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Soccer newsletter: Breaking down Chelsea’s dramatic Champions League win

Chelsea players celebrate with the UEFA Champions League trophy
Chelsea players celebrate with the UEFA Champions League trophy after beating Manchester City in Porto, Portugal, on Saturday.
(Susana Vera / Associated Press)

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 back at Saturday’s Champions League final between Chelsea and Manchester City, a game that matched one of the best coaches in recent Premier League history … against City’s Pep Guardiola.

Chelsea’s 1-0 win was something of a twist ending given that Guardiola has long been considered the gold standard against which all other managers are measured. Not just in England but in all of Europe.

So City, not surprisingly, was heavily favored in its first European final over a Chelsea team whose manager, Thomas Tuchel, was still learning his players’ names.

Guardiola, after all, had won 14 major trophies — including two Champions League titles — with Barcelona and seven at Bayern Munich. In five seasons at Manchester City, he won 10 more, including three league crowns.

But the one Cup he really wanted was the one that slipped through his fingers Saturday in Portugal, where he was out-managed by a guy who was without a job four months ago.

Tuchel’s pedigree might not be as blue blood as that of Guardiola, who came through Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy and went on to play for Johan Cruyff during his 11 seasons with the Spanish giant.

Tuchel played 77 games in the lower tiers of German soccer before a knee injury ended his career.

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But he quickly worked his way to the top as a manger, beginning with Augsburg’s reserve team at the age of 34. Seven years later, he replaced Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, and in his last two seasons as a manager he’s done something Guardiola has never managed by taking two different teams to the Champions League final in consecutive seasons, losing last summer with Paris Saint-Germain before winning last week with Chelsea.

When Tuchel took over at Stamford Bridge in January, Chelsea was in ninth place, having won just two of its last eight. It would lose just three more EPL games the rest of the season, beating Manchester City both in league play and the FA Cup semifinals.

Along the way, Chelsea dispatched both Madrid teams in Champions League knockout play, and when Tuchel got to the final, his club played the same way it had played on the road.

Guardiola and Manchester City, meanwhile, had once again laid waste to English soccer, dropping points just six times in their final 29 league matches. City was unbeaten in both the EFL Cup and the Champions League, beating Turcel’s former team Paris Saint-Germain, to reach the final.

Then Guardiola, a man used to the big stage, was seemingly blinded by the spotlight and began to overthink things. Since winning his second Champions League title with Barcelona a decade ago, Guardiola had made the semifinals of the tournament five times without winning another crown. He took Manchester City to the quarterfinals twice and the semifinals once, only to come home empty-handed each time.

Now he was in the final again, and he decided to scrape a formula that had been successful all season, benching both of his holding midfielders, Fernandinho and Rodri, and starting five attacking mids instead. It was just the second time all season Ilkay Gundogan, City’s leading scorer, had started a match without one of those two players behind him.

In the biggest game of the season City’s biggest offensive threat had to drop back and fill that role.

And that wasn’t Guardiola’s only mistake. He also used Kevin De Bruyne as a false nine, which isn’t his best or favorite position. As a result, City, which averaged nearly six shots on goal in the EPL, put just one on Chelsea’s net in the Champions League final.

“I did what I thought was the best decision,” Guardiola said afterward.

Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola reacts after losing the Champions League final
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola reacts after losing in the Champions League final to Chelsea on Saturday.
(David Ramos / Associated Press)

It certainly didn’t work out for the best with City, 19 points better than Chelsea in a 38-game league season, finishing one goal behind Chelsea in the game that really mattered.

The only score came just before the intermission when Mason Mount sent a long through ball from his own end forward for Kai Havertz, who timed his run perfectly. With Havertz streaking in on him alone, Ederson, the City goalkeeper, gambled and came off his line, only to have Havertz dance around him at the top the box and tap the ball into the empty net.

Guardiola began unloading his bench in the 60th minute, eventually sending on Gabriel Jesus (for De Bruyne, who sustained two facial fractures in a collision with Chelsea’s Antonio Rudiger), Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero to no avail.

“I’m almost speechless,” said Tuchel, who dedicated the win to his family.

It was also a game in which Christian Pulisic made U.S. soccer history, coming on in the 66th minute to become the first American male to play in a Champions League final. He is also the second male to take home a winners’ medal following Jovan Kirovski, now the Galaxy’s technical director, who got one with Borussia Dortmund in 1997.

Chelsea's Christian Pulisic holds up a trophy while celebrating with teammate
Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic holds up the trophy while joining teammates celebrating their Champions League final win.
(Manu Fernandez / Associated Press)

Sadly Chelsea, the only London club to win the Champions League, was still celebrating its second title in nine seasons when social media once again weighed in in an ugly way, ruining the moment. Sky Sports reported that Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker both received monkey emojis on their Instagram pages after the game.

Sterling was targeted for abuse after City’s semifinal win over PSG. Earlier this spring, English soccer teams and players engaged in a social media boycott to protest racist content.

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Disappointment no longer a cruz to bear for Cruz Azul

The seventh time proved the charm for Cruz Azul, which erased a frustrating history of failure in the Liga MX finals Sunday by beating Santos Laguna on aggregate to win its first title in 24 years.

Cruz Azul, which has made heartache a frequent visitor for its long-suffering supporters, had played in the final six times since then, losing each time. Six months ago, they endured a disastrous playoff collapse, blowing a 4-0 lead in their two-leg semifinal with Pumas and getting eliminated on away goals by a score in the penultimate minute of regulation.

As a result, even Mexican president Manuel López Obrador felt compelled to acknowledge Sunday’s cathartic result, tweeting, “Congratulations to Cruz Azul, the spell is over.”

And while Sunday’s victory — which came on a 1-1 home draw that gave Cruz Azul a 2-1 edge in the two-leg series — didn’t completely erase all that frustration, it sure helped. The deciding goal came from Jonathan Rodríguez, who scored six minutes into the second half. But the final 40 minutes were anything but easy with both teams fighting — literally — to the end. Five minutes into stoppage time, a scuffle broke out on the field, leading to cards being issued to players on both sides.

Cruz Azul's goalkeeper Jose Corona, left, and Julio Dominguez lift the trophy
Cruz Azul’s goalkeeper Jose Corona, left, and Julio Dominguez lift the trophy after winning the final Mexican soccer league championship against Santos at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, Sunday.
(Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press)

Santos had the ball nearly two-thirds of the game, taking 11 shots; just one was on target. In the opening leg, Santos had 16 shots but put just one on goal.

With the victory, Peruvian Juan Reynoso cemented his place in club history, becoming the first man to win a title for Cruz Azul as both a player and coach. Reynoso, who took over for Robert Siboldi after last year’s playoff collapse, won four trophies as a defender and captain with the team, including the 1997 Invierno title, Cruz Azul’s last in Liga MX.

“I’m grateful for entering the history of this club,” he said.

For goalkeeper Jesus Corona, the title was his first since making his Mexican debut in 2003. Three previous trips to the finals ended in defeat.

“I started trying 18 years ago, 12 years in the team and now at 40, finally, we’ve arrived,” said Cruz Azul’s captain. “It’s been tough, and it was time that we got to enjoy something good. It’s well deserved, and this is for our fans and for all of us that have had to put up with a lot of criticism. That made us stronger.”

Times Mexico City correspondent Kate Linthicum captured the euphoria in CDMX after Cruz Azul ended a historic curse with an elusive title.

LAFC's Diego Palacios and Eddie Segura fight New York City FC's Andres Jasson for the ball
LAFC defender Diego Palacios, left, and defender Eddie Segura, right, battle New York City FC forward Andres Jasson, center, for control of the ball Saturday in Los Angeles.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

LAFC, Galaxy going their separate ways

Few teams in MLS are more in a need of a do-over to the first two months of the season than LAFC, which is off to the worst start in its brief four-year history.

Less than two years removed from a Supporters’ Shield season in which it lost just four times in 34 games while averaging 2½ goals a match, LAFC has lost three times in seven games this season, scoring just more than a goal a game. It will begin the three-week MLS international break two points out of the Western Conference cellar after a 2-1 loss to New York City FC, which finished the game with 10 men.

But the break gives coach Bob Bradley a chance to try to find a solution for his scuffling team before the season starts up again June 19.

“We must continue to get better,” he said. “I’ve said it too many times. I think there’s periods of really good football but moments when we need to raise the level, moments where we need to push teams back a little more.

“We just have to keep working. We’ve got to find a way with each player to push them in training, show them little things that they did on their best days and get as many guys back to top level. And then we’ve got to continue as a group to iron out little things.”

The players are also searching for a solution.

“I don’t think there is one specific answer for, ‘What is the one thing we need to do to get to our best level?’ I just think there’s times where our mentality slips a little bit, our focus slips a little bit,” said forward Corey Baird, who scored the team’s only goal in Saturday’s loss.

This time, LAFC (2-3-2) couldn’t blame injuries for its struggles. Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, the league’s last two Golden Boot winners who have both missed multiple games this season with injury, started together for just the sixth time in MLS play over the last two seasons. They managed only one shot on goal between them.

“A very, very frustrating day,” Bradley said.

Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond makes a save
Galaxy goalkeeper Jonathan Bond makes a save against Austin FC on May 15 at Dignity Health Sports Park.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Contrast that with the Galaxy, who have seen things break their way this season. In their last game before the break, playing without two starters — midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who was called up for a U.S. men’s national team match, and defender Derrick Williams, who was sitting out a red-card suspension — the Galaxy beat San Jose 1-0 when an attempted cross from Samuel Grandsir struck a San Jose defender and ricocheted into the goal.

Goalkeeper Jonathan Bond made the score stand up by making 12 saves, two short of the Galaxy’s franchise record. He earned MLS player of the week honors after the performance. Seven games into his MLS career, Bond leads the league with 40 saves.

“Those can become character points down the stretch,” coach Greg Vanney said of the gut-check victory. “Early in the season, character-building lands when you lock it down or hold on. The next step, if we want to truly be a championship team, we have to win that game going away.”

Saturday’s win sent the Galaxy (5-2-0) into the break in third place, with a conference-best four victories in as many tries at home. And the team only figures to get better coming out of the break.

Two prospective starters — defender Séga Coulibaly and holding midfielder Rayan Ravelson — could join the team in time for its next game June 19 against the Seattle Sounders. So while the break has the potential to slow the Galaxy’s momentum, it also gives them a chance to complete their roster.

Bend (the rules) like Beckham

MLS handed down the biggest penalties in its history last week, fining David Beckham’s Inter Miami $2 million and imposing a number of other sanctions for violating the league’s designated-player regulations — otherwise known as the Beckham Rule.

The league said Inter Miami team broke roster-designation regulations in the signings of Blaise Matuidi and Andrés Reyes and also failed to disclose agreements that led to underreported salaries for Leandro González Pirez, Nicolás Figal and Julián Carranza.

In addition to the team fine, managing owner Jorge Mas was fined $250,000 and Paul McDonough, the team’s sporting director, was suspended by the league through the 2022 season. McDonough, who left Miami for Atlanta United in January, severed his relationship with the Atlanta club shortly after the sanctions were announced.

As for Beckham, the league absolved him, saying it found no wrongdoing on his part.

Inter Miami's David Beckham waves to fans.
David Beckham, Inter Miami owner and president of soccer operations, waves to fans before a match.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)

I have a couple of reactions to that.

First, how did this originally slip past MLS? Yeah, league officials eventually caught it, but since MLS is a single-entity structure that must approve each deal, such blatant violations of their own rules shouldn’t have gotten past them in the first place. We’ll probably never know the details because the closely guarded MLS is perhaps the most opaque of the major U.S. sports leagues, leaving us no way to check its work.

Second, I have no reason to doubt Beckham’s innocence — but I do have questions.

MLS has long displayed a preference for style over substance, and it would certainly be embarrassing if the league had to sanction its most visible and high-profile owner, who was also the first designated player in MLS history. By many accounts, Beckham has been an active, hands-on owner this season, making it difficult to believe he knew nothing — although if the rule-breaking involved outside compensation, perhaps he was kept in the dark.

If Inter Miami wins an MLS Cup in the near future — which seems unlikely, because even with the cheating the second-year team is 9-17-5 in its history — Beckham will surely get the credit and the league will make him a visible participate in the trophy ceremony.

In the meantime — guilty or innocent — he will be linked to the most egregious scandal in MLS history. Perhaps that is penalty enough.

And finally there’s this …

Both the U.S. and Mexico warmed up for Thursday’s Nations League semifinals over the weekend with the U.S. falling to No. 13 Switzerland 2-1 on Sunday, a day after El Tri beat Iceland by the same score. The Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget scored the only goal for the U.S., while Mexicans accounted for all three goals in their game, Hirving Lozano getting two for his team and Edson Alvarez netting an own goal for Iceland.

Quotebook

“I couldn’t imagine winning the Champions League ever in my life, and now I’m here. It’s just crazy. I can’t explain it, it’s just incredible. I have no words. I’ve been hugging my family and friends — I’m just so proud.”

Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, in an interview with CBS Sports, after winning the Champions League title

Until next time...

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