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Newsletter: Soccer! LAFC’s season is one of total domination

MLS Soccer - Los Angeles FC v New York Red Bulls
Carlos Vela
(Getty Images)

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 again today in MLS, where numbers alone don’t tell the whole story of LAFC’s dominance this season.

But they’re a pretty good place to start.

With Sunday’s 4-2 win over the New York Red Bulls, LAFC has already surpassed last season’s win total with 17. It has a league-best 17-3-4 record and its 55 points are 10 better than anyone else in MLS.

Only once in league history has a team won a Supporters’ Shield race by at least 10 points.

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LAFC also leads MLS with 65 goals, has allowed a league-low 25 scores and has a goal differential of 40. Only Atlanta United, at +13, has a differential better than 10.

Its 10-0-1 record at Banc of California makes LAFC the only MLS team that is unbeaten at home, where it plays six of its final 10 games. And that leaves it well-positioned to break league records for wins (24), home wins (14), goals (85), points (71) and goal differential (41).

“They’ve been pretty dominant,” Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. “For sure we can see why they are so good.”

If LAFC is having the best season for a team in MLS history then Carlos Vela is having the best season for an individual. With a goal and two assists Sunday, Vela leads the league in both categories. Add the 23 goals and 15 assists together and Vela has already tied Sebastian Giovinco’s record for most points in a season. And he has 10 games left.

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“For me that record is more important than just goals because in the end, I’m not a striker, I’m not just scoring goals, I’m not always just in the front waiting for the ball,” said Vela, whose goal, his 37th in MLS, also made him the highest-scoring Mexican in league history, breaking Cubo Torres’ career record.

“I’m trying to involve all of my teammates, I’m trying to help them, I’m trying to make some plays for them. So that’s more important because I like to make assists too. This is a good record.”

The 38 goals he’s had a hand in are more than 12 MLS teams have scored. Vela is also on pace to break the MLS single-season record for goals (31) while becoming the first player in league history to finish with at least 20 goals and 20 assists in the same season. Gathering the assists has been made easier by the fact 14 LAFC players have goals this season, with defenders Eddie Segura and Jordan Harvey joining that list – off Vela assists – Sunday.

(Check out the highlight package by clicking here.)

“We’re trying to be the best team in this league so we need everyone involved,” Vela said. “We need all the players in every game because we know every player is important to win something important. We have every player doing the best job possible.

“That’s the mentality we are working on. We’re really happy and I hope we can keep doing those things.”

But here’s the scary thing for MLS opponents: LAFC may actually be getting better. Before Sunday’s game the team introduced newly acquired winger Brian Rodriguez, 19, whose $8.1-million transfer from Uruguay’s Peñarol is the ninth-richest in MLS history and the second-highest for a teenager. Then on Monday the team officially announced the TAM-funded signing of 20-year-old Ecuadoran defender Diego Palacios, who LAFC wrested away from Barca B.

Both signings were made with an eye toward the future. Rodriguez is insurance against the likely departure of winger Diego Rossi, who is second on the team – and fourth in MLS – with 13 goals. Rossi has received interest from Europe and could make the jump this winter.

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Palacios gives LAFC alternatives on a back line that has four players over the age of 31.

“It’s not an either/or,” LAFC general manager John Thorrington said when asked if the signings were for the present or future. “You never know with young players. You never know with midseason acquisitions. We’re in a fortunate position where we don’t need to rush anything. Nothing was done out of desperation.

“For us to prepare for now and the future, we have various systems and there’s value in the flexibility of the players who can play different positions.”

Speaking of new acquisitions…..

Last week was a whirlwind for new Galaxy playmaker Cristian Pavón.

He arrived at LAX early on the morning of Aug. 5, after a 13-hour flight from Buenos Aires. Next he conducted a symphony orchestra on the field at Dignity Health Sports Park in a promotional video, signed to play the rest of the MLS season on a free transfer from Boca Juniors, trained three times with the first team, flew cross-country to Washington D.C., then played all 90 minutes in Sunday’s 2-1 loss to a Wayne Rooney-less D.C. United.

(Check out the highlights by clicking here.)

The loss was the third in a row for the Galaxy, who are 5-10-0 in their last 15, the fifth-worst 15-game stretch in franchise history. It also dropped the team to fifth in the Western Conference standings.

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The Galaxy could fall three more spots -- to eighth, out of the playoff picture -- Wednesday with a loss to FC Dallas and home wins by Real Salt Lake, over slumping Seattle, and Portland, which hosts Chicago. (Of course the Galaxy could also vault back into second with a win.)

And none of that is Pavón’s fault. He played well in his MLS debut, sending some well-placed crosses into the box, attacking smartly and combining well with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who was battered all day yet still had a league-record 15 shots.

But only one of those was on goal because while the Galaxy had a 70-30 lead in possession and outshot United 29-12, 13 of those tries were blocked and just four wound up on target.

“He was the best man on the field,” Ibrahimovic said of Pavón. “It was his first game and he showed what his ability is. Unlucky we didn’t win to give him more credit.”

Pavón is another big piece in a Galaxy rebuilding project engineered by general manager Dennis te Kloese and coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Since coming together in January, Te Kloese and Schelotto have added six players who have started at least eight games this season. Pavón will be the seventh -- and the sixth to come from Latin America.

It’s part of a long-term plan designed to turn the Galaxy into the kind of high-pressure, high-pressing team Schelotto managed, to considerable success, in Argentina. And Pavón, 23, an Argentine World Cup player who was part of Schelotto’s teams at Boca, figures heavily in those plans.

“We’ll go it step-by-step and take this season as a starting point,” Te Kloese said. “And then take it from there. There’s a lot of things that we need to get our head around. There’s a lot of things we need to organize…to position ourselves in a better way.”

Te Kloese called Pavón “a player with big promise” and said the addition of another young, talented South American is a big plus, not just for the Galaxy but for MLS.

“It speaks more about the growth of the league,” he said in Spanish. “Now that it’s established there have been strong investments in installations, in everything. A lot of teams have big ambitions, including ourselves.”

And that, he said, has also made the league an attractive place for young players like Miguel Almiron, Alphonso Davies and perhaps Pavón to show they can make the jump to Europe some day.

“Younger players choose this league to improve and to maybe even move on,” he said. “We can actually compete for this kind of talent with teams outside MLS. It speaks highly of the league but also this organization.”

Right now the Galaxy (12-11-1) need to focus on the competition for a playoff berth. They’ve been outscored 9-1 in their three-game losing streak with all three losses coming on the road. Their next two are at home, where the Galaxy is 8-4-0. A win in either one would equal last year’s total of 13 with more than a month left in the season.

But 13 wins left the Galaxy a point shy of the postseason in 2018. Coming up short again this season would certainly slow the momentum of Te Kloese’s reconstruction work.

Here are the MLS standings

Eastern Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

Philadelphia 13 7 6 48 38 10 45

Atlanta 13 9 3 43 30 13 42

D.C. United 10 7 9 34 32 2 39

New York City 10 5 8 41 31 10 38

New York Red Bulls 11 10 4 43 38 5 37

New England 9 9 7 37 44 -7 34

Montreal 10 13 3 36 47 -11 33

________________________________________________

Toronto 9 10 6 39 41 -2 33

Orlando 8 11 6 33 34 -1 30

Chicago 7 10 9 38 37 1 30

Columbus 7 14 5 27 39 -12 26

FC Cincinnati 5 17 3 25 57 -32 18

Western Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

LAFC 17 3 4 65 25 40 55

Seattle 11 7 6 38 34 4 39

Minnesota 11 8 5 42 35 7 38

San Jose 11 8 5 41 36 5 38

Galaxy 12 11 1 31 36 -5 37

Salt Lake 11 9 4 35 32 3 37

Dallas 10 9 6 36 31 5 36

__________________________________________________________

Portland 10 9 4 38 34 4 34

Houston 9 13 3 35 41 -6 30

Kansas City 7 10 7 37 43 -6 28

Colorado 7 12 5 41 49 -8 26

Vancouver 5 12 9 26 45 -19 24

For entertainment purposes only

Given the numbers we just shared, odds are LAFC will win the MLS Cup. At least that’s what one wagering website is betting on, having established the Supporters’ Shield leaders as heavy 3-2 favorites to win MLS Cup after Sunday’s win.

BetOnline.ag listed defending champion Atlanta United next at 8-1 followed by the Philadelphia Union and New York City FC at 10-1.

The Galaxy were listed at 16-1.

Semi-retirement home?

Rooney will be returning to England after the MLS season and the assumption is this could be Ibrahimovic’s last season in the league as well. And that, combined with the new trend of importing young Latin American players such as Rodriguez and Pavon, is erasing the league’s image as retirement home from aging European stars.

But interest in the league remains high in Europe. In the last month I spoke to two of the biggest names in European soccer -- Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, a four-time Bundesliga scoring leader, and Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne – and both said they could definitely see themselves playing here. Just not right now.

“I watched a few games. I have a few friends who are playing in MLS,” said Lewandowski, who turns 31 next week. “The league has a huge potential. And every season is better with the fans, with the quality.

“Maybe someday I can play in MLS. I never say never. We will see what happens.”

De Bruyne, whose team won the last two Premier League titles, is just 28. But he also has an eye on the U.S., signing last spring with Jay-Z’s New York-based Roc Nation Sports, which represents the Rams’ Todd Gurley, new Laker Danny Green and World Cup teammate Romelu Lukaku.

“I’ve been coming to the U.S. for seven or eight years now. So I’m used to being out there, and I’ve got some interest in the American market,” De Bruyne said. “It was a nice opportunity for me to work with them because they obviously have more influence over there. I think I made the right decision, to be honest.”

As for MLS, “for the moment, it’s not the right time,” he said. “I would consider it. But not yet.”

NWSL theory of relativity: What bounces up must not necessarily come down

The U.S. victory in last month’s Women’s World Cup has inspired a lot of reporting on the players’ gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation and the state of the National Women’s Soccer League. Unfortunately much of that reporting has been inaccurate, misleading and lacking in context.

So let’s try to set the record straight.

Take the gender-discrimination lawsuit. The women are suing their federation in federal court, charging they are paid less than the men in bonuses for appearing in national team games. A player on the men’s national team can make as much as $17,625 a game depending on the opponent and the outcome, the court documents allege. A woman player would get about half that for a comparable result.

But what the lawsuit leaves out is the fact the union representing the women’s team negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the federation two years ago that pays national team players a base salary of $100,000 a year, plus another $72,500 for playing in the NWSL, which U.S. Soccer subsidizes. That means the top 18 players in the women’s national team pool will earn $172,500 from the federation this year before factoring in bonuses and game-day pay for performing with the national team.

Other players get slightly less. The federation also pays health insurance as well as maternity and adoption leave.

Male players get none of that and are paid only if they make the 18-man roster for an international game.

That means a women’s national team player who appears in 20 friendlies a year could earn as much as $271,500 in salary and bonuses, all paid by U.S Soccer. A male player who suits up for 20 friendlies and wins all 20 would get $8,000 less from the federation.

The male player might get millions more from his club, but is it U.S. Soccer’s responsibility to bridge that gap?

The second question: is any of this fair?

No is the obvious answer. The $172,500 in guaranteed salary that Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe – three of the best players in women’s soccer history – will earn this year is less than the Galaxy will play Chris Pontius. But both the Galaxy and Pontius benefit from a much different financial model in men’s soccer.

Which brings us to the U.S. women’s Victory Tour, the NWSL and the storied World Cup bounce.

There have been stories that said the first game of the Victory Tour, a 3-0 win over Ireland at the Rose Bowl, was poorly marketed and poorly attended. The game was heavily promoted and the announced crowd of 37,040 was the second-largest for a women’s game in the U.S. since the 1999 World Cup final. That number will be topped later this month because more than 40,000 tickets have already been sold for the national team’s Aug. 29 game in Philadelphia. (TV coverage of the Rose Bowl game included several unflattering aerial shots of the 37,000-plus crowd in the 90,000-seat stadium.)

There have been stories that took issue with the state of the NWSL despite the fact it drew a league-record crowd of 25,218 – the second-largest for a stand-alone women’s club game in U.S. history -- in Portland for a game between the Thorns and the North Carolina Courage on Sunday. Portland is averaging 19,955 at home this season, better than 15 MLS teams and seven Major League Baseball teams.

The World Cup bounce also helped the Chicago Red Stars, who drew a record 17,388 for their first game after the tournament, and the Utah Royals, who drew 15,931.

The league got some other much-needed support when ESPN agreed to broadcast 14 NWSL games this season, Budweiser signed a multiyear sponsorship deal and Nike extended its contract with the league through 2022. Yet Steven A. Bank, a professor in the UCLA School of Law who specializes in soccer issues, remains cautious amidst all the good news.

“I do think a healthy concern about the viability of NWSL is appropriate,” he said

The ESPN deal is only through the rest of this season and Bank said it’s not clear how much revenue, if any, the league will get from the agreement. As for ticket sales, although they have spiked in Chicago, Utah and Portland since the World Cup, Banks says they seem uneven across the rest of league and it’s not clear whether they are sustainable beyond the immediate post-World Cup glow.

“I do think interest in women’s soccer is gradually growing and it’s not entirely an Olympics-style phenomenon,” Bank said. “Nevertheless the league’s foundation is not entirely stable.”

Also hurting the league’s bottom line is the licensing deal the women’s national team negotiated as part of its collective bargaining agreement, one that the gives the players association sole control over the marketing of the league’s biggest stars.

“The fact that the [union] bargained to retain its group licensing rights means that it is effectively a competitor with NWSL for women’s soccer sponsorship dollars, which may make it more difficult for NWSL to build its brand and to compete with leagues in other parts of the world,” Bank said.

But people are talking about these issues and that’s a good first step.

Youth is served

The Orange County Soccer Club, a USL Championship side whose on-field success has been matched by its ambition and creativity off the pitch, made more news Monday when it signed 14-year-old Francis Jacobs of Laguna Beach, making Jacobs the youngest male to sign a professional contract in U.S. history, according to the team.

“Francis is a special Orange County talent and has shown a maturity on the field way beyond his years,” Oliver Wyss, the club’s president of soccer operations, said in a statement. “The entire organization is committed to providing him with guidance, training and support as he begins the first step in what we believe will be a long professional soccer career.”

Jacobs, who is less than five months past his 14th birthday, has been training with OCSC since May and played previously with the Irvine Strikers and the U-14 national team. At OSCS he will join a roster includes goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes of Chino Hills, who signed his first pro contract last season when he was 15.

In February, Olivia Moultrie of Canyon Country announced, at age 13, that she was giving up her college eligibility to accept an endorsement deal with Nike and join an academy program in Oregon run by the NWSL’s Thorns. Two years earlier, at 11, Moultrie had become the youngest girl to accept a college soccer scholarship, committing to North Carolina.

Quotebook

“I just love dogs. They make me happy so whenever I see one I’m like ‘ohmigosh look?’ So I go up and pet them. Not everyone’s on the same page as me and wants to pet every dog.”

Women’s World Cup star Rose Lavelle, on her affection for dog. Her bulldog Wilma Jean Wrinkles has her own Instagram account

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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