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Soccer! LAFC keeps its eyes on the prize

Carlos Vela.

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

This was supposed to be the week LAFC prepared to play host to the MLS Cup, which would have been a fitting way to end the team’s record-setting season. The Seattle Sounders had other ideas, however, and their 3-1 upset win in last week’s Western Conference final makes LAFC just the latest regular-season champion forced to watch the MLS Cup final on television.

But if the season ended with a disappointing result, the year as a whole shouldn’t be viewed that way because while LAFC missed out on the biggest prize, it did pick up some other nice hardware. It won the Supporters’ Shield with a record 72 points, though that may also have proven to be the team’s Death Knell: Only one of the three previous record-setting teams -- Toronto in 2017 -- went on to win MLS Cup. Just three times since 2002 has a team won the regular-season and postseason trophies.

Individually, Bob Bradley was named the MLS coach of the year for a record-tying third time and on Monday captain Carlos Vela, who broke the league scoring record with 34 goals, was named MVP, chosen in a vote of MLS players, executives and media.

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Vela received nearly 70% of the vote to easily beat the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, although a good argument could be made that Ibrahimovic was the most dominant – if not most valuable – player in the league this season. The Galaxy were 13-5-2 in the regular season in games in which he scored and 3-10-1 when he didn’t; his 30 goals accounted for more than half of the team’s total.

Take Ibra out of the picture and the Galaxy don’t make the playoffs; take Vela out of LAFC’s lineup and the team may not have won the Supporters Shield, but it would have been a contender.

MLS MVP voting

Carlos Vela, LAFC (Player%: 80.33%; Club%: 64.65%; Media%: 63.85%; Final%: 69.61%)

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Galaxy (Player%: 6.89%; Club%: 13.13%; Media%: 22.31%; Final%: 14.11%

Josef Martinez, Atlanta United (Player% 5.9%; Club%: 8.08%; Media%: 6.92%; Final%: 6.97%

The MVP was something Vela began pointing for after last year, his first in MLS, when he scored 14 goals and had 13 assists after joining the team from Spain’s Real Sociedad.

“In my holidays I worked without my team. I was thinking – it’s the first time I did that – why am I doing this? I have to enjoy my holidays,” Vela said during a Monday morning ceremony in which he also received the Golden Boot award as the league’s top scorer. “But when I came back something changed in my mind.

“I worked really hard all year and this is the reward.”

Vela was presented with the MVP trophy – named after former Galaxy star Landon Donovan – by former Dodger pitcher Fernando Valenzuela during an over-the-top ceremony at Banc of California Stadium that featured videotaped messages of congratulations from Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adrian Gonzalez, Jared Goff, Matt Leinart and Jaime Jarrin – none of whom played soccer.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the league’s growth that nine of the last 10 MLS MVPs have come from 10 teams and nine different countries; no American has won the award since Mike Magee in 2013.

2019: Carlos Vela, Mexico and LAFC

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2018: Josef Martinez, Venezuela and Atlanta United

2017: Diego Valeri, Argentina and Portland

2016: David Villa, Spain and New York City

2015: Sebastian Giovinco, Italy and Toronto

2014: Robbie Keane, Ireland and Galaxy

2013: Mike Magee, U.S. and Chicago

2012: Chris Wondolowski, U.S. and San Jose

2011: Dwayne De Rosario, Canada and D.C. United

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2010: David Ferreira, Colombia and Dallas

Playoffs? Don’t talk about playoffs

MLS is one of the world’s few first-division leagues that crowns its overall champion not on a full season’s worth of work; that’s just a 34-game overture. The league champion is the team that wins the MLS Cup, the final match of a four-round playoff that follows the seven-month regular-season tournament.

And if the playoff format doesn’t necessarily reward season-long excellence, there’s no doubt it brings excitement and opportunity other leagues don’t have. Consider that on the final day of the MLS regular season, 11 of the 12 games had some bearing on the playoff seeding while Toronto, an MLS Cup finalist, had to go unbeaten over its final 10 league games just to finish ninth in the overall standings and qualify for the postseason.

Now it has a chance to become the champion while LAFC, eight victories and 22 points better during the regular season, will be watching from home.

Contrast that with the major European leagues. Juventus clinched its eighth consecutive Serie A title with five matches to spare last season while Bayern Munich clinched a recent Bundesliga title in March, rendering the final two months of the season meaningless as far as the league championship was concerned.

But does the MLS format go too far the other way, making the regular season almost pointless -- especially given that 14 of the league’s 24 teams made the postseason tournament this season?

“Thirty-four games is an accomplishment The [playoffs] are a tournament,” said LAFC assistant coach Ante Razov, who played on a Chicago Fire team that won the Supporters’ Shield and U.S. Open Cup but lost the chance to call itself champion when it fell to San Jose in the MLS Cup final.

“The way things work in this country, in our league, is you’re judged by the tournament,” he continued. “But to say that we’ll be judged by [one] game over 34 would be ridiculous.”

LAFC’s record-setting season

Carlos Vela individual records

Goals: 34

Goals/assists combined: 49

Goals per 90 minutes: 1.12

LAFC team records

Points: 72

Goal differential: +48

Goals: 85*

Shots: 621

(*-tied all-time MLS record)

Compare LAFC’s sustained excellence in 2019 – the team not only set a record for regular-season points but shattered the record for goal differential and equaled the mark for goals scored while Vela broke two individual scoring records – with Seattle’s history of regular-season mediocrity and postseason dominance.

The Sounders, who will be facing Toronto in the league final for the third time in four years, have made the playoffs in all 11 years in has played in MLS. But it has won the Supporters’ Shield just once and finished in the top two in the regular-season standings only twice.

In 2016, the year it won its only MLS Cup, it had to beat Real Salt Lake in its final regular-season game just to reach the playoffs. It then beat Toronto in the final on penalty kicks despite not putting a shot on goal in 120 minutes.

Was it the best team in the league? Probably not. But it became the league champion because it was the best team on the right day just like the Washington Nationals squeezed into the baseball playoffs as a wild-card team, then beat two 100-win teams in the Dodgers and Houston Astros to win their first-ever title.

Canadian bakin’

Toronto’s return trip to the MLS Cup final was even more propitious than Seattle’s. Not only did Toronto need a two-month charge just to reach the postseason but once there it needed consecutive 2-1 road wins over New York City, the regular-season conference champion, and Atlanta United, the defending MLS Cup winners.

Toronto was outplayed by wide margins in both matches and probably would not have survived if the postseason still consisted of two-leg series in the conference semifinals and final. (The same could probably be said of Seattle if it had to play LAFC twice.) But this season, for the first time, the entire tournament was played in a single-elimination format.

“I spoke to the [Toronto FC] manager [Greg Vanney],” said first-year Atlanta manager Frank de Boer “and he said they didn’t deserve the win. But they are in the final and we are not. That’s harsh again. That’s sports, the beauty of sports and a part of life.”

This fall’s playoffs marked a turning point in MLS in another way since, for the first time, each of the Final Four teams were expansion clubs. Seven of the final eight teams joined the league after 2004 with the Galaxy, which lost to second-year LAFC in the Western Conference semifinals, the only one of the league’s founding 10 franchises to get past the first round.

Seattle, Atlanta and LAFC mark a departure from the traditional MLS style in another way, too, in that each have built their teams around young, dynamic Latin American stars. When Martinez, a 25-year-old Venezuelan, won the MLS Cup MVP award last year with Atlanta, he became the youngest player to do so since D.C. United’s Alecko Eskandarian in 2004.

Be true to your school

With both the Galaxy and LAFC out of the MLS playoffs, the professional soccer season is over in Southern California without so much as an international friendly on the calendar for the rest of 2019.

There will be a big women’s college game at UCLA on Friday, though, when 11th-ranked USC meets No. 13 UCLA in the final regular-season game of the year, one with national playoff implications. The schools have played in two of the last three NCAA championship matches with USC winning in 2016.

USC (14-3-1, 7-3-0 in conference play) will go into Friday’s match tied with UCLA (13-4-1, 7-3-0) for second place in the Pac-12 standings. Both teams are coming off back-to-back road shutout wins over Oregon and Oregon State. UCLA has won four straight while USC has won its last two.

Friday’s result will impact seeding for the NCAA tournament with the winner likely to earn a higher seed and home matches for the first three rounds. But given both schools’ national rankings, the loser figures to open the playoffs at home as well.

Of more importance is local bragging rights; UCLA’s seniors have never lost to USC.

On the men’s side, UCLA (5-9-3, 1-6-2 in conference) will take a seven-game unbeaten into its final match of the season Saturday at San Diego State. But junior forward Milan Iloski is having a memorable season just the same, leading the nation in scoring with 17 goals. The rest of the team has combined to score just 11 times.

The Bruins’ Riley Ferch and Julio Robles of Cal State Northridge rank among the national leaders in assists with nine apiece.

In Division II, unbeaten Azusa Pacific (14-0-0) and Cal State LA (13-0-1) are ranked 1-2 in Super Region 4.

Youth is (not) served

You think the senior national team is in a tailspin after last month’s embarrassing 2-0 loss to Canada? Well apparently that proved contagious because the U-17 team bowed out of its World Cup in Brazil over the weekend without winning a game in group play.

The Americans were outscored 8-1 – losing 4-0 to the Netherlands and 4-1 to Senegal around a scoreless draw with Japan -- to earn just a point. That matches the team’s performance in 2015. The U.S. lost all three group-play games in 2001 and 1995 but the -7 goal differential this year is the team’s worst ever.

(Mexico, meanwhile, is on to the knockout stages thanks in part to three goals in group play from the Galaxy’s Efrain Alvarez.)

As Soccer America point out, the disastrous U.S. result comes two years after coach John Hackworth guided his U-17 team to the World Cup quarterfinals. But since Carlos Cordeiro replaced Sunil Gulati as president of U.S. Soccer and mandated all national team coaches must relocate to Chicago, the federation’s home, seven youth national coaches, including Hackworth, have left the program.

Raphael Wicky, who coached the team in Brazil, took over the U-17s just seven months before the tournament and remains the only full-time youth national team coached working for the federation. That follows a period of stability and success under Tab Ramos, who was youth technical director for U.S. Soccer.

Ramos was recently named coach of the Houston Dynamos of MLS.

During the Ramos’ era, the coaching staff included several people with youth world championship experience and familiarity with U.S. culture. As a result, the youth national teams were making progress, reaching the quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup in 2017 and the final eight of the 2017 and 2015 U-20 World Cups.

But the senior team’s failure to qualify for its world championship in 2018 led to a series of changes at the federation, including Gulati’s decision not to seek re-election as president, paving the way for Cordeiro to take over.

“(In 2017), there’s this period of chaos over the next year,” Ramos told the Houston Chronicle. “Unfortunately, all of those things and all of the delay at the top of any organization affect everything below it. And so we started to get to a point where the youth national teams weren’t as important as before. We started to lose coaches. The coaches that we lost weren’t being replaced.”

With CONCACAF qualifying for the 2020 Olympics – officially a U-23 tournament – just months away, U.S. Soccer has a lot of work to do to get its youth program in order. The U.S. had qualified for just one of the last four Olympic tournaments and has advanced out of group play only once.

The eligible U-23 player pool – one that includes Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent, Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Weston McKennie – is one of the most talented in history and would likely compete for a medal in Tokyo. But first it has to qualify.

Sack race

For the second time in three years Bayern Munich has fired a manager less than three months into the season. Second-year coach Niko Kovac was sacked Sunday, one day after the seven-time defending Bundesliga champion was humiliated 5-1 by Kovac’s former team, Eintracht Frankfurt.

Bayern fired Carlo Ancelotti six games into the 2017-18 season and replaced him with Jupp Heynckes, who lost just three games the rest of the way to capture the league title. Kovac, a 48-year-old German-Croatian who once played for Bayern, then replaced Heynckes and won the Bundesliga crown last season.

But Sunday’s loss was Bayern’s worst loss since a 5-1 loss to Wolfsburg under Juergen Klinsmann in 2009. It also marked the fifth time in 10 league games the team has dropped points.

Hans-Dieter Flick, a former national team assistant under Joachim Loew who joined Kovac’s staff last July, will guide Bayern on an interim basis. The team returns to the field Wednesday when it meets Olympiacos in Champions League play.

Kovac is the 14th manager in one of Europe’s top five leagues to lose his job this season. Five managers in Italy’s Serie A were sacked in the last month; three were fired in Spain’s La Liga and another resigned; three were fired in France’s Ligue 1; and Watford’s Javi Garcia was dismissed in the Premier League.

Quotebook

“The trophy just made more hungry to be champion. I will work really hard to get that trophy for my team, for my club. This one is OK. I want the bigger one.”

LAFC’s Carlos Vela, accepting the league MVP trophy Monday after a season in which his team played to reach the MLS Cup final

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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