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Soccer! Nations League may be a waste of time for the U.S.

United States midfielder Weston McKennie (8) chases down a ball during the first half of an internat
Weston McKennie
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer and I, like you, am still five days away from the start of the MLS playoffs.

So we’ll begin today with the national team, which blitzed Cuba 7-0 last week in its first CONCACAF Nations League game. We’ll also check in with LAFC and the Galaxy and their preparations for the postseason, take a look at the dwindling MLS attendance figures and visit Europe, where Liverpool has a chance to do something that’s only been done once before .

Whatever positives came out of the U.S. rout of Cuba must be tempered by the opponent, which found itself on the wrong end of a 7-0 score for the third time in less than four months (it also lost a game 6-0 during that span and has been outscored 33-1 in seven losses this year).

The U.S. led 3-0 in the ninth minute, 4-0 in the 13th – by which time Weston McKennie had three goals and an assist. The Americans had the ball two-thirds of the game and did not allow a shot on goal.

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(Watch McKennie’s hat trick by clicking here.)

Afterward the U.S. players seemed most pleased by the fact they stayed on the field and showed interest for all 90 minutes.

“A lot of players in this situation, it’s easy to kind of bring your foot off that gas pedal,” defender Reggie Cannon told reporters. “The killer instinct of this team, maybe for lack of a better term, has been missing for the last few years. I think that killer instinct is something the U.S. national team needs. And you could really see it tonight.”

Added goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who didn’t face a shot on goal all night: “We can’t control the opponent. We go out and play whoever we’re meant to play against. In that sense, it was a professional performance.”

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Sure. But what did the team gain from it?

Confidence, for starters. The win broke a three-game winless streak while the seven goals were more than the U.S. had scored in its previous six games combined. And maybe a confidence-building win will prove to be important for a team still struggling mightily to grasp, much less master, the complicated playing style coach Gregg Berhalter has adopted.

“If I could’ve written the game up, it would’ve been exactly like this. Score early. Score many goals early. And then cruise. That was important,” said Berhalter, whose team will follow the win over Cuba (world ranking: 178) with a Nations League match Tuesday against Canada (world ranking: 75).

But it’s important to note that, since September 2015, the U.S. has beaten just one team currently ranked inside the FIFA top 40. And it’s not going to learn how to beat top teams by playing weak ones.

CONCACAF didn’t invent the Nations League to solve that problem. It invented it to give smaller members like Curacao, Cuba and Bermuda a chance to play more competitive matches. But the tournament arguably hurts larger countries like the U.S. -- which played Italy, England, Peru and Colombia in the fall FIFA window last year – and Mexico – which played Costa Rica, Chile and Argentina twice last fall.

Mexico had an equally comfortable win Friday in its Nations League opener, beating Bermuda 5-1. It will play Panama on Tuesday. (Watch the Mexico highlights by clicking here.)

U.S. Soccer has pushed back on the potential negative impact the schedule might have arguing – correctly – that the Nations League is taking the place not of top-flight friendlies but of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying. In those games four years ago the U.S. beat St. Vincent and the Grenadines and drew Trinidad and Tobago.

The federation also points out that with UEFA deep into Euro qualifying, the top-ranked European teams the U.S. played last year aren’t available for friendlies this fall. That’s also true. But Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Peru and Senegal – all ranked ahead of the No. 21 U.S. – were available for friendlies this month.

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Jurgen Klinsmann, who insisted the U.S. play a schedule heavy in top-ranked opponents during his time as coach of the national team – a time that ended in a failed World Cup qualifying campaign – is among the biggest critics of the Nations League.

“It’s a waste of time,” he said in an interview with ESPN.

“When you are kind of locked into CONCACAF and you don’t play Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Chile every year, or you don’t play Holland, Germany, England, Spain, Italy every year, you have no chance to grow. And that’s what I always said, you have to leave this region here in order to make your program better, to improve your players.”

That won’t happen this year. After last Friday’s win over Cuba and Tuesday’s game with Canada, the U.S. will return to Nations League play next month against the same two teams in its final matches of 2019.

The pause that refreshes?

When Galaxy defender Dave Romney was asked last week if the 13-day break between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs would hurt the Galaxy, he answered with a shrug.

“We’ve had bye weeks during the year,” he said. “I don’t know what our record is after bye weeks or anything. I don’t know if there are stats on that.”

There are. And they’re positive stats for the Galaxy.

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The team had two extended breaks between MLS games during the just-concluded regular season and both times they returned with wins, beating Portland 2-1 after a 14-day break in March then shutting out Cincinnati 2-0 on the road after a 19-day break in June.

The pause in the schedule this month was necessitated by the penultimate FIFA international fixture window of 2019. It will delay the Galaxy’s playoff opener at Minnesota United until Oct. 20 and force the team to play – and win – three games in 10 days if it wants to make next month’s MLS Cup.

“It is a mental break, which is kind of nice,” Romney said of the rest, which follows a schedule that had the team averaging a game every six days for seven months. “I don’t really care. You’ve got to do it for the international break. We don’t really have a say.”

Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto welcomed the down time after his team stumbled to the finish with consecutive losses to bottom-of-the-table Vancouver and Houston, costing it home field in the playoffs.

“In the last two games you could feel the players [were] not focused,” he said. “The challenge we had during the year was to make the playoffs. Now we get a little rest and we need to prepare the head to play with Minnesota.”

The Galaxy (16-15-3) are seeded fifth in the seven-team Western Conference playoff field. And even if they win their opener, they are assured of playing their first two games on the road, where their 10 losses are tied for second-most by a playoff team.

Despite that only LAFC, coming off the best regular season in MLS history, would seem to have a better chance of advancing out of the conference than the Galaxy. That’s because the Galaxy have the great equalizer in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose 30 goals in 29 games trailed only LAFC’s Carlos Vela, who set a league record with 34 scores.

Ibrahimovic, arguably the most dominant player in MLS, goes into the playoffs having scored in five consecutive games and in nine of his last 10 starts, with 14 goals over that span.

How important is Ibrahimovic to the team’s success? The Galaxy are 13-5-2 in games in which he scores and 3-10-1 when he doesn’t. And they’ll need him to score to win since their 59 goals allowed make their defense the worst of any playoff team.

“We can’t make even one error,” midfielder Jonathan dos Santos said in Spanish. “The team has to know that we have to play a top-level game.”

Waiting their turn

If the Galaxy have welcomed the break – or at least tried to put a positive spin on it – the pause could prove problematic for LAFC.

The black and gold put together the best season in league history in 2019, going 21-4-9 and earning a single-season-record 72 points. They also shattered the MLS record with a +48 goal differential, tied the scoring record with 85 goals and saw Vela break the individual goal-scoring mark with 34 while losing just once the final 13 games.

Now all that momentum grinds to a halt. The playoff schedule will force LAFC, which has a first-round playoff bye, to sit for 17 days between its final regular-season game and its postseason opener against the winner of the Galaxy-Minnesota United game.

“That’s the MLS schedule,” goalkeeper Tyler Miller said. “You have to deal with these long breaks every now and then.”

The team, by virtue of finishing with the league’s best record, will have home-field advantage throughout the postseason. But that didn’t help last year when visiting Real Salt Lake scored on its only two shots on goal, then added a third score on a freak own goal, to eliminate LAFC in the knockout round.

And with the entire postseason consisting of single-elimination games for the first time in MLS history, there will be no second leg to make up for mistakes or fluke goals.

“It’s a tournament,” assistant coach Ante Razov said. “In a tournament anything can happen in a one-off game.”

LAFC manager Bob Bradley said he’ll keep the team on a four-day training cycle with days off on either end. That’s similar to the schedule he used during a regular season in which the team averaged a game once every 5.8 days.

“You identify individual needs. You identify team needs. And then you try to schedule in a smart way so that the things you’re worried about don’t happen; so that there isn’t a feeling that ‘man, it’s so long and we’re waiting for the next game’,” Bradley said.

If the regular season was a grind, the playoffs will be a sprint once the break is over. And defender Steven Beitashour, who won an MLS Cup with Toronto in 2017 after losing in the final on penalty kicks the year before, said this LAFC team has built off last year’s postseason disappointment the same way Toronto did.

“When we lost last year with this team, you saw the same fuel, that same fire in everyone’s eyes,” he said. “Everything you saw come along the way – from the points record, whatever – we don’t want any of that. We want to get to the MLS Cup final.

“You haven’t seen anybody let up. We’re going to keep going and doing the right things. Everybody was determined to get back into the playoffs and get into the MLS Cup final and win.”

For now, however, all they can do is sit and wait.

Playoff pairings

First round

(all times Pacific and subject to change)

Saturday

Western Conference

No. 7 Dallas (13-12-9, 48 pts.) at No. 2 Seattle (16-10-8, 56), Fox Sports TBD, Fox Deportes, 12:30 p.m.

No. 6 Portland (14-13-7, 49) at No. 3 Real Salt Lake (16-13-5, 53), (ESPNews , 7 p.m.)

Eastern Conference

No. 7 New England (11-11-12, 45) at No. 2 Atlanta (18-12-4, 58), Univision/TUDN, 10 a.m.

No. 5 D.C. United (13-10-11, 50) at No. 4 Toronto FC (13-10-11, 50), TUDN, 3 p.m.

Sunday

Eastern Conference

No. 6 New York Red Bulls at (14-14-6, 48) at No. 3 Philadelphia (16-11-7, 55), FS1, noon

Western Conference

No. 5 Galaxy (16-15-3, 51) at No. 4 Minnesota (15-11-8, 53), ESPN,, 5:30 p.m.

(Conference champions LAFC (21-4-9, 72 points) and New York City FC (18-6-10, 64 points) receive first-round byes)

Counting the house

The average attendance in MLS dropped for a second straight year in 2019, falling to 21,330, nearly 800 less than the league record of 22,106 set in 2017.

The Galaxy, which saw attendance drop to 23,205, were among 18 of the 23 teams to show declines; three of those drops reached double digits. LAFC, which added some seats to Banc of California Stadium over the winter, posted a slight increase, to 22,251, despite ticket prices that average $49.64, more than 13% higher than any other MLS team. LAFC says it has sold out all 35 of its MLS home games, including a playoff match, in its two seasons.

(Here’s a deeper dive on league tickets prices.)

But if the attendance decline is bad news for the league here’s the good: Revenue from the tickets sold rose to an average of $31 a seat, according to Soccer America.

SA editor Paul Kennedy says the increase in ticket revenue per game at a time of decreased attendance is attributable to a cutback in the number of complimentary tickets distributed to sponsors and groups and discounted tickets sold to brokers on the secondary market.

MLS, like the NBA, NHL and even the English Premier League, bases crowd figures on the number of tickets distributed, not the number of fans who pass through turnstiles or whose tickets are scanned at the stadium. (A 2016 Times story looked at that practice and how it swelled attendance figures.) Kennedy crunched the numbers and came up with some more interesting stuff:

--FC Cincinnati, which had one of the worst seasons in MLS history, averaged 27,336 fans per game at Nippert Stadium on the University of Cincinnati campus, its temporary home, ranking fifth all-time among expansion teams.

--Portland increased the capacity of Providence Park from 21,144 to 25,218 following the $85 million renovation of Providence Park, yet still extended a sellout streak that began in 2011.

--After a change in ownership, Columbus increased attendance by 19%, the largest increase by a team using the same seating configuration as in 2018.

--The New York Red Bulls’ average attendance has fallen 16% since 2017, leading the team to cover sections of the stadium’s upper deck to reduce the capacity by about 5,000 seats. Houston’s average attendance dropped to 15,674 fans a game, down 25% since 2012 when BBVA Stadium opened.

--Real Salt Lake (18,121) and Sporting KC (18,601) had their lowest average attendance figures at their soccer-specific stadiums since 2011, Kennedy found, while Vancouver’s average (19,520) was the second-lowest in its nine seasons in MLS.

--Atlanta United led the league in attendance for the third year in a row. Six of the seven largest U.S. soccer crowds of the year have been for Atlanta United games at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

You can expect all these numbers to be cited in the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations between the players union and the league.

2019 MLS Attendance (change from 2018)

1. Atlanta United 52,510 (-1%)

2. Seattle 40,247 (-1%)

3. FC Cincinnati 27,336 (first year)

4. Portland 25,218 (+19%)

5. Toronto FC 25,048 (-6%)

6. Galaxy 23,205 (-5%)

7. Orlando City 22,761 (-5%)

8. LAFC 22,251 (+1%)

9. NYCFC 21,107 (-9%)

10. *Minnesota United 19,723 (-17%)

11. Vancouver 19,520 (-11%)

12. San Jose 18,781 (-1%)

13. Sporting KC 18,601 (-7%)

14. Real Salt Lake 18,121 (-3%)

15. NY Red Bulls 17,751 (-5%)

16. **D.C. United 17,744 (+1%)

17. Philadelphia 17,111 (+4%)

18. New England 16,737 (-9%)

19. ***Montreal 16,171 (-13%)

20. Houston 15,674 (-7%)

21. Columbus 14,856 (+19%)

22. FC Dallas 14,842 (-4%)

23. Colorado 14,284 (-7%)

24. Chicago 12,324 (-17%)

League Average: 21,330 (-2.5%).

*Moved from TCF Bank Stadium to new Allianz Field in 2019

** Played one game each at Maryland SoccerPlex and Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in 2018

*** Played one game at Olympic Stadium in 2018

Top 10 Crowds in the U.S. in 2019

72,548: Galaxy at Atlanta United (MLS)

70,788: Mexico vs. Costa in Houston (Gold Cup)

70,382: FC Cincinnati at Atlanta United (MLS)

68,152: Orlando City at Atlanta United (MLS)

68,077: NY Red Bulls at Atlanta United (MLS)

68,046: Columbus at Atlanta United (MLS)

67,502: Chicago at Atlanta United (MLS)

65,527: Mexico vs. Cuba at the Rose Bowl (Gold Cup)

65,232: Brazil vs. Colombia in Miami Shores, FL (international friendly)

64,128: Mexico vs. Haiti in Glendale, AZ (Gold Cup)

Source: Soccer America

The Mersey beat

The FIFA international break may do what no Premier League team has been able to manage this season and that’s trip up Liverpool, which returns to domestic competition Sunday perfect through eight games.

The Reds, who will play Manchester United next weekend, had 17 players called up by their national teams during the break with Brazilians Roberto Firmino and Fabinho and Senegal’s Sadio Mane have the longest trips, traveling to Singapore where their teams met in a friendly last week. (Firmino scored in a 1-1 draw.)

Liverpool has won 17 consecutive Premier League games dating to last season, leaving it one short of Manchester City’s two-season-old record of 18 wins in a row. It can match that at Old Trafford on Sunday but that may be a tall order since the Reds haven’t won there since 2014.

The defending Champions League winners are already a whopping eight points clear of second-place City (5-2-1), the two-time defending league champions. And while it’s not unusual to see those two teams atop the table, it’s not as common to see Leicester City (4-2-2), Crystal Palace (4-2-2), Burnley (3-2-3) and West Ham (3-2-3) taking up half the spots in the top eight.

Meanwhile Tottenham (3-3-2), a European finalist last spring, has lost as many as it has won – and that doesn’t include a 7-2 home drubbing by Bayern Munich in Champions League group play. That has Spurs coach Mauricio Pochettino, among the longest-tenured Premier League managers, on the hot seat.

And then there’s Everton, Liverpool’s next-door neighbor. The Toffees were last relegated in 1951 but at 2-5-1 they’re in the drop zone now, standing 18th with seven points after eight games.

Quotebook

“If we are talking strictly about talent and skill, nobody surpasses Ronaldo.”

Jose Mourinho, shunning Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to pick two-time World Cup champion Ronaldo Luis Nazario de Lima of Brazil as the greatest soccer player he has ever seen

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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