Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
We start in Chula Vista, where the U.S. national team convened last week for the first time under new coach Gregg Berhalter. Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget was among the 28 MLS players called in, which means he’ll miss the opening of his club’s first training camp next week under its new coach, Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
And though Lletget has yet to meet Schelotto, he sees the coach’s hiring as a good sign for the Galaxy.
“A fellow Argentine,” said Lletget, who was born in San Francisco to Argentine parents. “That’s another thing I’m obviously excited about. I’ve only heard good things.”
That last part isn’t true.
Schelotto had a legendary career as a player and coach with Buenos Aires’ club Boca Juniors and Lletget grew up in a household that worshipped Boca’s crosstown rival River Plate. A 12-year-old Lletget even had a tryout with River, though his mother blocked him from moving to Argentina permanently.
“I know he comes from the opposite of what I grew with. I’ve always been a River fan,” Lletget said with a wince.
Asked if that was going to be a problem, Lletget made no promises.
“I hope not,” he said. “I can’t wait to meet him and speak to him about how we’re going to move forward.”
After two seasons in which the Galaxy missed the playoffs, extending their streak without an MLS Cup appearance to a franchise-record four years, Lletget says he believes the hiring of Dennis te Kloese as general manager and Schelotto as coach will bring back stability to a team that has gone through four coaches in the last 26 months.
“It was tough to adapt, for everybody,” he said of the turmoil. “It was no coincidence why we were where we were, I guess. Not everybody was on board. And now — not even being there — I can already feel everybody is going to be on the same page.
“That part of it is a big part of it for us.”
Lletget has spoken with Te Kloese, who comes to the Galaxy from the Mexican soccer federation and will have final say over all of the club’s player-personnel decisions.
“I spoke to him early on, when he got the job. He reached out and just wanted to make an introduction,” said Lletget, who had three goals and two assists in 28 games last season. “He seems like he’s got it under control. I think he’s going to put more structure in the club, which is good and always a positive.
“The future is bright.”
Berhalter’s Columbus Crew teams played a pressing, possession-oriented game, a style he now intends to teach to a young but talented national team. And the players are looking forward to the challenge.
“It’s a very specific style and a very specific system. And as a player you have to give yourself fully to that,” said New York Red Bulls defender Aaron Long. “It doesn’t matter how good you are, if you can’t fit this system, I don’t think he’s going to play you.”
Christian Ramirez, a forward with the Los Angeles Football Club, is in his second January camp with the U.S. team and said his goal this year is “just getting a feel for Gregg and his style of play, the system that he’s trying to incorporate, the culture that he’s trying to build.”
Already Ramirez said he’s been impressed with the coach’s attention to detail. But as D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola pointed out, the learning process cuts both ways.
“Gregg is learning about us and trying to fit us all together,” he said. “The vibe is great. Any time new people come in, it’s obviously going to be different. Gregg is working on us to build the culture, to build this new fresh part for all of us.
“When you get a bunch of guys that have the right mentality, the right energy and you put a purpose there for us and a way for us to go out onto a field and perform and believe in ourselves, we’re going to be successful.”
The first test of that new formula comes Jan. 27 in Glendale, Ariz., when the U.S. faces Panama in its first friendly under Berhalter.
Pay to not play?
When the Galaxy open training camp next week, the clock will be ticking on the front office to get rid of one of the team’s four designated players, one over the league limit.
Since the team announced the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to an MLS-record $7.2-million contract last month, there has been speculation that Gio dos Santos will be the DP forced out. That theory gained some credence when the team selected Ibrahimovic, Ola Kamara and Jonathan dos Santos to represent it at next Saturday’s MLS Media Day, leaving Gio home.
As a Mexican national team midfielder and one of the best-paid players in MLS — his $6 million in guaranteed salary in 2018 was fifth-highest in the league — Gio dos Santos has been a popular player at past media days, a daylong event where teams unveil their new jerseys and players do interviews with the league’s broadcast partners and selected print journalists to preview the season.
The fact that neither the Galaxy nor MLS is trotting Dos Santos out again to hype the coming season suggests there is some uncertainty he’ll still be here come opening day.
Another sign — albeit a faint and unlikely one — that Gio dos Santos could be leaving was winger Diego Lainez’s decision last week to exit Mexico’s Club America for Spain’s Real Betis. Lainez is a budding superstar and his departure leaves America, the defending Liga MX champion, with a big hole to fill one game into the new season.
There were reports — some of them farcical — that the Galaxy approached America over the winter about Dos Santos, who has a year left on his contract, and were rebuffed. The team may be more interested now, especially if the Galaxy pay a significant portion of what Dos Santos is owed. Dos Santos’ father, a Brazilian who played under the name Zizinho, had two stays with America in 1980s and Gio dos Santos appears to have a good relationship with the team’s coach, former national team manager Miguel Herrera.
Still, consider that possibility a longshot.
Dos Santos, 29, started just 10 games for the Galaxy last season, his fourth in MLS, scoring three goals and assisting on two others. His brother Jonathan, a midfielder, and Romain Alessandrini, also a midfielder, are the team’s other returning DPs. Both had effective seasons in 2018, with Jonathan starting 22 times and Alessandrini appearing in 26 games and scoring 11 times.
If the Galaxy can’t trade Gio they have a decision to make. Getting rid of either Jonathan dos Santos or Alessandrini would hurt the team on the field. But eating the more than $6 million left on Gio’s contract would be a painful confession that he hasn’t worked out.
Nevertheless AEG, the Galaxy’s parent company, has given the team permission to do just that, a move that would be a big vote on confidence for the team Dos Santos would leave behind. Another possible out for the Galaxy involves Alessandrini, who is in the final year of his contract but so loves Southern California that he has been pushing for an extension.
Alessandrini’s agent, Yvan Le Mée, confirmed to me that he has been talking to Serie A club Parma in an effort to put pressure on the Galaxy. If the Galaxy decide to renegotiate Alessandrini’s contract, they could drop his 2019 salary below DP levels while offering millions more on the back end, thereby creating a DP spot while making Alessandrini happy at the same time.
“Things will clear up in a few weeks,” Te Kloese said.
The Galaxy, by the way, are not the only team with too many DPs. Atlanta United is also unofficially over the limit after River Plate winger Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez said last month he was coming to MLS. United, which opened training camp Monday without Martinez, has refused to officially confirm the Argentine’s addition because its roster already includes three DPs in Miguel Almiron, teenager Ezequiel Barco and Josef Martinez, the league’s reigning MVP.
Almiron, 24, is the most likely of the three to leave. Although he is under contract to United for another three years, according to the club, several major European teams have expressed interest in the Paraguayan, with England’s Newcastle United appearing to be the front-runner. Admitting it has a DP problem and needs to get rid of Almiron would weaken United’s negotiating position with Newcastle or other potential suitors.
Speaking of contracts….
Center back Walker Zimmerman, who turned down an extension in September to entertain offers in Europe, is reportedly close to agreeing on a four-year deal to stay with the Los Angeles Football Club. The team is also in talks to bring back Brazilian defender Danilo Silva, who joined the club last summer on a loan from Internacional.
Silva’s deal will also be for multiple years.
The Galaxy, meanwhile, are close to announcing an agreement with Uruguayan center back Diego Polenta.
Polenta, 26, who last played for Nacional in Montevideo, would go a long way toward strengthening a back line that allowed 131 goals the last two seasons. It is expected the team will confirm the deal when Polenta arrives in the U.S. for training camp and officially signs his contract.
Polenta likely won’t be the team’s last signing.
“We need additions there,” Galaxy president Chris Klein said of the defense. “And they’re still working on those.”
United at last
Manchester United will not win the English Premier League title this season, extending its league title drought to six seasons, its longest in the Premier League era. But the team has clearly regained its mojo under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Sunday’s 1-0 win over Tottenham gave the team six straight wins since Solskjaer replaced the dysfunctional leadership of Jose Mourinho. That makes Solskjaer, a former United forward, the first coach to open his stay at the club with six consecutive wins in all competition. And the team has been dominant during that stretch, outscoring opponents 17-3 and posting three straight shutouts.
Keeper David De Gea made 11 saves against Tottenham, extending the team’s scoreless streak to 315 minutes and making it a virtual certainty that Solskjaer will be asked to become the team’s permanent coach. (Here’s a compilation of De Gea’s saves on a magical afternoon at Wembley.)
For now, however, the coach remains focused on the present.
“I am just doing my job every single day here until the contract runs out at the end of June,” said Solskjaer, who started his coaching career with the Manchester United reserves before going on to two mostly successful stints with Norway’s Molde and a disastrous 30-game stay with Cardiff City in 2014. “I’ll have a holiday in there, so I’m not thinking about that whatsoever.”
But while Solskjaer has brought back United’s confidence and swagger, the team remains sixth in the EPL table, exactly where it was when he took over.
“We are still sixth, so let's keep our feet on the floor. Let's try to be humble,” midfielder Ander Herrera said of the team, which remains 16 points back of league-leading Liverpool. United is within six points of fourth-place Chelsea, though, making a Champions League invite well within reach.
“We didn't start the league very well so we still have a long way to work to reach the top four,” Herrera said.
The way United’s playing now, it’s a solid bet the team will make it.
By the way Mourinho is one of four EPL managers to lose his job in the last two months. The latest was Huddersfield’s Dave Wagner, who was relieved of his duties Monday with the team at the bottom of the 20-team table.
Wagner, who was born in Germany to an American serviceman father, had eight caps with the U.S. national team between 1996 and 1998.
The other managers sacked in the famously fickle EPL this season were Fulham’s Slavisa Jokanovic, who was replaced by Claudio Ranieri in November, and Southampton’s Mark Hughes, who was replaced by Ralph Hasenhuttl in December.
Fulham is 19th in the standings while 16th-place Southampton remains a point out of the relegation zone.
Until next time