Questions to answer in MLS preseason camp: LA Galaxy

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(Through the week we’ll look at three Major League Soccer clubs per day, considering what they need to accomplish and what questions deserve answers during preseason training camps. Opening day in MLS is March 2.)

On March 3, LA Galaxy will start MLS’s third three-peat quest. In 1998, a young(er) Bruce Arena, having guided D.C. United to the league’s first two titles, made a third-straight MLS Cup only to lose to expansion Chicago. Ten years later, Dominic Kinnear’s Houston Dynamo didn’t make it that far, failing to become the first team to claim three straight titles.

Just over five weeks before their defense starts, LA still have too many questions to know whether they’ll be able to match last year’s result. While the roster’s that reported for preseason training would still be competitive in the Western Conference, the absence of Landon Donovan and a lack of replacement for David Beckham means Los Angeles have more questions than the team they beat in last month. And unlike the beginning of last season, none of those questions are in defense.

But as LA’s 2012 showed, Major League Soccer’s is a long season. Teams need not have their answers in March, but if Bruce Arena can answer these questions in preseason, the team will be better-situated to fight in the always competitive West.

  • How do you replace David Beckham?

With Frank Lampard,” is the easy response from Galaxy fans. But let’s slow down. Until that’s settled, we might want to consider the backup plans, because while the Lampard-to-LA rumors are hot enough to warm us through winter, the Chelsea legend wouldn’t be the first to leverage MLS for a contract elsewhere (or, simply change his mind).

One way or another, LA seems intent on filling their vacant Designated Player spot, but even if they don’t, Bruce Arena still has a solid midfield of the recently-retained Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas. For part of last season, the duo were a better pair than Beckham and Juninho. With the two Brazilians, LA’s still above-average in the middle of the park.

LA will miss Beckham’s distribution, though. They’ll miss his calm on the ball, his ability to read and reaction to a game, and that extra gear he always had when stakes were highest.

It’s difficult to know how much that’s worth (or how you replace it).

  • How big are Robbie’s shoulders?

At the end of last year, everybody on the Galaxy agreed: Robbie Keane was Major League Soccer’s best player after he returned from Euro 2012. But with Beckham gone and Donovan out indefinitely, Keane’s going to have to carry the attack, something he’s only done on the end of others’ distribution.

He’s certainly capable of doing it. The pass Keane played to Donovan to win MLS Cup 2011 is still in him. His ability to read a developing attack may be unparalleled in MLS, whether that be running among defenders or pulling the strings to exploit them.

The big risk is burn out. Keane shows no sign of slowing down, but he turns 33 in July. And he’s never had to carry this load before.

Then again, if Donovan comes back sooner rather than later, he won’t have to.

  • Can you count on Landon?

We know Donovan’s going to be back, and despite having to split his attentions between club, country, and England over the last three years, the Galaxy captain has always been there for the team when needed. But when a guy contemplates retirement and openly ponders whether he still has the drive, it’s fair to wonder if those feelings will come back during the season.

I give Donovan a lot of credit for his honestly. It’s difficult for an athlete to show weakness and trust it will be perceived intelligently by media and fans. Still, he’s decided to give us the benefit of the doubt (that, or he just doesn’t care). He trusts that through his honesty we’ll see his conflict and be sympathetic, no matter the outcome.

You can both question Donovan’s commitment and respect what he brings. It would be no failing on his part to try and comeback only to realize it’s just not in him. The question is: How likely is that to happen?

MORE in ProSoccerTalk’s preseason camp series:

Up Next: Montreal Impact

La Liga want to move Barcelona v. Real Madrid to avoid protests

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish soccer league wants Barcelona’s game against Real Madrid to be moved out of the Catalan capital to avoid coinciding with a planned separatist rally.

[ MORE: La Liga scores, schedule

Separatist groups in Catalonia have called for supporters to rally in Barcelona on Oct. 26 when Barcelona is scheduled to host Madrid in the “clasico” match.

The league runs the top two tiers of Spanish soccer. It has called on the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) – which controls regulations and fixtures for professional and amateur games – to shift the match to Madrid. The league has also requested for the return match to be switched from Madrid to Barcelona.

The league said Wednesday it has “requested the competitions committee of the RFEF to meet and change the location of El Clasico because of exceptional circumstances beyond our control.”

Catalonia has seen violent protests for the last two days with police clashing with protesters angered by the Supreme Court’s decision to sentence nine separatist leaders to prison.

The federation said the clubs have until Monday to respond to the request to change venues.

Catalan independence flags are a regular feature at Barcelona’s home games at the Camp Nou Stadium.

More AP soccer https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Report: Sacramento finally gets MLS expansion franchise

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After years of trying, it appears that Major League Soccer is finally heading to Sacramento.

Sacramento Republic FC have long been one of the best runs franchises in the lower leagues in the United States of America and both city officials and their new ownership group have backed this push to join MLS.

It seemed certain that Sacramento would get a team in 2016 and 2017, but they’ve been left behind as plenty of other cities have been awarded expansion franchises.

A report from the Sacramento Bee states that the franchise will be announced on Monday in a ceremony in downtown Sacramento.

“Sources said league officials will hold a press conference in downtown Monday followed by a fan event in the afternoon, celebrating the franchise award. The announcement will mark the successful conclusion of a laborious five-year effort by Sacramento community leaders and various investors to secure a franchise in MLS.”

New majority owners LA billionaire Ron Burkle (who also owns the Pittsburgh Penguins) and Hollywood producer Matt Alvarez joined Sacramento businessman Kevin Nagle this spring to get the finances in line for a new soccer-specific stadium and to pay the expansion fee which is close to $200 million.

Sacramento released a statement on the speculation, after Burkle, Alvarez and Nagle had been working closely with MLS in recent months to iron out the details of arriving in North America’s top-flight.

“We share the great excitement and anticipation in our community about Sacramento’s bid to join Major League Soccer. We will continue to respect the MLS expansion process and remain confident about the future of our club and our city. We look forward to sharing more information in the days ahead.”

Nagle and Warren Smith set up Sacramento Republic FC, who began play in the United Soccer Leagues in 2014, and have built an impressive fanbase.

Burkle and Alvarez were the final pieces of the jigsaw as their cash investment will allow the construction of a $250 million 20,000 capacity stadium long planned in the Railyards district of downtown Sacramento, while the city will also add funding to the effort as they add their second major league franchise.

Sacramento Republic will have an instant rival in MLS too, as the San Jose Earthquakes are located just 120 miles south-west.

With St. Louis awarded an expansion franchise in August and to begin play in 2022, MLS is now up to 29 teams with Nashville and Miami joining for the 2020 season, plus Austin FC arriving in 2021.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber seems keen to get the number of teams to 30, with Charlotte, Phoenix, Detroit and Las Vegas all pushing hard to become the 30th franchise in the coming years.

Sacramento’s journey to MLS has been a long one, but now they are about to celebrate.

Bulgaria detains four fans following racist acts

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SOFIA, Bulgaria (AP) The Bulgarian government says it has detained four soccer fans linked to making racist gestures, including Nazi salutes, during a European Championship qualifying match against England.

[ MORE: Bulgarian FA chief resigns ]

Bulgarian fans also directed monkey noises at England’s black players during the match, which was halted twice in an effort to stop the racist abuse. England won the match 6-0.

The Ministry of Interior says police have “detained four people, whose involvement in what happened is being clarified.”

The ministry says any evidence collected will be handed over to prosecutors.

In the fallout from Monday’s game, the president of the country’s soccer federation has resigned and the Bulgarian special police forces have raided the federation offices.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Berhalter slams USMNT after Canada defeat. What now?

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Gregg Berhalter and the USMNT hit a new low on Tuesday as they lost 2-0 to Canada in Toronto and it could have been worse.

Much worse.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Totally outplayed in their CONCACAF Nations League game, pressure is mounting on Berhalter as the U.S. men’s national team perhaps haven’t even hit rock bottom yet. Two years after their shocking failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup as they lost at Trinidad & Tobago, in many ways the performance against Canada was worse.

What progress has been made since that fateful night in Couva in 2017?

[ MORE: 3 things we learned

Speaking to reporters after the damaging defeat at BMO Field, Berhalter threw his players under the bus. Big time.

“The first thing that stands out to me, was desire; desire of Canada,” Berhalter said. “Give them credit. But having said that, the minimum we expect is to match that. We need to compete on every single play in games like this, and that’s important. I don’t think it was a lack of effort. I don’t think it was purposeful. But I wasn’t happy with the desire that we displayed tonight to win the soccer game. Too many 50-50 balls we lost, and that hurt us.”

USMNT fans are calling for Berhalter to be fired just 10 months into his reign, and his possession-based style isn’t sinking in with his young, hard-working squad. Berhalter wants the USMNT to play like Barcelona but right now they look more like Burton Albion. And that’s being kind.

The youngsters coming through are being asked to overcomplicate things and aren’t playing to their strengths. After a heavy defeat to Mexico last month and a damaging loss to Canada, qualifying for the 2022 World Cup would now be a huge achievement for the USMNT. It should be a given.

Where do we go from here?

The fact USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart may well have to get the thumbs up from Berhalter’s brother, Jay, who is the expected incoming new CEO of U.S. Soccer, adds to the anger from U.S. fans.

It is unlikely Berhalter will be removed anytime soon and that U.S. Soccer will stick with him after waiting a year for him to take charge.

Former interim coach Dave Sarachan did the best job he could do from November 2017 to November 2018, but that lost year waiting for Berhalter has sent this young group of players spiralling backwards.

The lack of progression is clear for all to see, but Berhalter doesn’t want anyone pointing to the shocking defeat in Canada as a true reflection of where this team is at.

“I wouldn’t make a statement about the program based on this game,” Berhalter said. “The reason why is that these games are difficult. It was never going to be easy and come here and win the game. There was no way. When you look at their team, when at their quality, when you look at where they are right now, it wasn’t going to be an easy game. We have to accept that. I think all of us have to accept that. We wanted to win the game, and hopefully we’re going to keep improving and hopefully we’re going to start winning games on the road, but tonight wasn’t the night to do it.”

Berhalter is under pressure and things have got worse for the USMNT since their embarrassing World Cup qualifying failure two years ago.

Is it time to pull the plug on Berhalter? After the performance against Canada his players appear to think so, and so too do the fans.

U.S. Soccer have a big decision to make, as things look like they will get a lot worse before they get any better.