Hello and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
It’s been a busy week, starting last Thursday when LAFC advanced to the MLS Western Conference final with a 5-3 win that ended the Galaxy’s season – and likely ended Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s MLS career.
And a lot of people watched the farewells, with the game drawing a playoff-record audience on ESPN and ESPN Deportes despite starting just before 11 p.m. on the East Coast.
On Saturday, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski and Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic made history in Europe and then on Monday U.S. Soccer announced that Seattle Reign coach Vlatko Andonovski would become the ninth manager in women’s national team history. He has big shoes to fill since his predecessor, Jill Ellis, was unbeaten in winning back-to-back World Cups.
We’ll start with LAFC, a team that’s a year younger than the Trump presidency but has already set an MLS regular-season record for points and heads into Tuesday’s Western Conference final with the Seattle Sounders – a team it has never lost to -- just one step away from an MLS Cup appearance.
“What we accomplished everyone on this club should be proud of,” assistant coach Ante Razov said. “Two years ago they only existed on a piece of paper.”
Now it is playing in a conference final, facing a Seattle team making its 11th consecutive playoff appearance and coming off postseason wins over FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.
“We’re two games away from getting to where we want to be,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “At the end of the day everyone is chasing MLS Cup. It’s about the playoffs.
“MLS Cup, that’s our goal. It’s something we’ve been chasing since Day 1.”
As important as Tuesday’s game is though, it won’t match the intensity of the LAFC-Galaxy rivalry, dubbed El Trafico and already one of the most passionate in Southern California sports history.
More than 300 media members were credentialed for the match – so many that LAFC’s press box, already one of the largest in MLS, needed an additional two rows of temporary seating to handle the crush.
The game drew a record 961,000 viewers on ESPN and ESPN Deportes with the ESPN audience of 586,000 marking the network’s largest for an MLS playoff game – excluding MLS Cup – in two decades, according to Soccer America.
The matchup was a compelling one: LAFC (21-4-9) had the best regular season in league history and was hosting a playoff game for the second time in many years. But in five regular-season meetings it had never beaten the Galaxy, its neighbor from 12 miles down the freeway. So when the Galaxy won their playoff opener in Minnesota, setting up a conference semifinal showdown with LAFC, it was as if a gauntlet had been thrown down.
“To a man everybody, after they beat Minnesota, said ‘great we want the Galaxy’,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “It had to be the Galaxy. It’s our time. And I think that showed.”
Despite all that, for the first 55 minutes the game unfolded like many of the previous El Traficos – with Carlos Vela scoring two first-half goals to give LAFC the lead before the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic equaled things 10 minutes into the second half.
In the first five rivalry games, Vela scored seven times – with four of those goals either putting his team in front or expanding the lead. Ibrahimovic had scored eight times, with seven of his scores either tying the game or putting the Galaxy ahead.
This one would play out differently over the final half hour though, with Diego Rossi scoring the go-ahead goal – off an assist from Vela -- moments after Adama Diomande, returning from a month in the MLS substance abuse and behavioral health program, came off the bench.
“I was thinking, ‘Now is my moment to come in and change the game’,” Diomande said. “When I come in, I always have that killer instinct in me and I just want to finish the play right off and help the team.”
He did, following Rossi’s score with two of his own to seal the win.
“A fantastic victory. Finally,” Diomande said. “When it matters…a great team effort today from everyone and I’m just happy to be back. It was a more emotional game.”
(Watch the match highlights by clicking here.)
If last Thursday’s playoff loss does prove to be Ibrahimovic’s last game in MLS, let’s hope the good-bye doesn’t overshadow the hello – nor all the things that happened in between.
After the final whistle sounded at Banc of California Stadium, Ibrahimovic dispensed with the traditional postgame handshakes and quickly headed off the field, grabbing his crotch in an apparent taunt to LAFC supporters as he stepped into the tunnel toward the locker room.
(Watch Zlatan’s exit by clicking here.)
An hour later he engaged in what has become a favorite pastime lately, disparaging the league that paid him a record $7.2 million this season.
“If I stay…for MLS it’s good because the whole world will watch it. If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is,” he said.
As always, it was impossible to tell how much of that was sincere and how much was over-the-top hype. There’s no doubt Ibrahimovic’s words, as much as his deeds, have been a major boost to MLS in his two seasons here, with the villain-and-hero rivalry he established with the quiet and humble Vela responsible for drawing tens of thousands of those viewers to ESPN to watch the playoff game.
“I made LAFC famous,” he said. “I made even Vela famous. So he should be happy.”
Ibrahimovic’s debut in 2018 was arguably the most memorable in league history with the Swedish superstar coming off the bench to score the tying goal on a 40-yard volley and the game-winner on a header in stoppage time in the first El Trafico. And Ibrahimovic is right when he says that game got the whole world watching MLS.
Those were the first two of 53 goals he would score in MLS. One, a magical goal that came on a spinning kung-fu kick in Toronto last season, was the 500th of his career; among active players only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have more.
He scored 31 times, including playoffs, this year, third-most on the league’s single-season list. When he set his mind to scoring he was virtually unstoppable, becoming the most dominant striker MLS has ever seen.
But that didn’t come without controversy, which is part of the baggage that comes with Ibrahimovic.
The Galaxy captain was suspended three times during this two seasons in MLS: for slapping Montreal’s Michael Petrasso on the side of head and for skipping the league All-Star game in 2018, then again this year for grabbing New York City goalkeeper Sean Johnson by the throat and wrestling him to the ground.
He narrowly escaped suspensions in two other incidents, once after entering the visitors’ locker room at Dignity Health Sports Park to confront Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha and for elbowing LAFC defender Mohamed El-Munir, sending the player to the hospital to repair facial fractures.
Ibrahimovic, 38, will see his contract expire at the end of the year and he refused to say whether he’ll be back.
“Could be, could be,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”
The decision may rest more with the team than the player though. Although Ibrahimovic’s record-setting season helped the team win 16 games for the first time since 2014 and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2016, the Galaxy has now gone a franchise-record five seasons without an appearance in an MLS Cup final and some in the organization believe they would have a better chance at ending that streak without Ibrahimovic.
Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto would prefer to play the attacking, possession-based 4-3-3 style he used to great success at Boca Juniors but Ibrahimovic doesn’t fit that system. Schelotto would also prefer to spread the ball around rather than have everything go one player even if it is Ibrahimovic, who scored more than half his team’s goals and took more than three times as many shots as any other Galaxy player.
Letting Ibrahimovic go could open things up for Cristian Pavon, the Argentine World Cup winger who had a hand in 12 goals in 13 MLS games. He won’t score 30 goals but he’s more than capable of leading the offense if the Galaxy can find the money to pay him.
The defense – suspect at best and porous at worst – also needs a major makeover after giving up a league-high 195 shots on goal this season and 190 goals over the last three seasons combined. Expect Jorgen Skjelvik to be the first of several players to be shown the door.
The $7.2 million the Galaxy would recoup by letting Ibrahimovic go could a long way toward addressing all those issues.
Western Conference semifinals
LAFC 5, Galaxy 3
Seattle 2, Real Salt Lake 0
Eastern Conference semifinals
Atlanta United 2, Philadelphia 0
Toronto FC 2, New York City 1
All times Pacific
Tuesday, Oct. 29
Seattle at LAFC, ESPN, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Oct. 30
Toronto FC at Atlanta United, FS1, 5 p.m.
The cat with the hat (trick)
Remember all that talk about how Christian Pulisic would never get a chance to make his mark in the Premier League and how Chelsea basically threw away the $73 million transfer fee it paid to pry the U.S. national team star away from German club Borussia Dortmund?
Pulisic made his first league start since August a memorable one Saturday, becoming the second American to score an EPL hat trick in a 4-2 win over Burnley.
“It’s incredible,” he said. “I can’t believe it.”
Clint Dempsey is the only other U.S. player to score three times in an EPL game, collecting his hat trick for Fulham against Newcastle in January 2012.
Pulisic’s first two goals came in the first half, one on a left-footed shot from inside the box and the other on a right-footed try that deflected off Burnley defender Ben Mee. He completed the hat trick early in the second half on a header.
The three goals were Pulisic’s first in England’s top division and, at 21, made him the youngest player to record an EPL hat trick in Chelsea history.
“The first few months were definitely hard,” Pulisic told reporters Saturday. “I had a few starts then I fell out a bit and I had to get any minutes I could. I didn’t think it was going to happen right away, being a big success and coming into a big club like this. It takes time. I’m happy with the progress I’ve made so far.”
That may be enough to convince former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, now the team’s manager, that Pulisic deserves more playing time.
“A lot of talk around Christian [is] for the big price tag,” he said. “He’s quite rightly a star in his country. And captain. I know the backstory and the pressures of a move like that. I also know he played for his country through the summer and had one week break this summer to come back after that.
“Then you get the pressure of ‘can you settle in the Premier League?’ So I’ve tried to deal with it in the way I see best, which is to give him minutes. He fully deserved his start and it was a fantastic match-winning performance.”
Pulisic didn’t need much help scoring the goals but he did have to be reminded to collect his souvenir afterward
“It’s my first professional hat trick, so I nearly forgot the match ball,” he said. “Luckily my teammates helped me out.”
(Watch Pulisic’s magic night by clicking here.)
Robert Lewandowski is off to his best start ever, which is saying something since the Polish striker has led the Bundesliga in scoring four times in the last six seasons.
With a goal in Bayern Munich’s win over Union Berlin last Saturday, Lewandowski has 19 scores in 13 games in all competition and at least one goal in all nine league games he’s played in, breaking Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s four-year-old record of eight consecutive goal-scoring games at the start of a season.
But Bayern, the seven-time defending league champion, hasn’t taken full advantage of those heroics, dropping points in four of its those nine league games, leaving it trailing Borussia Monchengladbach in the league table. The team got off to a similar start last season, finding itself fifth in the standings after 12 games.
“I remember the situation after five, six, seven games. Everyone said ‘ah Borussia Dortmund this year will be the champions’,” Lewandowski, speaking of last season, told me during Bayern Munich’s July visit to Los Angeles. “But we know that we are Bayern Munich. We have to keep fighting until the end. And we showed that it doesn’t matter how many problems you had during the season, that we’re still fighting and we’re still winning.”
When the season was over Bayern Munich, with a win on the season’s last day, finished two points up on Dortmund. The gut check was good for Bayern, Lewandowski said.
“If you are the best and you are on the top, you cannot be thinking that everything will be fine, that everything will be easy,” he said. “No. It will be difficult. To be on the top is good. To stay on the top is harder.
“We want to stay on the top. You have to be focused. You have to fight. Not only against our opposing teams but also against us, against our teammates. To be on Bayern Munich, you have to be ready mentally. If you are not, you cannot play on the best team. “
New women’s coach already in a hurry
Vlatko Andonovski hadn’t even finished his introductory news conference as coach of the world champion U.S. women’s team Monday when it became obvious that time was not on his side.
He has until the end of this week to name his first roster for friendlies with Sweden and Costa Rica next month. And then in January he’ll start playing games that count when CONCACAF qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics gets underway.
“That’s going to be the first thing on the agenda,” he said of qualifying. “We have a very, very experienced team. We have players that have been on the international stage, that have won the big games, big tournaments, so we’re going to rely heavily on them. But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to expand the roster and the player pool.”
Andonovski, 43, takes over for Ellis, who stepped down this summer after leading the U.S. to a second consecutive World Cup title. Ellis coached – and won – more games than any manager in U.S. history, going 106-7-19 in 5 ½ years.
Andonovski is familiar with most of the players in the U.S. player pool having spent seven seasons coaching in the NWSL, five with FC Kansas City and for the last two with the Seattle Reign. He won two leagues titles and was twice named coach of the year.
He was selected for the new position by Kate Markgraf, a two-time Olympic champion and World Cup winner for the U.S. who was named general manager of the women’s national team program in August.
“From the moment I came aboard, the main focus has been on hiring a new coach,” she said. “We identified the qualities we thought were most important for this unique position, we talked to quite a few people in the women’s soccer community domestically and around the world, and in the end, Vlatko was the best fit with his experience with elite players, how he sees the game, how he coaches the game and manages players, and his overall personality and ability to take on a job of this magnitude.”
Andonovski becomes the sixth man to coach the No. 1-ranked women’s national team.
Born in North Macedonia, Andonovski played six seasons in the Macedonian Football League before coming to the U.S. in 2000 to play with the Wichita Wings of the National Professional Soccer League and later with the Kansas City Comets, California Cougars and Philadelphia Kixx of the Major Indoor Soccer League. He was a two-time MISL All-Star.
“This was one step closer. We want more and this team wants to win. The team wants to have the best season in history.”
LAFC captain Carlos Vela after his team’s playoff win over the Galaxy
Until next time