Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. We start today in MLS with a quiz: Which team is the hottest one in the league?
If you guessed the New England Revolution, you probably cheated. But you’re also correct. The Revolution are unbeaten under Bruce Arena and haven’t lost in their last 10 games, dating to May 11. That’s the franchise’s longest unbeaten in 14 years and it’s allowed New England to climb over Toronto and into seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, meaning if the season ended tomorrow the Revolution would be back in the playoffs for the first time since 2015.
The season won’t end tomorrow, though, so the Revolution may keep climbing. A win over Orlando City this weekend could lift them into fifth place, three points back of second-place Atlanta United.
New England started the season with Brad Friedel as coach but he was fired in early May with the team in last place at 2-8-2. Assistant Mike Lapper took over and the Revolution haven’t lost an MLS game since, going 6-0-4 to reach .500.
New England beat San Jose in Lapper’s first game and Arena was hired as coach and general manager three days later. He replaced Lapper in the technical area on June 2, beating the Galaxy 2-1 in his first MLS game since November 2016. With Sunday’s 2-0 win over Cincinnati, New England is 5-0-2 under Arena and 3-0-2 in its last five games on the road, the team’s best streak away from home since 2014.
It reached the MLS Cup final that year, losing to Arena and the Galaxy.
“I think we can play better,” Arena said of his new team. “The effort’s there. We’re playing collectively, which is good to see. We’re winning games on the road, too, which is very important.
“I can’t complain.”
Neither can the Revolution because the turnaround under Arena has been dramatic.
New England gave up a franchise-record 15 goals in its last three games under Friedel and lost the final two by five goals each. In 12 games the team has a -19 goal differential, with 11 scored and 30 conceded. In seven games under Arena, the Revolution have scored 19 times and allowed just six, a differential of +13.
And that resurgence has come against some of the league’s best teams. During the unbeaten streak the Revolution have faced three of the top six teams in the Supporters’ Shield standings, beating the Galaxy and playing to three draws against D.C. United and Philadelphia. And the May 11 win over San Jose that started the streak is one of just two games the Earthquakes have lost in the last two months.
Things aren’t about to get any easier. After meeting Orlando at home this weekend, the Revolution face LAFC, the league’s best team, followed by road games at Seattle and against the New York Red Bulls, last year’s Supporters’ Shield winner.
The reason for the turnaround is simple: New England has begun playing as a team. Under Friedel, New England used a high press and when teams locked that down, the Revolution centered all their offense on Spanish midfielder Carles Gil. Stop the press, then stop Gil and you stop the team.
Under Arena, the Revolution have diversified their attack, especially with the addition of Argentine forward Gustavo Bou, acquired from Tijuana of Mexico’s Liga MX on a $7 million transfer, the most expense in Revolution history.
It’s almost certain Arena received assurances from owner Robert Kraft that the team, third from the bottom of MLS in payroll in 2018, would spend to get better. The acquisition of Bou is proof Kraft kept his word since the transfer fee is more than the team spent on its whole roster last season.
Bou has done his part, too. In two games in MLS, he and Gil have combined for three goals and three assists in two shutout wins.
Arena has also gotten Teal Bunbury involved in the attack and he’s responded with five goals in last seven games.
Arena, the second-winningest coach in MLS history, has done this before of course. After capturing the first two MLS Cups with D.C. United, Arena replaced Steve Sampson as coach of the national team after a disastrous 1998 World Cup in which the U.S. lost all three group-play games.
Four years later Arena took the team to the quarterfinals, its best performance in the modern era.
In 2008, with the Galaxy mired in a third consecutive losing season, Arena was brought in to perform an exorcism and he took the team to the MLS Cup final the next season, the first of eight straight playoff appearances, three of which ended with league titles.
The Galaxy haven’t been to the postseason since Arena left in 2016 to return to the national team. With New England, he promised, the best is still ahead.
“Our team’s learning how to play together,” Arena said.
Can’t we all get along?
In just four games the cross-town rivalry between the Galaxy and LAFC has already stamped itself as the best in MLS. The games have been exciting, well-played and emotional, with the Galaxy rallying from deficits in three of them, winning two and drawing two.
And the two best players have been at their best in these games, with LAFC’s Carlos Vela scoring six times only to be matched by the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose hat trick in a 3-2 win last Friday gave him six goals in the series as well.
But while the players have risen to the occasion the fans have not. Images posted on social media over the weekend showed significant damage to the visiting supporters’ section at Dignity Health Sports Park. Last summer’s El Trafico at Banc of California Stadium was marred by violent confrontations between LAFC and Galaxy fans, some of which were videotaped. Extensive damage was done to the visitors’ supporters’ section of that stadium as well.
As a result, stepped-up security was present last Friday --- and likely will be in place again when the teams next meet in Los Angeles on Aug. 25.
It used to be striker was a position on the field not an action in the stands. Let’s hope those days aren’t gone forever.
On Monday Brendan Hannan, the Galaxy’s vice-president for communications and marketing, chose not to address the vandalism.
“We put on a really fantastic event,” he said. “It had people talking about it. We prefer to keep the focus where it belongs, on the field and in the stands where fans of both teams are helping to build a burgeoning rivalry in MLS.”
And he’s right, the soccer was sensational. Vela opened the scoring in the fourth minute with his 20th goal in his 20th game, making him the fastest in MLS history to 20 goals. Ibrahimovic matched that four minutes later with a masterful goal, running on to an over-the-top pass from Julian Araujo, settling the ball between two defenders before knocking in a right-footed volley to tie the score.
He then raced to the sideline to celebrate the score in front of LAFC coach Bob Bradley.
If that was an artistic goal his next one, in the 56th minute, was brute force with Ibrahimovic going over the top of LAFC defender Jordan Harvey to head in a curling cross from Diego Polenta. He completed the hat trick 14 minutes later with a left-footed shot from the top of the box, giving him a goal with his right foot, one with his left for and another on a header.
It was another Ibrahimovic tour de force, one in which he simply refused to be denied.
Vela scored deep in stoppage time to account for the final margin.
LAFC outpassed, outshot and out-possessed the Galaxy, who nevertheless played their most complete game of the season to outscore the visitors.
“Today we played 90 minutes,” said coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who made the head-scratching decision to play the 17-year-old Araujo, a defender, in the midfield, a position Araujo said he hadn’t played since AYSO.
The teenager rewarded that decision with his first MLS assist on the Galaxy’s opening goal.
“If we keep fighting and we can keep playing like today, we will be a very special team,” Schelotto said. “I think everyone left the game on the field.”
“Overall their intensity took us out of our game,” he said. “In most ways, we weren’t good in any part of the game. Nowhere near good enough, but the intensity changed the game in that regard and we didn’t deal well with it.
“When you play them you have to deal with a certain number of plays that just go towards you and we did terrible with that. The way the game went, their intensity, the physical part of the game, we expected that, because that’s what you get in derbies and that’s where we’ve got to still grow and get better.”
Some were more physical than others. There were 28 fouls called, 19 on the Galaxy, and eight yellow cards were handed out. And the book may not be closed. Two incidents involving LAFC defender Mohamed El-Munir could still be reviewed by the MLS disciplinary committee.
On the first, El-Munir made a dangerous challenge on Galaxy midfielder Joe Corona. Then minutes later the 6-foot-5 Ibrahimovic, tracking a high ball, twice glanced toward the 5-10 El-Munir, then struck him in the side of the head with his forearm or elbow while making little effort to actually reach the ball.
El-Munir, who had to leave the game, will have surgery to repair a skull fracture later this week while Ibrahimovic could be facing his second multi-game suspension of the season.
After the game LAFC goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel charged after Ibrahimovic, who cursed Abdel before two Galaxy officials stepped between the pair.
“It is not every single week we play against LAFC,” Ibrahimovic said afterward. “Today was a different game. Today was about a rival game, two teams from the same city, and obviously we need to get this attitude for every game.
“Last game before this one was very poor, probably the worst game we did, and today was probably the best game we did. That is what I said in the MLS, every game is like 50-50, you don’t know what the outcome will be. There is a balance that is in the MLS, but today we won and we showed that when we want it, we can do it.”
There is a balance between good soccer and committing a felony too. It would be great if we could get back to the first one of those when the derby returns next month. It is possible to enjoy a soccer game without breaking the furniture – or your opponents’ skull.
The MLS season still has a long way to run, but with more than a quarter of the schedule left LAFC is leading the Supporters’ Shield race with a 14-3-4 record and a league-best 55 goals, leaving it on pace to break MLS records for points and goals in a season. The Galaxy (12-8-1) is second in the league in wins and third in points.
Here are the MLS standings
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
Philadelphia 11 6 6 41 32 9 39
Atlanta 11 8 3 35 25 10 36
D.C. United 9 6 8 31 26 5 35
New York Red Bulls 10 8 4 37 31 6 34
New York City 8 3 8 33 23 10 32
Montreal 9 11 3 27 38 -11 30
New England 8 8 6 30 38 -8 30
Toronto 8 9 5 36 37 -1 29
Orlando 7 10 5 29 29 0 26
Chicago 5 10 8 34 35 -1 23
Columbus 6 14 3 21 34 -13 21
FC Cincinnati 5 15 2 21 51 -30 17
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
LAFC 14 3 4 55 30 35 46
Galaxy 12 8 1 30 27 3 37
Seattle 10 6 5 32 28 4 35
Minnesota 10 7 4 38 30 8 34
San Jose 10 7 4 36 32 4 34
Dallas 9 8 5 31 26 5 32
Salt Lake 9 9 3 30 30 0 30
Houston 9 9 3 32 34 -2 30
Portland 8 8 4 31 32 -1 28
Kansas City 6 8 7 32 36 -4 25
Colorado 5 11 5 32 42 -10 20
Vancouver 4 11 8 23 41 -18 20
An encore may not be possible for Jill Ellis
When the World Cup champion women’s national team reunites at the Rose Bowl in 12 days, Jill Ellis will almost certainly be among that crowd. Whether or not she’s still the coach is not as certain.
Ellis, the first coach since 1938 to win back-to-back World Cup titles, will see her contract with U.S. Soccer expire at the end of the month and she has not announced what she intends to do next – although it’s difficult to imagine her coming back for an encore. Not only has she won two World Cups, but she’s never even lost a World Cup game. Her 127 games with the women’s national team are the most ever and her 102 wins trail only the late Tony DiCicco, who had 105.
The last thing left for her to accomplish would be an Olympic title next summer in Tokyo, which would make her the first coach to win a World Cup and Olympic crown in successive years. But Ellis’ first Olympic Games didn’t go well, with the U.S. falling to Sweden in the quarterfinals in 2016, the Americans’ earliest-ever exit from a major competition.
The most likely scenario has Ellis, 52, coming back to coach the team during its five-match victory tour, allowing her to take a well-deserved bow before she rides off into the sunset, giving U.S. Soccer time to begin the search for a replacement.
Be true to your school
Speaking of the Women’s World Cup, Julie Foudy is someone who has had a lot of experience with the tournament, winning it twice. Next week she’ll be sharing some of what she learned in her Hall of Fame career when she coaches in the Allstate Cup, an exhibition game featuring the 40 best high school junior boys and girls in the country.
The game, held in conjunction with the MLS All-Star Game, will be played on July 31 at the University of Central Florida. Coaching alongside Foudy will be fellow Hall of Famers Brian McBride and Brandi Chastain and Taylor Twellman, a former MLS MVP.
“I’m such a big advocate of kids playing high school [soccer],” said Foudy, who played at Mission Viejo High. “It saddens me that they have to sometimes choose one or the other, because there’s an element to high school soccer you just don’t get at the club level, right? You get this peer support and community engagement.
“I was watching our [San Clemente] team play in front of about a thousand fans for a championship. And I’m thinking, you don’t get this at the club level, right, where the community is genuinely excited, and cheering, and there for you, and you’re playing a role that may be very different than what you play on your club team. You’re having to take a leadership position. And I just think there’s so many healthy attributes to high school soccer.”
Foudy, a two-time high school All-Americans and three-time Southern California player of the year, said she won three CIF championships and didn’t lose a game in high school until her senior year – more reason why the high school experience is important to her.
“I just have these wonderful memories. I still kind of rock my letterman’s jacket occasionally,” she said. “That was such a cool thing. So I have some of my fondest memories were about high school soccer.
“How it’s different today is that people are told it’s not that competitive. And we forget all the other elements it brings that I think are important. We’re so focused all the time on competitive games and what level you’re playing and we’ve sucked some of the joy out of it for kids. What I loved about the high school element is there’s joy to it.”
“I have a vision, I have my confidence and I believe in myself. People call it arrogant, I call it confidence. Ignorant people call it arrogant, intelligent people call it confidence.”
Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic after his hat trick against LAFC
Until next time