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Soccer newsletter: Chicharito joins Galaxy at critical juncture

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Chicharito celebrates after scoring during the UEFA Europa League in October.
(Getty Images)

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

The new year is just three weeks old but it’s been a busy three weeks. So let’s try to get you caught up starting with the Galaxy, which will welcome Chicharito Hernández this week after saying good-bye to Romain Alessandrini.

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Hernández is the latest in a long series of high-profile acquisitions by the Galaxy, dating to the club’s first season when it made Mexican national team goalkeeper Jorge Campos the first international player in MLS history

The signing of David Beckham in 2007 changed the course of the league, ushering in the designated-player rule, while the addition of Robbie Keane four years later changed the course of the team, with the Galaxy winning three MLS Cups in Keane’s first four seasons.

Still others – Steven Gerrard, Gio dos Santos – were expensive busts.

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Hernández won’t be as transformative as Beckham or Keane but he joins the team at a critical juncture. The Galaxy returned to the playoffs last season after the worst two-year stretch in franchise history and the team needs to build on that momentum while overcoming the loss of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose 30 goals and seven assists gave him a hand in nearly two-thirds of the team’s 58 scores.

Hernández, 31, who has scored more than 21 times in a season just once and who hasn’t scored in double digits since 2016-17, won’t replace that production on his own. Although Hernández is a better fit than Ibrahimovic for the pressing 4-3-3 attack Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto wants to play, the team’s offense may ultimately depend on the play of Argentine winger Cristian Pavón, who had three goals and eight assists in 11 regular-season games last season.

“It’ll be a joint effort to match those numbers,” general manager Dennis te Kloese said.

That’s not to say the addition of Hernández’s isn’t huge. It is. But his biggest contribution may come off the field.

As the Mexican national team’s all-time leader scorer and one of the most popular players in that country’s history, the charismatic and bilingual Hernández could help the Galaxy make inroads in Southern California’s massive Mexican-American community. That’s a market the team has struggled to capture through much of its history and one that has become increasingly important since LAFC burst on the scene two years ago with its own Mexican star, league MVP Carlos Vela.

That battle for the hearts, minds and loyalty of local fans is one the Galaxy is spending heavily on, paying Ibrahimovic a league-record $7.2 million last season before giving Hernández a three-year contract that, with bonuses, could top that. Winning that battle will also require winning on the field since LAFC is coming off the best regular season in league history, followed by a playoff win over the Galaxy that ended Ibrahimovic’s MLS career.

So in addition to adding Hernández, Te Kloese has retooled a defense that allowed 59 goals by acquiring outside backs Emiliano Insúa and Danilo Acosta and strengthened the attack by re-signing national team midfielder Sebastian Lletget and picking up Serbian winger Aleksandar Katai.

“We need to be far more consistent,” Te Kloese said, reflecting on a 2019 season in which his team lost just one of its first nine games, then lost 10 of its next 15. “There has been very good moments. But there also have been moments where we can be more consistent, more mature.

“Mostly I think we need to have a more recognizable style which fits our team and which fits our roster and how the coach wants to play. And we’ll work hard to do that.”

Alessandrini out

One player who didn’t fit in with Te Kloese’s plans was French midfielder Romain Alessandrini, who bid adieu on social media Monday while the team was holding its first training session of the season.

“My journey in L.A. is officially over,” wrote Alessandrini, who was among the team’s most popular players. “I gave you my heart during the past 3 years, a lot of ups and downs for sure but it has been the best 3 years of my life….Just know that I’m sad to leave this club and this city.”

Alessandrini led the team with 13 goals and 12 assists in 2017 but a series of injuries limited him to 281 minutes last season, the final year of his designated-player contract. The team did not offer him a new one and though Alessandrini, who will turn 31 in April, held out hope one would be coming, his fate appeared sealed when Katai donned his No. 7 jersey at MLS media day last week.

“Romain’s a very good player. A difference-maker,” a club official said. “But he’s injury-prone. An expensive player not on the field hurts you.”

Alessandrini isn’t leaving Southern California empty-handed. In his first season here he and his girlfriend Fiona welcomed a daughter, Naomi.

“I’ll never forget you LA & no matter where I’ll be in the future, my wonderful American daughter will be there to remind me,” Alessandrini wrote. “But it’s time to move on.”

(Just like) starting over

Because it will be playing in next month’s CONCACAF Champions League, LAFC opened training camp a week earlier than the Galaxy. And while the team had a record-setting regular season en route to a Supporters’ Shield in 2019, the campaign ended short of an MLS title with a loss to Seattle in the Western Conference title. As a result, no one came to camp resting on the laurels of last season.

“We played at a high level but still have one more step. That’s a motivation for us because we feel we’re the best team in the league, so we have to show that by winning titles and that’s the target this year,” said Vela, the team captain who broke the MLS scoring record with 34 goals in 2019. “This year, [the] most important thing is to win the championship. I don’t care about winning the MVP or the scoring title.

“If do my job well we’ll be closer to winning the MLS.”

LAFC opened camp last week missing a lot of familiar faces. Tyler Miller, whose 34 wins were the most by a Western Conference goalkeeper the last two seasons, was traded to Minnesota while right back Steven Beithashour, who 54 regular-season starts are the most by a defender in LAFC’s brief history, was not re-signed.

The team was temporarily missing five other starters with defenders Walker Zimmerman and Eddie Segura, midfielders Eduard Atuesta and Francisco Ginella and forward Diego Rossi away on international duty. 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 in South America’s pre-Olympic tournament.

“It’s a little bit of an odd preseason because we have so many guys who aren’t here right now,” coach Bob Bradley said. “But we can’t complain about that. That’s a sign of good things.”

Speaking of good things, Rossi got his tournament off to a fast start, scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win in Uruguay’s group-stage opener with Paraguay. Atuesta went 90 minutes in Colombia’s 3-2 loss to Argentina.

“They’re not out doing nothing. They’re with their national teams, they’re getting games, they’re definitely fit, so barring injury they’ll be coming back and flying and help us take that boost forward,” veteran defender Jordan Harvey said.

To have enough bodies on the field for meaningful practices, Bradley invited six players from the team’s academy to camp, a move Harvey said could have additional benefits going forward.

“It’s a great opportunity for some of these young guys,” said Harvey, at 35 the oldest player on the roster. “When you see them in the locker room, in the meal room, they kind of go in packs, they don’t really want to leave each other’s side. But when you get them out on the field, you can speak to them individually because you’re rubbing shoulders with them, you can tell them little nuances of the game that you picked up over the years and that will help them.”

LAFC will play its first exhibition of the preseason Saturday night, meeting Uruguayan power Peñarol at Banc of California Stadium.

Alumni watch

Gio dos Santos, so unwanted at the end of his Galaxy career that the team paid him to go away, appears to have found a home with Mexico’s Club América.

Last year, his first in Liga MX, he overcame a nasty injury to help América reach the Apertura final, where it lost to Monterrery on penalty kicks. Then last Saturday he opened the Clausura season with a nice left-footed assist on Henry Martin’s second-half goal in a 1-0 win over Tigres.

In 14 appearances, including playoffs, Dos Santos has two goals and two assists for América. He had three goals and two assists in his final 14 games in MLS.

Gerrard, meanwhile, has found success as a manager in Scotland where his Rangers’ team is second in the Premiership with a 16-1-2 record. Rangers have already earned passage to the knockout stage of the Europa League.

Last season, Gerrard’s first as manager, the team won 23 games and finished second to Celtic in the Scottish first division.

Also former Galaxy academy and USL player Alex Mendez scored for Ajax’s U-21 team Monday, converting from the spot in a 2-0 win over FC Dordrecht. It was his first goal in 16 appearances.

China syndrome

Remember when teams in China’s Super League seemed to be printing money, luring big-name European stars such as Didier Drogba, Marouane Fellaini, Oscar, Carlos Tevez, Asamoah Gyan and Hulk with wildly overpriced contracts?

Just last summer Gareth Bale was reportedly offered $1.3 million a week to leave Real Madrid for China, a contract that would have made him the highest-paid player in history.

The spending spree was part of an ambitious plan pushed by President Xi Jinping to make the country a soccer superpower in advance of a bid to host a World Cup.

But apparently the gravy train is now leaving the tracks. And Bale, who was angling for a move to China in recent weeks, may be left at the platform – or at least have to settle for dramatically reduced wages.

In late December the league adopted a salary cap that limits players to $2.62 million a year before taxes, about a tenth of what Oscar has been getting since leaving Chelsea for Shanghai three years ago. The new rule does not affect any current contracts but it will require highly paid players to take massive cuts if they opt to renew their deal.

Don’t expect that to happen.

“Our clubs had too much money burned and our professional football has not been run in a sustainable way,” Chinese Football Association chairman Chen Xuyuan said, according to the state news agency Xinhua. “If we don’t take timely action, I fear it will collapse.”

There is more than a little logic to that since many of China’s high-priced signings have flopped. Tevez became the world’s highest-paid player when he signed with Shanghai Shenhua for $42 million in 2017. But he was unable to adjust to China, became homesick and made just 20 appearances, scoring four times, before leaving.

All this may prove good news for MLS. Although the league couldn’t come close to matching the old Chinese Super League salaries, it can offer solid paychecks and a lifestyle to which the players are more accustomed.

Consider Oscar, will be 29 when his Chinese contract expires, probably too old to return to the Premier League but still attractive to MLS teams. Hulk will be 34, Alex Teixeira 30 and Graziano Pellè 35 when their contracts run out next December.

None are likely to attract attention from top-tier teams in Europe but could play in MLS, even as the league makes the switch from aging, big-name continental stars to young, dynamic South Americans. It’s a possibility that bears watching.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Quotebook

“It’s a beautiful thing. For MLS and for Los Angeles…to have a great name like Chicharito, it is very important for the game. Now you are looking at MLS going and bringing stars in their prime. That changes the game drastically.”

Laker legend and soccer fan Kobe Bryant, speaking to TUDN on the Galaxy’s signing of Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez

Until next time...
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