Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. We start again this week in MLS, where the secondary transfer window will close next week and the Galaxy and LAFC are both hustling to complete deals both teams had thought were finished – and, given the speed of developments, may indeed be signed off on between the time I file this story and when you began to read it.
Things were moving quickly overnight Monday and into Tuesday morning. But trying to figure out how the negotiations have been going depended not just on which news outlet you read, but which language you read it in.
Consider the Galaxy’s pursuit of Argentine World Cup veteran Cristian Pavón, which could reportedly involve an MLS-record transfer fee of $18 million. A recent ESPN report from Argentina, in Spanish, reported the deal is essentially done and the Boca Juniors attacker will soon be here.
At the same time ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, who is based in the Bay Area, was writing in English and quoting a league source in saying a deal is “not close” and “certainly no record fees here.”
On Monday a Galaxy official backed Carlisle’s story, saying the talks were “still ongoing.” The official also contradicted reports that said the Galaxy had set a deadline for a deal, other than the close of the transfer window, while insisting the team was “looking at other options.”
By late Monday, it was believed a move – which may turn out to be a loan -- had been agreed to and was awaiting league approval.
The U.S. State Department broke the LAFC signing, with the American Embassy in Montevideo tweeting out congratulations Sunday to Peñarol’s Brian Rodriguez on his transfer to Los Angeles.
What is it with the Trump Administration and Twitter?
Turned out that was fake news because a day later the Embassy tweeted out a link to a newspaper article that explained the deal was not yet done. But it’s likely the transfer – which numerous websites valued at $11.5 million, the most expensive in LAFC and Peñarol history and the third-richest in MLS -- will happen, with one LAFC official telling me over the weekend the club was hopeful it would done by Monday.
Obviously that deadline came and went but the delay appears to involve the tying up of loose ends rather than any potential deal-breaking complications.
Momentum seems to suggest both moves will eventually happen. Pavón, 23, has fallen out of favor at Boca Juniors and didn’t even suit up for the team’s league opener with Huracan. The market for the forward has dropped dramatically since the World Cup but Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who developed Pavón, into a national team member at Boca Juniors, believes he can rekindle that talent and the player is apparently eager for a reunion.
A source close to the Argentina club, who said two days ahead of the league opener that Pavón would not play against Huracán because of the pending deal, affirmed the transfer fee at $18 million and “guaranteed” the deal was done, pending some minor details.
For the Galaxy, a transfer fee even half that large would be a substantial investment for a team that is paying Zlatan Ibrahimovic the largest single-season salary in MLS history at $7.2 million and also bought out the final $6.5 million remaining on Giovani dos Santos’ contract in order to release him. To land Pavón, the team would also have to clear a designated-player spot, a problem it could handle by buying down the contract of injured midfielder Romain Alessandrini, perhaps as part of the extension the French player has been pushing for.
LAFC’s acquisition of Rodriguez, a 19-year-old winger, appears even more likely. The club has had a DP spot open since returning midfielder Andre Horta to Portuguese club FC Braga last month and using it on Rodriguez would protect the club if all-star attacker Diego Rossi leaves for Europe. Rossi, who also came to LAFC from Peñarol, and Carlos Vela have combined for 34 goals and 18 assists in 22 games; more than half the teams in MLS haven’t scored 34 times this season.
So why the delay on the two deals? Both South American clubs may be trying to wring final concessions out of the MLS teams knowing both are motivated to get something done with the transfer deadline looming. But the calendar may also offer a clue.
The MLS All-Star Game is Wednesday in Orlando and the league, in recent years, has tried to turn it into a major event with parties for sponsors and massive amounts of media coverage. What better way to raise the importance of the All-Star festivities and sell the idea of a new, younger MLS to media and sponsors than to have two of the league’s most high-profile teams sign young, dynamic South American stars to record contracts and announce both to the gathered dignitaries in Florida?
Better than the best
To be the best, you have to beat the best.
Yeah, I know, that’s a very old and clichéd expression. But it’s old and clichéd because it’s true. To become heavyweight champion, for example, you have to beat the guy who has the belt.
The same is true in team sports – especially when the teams are as similar as Atlanta United and LAFC, the first the reigning MLS champion and the second the heir apparent to the title.
A year ago Atlanta United led the conference race 24 of the final 26 weeks, finished with the second-highest point total in league history and scored the fifth-most goals of all-time behind Josef Martinez, who set a single-season record with 31.
This year LAFC is on pace to better all those marks. It has led the league from the first week, is on pace to break the points record and to shatter the goals record. And Vela is averaging a goal a game, which would better Martinez’s record by three.
More importantly, however, is the fact that in the teams’ only regular-season meeting LAFC had the better marks there as well, scoring four times in a 12-minute span late in the first half, then holding on for a 4-3 win on Friday.
A year ago Atlanta beat LAFC 5-0
“In the end it’s just another win, but a win against a really good team,” said Vela, whose 22nd goal of the year came on a penalty kick that never should have been awarded since the contact that caused the foul began outside the penalty area. LAFC appeared dangerously close to being offside on two of its other three goals as well, proving it’s sometimes better to be lucky than good. (I know, that’s another cliché.)
But when you’re lucky and good? Well then you have the best record in the league at 15-3-4.
“They are the champions of the MLS,” Vela said of Atlanta. “It was a hard game. We showed that we are on the way to be contenders and a champion.
“These are the type of games that we have to learn to win.”
LAFC and Atlanta United have a lot more in common than successful teams though. In fact, it’s probably because of those other things they have in common that both teams have been successful.
Both started their lives under big-name coaches with a World Cup appearance on their resumes — Atlanta in Tata Martino and LAFC in Bob Bradley — and both built their rosters around Latin American attackers, Atlanta with Martinez and Miguel Almiron and LAFC with Vela and Rossi. Both played exciting, attacking possession-based soccer and both began as expansion teams that had three seasons to prepare for their first game.
That last factor has long been underappreciated. Of the last nine expansion franchises to enter MLS, only three – Atlanta United, LAFC and New York City FC – were created from scratch. The other six – Cincinnati, Minnesota United, Orlando City, Montreal, Portland and Vancouver – were either NASL, USL or USSF teams with existing players and staff that were essentially promoted to the first division.
Of those nine teams, only LAFC and Atlanta qualified for the playoffs in their first season. And Atlanta and Portland are the only two to have won an MLS Cup, with Atlanta doing it in its second season and Portland in its fifth.
“It’s difficult. I think people underestimate the pull of being an existing team that is ascending to MLS,” said Will Kuntz, LAFC’s vice president of soccer operations. “You still have your current season you have to focus on.”
Consider LAFC: all four of its goals Friday came from players who had never played in the U.S. before joining the black-and-gold last season. And the win came one week after an emotionally draining loss to the Galaxy in the teams’ cross-town rivalry match, a bounce-back match many players saw as an important sign of character.
“It is hard to lose a rivalry match right after being eliminated from the U.S. Open Cup,” midfielder Eduard Atuesta said in Spanish. “But the good thing is that we have an opportunity to improve and thankfully we are having a season with a significant lead that allows [us] to make mistakes but also correct them immediately to have a good year.”
(Watch the highlights of LAFC’s win over Atlanta United by clicking here.)
A lack of leadership
If last Friday’s win over Atlanta United has buttressed LAFC’s belief that it should be favored to win this season’s MLS Cup, the Galaxy’s horrible effort in a 4-0 loss to Portland a day later should be scaring up concerns that a third straight season without a playoff game is a real possibly for the team from Carson.
“It’s really frustrating. We let ourselves down,” goalkeeper David Bingham said. “First couple minutes of the game everything was fine and then a couple plays go this way or that way. [Portland] getting four is not acceptable for us. We cannot let the game get away like that.”
Even after that disastrous performance, the Galaxy are third in the Western Conference standings and have a comfortable six-point lead over Real Salt Lake in the race for the final postseason berth. If they were a baseball team, they’d have a two-game lead with 12 games to play. No need to panic right?
Well consider the Galaxy’s road ahead: Beginning with Saturday’s road game against defending league champion Atlanta United, which has lost just once at home this season, the Galaxy will play six MLS games in 29 days – plus a Leagues Cup match with Cruz Azul. Their six opponents are a combined 66-38-32 and four of those games will be on the road, where the Galaxy have a losing record.
And they’ll start that stretch with a minus-1 goal differential, the worst of the top eight teams in the Western Conference. Suddenly the six-point cushion between the Galaxy and eighth place in the conference standings –- the cutoff for a playoff berth – doesn’t seem so comfortable.
What a difference a week makes. Seven days earlier the Galaxy were celebrating their most complete performance of the season, an emotional and electric 3-2 over LAFC behind a hat trick from Ibrahimovic. Now they’re preparing to head to Atlanta without Ibrahimovic -- who is suspended for yellow-card accumulation -- and defender Diego Polenta and midfielder Efrain Alvarez, who both received red cards.
(Watch Efrain Alvarez’s red card by clicking here.)
Despite the LAFC game, the Galaxy’s slide has been a long one. They finished an unbeaten April with a 7-1-1 overall record, then went 5-8 since. They earned 13 points in five April matches but just 15 in 13 games over the last three months combined, when they’ve been maddeningly inconsistent, beating LAFC one weekend and losing to Portland the next, shutting out Toronto one week but giving up to six goals to San Jose on both sides of that game.
Just once since April have the Galaxy earned points in consecutive games. And they capped that off by completely losing their cool in Portland, with Ibrahimovic repeatedly begging referee Allen Chapman to be booked for dissent – Chapman eventually obliged – while Polenta earned his red card for confronting Portland’s Dairon Asprilla after the game had ended.
It’s not a lack of talent but a lack of leadership, both from Ibrahimovic, the captain, and Schelotto, the manager, that could keep the Galaxy out of the playoffs again. (With Ibrahimovic out, Jonathan dos Santos will wear the armband in Atlanta; that should help.)
“We have to regroup and get back to training to figure out what we did right last week and what went wrong this week,” defender Daniel Steres said. “Just get back in the right mentality.”
Tonight’s Top 10 list
Games involving the Mexican national team drew five of the 10 largest soccer crowds in the U.S. this year. MLS games involving Atlanta United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium accounted for four others.
But the rising tide did not raise all boats. The 11 International Champions Cup matches, preseason exhibitions featuring major European clubs, averaged just 29,833 this summer according to Soccer America, down more than a third from last year and nearly half the average in 2016.
The Top 10
1. Mexico-Costa Rica (Gold Cup, in Houston) 70,788
2. Atlanta United-FC Cincinnati (MLS) 70,382
3. Atlanta United-Orlando City (MLS) 68,152
4. Atlanta United-NY Red Bulls (MLS) 68,077
5. Atlanta United-Chicago Fire (MLS) 67,502
6. Mexico-Cuba (Gold Cup, Rose Bowl) 65,527
7. Mexico-Haiti (Gold Cup, in Glendale, Ariz.) 64,128
8. USA-Mexico (Gold Cup, in Chicago, IL) 62,439
9. Bayern Munich-Real Madrid (ICC, in Houston, TX) 60,143
10. Mexico-Martinique (Gold Cup, in Charlotte, NC) 59,283
You go girls!
Brazil’s decision to hire Pia Sundhage to coach its national team is another sign of the growing emphasis on the women’s game.
Sundhage, who led the U.S. to two Olympic gold medals and guided her native Sweden to a silver in 2016, is the first foreigner – and just the second female -- to head the Brazilian women’s team. She is also the most accomplished and highest-profile coach in the history of the Brazilian women’s team, which is ranked 10th in the world.
Sundhage, 59, was given a two-year contract with a possible extension through the next Women’s World Cup in 2023. And that could be good news for Jill Ellis, whose contract with the U.S. team expires Wednesday.
Ellis, 52, coached the Americans to last two World Cup titles and though she has been offered an extension by the U.S. Soccer Federation, it is believed she is interested in a new challenge.
One of the residual effects of the Americans’ World Cup win is the fact it has raised public consciousness regarding the long-standing pay gap between men and women. In March, before the Women’s World Cup, the U.S. Census Bureau said women earned just 81% of what men made for the same job. Yet a SurveyMonkey poll taken at the time said 4 in 10 people surveyed didn’t believe a gap existed at all.
That month the women’s team sued its federation in Los Angeles federal court, claiming gender discrimination in pay and working conditions, a subject that came up repeatedly during the Americans’ month-long run to a record fourth world title in France. And now a new ASCEND-Morning Consult poll shows there’s been some shift on the issue.
While 61% of respondents said their minds weren’t changed or they offered no opinion, the new poll found just 19% of men and 10% of women believed there was no pay gap, a marked difference from the SurveyMonkey results. (Here’s a question for a future poll: how can 10% of women believe there is no pay gap?)
Additionally more than one-third of the participates in the new poll said they now consider the gender pay gap in professional sports to be more of an issue specifically because of the U.S. women’s team’s victory and nearly half don’t think corporations are doing to enough to address pay equity.
(Check out the full poll results by clicking here.)
The World Cup champions begin their five-game victory tour Saturday at the Rose Bowl when they play Ireland.
And then there’s this….
--Representatives of the MLS players association are holding a rare on-the-record roundtable discussion with the media Wednesday in Orlando ahead of the All-Star game, with many around the league growing resigned to the fact the 2020 season may not start on time.
The collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the players union expires this winter and in talking to players, it seems obvious they and management are far apart on many issues including pay and free agency, which stalled the last negotiations in 2015.
And a new issue, travel, has joined the mix this time.
Players have grown increasingly frustrated with the league’s insistence on using commercial flights. MLS is the only major U.S. professional league that does not fly charter, something even many college programs use. A number of teams have had to fly on the day of games this season because of canceled or delayed commercial flights. And because of commercial airline schedules, it’s become common for teams to overnight in a city after a road game, a practice that frequently costs them a travel day, a major inconvenience given the newly compacted MLS schedule.
As a result players – and coaches – now see travel as something that impacts competition and could make players more susceptible to injury; the league sees it primarily as a cost issue.
“Half of the owners want it and half the owners don’t,” one player, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of charter flights. “That’s the different between half the teams that want to win MLS Cup and the other half that just want to be part of MLS.”
At least one MLS club prefers to fly Southwest simply to save on extra baggage fees. So what if Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Wayne Rooney has to sit in a middle seat between a screaming baby and a lady with a dog?
If agreement on a new CBA can’t be reached by early March, it’s likely the season would be delayed by either a lockout or a work stoppage. The players voted to authorize strikes during negotiations in 2010 and 2015.
And speaking of the All-Star game, last week LAFC’s Vela was voted captain of the MLS team for a second straight season. Also on team is the Galaxy’s Ibrahimovic. Think he’s going to listen to the captain?
--Last week Gio dos Santos helped beat an MLS opponent for the first time in a year -- but it wasn’t for the Galaxy. Playing for just the third time in 11 months, Dos Santos came off the bench in the second half to help set up a goal before hitting the game-clinching penalty kick to lift Club America over the Houston Dynamo in a Leagues Cup match.
(Watch Dos Santos’ game-winning PK by clicking here.)
On the eve of this season’s MLS opener, the oft-injured Dos Santos was bought out of the year and $6.5 million remaining on his designated-player contract with the Galaxy. Dos Santos then signed with Club America, his father’s former team, on July 6.
After signing with the Mexican club Dos Santos, who missed 38 of the Galaxy’s 115 games in his 3 ½ seasons in MLS, complained about the MLS team during an interview with Mexican broadcaster Televisa – which owns Club America -- saying the medical staff jeopardized his career.
Dos Santos said he didn’t trust the team’s trainers, who he said wanted to give him injections for what the player called a strange pain in his knee. Carlos Pecanha, the Mexican national team’s doctor, recommended against that.
Dos Santos said as a club employee he felt he had no choice but to take the injections but stopped after he was let go by the Galaxy.
“From being a muscular injury, they wanted an operation, they were trying to guess what it was,” he said. “If I’d stayed at the Galaxy, we’d now be talking about retirement.”
The Galaxy declined comment.
“I feel every game I play is reviewed. I feel that I’m hunted in that way and that is not OK because I play my game and I need to feel free in my game. We have a referee. If it goes above that I understand we have this disciplinary committee but being watched and reviewed every game, that for me is not OK. I’m a professional just like everybody else. I should get treated like everybody else.”
Galaxy striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose behavior has been investigated by the MLS disciplinary committee four times this season. Two days later he was given a well-deserved yellow card for dissent, which will keep him out of Saturday’s game in Atlanta
Until next time