and a warning that the status quo no longer is working.

“Glazers out?” That’s only half of the problem.

Too much soccer on TV? Univision hopes not

The coverage of Mexico’s Liga MX on Univision’s TUDN is the most-watched soccer product on TV most weekends, especially in Los Angeles. Which leaves the network with a huge hole to fill when the Mexican league takes its annual early-summer break.

That won’t be a problem this year. The network has the broadcast rights to the summer’s three most important international tournaments, the European Championship, Copa America and Gold Cup. For one day in early July all three competitions will run concurrently but in different time zones.

“We’re going to have a lot of soccer all day long,” said Juan Carlos Rodriguez, president of sports coverage at Univision.

“Twenty cities. Hundreds of games. Yes, it’s hectic,” added Rodriguez, who blocked his staff from taking vacations this summer.

According to Nielsen, Univision’s TUDN sports brand was responsible for 57% of U.S. soccer viewership last year, the network’s best performance since 2007. And that figure could grow this summer since the network also has the Spanish-language rights to this month’s Champions League final and next month’s four-team Nations League finals.

For Rodriguez, who has positioned his network as the self-professed “home of soccer” in the U.S., there’s clearly no such thing as too much of the sport. But he’s also taking advantage of some things that were outside his control, like the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed the Copa America and Euros a year.

“We put 2020 and 2021 together,” he said.

TUDN will carry all 51 matches from the Euros, 40 on its free Spanish-language streaming service PrendeTV. It also will carry 45 matches on the TUDN radio network.

The demand for soccer on television and streaming services has become so great in the U.S., Rodriguez said one of the fastest-growing segments of his audience are viewers who don’t speak Spanish. TUDN’s streaming audience also is expanding since Hispanic adults are 9% more likely to watch streaming content than their non-Hispanic peers.

“We put a lot of technology into our broadcasts,” he said. “So it’s not only the language and the accessibility. It also has to do with our ability to make a very robust technological presentation every time we do a game.”

All that – the production values, the streaming service, the willingness to invest in broadcast rights for several tournaments at the same time, the outreach to English speakers – is part of a wager Univision made before the last World Cup, when FIFA announced the 2026 tournament would be played in North America and shared by the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

“Let’s talk about the importance of soccer,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been hearing for 40 years that it’s eventually going to grow. What I strongly believe is the jewel of the crown is the World Cup in North America. That will forever change the perception of the love and the volume and the reach and the scale of soccer in the U.S. So we made this bet several years ago.

“We want to enlarge our footprint with more than only Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and Central Americans,” he continued. “We want to expand that with our deals with Copa America [in South America]. And we want to bring more people who don’t speak Spanish but understand or think or like our viewership, which is growing and growing with the European content.”

Galaxy, LAFC head into El Tráfico looking to get better

The Galaxy and LAFC both head into Saturday’s El Tráfico Derby searching for form and consistency despite the fact they’ve lost just one of a combined six games this season.

The Galaxy’s problems may be greater and more difficult to solve, though on the plus side it’s obvious new manager Greg Vanney is aware what the issues are.

On defense, the back line has proven to be easily exploitable, giving up 50 shots and seven goals in three games. Among MLS teams only Cincinnati has allowed more goals. And it could be worse if not for goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, who has a league-high 16 saves.

Jonathan Bond
(LA Galaxy)

“We are not where we want to be defensively,” Vanney admitted after Sunday’s 3-0 loss to the Seattle Sounders. “Not collectively. But defending is a lot of different things.”

Vanney said the defense lost too many balls between lines against the Sounders, leading to easy chances on the transition. Trying to recover from those mistakes caused the defense to lose shape, create even larger gaps between the lines and make the initial problem even worse. One solution would be the addition of a true holding midfielder, something Vanney has said the team was close to signing for months.

The need to fill that void was apparent in Seattle.

But that’s not the only issue. Vanney has started three different back lines in as many games this season and the shuffling figures to continue for the time being. Irish international Derrick Williams, anticipated to be a starter, made his MLS debut Sunday but lasted just 45 minutes before taking a knock and heading to the sideline. Another center back, Séga Coulibaly, signed last week but hasn’t arrived from France yet and probably won’t be available for selection for several weeks.

The issues on defense also have affected the Galaxy going the other way since the back line isn’t connecting with the midfield. And when the Galaxy finally do mount an attack, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández too often is on the end of it. Not only does he have five of the Galaxy’s six goals this season, but he also has seven of the Galaxy’s 23 shots – no one else has more than three – and half of their 12 shots on target.

The Galaxy (2-1-0) aren’t as bad as they looked on the road against the Sounders, just as they’re not as good as they looked in wins over Inter Miami and the New York Red Bulls to start the season.

“We just have to clean up a few things,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “We have to have a little bit more of an edge to us.

“Typically, you learn a lot more about yourself in the difficult moments if you are willing to actually look in the mirror and take some things from it. We just have to keep pushing this thing along and keep our focus on what we have been doing, the way we are trying to play, the way we are trying to control games with the ball. Just get better at all those things.”

Unbeaten LAFC (1-0-2), meanwhile, managed to grind out a draw in Houston in its first road game of 2021 last Saturday. Like Vanney, Bob Bradley hasn’t had his best lineup on the field this season but he made progress toward that in Houston with Diego Rossi, the league’s reigning scoring leader, playing for the first time this season.

Diego Rossi of LAFC shoots the ball during a match.
Diego Rossi
(Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images)

Carlos Vela, the 2019 scoring champion who has played just 22 minutes this season, is making progress on his own return from a quadriceps injury and could see limited time against the Galaxy. So could right back Kim Moon-hwan, who’s still looking for his MLS debut.

“We are not yet at our best. We’ve had moments in all the games that were good,” said Bradley, who called the Houston game the team’s worst of the season.

Bradley’s team has been mostly solid defensively in giving up just two goals while newcomer Corey Baird has taken up some of the slack left by the absence of Rossi and Vela by scoring two goals. But that’s not close to good enough for a team that’s never satisfied, which is why LAFC left Houston unhappy with a point since they felt they left two more on the table.

“There’s definitely a lot of expectation for this team. But we like that,” Baird said. “We’re a team that goes out and believes we can truly win every single game and should win every single game if we’re playing at the level we think we’re at.

“We still have lot of room to grow. We haven’t played our best soccer yet.”

And finally there’s this …

Jesse Marsch, a Supporters’ Shield winner as coach with the New York Red Bulls, will manage at RB Leipzig of the German Bundesliga next season. By moving over from Austria’s FC Salzburg, Marsch will become just the second manager who came up through U.S. soccer to manage in a top five European league following LAFC’s Bradley, who was 2-7-2 at Swansea City of the English Premier League in 2016. Marsch, 47, formerly an assistant at Leipzig, will replace Julian Nagelsmann, who will join Bayern Munich next season after … The ownership group at Angel City FC, which won’t make its NWSL debut until next winter, is pursuing an aggressive plan designed to make the team a global brand by signing with Women’s Sports Group to raise the team’s profile overseas. Founded by Dame Heather Rabbatts DBE, the two-year-old Women’s Sports Group was formed to empower women athletes and the teams for which they play. The WSG has served as an advisor to the English Football Assn, on women’s soccer … Owners in the four major U.S. sports leagues are much more patient with their head coaches than owners in the five major European soccer leagues, according to a study by BonusFinder. Head coaches in the NFL (1,767 days on the job), baseball (1,701), the NBA (1,436) and the NHL (1,431) are all on the job nearly twice as soccer coaches. The average manager is Spain’s La Liga last just 480 days, for example. The study looked at teams that have had at least five managers/head coaches in their existence through March 5 of this year. Check out the study here: www.bonus.ca/manager-minutes/

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

“There’s huge discontent, not just across Manchester United fans but I think for football fans up and down the country. They are just saying enough is enough. The Glazer family have been resilient and stubborn for many, many years. They are struggling to meet the financial demands that this club needs and have done for some time.”

Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville, who was inside Old Trafford as a SkySports commentator when fans occupied the pitch Sunday.

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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