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Soccer

Newsletter: Soccer! Storm clouds hovering over MLS and its players union

Orlando City Soccer vs. Montreal Impact
Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush makes a save.
(Stephen M. Dowell / Orlando Sentinel)

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we start with the gathering storm clouds over MLS and the union representing its players.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the union expires this winter and there will a number of issues on the table when negotiations for a new agreement begin.

If history is any guide, things won’t go smoothly.

The last two times management and labor had to work out an agreement, talks continued until just days before the season opener with the players threatening a work stoppage both times. Some of the major issues that slowed previous negotiations – pay and free agency – will be back this winter and a new issue, travel, could also prove contentious.

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The league does not comment on salaries but according to a list released by the players union last spring, the number of millionaires in the league increased to 46 in 2018 from 28 the year before (and from just nine in 2013) while the guaranteed salary total for the league’s 669 players topped $249 million for the first time.

That growth is largely due to the advent of allocation money, which has allowed teams to pay players up to $1.5 million – nearly three times the maximum charge under the league’s salary cap – without having to use a designated player spot. The maximum budget charge for a non-designated player has also grown each year, to $530,000 this season, while the salary cap is now $4.2 million

However, that rising tide has not raised all boats: The league minimum salary is $56,250.

There has been some progress on free agency too, just not enough to please a union which wants its players to have the same ability to move between teams as athletes in other major U.S. sports. Under the current collective bargaining agreement a player must be at least 28, have eight years of MLS service time and be out of contract to be eligible for free agency.

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This winter’s talks are also likely to include charter flights, an issue that has risen in importance in recent weeks. MLS is the only major U.S. or Canadian league that still requires its teams to use commercial flights.

The league, which is organized as a single-entity structure, subsidizes travel and even cut-rate charter flights would be about four times as expensive as flying commercially. So the league limits teams to four charter segments a season – something most teams save for the postseason.

But there are other costs that must be factored in as well.

Flying commercial leaves teams at the mercy of the airlines and airports. Teams such as Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver and Columbus, which use smaller airports, find themselves with relatively few options for direct flights, forcing them to make connections that extend their travel time. Additionally, teams often can’t schedule flights home the night of a game, requiring them to spend an extra day on the road, limiting training and recovery time.

The biggest issue, though, is flight cancellations and delays.

The Montreal Impact nearly missed its Wednesday game in New England last week after its 75-minute flight to Boston was canceled. The team then hustled to book a charter, burning one of its four exemptions for the short flight, but that plane was delayed. As a result the team didn’t get to its hotel until four hours before game time.

It’s not the first time a team has been inconvenienced by cancellations or delays nor will it be the last. In fact it seems to happen numerous times each season, although the league hasn’t had to confront the issue directly because the traveling team has always made it to the stadium for kickoff.

If a team were to miss a kickoff, leaving a major broadcast partner with two prime-time hours to fill, MLS may be forced to act. In the meantime, players and coaches are sounding off.

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“Honestly, it’s a joke in many ways,” Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush told Quebec network TVA after the game, which the Impact won. “You can talk with anyone, from the administration to the players to the coaches. The way the last 24 hours happened should have never happened.

“The powers that be know how we feel about it. It’s not just a matter of inconvenience to us. It’s a matter of being in an airport for 18 hours basically, going home, getting on three different planes. Going through the circus this morning, getting to the hotel at 3:30 today, having to prepare for a game in less than four hours.”

MLS teams have combined to win just 26 of 106 road games (24.5%) this season – and seven teams are winless away from home. But Bush couched the issue not just in terms of convenience but as an issue of safety and quality of play.

“I understand that there’s certain things they can’t do. But when it comes to players’ safety and dealing with the assets of the league -- and the players are the assets of the league in many ways -- they need to do better.”

Philadelphia Union coach Jim Curtin agreed.

“We talk about the quality of play improving in the league, the quality of player that is coming into the league. I think the owners are in agreement with this: They want that asset protected,” Curtin said. “Recovery in our game now, in the modern game, has become more important, sometimes, than what the coaches can do in training. If you’re not recovering right, you’re going to have injuries.

“Charter flights, and the ability to get in and out of places quicker and more freely, really aid recovery more than anything.”

In Bruce Arena’s final season as coach of the Galaxy in 2016, I made a road trip with the team to experience firsthand what MLS travel is like. You can read that report by clicking here.

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Right on schedule

Speaking of travel, the Galaxy will be using one of their four charter flights next week to help ease a stretch that will see them play three games in three states in eight days.

After playing three times in 10 days to close April, the team will begin May by flying to New Jersey on Thursday ahead of Saturday’s game with the Red Bulls in Harrison. The team will train in New Jersey on Sunday then fly to Columbus, Ohio, for a May 8 game with the Crew. After that, the Galaxy will take a charter home to prepare for consecutive home games with New York City and Colorado.

May is the Galaxy’s busiest month, with six games in 25 days and cross-country flights to New Jersey and Florida. It comes at a good time, though, with the Galaxy (7-1-1, 22 points) riding a seven-game unbeaten streak that has pushed it to within a point of LAFC atop the Supporters’ Shield table. The Galaxy didn’t get to seven wins and 22 points until July last season.

Still, the team has struggled to put together a complete game. In Sunday’s win over Real Salt Lake, the Galaxy had the ball 70% of the time in the first half, out-shooting the visitors 8-4. But the second 45 minutes was a completely different story, with RSL dominating possession and taking 18 shots to the Galaxy’s three.

“It is definitely a recurring thing and we definitely need to correct that,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who assisted on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s game-winning goal. “We need to come out in the second half guns blazing and kind of carry on where we were from the first half.

“I think it also shows that we played three games in a short amount of time for the first time this season and we were a little tired. But the important thing is that we found a way to win.”

Ibrahimovic’s goal was his 30th in 34 career MLS games. Only three players in MLS history have had more the first 34 games, which is the length of an MLS regular season.

But while the Galaxy found a way to win, LAFC wasn’t as fortunate, dominating every aspect of its game in Seattle except the final score, which ended 1-1 after Christian Ramirez’s second-half shot at an open net sailed over the crossbar.

LAFC outshot the Sounders 21-4, held the ball 74% of the time and made 683 passes to Seattle’s 244. The Sounders also finished the game with just nine players after losing Cristian Roldan and Kelvin Leerdam to red cards. (LAFC, which has been fouled more than any team in the league, has seen opponents expelled with red cards six times in 10 games this season.)

“We didn’t finish the work in the way we needed to do it,” said Carlos Vela, whose first-half goal was his league-leading 11th of the season. “It is football. We had chances. We created a lot of chances. We had the possession.

“But sometimes the ball just doesn’t want to go in.”

Vela, by the way, is just the third player in MLS history to score 11 times in the first 10 games of the season. Roy Lassiter did it for DC United in 1999 and Chris Wondolowski for San Jose in 2012. Vela also has five assists, giving him a hand in 16 goals in 10 games. That’s a league record.

Alessandrini’s surgery could prove costly

The knee surgery Romain Alessandrini underwent last week could cost the Galaxy midfielder more than the next five months of the MLS season. It could also mark the beginning of the end of his time with the Galaxy.

The operation is the third on Alessandrini’s knees – and the second on his left one – in 11 years. He also missed time the last two seasons with hamstring injuries, not the kind of momentum you want in the final year of a contract.

Alessandrini has been pushing for a contract extension since last summer and has taken a number of steps to prove he wants to be a part of the team for the long term. When he’s on the field, few have questioned his hustle and commitment – traits that have made him popular with the fans. And after his first season – one in which he led the team with 14 goals and 12 assists – he remained in Southern California to work out rather than returning to France.

“He loves America,” his agent, Yvan Le Mee, said. “He loves L.A.”

But Alessandrini will be 31 early next season and his age, combined with a history of leg issues, could make re-signing him a risky proposition unless he’s willing to take a huge cut in pay. (When Alessandrini signed his three-year designated-player contract in 2017, Le Mee said it was worth $5.4 million; figures from the players union put it at more than $5.7 million.)

The day after the surgery Alessandrini posted this on Instagram:

“What can you do when you think you’ve already given it all? Get up and move forward. I had a successful knee surgery yesterday morning, the third in my career and hopefully the last one, this one is for a meniscus root tear (rare injury). I’m very disappointed but I will not give up, not now and never. Someone told me athletes build themselves in adversity. Once again, I’m in the middle of it. I will be out for at least 4 months. I see you soon Los Angeles.”

Maybe. But for how long? If the Galaxy weren’t willing to sign Alessandrini to an extension when he was healthy, why would they consider doing it when he’s coming off a serious injury?

New general manager Dennis te Kloese and new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto have made no effort to hide the fact they are rebuilding the team, a process Te Kloese said could take another couple of seasons and one Alessandrini may not have been a part of anyway. The team appears close to adding a versatile attacker, a project they were working on before Alessandrini’s injury but one that has taken on new urgency in the wake of Thursday’s surgery.

That player could wind up replacing the Frenchman in both the short term and long term if the Galaxy can bring him aboard before the primary transfer window closes Tuesday.

“It’s part of a puzzle that you’re trying to create here to be strengthening everything. But adding an offensive piece even before this transfer window ends would be very welcome, yes,” Te Kloese said. “The more versatile the player, the better.”

Meanwhile, Te Kloese says he’s more focused on Alessandrini’s rehab than he is on his future.

“Everyone knows what Romain means to our club,” he said. “These things happen and they take nothing away, obviously, from how we see him. We need to be very supportive and helpful on his rehab so we can reintegrate him this season still and take part at the end of the season.”

If Alessandrini plays exceedingly well and proves his fitness this fall, the team’s calculations could change – especially if his replacement struggles. But those are pretty big ifs.

For Suarez, love was the motivation

Most players who reach the highest levels of professional soccer credit hard work, thousands of hours of training or the wisdom of coaches who guided them along the way.

Luis Suarez, whose Barcelona team begins play in the Champions League semifinals Wednesday against Liverpool, credits his wife Sofia, whom he met when both were teenagers in Montevideo, Uruguay.

“It was thanks to her that I turned out the right way,” Suarez, speaking in Spanish, said when we spoke earlier this year at the team’s training facility outside Barcelona. “When I met her she was 15 years old and like all young people, like every kid, I had my good things, my bad things. Luckily I met her, she took me on the good path and always with her feet on the ground.”

Suarez’s parents divorced when he was 9 and he grew up in a poor household, learning to play soccer in the streets where his anger often got the best of him. Despite his immense talent, Suarez was just as likely to start a fight as he was to score a goal. He once head-butted a referee – after getting a red card – and when he was caught drinking and partying, a youth coach threatened never to play him again unless he got serious about the sport.

Which is where Sofia comes in, because after the girl’s family moved to Barcelona when Suarez was 16, he realized the only way to get to Europe himself was through soccer.

“It was one of the few possibilities I had to be with her,” he said. “She had been in Spain for some time and I was in Uruguay and I think it was the moment, no matter where I went, I wanted to be closer to her.”

So he rededicated himself and three years later he was playing in the Dutch Eredivisie, starting a trek that would take him to Ajax, Liverpool and eventually Barcelona. (All three of Suarez’s teams are in the Champions League final four this year.)

Asked what would have happened had he not met Sofia – whom he married in 2009 – or if she had not moved to Spain a year after they started dating, Suarez answered with a shrug.

“I do not know,” said Suarez, who is tied for second in scoring in Spain’s La Liga with 21 goals, trailing only teammate Lionel Messi. “One always assumes the errors with sincerity. The things that I have done since I was a boy have also made me mature and made me become a man faster. I went at 19 to live alone in a city I did not know.”

So now Suarez is keeping an eye on another precocious player who left Montevideo for a foreign country and stardom at 19. That player is LAFC forward Diego Rossi.

“He was very good in Penarol,” Suarez said, referring to Rossi’s two seasons in the Uruguayan first division. “He is a player, a goal-scorer, a No. 9 that can play outside. I think he’s mature enough to be able to succeed there in the United States.”

That looks like a pretty good call: 42 games into his MLS career, Rossi has 18 goals and 10 assists. Only three players have topped him in both categories.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast.

Special boxing announcement

Canelo Alvarez, the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Assn. middleweight champion is squaring off against Daniel Jacobs, the International Boxing Federation champion on Saturday night from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas

But we’d like to invite you as a reader to join us for some special pre-fight prep: A live recording of our podcast “Arrive Early, Leave Late” from Losers Bar at the MGM Grand Casino. We’ll focus on the big fight with an array of Times journalists, including boxing writer Lance Pugmire, columnists Dylan Hernandez, Arash Markazi and LZ Granderson and some extra special guests from the boxing world. We’ll also have a few other surprises after Friday’s weigh-in. Please join us from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Losers.

And even if you can’t join us in Vegas, you can count on the L.A. Times to have you covered from every angle. Our reporters will be all over developments in the run-up to Saturday’s champion vs. champion bout — like this piece on how Alvarez’s loss to Floyd Mayweather Jr. shaped his career as a fighter and paved the way for Saturday night.

Thank you for reading. And hope to see you on Friday.

Angel Rodriguez

Assistant Managing Editor, Sports

Los Angeles Times

Until next time

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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