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Soccer! Champions League has some welcome suspense this year

Soccer! Champions League has some welcome suspense this year
The results of the draw for the Champions league quarterfinal is displayed next to the competition's trophy. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP/Getty Images)

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.

Today we’re going to start in Europe where the title races in three of the continent’s five major leagues are all but over, and familiar names will once again be taking home the trophies.

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In Italy, Juventus is one point away from its eighth consecutive Serie A title with seven games to play. In Spain, Barcelona has a commanding nine-point lead over second-place Atletico Madrid and is virtually assured its fourth title in five seasons. And in France, Paris Saint-Germain is a point away from its sixth championship in seven seasons.

Only in England, where Liverpool leads defending champion Manchester City by two points with five games to play, and in Germany, where six-time reigning titlist Bayern Munich leads Borussia Dortmund by a point with six games remaining, is there any doubt left.

And that makes this week’s resumption of Champions League play stand out by comparison. Yes, that tournament had its taste of dynasty when Real Madrid won the last three titles, the only team in more than 40 years to three-peat the sport’s most important club competition. But Real Madrid didn’t make it past the round of 16 this year, creating a wide-open quarterfinals and some welcome suspense.

Of the eight teams still alive, only Barcelona has won a Champions League trophy in the last decade. Two teams, Manchester City and Tottenham, have never won one – and one of the two won’t win it this year either since the two Premier League rivals face off in the two-leg quarterfinal round beginning Tuesday.

In the other Tuesday quarterfinal FC Porto, playing in the final eight for just the second time since 2009, faces Liverpool, a finalist a year ago. On Wednesday, Ajax of the Dutch Eredivisie, which hasn’t made it this far since 2003, meets Juventus and Cristiano Ronaldo while Manchester United plays Barcelona.

Winning domestic and continental titles in the same season is challenging, which is why just seven clubs have done it this century. So being the best team in Europe doesn’t necessarily translate into being the best team in your home country.

Squad rotation, for example, is a big factor and teams that drop off the pace in their league races often shift their focus to the European tournaments. Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League the year it won its only Champions League, for example.

Conversely the leaders in one-sided league races can find it difficult to transition to the challenge of Champions League play. Of the 16 teams that have won their league race by at least 10 points since 2009, just two also won a Champions League title in the same season.

Bayern Munich was one of those teams, clinching the 2012-13 Bundesliga title in 28 match days and then winning the continental championship seven weeks later. Bayern has been eliminated from the Champions League this season but it can still salvage its campaign by winning a record seventh straight German crown – something it took a big step toward by routing Borussia Dortmund last Saturday to move into first place.

The race figures to go down to the wire, though, something former Bayern standout Lothar Matthaus believes is good for a league lacking true parity.

“In the last six years, when they won six titles in a row, they were mostly finishing out in 28, 29 games day. And this year we have better competition for the Bundesliga,” he said in a phone interview. “Maybe the Bayern Munich fans would like to win the title maybe on the 25th game day. But for me, a football fan, I like to see the competition until the end of the season.

“Bayern Munich needs the pressure to make good games and a do good job. And Bayern Munich knows pressure. Other teams don’t know it because they don’t have the experience with pressure.”

Carli Lloyd is standing up for herself

Abby Wambach went into the 2015 Women’s World Cup as the leading international scorer in soccer history, yet she was a reserve in the tournament, starting just three of seven games for the U.S. and playing only 11 minutes in the final.

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Now Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the first 16 minutes of that final, appears to be facing a similar fate in this summer’s tournament. And she’s not about to take her place on the bench sitting down.

“I know that I can contribute. I know what I’m capable of,” she said. “It’s just about putting the work in day in and day out, being ready for the moment, seizing the opportunities and being ready.”

Lloyd did all that Sunday in her first start of the year, scoring on a pair of first-half headers and assisting on an Alex Morgan score in the second half of a 6-0 win over Belgium at Banc of California Stadium.

(Watch Lloyd’s second goal by clicking here.)

Lloyd, 36, started a career-low five games last year and has played just 1,565 minutes since winning the second of her two FIFA World Player of the Year awards three years ago. She averaged more minutes than that during each of the first 12 seasons of her international career.

But she said her desire, performance and work ethic haven’t changed as she prepares for her third World Cup this summer in France.

“I’ve always been here. I’ve always been putting in the work. I’ve been getting better every single day,” she said Sunday. “It’s tough because people don’t see me every single day at training. You see one game every couple of weeks. Nothing’s changed. I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing from Day 1 of my career.

“I’m humble enough to know that there are things that I can improve on. And I’m not stopping; I’ve been pretty blunt about that. And those that want to doubt can doubt.”

That last shout-out to the haters is both a challenge and a plea because few players are better than Lloyd at using doubt as fuel. Before the last World Cup, James Galanis, Lloyd’s personal coach and guru, found a magazine story that listed 30 players to watch.

Lloyd’s name wasn’t included so Galanis saved the article, sharing with Lloyd on the eve of the final.

"I said 'Take a look. You've got to prove these guys wrong,' " he remembers telling her. She did just that, scoring the fastest hat trick ever in a World Cup final.

Add in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics final, when she accounted for all three U.S. scores in the two gold-medal games, and Lloyd has had the winning goal in the last three major international tournaments the U.S. has won.

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“She’s a game-changer whether she’s on the pitch or coming into the pitch. That’s her role for us,” coach Jill Ellis said. “That’s why she’s special. That’s what I want to see from.

“It speaks to our depth and our ability to have multiple players come in and be a difference-maker for us.”

Lloyd agrees she’s a difference-maker. And she’ll do whatever she can to help the team.

But she’s been equally clear she is not OK with being left out of the starting lineup.

“I’m a winner,” she said. “People can say what they want but at the end of the day I can help this team lift that trophy in France. And I’m not going to stop until I can do that.”

Reunited and it feels so good

The Galaxy’s last two shutouts have had a number of things in common: both came against Vancouver, the first a 3-0 win at home last September and the second a 2-0 win in Canada last Friday. David Bingham was in goal both times. And Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in each game, more about which later.

Less noticed was the fact that Daniel Steres and Dave Romney played side-by-side in central defense in both games. They were paired there for the final five games last season and the Galaxy gave up just two goals in the first four of those, nearly stealing a playoff berth.

Romney finished the season with career highs for starts (26) and minutes (2,354) but hadn’t played at all this season before an abductor injury sidelined Diego Polenta for last Friday’s game, opening a spot in the lineup.

This isn’t the first time an injury has created an opportunity for Romney and through he struggled at times Friday, in the past these are the kinds of chances he’s seized upon.

In 2017, he played all four positions along the back line but finished the year at center back, his preferred position, after Steres sustained a stress fracture in his back. He also moved around last season before going back to the center for the final five games in place of Jorgen Skjelvik.

The Galaxy pitched shutouts in Romney’s first two starts in place of Skjelvik, earning him a three-year contract this winter that will nearly double his pay from the $75,000 he made in 2018.

How long he and Steres – who scored Friday and is second on the team with two goals – remain paired in the middle will likely depend on the extent of Polenta’s injury. In addition the Galaxy are reportedly nearing a deal to land another center back in Giancarlo Gonzalez from Italian club Bologna, which figures to complicate the situation further since it will could push Steres out of the lineup and cost Romney his spot on the bench.

Given recent history, expect Romney to make a major contribution before the season’s over.

As for Ibrahimovic, his goal in Vancouver, his second on turf in MLS, gave him 26 in 30 games since joining the Galaxy last year. Nine of them have been game-winners.

(Watch Ibrahimovic’s goal in Vancouver by clicking here.)

He has scored four times in three games this season and in nine of his last 11 starts. And he could have had more, losing one goal Friday to a bad offside call. Afterward he praised his midfield – and criticized himself.

“Fantastic. Without their service, I’m not able to do what I’m doing,” he said of his teammates. “We just have to keep going and connect more and I just need to be sharp in front of the goal. Today I should’ve had three goals.”

Probably the most remarkable thing, though, is the fact that at 37 he sat out 25 days of training with an Achilles tendon strain, then came back after four practice sessions to score three times in two games, going 90 minutes each time.

Mere mortals can’t do that.

And that has helped the Galaxy (4-0-1, 12 points) get off to their best since 2010, when they were unbeaten through 12 games.

Trafico building in early stages of MVP race

Ibrahimovic’s dominance, if it continues, is certain to fuel talk of an MVP award; he finished a distant third last season when the honor went to Atlanta United’s Miguel Almiron.

His stiffest competition in the early going this season is 10 miles up the 110 freeway, where LAFC’s Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi are 1-2 in the league in scoring, having combined for 13 goals in six games – more than any other MLS team -- while becoming the first teammates to score hat tricks in consecutive road games.

Vela, who Tuesday was named MLS Player of the Month for March, has seven goals and is also tied for the MLS lead in assists with four, one ahead of another teammate, Adama Diomande.

“We work every day to show how good we are,” said Vela, who has been outspoken about his desire to win the MVP award. “If we have a couple of players in that list it’s because we are doing well. So we have to keep there.”

As a team, unbeaten LAFC (5-0-1) has scored 19 times, seven better than anybody else.

“We’re a team that plays both sides of the field,” coach Bob Bradley said after his team demolished D.C. United 4-0 last weekend. “We’re lucky that we’ve got Carlos, who comes really well in from the right, Diego who comes in from the left. We still try to create good movement.”

They play good defense, too. Saturday’s shutout was the second in as many games, extending goalkeeper Tyler Miller’s streak to 235 consecutive scoreless minutes. But Bradley and each of the LAFC players who spoke after Saturday’s win made it clear they are not complacent and insist they can get better.

“It’s difficult to keep this level. So imagine to put it up [higher],” Vela said. “So we have to be ambitious. We have to work hard. It’s the only way to be better.”

(Watch Vela’s final goal of March by clicking here.)

Both the Galaxy and LAFC – along with their respective MVP candidates – will be playing home games Saturday night, with Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy kicking off vs. Philadelphia at Dignity Health Sports Park at 7:30, the same time Vela will lead his team against Cincinnati at Banc of California Stadium. That means as many as 47,000 people will be watching MLS games in Southern California this weekend.

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Until next time

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