Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times weekly soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
It’s been another busy start to the week in MLS, with the San Jose Earthquakes announcing Monday that they had fired manager Mikael Stahre with six games left in the season.
My first thought was “copycats!” The Galaxy did the same thing the Monday before, although they tried to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings by insisting Sigi Schmid had decided, all by his lonesome, to hang up his whistle. The truth is Schmid was called into the office on Sunday morning and told he was being sacked. What came after that was spin.
But this isn’t about the verbiage of the Galaxy’s press release. It’s about the state of MLS and what the two firings in the final six weeks of the season may say about the league.
Five teams have changed coaches this season, including the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC, who will both make the playoffs despite losing their managers to European jobs midway through the season. Two others who made in-season changes, Orlando City and the San Jose Earthquakes, have no shot at the postseason. In fact San Jose, along with the Colorado Rapids, has already been mathematically eliminated.
The Galaxy, the fifth team, has only the thinnest of mathematical possibilities of playing beyond the end of the regular season.
So although the league has much to celebrate — including Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez breaking the single-season goal-scoring record, the Seattle Sounders climbing back into the playoff race with a 12-game unbeaten streak, Wayne Rooney single-handedly making D.C. United relevant again, and the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring his 500th career goal in typically jaw-dropping fashion — there’s also much about which to be concerned.
And MLS put its worst foot forward over the weekend when its nationally televised Sunday afternoon game matched the Chicago Fire, winless in its last nine games, against Orlando City, which has won just one of its previous 18. The game, a battle for the Eastern Conference cellar, was played in desolate Bridgeview, Ill., and even the usually upbeat Fox Sports announcers couldn’t escape the black cloud that hovered over Toyota Park.
“This amount of palpable silence, in a league in which atmospheres are one of the calling cards for MLS, is ... tough," John Strong said, according to Soccer America. Added Stuart Holden: "Being brutally honest, it sounds like a reserve game, games I was a part of early on in my MLS career, when you go out on a Sunday morning and you're not in front of the big stage, the lights and loud atmosphere that really gets you going. It really plays a big part."
After setting an attendance record last year, the Fire has seen it average crowd fall by 18%, to 14,252 this season. And it’s not the only team struggling at the gate.
After setting attendance records four years running, average attendance across MLS is down nearly 1,000, to 21,342, this year. Although that figure still ranks MLS among the top 10 leagues in the world, it is really buoyed by two teams, Atlanta and Seattle, which together have drawn 1.24 million fans, more than either of Florida’s major league baseball teams, in just 27 games combined.
Club numbers elsewhere are alarming, with just six teams showing an improvement over last season, according to Soccer Stadium Digest
The Columbus Crew, who may soon be leaving for Austin, Texas, have seen attendance drop 25% to 11,597 despite having one of the best home records in the league. The Red Bulls, one of two teams to have clinched a playoff berth, have watched their home crowds drop by 14.5% to 18,100. (The Galaxy has shown a slight rise to 24,094 in 2018, good for fourth in the league. The first-year Los Angeles Football club has reported sellouts for all 14 of its home games and is averaging 22,147.)
Not surprisingly, that league-wide attendance decline has been matched by a decline for many teams on the field as well.
MLS has always pushed its parity. It has had five different champions and eight different finalists in the last five seasons. But that means nothing to more than a third of the teams this season. Although 12 of the 23 MLS teams will advance to the postseason, many have no chance of getting over that admittedly low bar with six weeks left in the season.
In addition to the long dry spells for Orlando City and Chicago, the Houston Dynamo entered last weekend with a 10-game winless streak before beating the Portland Timbers. The Galaxy and Minnesota United both have seven-game winless streaks, and while Colorado has lost its last four by a combined 13-0, going more than a month without a goal.
San Jose has won just four times all season.
In the league’s New York City offices, where alarm bells should be ringing, there seems to be little interest in reflection or self-criticism. Attendance is down, the level of play is declining and the talent pool no longer seems deep enough to support 23 teams under current salary and roster rules.
Unlike baseball or American football, the whole world plays soccer, theoretically giving MLS clubs an entire planet to recruit from. But with the league operating under a salary cap of $4.035 million a season, MLS will have difficulty attracting enough suitable talent to continue expanding while remaining both entertaining and competitive.
Yet Cincinnati is scheduled to join MLS next season with Miami and Nashville to follow in 2020. A further wave of expansion is likely by 2022 with a goal of 28 teams in the not-too-distant future.
The reason is simple: MLS needs the cash. The league, which was losing $100 million a season four years ago, signed a record TV deal in 2014, but it has to share the $90-million annual payment with U.S. Soccer.
And even if MLS got to keep the whole check, the price has hardly kept pace with the growing value of broadcast deals around the world. Spain’s La Liga signed a new domestic TV deal that will pay it $1.33 billion a season when it kicks in near year. Italy’s Serie A is already getting nearly $1.14 billion a year from its domestic TV partners, and the Bundesliga receives more than $1 billion for its games in Germany.
So the league continues to expand, with both Nashville and Cincinnati reportedly paying $150 million to join. That’s more than seven times what the Seattle Sounders spent in 2009.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber is at a fork in the road, one in which both ways forward are cluttered with potholes and other obstacles. Continue to collect expansion fees to stay in the black while diluting the product, reducing parity and angering fans. Or find another way to pay the bills while increasing salaries to recruit internationally — MLS already has players from 72 countries, most of any league in the world — and improve both the level of play and the competitive balance.
It’s a challenging equation but one the league is in danger of getting wrong.
Speaking of competitive balance….
… the two Southern California teams seem to offer a case in point. The upstart Los Angeles Football Club is working on its third unbeaten streak of at least five games this season, seems all but certain to make the playoffs and is pushing to become the first MLS expansion team to finish atop the conference table.
LAFC, which is second in the league with 55 goals, has seemingly done everything right this season under coach Bob Bradley — who managed his 300th MLS game Saturday — and rookie general manager John Thorrington, all the way down to its academy, with its U-13 team winning the CONCACAF Champions League last month.
The established Galaxy, meanwhile, are imploding. After firing Schmid as coach, the team extended its winless streak to seven games by losing 5-3 in Toronto on Saturday.
The Galaxy has conceded 16 goals in its last three road games and is on pace to give up 69 for the season, breaking a record they set last season when the team finished last for the first time in franchise history.
The Galaxy has only a narrow path to the postseason, one that could grow even tighter if they get anything other than a win Sunday against visiting Seattle, a team that hasn’t lost since June. And those struggles have overshadowed a splendid season by Ibrahimovic, who added to his legend last Saturday with a spectacular right-footed volley with his back to the net for his 500th career goal. You can watch the goal here.
And that goal, good as it was, may not be good enough to squeeze into Ibrahimovic’s personal top 10 list.
Among active players only Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal’s and Italian club Juventus and Lionel Messi of Argentina and Spain’s Barcelona have more goals for club and country. Here’s how Ibrahimovic’s scoring breaks down by club:
Malmo FF (Sweden): 18 goals
Ajax (Netherlands): 48 goals
Juventus (Italy): 26 goals
Inter Milan (Italy): 66 goals
Barcelona (Spain): 22 goals
AC Milan (Italy): 56 goals
Paris Saint-Germain (France): 156 goals
Manchester United (England): 29 goals
Galaxy (MLS): 17 goals
Swedish national team: 62 goals
However Ibrahimovic hasn’t played on a losing team since leaving Sweden as a teenager. So the fact the Galaxy fell to 10-11-8 on the day he reached 500 made the game bittersweet.
“I mean, from my personal objective it’s fantastic,” he said of the milestone. “I probably have more goals than the guys on the field have games together. Of course, it’s huge.
“But … it would feel nicer if we win the game.”
All times Pacific
Saturday 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
Sunday 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