Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with the Galaxy, who have a new coach and new hope for a new year.
The new coach is Greg Vanney, who will be relying on some old ties in an effort to reinvigorate an iconic franchise stumbling through the worst stretch in its history.
Vanney was a Galaxy defender in the inaugural MLS season in 1996 and a Best XI pick twice in the team’s first six seasons. But that team, which played before modest crowds in the mammoth Rose Bowl, struggled for relevance in a sports marketplace crowded with established teams such as the Dodgers and Lakers, who won two NBA titles during those five seasons.
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“We trained at the parking lot outside the Rose Bowl. There was glass, and we would walk around as a team and pick up the glass and put it in the garbage,” Vanney remembered. “We trained in a baseball field outside of the Rose Bowl, which didn’t even give us the full dimensions of the field.”
Yet the players overcame those obstacles to capture four conference titles, play in three MLS Cup finals and win a Supporters’ Shield, a U.S. Open Cup and a CONCACAF Champions’ Cup, creating a club culture that, a decade later, would carry the team to three league championships in four seasons under coach Bruce Arena.
That’s as many titles as Southern California’s other eight pro teams would win combined between 2010 and 2016.
“It’s really about mentality and the work that you do and being purposeful every day [in] how you approach things,” Vanney said. “Not looking for problems but finding solutions and being willing to go the extra mile. That mentality is what it means to me to be a part of the Galaxy.”
That mentality and the culture it fueled is gone now, and Vanney might have just a narrow window to bring it back before the Galaxy slips into irrelevance again.
The Dodgers have played in three World Series, winning one, and the Rams played in a Super Bowl since Arena left. The Lakers are the reigning NBA champions again, the Angels have arguably the best player in baseball in Mike Trout, and — most ominously for the Galaxy — LAFC won a Supporters’ Shield and made it to the CONCACAF Champions League final in the last two seasons.
Not only are the Galaxy no longer the winningest pro team in Southern California, they’re also no longer the winningest MLS team in Southern California, having lost more games — 57 — in the last four seasons than in any similar stretch in their history.
For Vanney to succeed in the most competitive sports market in the country, he not only has to win games, he has to win trophies. And he has to do so playing attractive soccer behind a star player who can compete for attention against the likes of LeBron James, Carlos Vela, Mookie Betts and Kawhi Leonard.
It’s an enormous challenge, yet one he’s meeting head on.
“There are no excuses. You have to get it done,” he said. “That’s the mentality we want we want to bring. When the culture from the staff and the front office and everything around them exudes that type of mentality, then the players pick up on it. I’ve seen it happen.
“So we need our players to be willing to adapt to circumstances and to find ways to get results and to win. This group is hungry for that. They want to feel like they’re a part of something that can be great. And they want to understand very clearly how they can contribute to that greatness.”
The group might be hungry, but it’s also demoralized. The Galaxy have gone through four coaches and at least that many playing styles in the last four seasons. The last two, under Argentina coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, were particularly painful.
During the MLS Is Back tournament in July, Schelotto accused his players of quitting at least four times. But the coach also appeared unwilling or unable to motivate those players — especially highly paid Mexican forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who scored just once in 10 games under Schelotto.
Vanney won’t fix any of that overnight.
“It’s a long process, and I’m a process-oriented coach,” he said. “The outcomes that we’re seeking are only feasible and realistic if we come to work every single day and we build upon one day after the other and do the work. Otherwise we’re just spouting off dreams and hopes.”
He has done that once before, taking over a Toronto FC team that had never had a winning season and coaching it to the league’s only domestic treble — an MLS title, a Canadian Championship and a Supporters’ Shield — in his third full season. In six full seasons, he won 110 games and made five playoff appearances.
He had a lot of help, though, with Toronto’s payroll topping MLS — often by a sizable margin — in the last five seasons for which figures are available. However, after building a resource-deep Toronto franchise into a perennial contender, Vanney said he wanted a new challenge, and the Galaxy certainly offered that.
“I like building things. I like looking at the big picture and having a vision for things that I feel need some building,” he said. “The challenges that it has encountered over the last few years, when I started to talk to the Galaxy it made sense for who I am and what this club means to me … that there was a real opportunity to come in and try to rebuild the legacy.”
“This is the Galaxy,” he added. “In my opinion the most important club in MLS. It’s our job to get this club back to where people expect it to be.”
This team also has the resources — financially and otherwise — to make that happen. As a former academy director at Real Salt Lake and Toronto, Vanney was impressed with the player-development program in Carson. He also plans to be heavily involved in scouting.
What the Galaxy don’t have at the moment is a complete roster, although that’s coming together. This week, the team will announce the acquisitions of former Portland defender Jorge Villafaña and goalkeeper Jonathan Bond from West Bromwich Albion of the English Premier League, strengthening a defense that conceded 46 goals in 2020, second most in MLS.
Villafaña, 31, who played for Vanney during his two seasons as an assistant coach with Chivas USA, will replace Emiliano Insúa at left back, while Bond, 27, goes to the top of the depth chart at keeper.
Teenage right back Julian Araujo, who has drawn the attention of several European clubs including Italian giant Juventus and Tottenham of the Premier League, isn’t likely to be going anywhere just yet, with a Galaxy official saying his future in MLS will likely be measured in years, not days.
If captain Jonathan dos Santos can remain injury-free and regain the form he displayed in 2019, he’ll be an asset in the midfield where he will line up next to Sebastian Lletget, a U.S. international. But the biggest questions will be up front.
Hernández, who was beyond disappointing last year, has spent most of his offseason posting workout pictures on social media in an effort to prove he’s taking the next season seriously. But even a fully dedicated Chicharito might not be enough if the Galaxy lose Cristian Pavón, who played every minute last season, leading the team in goals and assists.
Pavón’s loan from Boca Juniors has expired, and the Galaxy and the Argentine club remain far apart in talks for a new deal — talks that might have taken a huge detour over the weekend when Pavón was linked to a sexual assault case that is more than a year old. The player, through a representative, immediately denied the charges, but the controversy isn’t likely to help his case.
“This is the premier club in MLS as it relates to winning championships and setting the pathway to strive for greatness and to set the bar and to set the standard,” Vanney said of the Galaxy. “That’s why this job is important. The club is in a moment where it really is time to refind that leadership as it relates to the league.
“It’s much more difficult to win in this league now that it ever was. I just came from a club where we were able to do some of those things, and now I have some unique experience to be able to build off. This is going to be a different job and a different opportunity. I’m excited about it.”
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The building never stops for LAFC
While the Galaxy is trying to climb back to the top, LAFC is trying to stay there. In its first three seasons, the club has won a Supporters’ Shield, broke or tied league records for points and goals in a season, made three playoff appearances and become the first MLS team from the U.S. to reach the CONCACAF Champions League final.
It’s that last achievement that John Thorrington, the team’s general manager, can’t get out of his mind. Not because LAFC made it to the final — but because it didn’t win once it got there.
“I’m still recovering from it, if I’m being totally honest,” he said. “We should be champions of the CCL. I absolutely believe that. I thought in the tournament we were the best team.”
The Champions League final bookended a strange season for LAFC. The club eliminated Mexico’s Léon in the Round of 16 before the MLS season started and was preparing to face Cruz Azul in the tournament quarterfinals when professional sports — and just about everything else — was shut down by COVID-19 in early March.
When the MLS season resumed in home markets in August, LAFC struggled, going 7-8-2. It then returned to Champions League play in a quarantined environment in Orlando, Fla., and eliminated Cruz Azul and Club América before giving away a 1-0 lead late in a final it lost 2-1 to Tigres.
“To say that we were that close brings a different type of pain than just sitting back and saying Tigres, Club América, Cruz Azul, Léon, you’re better than us,” Thorrington said. “It’s a better position to be in, but that’s not to say it doesn’t sting just as much in the short term.
“When you talk about highlights, lowlights, obviously that is the highlight that showed again what we can be and the club that we have built.”
That building is continuing this winter. Last month, Thorrington signed former Portland Timbers defender Marco Farfan and on Monday he traded for Real Salt Lake forward Corey Baird hours before LAFC announced the signing of South Korean international Kim Moon-hwan.
Baird, 25, a former MLS rookie of the year, gives the team depth and versatility up front, while Farfan and Kim will be counted on to strengthen a defense that conceded 39 goals in 22 games.
Baird, who appeared in 83 matches in three seasons with RSL, also gives LAFC some needed experience. The losses of Adama Diomande, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Adrien Perez left Danny Musovski as the only backup at forward who has played more than eight games in MLS.
“I’m excited for this opportunity,” Baird said. “It’s obviously a strong team with high aspirations and a team that expecting to win pretty much every single game.”
Baird said he’s also looking forward to playing and training with Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi, the last two MLS scoring leaders.
“When you have guys that are some of the best players in the league, I think it’ll be beneficial for me to not only learn from that but play a role next to them,” he said.
And that could help get Baird’s career back on track. Since scoring eight goals and assisting on five others in his first season in 2018, Baird has seven goals in the last two years combined. As a result, he has fallen out of the national team picture. LAFC’s pressing, up-tempo style could help remedy that.
“I need to start producing a little bit more than I did these past two years,” he said. “LAFC is a team that creates a lot of chances, scores a lot of goals. This could be a great move for me.
“To be an elite attacker, you have to have an output. So no matter how well you play, if you’re not scoring, you’re not assisting, you’re not creating chances, then you’re not doing your job as a winger, as a forward. My job is to score goals. My job is to get assists, create chances for my teammates.”
Kim, 25, who has made 11 appearances for South Korea’s national team, played 105 games for Busan IPark, helping the club win promotion to Korea’s top flight last year. But the team is beginning a rebuild after being relegated back to the K League 2.
His acquisition was funded using targeted allocation money. He will become the fifth Korean to play in MLS and the first to play with LAFC.
A Bundesliga hat trick: Pulisic, Reyna and Hoppe
At 17, Christian Pulisic was the youngest American in history to score a goal in the Bundesliga when he found the back of the net in his sixth league appearance for Borussia Dortmund in 2016. Last year, Gio Reyna, also 17 and also playing for Dortmund, became the youngest American to play in the Champions League game.
But on Saturday, another teenager, Yorba Linda’s Matthew Hoppe, eclipsed them both, becoming the first American with a hat trick in Germany’s top division when he scored three times in Schalke’s win over Hoffenheim.
The 4-0 victory ended Schalke’s 30-match, 358-day winless streak and prevented the team from equaling a 55-year-old league record, while the three goals — in the 42nd, 57th and 63rd minutes — put Hoppe on the radar of U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter.
“What I really liked is the transition moments, the moments when he won the ball,” Berhalter said in a teleconference Monday. “The space behind the defense, he was able to take advantage, that really clever movement. And then when he got in position to score goals, he finished them off with cleverness.”
Only two Americans — Clint Dempsey and Pulisic — have scored three goals in a game in any of Europe’s five leagues, and Hoppe, a forward, is the first to do so outside the Premier League. He’s also the youngest with a European hat trick.
Hoppe was making his sixth appearance and third start for the first team since moving to Germany from Barcelona’s Residency Academy in Arizona 18 months ago. That’s the same residency academy that produced Araujo, LAFC midfielder Bryce Duke and the New York Red Bulls’ Caden Clark.
Hoppe began his soccer career with the Irvine Strikers.
Major League Soccer could be heading toward a work stoppage after the league invoked a force majeure clause in its collective bargaining agreement with the players union.
Commissioner Don Garber employed the clause in late December, giving the two sides 30 days to modify their existing labor contract. If an agreement is not reached, the CBA from June could be terminated, leaving the league and the players to work out their third CBA in 12 months.
The league’s opening offer guarantees no pay cuts for the 2021 season in exchange for a two-year extension to the current deal. Last spring, players agreed to a 5% salary cut and a reduction in team and individual bonuses for the 2020 season, and while the new deal would restore those cuts, according to ESPN it would also freeze salary growth between 2021 and 2022, saving MLS between $100 million to $115 million over the life of the CBA.
The league relies on game-day receipts for most of its revenue, and reducing its schedule and playing before empty stadiums last season cost MLS $1 billion, Garber said. The league, which hasn’t released a schedule for 2021, could face similar revenue reductions this year.
“According to public health officials, the restrictions on attendance at live sporting events will continue far into the 2021 MLS season,” league president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said in a statement. “To address the ongoing impact of the pandemic in 2021, MLS is proposing to extend the term of the existing collective bargaining agreement for two years rather than seeking any salary reduction. This proposal will help ensure the long-term health of the league while paying MLS players 100% of their salaries.”
Nearly three weeks before Garber invoked the force majeure, Bob Foose, executive director of the union, warned doing so “would be a mistake.” In addition to the pay cuts, the union agreed to play under quarantine conditions and accepted other measures to complete a season in which, Foose said, nearly 1 in 5 players tested positive for COVID. Asking them to accept more concessions would set the players’ cause back even further, he said.
It could also leave the union and its leadership looking feckless.
Last winter, MLS and the union, working in a rare spirit of cooperation, agreed in principle on a five-season labor deal, but the agreement had not been ratified when COVID-19 hit in March, temporarily halting the season.
Negotiations for a new deal months later were not nearly as smooth, with Garber threatening to lock out the players if they didn’t agree to include the force majeure clause, common contractual language that frees both parties from liability or obligation in the event of an extraordinary event such as a global pandemic.
“Going from feeling like we were on a good negotiation to the threat of lockout if you don’t accept our deal, those are some tactics I would view as bullying and really just power plays,” Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finley, the team’s union representative, said at the time.
It’s unclear whether either side is really prepared to walk away from negotiations this month or whether the strong talk is just so much posturing. They have at least six weeks, maybe longer, to settle their differences and reach an accord before the season begins.
Here’s hoping the spirit of cooperation that existed, however briefly, last winter makes a return this year.
“This is a low point for us. There’s a lot of room to improve as a country, and it’s something where we can all be better examples. We could all be better citizens.”
Gregg Berhalter, coach of the national team, on last week’s riots at the U.S. Capitol