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 again this week with Major League Soccer where the season is only 1/17th complete, yet after two weeks we can already draw some conclusions based on the early performances of the two Southern California teams.
For LAFC, the season has gotten off to a perfect start – literally and figuratively. Bob Bradley’s team is unbeaten, is tied (with Seattle and Minnesota) for most goals with six and its plus-four goal differential is second-best in the league. And LAFC accomplished that against Sporting Kansas City, the reigning Western Conference champions, and Portland, an MLS Cup finalist last season – teams that had gone a combined 3-0-1 against LAFC in league games in 2018.
“We’ve tried from the beginning to challenge players to come in every day with an open mind, to be pushed, to understand how they can become a better player, what kind of football we want to play, and how that needs to be worked on every day,” Bradley said. “The response has been great and in those ways, we just keep going.”
Bradley’s exacting, technical style of play is modeled after the possession-oriented, short-passing game of Barcelona and the coach isn’t shy about showing his team video of the Spanish club. But he’s generally refrained from comparing his players to Barcelona greats such as Lionel Messi – with a couple of exceptions.
“There's two guys I've shown Messi clips to and said, 'look, this can be you,'" continued Bradley. "Carlos [Vela] and Mohamed Salah and I think I'm right in both of my choices.
"So Carlos is sick of it, but he's going to keep hearing [about Messi]"
Especially if the LAFC captain continues performing like he did Sunday when he scored one goal and set up three others in a surprisingly easy 4-1 win over Portland. He’s done that while frustrating opponents who have tried to stop him physically, fouling him eight times, second most in the league, in two games.
“Every day I try to be better, to be a better player and a better teammate. In the end, I’m working to be the MVP of the league,” said Vela, who was a finalist for the award last year. “If I want to do that then I have to show every game how good I am.”
He’s not alone. Adama Diomande has come off the bench twice to score goals. Latif Blessing, formerly a forward, stepped in for an injured Steven Beitashour at right back and performed well against Portland. And both the midfield and defense have been exceptional at times.
A year ago LAFC set a record for MLS expansion teams with 57 points and, including the postseason, tied a record with 70 goals. But Bradley took pains to avoid publicly referencing LAFC’s first-year status because he didn’t want his team to have any excuses for not winning the MLS Cup.
The season ended prematurely anyway, with LAFC losing to Real Salt Lake in the first round of the playoffs.
Whatever accommodations the coach did make to LAFC’s rookie standing in 2018 are clearly gone this year
“There were high expectations last year,” he said. “We had moments where we did some very good things. But certainly I still look at every part of the game and I can still look at every player here and see things that need to be pushed and improved. And that’s the work that continues.”
If LAFC’s early season brilliance has been self-evident, so have the Galaxy’s shortcomings – especially the lack of anything resembling an attack when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Efrain Alvarez aren’t on the field.
The Galaxy were outplayed in their season-opener with Chicago but gutted out a result when Alvarez came on with a half-hour to go and set up both goals in a 2-1 win. The winner came from Ibrahimovic, marking the 14th time in 28 MLS games that he has a scored a tying or go-ahead goal.
But with Ibrahimovic missing last week’s trip to Dallas last Saturday because of an Achilles injury, the Galaxy didn’t manage a shot on goal until Alvarez put one on target in stoppage time of a 2-0 loss.
The shutout was the first for the Galaxy since a mid-August loss in Seattle, which was also the last game Ibrahimovic missed before Saturday.
“Of course the absence of Ibrahimović and [Romain] Alessandrini is clear,” coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “I hope we won’t have to use this as an excuse.”
Excuse? No. But it should be taken as a warning because while the season is still early, the first two games clearly offer a troubling template for the Galaxy.
Without Ola Kamara, last season’s second-leading scorer who left for China four days before this season started, and Gio dos Santos, who had his contract bought out by the team on the eve of the first game, the Galaxy have little backup at forward for the 37-year-old Ibrahimovic, who is less than two years removed from reconstructive knee surgery and is now hobbled by an Achilles issue that is likely to linger for weeks. Chris Pontius started in his place in Dallas and took three shots, none on goal.
Compounding the Galaxy’s offensive problems, Alessandrini hobbled off with a hamstring strain 20 minutes into the opener and isn’t expected back for another three weeks. And midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who missed the first game with a hamstring injury of his own, had to come off after 59 minutes in Dallas with a broken nose.
With two other midfielders, Perry Kitchen and Juninho, still sidelined, last week’s signing of U.S. national team midfielder Joe Corona didn’t add to the team’s depth as much as it gave the Galaxy enough players to field a team.
Then there’s the defense, which played well at times in the preseason but has struggled in its first two regular-season games with mistakes by center back Diego Polenta leading to two of the three goals the team has conceded.
That leaves the 16-year-old Alvarez as one of the few bright spots through the first two weeks. Not only did he spark the turnaround in the win over Chicago, but in Dallas he nutmegged former national team defender Matt Hedges before taking a left-footed blast on goal that was somehow stopped by keeper Jesse Gonzalez.
(Watch Alvarez strut his stuff here.)
Schelotto, who was hired to install an attractive attacking style to the Galaxy, has promised to bring Alvarez along slowly, hoping to lessen the pressure on a player with just 61 minutes of MLS experience. But if Ibrahimovic’s injury lingers and the team is unable to find a suitable replace in a transfer, the Galaxy may have no choice but to lean more heavily on the teenager to keep the season from slipping away before it’s even gotten started.
Crime and punishment
Games in both the English Premier League and the second-division Championship were marred Sunday by fans who invaded the pitch, with one sucker-punching Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish in a game at Birmingham and another confronting Manchester United’s Chris Smalling in the second half of Arsenal’s win at Emirates Stadium.
Paul Mitchell, the 27-year-old who attacked Grealish in the derby game at St. Andrews, was arrested and given a 14-week jail sentence. He has also been banned for all soccer venues for 10 years. Grealish, who was shaken but not seriously injured by the incident, wound up with the last laugh, shaking off the assault to score the game’s only goal in the second half. Watch it here.
Smalling’s attacker, identified as Gary Cooper, 30, is due in court on March 26. The club released a statement in which it said it intends to ban Cooper from all Arsenal games, home and away. Watch that pitch invasion here.
But in the opinion of Rebecca Lowe, who anchors NBC’s coverage of the Premier League, the penalties resulting from the actions of Mitchell especially aren’t nearly stiff enough.
“I personally would ban him from all football grounds for life. I don’t see how he could ever be given a second chance at a football ground,” she said. “For Birmingham City it’s so hard because is it their fault they have a fan like that? No, not really.
“But they have to be punished. There is no other way. I would play the remaining home games of the season behind closed doors. And I might even start the [next] season with another three. Because if this doesn’t get properly punished now, somebody is going to get hurt.”
That’s a pretty strong take for someone who is just getting used to sharing her opinions. Although Lowe has spent much of her adult life on television, NBC, in its sixth season of broadcasting Premier League games in the U.S., is just now allowing Lowe to speak out as part of a series of shows it has begun posting on YouTube.
“The Lowe Down,” which debuted last fall, is a two-part show hosted by Lowe in which she reviews the week’s EPL action, followed by a reversal of roles in which she takes questions from studio analysts Robbie Earle, Kyle Martino and Robbie Mustoe. Most episodes run between 10 and 17 minutes and are available here.
“I’ve never been conditioned to say what I want to say because that’s not my job. It’s not the job of the host to share opinions,” said Lowe, who likened her job as a studio host for NBC’s coverage of both the EPL and the Olympics to that of a traffic cop who keeps the conversation moving.
“So when they came to me and they said ‘do you want to do the show?’ I actually felt a little bit nervous. I’m not sure anyone is interested in what I think. It’s a very different thing for me to have to answer questions.”
NBC’s YouTube content includes two other shows, “Tactics Session,” which provides in-depth analysis from Earle, Martino and Mustoe, all former professional players; and “Inside the Mind,” featuring interviews with EPL players and managers.
The network is adding to that Tuesday with “In the Shadow of the Kop,” a six-week series on Liverpool as the club and its colorful coach Jurgen Klopp chase their first league in 29 years. Hosted by Roger Bennett, one half of “The Men in Blazers,” the multiplatform series will debut on the NBC Sports YouTube channel at 5 p.m. PT.
“The ultimate concept is to help people appreciate the Premier League,” said Pierre Moossa, coordinating producer of NBC’s EPL coverage.
Highs and lows in Paris
Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe will probably never forget this year’s Champions League knockout stage, which provided both a personal career highlight and a lowlight.
In the opening game of the two-leg series, Kimpembe scored his first first-team goal in a 2-0 victory at Manchester United.
“I don’t really have any words to describe it. Well, actually I do. Lots of emotions,” Kimpembe said when we met last month, between Champions League games, at PSG’s massive training center outside Paris. “It was the first goal for me, which is a huge one. Also it was for the club of my heart. So double the emotions.
“Huge joy for me. And of course I helped the team to win.”
Then in last week’s return leg, Kimpembe’s arm got in the way of a Diogo Dalot shot in stoppage time. After originally awarding United a corner kick, Slovenian referee Damir Skomina spent several minutes looking at a video review before changing his mind and calling a handball, awarding a controversial penalty that Marcus Rashford converted to send United on to the final eight and send PSG home early for a seventh straight season.
"It hurts me, very bad even,” Kimpembe said in an interview on YouTube. “I feel what the fans feel. I can see their anger, I realize it, I understand it and, most importantly, I assume it so that I can swallow it. It's a game that inevitably stays in the heads but that we will have to forget for the rest of the season."
Kimpembe, 23, identifies with the fan’s point of view because he grew up in the Paris suburbs, the second-deepest pool of young soccer talent in the world behind only Sao Paulo, Brazil. And he joined goalkeeper Alphonse Areola in the PSG academy when he was 10
“It’s been very special for me and him as Parisians,” Kimpembe said of his time at PSG, where he has spent more than half his life. “We’ve grown up in Paris and we’ve grown up here at the club. We’ve come up through the youth ranks so it’s extra special.”
Despite the recent difficulties, Kimpembe hasn’t lost his sense of humor. After needing more than four dozen matches to get his first goal, he was asked who the better player was between he and teammate Kylian Mbappe, who also scored in the first Manchester United match and leads the French league with 24 goals in 21 matches.
“Me of course,” the defender answered through an interpreter. “At training I allow him to score sometimes to improve his confidence.”
Not the retiring type
Jermaine Jones, who played in a World Cup for the U.S. and in 20 games for the Galaxy in 2017, is following Landon Donovan by coming out of retirement to play indoor soccer, in Jones’ case with the Ontario Fury.
The team announced Jones’ signing Monday. Jones, 37, has played one match for the Ventura County Fusion since his last MLS appearance with the Galaxy. He also played with three clubs in his native Germany earlier in his career.
Donovan, who played last year with Leon of Mexico’s Liga MX, signed with the San Diego Sockers of the Major Indoor Soccer League two months ago and has three goals and six assists in three games.
Until next time