Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter, the first for 2019. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer.
It’s likely few soccer teams were more anxious to turn the page on a new year start than the Galaxy, who failed to reach the playoffs for a second straight season and have now gone a franchise-record four years since their last appearance in an MLS Cup final.
Aside from Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who led the Western Conference with 22 goals, and this national anthem performance from tiny Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, there was so little to celebrate at the StubHub Center in the first 11 months of 2018 that the stadium changed its name to Dignity Health Sports Park on Tuesday.
But the Galaxy did close the year with a bang. In the last month the team announced it had hired a general manager in Dennis te Kloese, reached agreement on an MLS-record contract to bring Ibrahimovic back for one more season and signed the coach Te Kloese wanted in former Boca Juniors manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Schelotto’s hiring was scheduled to be formally announced this week but may be delayed since Te Kloese and his new coach are both expected to attend the MLS combine, which begins Thursday in Orlando, Fla.
And while the team hasn’t played a game under Te Kloese and Schelotto and still has a lot of work to do to make Ibrahimovic’s contract – worth more than $7.1 million – fit within the MLS salary structure, the offseason mood around the Galaxy is more optimistic than it’s been since Bruce Arena’s last winter with the team in 2016.
We’ve talked about the Dutch-born Te Kloese in this space before. A former executive with Chivas USA and for two teams in Mexico’s Liga MX, he spent the last 17 months as director of national teams for the Mexican soccer federation. He is well respected for his work in youth development and with the Galaxy he will be in charge of all soccer-related decisions and his presence has already been felt.
It was a great hire by a team in need of inspired leadership and a new approach.
In his first days with the Galaxy, Te Kloese, who continually speaks of creating “opportunity” for young players, toured the academy fields at the club’s complex, watching the age-group teams train and signaling renewed interest from the front office in youth development. Then in a fence-mending effort just before Christmas he sent Galaxy jerseys to U-20 internationals Uly Llanez and Alex Mendez, former academy prospects who walked away from the team last fall, an embarrassing rebuke of the franchise’s youth-development program.
The Galaxy haven’t had a full-time academy director in two years.
“There is a big opportunity for us to improve on … formalizing our academy product, professionalizing our academy, maybe sometimes in a different way,” Te Kloese said. “If you go to big clubs in the world, there are opportunities for young players. I’ve come from a culture where that is quite normal. I hope and I’m sure with my experience that we’re going to lift this to a different level so that at some point there is honest and good opportunities for players to make it to the first team.”
On the first-team level Te Kloese re-signed former Galaxy midfielder Juninho, a Brazilian, then reached agreement on a long-term contract with Schelotto, an Argentine, two moves that may signal a change in direction for the franchise.
While the rest of the league has made massive moves into South America in recent years – there were more players from that continent on opening-day MLS rosters last season than players from Europe and Asia combined – the Galaxy were the only team without a South American in 2018.
Now they have a coach and a player from the continent – and the transfer window just opened.
Schelotto, by the way, appeared to be the team’s second choice as manager although some people close to the team say Te Kloese wasn’t as high on Caleb Porter, the team’s first choice, as was the rest of the front office.
Porter, a hugely successful college coach and an MLS Cup winner with the Portland Timbers, was offered the Galaxy job in mid-December but walked away when the team wouldn’t extend the multi-year contract by another season. Porter is expected to take a long-term deal with Columbus instead.
Sources with knowledge of the Galaxy-Porter negotiations say Te Kloese wanted to walk away from the deal, too, saying the GM wasn’t sure Porter was the fit he was looking for. He apparently had far fewer reservations about Schelotto, who won an MLS Cup and an MVP award as a player at Columbus, then guided Boca Juniors – one of South America’s biggest clubs -- to a pair of first-division titles as a manager in Argentina.
The Galaxy, who had little room to maneuver under the salary cap last season, appear to have a lot more flexibility this winter after shedding more than $1.3 million in guaranteed salary by not bringing back defenders Ashley Cole and Michael Ciani and by re-signing outside back Rolf Feltscher to an incentive-laden contract that includes a nearly $60,000 cut.
There’s one piece of heavy lifting still to be done, however, and that’s finding a way to open a designated-player spot for Ibrahimovic. The Galaxy have three DPs signed for 2019 in Romain Alessandrini and brothers Gio and Jonathan dos Santos and will have to restructure, trade or buy out one of those contracts to pay for Ibrahimovic’s raise from the $1.5 million he made last season.
While details of Ibrahimovic’s new contract have not been released, the Galaxy confirmed it will pay him more than the $7.167 million Kaka earned from Orlando City, the record annual salary in MLS.
By the way, Ibrahimovic’s first MLS score was also the league’s goal of the year for 2018. Have a look.
Gio dos Santos has been the least productive of the Galaxy’s three DPs, playing just 823 minutes and scoring only three goals last season. For that he was paid $6 million, accounting for more than a third of the team’s payroll.
A history of hamstring injuries, combined with his recent poor play, will make it tough for the Galaxy to move Dos Santos, who joined his brother on Mexico’s World Cup team last summer. But the franchise could swallow hard and buy out the rest of his contract.
Te Kloese indicated last month he would have a frank talk with the player about his future.
“As a high-profile player there’s obligations and there’s responsibility,” Te Kloese said. “We need to win. There’s a big opportunity for us to grow and Giovani, I must say, is a talented player. But the last two seasons have been difficult for him. We have to sit down and discuss it man to man and see where it goes.”
Remembering a legend
Sigi Schmid’s passing on Christmas Day at age 65 cast a pall over the holidays. The winningest coach in MLS history with 266 victories, Schmid also won two league titles and five U.S. Open Cups. And in 19 seasons at UCLA, he won three NCAA championships and made 16 consecutive playoff appearances.
But wins alone don’t begin to reflect the influence Schmid had on soccer at all levels in the U.S.
He was there for the founding of AYSO, playing on one of the organization’s four original teams. AYSO now has more than 50,000 teams and 400,000 players.
He helped start the soccer team at Torrance Bishop Montgomery High, his alma mater. The program has gone on to become one of the most successful in the state.
Paul Caligiuri, the captain of his first national championship team at UCLA, scored the goal that qualified the U.S. for its first World Cup in 40 years. And when the World Cup came to the U.S. in 1994, Schmid was an assistant coach for the American team that included five players he had recruited to UCLA.
Schmid, who had a long history of heart problems, was hospitalized in early December at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, reportedly in need of a heart transplant. When news of his death was released on Dec. 26, it inspired a number of tributes on social media.
Said former U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a close personal friend: “His love for soccer was endless. He was like an encyclopedia of soccer whenever you spoke with him. He formed soccer in this country like no one else over the last 30 years. His brain was always going 200 mph on how he can improve soccer in the United States. He was such a giver, no matter, if he was surrounded by players, coaches or anyone else involved in the game of soccer.
“Sigi leaves us far too early. People like him are very rare in this world: straight forward, giver, passionate, endlessly dedicated to his mission and to his family.”
A memorial Mass for Schmid is scheduled for 5 p.m. Jan. 18 at American Martyrs Catholic Church in Manhattan Beach.
Managing to make a difference
Entering last month Manchester United hadn’t scored more than four goals in a game since Alex Ferguson retired as coach after leading the team to its last English Premier League title in 2013.
But in their last three games the Red Devils are averaging that many scores under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who replaced Jose Mourinho on Dec. 18.
Not only is Manchester United unbeaten and untied in three games under Solskjaer, but Paul Pogba, who was deep in Mourinho’s doghouse, has flourished under the new leadership, either scoring or assisting on seven of the 12 goals the team has scored in those three matches.
The three-game winning streak is United’s longest since April.
Kobe is coming! (not that Kobe)
Vissel Kobe, a top club in the Japanese first division, will make a winter tour of Southern California that will include a Jan. 31 friendly against the Los Angeles Football Club at Banc of California Stadium and a Feb. 5 game with the Orange County Soccer Club at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine.
The J-League team, whose roster includes three World Cup champions in Andres Iniesta and David Villa of Spain, and Lukas Podolski of Germany, will also play exhibitions at the Orange County Great Park with Columbus on Jan. 28 and Toronto on Feb. 2.
Tickets for the LAFC match went on sale to the general public Tuesday. Prices start at $25. More information is available at www.lafc.com.
Ticket information for the matches in Orange County will be posted at orangecountysoccer.com
Finally, it’s Miller time
LAFC took Tyler Miller with the first pick in the 2017 expansion draft, then made the goalkeeper a starter for the first time last season. And Miller rewarded that confidence with a spectacular season in which he ranked among the top five in MLS in shutouts (10), wins (16), saves (114) and minutes (2,970).
It was a performance that earned Miller his first call-up to the U.S. national team, which opens its January camp next week in Chula Vista, Calif. Now Miller is paying back those who stood with him as he struggled through the early part of his professional career.
“Honestly this is all for my family. They’ve sacrificed so much for me, especially my parents, to put me in the position I’m in,” he said after his call-up was announced. “So this camp, as great of an honor as it is for me, I’m really doing it all for my family.”
Miller is one of four keepers called in, along with Toronto’s Alex Bono, New York City’s Sean Johnson and Columbus’ Zack Steffen, all of whom have played at least one game for the U.S. The training camp will end with friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica and while Miller said getting his first national team cap would be a thrill, if that doesn’t happen it won’t detract from the experience.
“Whether I play or I don’t play I’m going to enjoy the time and enjoy representing the nation and my family and myself at this awesome level that not many players get to do,” he said.
Happy New Year!