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Soccer! An embarrassment of MLS riches in L.A.

Portland Timbers v Los Angeles Galaxy
Zlatan Ibrahimovic
(Getty Images)

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.

Just two seasons ago Southern California had only one MLS team. And before that it had only one good MLS team, with Chivas USA averaging less than nine wins a season between 2010 and 2014.

But this season the region not only has the best team in the league – and perhaps in league history – in LAFC, but it has two of the best players as well in LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the heavy favorite for the MVP award, and the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is clearly the league’s most dominant player.

The two will face off for the fifth time next Sunday at Banc of California Stadium in what could be their final regular-season meeting in MLS – more about which later.

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LAFC is still looking for its first win in the cross-town derby, nicknamed El Trafico, which has brought out the best in both players. Ibrahimovic’s hat trick was a goal better than Vela’s brace in last month’s game, a 3-2 Galaxy win in Carson, while Vela outscored Ibrahimovic 4-3 in three meetings last season, with one ending in a Galaxy win and the two others in draws.

They’ve done pretty well against other teams too – especially lately. On Monday, Ibrahimovic was named the league’s player of the week after scoring all four Galaxy goals in a 2-0 win over FC Dallas and a 2-2 draw with Seattle, a game the Galaxy played with just 10 men. He has scored seven of the team’s last eight goals and 20 of the Galaxy’s 35 on the season.

Vela has been even better. His penalty kick into the roof of the net against Real Salt Lake on Saturday gave him a league-leading 24 goals on the season; combined with his 15 assists he’s had a hand in 39 goals this season, breaking Sebastian Giovinco’s four-year-old MLS record. And he still has nine games left, starting with Wednesday’s home match with San Jose. (Watch Vela break the record by clicking here.)

Vela’s goal in Salt Lake was his fifth game-winning score of the season – only Ibrahimovic, with seven, has more. Vela is also second in MLS with five game-winning assists, meaning he has either scored or set-up the deciding goal in 10 of LAFC’s 18 victories this season.

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It’s an embarrassment of riches for one market and one that may never been repeated. So enjoy it now because there’s no telling how long it will last.

Playoff berth just the start for LAFC

With Saturday’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake, the team that knocked it out of the playoffs last season, LAFC became the first club to clinch a postseason berth this season. But getting to the playoffs is just the first step of what the team hopes will be a long postseason journey.

“That’s not our focus, just to make the playoffs,” midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “That’s really the minimum. You have to reach playoffs to reach the goals that we set.

“We’ve done a very good job this year of taking it game by game and focusing on what’s in front of us and not focusing too far ahead because that’s when you lose concentration on the little things.”

But for those keeping track of records, several more remain within reach for the team and its captain. Vela needs seven goals in nine games to tie Josef Martinez’s year-old mark of 31 goals in a season. And with five assists he’ll become the first player in MLS history to finish a season with at least 20 goals and 20 assists.

The team, a league-best 18-3-4, needs 14 points, 19 goals and seven wins in its final nine games to set MLS records in each of those categories. It is also on pace to match the league best for goal differential at +42 and with five wins in its final six home games – LAFC goes into Wednesday’s game unbeaten, at 10-0-1, at home this season – it would break the league record there as well.

LAFC seems certain to finish with the best regular-season record, giving it home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Yet none of that will mean anything if the team doesn’t finish the season with a win in the MLS Cup final.

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“Obviously the championship is the main goal,” Vela said. “We also have to value the record-breaking success we are having as a team and as individuals. But the main thing we are working toward is the championship and we are going to work until the last day to get it.”

Playoff push just beginning for the Galaxy

A freakish play that saw goalkeeper David Bingham head a ball into an onrushing defender cost the Galaxy a win over Seattle last Saturday. But the point they got from a short-handed 2-2 draw was enough to lift the team into third place in the tightly bunched Western Conference standings and boost its chances of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2016.

Although just two MLS teams have more wins than the Galaxy’s 13, the team hasn’t won consecutive games since May. But the schedule gets considerably easier down the stretch and that should ease the team into the playoffs.

The Galaxy have a Leagues Cup semifinal with Mexico’s Cruz Azul on Tuesday, following by road dates with LAFC (Aug. 25) and Seattle (Sept. 1). However after that they play the bottom four teams in the conference standings – Colorado, Sporting Kansas City, Vancouver and Houston – have a home match with Montreal and a visit to Real Salt Lake, with the game in Utah the only one of the final six against a team that currently has a winning record.

And the team appears to be finding a second wind just as the schedule seems to easing up. The back-to-back braces from Ibrahimovic marked the first time the Galaxy has had multiple goals in consecutive games since the first week of May.

One factor in the turnaround may be the addition of winger Cristian Pavon. In three games Pavon has already established himself as a dynamic and creative playmaker, the kind Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy have been missing.

He was at his best in the win over Dallas, getting a well-earned assist on Ibrahimovic’s first goal then setting up the second by drawing a penalty in the box.

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“He is very good. He is too good for MLS. We should enjoy him while he is here,” Ibrahimovic said of his new teammate, who came to the Galaxy to reunite with Guillermo Barros Schelotto, his coach at Argentina’s Boca Juniors.

Ibrahimovic has spent most of his second year in MLS complaining about everything from the officiating and the playoff format to his supporting cast. But the arrival of Pavon has so reinvigorated him, a return next season, when Ibrahimovic will be 38, is no longer as far-fetched as it seemed a month ago. Which is why Sunday’s El Trafico may not be the last between Vela and Ibrahimovic.

“When you have a player like that, you don’t need to say much. You just communicate in the game and try to make the best of it,” Ibrahimovic said. “He knows what he is doing. I have played with many players and I see when a player is the difference. And he is the difference.

“We will be thankful and happy that he is with us now.”

Monitoring Ibrahimovic’s moods isn’t difficult since the Galaxy captain rarely tries to hide his emotions, either on the field or off. But he seemed especially upbeat after the draw with Seattle, a game in which Ibrahimovic missed an easy chance at an insurance goal in the 71st minute, 11 minutes before the Sounders salvaged a draw on the strange Jorgen Skjelvik own goal, the third own goal for the Galaxy this month. (Watch the play by clicking here.)

But it was also a game in the Galaxy played with 10 men after defender Daniel Steres was ejected in the sixth minute for denying an obvious goal-scoring opportunity. That will keep Steres, who leads the team’s outfield players in minutes (2,165) and is tied for second in goals (three), out of the LAFC game.

“The guys did a great job. Playing with one less for 85 minutes is not easy,” Ibrahimovic said. “You could see in the end that we were tired but we stood up for each other and were fighting for each other. We could have even won the game. If I would have scored the goal we would win. We showed great spirit playing with one less for almost the whole game.

“The guys should have all the credit. We got the one point, could have got three. But at the end, I think it’s a good result.”

Here are the MLS standings

Eastern Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

Atlanta 14 9 3 45 30 15 45

Philadelphia 13 8 6 48 40 8 45

New York City 11 5 8 45 32 13 41

D.C. United 10 8 9 34 33 1 39

New York Red Bulls 11 10 5 44 39 5 38

New England 9 9 8 38 45 -7 35

Montreal 10 13 4 39 50 -11 34

________________________________________________

Orlando 9 11 7 35 35 0 34

Toronto 9 10 7 41 43 -2 34

Chicago 8 11 9 42 40 2 33

Columbus 7 14 6 29 41 -12 27

FC Cincinnati 5 18 3 26 61 -35 18

Western Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

LAFC 18 3 4 67 25 42 58

Minnesota 12 8 6 44 36 8 42

Galaxy 13 11 2 35 38 -3 41

Salt Lake 12 10 4 38 34 4 40

Seattle 11 8 7 40 39 1 40

San Jose 11 9 5 42 38 4 38

Portland 11 10 4 41 38 3 37

__________________________________________________________

FC Dallas 10 10 7 39 36 3 37

Houston 9 13 4 37 43 -6 31

Kansas City 8 11 7 39 45 -6 31

Colorado 7 13 6 43 52 -9 27

Vancouver 6 12 9 27 45 -18 27

Promotional considerations

Kate Markgraf played in more than 200 games for the U.S. women’s national team, winning a World Cup and two Olympic gold medals. But those were simple accomplishments compared with the job she accepted last week when she was named the first general manager for the four-time World Cup champions she once played for.

Markgraf’s appointment was no surprise, having been rumored for weeks. But she steps in at a time when the program is in turmoil. Last month, just three weeks after winning a second consecutive World Cup, coach Jill Ellis declined a contract extension and then last week the union representing the national team players walked away from mediation and announced it will take its gender-discrimination suit against U.S. Soccer to court, with a judge Monday setting a trial date of May 5, 2020.

Markgraf, who left a job with ESPN to join the federation, will be heavily involved in the coaching hire and the perhaps the lawsuit as well.

With the Tokyo Olympics less than a year away, naming Ellis’ replacement is probably the top priority. Fortunately Ellis will continue in her role through the final Victory Tour game in early October, giving U.S. Soccer precious time to find her successor.

Markgraf, who will be 43 next week, said on ESPN the evening Ellis announced she was leaving that Laura Harvey (Utah Royals), Paul Riley (North Carolina Courage), Vlatko Andonovski (Reign FC) and Mark Krikorian (Florida State University) figured to be the leading candidates to replace her.

On the same day Markgraf’s appointment was announced, the federation said it was promoting Earnie Stewart from general manager of the men’s program to sporting director for all of U.S. Soccer. His duties will include overseeing the men’s and women’s senior and youth national team programs as well as other sports performance departments, including scouting and analytics.

The move was interpreted in some quarters as preparing the way for Jay Berhalter’s promotion to CEO, replacing the retiring Dan Flynn. Problem is, Jay is the brother of men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter. Moving Stewart, a three-time World Cup player, up to sporting director and naming another GM for the men’s program would create an additional layer between the Berhalter brothers, which U.S. Soccer hopes would deflect any conflict-of-interest charges.

The Washington Post’s Steve Goff reported earlier this summer that Flynn was pushing hard for Jay Berhalter, U.S. Soccer’s current COO, to replace him but that federation president Carlos Cordeiro was not in favor of the move. Stewart’s promotion may be a way to soften Cordeiro’s opposition.

Markgraf, meanwhile, played 12 years with the national team and ranks 11th all-time in appearances, experience that figured heavily in her appointment. In addition to the pressing matter of finding a new coach, she will be responsible for managing, hiring and developing senior and youth women’s national team coaches and their technical and administrative staffs. She will also be tasked with creating, implementing and managing a technical plan and setting standards for all national teams on the women’s side.

Making a federal case out of it

Then there’s the lawsuit.

Despite several comments to the contrary, the union representing the women’s national players is eager to take its case against the federation to court, where it clearly believes public sentiment will be on its side.

Molly Levinson, a spokeswoman for the players, said in a statement that the union entered mediation “full of hope” but broke off the talks “sorely disappointed in the federation’s determination to perpetuate fundamentally discriminatory workplace conditions and behavior. It is clear that USSF… fully intend to continue to compensate women players less than men. They will not succeed.”

The federation replied with a statement of its own in which it accused the union representatives of taking “an aggressive and ultimately unproductive approach that follows months of presenting misleading information to the public in an effort to perpetuate confusion.”

Both sides had requested trial dates in the fall of 2020, after the Tokyo Olympics, but a judge Monday picked May 5 instead, three months before the Games and 14 months after the suit was filed.

The players sued the federation in U.S. federal court in Los Angeles last March, 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 the union representing the women’s team also negotiated a separate collective bargaining agreement with the federation two years ago. The CBA, which runs through 2021, pays national team players a base salary of $100,000 a year, plus another $72,500 for playing in the NWSL, money the men do not receive from the federation. The federation also pays health insurance as well as maternity and adoption leave for the women players.

As a result a women’s national team player who appears in 20 friendlies a year could earn as much as $307,500 in salary and bonuses while a men’s player would earn $263,333, in game bonuses only. (That is somewhat misleading since the last male to play 20 games in a year for the U.S. national team was Landon Donovan in 2002, and not all those games were friendlies.)

Hall pass

Before becoming just the second coach of either gender to win multiple World Cups, Ellis coached for 12 years at UCLA, where she was the winningest women’s coach in school history. And now that has won her induction into the school’s athletic hall of fame.

Ellis’ teams were 229-45-14 and made eight College Cup appearances, including seven in a row from 2003 to 2009. Her teams also advanced to at least the NCAA Round of 16 every year although Ellis never won a national title.

The other members of the Class of 2019 are Peter Fleming (men’s tennis), Tairia Flowers (softball), Skip Hicks (football), Courtney Mathewson (women’s water polo), Adam Naeve (men’s volleyball), and Kristee Porter (women’s volleyball/basketball/track & field).

An induction ceremony will take place Nov. 1 and the group will be honored at halftime of the UCLA-Colorado football game the next day.

Alumni watch

One of the most decorated players ever to have appeared in an MLS game hung up his boots over the weekend, with former Galaxy captain Ashley Cole announcing his retirement.

Cole, 38, made his professional debut for Arsenal two decades ago and also played for Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Roma for taking one last try at British soccer last season with Derby County of the second-tier championship, a team coached by onetime teammate Frank Lampard.

Although the underappreciated Cole, a defender, did not come to MLS with the kind of high profile David Beckham, Robbie Keane or Wayne Rooney enjoyed, he was undeniably one of the greatest players in the history of both the Premier League and English national team. Cole played 107 games for his country– sixth on the all-time list – and made three World Cup teams. As a club player he won a record seven FA Cups as well as three Premier League titles.

He appeared in 86 games – 84 starts – in three seasons in MLS, playing more minutes than anyone else on the Galaxy between 2016-18.

In other alumni news, former Galaxy forward Ola Kamara made his return to MLS on Sunday, coming on for Rooney in the 74th minute of D.C. United’s loss to Vancouver. Kamara left the Galaxy for Shenzhen F.C. in the Chinese first division in March but made just six appearances in all competitions, recording one assist.

And the nominees are….

Ibrahimovic’s 500th career goal, a spinning right-footed volley in Toronto last September, has made the shortlist for FIFA’s Puskas Award, recognizing the top goal of the year. American Amy Rodriguez of the Utah Royals is also on the list for a goal she scored in a June NWSL game against the Sky Blue FC, as is Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for a score in a March La Liga game against Real Betis.

(Watch those three contenders here: Ibrahimovic. Rodriguez. Messi.)

Ibrahimovic has been nominated for the award four times since 2009, winning in 2013 for a goal he scored for Sweden in a friendly with England.

Quotebook

“We want to beat everyone. Obviously we want to beat the Galaxy. They’re trying to hold on to the last bit of what they’ve got in L.A. So these games are a lot to them because they already feel like they’ve been kicked out of a city that they never played in. Yeah, we want to beat them. But at the end of the day if we’re holding the trophy and they’re not, we beat them.”

LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye on Sunday’s El Trafico with the Galaxy, a game LAFC has never won

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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