Hello and welcome to the second weekly installment of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, and I write about all kinds of soccer for The Times, and the fact this is the second newsletter means we’ve been held over — at least for one more week — so let’s see if we can keep this going.
In last week’s inaugural newsletter, we previewed El Trafico (still hate that name), the Southern California derby pitting the Galaxy against the expansion Los Angeles Football Club. The game ended in a 1-1 draw and though the rivalry is just three games old, it is already among the most passionate and exciting in MLS.
The world of soccer is a big one, though, making it impossible to focus too long on just one part of it. We looked at MLS last week and next week, when we meet up with the men’s national team in New Jersey, we’ll examine preparations for friendlies with Brazil and Mexico.
Today, however, we’re going to take a look at the club season in Europe, where the continent’s top five leagues have just begun play. And if you’ve haven’t been paying attention, you really haven’t missed anything: The standings in the top five leagues look pretty much the same today as they have for much of the last decade.
Juventus, winner of the last seven Italian championships, added Cristiano Ronaldo over the summer and is perfect two games into the new season. Bayern Munich, winner of the last six German titles, won its Bundesliga opener handily and Real Madrid and Barcelona, who have combined to win 13 of the last 14 Spanish crowns, are the only unbeaten, untied teams two games in the La Liga schedule.
Paris Saint-Germain, the French winner in six of the last seven seasons, is one of two unbeaten, untied teams in Ligue 1 while in the English Premier League Manchester City, which set records for wins, points, goals and goal differential en route to its third title in seven years last spring, is again unbeaten and leading the EPL in scoring and goal differential after three weeks.
Not surprisingly, those six teams rank among the 10 richest in the world, according to figures compiled by Deloitte, a financial services company. And clearly all six are getting what they paid for.
But what about everyone else? What about fans of the other teams, who enter each season knowing the best they can hope for is second or third – and sometimes not even that.
“In the end it’s Barca vs. Madrid or Atletico Madrid,” Barcelona defender Sergi Roberto told me in Spanish when his team was in Southern California earlier this summer. “Other clubs are always having good seasons but in the end it’s always Barca and Madrid battling or Atletico Madrid fighting for the title.”
In fact, in the last six Spanish league seasons, only Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid have finished in the top three.
Roberto shrugged when I asked him if that was a good thing. Although he has spent his entire senior career with Barcelona, as a youth he played for Gimnastic de Tarragona, which has played just one season in Spain’s top division in the last 68 years.
If the league races are over before the first ball is kicked, why even bother keeping the standings?
“In reality, at the start we all have the same chance,” he said. “They can all win La Liga.”
Not when Barcelona and Real Madrid each spent more than $569 million on salaries last season, according to the website Total Sportek, more than 12 other teams spent combined.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez alone will make more this season than nine clubs paid their entire rosters last season.
Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu doesn’t apologize for the spending but he does believe the wide disparity could soon end. La Liga said last April its revenues for the 2016-17 season trailed only the EPL. That was also the first season in which TV money was parceled out under a new formula, ordered by Spanish law, that split at least half the money equally among the 20 top-division clubs.
Previously clubs cut their own TV deals, with Barcelona and Real Madrid reaping enormous profits they didn’t have to share with the teams they played — and beat — each week.
“I don’t see always Madrid and Barca, Barca and Madrid always winning La Liga,” Bartomeu said. “We are lucky because in the last 10 years we won La Liga seven times. But of course we have Leo Messi, we had Iniesta, Xavi, Pique, Busquets, now also Luis Suarez.
“We are not worried about this. What we are worried about is making La Liga bigger and stronger season by season.”
If Bartomeu is serious about that — and I suspect he’s more serious about making sure Barcelona spends enough to win the title every year — that would be a big step forward. Soccer isn’t helped by a competition that isn’t competitive.
Even the EPL, which Roberto pointed to as the definition of parity, has had just six champions in 26 seasons. The league trophy has spent 16 of the last 26 years in Manchester, with United winning 13 titles and City three.
Compare that to the NFL, which has seen 13 teams win the Super Bowl in the last 26 years. Or Major League Baseball, which has had 14 World Series winners over the same span.
Even MLS has had five winners in the last five seasons.
However, European soccer has the variety of the drive-through menu at In-N-Out: it’s always the same. Big spending is clearly the reason why – and the chase for that cash is why you see super clubs like the two Manchesters, Barcelona, Juventus, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich spending part of their summer barnstorming across the U.S., accepting enormous guarantees to sell jerseys and entertain sponsors while playing meaningless friendlies in sold-out football stadiums.
As a Manchester City supporter, I should support the status quo. As long as my team can afford to collect attacking midfielders like they’re trading cards, City will always be good. But is that good for the EPL and European soccer in general?
Remember the excitement generated by Leicester City’s Cinderella run to the EPL title three seasons ago? One way to replicate that would be playoffs, which are used not only in MLS, but in Mexico’s Liga MX, throughout Central America and in several smaller leagues around the world.
Finishing atop the standings in the regular season would buy big-money clubs nothing more than an invitation to the postseason where, in a short heroes, small, hungrier teams like Leicester City would have a fighting chance. Unpredictability and surprise would replace the annual feeling of living Groundhog Day over and over again.
That will never happen, though, partly because the rich clubs won’t give up the advantages their wealth brings them. But also because it’s impractical to add games to a schedule already packed with league fixtures, domestic cup competitions, Champions League, Europe League and international matches.
Ronaldo has averaged more than a game a week for club and country over the last decade, and demands like that are the rule, not the exception, for players on top teams. Still, it’s probably a better way to level the playing field than proposals like UEFA’S Fair Play regulations, which have failed to rein in big-spending teams.
Meanwhile, back in MLS…..
Speaking of playoffs, the Galaxy, seeking to return to the postseason after the worst season in franchise history, slipped and fell at the start of the playoff race.
The team was winless in August (0-2-3), its only winless month of the season, and though it did pick up points in draws with Colorado, Minnesota and LAFC, coach Sigi Schmid said the Galaxy can’t get to the playoffs one point at a time.
With nine points separating the eight teams bunched at the top of the Western Conference standings, Schmid figures his team needs at least 13 points in its final seven games to make the playoffs. That could be a tough ask considering the sixth-place Galaxy have arguably the most difficult schedule of any contender over the last two months, beginning with Saturday’s game at Real Salt Lake, which has lost just once at home this season.
LAFC, in third place, has what may be the softest schedule down the stretch but that degree of difficulty got steeper when the team lost bruising center back and captain Laurent Ciman on a transfer to French club Dijon, whose nickname is — wait for it — the Mustards.
It may be tough to ketchup without him.
All times Pacific
Saturday at Toronto, 5 p.m., Youtube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Sept. 15 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m., Youtube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Sept. 22 vs. San Jose, 12:30 p.m., Univision
Sept. 29 at Chicago, 12:30 p.m., Univision
Oct. 6 at Colorado, 6 p.m., Youtube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Oct. 18 vs. Houston, 7 p.m., Youtube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Oct. 21 vs. Vancouver, 2 p.m., Youtube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Oct. 28 at Sporting Kansas City, Youtube TV, Unimas KFTR 46
Saturday at Real Salt Lake, 7 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Sept. 15 at Toronto, 4:30 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Sept. 23 vs. Seattle, 4 p.m. FS1
Sept. 29 vs. Vancouver, 7 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Oct. 6 at Sporting Kansas City, 5:30 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Oct. 21 at Minnesota, TBD, Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Oct. 28 vs. Houston, 1:30 p.m., Spectrum SN, Spectrum Deportes
Until next time