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Newsletter: Soccer! The clock is ticking on the MLS transfer window

Boca Juniors Tijuana Soccer
Cristian Pavon
(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. And we start this week looking at our watches because, as I write this, the clock is ticking down to both my deadline for filing this newsletter and the closing of the MLS transfer window on Wednesday. Yet all remains officially quiet regarding the Galaxy’s acquisition of Argentine winger Crisitian Pavón.

Same with LAFC’s attempt to sign Uruguayan winger Brian Rodriguez.

I say “officially quiet” because, as of early Tuesday morning, there’s reason to believe both deals are done. Well, at least agreed upon. The ink may not be dry on all the paperwork but I don’t see any major obstacles left that would block either transfer.

The Galaxy are typically mute as big deals draw to a close so it wasn’t surprisingly to hear them play dumb again over the weekend – even as Pavón flew from Argentina to L.A. to join the team.

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“Nothing is finalized,” a Galaxy executive said. “[Pavón] may still sign somewhere else.”

Sure.

The flight from Buenos Aires to LAX takes 13 hours. What are the chances Pavón makes that trip, in the middle of his club’s season, just to boost his frequent-flier account? And if there was even a teeny-weeny chance he would go somewhere else, would he pose for pictures at the airport holding a Galaxy jersey? And would the Galaxy have tipped off fans as to when and where his plane would land?

So you can safely assume a deal has been agreed to. What we don’t know is exactly what that deal is.

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It appears to be a short-term loan with a pricey option to buy, variously reported at between $18 million-$25 million, which seems extraordinarily high for a player his current club, Boca Juniors, has repeatedly disparaged.

The fact Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese has put up with Boca’s ownership through what the Argentines have turned into an unnecessarily difficult and protracted negotiation is evidence of how much the MLS club values Pavón. A member of Argentina’s World Cup team, Pavón, 23, had success in two seasons at Boca under Guillermo Barros Schelotto, currently the Galaxy coach. And both sides seem in agreement that a reunion would help both player and coach.

For Schelotto, Pavón will be key to the coach’s attempt to recreate the dynamic, attacking style he favored at Boca and wants to play here in the post-Zlatan era, an era that figures to begin when the current season – and Ibrahimovic’s MLS-record $7.2-million contract – expires.

For Pavón, who scored 21 goals and had 24 assists in 80 games in the Argentine first division, much of that coming under Schelotto, the move to L.A. would get him out of an environment that has become toxic in Buenos Aires, where he has been accused of growing lazy and unfocused since the World Cup.

I’ve heard unconfirmed reports that Boca drew out negotiations hoping the Galaxy would panic and overpay as the end of the transfer period neared. Rumors of interest from Bordeaux also surfaced last week although the French club never appeared to be a serious suitor. Instead the hang-up to getting an agreement done may have come from Pavón’s agent, who wanted more of a say in the deal.

The final hurdles were probably on the Galaxy’s side, though, since the team needs to clear an international roster slot and acquire a significant amount of allocation money to pay Pavón, whose salary is expected to exceed the MLS’ maximum budget charge of $530,000. Te Kloese wouldn’t have taken the talks this far, however, if he didn’t already have solutions to both those problems.

The delay in finalizing Rodriguez’s move to LAFC is a little more difficult to understand. An LAFC official involved in the talks told me the team hoped to announce the move last week but that deadline came and went without an agreement -- even as Penarol, the player’s Uruguayan club, was publicizing a scheduled exhibition against LAFC next year.

A series of friendlies has been widely reported as something the teams were including in the transfer negotiations.

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MLS reporter Alicia Rodriguez – no relation -- has put the transfer fee on Brian Rodriguez at $11.5 million, more than double what the team paid Real Sociedad for Carlos Vela and the most expensive in history for an MLS team other than Atlanta United.

Alicia Rodriguez, who has covered the talks closer than anyone in the U.S., wrote Monday that club director Evaristo Gonzalez had told a Uruguyan radio station that the deal would be completed Tuesday. But that wasn’t the first time she quoted a Penarol official as saying an announcement was near.

She also wrote that the player wasn’t expected to travel to Los Angeles until Wednesday, suggesting even he isn’t completely confident a deal will happen.

But he should probably start packing because both sides have reason to get this done. For cash-strapped Penarol, if LAFC is paying even a fraction of the sum that has been reported that would be a huge amount for a player less than three months past his 19th birthday. For LAFC, the acquisition of Rodriguez would give the team someone who could immediately replace Diego Rossi on the wing should Rossi, who also joined LAFC as a teenager from Penarol, leave for Europe as expected.

Just as with the Pavón deal, the Rodriguez talks were complicated at the 11th hour by the player’s agent. According to Alicia Rodriguez, agent Pablo Bentancur said the team never asked if Brian Rodriguez even wanted to go to MLS, then claimed Penarol balked at paying what it would owe if the deal went through.

By Monday everyone appeared to have made up and it’s likely Rodriguez will be officially introduced during LAFC’s game Sunday at Banc of California Stadium.

Meanwhile, on the field….

While all that was going on, both the Galaxy and LAFC played games over the weekend – albeit with different results.

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The Galaxy made some history Saturday in Atlanta, where their 3-0 loss to Atlanta United drew an MLS-record crowd of 72,548. At least that’s the number of tickets that were distributed, which is how MLS measures attendance. (Watch the highlights here.)

The Galaxy made some history on the field, too, matching an MLS single-game record for own goals when defenders Dave Romney and Giancarlo Gonzalez both put the ball into their own net in the first half. It was that kind of day for the Galaxy, who have lost two straight, three of their last four and nine of their last 14 to fall to fifth in the Western Conference standings.

They’ve also given up multiple goals in four consecutive games, getting outscored 7-0 in the last two.

“The taste in my mouth is difficult to explain. It’s frustrating. Sometimes it reminds you of the ghosts from last season ,” said Jonathan dos Santos, who wore the captain’s armband with Ibrahimovic suspended for yellow-card accumulation. Defender Diego Polenta and midfielder Efrain Alvarez also missed the match after drawing red cards a week ago.

“We’re the Galaxy. We have to give more, starting with me as the captain,” Dos Santos continued. “We have to correct a lot of things, small details, little things that they teach you when you’re a kid. Basic things that you sometimes don’t do and those cost you games.”

To get an idea how inconsistent the Galaxy (12-10-1) have been this year, consider their 12 wins are tied for second in the league but more than half the teams in MLS has fewer than the 10 losses the Galaxy have. And 15 teams have a better goal differential than the Galaxy’s -4.

The road ahead isn’t getting any easier either with the team making another cross-country trip this weekend, to D.C. United, the start of a streak that will see it play three MLS games in seven days against teams that are 29-23-20 combined.

“It is frustrating with how things have gone the past couple weeks, but it is part of it,” midfielder Perry Kitchen said. “We have to respond.”

If the Galaxy are in danger of falling apart LAFC is getting better, with Saturday’s 2-0 road win over the New England Revolution arguably among its best games of the season.

The Revolution were riding a franchise-record 11-game unbeaten streak while LAFC hadn’t posted a shutout since May. Both those runs came to an end in what was a complete, if typical, performance for LAFC. Bob Bradley’s team outshot New England 22-10, controlled the ball more than 55% of the game and required goalkeeper Tyler Miller to make just one save to perserve his first clean sheet in six starts.

(Watch the highlights here.)

“You’re going to play 34 games and it’s a long, long season,” Miller said. “You’re going to go in ebbs and flows, but we knew we wanted to get back on track and tonight was a big opportunity for us to do that.”

LAFC (a league-best 16-3-4), has allowed an MLS-low 23 goals this season but it’s really been a tale of two halves defensively. LAFC conceded just eight scores in its first 13 games, shutting out six opponents. It then gave up 15 goals in the next nine, shutting out no one.

“We talked about the fact that we had started to allow a few more chances in every game and started to give up some goals,” Bradley said. “We had to kind of refocus ourselves. That was one of the messages after the last game and I think that’s important for the group.”

The goals – both on assists from Jordan Harvey -- came from Diego Rossi in the first half and Latif Blessing in the second. For Rossi the goal was his 13th, giving he and Carlos Vela a combined 35 scores this season; there are 11 teams that don’t have that many. Blessing’s goal came two days before the team announced he had signed a contract extension that will keep him in black and gold through 2022.

Blessing will make $103,125 this season.

For New England coach Bruce Arena, who hadn’t see the Revs lose since he was hired as coach and general manager in mid-May, the match was his first against Bradley, his longtime friend and former assistant, since the 1998 MLS Cup final. That one ended 2-0 as well with Bradley, then coach of the Chicago Fire, beating Arena’s D.C. United.

That was Bradley’s only MLS title while Arena has won five and the former Galaxy coach was asked Saturday if LAFC, which is on pace to destroy most every MLS record this season, is the best team in league history.

“To be one of the best teams in history, you have to win something. They haven’t won anything yet,” Arena said. “That’s their challenge and I would not be surprised if this is the year where they win. But that, to me, is stupid talk, saying they’re one of the best teams in MLS history.

“Let them win something first.”

Here are the MLS standings

Eastern Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

Philadelphia 12 7 6 46 37 9 42

Atlanta 12 9 3 41 29 12 39

New York Red Bulls 11 9 4 41 34 7 37

D.C. United 9 7 9 32 31 1 36

New York City 9 4 8 37 27 10 35

Montreal 10 12 3 34 44 -10 33

New England 9 9 6 34 41 -7 33

________________________________________________

Toronto 9 10 5 38 40 -2 32

Orlando 8 11 5 32 33 -1 29

Chicago 6 10 9 35 35 0 27

Columbus 7 14 4 25 37 -12 25

FC Cincinnati 5 17 2 23 55 -32 17

Western Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

LAFC 16 3 4 61 23 38 52

Minnesota 11 7 5 39 30 9 38

San Jose 11 7 5 40 34 6 38

Seattle 11 7 5 35 31 4 38

Galaxy 12 10 1 30 34 -4 37

Salt Lake 10 9 4 33 31 2 34

Dallas 9 9 6 31 28 3 33

__________________________________________________________

Portland 9 9 4 35 33 2 31

Houston 9 11 3 32 36 -4 30

Kansas City 7 9 7 36 41 -5 28

Vancouver 5 11 9 25 42 -17 24

Colorado 6 12 5 39 48 -9 23

Stars don’t align for MLS

MLS used to follow the NFL model of staging its championship game at a neutral site, giving the league plenty of time to plan parties and other events for sponsors, potential sponsors and fans. But when it changed that formula eight seasons ago, giving home-field advantage to the MLS Cup finalist with the best record, the gap between the conference finals and the MLS Cup proved too tight for the league to continue staging the big receptions it wanted. So it moved many of those activities to the midseason All-Star game.

Now that event may be in trouble with the FS1 audience for last week’s game – in which Spain’s Atletico Madrid beat the MLS All-Stars 3-0 in Orlando -- falling by more than half to 182,000. That’s the smallest English-language television audience in the 24-year history of the midseason game. The previous low was 319,000 on ESPN2 for the 2013 game.

By way of comparison, the FS1 audience was less than half the average viewership for a WNBA game this season, although the MLS numbers were undoubtedly hurt by a 40-minute weather delay that pushed kickoff back to 8:42 p.m. Eastern time.

The numbers were far better in Spanish, with the game averaging 626,000 viewers on UniMas and TUDN, making it the third-most watched midseason game ever on the Univision networks. Nevertheless the combined TV audience was the lowest in at least five years.

LAFC is among the favorites to host next summer’s game at Banc of California Stadium.

Here are the TV numbers for the last five all-star games, courtesy of Soccer America:

Year Total Audience Networks

2019 808,000 FS1 182,000, UniMas/TUDN 626,000

2018 947,000 ESPN 452,000, UniMas/UDN 495,000

2017 1,904,000 FS1 420,000, Univision/UDN 1,484,000

2016 873,000 ESPN 513,000, UniMas/UDN 360,000

2015 833,000 (FS1 548,000, UniMas/UDN 285,000

Too much, too soon?

FIFA proved once again last week that it has no real understanding of the women’s game when its ruling council voted unanimously to expand the World Cup field from 24 to 32 teams for the 2023 tournament, which still does not have a home.

The vote came just weeks after the most captivating – and most-watched – Women’s World Cup ever, with the tournament breaking TV records in more than a half-dozen countries and drawing a global audience estimated at more than 1 billion. So it’s understandable FIFA, and Gianni Infantino, the group’s president, would want to capitalize on the growing popularity of the women’s game while also appearing to answer demands for equity in everything from pay to playing surfaces.

“This is the time to keep the momentum going and take concrete steps to foster the growth of women’s football,” Infantino said. “I am glad to see this proposal – the first of several − becoming a reality.

“The expansion reaches far beyond the eight additional participating teams; it means that, from now on, dozens more member associations will organize their women’s football program knowing they have a realistic chance of qualifying.”

But this isn’t the way to accomplish either.

The men’s tournament grew gradually, from 16 teams in 1954 to 24 in 1982 and to the present 32 in 1998. And FIFA has given the men more than nine years to prepare for the next expansion, to 48 teams in 2026.

The women’s tournament had 16 competitors as recently as 2007, meaning FIFA is calling for a doubling of the field in the span of four World Cup cycles – and a 33% jump in less than four years.

FIFA’s thinking, as Infantino explained, is that the lure of additional World Cup berths will inspire federations to increase investment in their women’s programs. But more than a quarter of FIFA’s 211 members don’t even have a women’s team -- and many of the others play just a handful of games each cycle.

FIFA says, for example, that Uzbekistan, ranked 44th in the women’s world rankings, played just nine matches since 2016. Paraguay, another top 50 team, didn’t play any sanctioned matches between 2015-2018. Those are presumably the kind of teams FIFA is trying to entice. But even if they ramped up their women’s programs overnight, would they really be World Cup-ready by 2023?

The just-concluded tournament was the most competitive and compelling in Women’s World Cup history, with at least 10 teams showing up in France with a realistic shot at the title. However seven others left without a win, six managed just one goal and Thailand, playing in its second World Cup, was outscored 20-1.

Expanding the field for 2023 would certainly make room for more quality teams from Europe, such as Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland. But Europe supplied nine of the 24 teams this summer; simply adding more UEFA teams wouldn’t accomplish FIFA’s stated goal of growing the game globally – and the rest of the globe may not be World Cup-ready in four years.

Infantino also pledged last month to introduce two new women’s tournaments, a club World Cup and a League of Nations, welcome moves that would strengthen the game at the club level, one of the players were development is most vital. He also he wants to double the prize money for the World Cup but even that would only raise the figure to $100 million total for performance bonuses, team preparation funding and cash for clubs releasing players.

And that money will now have to be split among 32 teams instead of 24, lessening the size of the carrot FIFA is holding out.

Increasing the size of the field by 2023 is a knee-jerk response intended to gloss over well-deserved criticism of FIFA’s handling of the women’s game as well as an attempt to lure more sponsors and more broadcast revenue, thus boosting FIFA’s profits. The smarter approach would be to increase spending at the club and grassroots level immediately, then allow the sport to grow naturally as it absorbs that funding

On another World Cup-related topic, Saturday’s friendly between the world champion U.S. and Ireland drew a crowd of 37,040 to the Rose Bowl. That’s the largest domestic crowd for a U.S. women’s game since the 2015 Victory Tour and the second-largest since the 1999 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl.

That record won’t last long. There have already been more than 37,000 tickets sold for the national team’s Aug. 29 game in Philadelphia.

Galaxy 2.0?

Te Kloese’s methodical rebuild of the Galaxy took another big step forward last month when the club announced the appointment of Juan Carlos Ortega as director of methodology and development. That’s a fancy way of saying he’ll be the academy director.

Ortega was actually hired earlier this summer but the announcement was delayed by visa paperwork.

The appointment is a smart one for Te Kloese. For starters, Ortega is extremely well-respected after spending much of the past decade with the youth programs of the Mexican national team, a time when Mexico won a U-17 World Cup and qualified for world championships six times at the U-17 and U-20 levels combined. Te Kloese is also familiar and comfortable with Ortega, having spent much of the last decade with the Mexican soccer federation as well.

“We believe Juan Carlos will be a great addition to this club and the Galaxy academy,” said Te Kloese, who has long had his eye on Ortega for the job. “Juan Carlos is knowledgeable and experienced, which shows in the success he has brought to the Mexican Football Federation and the prestigious clubs he has previously worked with.

“Juan Carlos also brings many important connections that he has cultivated throughout our region that will greatly support his work with the Galaxy.”

Ortega, a defender in his playing days in Mexico’s Liga MX, also served as head coach and later as director of sporting development for Chivas de Guadalajara.

The announcement of Ortega’s hiring came on the same day the club announced it was firing Mike Munoz, the former academy director who had served as head coach of USL side Galaxy II the last 2 ½ seasons. Munoz, whose whole staff was let go as well, was replaced by on an interim basis by Junior Gonzalez, a former Chivas USA assistant.

That last hiring may cause consternation among some Galaxy fans, who have delighted in mocking LAFC as Chivas 2.0 since the franchise replaced the poorly managed Chivas USA after that team was purchased, then disbanded, by the league. Besides Gonzalez, other prominent Galaxy employees with ties to Chivas USA include Te Kloese, a former team executive; midfielder Efrain Alvarez; assistant trainer Cesar Roldan; communications department editor Adam Serrano; and Dan Kennedy, the former goalkeeper who is now a studio analyst on the team’s television broadcasts.

On the LAFC side, Bradley and assistant coach Ante Razov are the highest-ranking employees who spent time with Chivas USA.

Quotebook

“Hey Congress, do something now. End gun violence. Let’s go!”

Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, speaking into a sideline microphone after scoring a goal in his team’s win over D.C. United on Sunday.

(Watch Bedoya’s mic drop by clicking here.)

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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