Soccer newsletter: There’s no debate about the marquee team in MLS
Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we take a look at Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s efforts to help build soccer at the grassroots level; the budding battle between the Galaxy and LAFC at the top of the MLS standings; and new NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman’s decision to address the league’s problems head on.
But we start with the Seattle Sounders, whose CONCACAF Champions League title last week should end any debate over which club is the marquee franchise in MLS.
That title used to belong to the Galaxy, the five-time league champions whose signing of David Beckham literally changed MLS. But with one playoff appearance and more losses than wins over the last six seasons, the Galaxy aren’t even the best team in Southern California, let alone the league.
The Sounders, meanwhile, haven’t missed the postseason since joining the league in 2009, have played in four of the last six MLS Cup finals and are the only MLS club to win the CCL, a tournament they’ve appeared in an league-record seven times. The 13 consecutive playoff appearances is the second-longest active streak in U.S. and Canadian pro sports and Seattle has won five titles in all competitions – two MLS Cups, a U.S. Open Cup, a Supporters’ Shield and the CCL crown – since 2012. It placed in the top three in wins, points, goals and assists among MLS teams over that span, according to ESPN.
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And the Sounders have done it by managing their resources well. Last season the Galaxy had the highest team payroll in the league and the second-highest-paid player in Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, yet they missed the playoffs. Seattle made it with a team payroll of $13.6 million, or $226,000 per point. Only six teams were thriftier.
“It is something that resonates with us, that a lot of times you can shop efficiently,” resourceful general manager Garth Lagerwey told me last fall.
As Soccer America pointed out, Lagerwey has used a variety of mechanisms to build Seattle’s roster. Of the 11 players who started in the Sounders’ 3-0 win over Mexican club Pumas in the Champions League final one was obtained in a trade, two came through the MLS SuperDraft, five were signed through the transfer market, one was a free agent, one came from the USL and one was homegrown.
That roster also has been stable with only midfielder Albert Rusnak, the free-agent acquisition, joining the team this season.
Lagerwey said he’s benefitted from a supportive ownership and a loyal, educated fan base which has allowed him to sign the most talented players rather than chase the biggest name.
“Maybe this is a luxury of being in Seattle, but we always try to pick the best player,” he said. “When you’re in L.A. or New York, sometimes there’s pressure to pick the famous player or the player you think is marketable.
“Because we have such deep and broad support, when we sign the best player we found consistently our fan base will adopt that player. Oftentimes they’re made famous while they’re here. That’s been a really successful strategy for us.”
The Sounders also are deep. When the team was riddled by injury last season, Lagerwey dipped into his academy and got 62 appearances and 31 starts combined from a half-dozen teenagers to finish second in the conference standings, a point behind Colorado
The final piece of the Sounders’ winning combination is coach Brian Schmetzer. He managed the USL version of the Sounders for six seasons and helped pave the way for the team’s ascension into MLS. He was passed over for the top job in favor of Sigi Schmid, for whom he served as an assistant. But when Schmid was fired in 2016, Schmetzer finally got his chance and he didn’t waste it, taking the Sounders to their first MLS title.
The Sounders have played in the championship game four times under Schmetzer and won twice. Plus his 121 wins are most in the league over the last seven seasons. And now he’s stamped those accomplishments with a historic CCL title, leaving no doubt the Sounders are the organization the rest of MLS is chasing.
“The first thing only happens once—making history,” said Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, the Champions League MVP. “There will be many more CONCACAF Champions League winners, but there’s only one that does it for the first time from MLS.
“We wrote ourselves into the history books and I’m so proud of my team.”
Chicharito spreads investment at grassroots level
Soccer has become such a big-money business at the highest levels it’s easy to forget how important even a modest investment can be at the grassroots level. Which is why a unique program funneling $1 million to make the game more accessible to young players in under-served communities deserves attention.
The grants are relatively small and the number of organizations receiving them even smaller. But for the 16 groups that got phone calls from PepsiCo last month informing them they had made the company’s “Team of Champions,” the money can be transformational and provide organizations in at-risk communities with money for new equipment, mentorship programs and better fields to play on.
Last year PepsiCo’s generosity benefitted more than 9,000 children in 11 organizations and this year the program has expanded to 14 cities and 12 states, plus the District of Columbia.
“It’s going to help us tremendously,” said Shawna Palmer, a former Long Beach State and NWSL midfielder who runs the Pacoima-based nonprofit Football for Her, a training and mentorship program that serves more than 700 girls a year.
Palmer said the $15,000 her group received, equal to about one-tenth of the program’s annual budget, will help with operational costs and provide scholarships for girls who can’t afford registration fees.
Palmer started her program just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck and forced her to move much of the instruction online. But interest in Football for Her has been strong with more than 200 girls showing up for the first two live events.
She estimated about two-thirds of the girls who take part live in low-income areas within 15 minutes of the Pacoima park where the program is based.
The public face of the PepsiCo program and its captain for the second year in a row is Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernández.
“I didn’t hesitate to be a part of it,” he said. “Sometimes there’s people that struggle in different ways, and they don’t have those opportunities that some of us will experience.”
In addition to Football for Her, another Los Angeles-based organization, Pure Game, also received money as part of the campaign.
“Getting this support is needed. It’s essential for us, honestly,” Palmer said. “It was just like a sigh of relief, of ‘OK, people are now starting to see the benefit of [soccer] for the community and see how impactful it is.’ And to see how much of a need it is for women and girls in general.”
Galaxy win ugly while LAFC rallies for another point
In four of the last five seasons the Galaxy have given up more goals than they scored, and as a result they’ve made the playoffs just once in that span. So coach Greg Vanney’s strategy heading into this year was simple: give up fewer goals.
So far that seems to be working. Sunday the team went on the road to Austin, which led MLS in scoring entering the weekend, and earned its fifth shutout of the season in a 1-0 win. The Galaxy’s seven goals allowed through 10 games are tied for fewest in the league while their five clean sheets are tied for most.
“It’s a collective effort,” Vanney said. “It’s a commitment by the whole group to defending, to helping each other, to moving and working together. The only way you get there is just the collective work and staying connected as a group. And I think that whole group is committed to that.”
Austin came in averaging nearly three goals a game. It didn’t even get that many shots on frame Sunday against a Galaxy team that has allowed one score in its last five games in all competition. But the Galaxy have scored just three goals of its own over that span, leading to criticism the team is winning ugly.
“It’s interesting because when Seattle does it, it’s a great win. But when the Galaxy does it, it’s like ‘We don’t want it to look like that.’ It isn’t a vision of how we ultimately want to win games,” he said. “Every win is an important win and on the road is not an easy place to play. The guys managed the situation and the conditions well.”
Conditions that included 95-degree temperatures. But the Galaxy (6-3-1), who have lost just once in their last six MLS games, weathered that to climb to third in both the Western Conference and Supporter’s Shield tables. And they’ve beaten the two teams – Austin and LAFC – they trail in the conference.
As good as the defense has been, however, the offense has been punchless. Only seven MLS teams have fewer goals than the Galaxy’s 11, which gives the team little margin for error.
The lone score Sunday came from Mark Delgado while the team’s three designated players – Chicharito, Douglas Costa and Kévin Cabral – once again went missing. With Chicharito sending his best chance of the Austin game well over the crossbar, that trio has combined for one shot on target in the last two games and has scored just one goal in the last month in MLS action.
“We can be a great team,” Delgado said. “But greatness is hard and not everyone can suffer each game, 90 minutes. And to be a great team, you need to be able to suffer when things aren’t going right.”
LAFC, meanwhile, overcame one-goal deficits twice for a 2-2 draw with the Eastern Conference’s top team, the Philadelphia Union, at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday. LAFC has trailed in six of its 10 games this year but has lost just once, and its 7-1-2 start matches that of the 2019 team, which broke the MLS single-season points record.
But after outshooting Philadelphia 22-10, LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo thought his team deserved more.
“We played well enough to win,” he said. “If you come away with three points tonight, nobody can watch this game [and] say it wasn’t deserved. But nonetheless, anytime you come back twice, you have to come away smiling. And we do.”
The goals, both in the second half, came from Mahala Opoku, his third of the season, and Franco Escobar, his first. Captain Carlos Vela, meanwhile, did not put a shot on goal and has gone a career-high six MLS games without a score. Vela does have three assists in that span and LAFC leads the league in scoring, so Cherundolo said he wasn’t worried.
“I’m more concerned with performances and where he is physically and what he’s going to help the team win,” he said. “And I’m happy with that. And we are scoring goals as a team. I’m not too concerned with who’s scoring goals.”
Indeed, LAFC passed Austin for the MLS scoring lead with 23 goals, has yet to be shut out and has scored multiple goals in eight of its 10 games.
Both local MLS teams face a quick turnaround for U.S. Open Cup games, with LAFC playing host to the Portland Timbers on Tuesday and the Galaxy traveling to Orange County Great Park in Irvine on Wednesday to meet the California United Strikers, who play in the third-tier National Independent Soccer Assn.
New NWSL commissioner serious about rebuilding confidence
Jessica Berman didn’t officially begin her four-year term as NWSL commissioner until April 20. But it took just a week for events to remind her why she had the job.
The league, in its 10th season, was rocked by allegations of sexual harassment, inappropriate conduct and homophobic comments last fall, which led to the resignation or removal of commissioner Lisa Baird, general counsel Lisa Levine and five of the league’s 10 coaches. Then eight days into Berman’s reign, the Houston Dash announced it was suspending coach and general manager James Clarkson – the only manager remaining from the start of the 2021 season – as part of an ongoing investigation into of complaints of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
Berman, to her credit, didn’t run from the controversy but embraced it as evidence that the league is serious about cleaning up its act.
“We want our fans and the players to have confidence that this process is being administered thoroughly and diligently,” she said. “And that’s exactly what we’re doing. So even though it’s not good news and not what we want to be announcing, at the end of the day the integrity of our league and the product is what matters most.”
The league-wide scandal last fall, which encompassed coaches, team ownership, front-office personnel and eventually the NWSL leadership, was so damaging, for a time there was fear the NWSL would have to disband and reform under a different name. Instead, the league agreed to join with its players association to investigate reports of inappropriate conduct.
It was a joint investigation by the league and its players that led to the suspension of Clarkson.
“We made a commitment to the players and to our owners that in the event there were issues, we would move swiftly to address them,” Berman said. “We are committed to providing a positive work environment for our players. So I’m not happy that we have the situation. But I’m proud that we have a mechanism to address it.”
With the addition of expansion teams in San Diego and Los Angeles, the NWSL has a record 12 teams, and both new teams are off to good starts. The league-leading San Diego Wave got four goals from Alex Morgan in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Gotham FC and is unbeaten and unscored upon two weeks into its first season.
Angel City has split its first two games after falling 1-0 to the Orlando Pride on Sunday. The team, which drew an announced crowd of 17,510 to Banc of California Stadium on Mother’s Day, leads the league in attendance with a two-game total of 39,510.
Angel City was missing captain and defender Ali Riley to the league’s COVID-19 protocols on Sunday but still limited Orlando to just one shot on goal. The Pride made the most of that, however, with Sydney Leroux banking in a shot off defender Megan Reid in the third minute.
“They pressed us well, especially in the first half, but we made too many mistakes that were of our own making,” Angel City coach Freya Coombe said.
The win was the first for Orlando manager Amanda Cromwell, the former UCLA coach and one-time Angel City investor.
“One of the hardest things for teams that are so new is the consistency, and that’s what we build towards, so we’re not fluctuating each week,” Coombe said. “It’s only our second regular-season game and these learning curves hurt.”
And finally there’s this …
Liverpool will play in the Champions League final for the third time in five seasons, and for the second time in that span it will be facing Real Madrid. The La Liga champions beat Liverpool in 2018 to win their third consecutive UEFA title. That game was played in Kyiv, Ukraine, a city now under assault by the Russian Army, part of an invasion that led UEFA to punitively move the May 28 final from St. Petersburg to Paris … Atlanta United and U.S. national team defender Miles Robinson underwent surgery Monday for a ruptured Achilles tendon, leaving his status for this fall’s World Cup in Qatar in doubt …Former national team star Carli Lloyd and Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant have joined the list of high-profile, deep-pocketed backers of women’s soccer by signing on as minority investors with Gotham FC. Two years ago Durant bought an ownership stake in the Philadelphia Union.
“Chelsea Football Club can confirm that terms have been agreed for a new ownership group.”
The iconic Premier League team’s statement on its pending sale to a group headed by Dodger owners Todd Boehly and Mark Walter, who have promised to spend $5.3 billion on the sale and investments in the team’s stadium, women’s team and academy.
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