Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
Today with begin with the Galaxy, who are closing in on what could prove to be one of the most important signings in the storied franchise’s history.
Go inside the L.A. pro soccer scene and beyond in Kevin Baxter's weekly newsletter.
If general manager Dennis te Kloese can complete the rapidly advancing negotiations to bring forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to Carson, it would not only be the team’s most consequential acquisition since David Beckham joined the team in 2007, but it may solve two problems at once.
Hernandez, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, could help fill the massive offensive void left by the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who took his team-record 30 goals with him when he decamped for Milan earlier this month. And as one of the most popular players in Mexican soccer – and, by extension, an idol for millions of Southern Californians – Hernandez would also go a long way toward replacing Ibrahimovic’s larger-than-life presence off the field, where the Galaxy are fighting a losing battle with LAFC and its Mexican star, Carlos Vela, for the hearts and minds of local fans.
The outline of a deal to bring Hernandez from Sevilla, where he has fallen out of favor in just five months, is already in place with only some stubborn details to work out. According to reports out of Spain, the Galaxy and Sevilla have agreed on a $10-million transfer fee, although a Galaxy spokesman pushed back on that saying those discussions are ongoing and no accord has been reached.
Monchi, the director of football operations for the Spanish club, is a master at buying and selling players at a profit, a talent he has used to make Sevilla competitive in a league dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two richest clubs in soccer. And since Monchi paid a reported $8.7-million transfer fee for Hernandez last fall, it’s unlikely he’d take anything less than $10 million to let the player go.
For the Galaxy that would be a franchise-record transfer fee, topping the $7 million the team paid for Giovani dos Santos in 2015. But given Hernandez’s popularity in Southern California, it’s money the Galaxy would probably recoup quickly.
Hernandez’s contract could be even more affordable. He’s less than half a year into a three-year $9.7-million deal and though he’ll have to work out a new deal with the Galaxy – one that will probably include a raise -- the team has a designated player spot open and $7.2 million to spend with Ibrahimovic’s contract now off the books.
“The difficulty with Javier is that he just changed teams,” Te Kloese said of Hernandez, with whom he worked both at Chivas de Guadalajara and with the Mexican national federation. “That makes it a little bit harder for both player and club to say ‘hey, I don’t know. Maybe a little bit of a rough start but now we’re moving away from it.’
“I think that’s going to be a challenge.”
But it’s one Hernandez recently told me he’s ready for.
“I want to be as open as I can to any opportunity and then when I need to decide something in the future, those decisions, I will think about them and try to get the best one,” he said by phone from Spain. “MLS is a league that is improving, like the league in my country.”
Southern California might also be a more comfortable place than Spain for Hernandez’s girlfriend Sarah Kohan, an Australian who attended college in the U.S.
Then there’s Hernandez’s large following here, where his national team jersey has been among the best-selling soccer shirts for nearly a decade.
“Really?” he said when I told him in a November phone call. “I didn’t know.
“Sometimes it’s like, a very short word to say thank you. But I really mean it. From the deepness of my heart, thank you to any people that buy something, read something, see something about my life, to follow me.
“Speaking about L.A., I want to tell [the fans] that I appreciate a lot.”
If Te Kloese can pull off a transfer, he might have a chance to thank his fans in person. But don’t clear him a spot in the locker room just yet. Hours before I filed this newsletter I received an email from a friend who works for Sevilla and he suggested everyone pump the brakes on this deal for the time being.
“Personal comment: I don’t know,” he said of the Galaxy’s pursuit of Hernandez which, if successful, would leave Sevilla short at forward following last week’s transfer of Munas Dabbur to Hoffenheim on a $13.4-million transfer.
“What would surprise me is that [Hernandez] would now leave,” my friend continued “considering that we would be left with only one forward.
“If it is done, it will be a little bit later.”
LAFC opened preseason Monday, a week ahead of the Galaxy and most other MLS teams. The early start is needed to prepare the team for next month’s CONCACAF Champions League series with Léon, which begins two weeks before the MLS season.
And camp began with something of a surprise with Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored at least 20 goals three times in the last six MLS seasons, in uniform as a trialist while goalkeeper Tyler Miller and defender Steven Beitahshour were nowhere to be found.
“We all know that he’s a very good player. When a veteran comes in, they’re just trying to get a feel for what our situation is and then get their feet on the ground and together, we can figure out if any of it makes sense,” coach Bob Bradley said of Phillips, 34, who spent the last seven seasons with the New York Red Bulls.
Last year’s Supporters’ Shield winner, LAFC broke one MLS record by racking up 72 points in the regular season and tied another by scoring 85 goals in 2019. But for the second year in a row their season ended early with a home playoff loss, this time to Seattle in the Western Conference final.
Getting over that playoff hump and to the MLS Cup final is only one of the goals LAFC takes into what will be the longest season in the team’s brief history, one that could stretch to more than 50 games if LAFC makes long runs in the Champions League, U.S. Open Cup and league playoffs.
Things got off to an uneven start Monday since LAFC was missing nearly half its projected lineup. Defenders Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura, midfielders Eduard Atuesta and Francisco Ginella and forward Diego Rossi weren’t in camp -- and may not be for a couple of weeks.
Zimmerman is with the U.S. national team in Florida while Colombians Segura and Atuesta and Uruguayans Rossi and Ginella are with their respective U-23 teams preparing for South America’s pre-Olympic tournament.
But while those five will be returning, Beitashour, a free agent, and Miller, who is out of contract, will not be back. Neither will midfielder Lee Nguyen, who was selected by Miami in last year’s expansion draft.
Miller, whose 34 wins over the last two seasons led the Western Conference, earned just $77,565 last season — nearly $9,000 more than he made the year before — and was seeking another increase, a demand LAFC refused to meet.
“The fact that Tyler was out of contract always meant that we needed to do real work to see what could be available and how we would work things out,” said Bradley, who has three goalkeepers in camp in Pablo Sisniega, last year’s back-up; Phillip Ejimadu, who is on loan; and Paulo Pita, the 24th pick in last week’s MLS SuperDraft.
Bradley does have the core of his offense back led by Vela, the league MVP who broke the single-season MLS scoring mark with 34 goals in 2019. Also back is Mark-Anthony Kaye, the midfielder motor who makes the offense go, while the team Monday announced the signing of midfielder José Cifuentes from América de Quito of Ecuador.
Cifuentes, 20, becomes the seventh South American player under the age of 22 to sign with LAFC
“We pick up on the work we’ve been doing for two years to become a better team,” said Bradley, who was named coach of the year for a third time after taking LAFC to a 21-4-9 record and an MLS-best 72 points. “The overall idea of what kind of football we want to play has not changed. And the players that have been here for a year or two have an expectation of what it will be like when they arrive. Then we try to find small ways to improve the way we go about things.”
Depth will be important for Bradley’s team this season because, in addition to the 34-game MLS schedule, which begins March 1 against Inter Miami, LAFC could play as many as eight Champions League games and five more in the U.S. Open Cup.
“Historically you’ve seen it’s difficult for teams to balance all these different competitions. And I hope we have the problem of fixture congestion because it will mean that we’ve done well in our various competitions,” general manager John Thorrington said.
“I do think we are prepared. We have a very young team, which I think does help. We know it’s not going to be easy but we’re excited for the challenge.”
Te Kloese’s busy winter
Hernandez may be the biggest deal Te Kloese has been working on this offseason but it’s hardly the only one. Although the Galaxy waited until New Year’s Eve to start confirming signings, the courtship that paid off in the acquisitions of winger Aleksandar Katai and defenders Emiliano Insúa and Danilo Acosta and the talks that appear to have the team close to a deal with Peruvian center back Carlos Zambrano stretched over several weeks.
That’s a change from last season, when Te Kloese had just six weeks to prepare for training camp.
“We had a lot more time to assess things and a lot more time to go over things and look at players, travel, interview players,” said Te Kloese, whose team gathers for the start of a new camp next weekend. “It’s not so easy to get the right players and the players that fit the budget. It takes a little bit of time.
“But little by little, we’re moving forward.”
And that work is far from over. With Ibrahimovic, Uriel Antuna and Favio Alvarez gone, the Galaxy are missing 43 of the 58 goals they got in 2019. Also gone is popular midfielder Romain Alessandrini, who was limited by injury to five games last season. Katai, a Serbian who scored 18 goals for the Chicago Fire over the past two seasons, figures to take his place.
On the back line the Galaxy did not bring back Diego Polenta, traded the versatile Dave Romney to Nashville and look to be trying to move the disappointing Jorgen Skjelvik.
Insúa, an Argentine most recently with Stuttgart of the German second-division, and Zambrano, who has played 51 times with Peru’s national team, will fill some of those minutes.
Julian Araujo, 18, who will miss the start of camp because he’s training with the U.S. national team in Florida, also figures to see an increased role.
The defense will continue to be an area of emphasis for a team that allowed 59 goals last season.
“We need to be very honest and clear that we need to be far more consistent,” Te Kloese said. “There were very good moments. But there also were moments where we can be more consistent, more mature. So that is one of the goals: to be more consistent in the overall stretch of the season.
“Last year we gave away the opportunity to play home games in the playoffs and that is something that we need to aspire to. And mostly I think we need to have a more recognizable style which fits our team, fits our roster and how players and how the coach wants to play. Those are the goals for the upcoming season.”
The departure of Ibrahimovic opens the way for coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto to adopt the attacking style he used to great success in Argentina with Boca Juniors – especially if Hernandez winds up taking Ibra’s spot. But the absence of the speedy Antuna, now with Guadalajara of Mexico’s Liga MX, will make that transition more difficult.
The Galaxy do return Cristian Pavón, who played for Schelotto in Argentina and had four goals and eight assists with the Galaxy in 13 games, including the playoffs.
Speaking of the playoffs, the Galaxy returned to the postseason last fall after a two-year absence but were bounced in the second round by LAFC. Te Kloese and Schelotto will have to go further this season to prove their three-year makeover is on track.
You can’t spell messiah without Messi
I know we’re more than two weeks into a new decade but the fine folks at Fox Sports compiled a list of the top goalscorers in club competition during the last decade. And not surprisingly Barcelona’s Lionel Messi led the way with 522 goals, followed by Cristiano Ronaldo, who did most of his damage at Real Madrid, at 477.
Bayern Munich’s Roberto Lewandowski was third at 324; Edinson Cavani, apparently in his final days at Paris Saint-Germain, fourth at 309; and Barcelona’s Luis Suarez is fifth at 303.
Ibrahimovic, the former Galaxy star, made the first start of his return to Italy last Saturday and scored his first goal, finding the back of the net in the 64th minute of Milan’s 2-0 win over Cagliari. Ibrahimovic would’ve had two goals but he was ruled offside after knocking in Ismael Bennacer’s through-ball in the 82nd minute.
Milan is unbeaten in two games with Ibrahimovic.
“Of course! He’s a scoring machine. He’s always there looking to score goals and also does a really good job defending for his team. It can be a good sign for everybody.”
LAFC captain Carlos Vela on whether he hoped the Galaxy succeeded in their pursuit of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, his former teammate with Mexico