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Soccer newsletter: Trailblazing Jovan Kirovski looks back

soccer players on a field
The Galaxy’s Jovan Kirovski in action against Real Salt Lake in the MLS Cup on Nov. 22, 2009, in Seattle. Real Salt Lake won in a penalty kick shootout.
(Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
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Hello, and welcome to the L.A. Times’ soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with a look at Saturday’s Champions League final between Premier League rivals Chelsea and Manchester City and the history that will be made there.

City, winner of five of the last 10 EPL titles, will be playing in its first European final, while Chelsea is returning for the first time since winning the title in 2012.

But no matter who wins, they will take a piece of Jovan Kirovski with them.

Kirovski, the Galaxy’s technical director, is the only American to win a Champions League/European Cup title and has the winner’s medal to prove it. He will lose that distinction this weekend because Saturday’s match will be a showdown between national team starters Christian Pulisic of Chelsea and Zack Steffen of Manchester City.

And Kirovski said he would rather have the company than the record.

“I think it’s great,” he said by phone from Europe, where he already has scouted and signed four French players — wingers Kévin Cabral and Samuel Grandsir, defender Séga Coulibaly and midfielder Rayan Raveloson — for the Galaxy this year. “I love that our sport is growing. And it’s fantastic to have players getting into big, big clubs.

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“I’ll always be the first, right? Always be the first to win it and always be the first to score. So they can’t take that away from me.”

In fact, Kirovski accomplished a lot of firsts during an 18-year playing career.

Growing up in Escondido as the son of Macedonian immigrants in the years before MLS, Kirovski had no choice but to look to Europe if he wanted to play professional soccer. So in 1992, the 16-year-old became the first American-born player to sign with Manchester United.

“I had a dream, and I believed in myself,” he said. “I had scholarships. I had full rides. And it wasn’t easy for my parents. I was afraid to fail. I was afraid to come home and let my family down.”

As a teenager, Kirovski led Manchester United’s reserve team in scoring, but work-permit regulations kept him from joining the first team. So he jumped to Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and began a vagabond journey in which he played for eight clubs in four countries over the next dozen years.

In his first season at Dortmund, the team won its only Champions League title by beating Juventus 3-1 in the final. Kirovski played in two group-stage matches during the tournament and said he was among the 18 players chosen to travel to the final in Berlin. But in those days just 16 players dressed for games, and Kirovski was not among them.

“At the time, I was a 20-year-old kid. An American, which was unheard of to be at such a big club,” he said. “There were all these World Cup winners and world superstars from Europe. So it was a difficult task to make the final roster.

“I was just trying my best to be the best I could. It was a wonderful experience.”

A season later, Kirovski recorded another first by becoming the first American to score in a Champions League match with a goal early in the second half of a group-stage 3-0 win over Sparta Prague, the last of his five Champions League appearances.

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In 2000, he joined Sporting CP and became the first American to play in the Portuguese first division. Two years later, he became first American to play for Birmingham City in the Premier League. Teams didn’t recruit widely in the U.S. in the nascent years of MLS, and when they did sign Americans, they did little to support them in the transition.

“I don’t know if I was ahead of my time. It’s a difficult question to answer,” Kirovski said. “At the time, as a young kid, I wanted to be the best player in the world. My ceiling, my dreams were high.”

Kirovski finished his playing career with the Galaxy, then began another as a coach and technical director. He won three MLS Cups with the club, one as a player, one as an assistant coach and another as technical director.

“I maybe didn’t reach my full potential [as a player], but I made a career, a pretty good one,” he said. “I’ve been through it all, from the biggest clubs in the world and even to MLS. So I’m living a dream really.”

Now he’s trying to add to that dream by building another champion in Carson. He was instrumental in bringing players such as Giovani dos Santos, Jonathan dos Santos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to MLS and has continued relying on his old European contacts, as well as his ability to speak five languages, while scouting heavily on the continent.

“Our league is becoming more relevant, and we’re attracting these players,” he said of MLS. “We’re aggressive.”

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The traffic is even heavier going the other way now. When Kirovski played for the U.S. in the 2003 Confederations Cup, just four players on that national team were with first-division European clubs. Contrast that with the current national team, with Gregg Berhalter calling up more than 30 players from major European teams — including Juventus, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester City, Dortmund, Roma and Leipzig — in the last 12 months.

“We’ve had such a boom of these young, talented players,” Kirovski said.

“These are some of the biggest clubs in the world, and to have our young kids and Americans [there] this shows how the sport is growing.”

It also means that, come Saturday night, he won’t be the only American with a Champions League winners’ medal.

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Uneasy lie the heads that wear the crown

Speaking of the Champions League, Manchester City is getting pretty experienced at winning Premier League titles. That, however, doesn’t bode well for City’s chances in its first UEFA Champions League final.

Manchester United is the only team in the Premier League era to win a league title and Champions League final in the same season. Of the other English teams to win the continental crown in that time — Liverpool in 2019 and 2005 and Chelsea in 2012 — only Liverpool, in 2019, finished higher than fifth in the league table.

“The Premier League is the hardest league in world football. Every single game is tough,” Manchester City captain Fernandinho said.

This year’s Champions League final will be the third since 2008 to feature two Premier League teams, and Chelsea might enter with a slight advantage having won the last two meetings with City — in April’s FA Cup semifinals and in a league fixture earlier this month. Fernandinho, however, is conceding nothing.

“Rest assured we will continue to do everything we can to bring the Champions League home,” he said.

LAFC, Galaxy break even on the weekend

We’ve spent a lot of time in this space recently restating the obvious point that LAFC is little more than an average team without Carlos Vela. And as if to prove us right, Vela returned to the starting lineup Saturday night to set up the winning goal in a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids that ended the team’s two-game losing streak and four-game winless slide.

This weekend, when the San Jose Earthquakes come to Carson, we will find out how good the Galaxy are without two of their starters. Midfielder Sebastian Lletget will be missing to international duty and defender Derrick Williams will be serving the first of what’s sure to be a multi-game suspension for leveling Portland’s Andy Polo with a devastating tackle in the final minute of the first half of Saturday’s 3-0 loss to the Timbers.

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Polo could miss the remainder of the season with damage to his right knee and quadriceps. Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, a defender in his playing days, said Williams deserved to be punished for the play.

“It’s a tackle that is going to be a red card every single time,” he said. “With the amount of force, it’s just never going to be OK, whether it’s this league or any other league.”

The tackle was so egregious there was some question whether Williams was literally out of his mind. Moments earlier, he had collided with his own goalkeeper, Jonathan Bond, and struck his head when he fell hard to the artificial turf. After being checked out on the sideline, Williams was allowed to return to the field, where he took out Polo.

Vanney said Williams was OK.

“There were no concerns of a concussion,” he said. “He was fine in terms of that side of things.”

But what else could Vanney say? If it were determined medical personnel had allowed Williams to continue playing despite having sustained a head injury, the Galaxy would be looking at something far more serious than a red card and multigame suspension.

Either way, the Galaxy (4-2-0) were not competitive playing a man down and gave up two goals to Felipe Mora in a 13-minute span early in the second half. Diego Valeri later sealed the win for Portland with a penalty-kick goal to hand the Galaxy their second consecutive shutout loss on the road.

Not that there was much doubt about this one. The Galaxy gave up 20 shots, nine on target, and six weeks into the season they remain a tough team to get a handle on.

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Are they as good as the team that beat Inter Miami, LAFC and the Red Bulls behind seven goals from Javier “Chicharito” Hernández? Or are they as listless as the team that managed just five shots on goal combined in 3-0 losses at Portland and Seattle?

“Once you go down a man, especially against Portland in Portland, it’s going to be a tough game,” said Lletget, who is away with the U.S. national team in Switzerland. “But I’d rather have these types of games now and learn from it.

“There are a lot of things we can look back on and think, ‘We need to do better there.’ So I’d rather have that happen now than later.”

LAFC, meanwhile, had Vela start for the second time this season and — voila! — won for the second time this season.

Vela played 59 minutes and took two of LAFC’s 17 shots, although neither one was on target. He also had the second-worst completion percentage of any LAFC starter, but he made a perfect feed to set up the second of Diego Rossi’s two goals.

More important, the team played the relentless, dynamic attacking style Bob Bradley’s team is known for, a style that has been absent and/or ineffective for much of the season.

“It’s important to have Carlos back,” Rossi, who missed two games this season with a hamstring injury, said in Spanish. “He’s really important for us. He’s the captain.”

Vela and Rossi are the first teammates in MLS history to win back-to-back league scoring titles, but Saturday’s game was just the third they have started together in MLS in more than 14 months. Vela played 90 minutes in just one of those three.

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“All teams go through difficult moments. And you can’t be afraid of the bad times,” Rossi continued. “We’re more united than ever. I think the team is in a good place.”

In addition to Vela’s return, LAFC also welcomed back many of its supporters. The attendance of 10,483 at Banc of California Stadium was less than half of capacity, but it represented the largest crowd for a soccer match in California since COVID-19 forced all sports to play in empty stadiums in March 2020, ending LAFC’s streak of 39 consecutive home sellouts.

“Great to have more fans in the stadium, even without it being packed,” Bradley said. “The atmosphere makes such a difference for us.”

Vela also made a difference.

“A start. Sixty minutes. That’s really important for us,” Bradley said. “And even as he’s working back into top fitness and sharpness, [you see] little things — his ability to take certain balls, come inside, find the right passes. You start to see passing lanes open up, we become more fluid.

“That’s really important for us. He came out of it feeling good, and we’ll build on [it].”

That building will continue Saturday at home against New York City FC, one of just two Eastern Conference opponents LAFC will play in the regular season.

The SUM of its parts

The U.S. Soccer Federation is ending its controversial commercial rights relationship with Soccer United Marketing (SUM) when its contract runs out at the end of next year.

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SUM is also the for-profit marketing arm of MLS and the exclusive promoter of the Mexican national team in the U.S., which has raised conflict-of-interest questions since the partnership linked U.S. Soccer in a business endeavor with a league it was governing. That relationship inspired at least one lawsuit, with the North American Soccer League arguing the federation made decisions to benefit MLS to the detriment of other leagues such as the NASL.

Beginning in 2023, U.S. Soccer will take on the responsibility of marketing its teams and selling sponsorships and broadcast agreements, all of which figure to be extremely lucrative with the 2026 World Cup to be played largely within the U.S.

How the top European leagues finished this season

Premier League

Winner: Manchester City (27-6-5, 86 points)

Champions League qualifiers: Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea

Europa League qualifiers: Leicester City, West Ham United, Tottenham (qualification)

Relegated: Fulham, West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United

Golden Boot: Harry Kane (Tottenham), 23 goals

Assists leader: Kane, 14

Most clean sheets: Ederson Morales (Manchester City), 19

La Liga

Winner: Atlético Madrid (26-4-8, 86 points)

Champions League qualifiers: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla

Europa League qualifiers: Real Sociedad, Real Betis (qualification)

Relegated: Huesca, Real Valladolid, Eibar

Golden Boot: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), 30 goals

Assists leader: Iago Aspas (Celta de Vigo), 13

Most clean sheets: Jan Oblak (Atlético Madrid), 18

Bundesliga

Winner: Bayern Munich (24-4-6, 78 points)

Champions League qualifiers: RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg

Europa League qualifiers: Frankfurt, Bayer Leverkusen, Union Berlin (qualification)

Relegated: Koln, Werder Bremen, Schalke

Golden Boot: Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich), 41 goals

Assists leader: Thomas Mueller (Bayern Munich), 18

Most clean sheets: Peter Gulacsi (RB Leipzig), 15

Serie A

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Winner: Inter Milan (28-3-7, 91 points)

Champions League qualifiers: AC Milan, Atalanta, Juventus

Europa League qualifiers: Napoli, Lazio, Roma (qualification)

Relegated: Benevento, Crotone, Parma

Golden Boot: Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus), 29 goals

Assists leader: Ruslan Malinovskyi (Atalanta), 12

Most clean sheets: Gianluigi Donnarumma (AC Milan), Samir Handanovic (Inter Milan), 14 each

Ligue 1

Winner: Lille (24-3-11, 83 points)

Champions League qualifiers: Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco (qualification)

Europa League qualifiers: Lyon, Marseille, Rennes (qualification)

Relegated: Nantes, Nimes, Dijon

Golden Boot: Kylian Mbappe (PSG), 27 goals

Assists leader: Memphis Depay (Lyon), 12

Most clean sheets: Mike Maignan (Lille), 21

And finally there’s this …

Robert Lewandowski scored his 41st goal in the final regulation minute of Bayern Munich’s final game Saturday to break Gerd Mueller’s 49-year-old Bundesliga record for goals in a season. … Before the Galaxy’s last home game the Academia de Futbol Juvenil Amatense, a nonprofit youth soccer organization, and Galaxy supporters led by Angel City Brigade joined the team’s official charity to collect items for migrant children being housed at the Long Beach Convention Center as they await reunification with their families. Last Tuesday, defender Jalen Neal delivered the donations, which included 85 soccer balls, 92 bilingual and Spanish-language books and 70 handwritten letters in English and Spanish. The LA Galaxy Foundation also made a $5,000 donation to Migrant Children Support Fund. … ESPN has won the U.S. broadcast rights to La Liga games, adding them to a portfolio that includes, among other properties, the German Bundesliga, the FA Cup, the Scottish Premier League, the Dutch Eredivisie and MLS. The La Liga deal runs through the 2028-29 season, while the Bundesliga contract has five seasons left. ESPN’s three-deal contract with Italy’s Serie A expired last week. Those games will jump to CBS.

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

“We love him so much. He’s a special person for all of us. He’s so nice, so nice. He helped me a lot. We cannot replace him, we cannot. He showed his quality in 20 minutes.”

A tearful Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola after Sergio Agüero, in his last home match for the Sky Blues, scored twice in a 26-minute cameo off the bench in Sunday’s Premier League finale. Agüero leaves the club having scored 184 EPL goals, breaking Wayne Rooney’s record for most goals by one player on one team in league history.

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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