Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today in England, where Liverpool is putting together the best season in Premier League history — and probably the best season by any team in a major European league in recent history.
With last Saturday’s methodical 4-0 rout of Southampton, the Reds (24-0-1) have dropped just two points in 25 EPL matches. Only Arsenal’s “Invincibles” in 2003-04 have finished an EPL season unbeaten, and they drew 12 games that season, finishing with 90 points.
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Eight teams have topped that total since, and Liverpool is on pace to obliterate it this season.
Over their last 38 games — the length of a league season — the Reds have gone 35-0-3 for 108 points dating to last season. That’s eight points better than Manchester City’s single-season record set two years ago. Manchester City also won an EPL-record 32 games that season.
If Liverpool continues at its current pace of 2.92 points per game, it will shatter not just City’s two EPL records but also Juventus’ six-year-old continental records for points (102) and wins (33) by a team in a top five European league.
Last season the title race between Manchester City and Liverpool wasn’t decided until the final half of the final game. This year it could be over by mid April — even if City goes unbeaten the rest of the way.
There’s plenty of credit to spread around for Liverpool’s success. Alisson, who is making a case that he’s the world’s best goalkeeper, has given up just 15 goals. Trent Alexander-Arnold is second in the EPL with 10 assists, and Mohamed Salah (14) and Sadio Mane (11) are in double digits for goals scored.
But the biggest reason the Reds are on the verge of winning their first league title in the EPL era is manager Jurgen Klopp, who has changed everything about the team since coming to Liverpool in 2015.
In three full seasons in charge, Klopp has taken Liverpool to two Champions League finals, winning the title last year. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Reds have gone 97-12-30 in league play. And the remarkable thing is they appear to be getting better.
That’s not the way it usually works with big-name coaches in soccer. The normal pattern has a coach coming into a team and completely remaking the culture and chemistry through strength of personality. After some quick success, the act grows old and the coach moves on, sometimes abruptly, with the team in tatters. (See Mourinho, Jose.)
But if anything, the joy and enthusiasm that Klopp brings to his job has proved infectious, not tiring.
“I would struggle to describe just how successful he has been for Liverpool,” Mane said in a recent interview with Liverpool FC magazine. “Everybody can see what he has done for this club, for this city and the quality he has as a manager.
“There are a lot of good managers in Europe, but what I can say is that our manager always has the right words and the right things to manage his team, especially knowing how to deal with his team. I would always trust his influence on the team. He is a winner, and I would say he is the best in the world.”
Klopp brought Mane to Liverpool in the summer transfer window before his first full season, and Mane has rewarded him with 56 goals and 19 assists in four seasons. But he’s not the only one who has raised his game under Klopp. Salah, Roberto Firmino, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Joel Matip, Alisson and Virgil van Dijk —more than half the team’s starting lineup — all came to Liverpool as proven talents only to raise their level markedly under the manager.
The profile of a Liverpool player under Klopp is just like the one that fits the manager: no ego. When Klopp is recruiting a player, he doesn’t ask about football — what he needs to know about that can been seen on the field. He’s more interested in the character behind the player, and that shows off the pitch as well, with defender Andrew Robertson volunteering tirelessly at the Liverpool’s overused food banks while Mane, a Muslim, was photographed cleaning the toilets at his local Mosque hours after leading a Liverpool win.
Klopp is underrated tactically, but that’s only because his very public sideline cheerleading and hugging have overshadowed his soccer acumen.
“Liverpool has the best coach in the world and the best players in their respective positions,” former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel, now at Istanbul Basaksehir, told the Turkish news agency AA in an interview excerpted by Bleacher Report. “These are special players, and beyond that, they are the type of players that fight with their all for the club. When talented players put their all on the pitch, success follows, and this makes Liverpool special.
“Klopp is a very special manager, and he’s a master at motivating people. His matchday meetings and style of speaking are very special. But he especially talks positively to his players after games, describing the mistakes they made without hurting their feelings. These details make him who he is. This is why players want to give their all for Klopp.”
Galaxy still far, far away
The Galaxy will play their first scrimmage of training camp today when they meet the Vancouver Whitecaps in a closed-door scrimmage on a practice field at Dignity Health Sports Park. But the team coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto fields in that match won’t be the one he hopes to use in the regular season.
Left back Emiliano Insúa just arrived in camp Monday, while right back Julian Araujo and midfielder Sebastian Lletget have been gone on international duty. And the team’s biggest off-season signing, striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, isn’t expected to play as he awaits for his visa to arrive.
But Hernández is getting to know Southern California in other ways. He and his wife, Sarah Kohan, have been searching the Westside for a home — a decision Hernández promises not to rush — while venturing out to see some of the rest of the city.
Hernández, who began his pro career in Guadalajara, where his father also played and coached, said he’s never been one to hide at home, afraid of being recognized in public. In fact, it’s something he embraces as a sign he’s doing well.
“Even living in Guadalajara, I tried to go out and live a normal life,” he said. “Sometimes they’re going to recognize you. I hope and expect if I keep doing very good here, we win championships and everything, that a lot of people recognize me, recognize the institution.
“I think for me, it’s going to be very good if they recognize me in the streets.”
And just in case Hernández was unclear on just what winning in L.A. might mean to his career, he received a stark lesson on his first visit to the Staples Center last week. Hernández sat courtside, next to Kobe Bryant’s empty chair, for the emotional tribute to the former Lakers great, who is still beloved here for bringing five NBA championships and an MVP award to Southern California.
It had to occur to Hernández that if he can bring an MLS title to the city, maybe he’ll find a place in the fans’ hearts as well.
Making the most of his opportunity
LAFC has already played two friendlies this winter, winning both by two-goals — 2-0 over Uruguayan club Peñarol and 3-1 over New York City FC. But the margin of victory wasn’t the only thing the two games had in common.
Adrien Perez, the forward LAFC rescued from indoor soccer a year ago, scored in both games, building on the steady progress that coach Bob Bradley said Perez has made since the middle of last season.
“We had heard a little bit about him. But now we see him in training and we thought, ‘Guess what? There’s something there,’ ” Bradley said of Perez, who was playing with the Ontario Fury of the Major Arena Soccer League when LAFC offered him a tryout. “Now he’s got this whole year where, for the first time, he’s a professional. He’s playing at a higher level. He’s playing with better players every day.
“It’s faster, it’s more competitive. He has moments where maybe he deserves a chance. “
And he’s gotten a chance this winter because LAFC has been missing seven players to injury or international duty, among them Diego Rossi, whose spot Perez has momentarily filled. When Rossi, the team’s second-leading scorer in each of LAFC’s first two seasons, returns from the CONEMBOL pre-Olympic tournament next week, Perez figures to go back to the bench.
But the impression he’s left is one that will carry into the season.
“I just feel like I’m more ready than I was last year. And I’m more, I guess, comfortable,” said Perez, who played 206 MLS minutes, scoring one goal, in 10 appearances in 2019. “Yeah, it was all new to me.”
Perez could get another chance to impress on Thursday when LAFC plays FCDallas at 1 p.m. at Banc of California Stadium.
She shoots, she scores (again and again and again)
With two goals in Canada’s win over St. Kitts & Nevis last week in group play of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying team, Christine Sinclair broke Abby Wambach’s all-time record for international goals for both male and female players.
Her first goal, from the penalty spot in the seventh minute, gave Sinclair 184 goals, matching Wambach. Then seven minutes later, she broke the tie, scoring from deep in the box.
Sinclair will have a chance to pad her record tonight when Canada finishes qualifying group play against Mexico. Canada has already clinched a place in the tournament semifinals, to be played Friday at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson. The U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica are also in the final four.
Friday’s semifinal winners will advance both to Sunday’s tournament final in Carson as well as to this summer’s Olympic competition in Tokyo.
“Just unbelievable,” Sinclair said of the record. “When I first started with the national team, I could have never imagined standing here with the number of goals I’ve scored. It would have been impossible without my teammates, who were beside me the entire way; all the coaches I’ve had, all the people back home who have supported me, a massive thank you.”
Wambach’s 184 goals came in 256 games while Sinclair needed 290 games to pass her. Ali Daei, who scored 109 times for Iran from 1993 to 2006, is the only male player with more than 100 international goals. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo is next, with 99 in 164 matches, 29 ahead of Argentina’s Lionel Messi’s 70 goals in 138 international matches.
“History is made. Your victory is our victory. We celebrate with you,” Wambach tweeted to Sinclair after losing the record.
Top 10 all-time international goal-scorers
1. Christine Sinclair (Canada, 2000-) 185 goals/290 games
2. Abby Wambach (USA, 2001-2015) 184/256
3. Mia Hamm (USA, 1987-2004) 158/275
4. Kristine Lilly (USA, 1987–2010) 130/352
5. Birgit Prinz (Germany, 1994–2011) 128/214
6. Carli Lloyd (USA, 2005–) 121/288
7. Julie Fleeting (Scotland, 1996–2011) 116/121
8. Patrizia Panico (Italy, 1996–2014) 110/204
9. Ali Daei (Iran, 1993-2006), 109/149
10t. Marta (Brazil, 2017-) 107/151
10t. Alex Morgan (USA, 2010–) 107/169
The kids are all right
National team coach Gregg Berhalter had a pair of important objectives in mind during his team’s January training camp, which ended with last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica in the first game of 2020.
The first was to continue familiarizing his team with the complex playing style he has so far struggled to impart. He’s running short on time for that since World Cup qualifying begins in August.
Under an expedited schedule, the U.S. will play six of its 10 CONCACAF qualifiers this year.
But Berhalter also invited several young players to their first senior national team camp, a nod to next month’s Olympic qualifying tournament in Guadalajara. The U.S. has qualified for the Summer Games, an age-restricted competition on the men’s side, just once since 2000. And this year’s tournament has taken on added importance for the U.S., which could send a U-23 team including Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Sergiño Dest to Tokyo.
First the U.S. has to qualify though and with that in mind, Berhalter gave seven players their first international caps Saturday. The U.S. hasn’t handed out more caps in one game since 1992. And the youngsters showed well, with former Galaxy academy product Uly Llanez, playing before 50 friends and family members at Dignity Health Sports Park, scoring the game’s only goal on a second-half penalty kick.
Llanez, 18, left the Galaxy in 2018 and is playing in Germany for Wolfsburg’s U-19 team.
“From a confidence perspective, it didn’t look like the occasion was too big for him,” U-23 coach Jason Kreis said. “He really didn’t seem to shy away from anything in the match. And then to step up the way he did to want to take the penalty kick, I think says something about the character of the kid. So that’s, that’s a nice sign.”
Six other players who are age-eligible for Olympic qualifying – defenders Reggie Cannon and Sam Vines; midfielders Brandon Servania, Brenden Aaronson and Jackson Yueill; and Colombia-born forward Jesus Ferreira, cleared to play for the U.S. just the day before -- also played.
“It was really nice to see all these guys get on the field and be able to perform,” Berhalter said.
“The whole message to the guys is they’re ready,” he added. “We watched them train for the last four weeks and we see the level that they’re bringing. It was a good month. We worked on a lot of things. You can see the understanding was there, you can see that the concepts were there.
“That gave them confidence. And then you have a group of guys that just compete.“
--Edson Buddle, who led the Galaxy with 17 goals in 2010 and scored 45 times in six seasons in Carson, is the new coach of Westchester Flames of the fourth-tier USL League Two.
--Former Galaxy attack Ariel Lassiter, now with Alajuelense of Costa Rica’s first division, started and played 45 minutes for the Ticos in last Saturday’s friendly against the U.S. and Dignity Health Sports Park. It was his sixth cap with the national team. Also starting for Costa Rica was Lassiter’s Alajuelense’s teammate Marcos Ureña, who played for LAFC in its inaugural MLS season in 2018. He played 77 minutes in the 1-0 loss to the U.S.
“It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. I think they’ll be positioned to qualify for the next World Cup. I have no doubt in my mind they’ll qualify the next World Cup. No doubt. ... The way the format is set for qualification, I think they’ll be positioned to qualify.”
Bruce Arena, who failed to qualify the U.S. for the 2018 World Cup, discussing the current state of the national team with ESPN FC