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 LAFC, playing without league MVP candidate Carlos Vela, received an important wake-up call in a loss to Minnesota United while the Galaxy’s playoff hopes remained surprisingly rosy despite the fact Sunday’s loss in Seattle left them with just one win in their last seven games.
First, LAFC. The league leaders thoroughly dominated the Loons on Sunday, possessing the ball for more than 68 of the 90 minutes, outshooting the visitors 24-5, outpassing them 807-243 and completing better than 87% of those passes to a 57.2% completion percentage for Minnesota United.
Yet Minnesota United scored two goals on its first three shots to win, 2-0. It was LAFC’s first loss of the season at Banc of California Stadium, ending a 19-game unbeaten streak at home dating to last season. That was tied for the seventh-longest in MLS history. The loss was also LAFC’s first by multiple goals in 31 games. (Click here to see the highlights.)
Those are all numbers that speak to LAFC’s dominance this season. But by committing to absorbing pressure, playing in a low block and keeping eight players behind the ball, Minnesota proved LAFC can be beaten – indeed, it drew the blueprint for how to make that happen – and that should concern LAFC given the new MLS playoff format.
In seasons past, the conference semifinals and finals were two-leg affairs decided by aggregate goals. The advantage under that format clearly belonged to the better team since their quality will more likely prevail over two matches.
But this year the entire postseason tournament will consist of single-elimination games that will end in penalty kicks if the score is tied after extra time. That turns it into a crapshoot, one in which a 34-game season can be undone in one afternoon; suddenly it’s not about being better but it’s about being smarter, more disciplined or maybe even luckier. (Remember just three Supporters’ Shield winners have also won the MLS Cup in the last 16 seasons.)
And that favors a team like Minnesota, which devised an excellent game plan and stuck to it, winning the game despite being outplayed by a wide margin.
Think Sweden in the quarterfinals of the 2016 women’s Olympic soccer tournament when it played a boring, defensive game to force the U.S. into penalty kicks, where Sweden prevailed.
That was a game that inspired U.S. keeper Hope Solo to say, “we played a bunch of cowards. The best team did not win today, I strongly, firmly believe that.”
LAFC coach Bob Bradley praised Minnesota’s game plan while his goalkeeper, Pablo Sisniega, said the team definitely needs to figure out a way to beat that strategy since it’s likely to become one LAFC will see again going forward.
“It’s challenging when teams park the bus so much and they just have eight guys behind the ball sitting inside their box,” he said. “So we have to figure out ways to create opportunities when teams do that.”
As for missing Vela, who is sidelined with a hamstring strained in last month’s draw with the Galaxy, LAFC has played eight games without its captain the last two seasons, going 4-3-1 in those matches. It is 31-10-13 with him.
Bradley said there is no timetable for Vela’s return. But with a playoff berth already clinched and both the Western Conference title and Supporters’ Shield virtually assured, he added, “we’re not going to rush it.”
When he does return Vela, who leads the lead with 27 goals, will resume his pursuit of Josef Martinez’s single-season record of 31 scores, set last year. He also has 15 assists, which is tied for second-best in MLS, and is aiming to become the first player in league history with 20 of each in a single season.
And there’s one more record he is chasing alongside teammate Diego Rossi, who has 14 goals:
Most goals by two teammates combined
2018 Atlanta United (43)
Josef Martinez, 31
Miguel Almiron, 12
2019 LAFC (41)
Carlos Vela, 27
Diego Rossi, 14
2012 San Jose Earthquakes (40)
Chris Wondolowski, 27
Alan Gordon, 13
A Galaxy not so far, far away
In many ways, the Galaxy’s 4-3 loss in Seattle was a crushing defeat. Playing on turf before an away crowd of nearly 47,000, the Galaxy erased a two-goal deficit late in the second half, fell behind again, came back to tie the score once more with nine minutes to play – then lost on Cristian Roldan’s second goal with a minute left in regulation.
The Galaxy finished with commanding leads in possession (59.3%-40.7%), shots (16-11), shots on goals (9-6) and passes (542-368). They also showed character by rallying twice late in the game and certainly deserved at least a point.
They got none.
Positive signs included Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring in a fourth straight game, giving him seven goals over that span and 23 for the season. That leaves him one goal shy of Carlos Ruiz’s club record, set in 2002. (Click here to see the highlights.)
Negative signs include the fact the Galaxy earned 22 points in the season’s first two months but have picked up just 20 more since. And the frustration in the locker room afterward was evident in the fact that, in addition to coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, only one player, substitute Joe Corona, spoke to the media.
“In the last minute we made a mistake and they won the game,” Schelotto said. “The result is bad for us because it gives three points to Seattle and we are fighting [them] for the playoffs. “
The Galaxy have won just once in their last seven games and have earned five points in the last six weeks. If Portland beats visiting Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, it would drop the idle Galaxy out of a playoff position for the first time this season.
Not exactly the ideal way to begin the final stretch toward the postseason.
But the news going forward is actually good for the Galaxy, provided they play up to their capabilities – which, granted, has been an issue for the team, one of the most inconsistent in MLS this season.
“We all have to look in the mirror and see what we are doing wrong,” Corona said.
The Western Conference playoff race will come down to a game of musical chairs with eight tightly-bunched teams vying for six spots behind LAFC, which has already punched its postseason ticket.
The Galaxy will play half their final six games against the three worst teams in the conference – Houston , Colorado and Vancouver. They have just one match left against a team with a winning record, coming in a challenging midweek game at attitude against Real Salt Lake.
And that leaves the Galaxy in control of their own destiny: drop no more than six points in the final six games and they’re likely on to the postseason for the first time in three seasons. If they can’t manage that against their remaining schedule … well, then they clearly don’t deserve to go.
Here are the MLS standings
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
Philadelphia 15 8 6 54 42 12 51
New York City 14 5 8 51 34 17 50
Atlanta 15 10 3 47 33 14 48
D.C. United 11 10 9 39 38 1 42
New York Red Bulls 12 12 5 47 44 3 41
New England 10 9 9 41 47 -6 39
Toronto 10 10 8 44 45 -1 38
Montreal 11 15 4 42 56 -14 37
Orlando 9 13 7 35 39 -4 34
Chicago 8 12 10 44 43 1 34
Columbus 8 15 7 33 44 -11 31
Cincinnati 5 20 3 28 67 -39 18
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
LAFC 19 4 5 74 30 44 62
Seattle 13 8 7 46 33 3 46
Minnesota 13 9 6 46 37 9 45
San Jose 13 10 5 48 43 5 44
Salt Lake 13 11 4 40 35 5 43
FC Dallas 12 10 7 47 38 9 43
Galaxy 13 12 3 41 45 -4 42
Portland 12 11 4 43 40 3 40
Kansas City 10 11 7 41 45 -4 37
Houston 9 15 4 38 49 -11 31
Colorado 8 14 6 45 54 -9 30
Vancouver 6 15 9 30 53 -23 27
Coming in through the window
Five MLS games will be played on Saturday, right in the middle of the FIFA international window. Four will be played Sept. 11, just hours after the window closes. And that’s not only causing problems for the 12 teams who will play those games without their best players, but it has weighed heavy on Gregg Berhalter, the former Galaxy player-coach and Columbus Crew manager now in charge of the U.S. national team.
Berhalter left Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez, who have 317 national team appearances combined, off his roster for September friendlies with Mexico and Uruguay because Toronto, chasing a playoff berth, has a game during the break and one the day after.
“Part of it was Toronto, the position they’re in, fighting for a playoff spot,” Berhalter said. “We felt that taking three players from one team would severely handicap them.”
But what about the Seattle Sounders, who are second in the Western Conference table but hardly guaranteed a postseason spot. They will play at Chicago this weekend without Roldan and forward Jordan Morris.
Or how about San Jose, which is scheduled to play on the road against Real Salt Lake on Sept. 11 in a game that could mean a six-point swing in a tight Western Conference race? The Earthquakes figure to be without defender Nick Lima and midfielder Jackson Yueill, who were called up to the national team.
The Toronto omissions, when contrasted with the other call-ups, left Berhalter facing charges he’s putting his thumb on the scale and trying to influence the playoff race. He’s doing nothing of the sort and this problem is not of his making. It’s the fault of an unnecessarily stubborn MLS, the only major league in the world that insists on playing games during an international break.
This is the fourth FIFA break of the year and MLS has scheduled games during all four. This fall the league did take the October and November FIFA dates in mind when setting its playoff schedule, but that’s resulted in a 12-day pause between the final regular-season game and the first postseason match – longer for the top seeds in each conference, who receive a first-round bye.
In Europe, Italy’s Serie A will suspend play for 13 days during the September break, one more than the English Premier League. Spain’s La Liga, the German Bundesliga and France’s Ligue 1 will all take 11 days off. That means the nine players Berhalter summoned off European rosters won’t be hurting their clubs by playing for their country.
Even Mexico’s Liga MX is taking an 11-day vacation.
“We’re in a very difficult position because we’re only allowed to play certain times of the year,” Berhalter said. “One thing I’ve been a little bit disappointed in is the MLS teams opting to play in FIFA windows. It’s infringing on the time we have with players.“
The U.S. isn’t the only national team summoning MLS players during the international break. LAFC will play this weekend without midfielders Mark-Anthony Kaye (Canada), Peter-Lee Vassell (Jamaica) and Eduard Atuesta (Colombia U-23s) and forward Brian Rodriguez (Uruguay). That’s in addition to defender Walker Zimmerman, whom Berhalter called up.
The Galaxy are off until Sept. 11 – technically outside the break – but they may be forced to play that night in Colorado without midfielder Jonathan dos Santos and forward Uriel Antuna (Mexico); midfielder Sebastian Lletget (U.S.); and defender Rolf Feltscher (Venezuela), all of whom have national team games the night before.
“Having worked in MLS, we try to be somewhat accommodating and try to work with the clubs, but sometimes there’s not perfect solutions and sometimes we just have to say, that’s just the way it is,” Berhalter said.
One of those exceptions this month was Lletget, who missed this summer’s Gold Cup with injury.
“In Sebastian’s case, unfortunately he missed out on the Gold Cup and that was a big chunk of time with the team. We want to get him back into the team. It’s important if he wants to continue to make an impact with the national team,” Berhalter said. “And we understand that he will be missing a game.”
Will the Galaxy miss the playoffs because of that? If so it won’t be Berhalter’s fault. Blame the league instead.
The U.S. roster for friendlies with Mexico (Sept. 6, East Rutherford, N.J.) and Uruguay (Sept. 10, St. Louis):
Goalkeepers: Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas), Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Fortuna Düsseldorf)
Defenders: John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Sergiño Dest (Ajax), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Tim Ream (Fulham), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United FC), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)
Midfielders: Sebastian Lletget (Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
Forwards: Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake), Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC)
Mexico’s roster for friendlies with the U.S. (Sept. 6, East Rutherford, N.J.) and Argentina (Sept. 10, San Antonio)
Goalkeepers: Rodolfo Cota (León), Hugo González (Necaxa), Guillermo Ochoa (América), Jonathan Orozco (Santos Laguna) Defenders: Néstor Araujo (Celta de Vigo), Jesus Gallardo (Monterrey), Miguel Layún (Monterrey), César Montes (Monterrey), Héctor Moreno (Al-Gharafa), Fernando Navarro (León), Diego Reyes (Tigres), Luis Rodríguez (Tigres), Carlos Salcedo (Tigres), Jorge Sánchez (América) Midfielders: Edson Álvarez (Ajax), Jesús Manuel Corona (Porto FC), Jonathan Dos Santos (Galaxy), Marco Fabian (Philadelphia Union), Andrés Guardado (Real Betis), Erick Gutiérrez (PSV Eindhoven), Héctor Herrera (Atlético Madrid), Luis Montes (León), Orbelín Pineda (Cruz Azul), Carlos Rodríguez (Monterrey) Forwards: Roberto Alvarado (Cruz Azul), Uriel Antuna (Galaxy), Javier Hernández (West Ham United), Raúl Jiménez (Wolverhampton), Hirving Lozano (Napoli), Rodolfo Pizarro (Monterrey), Alexis Vega (Guadalajara)
Former Galaxy forward Ola Kamara, in his third start since returning to MLS from China, scored two goals in D.C. United’s 3-0 win over Montreal on Saturday. He has three goals in four appearances for D.C. United.
Bruce Arena, who coached the Galaxy to three MLS Cup titles, continues to guide the New England Revolution up the Eastern Conference table. Since Arena was hired as coach and general manager in mid-May, the Revolution has gone 7-1-7, losing only to LAFC. They are sixth in the standings and just three points removed from fourth place, which would earn them a home date for the playoffs.
A programming note
The L.A. Museum of the Holocaust is staging an important exhibition entitled “Venerated, Persecuted, Forgotten: Victims of Nazism at FC Bayern Munich.”
Curated by the folks at Bayern Munich and appearing outside Europe for the first time, the exhibit tells the stories of nine players and officials who were persecuted – and in the case of most -- murdered by the Nazis because of their religion or political views.
One of the most compelling stories is that of former club president Kurt Landauer, who was forced to resign his post and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. He survived the Holocaust but when he returned to Munich after the war, he found his beloved team in shambles. In leading the effort to rebuild the club – and, by extension, German soccer – Landauer initiated some of the most important advances in the sport, including fiscal responsibility, corporate sponsorship and an international roster.
I have written extensively about Landauer, who is, very probably, the most important and influential soccer executive you’ve never heard of. The exhibition, opened during Bayern Munich’s summer visit to Los Angeles, will remain at the museum through Oct. 31.
On Sept. 11, the museum and Stefan Schneider, the consul general of Germany, will screen the film “A Life for Football” (in German with English subtitles), followed by a panel discussion with Alan Rothenberg, former U.S. Soccer president and chairman of the 1994 World Cup; Erit Yellen, president and CEO of ORNA Drive Productions and an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg school of communication and journalism; and Justin Greenberg, CEO of SoccerKids USA and founder of Maccabi Sports West.
I have been asked to moderate the panel. Space is limited so to RSVP for the event, click here for more information or call the museum at (323) 651-3704.
“Just to see the growth has been amazing, even in just my [5½-year] tenure to see the fans and the popularity of this team. It speaks volume about our sport. The World Cup was such a world-showcased event that people get on board. This is an exciting team, great personalities. Ultimately, what does a fan want? Entertainment, and that’s what they get with this group.”
Jill Ellis, coach of the World Cup-champion women’s national team, speaking to the Washington Post after beating Portugal last week before a record crowd of 49,504 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. The crowd was the largest for a women’s match in the U.S. since the 1999 World Cup final
Until next time