Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
There are just three games left in the MLS season and while LAFC has already clinched a playoff berth, nailed down the Western Conference’s regular-season title and could win the Supporters’ Shield on Wednesday, the Galaxy still has some work to do to secure its own postseason invitation.
Heading into Wednesday’s game in Utah, the Galaxy are fourth, two points behind second-place Seattle and four points head of eighth-place Portland. The top seven of the conference’s 12 teams will advance to the playoffs with the top four playing their first game at home.
Given the crowded field, with the seven remaining contenders separated by just six points, the Galaxy could finish anywhere from second to eighth, meaning they could open the playoffs at home, where they are tied for the MLS lead with 11 wins. Or they could watch the playoffs from home – meaning from their living rooms, having missed the postseason tournament for a third straight year.
There are several reasons for Galaxy fans to be optimistic though, starting with the schedule. After Wednesday’s game with Real Salt Lake, which is just a point behind the Galaxy in the table, the team finishes the season with last-place Vancouver and 10th-place Houston.
Then there’s the fact the Galaxy, having won consecutive games for the first time since May, are suddenly the hottest team in the conference. Real Salt Lake has earned four points from its last three games, FC Dallas two, San Jose none and Portland just one.
The Galaxy have picked up six points from their last two matches and 11 from their last seven; among conference teams only Colorado has done better. So after Saturday’s win over Montreal, coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto suggested his team is peaking at the right time.
“You know a lot of times the winner for the Supporters’ Shield doesn’t win the Cup,” he said. “Sometimes [it’s] the teams that get in playoffs at the last minute, like in 2009 Real Salt Lake won the Cup.
“We need to be smart right now to get points to get to the playoffs. And if we get in, to be smart in that moment.”
By all means be smart. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out getting the ball to Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the intelligent thing to do. The Galaxy captain has 11 goals in the last seven games and the team has lost just once when Ibrahimovic has scored during that span.
(Watch his latest goal by clicking here.)
For the season the Galaxy are 12-3-2 when he scores and 3-10-1 when he doesn’t, which led Ibrahimovic to give himself the MVP award after Saturday’s victory.
“I am the MVP of the MVPs, so I don’t focus on that,” said Ibrahimovic, whose franchise-record 27 goals is tied for third-most in league history and leaves him two back of LAFC’s Carlos Vela for the MLS lead this year. But that boast was actually a step down from last week, when he proclaimed himself the best player in MLS history.
“I focus on performing and making my team win, because now we are in a good position, we just have to continue,” he added. “This is what we want. We want to be in the playoffs and then we take the race from there.”
There is some question as to whether Ibrahimovic will make the Galaxy’s midweek trip to Utah, however, after he limped through the final minutes of Saturday’s game. Ibrahimovic, 37, has been troubled by an inflamed Achilles much of the season.
“I was tired. When I jumped in a duel, I twisted my ankle and I think I hit a nerve so I couldn’t feel my left foot,” he said. “But after a while it came back.”
Despite his dominance, the Galaxy attack is showing signs of expanding beyond just Ibrahimovic, with Uriel Antuna scoring in each of his last three starts and Cristian Pavon scoring once and assisting on six other goals in his eight MLS appearances.
In fact, if you’re looking for a turning point in the season it may have come in mid August when Pavon joined the team on a long-delayed loan from Argentina’s Boca Juniors. Since his arrival, the Galaxy are 3-3-2, their best extended stretch since April.
(Watch Antuna’s game-winning goal against Montreal, which came as the result of a lot of hard work from Pavon, by clicking here.)
LAFC is running in place
If the Galaxy are streaking toward a postseason berth, LAFC has been hovering in place since locking up its playoff berth last month. Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Toronto, earned on a Carlos Vela penalty kick five minutes into stoppage time, extended the team’s season-long winless streak to five games.
Even more alarming is the fact that, after averaging 2.74 goals a game through its first 27 matches, LAFC has scored just four times in four games.
The last two goals have come from Vela, who is two short of matching Josef Martinez’s single-season record. His penalty kick Saturday gave he and teammate Diego Rossi the league mark for most goals by two teammates in a single season at 44.
2019 LAFC (44):
Carlos Vela, 29
Diego Rossi, 15
2018 Atlanta United (43):
Josef Martinez, 31
Miguel Almiron, 12
(Watch the record-breaking goal by clicking here.)
However LAFC may have begun righting the ship in the second half against Toronto after an opening 45 minutes in which it was completely outplayed.
“In the second half we pushed the game, we controlled the game, we push[ed] up the field,” coach Bob Bradley said.
With its postseason invitation already in hand, along with a first-round bye, LAFC’s remaining regular-season games with Houston, Minnesota and Colorado are meaningless in the standings. But they’re vital in rebuilding the team’s confidence heading into the postseason.
“We’ve been in a tough little spell where we haven’t won in five games but those things are going to happen,” said goalkeeper Tyler Miller of a team that has won just once in six games since punching its ticket to the postseason. “This is a strong group. We’ve obviously done well this season so far if you just look at the standings. But we know that we want to build momentum going into the playoffs and these three games are very important for us.”
There are also a handful of MLS records still within reach:
71 – New York Red Bulls, 2018
69 – Toronto FC, 2017
Atlanta United, 2018
68 -Galaxy, 1998
67 – Galaxy, 2011
66 – San Jose Earthquakes, 2012
65 – LAFC, 2019
85 – Galaxy, 1998
78 – LAFC, 2019
44 – LAFC, 2019
41 – Galaxy, 1998
Which is all well and good, but after last season’s first-round playoff exit, LAFC won’t be satisfied with anything short of an MLS Cup no matter how many records the team ends up with.
“Winning these games, it’s great. But the ultimate prize at the end of the day in an MLS Cup,” defender Steven Beitashour, a league champion with Toronto, said earlier this season. “If you don’t win the trophy, no one’s going to talk about you.”
Speaking of records, a dubious one was tied last week when Atlanta beat FC Cincinnati 2-0. That pushed Cincinnati’s goals-allowed total to 74, equaling the number Orlando City conceded in 2018. Cincinnati would have broken the record Saturday but it held the Chicago Fire scoreless. The shutout was the second in three games for the expansion team.
Cincinnati, who also has a league-low 30 goals scored, has two games left to break the goals-allowed record, beginning Sunday against Orlando City, the team with which it shares the current mark. The four worst marks – and seven of the top 10 -- for goals allowed have all come in the last two seasons.
74 – Cincinnati, 2019
74 – Orlando City, 2018
71 – San Jose, 2018
Minnesota United, 2018
Worst goal differential
-44 – Cincinnati, 2019
-37 – Chivas USA, 2013
D.C. United 2013
-36 – Chivas USA, 2005
Tampa Bay, 2001
Here are the MLS standings
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
New York City 16 5 10 57 38 19 58
Atlanta 17 11 3 53 37 16 54
Philadelphia 15 9 7 55 45 10 52
D.C. United 13 10 9 42 38 4 48
New York Red Bulls 14 13 5 53 48 5 47
Toronto 12 10 10 54 50 4 46
New England 10 10 11 45 52 -7 41
Chicago 9 12 11 48 43 5 38
Montreal 11 17 4 43 59 -16 37
Orlando 9 14 9 41 46 -5 36
Columbus 9 15 8 37 46 -9 35
Cincinnati 6 22 4 30 74 -44 22
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
LAFC 19 4 8 78 34 44 65
Seattle 14 10 8 50 49 1 50
Minnesota 14 10 7 49 40 9 49
Galaxy 15 13 3 51 50 1 48
Salt Lake 14 12 5 42 38 4 47
Dallas 12 11 9 48 43 5 45
San Jose 13 13 5 50 49 1 44
Portland 13 13 5 45 44 1 44
Colorado 11 15 6 54 60 -6 39
Houston 11 16 4 43 52 -9 37
Kansas City 10 14 7 46 57 -11 37
Vancouver 7 15 10 33 55 -22 31
No word yet if she’s been invited to the White House
Megan Rapinoe, who picked up the Golden Boot, the Golden Ball and the Women’s World Cup trophy this summer in France, won another award Monday when she was named the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year.
Rapinoe is the fourth American to be named the world’s top player, following Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd. Hamm and Lloyd each won the award twice.
Jill Ellis, who has already announced her retirement from the national team, was named the FIFA coach of the year for a second time. Ellis, who is unbeaten in two World Cups, also won the award in 2015.
Rapinoe scored six times in the World Cup, with five coming in the knockout stage, including the go-ahead goal in a 2-0 win over the Netherlands in the final. Along the way she was targeted by President Trump in a Twitter tirade after a six-month-old video surfaced of Rapinoe saying she wouldn’t visit the White House if the U.S. won the World Cup. (Team leaders Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, Becky Sauerbrunn and goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris all said they would refuse to go as well.)
“This World Cup, perhaps more than any other, was such an incredible team effort on so many fronts that I feel like I’m accepting this award on behalf of the team,” said Rapinoe, who was playing in the tournament for the third time. “I feel like I’m still a kid from a small town in Northern California who always just loved playing the game so this is very surreal – but also just as I have dreamnt for all these years.”
Ellis also credited the team for her individual honor.
“This award represents the efforts of our entire team and I sincerely thank the players and all the staff for their dedication and expertise,” she said. “I was honored to work with them.”
Morgan and England defender Lucy Bronze, the other two finalists, joined Rapinoe on the FIFA FIFPro best 11 team, which is voted on by their peers around the world. Also making the all-star squad were American midfielders Julie Ertz and Rose Lavelle and defender Kelley O’Hara.
Barcelona forward Lionel Messi of Argentina was named the best men’s player for a record sixth time. Cristiano Ronaldo of Juventus and Portugal and Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk of the Netherlands were the other two finalists.
FIFA FIFPro Men’s World11
Goalkeeper: Alisson Becker (Liverpool/Brazil)
Defenders: Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus/The Netherlands), Marcelo (Real Madrid/Brazil), Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid/Spain), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool/the Netherlands)
Midfielders: Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona/the Netherlands), Eden Hazard (Real Madrid/Belgium), Luka Modrić (Real Madrid/Croatia)
Forwards: Cristiano Ronaldo (Juventus/Portugal), Kylian Mbappé (Paris Saint-Germain/France), Lionel Messi (Barcelona/Argentina)
FIFA FIFPro Women’s World11
Goalkeeper: Sari van Veenendaal (Atletico Madrid/the Netherlands)
Defenders: Lucy Bronze (Lyon,England), Nilla Fischer (Linkopings/Sweden), Kelley O’Hara (Utah/U.S.), Wendie Renard (Lyon/France)
Midfielders: Julie Ertz (Chicago/U.S.), Amandine Henry (Lyon/France), Rose Lavelle (Washington/U.S.)
Forwards: Marta (Orlando/Brazil), Alex Morgan (Orlando/U.S.), Megan Rapinoe (Reign FC/U.S.)
Swear you won’t say that again?
After numerous warnings and fines from FIFA, CONCACAF and others, Mexico’s soccer authorities promise – really – that they are finally ready to get serious about addressing the anti-gay goal-kick chant that has embarrassed the national team and marred Liga MX club matches for years.
Last week the league and the Mexican national federation adopted a five-point response, graduated in intensity, designed to stop the continued use of the chant.
The first time the chant is heard, a PA announcement will be made and those suspected and using the epithet will be removed from the stadium. The second time the chant is used, the game will be ordered suspended for five minutes and additional evictions will be made.
If that isn’t sufficient, match officials will be empowered to stop the game again and the players will be ordered off the field. Teams will be fined if the chant persists among their supporters and games could be ordered played behind closed doors.
The national team will begin observing the new rules for its Oct. 15 Nations League game against Panama in Mexico City while the regulations will go into effect in the Liga MX next month during week 15 of the Apertura.
“We’re not in an emergency situation. But if we don’t resolve it, we will have problems and we don’t want that,” Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla told reporters last week. “That’s what Liga MX and [the Mexican federation] will work in a proactive way.”
I hope it works. But after so many previous half-hearted and ultimately failed attempts to accomplish the same goal, I’m keeping my fingers crossed -- and my ears open.
Remember 2017, when the Galaxy, in their first season without Bruce Arena, packed the first-team roster with academy and Galaxy II players?
That roster overhaul was an effort to prove to owner Phil Anschutz that the millions he had spent on player-development were actually developing players. It didn’t go so well, though, with the Galaxy losing a franchise-record 18 games and finishing last in the conference for the first time.
But if that test was a failure, the overhaul idea was a good one because the academy has been developing pro players ever since. Here, courtesy of Soccer America, is a list of academy products who are playing professionally after Jorge Hernandez signed last Thursday with the USL’s Galaxy II (with birth year in parentheses):
Zico Bailey, Helsingor, Denmark (2000)
Jorge Hernandez, LA Galaxy II (2000)
Alex Mendez, Ajax, Netherlands, (2000)
Julian Araujo, Galaxy (2001)
John Hilton, Volendam, Netherlands (2001)
Ully Llanez, Wolfsburg, Germany (2001)
Leonard Sepulveda, Salamanca, Spain (2001)
Efrain Alvarez, Galaxy (2002)
Adam Saldana, Galaxy II (2002)
Mauricio Cuevas, Galaxy II (2003)
And speaking of young players signing pro contracts, 17-year-old midfielder Bryang Kayo has left D.C. United, where he was playing for its USL Championship affiliate Loudoun United on an academy contract, to sign with the Orange County Soccer Club, expanding a Kiddie Korps that already had a 17-year-old goalkeeper in Aaron Cervantes and a 14-year-old midfielder in Francis Jacobs.
Tuesday, the team will announce another youth signing in forward Diego Lopez, a 17-year-old Chino native who was playing for Atlanta United’s USL affiliate.
“We feel very strongly about developing the local talent,” OCSC general manager Oliver Wyss said.
A couple of seasons ago Wyss and team owner James Keston started a “Pathway to Professional” project designed to make the USL team a stepping stone from youth leagues to professional soccer, one OCSC will fund partly through the transfer fees it hopes that young talent will bring.
“We’re building a training structure, an environment, [where] these young talented players have the opportunity now,” Wyss said. “And we’re looking at these players as assets. If they play here and they do well, we don’t want this to be the end piece. We want to move them on and transfer them into Europe and into Mexico or maybe even the MLS.”
“Sunil, I just wanted to personally thank you. We had an amazing partnership. I really felt that the way we were able to communicate with each other was in a way that our national team could truly grow. Of course, I speak not just for the women’s side but for the entire program. You are an architect and you have shaped this game in our country and you have built the foundational bricks that are strong and sturdy so that it can last and grow.”
Abby Wambach, addressing former U.S. Soccer president and fellow Hall inductee Sunil Gulati, in her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, as reported by Soccer America
Until next time