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 with the Orange County Soccer Club, which is gutting out a determined season that has so far earned it little notice.
During a conversation last month about COVID-19 and the challenges the virus brings to everyday life, Armand Dorian, chief medical officer at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, brought up the asterisk factor regarding pro sports. With Major League Baseball playing a shortened 60-game schedule, MLS a 23-game season and the NBA and NHL contesting their playoff tournaments in protective bubbles, Dorian said people will want to discount the champions of those competitions and attach an asterisk to 2020.
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But in his mind the sacrifices this season has brought have made playing far more challenging, not less.
“This is probably going to take more dedication by one team than ever before,” he said. “To not go out and not do anything, [to] be away from their family. That dedication is probably even harder.
“To practice or run laps, they’re used to that. But having the discipline as a team to stick inside and not get exposed? That’s pretty intense.”
There are other challenges as well, as the players with Orange County, which plays in the second tier USL Championship, have learned.
OCSC opened its season March 6 with a scoreless draw, then didn’t play again until July 16. The team couldn’t even train for much of that pause, yet returned with a draw and a win against the defending conference champion Phoenix Rising. That was followed by another three-week pause when eight Galaxy II players tested positive for COVID-19, starting a domino effect that postponed two OCSC games.
Orange County won twice more last week behind a pair of goals from Aodhan Quinn to remain unbeaten in this most bizarre of seasons. But that’s just the headline. The team (3-0-2) has given up just one goal and trailed for just 10 minutes this season — and it has done so while emptying its thin bench, using five lineups in as many games.
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“Everything we’re dealing with in this very unique season comes down to character, discipline, mentality,” said Oliver Wyss, the team’s general manager and president of soccer operations.
During the four-month break from March to July, OCSC didn’t have enough players to hold a full-size scrimmage. That made fitness an issue when play resumed and as a result 18 of the 20 players on the roster have made at least one start and only one has played fewer than 82 minutes.
“It’s never ideal because you never really get into a game rhythm,” Wyss said of the start-and-stop schedule. “The fact that you’re obviously limited in what you can do in preparation as regards to scrimmages and getting extra minutes in, you have to compromise and you have to find solutions.
“But this is a challenge that we all embrace. Ultimately we don’t want to make excuses.”
That’s good because the challenges figure to get more difficult. The regular 34-game USL Championship reason season has been shortened to 16 this year with the teams divided into six groups rather than two conferences. The top two teams in each group will advance to the playoffs, something OCSC has missed just once since James Keston bought the franchise in 2016.
But the postponements will force OCSC, which has not had a player or staff member test positive for COVID-19, to play 11 games in 39 days beginning with Saturday’s makeup date with Galaxy II. It is not alone in being impacted by the virus: In the first month of the USL Championship’s restart, 12 of the 86 scheduled games had to be postponed.
Things don’t appear to getting much better either: In the latest testing report from the league, issued late Monday, 13 individuals from seven clubs tested positive. So why try to forge ahead in the middle of a global pandemic that is making the attempt so difficult?
Wyss, who had his career ended prematurely by a rare blood disorder, said the loss of even one season could hurt a player. So if the league can make it safe, most want to attempt to play on.
“For players it’s essential,” he said. “Not playing a full season definitely doesn’t help anybody. Look at us. We have players who are coming toward the end of the career, some players trying to make a name for themselves again or players who are trying to have a great season so they can maybe get a better contract and move to the next level.
“For us as an organization and technical staff, it’s important to be here for everybody.”
And if they’re going to be here, they might as well win.
“Every day brings a new challenge. That’s what life is all about,” Wyss said.
That’s an attitude that should be rewarded with a trophy not as asterisk.
A Messi situation in Barcelona
The COVID-19 pandemic forced UEFA to alter the format of the Champions and Europa league tournaments, ditching the two-leg home-and-away quarterfinals and semifinals, which took a month to complete, in favor of single-elimination games played at neutral locations in the same week. And those matches produced memorable results, with Bayern Munich crushing Barcelona 8-2 and Lyon stunning Manchester City 3-1 in the Champions League quarterfinals.
That left two Bundesliga teams and two Ligue 1 in the final four, marking the first time in tournament history two French teams were in the semifinals and the first time in 29 years there were no teams from England, Spain or Italy. Paris Saint-Germain and Red Bull Leipzig, who face off Tuesday in Lisbon, Portugal, are the other semifinalists with Leipzig advancing on a score from Tyler Adams in the 88th minute of its game with Atlético Madrid, the first goal by an American in the quarterfinals or later of a Champions League tournament.
Those results may have also ushered in the long-anticipated makeover of the world’s second-richest club, Barcelona, a makeover could include the departure of Lionel Messi, more about which in a moment.
Inter Milan thumped Shakhtar Donetsk 5-0 in Monday’s Europa League semifinal, setting up a Sevilla-Inter Milan final on Friday. Both tournaments usually end in late May but were delayed three months when COVID-19 forced all of Europe’s major leagues to halt play last spring.
The reason why the new format won’t stick, of course, is money. Two-leg series for the final eight teams in both tournaments not only means twice as many games for TV but it also means each team gets at least one home sellout. Forfeiting that money in favor of neutral-site elimination games would cost UEFA and the clubs millions.
As for Barcelona, the loss to Bayern Munich’s juggernaut was the most one-sided of Messi’s career and Barcelona’s worst since 1946, which fueled speculation the frustrated Argentine star would soon be leaving. Manager Quique Setién, who took over for Ernesto Valverde in January, is already gone, having been sacked on Monday.
More changes are coming. Club president Josep Bartomeu, who called an emergency board meeting to fire Setién, said elections would be held in March and promised “profound changes” for the first team after the club’s first trophy-less season since 2007-08. Barcelona hasn’t won a European title since 2015.
“We have hit rock bottom. This club needs changes at every level,” veteran defender Gerard Piqué told reporters after the Bayern Munich loss. “I don’t mean just players and the coaching staff … the club needs structural changes.”
Pique was one of six starters in the Bayern debacle who is 31 or older, a list that includes Luis Suarez, 33, and Messi, 33, who has spent his entire club career with Barcelona, winning a club-record 33 trophies and setting La Liga records for goals (444) and assists (183). But Messi, whose contract expires after next season, has grown increasingly critical of club leadership and forcing him to stay another year could make an ugly situation even uglier.
With Barcelona is need of an overhaul, why not begin the post-Messi era now since the transfer fee he would fetch would certainly help in that rebuilding?
Possible landing spots include Manchester City, Manchester United and Paris Saint-Germain with City the likely favorite since Messi had some of his most productive seasons during City manager Pep Guardiola’s four years at the helm in Barcelona.
Even at 33, Messi is coming off a productive season in which he led La Liga with 25 goals and broke the league record with a career-best 21 assists. That would certainly make him worth the $131 million Real Madrid got when Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus in 2018, money that would help restock team coffers drained by recent poor personnel decisions. In the last three seasons, Barcelona spent more than $452 million in transfer fees on Antoine Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele – with disastrous results.
Not only did none of the three start in the Bayern game but Coutinho came off the bench to score two goals and assist on another in 15 minutes – for Munich, where he is now playing on loan.
RB Leipzig-PSG, noon PT, CBS All Access, TUDN, Univision
Lyon-Bayern Munich, noon PT, CBS All Access, TUDN, Univision
Semifinal winners, CBS Sports Network
Sevilla-Inter Milan, CBS All Access, noon PT
Plenty of good seats still available
Apparently MLS supporters aren’t as eager to get back inside a stadium during a global pandemic as the league thought. At least they weren’t lining up in large numbers in Frisco, Texas, where FC Dallas played twice in the last six days in the first MLS games fans have been allowed to attend since March 8.
The team planned to make 5,110 tickets available for last Wednesday’s first match. That’s 25% of Toyota Stadium’s capacity or half of what Gov. Mark Abbott’s guidelines allow. About eight hours before game time FC Dallas reduced that to 3,000 and at kickoff 2,912 fans – all of whom had to wear a mask and sign a waiver promising they would not bring legal action against the teams, the league or Soccer United Marketing if they contracted COVID-19 — were in the stands, where they were spaced three seats apart. (They also booed Reggie Cannon and his teammates, who joined with the Nashville players in taking a knee during the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice. So to review: nearly 3,000 supporters braved a deadly pandemic and signed a waiver giving away their legal rights in order to boo their own team, which they were watching play for the first time in five months.)
Sunday’s crowd was far smaller although that had more to do with the weather. Rain and lightning, which combined with 93-degree temperatures to turn the stadium into a sauna, delayed the game nearly 3½ hours and just a couple hundred supporters were in their seats when the game started after 11 p.m. local time.
Not surprisingly, it ended in a scoreless draw. Yet weather aside the turnstile numbers should be taken as a cautionary tale for MLS since neither of the first two games played before fans managed to sell out even though a sellout meant less than 15% of the stadium’s capacity.
The league’s leading source of revenue has long been tickets sales and sponsorships, so with MLS returning to action in individual markets for the first time since COVID-19 suspended play, commissioner Don Garber said he’s OK with teams opening their stadiums to fans provided they adhere to local regulations. That won’t happen for LAFC or the Galaxy, who resume their schedules Aug. 22 by facing one another at Banc of California Stadium. The public health officer for the Los Angeles County has banned public gatherings but Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake, in addition to FC Dallas, are inviting fans back during the six-game first phase of the MLS restart and at least six other teams are considering it.
“Fans are a big part of what makes our sport work,” Garber said. “Our fans want to support their clubs and if they’re permitted to attend events in other sports or other activities, we are willing to work with our clubs if they’re going to abide by those guidelines.
“We’re not saying that we have all the answers. If we have issues, we’ll deal with them. But we believe it makes sense for us to give it a try.”
No other top-tier pro sports league in the U.S. has allowed fans to attend games in person since March. The NWSL, WNBA, NBA and NHL either started or resumed their seasons at one site, with players and staff housed in a protective quarantine bubble, and reported no positive COVID-19 tests. The MLS did that as well and after some initial troubles, finished its MLS Is Back tournament in Florida last week by going more than a month without a positive test.
Major League Baseball has not used a bubble, allowing its teams to travel and play before crowds of cardboard cutouts. An MLB spokesperson told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal on Monday that live crowds are not something the league is considering, although at least two clubs – the Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers – have been pushing to open their ballparks.
“Given the state of the virus throughout the country and that most of our clubs do not have authorization from their local jurisdictions allowing for it, we are not able to consider hosting fans at this time,” the spokesperson said.
MLB has seen several games postponed because of COVID infections.
Garber said MLS teams will try to limit their exposure by testing their players every other day and by traveling on game days to avoid overnight stays. But apart from games and training sessions players will spend the rest of their time mixing with the population at large and will be on their own when it comes to following league protocols such as wearing facial coverings or social distancing. And that worries Dr. Jared Baeten, vice dean at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.
“The whole country is on the honor system,” he said. “And you can see how that is working out.”
MLS regular season, take 3
When the Galaxy and LAFC renew their rivalry Saturday at Banc of California Stadium it will mark the third time the teams have essentially started their seasons this year. After a five-week preseason, LAFC played its first competitive game of 2020 in the CONCACAF Championship League in mid February; the Galaxy opened their schedule 11 days later in Houston.
Two weeks after that play was halted by COVID-19. A second preseason training camp began in May ahead of the MLS Is Back tournament. That tournament ended for the Galaxy on July 23 and for LAFC a week later, sending both teams back to Southern California to once again prepare for another restart, this one an 18-game, 11-week sprint to finish a shortened regular season and begin the playoffs in November.
“The starting and stopping is very difficult,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said.
And those on-field challenges have been heightened by the unique circumstances brought on by COVID-19.
“Everybody’s facing different situations [with] kids, school, parents; whether somebody has been exposed, that kind of thing,” Bradley said.
LAFC (2-0-3) has not publicly acknowledged a positive COVID-19 test but now that the team has been out of the MLS bubble in Florida, the risk of infection rises. That’s something Bradley reminded his players of as soon as the team charter landed back in California.
“We got off the plane and as everyone was waiting for their bags we said ‘OK now without being in bubble, when you leave, when you go home, the virus is still out there’,” Bradley said. “Everybody needs to really be disciplined and responsible so that we can continue to enjoy what we do.”
LAFC will resume MLS play a bit shorthanded after forward Adama Diomande left the team to return to his family in Norway. A foot injury that flared up again during the MLS Is Back tournament limited Diomande to just 16 minutes this season and played a part in his decision to end his season early. During his first two MLS seasons he provided much-needed depth on the front line, appearing in 43 games (coming off the bench in 14 of those) and scoring 20 goals. With his departure Bradley has no true forward on the bench with more than 12 games of MLS experience.
“Dio has been an important player for us. We will miss him,” said Bradley, who coached Diomande in Norway and helped recruit him to MLS in 2018. “But we also feel that we have good players in our team.”
On Monday, LAFC added teenager defender Mohamed Traore, a Senegalese junior international, and Bradley wouldn’t rule out a move to add another forward during the transfer window, which opened last week.
“We’re always looking not only for players that can contribute for the rest of this year, but players for the future,” he said. “So the work to continue to build our team and evolve, that never stops.”
MLS Phase One schedules
Saturday, Aug. 22 at LAFC, 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 26 vs. Seattle, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 29 vs. San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 2 at Portland, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 6 vs. LAFC, TBA
Sunday, Sept. 13 at San Jose, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 22 vs. Galaxy, 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 26 at Real Salt Lake, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 30 at Seattle, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 2 vs. San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 6 at Galaxy, TBA.
Sunday, Sept. 13 vs. Portland, 8 p.m.
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.
“I think it was disgusting. You got fans booing you for people taking a stand for what they believe in. Millions of other people support this cause and we discussed with every other team and the league what we’re going to do and we’ve got fans booing us in our own stadium. How disgraceful is that? You can’t even have support from your own fans in your own stadium.”
FC Dallas and national team defender Reggie Cannon on the reception his teammates and Nashville SC players got while kneeing for the national anthem before the MLS’ first game with fans in more than five months
Until next time…
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