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Soccer newsletter: What we learned from the first El Tráfico of the season

Jonathan dos Santos shirtless as Javier Hernandez congratulates him on his goal against LAFC.
(Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin this week still stuck in El Tráfico, trying to find the lessons from the Galaxy’s 2-1 win over LAFC, their bitter rival from just up the freeway.

The wise course would be to say one game, four weeks into an eight-month season, probably doesn’t mean that much. And panning back a little further to take in all four games both teams have played doesn’t show that much more; it’s a small sample size at the start of a season with untold challenges ahead.

But no one’s ever accused me of being wise, so I’m going to draw some conclusions anyway.

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The first is the Galaxy (3-1-0) may be for real. Yes, they were outplayed in two of their three wins, only one team in the Western Conference has allowed more goals and only one conference team has taken fewer shots.

But that actually supports my narrative. The Galaxy are winning even though they haven’t played a complete game yet and aren’t even a complete team since designated player Kévin Cabral didn’t arrive in Southern California until last week. Defender Séga Coulibaly remains in France, where he is completing immigration paperwork.

“Haven’t seen an LA Galaxy team play with that much heart in a long time,” Mike Magee, who defined heart when he was winning two MLS Cups and two Supporters’ Shields with the Galaxy, wrote on Twitter.

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New coach Greg Vanney, who is most responsible for the Galaxy’s new attitude and success, saw the same thing.

“They laid it out all there today,” he said. “Every single guy that went out there gave everything they had to the victory.”

Winning games you’re supposed to lose often is the hallmark of a good team, and the numbers say the Galaxy should have lost Saturday. LAFC had the ball more than 60% of the time, outshot the Galaxy 17-11, put almost twice as many tries on target, made two thirds as many passes and were far more accurate with those passes.

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But the Galaxy led in the statistics measured by heart: winning more duels, conceding more fouls and taking nearly twice as many corners. And that heart and hustle showed on their two goals.

The first came off a brilliant slide tackle from Derrick Williams that deflected the ball to Javier “Chicharito” Hernández on the edge of the penalty area and set him up for his league-leading sixth goal of the season. The second was made possible by Cameron Dunbar, who won the ball back on the wing and sent it to the edge of the area for Hernández, who slipped a pass through the legs of LAFC defender Tristan Blackmon and into the center of the box for an onrushing Jonathan Dos Santos to supply the finishing touch.

“We are trying to establish a style, a way of playing. We are grinding out results and we’ve done it in different ways,” goalkeeper Jonathan Bond said. Bond best personifies the Galaxy’s new lunch-bucket approach: he’s conceded eight goals but he’s also tied for the MLS lead with 20 saves.

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“A culture win is a good way of putting it,” he said of Saturday’s result. “It’s something that we ground out and we fought for and we earned it. It was very satisfying to win in that way in this kind of game.”

But if the early returns look positive for the Galaxy, they may be troubling – at least in the short term – for LAFC (1-1-2). Bob Bradley’s team won the possession battle by wide margins in its last two games, is tied for fourth in MLS with shots (60) and for fifth in shots on target (22), yet it has fewer goals as a team (5) than Chicharito has by himself.

“At the end of day it’s just, ‘Can we clean up things? Can we be better in the final third? Can we clean up shots in the defensive half? Can we be better all round?,’ ” Blackmon said. “It’s working on those details and refining things.

“It’s a process always.”

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LAFC was the best team in the league in 2019 when it broke the MLS single-season record for points and tied the record for goals. Carlos Vela was the MVP that season after scoring an MLS-record 34 goals, but he’s started just five regular-season games since and LAFC isn’t the same without him: It is 8-9-5 when he isn’t on the field for the opening whistle.

“We’ve played a lot of games without Carlos in the last 18 months. We know how important he is to us,” said Bradley, who lost his captain to a knee injury last summer and then to a quadriceps strain 22 minutes into this season. Vela has returned to light training, but it’s questionable whether he’ll play this weekend in Seattle, where the game will be on artificial turf.

“We’ve got to find the right way to move Carlos back into it,” Bradley said.

“Obviously the special qualities that he brings that are so exciting and so fun to watch, those things also help lift us to a different level.”

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Time may be running out, both for Vela and the team. As Paul Tenorio pointed out in The Athletic, LAFC’s business model could lead to a major roster overhaul this summer. The team is expected to entertain offers for forward Diego Rossi, the reigning MLS scoring champion; midfielder Eduard Atuesta and defender Diego Palacios. And forward Brian Rodriguez, on loan in Spain, may not be coming back.

That will leave a big hole in a team that has just seven players from its original 2018 roster, one that was built around Vela. And even the 32-year-old Vela, whose club option was picked up last winter, may have an uncertain future with the team given his age and recent injury history.

The Galaxy lead the all-time series with their neighborhood rivals 5-4-2 including the playoffs, but there’s no doubt LAFC has been the vastly better team since it entered the league in 2018. In LAFC’s first three seasons, no MLS team had more regular-season wins, points or goals. The Galaxy, meanwhile, is coming off the worst four-year stretch in franchise history.

If LAFC appears to be in decline, maybe it’s because the team had climbed so high in the first place. And if the Galaxy appear to be rising, maybe it’s because the team had no other direction to go.

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So yes, it’s far too early to talk about a changing of the MLS guard in Southern California. But through four games there’s no doubt the Galaxy are building character and momentum, creating chemistry and a culture and gutting out wins while LAFC is squandering opportunity and precious time in pursuit of its first MLS Cup.

We may be having a vastly different conversation when the teams meet again in August. But coming out of this season’s first El Tráfico, the Galaxy is picking up speed while LAFC looks to be stuck in neutral.

A Super League solution that involves dollars and sense

The proposed European Super League, a closed competition organized by 12 of the continent’s richest and most successful clubs, dissolved in disaster and acrimony last month when fans, clubs and even governments pushed back against the idea. But the proposal was as much a cry for help as it was a money grab, with the breakaway clubs, intentionally or otherwise, dramatically underscoring the fact that the financial foundation supporting European soccer is broken.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino appeared to acknowledge that reality last week when he said his group, the world governing body for the sport, would renew calls to consider a wide range of reforms including salary caps, caps on transfer fees and limits on the number of games a player can play each season.

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“Perhaps my words will now be better received: soccer’s actors, working with political bodies, must ask the right questions and propose solutions,” Infantino told French sports daily L’Equipe.

The FIFA boss said it’s essential to help clubs and their players in promoting financial stability and competitive balance. UEFA has tried to do just that with its Financial Fair Play regulations, which were established in 2009 to prevent pro football clubs from spending more than they earn. But they have proved largely toothless with deep-pocketed teams such as Manchester City managing to navigate around the rules, leading Infantino to suggest the rules need to be updated.

“Financial control mechanisms are very important also to ensure a balanced and fair competition,” he said in a second interview with Joaquín Maroto of Spain’s Diario AS. “The controversy over the Super League took over the debate, but this should really be an opportunity to focus on the key issues of football and its future. Concentration of power and money in fewer and fewer. Competitive imbalance getting worse and worse nationally and even much more internationally. Salaries, transfer fees and agent fees exploding to unhealthy levels. Growing imbalance between national teams and clubs due to the inappropriateness of the international match calendar for the new global football landscape.”

European soccer is conducted under a “pyramid” system in which teams must play well in their domestic leagues to avoid relegation as well as to qualify for continental competitions such as the Champions League and Europe League, where millions in prize money is at stake. That means clubs must annually spend big to develop and buy talent, an endless cycle that has driven even the wealthiest, most successful clubs to the brink of financial ruin.

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Barcelona, by some accounts the richest soccer club in the world, is on the verge of bankruptcy and Real Madrid, which Forbes ranks as soccer’s richest team, is more than $1.08 billion in debt. 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 while Tottenham owes $643 million, just slightly more than Manchester United, which carries $630 million in debt.

According to Maroto, the 12 clubs in the proposed Super League are projecting losses between $1.8 billion and $2.4 billion.

But while FIFA was recognizing the obvious financial message from the Super League debacle UEFA, the governing body for Europe soccer, moved to punish the league’s organizers. The nine teams who joined, then formally renounced, the Super League – Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan and AC Milan -- will be fined 5% of their European competition revenue. The three clubs which have yet to repudiate their involvement – Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid – face more significant punishment.

The penalties overwhelmingly were supported by fans in England who pushed back hard on the Super League idea as a desecration of soccer tradition. But those fans should resist celebrating too early because the concept won’t go away without significant restructuring of that tradition. And Infantino’s reforms are just the start.

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As Ben Carrington pointed out in the Washington Post, the pyramid system makes good sporting sense but bad financial sense for the billionaire owners who have invested heavily in their teams and feel they deserve a return. Those owners lost this round, not to the sport’s working-class fan base but rather, as Carrington noted, to “the populist, patrician and neoliberal wings of sports capitalism in which tradition, culture and the rhetoric of ‘the people’s game’ is cynically invoked to maintain control over how the sport is organized and played.”

The battle, much less the war, is far from over and until the sport finds a way to make the club game work for the owners and the fans, the fighting will go on. Give credit to Infantino for recognizing where the skirmish lines have been drawn, even if his latest offer at a solution is far short of what’s needed.

His aim, in Spain, is mainly to get in a game

Speaking of Barcelona, for the first time in its history the Spanish giant has two Americans on its roster. Right back Sergiño Dest has emerged as an everyday player and a starter on the national team, but forward Konrad de la Fuente still is biding his time, having played just 19 minutes in a pair of Champions League games with his club and making only one appearance for the U.S.

However, the teenager, who was born in Miami and moved to Spain as a 10-year-old when his father was assigned to the Haitian consulate in Barcelona, said the experience of being around Lionel Messi and the rest of the first team has improved his game.

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“It’s incredible. Training with them every day, learning from the best players in the world,” he said in a teleconference call last week. “Especially Messi, he’s one of my idols.”

“The intensity of the first division is a lot higher than what I am used to,” he continued. “And defensively you have to work harder.”

With Barcelona boasting a front line that includes Messi, Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé and Martin Braithwaite, La Liga playing time will remain at a premium for De la Fuente, 19. He’s spent his time going back and forth between the first team and the ‘B’ team and not really fitting in with either.

“Honestly, it’s not really easy to be in this position because as a soccer player you always want to be playing,” he said. “At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t playing much with either team because I was traveling with the first team and then I would miss a ‘B’ team game and two weeks later I would play with the ‘B’ team. It was pretty difficult to get me into a rhythm of games and minutes.”

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Despite that, he said he hasn’t sought a loan to a team that might give him more regular-game action.

“I honestly haven’t thought about it,” he said. “I’m just focused on finishing the season as best as I can with the ‘B’ team or with the first team, wherever they need me. And in the summer we’ll see.”

With the national team, meanwhile, he started and played 70 minutes against Wales last November but hasn’t been called into camp since. Among his European-based competition at forward is Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Josh Sargent, Daryl Dike and Tim Weah.

“There are a lot of really good young players coming up in the U.S. right now. Some of them already playing in Europe,” De la Fuente said. “The more competition the better you get, so I am ready for the challenge.”

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And finally there’s this …

Robert Lewandowski celebrates after scoring a goal last year.
(Associated Press)

Bayern Munich extended its Bundesliga record by clinching its ninth consecutive league title Saturday when second-place Red Bull Leipzig lost to Borussia Dortmund. The Bavarians then went out and celebrated with a 6-0 rout of Moenchengladbach behind a hat trick from Robert Lewandowski. The three goals upped his total to 39 in 27 league matches, leaving him two games to equal Gerd Mueller’s 49-year-old record of 40 in a season … The father of soccer phenom Olivia Moultrie is suing the NWSL over its age rule, which he said is preventing his 15-year-old daughter from turning pro. K.C. Moultrie said his daughter moved from Canyon Country to Portland, Ore., two years ago to train with the NWSL Thorns in the hope of signing a contract and eventually playing with the U.S. national team. The NWSL requires players to be at least 18, a rule Moultrie’s lawyer said violates antitrust laws … The Sacramento Republic’s bid to become the 30th MLS franchise, which appeared dead when lead investor Ron Burkle pulled out in February, may have been revived last week by reports of a huge group headed by celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Others said to be interested in investing include former baseball players Derrek Lee, Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter; former NBA player Festus Ezeli; rapper E40; actress Tamera Mowry Housley and her husband, former Fox News personality Adam Housley; and former NFL player Arik Armstead.

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

“It was amazing, the atmosphere was great, the smoke and the confetti coming down everything felt very different. Before the second goal I kind of felt it building and the fans kind scored the goal.”

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Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond on the ambience surrounding his second game at Dignity Health Sports Park, which ended with a magnitude 3.7 earthquake

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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