Soccer newsletter: One man can make a difference, just ask LAFC and the Galaxy

Los Angeles FC forward Carlos Vela motions during the second half of an MLS playoff soccer match.
Carlos Vela
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin this week with a question: How much difference can one man make in a soccer team’s fortunes?

Turns out the answer is a lot. At least that’s been the recent experience for Southern California’s two MLS teams.

Let’s start with LAFC. In its first two seasons, LAFC went 37-13-18, made two playoffs appearances, won a Supporters’ Shield and had the best regular-season record in MLS history in 2019. That was the year Carlos Vela broke the single-season scoring record with 34 goals and won MVP honors.

Vela started 57 of the team’s 68 games in those first two seasons, his longest absence coming during the 2018 World Cup, in which he played for Mexico. LAFC cruised to the playoffs both times.

In the last two seasons knee and quadriceps injuries limited Vela to just five regular-season starts and the team has gone 10-10-7. It barely squeezed into an expanded postseason field last year and dropped into the Western Conference cellar for the first time in club history after Sunday’s 2-0 loss in Seattle.


In Vela’s three-plus seasons, LAFC is 34-10-18 in games he starts and 13-13-7 when he doesn’t. Clearly Vela, the highest-paid player in the league at $6.3 million a year, makes a difference when he’s in the lineup. At 32, he just hasn’t been there enough lately.

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“It’s important just to get him back on the field,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said of Vela, who played 20 minutes off the bench Sunday without taking a shot.

Vela’s only start this season came in the season opener, a 2-0 win over Austin FC. He came out of that game after 22 minutes with the quadriceps injury and LAFC (1-2-2) hasn’t won since, scoring just three times in four games, drawing twice and losing the last two.

“It’s new territory. This is a rough start for sure and we can’t be afraid of the moment,” said Bradley, whose team was shut out Sunday for the first time in 20 games in all competitions. “We’ve got to find a way to just raise the bar in a lot of little ways.

“I believe strongly that we’re going to become a very good team.”

They haven’t been very good without Vela because, in addition to his goal-scoring abilities, he changes the way the team plays. As its captain he provides leadership, but he also allows LAFC to play a dynamic, attacking style out of a 4-3-3 formation.

Bradley has tried to remain committed to what he calls “our style of football” without Vela but it hasn’t worked, with the formation appearing to vacillate between a punchless 4-3-3 and a staid 4-4-2. The offensive problems have been especially apparent in the final third, where the decision making has been poor and the confidence and chemistry lacking.


“It’s a tough moment right now, but the group understands that we still have a lot more games to go,” said midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, one of seven players, including Vela, who have been with LAFC from the start. “It’s just continuing to move in the right direction, trying to learn from each game. A lot of teams go through tough moments. So we need to embrace what’s happening right now and learn from it and push through it.

“Obviously Carlos is a big miss. We’re not going to act like we don’t need a player like that on our team. We definitely do. But with Carlos in or out, we still need to be sharper. We need to get out of this rut.”

Greg Vanney
Greg Vanney
(Associated Press)

Now compare that with the Galaxy (4-1-0), who equaled the second-best start in 15 seasons with a 2-0 win over Austin last Saturday That’s come after a four-year stretch in which they lost eight more games than they won, missed the playoffs three times in four years and went through four managers before settling on Greg Vanney, a defender on the first team in franchise history.

How much difference can one man make with the Galaxy? Well, the team was winless through five games last season, but in its first five under Vanney it is more than halfway to 2020’s season total of six wins and just 10 points shy of the 2020 total in that category, too. The Galaxy also are second in the Western Conference standings, their highest position in more than two years.

“When you get a new management, you see all the ideas that they come in with and it changed the energy around here,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget, the longest-tenured player on the team. “We all felt like, ‘Wow, this could be a special year.’ We all felt the shift.

“I’ve experienced some tough times in this club, from good times to bad times, and this is definitely the best I have felt as far as the culture. It’s definitely a breath of fresh air and I’m going to keep enjoying it.”

Captain Jonathan dos Santos, in his fifth year with the Galaxy, has experienced mostly tough times. This season, he said, is different; the mood in the dressing room is happier and more positive. He, too, credits Vanney.

The rebirth of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández also has helped. After a dismal MLS debut last season in which he scored just two goals while struggling with enough off-field drama to build a soap opera around, Hernández got off to a record-breaking start this year by scoring a league-leading seven goals in five games.

But Hernández isn’t just more productive, he’s more economical as well. Last year, for example, he put just a third of his shots on target. This year he’s scored on seven of his nine shots on goals and his shooting percentage of 60% is second-highest in MLS among players with more than two scores.

“In terms of the culture, what we’re trying to do is connect everything that’s happening here so that we’re efficient and we do things well, bring respect to everything that we’re trying to do,” Vanney said.

“Those days and those moments where you have to grind, that’s where they put in the extra because they appreciate what you brought to them and the environment you’ve created for them. That’s when guys feel like they can be successful. And I think it’s kind of resonating and emanating through the team.”

Vanney said that’s the template created by the team’s first manager, Lothar Osiander, who led the team to the MLS Cup final in 1996.

“That’s what the club was started on. It was the foundation of what was being built with the Galaxy,” he said. “There’s the big-club mentality, but I think it starts with those of us on the inside and our fans feeling like we’re all in this together and being able to support each other and push through it.

“It’s just kind of doing what we do and trying to bring people on board and trying to get results each week. Because as you get results, it just adds to the momentum of what you’re trying to do.”

Sometimes all it takes is one guy to make that happen.

Salary dump

Last week the MLS players assn. released the salary figures for the 786 players under contract as of April 15. It’s the first time salary figures have been released since 2019 and it listed base salary and guaranteed compensation.

Hernández, in the second year of a three-year deal with the Galaxy, has the league’s highest base salary at $6 million while Vela leads in guaranteed compensation at $6.5 million.

Guaranteed compensation includes a player’s base salary and bonuses annualized over the term of the player’s contract, including option years. So if a player has a multi-year contract with a signing bonus, the value of that bonus is divided by the length of the contract, and that value is included in the guaranteed compensation number each year.

According to the union, the figures show salaries for players in roster spots four through 18 grew on average more than 10% per year over the last five years. The average base salary for senior non-designated players is $398,725 in 2021, more than doubled the number from five years ago.

Galaxy salaries

Players listed with position, base salary and guaranteed compensation:

Carlos MiguelHarveyD-M$81,375.00$81,375.00
JustinVom SteegGK$85,444.00$85,444.00
Jonathandos SantosM$2,000,000.00$2,000,000.00

LAFC salaries

Players listed with position, base salary and guaranteed compensation:


Invading the colonies … again

Count Everton among the major European clubs making a big push into the U.S. market in an effort to grow its profile and its earnings, with the Toffees announcing plans to host a series of summer soccer camps in 15 states in the Midwest and Northeast over the next four months.

The Premier League club also is teaming with a Miami-based company run by Jurgen Mainka, formerly the deputy general secretary and chief commercial officer at CONCACAF, to develop brand and business-development projects in support of its strategy to expand its U.S. fanbase.

“This is all about the long-term thing, building our presence,” said Richard Kenyon, Everton’s director of marketing, communications and international. “It isn’t going to be about short-term commercial gain but by having a stronger platform built over many years. Commercial opportunities will come.

“So we haven’t rushed into it. We’ve chosen the U.S. carefully. And we built a plan that we can sustain.”

This is all good news for the U.S. soccer market and the people who populate it. Many big European clubs have planted their flag in the U.S. in recent years, hoping to sell shirts, develop commercial ties and, increasingly, build a foundation at the grassroots level that underscores the purchasing power but also the size and diversity of the soccer fanbase in this country.

Bayern Munich has a Manhattan office on Madison Avenue. City Group, the conglomerate behind Manchester City, has an MLS team as does Austria’s Red Bull, the company behind RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg. Spain’s La Liga has long sought to move a competitive match to the U.S. Barcelona’s Arizona-based residency academy has turned out pros like Matthew Hoppe of Yorba Linda, who is playing for Germany’s Schalke, the Galaxy’s Julian Araujo and LAFC’s Bryce Duke.

Before COVID, teams such as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool and Inter Milan made regular summer tours of the U.S. while France’s Paris Saint-Germain, which already runs youth academies in South Florida and Glendale, now is expanding its footprint by opening new schools in Houston and Phoenix.

“The North American market is key for the club,” said Fabien Allegre, PSG’s brand development and merchandising director. “Our following has grown massively in recent years, with increased viewing figures of our matches, on social networks, and sales of our Jordan PSG products as well as in esports.

“The opening of the Texas and Arizona Academy are proofs that our development is increasing.”

That’s the kind of momentum Everton, one of Europe’s oldest and most iconic clubs, hopes to tap into.

“We have grassroots camps. That’s about engaging young people, giving them a positive experience associating with Everton, wearing our shirts and building that connection,” Kenyon said.

There also is a commercial element to the program, and Kenyon said that will build over time.

“We’re not coming into town today expecting a return immediately,” he said. “What we’re looking to do is put the hard work in building engagement. And if we get the strong engagement, if we’ve got a stronger platform, then the commercial opportunities will come.”

Everton already has a strong presence in the U.S. since it was the club for which Preki, Joe Max Moore, Brian McBride, Tim Howard and Landon Donovan once played. It also has won over fans through Everton in the Community, the club charity which has raised millions of dollars to fund more than 50 programs in Liverpool addressing everything from education and homelessness to poverty and substance abuse.

“The genuine vibes that surround the club that so clearly connects it to the community, all of these have combined to ensure Everton has always punched above its weight in the American marketplace,” said author and filmmaker Roger Bennett, the Liverpool half of the “Men in Blazers” soccer podcast team. “Watch that all go next level now [that] the club is investing energy into servicing the fans networks that exist across the nation.”

Nearly sunk by the lack of a sub

I’ve always wondered why coaches who are trying to close out a win don’t keep one substitution in hand in case of an injury that would leave their team playing short-handed. The answer I’ve always gotten is injuries late in games are rare and if a player sustains one, he’ll just have to take one for the team and gut out the final minutes.

But what if the injured player is the goalkeeper? And what if he can’t stay on the field, leaving his team not only short-handed but with an outfield player in goal?

That nightmare scenario played out last week for Seattle Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer when goalkeeper Stefen Frei injured his left leg in a collision with center back Shane O’Neill in stoppage-time of a 1-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. Because Schmetzer had used his three substitution windows, midfielder Alex Roldan had to pull on the Mickey Mouse gloves and became the first outfield player in Sounders history to step in at keeper in an MLS game. He made three clutch stops to preserve the win.

Frei, who hadn’t missed a start since 2018, was diagnosed with a sprained knee that will keep him out for at least a month. Stefan Cleveland took his place Sunday and made three saves to shut out a punchless LAFC.

And finally there’s this …

With a first-half goal for Juventus in last Wednesday’s win over Sassuolo, Cristiano Ronaldo became the first player to score 100 goals for teams in three leagues. He previously had done so in England with Manchester United and in Spain with Real Madrid. He is about to win a scoring title in a third country as well since his 29 goals leads Inter Milan’s Romelu Lukaku by six with a game to play … Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski notched his 40th Bundesliga goal of the season on a first-half penalty kick in last Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Freiburg, equaling Gerd Mueller’s 49-year-old league and franchise record. Lewandowski will have a chance to break the tie in Saturday’s regular-season finale with Augsburg … Barcelona scored all its goals in the first 36 minutes of a 4-0 win over Chelsea in Sunday’s Women’s Champions League final.


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.


“You can’t do anything; you can’t go back to the penalty and try to shoot it again. That’s something I learned since I was a kid. If you miss a pass, the next one is the most important. If you have a bad touch, the next one is the most important. Keep going, keep going, keep going.”

Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who rebounded from a missed penalty kick in the first half to score his league-best seventh goal of the season in the second half of the Galaxy’s 2-0 win over Austin FC last Saturday.

Until next time...

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