Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
Major League Soccer returned last week with both Southern California teams, the Galaxy and the Los Angeles Football Club, winning their openers, at home, by identical 2-1 scores.
Both teams rallied from 1-0 deficits, the Galaxy beating the Chicago Fire on a goal from Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who else? – in the 80th minute and LAFC edging Sporting Kansas City on Adama Diomande’s score deep in stoppage time.
But if the broad outlines of the two scripts were similar, the games were not. LAFC played an aggressive, attractive game Sunday, taking 14 shots, making nearly 500 passes and standing up to a talented and physical SKC team that was shown seven yellow cards and had one player expelled.
A day earlier the Galaxy was outshot, outpossessed and outpassed by wide margins by a poor Chicago side. They were missing three potential starters to injury, then lost another in the 20th minute when designated player Romain Alessandrini limped to the sideline with a hamstring issue. The Galaxy were so stretched, in fact, they started the game with two teenagers – defender Julian Araujo, 17, and midfielder Efrain Alvarez, 16 – among the 18.
And they didn’t really come alive until Alvarez entered in the 60th minute to set up both goals.
So if LAFC deserved its victory, the Galaxy were lucky to get theirs – although all that really matters is both teams are 1-0 after the first weekend. There was one other similarity, though, and that came postgame when players on both teams were asked about former Galaxy midfielder Gio dos Santos, who may be gone but clearly has not been forgotten.
The Galaxy bought out the final year of Dos Santos’ contract just hours before the MLS deadline to set opening-day rosters, the more than $6 million it cost them to do that an admission that signing him 3½ years ago was a colossal – and, as it turned out, costly -- mistake.
When the Galaxy acquired Dos Santos from Spain’s Villarreal in the summer of 2015 – a deal that, in transfer fees and salary, was worth $34 million, the team said -- it did so over the reticence of the coaching staff, which took a look at Dos Santos’ undeniable talent and itinerant career (he had played for seven teams in eight years) and concluded that commitment was a problem for the Mexican international.
For the first season and a half Dos Santos earned his keep, scoring 17 goals and handing out 17 assists in 38 games, helping the Galaxy to the playoffs both times. But in the last two years he had nine goals and five assists, starting just 10 matches in 2018 despite a $6-million designated-player contract that made him the fifth-highest-paid player in the league.
Things came to a head in December when the Galaxy signed Ibrahimovic to the richest single-season contract in MLS history, a $7.2-million deal that left the team with four DPs, one over the league limit. The team would have to trade, buy out or restructure one of the existing DP contracts and since Alessandrini and Jonathan dos Santos, Gio’s younger brother, had proven to be productive players, Dennis te Kloese, the Galaxy’s new general manager, focused on the elder Dos Santos.
“I can tell you that I’ve known him for many years,” Te Kloese, who worked for Mexico’s national soccer federation at a time when Dos Santos won an Olympic title and played in three World Cups, said in his first conference call with reporters last year. “I know him, I know his family. As a high-profile player there’s obligations and there’s responsibility. We need to win and we need to be very good.
“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 grows.”
Te Kloese apparently believed he could appeal to Dos Santos’ pride, only to find out the player apparently had little of that left. The general manager offered Dos Santos a reduced salary in exchange for a chance for him to prove himself again, then spent 10 weeks in an unsuccessful attempt to sell the player on the idea.
Under new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, he argued, Dos Santos would be the quarterback in an ambitious 4-2-3-1 formation, starting directly under Ibrahimovic. He would have to take a pay cut to do it, but it was the perfect set-up to showcase his skills and salvage his career.
Lost in the whole two-year soap opera over the mercurial Mexican is the fact that, when he applies himself, Dos Santos can be an other-worldly player.
The most talented of three soccer-playing sons born to Zizinho, a Brazilian who moved to Mexico to play for America and Leon in the 1980s, Dos Santos was just 11 when he entered Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy – the same program that produced Lionel Messi and world champions Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Xavi Hernandez, among others.
In 2005 he led Mexico to victory in the U-17 World Cup, the country’s first major international championship, and he was still a teenager when he made his La Liga debut for Barcelona in 2007. A year later he moved to Tottenham of the Premier League, the first of six moves that would see him play for two clubs in England, one in Turkey and three in Spain over the next six years.
That’s also when Dos Santos’ commitment to soccer was first called into question.
“If he could pass a nightclub as well as he can pass a ball, he would be all right,” Tottenham coach Harry Redknapp said.
Still Dos Santos, versatile enough to play several positions, showed more than the occasional flash of brilliance. His goal against the U.S. in the 2011 Gold Cup final, is still the most spectacular one I have seen in person. Check out not only his dribbling abilities -- with both feet -- but how precisely he places the shot to get it over American defender Eric Lichaj. Watch it here.
That was the Dos Santos that Te Kloese had hoped to keep – and as recently as two weeks ago he seemed confident a deal would be worked out. But that optimism crumbled as the MLS deadline for roster compliance drew near and Dos Santos, 29, citing what may have been a phantom injury, continued to miss training with the first team.
Finally Te Kloese had had enough.
“The time that we took was for us to be able to assess if this could still work out going into this season. At the end, it was the best decision for all parties involved,” the general manager said after agreeing to the buyout. “That is obviously not an easy decision. But it is what it is. And this is where we move on.”
Under MLS rules Dos Santos still has a contract with league, meaning it could arrange a transfer to a foreign team. Dos Santos could also be waived and wind up with another MLS club or the league simply could let the contract expire.
After Saturday’s game, Ibrahimovic was asked his opinion of the buyout, the most expensive in MLS history.
“He had a good opportunity to stay and help the team to get 100% physical and to prove himself,” he said of Dos Santos. “I feel a little sorry about the situation because with him, for example, today we would be a different story. We need all of the quality players we had and we don’t have him. Whatever happened is a personal matter.”
A day later LAFC’s Carlos Vela, a teammate of Dos Santos in two World Cups, issued a warning.
“I will always support him and be there for him. I’m calm because wherever he goes, he will demonstrate the type of player he is,” Vela said of his friend. “I assure you that the Galaxy will regret letting him go.”
Maybe. But for the time being, the buyout, plus Ola Kamara’s $3.5-million transfer to Shenzhen of the Chinese Super League, appear to have left the Galaxy sitting on a war chest of about $5 million. And though league rules limit how and when that money can be used, the Te Kloese and Schelotto promised they will be spending some of it on reinforcements soon.
Escaping ‘El Trafico’
The Galaxy-LAFC rivalry is just three games old – the Galaxy won the first match of the cross-town derby last March and the other two meetings ended in draws – but it’s already among the most intense in MLS.
So intense, in fact, LAFC coach Bob Bradley insists the inter-L.A. rivalry needs a new name.
“I’m ending the one called ‘El Trafico’,” he said Sunday. “No more. It’s LA Clasico.”
“L-A.,” he repeated, lest anyone more his point. “L.A. Clasico. Throw that El Trafico thing out the window. We didn’t win one game in El Trafico. Now it’s called LA Clasico.”
OK, let’s set aside the fact that soccer already has an “el clasico,” in the annual match-ups between Barcelona and Real Madrid. Or that the Galaxy-Chivas USA games were dubbed the SuperClasico, although there was rarely anything super or classic about them.
Then there’s also the problem that clasico in a masculine adjective in Spanish and therefore should be preceded by the masculine article “el,” not the feminine “la.” (Full disclosure: I grew up in a town, La Puente, whose name is also grammatically incorrect in Spanish despite the fact 85% of the people who live there are Hispanic.)
Despite all that Bradley is right. “L.A.” belongs in the title of the derby, linguistics notwithstanding.
“I like it,” Vela responded in English to a question asked in Spanish, underscoring, perhaps, the need for a bilingual moniker. “Much better. That’s good. Sometimes Bob has a good thing.”
I admit I’m partial to the U.S. women’s national team – the only U.S. national team to make a World Cup final, much less win three of them. But not just because of the team’s success on the field.
The women aren’t afraid to be complete, well-rounded and intelligent people with opinions on important subjects, which makes them stand out in a sporting landscape so often dominated by dim-witted athletes who speak in clichés so as not to offend sponsors and fans.
Four years ago, for example, coach Jill Ellis and several players used the platform of a World Cup quarterfinal to speak out in favor of the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage. A year later the team sued its own federation over pay and other issues, eventually winning a big bump in compensation and expanded benefits but not before inspiring women’s teams in a number of other countries to lodge similar protests against their own misogynistic federations.
You can disagree with the causes but not the women’s courage and commitment in addressing them.
The U.S. team’s latest campaign was not nearly as bold but it may have been just as meaningful. For last Saturday’s SheBelieves Cup match with England, each player selected a woman who inspired them and that name was stitched on to the back of their jersey. The choices ranged from the predictable – Alex Morgan chose ex-teammate Abby Wambach and former UCLA midfielder Samantha Mewis picked Mia Hamm – to the inspired – Christen Press selected abolitionist Sojourner Truth and Carli Lloyd named Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai – to the head-scratching – Mallory Pugh took Beyonce and Emily Sonnett chose actress Tina Fey.
Equally as important as the choices, however, was the fact each player had to explain their selection.
“She’s a complete rock star,” said defender Becky Sauerbrunn whose choice, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had her name abbreviated as RBG above Sauerbrunn’s No. 4. “Dissenting opinion, battling cancer and then showing up to vote… what can’t she do? I just think she’s amazing."
That came just weeks after the women took a break from a training camp in France to travel to the beach of Normandy, where they spent an emotional day with D-Day veterans. An American soccer team in France visiting with members of the original national team.
The significance of the women’s team’s work wasn’t lost on men’s national team forward Jozy Altidore, who tweeted: “Our @USWNT continues to set the bar for all of us. An honor to watch these women compete and constantly inspire the current and future generations of crazy dreamers.”
You can read about the selections by clicking here.
Until next time