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Newsletter: Soccer! English Premier League just finished one of the greatest seasons ever

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Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola.
(GLYN KIRK / 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.

We’re going to spend part of today in Europe, where the English Premier League just finished what was arguably one of the greatest seasons of any league in history, one that will end with four EPL teams playing in the finals of Europe’s top two club competitions.

It’s the first time all four finalists for the Champions League and Europa League will come from one nation, much less one league. The Europa League — club soccer’s version of the NIT — will match Chelsea against Arsenal while next month’s Champions League final will send Liverpool against Tottenham, with both teams advancing on improbable yet thrilling semifinal victories.

None of those teams won the league crown, however. That honor went to Manchester City, the first team to repeat as EPL champion in five seasons — though the outcome was in doubt until late in the second half of the final game of the season.

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City, which moved into first place to stay on March 2, won its final 14 games and dropped just three of a possible 54 points since New Year’s Day. And it needed every one of those points to beat Liverpool, which lost just one EPL game all season, falling to City in Manchester.

Only one team other than Liverpool or Manchester City spent a week alone atop the table — Chelsea, in week five. After that it was a two-team race.

No EPL team has ever had a two-year stretch like City. Last season it broke every significant EPL record, winning 32 games, scoring 106 goals, posting a goal differential of 79 and becoming the first team to finish a season with 100 points. It did almost as well this season, again winning 32 times, scoring 95 goals for a differential of 72 and finishing with 98 points.

“Incredible,” said City coach Pep Guardiola. “It’s the toughest title we have won in all my career, by far.”

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And he has a long list of titles to choose from, having won 14 league championships as a player and coach in Spain, Germany and England.

So pity poor Liverpool, which has never won the Premier League. The Reds’ 97 points would have been more than good enough in any season except the last two. In fact, only two teams besides City and Liverpool have ever topped 90 points in an EPL season: Chelsea with 95 points in 2005 and 93 points in 2017 and Manchester United with 92 in 1994, when it played 42 games.

Plus Liverpool’s one loss was the fewest by a major European team this season, and its 97 points were better than every league champion except Manchester City.

“What a brilliant season it was,” Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp told reporters after the race was over.

At the top of the table, yes. But when the top two teams win so much — and spend so much — someone has to lose. And in the case of the Premier League the big loser was Huddersfield Town, which was relegated to the second-tier Championship with six games to go, becoming just the second team in history to be demoted before the end of March.

City (32-4-2) finished with 29 more wins and 73 more goals than the Terriers (3-28-7) and the spread from first to worst was 82 points, greatest of any major European league.

Not surprisingly there was a huge difference in payroll between the top and bottom too: The average salary at Manchester City was a reported $7.64 million, while a roster spot at Huddersfield was worth about a fifth of that.

Three other EPL teams — Fulham, Brighton and Southampton — all won fewer than 10 games.

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City’s season will end Saturday in the FA Cup final with Watford while four of the teams it vanquished in league play will go on. Liverpool has a June 1 date with Tottenham, a team it has already beaten twice this season.

The Reds will also be able to draw on the experience of last year’s Champions League final, when they lost leading scorer Mohamed Salah to injury in the 31st minute of a 3-1 loss to Real Madrid in Kiev.

“That was tough,” defender Virgil van Dijk told the soccer magazine FourFourTwo. “You have so many emotions going through your body. We had a long time to ourselves because the flight back landed a couple of hours before our friends and family.

“We arrived devastated, early in the morning, but you can’t sleep as you’re still wired with adrenaline.”

Van Dijk said the experience left him with one major goal: “Take it, learn from it and try to not let it happen again.”

Liverpool earned its shot at a do-over in dramatic fashion, rallying from a 3-0 deficit to beat Barcelona on Divock Origi’s goal — off a quick corner kick from Trent Alexander-Arnold — with 11 minutes left in the second leg of the teams’ semifinal series. But that was a rout compared to Tottenham’s win over Ajax, with Lucas Moura completing a hat trick with an improbable goal six minutes into stoppage time of their second leg to eliminate the Dutch team on the away-goal tiebreaker. You can watch the highlights by clicking here.

Regardless of how the matches end, English teams are guaranteed to win both continental trophies. Chelsea, which finished a distant third in the EPL, a point better than Tottenham, will face fifth-place Arsenal in the Europa League final in Baku, Azerbaijan, on May 29, four days before Liverpool and Tottenham meet in the Champions League final in Madrid.

There have been just two all-English finals before, with Tottenham beating Wolverhampton in the 1972 UEFA Cup final and Manchester United topping Chelsea in the 2008 Champions League.

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Spain had three teams in finals of the two tournaments in 2016 when Real Madrid beat cross-town rival Atletico in the Champions League final and Sevilla won its third consecutive Europa League title, beating Liverpool.

“In England the level is very high and the Premier League is the best championship in Europe,” Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri told the BBC.

Yet its champion, Manchester City, will be watching both Europe championship games on TV.

Championship pedigree?

While we’re on the subject of Manchester City, LAFC was being compared to the EPL champions after its clinical 3-0 win over the Columbus Crew last week, a victory that ended a slump that had seen the team win just one of its previous four games.

“In my opinion, in watching all the games and all the teams, they’re the Man City of MLS,” Columbus coach Caleb Porter said. “The budget, the talent, the way they play. That’s the best team in the league.”

High praise indeed. But Porter is a little late to the party. Last month Vancouver’s Marc dos Santos, the only coach to beat LAFC this season, was equally effusive in his praise.

“That’s the club that I would say in MLS does everything right,” said Dos Santos, who left an assistant coaching job at LAFC last November to become manager of the rebuilding Whitecaps. “That’s the reality. That’s what we have to look at, not only in Vancouver but any other club in the league. That’s the example. That’s the standard.

“How close can you get to that?”

So far this season most teams have answered “not very.” Last Saturday’s win keeps LAFC (8-1-3) atop the Supporter’s Shield standings with 27 points, an average of 2.25 points a game. LAFC also leads the league in wins (eight) and goals (29) and its goal differential of 21 is 10 better than the next-best team.

For goalkeeper Tyler Miller, Saturday’s shutout was his fifth of the season, most in the Western Conference and one off the league lead. LAFC got a huge boost in the final two minutes with goals by Adama Diomande and Carlos Vela turning a tight 1-0 game into an easy win.

For Diomande, who has battled injury this season, the goal was his first since the second week. If he can stay healthy and dangerous, Diomande would give Bob Bradley a welcome option to Christian Ramirez at center forward.

For Vela the goal, his league-leading 12th of the season, ended his longest scoring drought of the season at 266 minutes. (You can watch that goal by clicking here.)

In recent weeks Vela seemed to be sagging under the pressure of carrying the team’s offense. Coming into the match Vela had scored four of the last six goals for LAFC — and won consecutive MLS Player of the Month awards, becoming just the seventh man in league history to do that — making up for the struggles of running mate Diego Rossi, who matched a career high by going six games without a score.

“A great game on the road. We are [having] a great season,” a relieved Vela said. “But we want more.”

Missing pieces

The Galaxy’s loss on Saturday, its first at home this season, exposed a number of weaknesses: The team lacked creativity in the attack, lacked sufficient bite on defense and, according to its captain, lacking a winning attitude.

But most of all, it lacked Jonathan dos Santos in the midfield. Taken together, that resulted one of the team’s worst games of the season.

Dos Santos went to the sidelines with a hamstring injury late in the first half of last week’s game in Columbus and missed all of Saturday’s lackluster 2-0 loss to New York City FC. As a result, New York City dominated possession, outpassed the Galaxy — especially in the final third — and held the home team to just one shot on goal. It was a performance that should end discussion over who is really the team’s most important player.

The loss was the Galaxy’s third in a row, their longest slide since last May, and it left them with one win in their last five games. They’ve scored just four goals in that span, getting shut out twice.

The slump, by the way, coincides with the loss of midfielder Romain Alessandrini to knee surgery that will keep him out until at least September.

The midfield was supposed to be the Galaxy’s strength this season, especially after the addition of Joe Corona. But injuries to Alessandrini and Perry Kitchen, who hasn’t played yet this year; the inability of an aging Juninho to find a role — he’s played just eight minutes; the loss of Efrain Alvarez to Mexico’s U-17 team; and inconsistent performances from Ema Boateng and Servando Carrasco has shown the depth at the position to be paper thin.

But none of that hurt as much as the loss of Dos Santos, who has done a masterful job managing the midfield this season.

“He’s an important player for us. He’s the engine for our team,” said Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who missed Dos Santos most of all, going scoreless in consecutive starts for just the second time in nearly a year. “He keeps the game going. With him on the field we play a different game. He wants the ball all the time. He drives the game and he likes to have the ball on his feet. He gets the game going.”

Ibrahimovic, the Galaxy’s captain, didn’t blame the loss of Dos Santos alone for the lackluster performance. He found greater fault with the team’s attitude.

“We were not aggressive. We were soft all over [the field],” he said of a tired team that was playing for the third time in a third state in eight days. “The second half was better because we had a different attitude and we wanted more. I think the last two games was an attitude thing and we need to react, we need to change and show what we want by attitude. Not by playing quality.

“Either you want it or don’t want it. It’s all collective thinking.”

Dos Santos is expected back for Sunday’s game with the Colorado Rapids but Ibrahimovic may not be. He let his frustration get the best of him in the final minutes Saturday, grabbing New York City keeper Sean Johnson by the throat. That’s a big no-no, so you can expect the MLS disciplinary committee to have a long look at the incident.

“I would be frustrated if I were him too,” said Johnson, who confronted Ibrahimovic after the game before being pulling away by teammates.

It was the second time in as many home games that Ibrahimovic was involved in some extracurricular activities with an opponent. In last month’s win over Real Salt Lake, Ibrahimovic spent the entire second half trash-talking defender Nedum Onuoha. After the game Ibrahimovic entered the visitors’ locker room, claiming he wanted to apologize. He was quickly escorted out.

“Never in all my games has an opponent walked into the dressing room five minutes after a game has finished,” Onuoha told a Salt Lake City radio station. “He’s saying ‘Have you calmed down now, big man? Have you calmed down?’ It’s a real surreal moment. I was thinking ‘Why is one of their team here?’ And I said ‘No, I’ve not calmed. If you think it’s all right to say the stuff that you said on the field there, then you’re wrong,’ and then I can’t say what I said on the radio, but I told him to get lost.”

Onuoha said Ibrahimovic taunted him by repeating “I’m going to do you, just you wait.”

And he did, beating Onuoha to score the winning goal.

“These are words I’ve probably heard twice or three times in all my career, usually by people who are complete thugs,” Onuoha told Love Sport Radio. “It’s one thing to be competitive but it’s another thing to be threatening harm against another professional. So I was playing with that over my head, thinking every time I came close to him ‘Is this going to be the time?’ That’s not the way you’re supposed to play the game.”

Gamesmanship? Or crossing the line?

MLS apparently gave Ibrahimovic the benefit of the doubt and did not sanction him for either the on-field behavior or the locker-room invasion. He may not be as fortunate this time.

Both he and Johnson received yellow cards for their confrontation in the 87th minute of the New York City game, suggesting referee Chris Penso found fault with both players, who wrestled each other to the ground. And while it will be tough for the league to suspend one of its best and more marketable stars, Ibrahimovic clearly put his hands on Johnson’s throat, regardless of what the NYCFC keeper did.

After ignoring the RSL locker room incident and letting Ibrahimovic off with just a fine for diving in the Columbus loss, MLS may feel it has no choice but to suspend him this time.

(Watch the video of the incident here and judge for yourself by clicking here.)

A reinforcement is on the way though. Last week the Galaxy acquired versatile attacker Favio Alvarez on loan from Argentina’s Atletico Tucuman. The 26-year-old was not available against New York City because the necessary transfer paperwork had not been completed. But he’s expected to be cleared to play against Colorado.

And if Ibrahimovic is unavailable, Alvarez will likely be in the starting lineup.

“He’s the kind of player we need to bring to the team,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said of Alvarez, whom he coached against in Argentina. “He is very good with the last pass. He manages the game well, the kind of player we don’t have.

“He’s a good professional, a good player and he can help us.”

Sister act

Alyssa Naeher has won the starting goalkeeper’s job for the U.S. national team heading into next month’s Women’s World Cup in France. So when she trots out in front of the net for the Americans’ tournament opener against Thailand, she’ll become just the third woman to start in goal for the U.S. in a World Cup game in 24 years.

But soccer wasn’t always her first choice. Naeher was a standpoint point guard in high school in Connecticut, scoring more than 2,000 points.

“Basketball was something that I’ve always loved,” said Naeher, whose father played the sport in college and later became a coach. “I still love basketball. I can’t really play right now but I shoot around when I can. It’s kind of a stress reliever at this point.”

Naeher gave up competitive basketball for soccer when she enrolled at Penn State, where she was a three-time All-American. She wasn’t the only one in the family with athletic talent though. Twin sister Amanda won two NCAA Division III championships at Pennsylvania’s Messiah College, where she scored more than 100 goals.

Amanda’s career stalled in the USL W-League while her twin will be going to her second World Cup this summer. But Naeher said there was never a sibling rivalry since each sister carved out her own path.

“I’ve always been a goalkeeper; she’s always been a field player. We’ve never even competed for the same position,” she said. “She has had a memorable and incredible career in her own right.”

But what if the goalkeeper faced her twin sister the striker in a penalty-kick shootout. Who would win?

“Let’s say out of 10, we’ll go five and five,” Naeher answered diplomatically.

Be true to your school

Speaking of the Women’s World Cup, UCLA will be well-represented in France with at least five women playing for three teams. The U.S. will feature two former Bruin teammates in defender Abby Dahlkemper and midfielder Sam Mewis while forward Mal Pugh played in three spring games at the school before leaving in her freshman year to turn pro. (Watch the second of Mewis’ two goals in Sunday’s 3-0 win over South Africa by clicking here.)

Rosie White, who won an NCAA championship alongside Dahlkemper and Mewis at UCLA, will play for New Zealand, while junior goalkeeper Teagan Micah has been named to the Australian team.

That list figures to grow by two when Canada and Brazil finalize their rosters, with midfielder Jessie Fleming expected to make the cut for Canada and goalkeeper coach Aline Reis a likely pick for Brazil.

“It definitely feels like a parent moment where I’m just proud,” said UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell, who played for the U.S. in the 1995 Women’s World Cup. “The whole staff, we’re beaming.”

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 by clicking here.

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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