Soccer! Enjoy it, but don't get carried away with U.S. team's early success

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

Gregg Berhalter got off to a great start as coach of the U.S. national team last week with shutout wins over Panama and Costa Rica, marking just the third time in a decade the U.S. has opened a new year with a pair of victories.

But you might want to put the brakes on that World Cup victory parade for a while longer. Because while the all-MLS team looked strong in both games, the opponents it faced fielded young, inexperienced lineups that made it tough to truly evaluate the U.S. effort.

The American defense was solid and punishing, for example, but the offense sputtered in the first half of both games, proving that implementing Berhalter’s short-passing, possession-based offense will take time.

“When I look back at this January camp, it was successful in the fact that we met our benchmark,” Berhalter said after Sunday’s 2-0 win over Costa Rica. “The three items that we were looking to address -- team building, style of play and competitiveness -- each and every one of them met those.

“It will continue to be a work in progress.”

Perhaps a truer test of that progress will come in March, when the FIFA international break will give Berhalter the opportunity to call up European-based players such as Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Bobby Woods and Tyler Adams for friendlies with Ecuador in Chile. To prepare for that training camp Berhalter and his staff with spend the next month poring over video and other information collected during the January camp in an effort to understand which drills and which practices were most effective in teaching his style.

“It will give us a blueprint to go forward. Evaluating the teaching style and what training sessions were effective in teaching, what training sessions could have been better executed,” he said. “This is the start of our body of work.”

Berhalter also used the January camp to introduce a new formation, with the U.S. playing a 4-4-2 on defense and transitioning into a 3-2-4-1 on attack with outside back Nick Lima sliding centrally to offer midfield help.

Lima, who excelled in four sports growing up, then played four years of soccer at Cal before signing with the San Jose Earthquakes, was perhaps the biggest revelation of the January camp. But he wasn’t the only one who impressed.

Defender Walker Zimmerman of LAFC had two strong games while his partner in central defense, the New York Red BullsAaron Long, emerged as such as leader he wore the captain’s armband in both matches.

Veteran Michael Bradley had an outstanding performance in the 3-0 win over Panama, providing the crisp passes that fueled the U.S. attack. Then against Costa Rica he watched from the bench as Wil Trapp took on that role, connecting on all 23 of his passes in the second half.

LAFC’s Christian Ramirez scored the final goal against Panama in his international debut, then set up the final one against Costa Rica while the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget, returning to San Jose’s Avaya Stadium for the first time since suffering a devastating injury there two years ago, had a goal and an assist in 27 minutes off the bench. (With Zimmerman also scoring against Panama, LAFC and Galaxy players either scored or assisted on four of the five U.S goals in the two games.)

“Our job is to learn. And he’s teaching a style of play that doesn’t come easy to a lot of guys,” Lletget said of Berhalter’s first camp. “Many of us have never been coached like this.

“It’s just the attention to detail, the positioning. There’s a lot that goes into it. But when it works, it works. The point is to get everyone bought in. The guys that were in this camp did just that.”

It’s only been a month though and as Berhalter was the first to confess, much work remains to be done. The path the coach has laid out for himself and his team is challenging enough to ensure there will be rough patches to negotiate and those periods will require patience.

After two games his team is unbeaten and unscored upon, however. Not a bad foundation to begin building on.

(Have a look at Lletget’s goal against Costa Rica, the one that excised the bad memories of his last trip to San Jose. Watch it here.)

Science or sadism?

For the first two weeks of preseason camp the Galaxy trained twice a day, busing to a Manhattan Beach hotel in between workouts to rest and recuperate. The workouts were grueling, proving to doubters that Javier Valdecantos, the 60-year fitness coach imported from Argentina with new manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, had earned his nickname “The Butcher.”

“I’m tired. It’s been real tough,” said forward Bradford Jamieson IV halfway into first week.

Part of the reason for that is the fact Jamieson and his teammates came into to camp off a long three-month break. So regaining fitness was both necessary and painful.

“The problem we found is that players are coming out of that long recess and I think they are struggling to adapt to our way of work,” Valdecantos said in Spanish “They are suffering a lot this week because of the difference on the way [we] work the intensity that we want to achieve.

“But I have to give them credit for the quality they are putting into the work. The quality they are putting into the work is really good.”

There’s also solid methodology behind the seeming madness Valdecantos said in an interview with Colombian journalist John E. Rojas after a recent training session.

“The science started to evolve to show us that we are working with the same game but a different sport,” Valdecantos said. “If I look at what I used to do 20 years ago, my head spins and I say to myself ‘I couldn’t do that [now]. But we were working with whatever science told us at that time.”

Valdecantos said a player will run up to 12 kilometers in a game. So 20 years ago trainers would tell players to jog 12 kilometers in training, the result being a well-conditioned player who ran very slowly.

“Now with the help of GPS and monitoring everyday training we have to conclude that the most important element is not to train for the 10 to 12 kilometers in a game,” he said. “The important part is to identify how every player covers those kilometers. How many sprints, how many accelerations each player has.

“Now, having that analysis it was evident that the training has to change and because of that you see players with more speed, explosion and potency.”

That doesn’t mean one workout fits all though. That’s another fallacy that science – along with GPS and other monitoring -- has helped debunk.

“Even though we are talking about a team sport…the workload is different for each player,” said Valdecantos, who bases individual training sessions on the data he gathers each day. “It’s never the same for a 20-year-old player and a 37-year-old player. That is why you may see training sessions in which a specific player is not doing the work with the rest of the group or is doing a different activity from the rest.”

Watch Rojas’ full interview here.

MLS beginning to cash in

Money dominates world soccer more any other sport. And in the U.S., for the first time, is taking some tentative steps toward being a player in that market.

Soccer America, using numbers provided by FIFA, reported last week that U.S. clubs spent $107.9 million on transfers in 2018. And while that’s less than what six EPL clubs each spent on transfers by themselves, it’s a substantial jump for the $68.7 million U.S. teams spent in 2017. And it’s more than four times what they spent in 2016.

Perhaps more significant, transfer money paid to U.S. clubs totaled nearly $20 million in 2018, seven times the 2017 figure. That record was shattered in January with one transfer alone after Newcastle paid a reported $27 million for Atlanta United’s Miguel Almiron.

And that comes on the heels of the multimillion-dollar transfer deals that sent Tyler Adams from the New York Red Bulls to Leipzig for a reported $3 million, Vancouver’s Alphonso Davies’ $13.5-million move to Bayern Munich and Chris Richards’ transfer from FC Dallas to Bayern Munich for a reported $1.5 million.

The prices paid for Almiron and Davies both broke the previous MLS record of $10 million for a transfer fee paid by Spain’s Villarreal for the Red Bulls’ Jozy Altidore in 2008

The overall money doesn’t match the $90 million the league will get annually through 2022 from it broadcast deal – or the $150-million expansion fee FC Cincinnati paid last year – but the jump in transfer revenue is significant because MLS since Commissioner Don Garber signaled last month the league, in search of new revenue streams, needed to become “more of a selling league.”

The league and its teams have spent heavily in player development and other infrastructure and getting something back for that investment is the only way the model will work, the commissioner said.

“We all need to get used to the fact that in the world of global soccer, players get sold,” Garber said. “We have been buying for so long, and as we’ve gone through the analysis, it’s hard to justify that investment and the investment that we have to make in player development.

“We’ve got to have something that turns this model around or else it’s going to be unsustainable.”

The rise in transfer sales is likely to continue because it mirrors another trend in MLS, one that has seen teams move away from signing expensive deals with aging European superstars on their way to retirement in favor of signing rising South American stars on their way to Europe. Almiron, who helped Atlanta to an MLS Cup last year, is clearly just the first of many who will give the league a couple of good seasons before moving on the continent and rewarding the league with a good profit.

LAFC’s Diego Rossi and Atlanta’s Ezequiel Barco, for example, have been clear about their desire to use MLS as a springboard to Europe as well.

“It used to be a retirement destination. It no longer is,” Costa Rica defender Kendall Waston, speaking in Spanish, said of MLS. “Now it’s a trampoline to Europe.”

More figures from the Soccer America number-crunching:

--The 2018 spending by U.S. clubs ranked 12th in the world and second in CONCACAF behind only Mexico.

--French clubs brought in the most transfer fees -- $936.3 million -- and most net payments -- $467.2 million. Clubs in England and Spain both spent more than $1 billion -- $1.981 billion and $1.353 billion, respectively. English clubs were the largest net spenders by a wide margin at $1.046 billion. # Total spending on men's transfers worldwide reached a record $7.030 billion in 2018.

--The U.S. led the world in the number of women's players who were transferred to another country. The 144 Americans were more than double the 67 Venezuelan players who moved to another country. Most of the Venezuelans moved only as far as Colombia.

That other football

Here’s something no one mentioned during the endless hours of Super Bowl coverage on Sunday: the NFL title game between the New England Patriots and Rams at Atlanta’s Mercedes Benz Stadium drew a smaller crowd than last December’s MLS Cup final, which was played at the same venue.

The soccer game drew 73,019 and the football one 70,081. It was the first time the NFL and MLS championships have been decided in the same building in the same season.

Here’s another MLS tie-in: The Super Bowl between Stan Kroenke’s Rams and Robert Kraft’s Patriots was the third in five years to match teams run by MLS owners. And with the Patriots’ 13-3 victory, Kraft has won all three.

That gives Kraft six NFL titles but he hasn’t been nearly as successful in soccer. His New England Revolution, who also share a stadium with the Patriots, have lost all five of its trips to the MLS Cup final – including an overtime loss to a the Galaxy in the team’s last title game in 2014.

That win, by the way, left the Galaxy unbeaten in three MLS Cup finals with New England. Compare that with the Dodgers, who lost their World Series matchup with Boston last fall, or the Rams, who were beaten by Boston’s football team.

Programming note

Thanks for reading. We’re taking a short two-week break now as I’m off on a long reporting trip to Spain and France. I hear they have soccer there, too, so I’ll report back what I find when the newsletter returns Feb. 26.

Podcast

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

Until next time

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