24 Thoughts: Inside the Galaxy and LAFC's battle for Los Angeles

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VANCOUVER, BC - APRIL 05: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (9) of the Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal against the the Vancouver Whitecaps at BC Place on April 5, 2019 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Christopher Morris - Corbis/Getty Images)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has helped the LA Galaxy get off to a 4-1 start, but MLS's most successful club still trails city rival LAFC in the standings. (Christopher Morris/Getty)

Doug McIntyre’s weekly MLS column, 24 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

LOS ANGELES – This installment of 24 Thoughts comes to you from sunny Southern California, where two of the league’s most important teams, the five-time champion LA Galaxy and Supporters Shield race-leading LAFC, have a combined for 9-1-1 record out of the gates in 2019.

LAFC’s blistering start has been historic. With 19 goals through its first six games – including last week’s 4-0 drubbing of then-East leading D.C. United, Bob Bradley’s team is the most prolific of any MLS team through its first six matches per the Elias Sports Bureau.

Across town, the Galaxy have won four of five under new boss Guillermo Barros Schelotto, putting a squad that missed the playoffs the last two seasons back among the league’s elite.

24 Thoughts

1. Before getting too deep into this week’s column, we need to mention Sporting Kansas City’s embarrassing 10-2 (!) aggregate loss to Liga MX power Monterrey in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions League. I don’t want to be too reactionary here, but if that scoreline doesn’t result have alarm bells ringing at MLS headquarters in Manhattan, I’m not sure what will.

2. I was in LA to cover the U.S. women’s World Cup team’s tune-up against Belgium and the CONCACAF Gold Cup schedule unveiling, both of which took place at LAFC’s sparkling Banc of California Stadium. I also made sure to pay a visit to the city’s two MLS clubs. Let’s start with the Galaxy and – who else? – Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

3. Zlatan was a smash-hit during his debut campaign in 2018. His 24 goals accounted for more than a third of the Galaxy’s output. This season, the 37-year-old has already scored four times in three appearances. “I feel confident and I feel good,” Ibrahimovic told me after Wednesday’s training session in Carson. “Second year I know more about the league, how it works, the travel. It’s easier now because I know what to expect.”

4. In a rare start on artificial turf, Ibra had a goal and an assist in Vancouver last week. Seeing him on the field at all was a surprise after the big Swede missed two games with a sore Achilles tendon last month. But Ibrahimovic swears that he feels better physically than when he was coming off reconstructive knee surgery a year ago.

“The first season was more like ‘how will my knee go, what is the status, how’s my condition’,” he said. “This season feels like a normal season. I went in without an injury.” How’s his Achilles? “It’s OK. It feels good,” he said. “I worked really hard, I tried to stay in shape. But to be 100-percent is not possible because above [age] 30, your pain just moves, it doesn’t disappear. So I have to deal with that, but is OK. I’m not one that gives up easy.”

Guillermo Barros Schelotto, head coach of the LA Galaxy of the MLS, gestures while giving instructions to his players on February 22, 2019 in Carson, California during a team training session. - From Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, without stops. From Boca to Galaxy, without safety net. Losing the final of the Libertadores against his archrival River to try to resurrect the most honored franchise in MLS history, Guillermo Barros Schelotto has never been afraid of the challenges. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Former MLS MVP Guillermo Barros Schelotto is in his first season as the Galaxy's head coach. (Frederic J. Brown/Getty)

5. Schelotto is no stranger to managing big personalities, having previously led Boca Juniors in his native Argentina. Ibrahimovic has clashed with his coaches in the past, most notably then-Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. How has Schelotto found working with Zlatan? “The same personality he has in the game, he has in training,” Schelotto told Yahoo Sports. “Sometimes in training he complains, he gets angry. But we know him. He’s very competitive, very demanding. I think he’s helping the players in training to grow and to be more competitive. I’m surprised the level he has. It’s wonderful. It’s the same level as [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo. He’s 37, he’s older. But I think his level is very high.”

6. It’s no secret that foreign coaches have often struggled to adapt to MLS’s unique peculiarities. Guys like Tata Martino and Patrick Vieira have begun to change that narrative in recent years, in part because they did their homework before signing on. Schelotto has the benefit of having actually played in the league: in 2008 he led the Columbus Crew to its only MLS Cup, taking home league and postseason MVP honors along the way. “I know the league, I know the teams, the rules, everything,” Schelotto said.

7. From the moment he went back to Argentina in 2010, Schelotto knew he wanted to return to the U.S. “Always I was thinking in the future I’d come back as a coach. Always,” he said. “Since I left Columbus to today it’s a very different league for players, for coaches. Everything is getting better. I wanted to be part of it now.” Really, it was just a matter of where he’d end up. In addition to the vacancy in LA, there were openings in Columbus and Atlanta.

8. Many expected Schelotto to end up in Atlanta when Martino, his compatriot, announced that he was leaving. What few know is that Five Stripes technical director Carlos Bocanegra kicked the tires on Schelotto before United’s inaugural 2017 season. “I met with Bocanegra before but Tata got the deal with Atlanta,” Schelotto said. Atlanta called again last year. But with Schelotto involved in the Copa Libertadores and United in the playoffs, the sides didn’t meet again.

9. In a way, it’s fitting that Schelotto wound up as the Galaxy’s first permanent coach since the late Sigi Schmid. Schmid recruited Schelotto to Columbus before the Crew won it all, and the two men stayed in touch until Schmid’s untimely death in December. Schelotto even visited Schmid and the Galaxy last year while he was on vacation in Los Angeles. “I liked the history of the Galaxy, how important it is in the league,” Schelotto said. “It’s a good step for me.”

10. There’s no question that LAFC’s arrival has forced the Galaxy to step up its game. Part of that is reminding fans about the history Schelotto cites. The team’s 2019 jerseys feature five stars, one for each league title. Billboards emblazoned with the tagline “Since ‘96” have popped up all over town. It’s easy to understand why the Galaxy would be worried about losing market share. After seeing LAFC’s stadium and training facility for the first time, it’s clear that no detail has been left to chance. Bob Bradley’s fingerprints are all over this club, which is a first class operation in every way.

Los Angeles FC's Carlos Vela, left, is hugged by coach Bob Bradley after the team's 3-2 loss to Real Salt Lake during an MLS soccer playoff match Thursday, Nov. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Carlos Vela (left) and coach Bob Bradley have LAFC off to one of the best starts in MLS history. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

11. LAFC’s record-smashing start has been spearheaded by Carlos Vela. The Mexican international was just named the league’s Player of the Month of March. He has seven goals in six games so far. “He’s a great guy, he’s great with his teammates, he appreciates the kind of football we play and I know he wants to show people how good he is and wants to be captain of a team that wins trophies,” LAFC coach Bradley said. As good as Vela has been, Bradley believes Vela hasn’t reached his ceiling. How does he challenge him? “By talking to him about how he can be better,” Bradley said. “We all see the talent that Carlos has. Now we just try to find the right way to encourage and push him. But he’s great to work with.”

12. For all of LAFC’s offensive production, they’ve also been defensively sound. Only two teams, Columbus and the Seattle Sounders, have conceded fewer goals. Part of that has been down to the outstanding play of 25-year-old center back Walker Zimmerman, who has positioned himself for a Gold Cup invite from U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter.

“Walker improved a lot last year,” Bradley said. “He was very motivated for the January camp to show the national team the things that he felt had grown in his game. When we got him back into training here it was really easy for him to pick up on our ideas. He’s also one of the guys that has done a very good job in taking a bigger role on the leadership side.”

13. Bradley is nothing if not a straight shooter. I figured he’d try to downplay his team’s hot start, and he did. But he’s not surprised by it. LAFC is playing like a side with something to prove after being eliminated by Real Salt Lake in last year’s playoff opener. “We have a good team,” Bradley said. “We had a good team last year and we were all disappointed with the way the season ended. We look every week at things that reinforce our ideas and things that still need to get better. We’re six games into [this] season, but we feel good about the football.”

14. A broken ankle forced Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye to miss the final four months of his rookie season last year, but he’s started five of LAFC’s six games and has assists in its last two. Canada coach John Herdman expects Kaye to play a huge role for his country this summer, not least in a difficult Group A tilt versus Mexico.

“We wanted to know how he’d come back from that [injury] and he’s been exceptional, one of LAFC’s most consistent performers this season,” Herdman said. “He brings a confidence. We’ll be an underdog in certain games and you need those types of players, players that are single minded and are going to push right through.

15. The day before the U.S. women played Belgium, LAFC co-owner and USWNT great Mia Hamm told reporters that LAFC has explored starting a NWSL side. A USL team could also be in the works eventually, possibly in the talent-rich “Inland Empire” east of LA. It probably won’t happen until the club’s current crop of academy players, currently 15 years old and younger, comes of age.The club ended its USL affiliation with Orange County FC after one season in December.

16. Speaking of MLS talent mills, let’s circle back to the Galaxy. MLSSoccer.com’s Sam Stejskal reported Wednesday that the club had parted ways with under-19 coach Brian Kleiban. The move has been inevitable since two prized Galaxy products, U.S. U-20 national team standouts Ulysses Llanez and Alex Mendez, spurned contract offers from the senior team to sign developmental deals with German clubs. The players are represented by Kleiban’s brother.

17. The only question is why it didn’t happen sooner. Rumors of Kleiban’s impending ouster have been circulating for months. “He’s a good coach,” was the response I got from multiple sources when I asked, as far back as late last year, why the Galaxy hadn’t yet pulled the trigger. Now that the move has been made, here’s a little more context to the story:

18. Had the deals Llanez and Mendez received in Germany been comparable to the contracts signed by fellow Americans Weston McKennie or Josh Sargent, the Galaxy probably wouldn’t have had a major beef. But multiple sources told me independently that Llanez and Mendez are making peanuts with Wolfsburg and Freiburg, respectively, about 1,000 euros a month. My understanding is that’s less that the Galaxy offered them to stay. Makes you wonder what kind of advice they were getting. (Kleiban did not respond to a request for comment.)

19. I don’t have a name, but I’m told that Galaxy general manager Dennis te Klose, who was hired away from the Mexican national team program in December, will be bringing in a new academy director from south of the border.

20. Caught up with Galaxy/MLS/USMNT legend Landon Donovan at Wednesday’s Gold Cup event. Naturally, I was curious to hear his take on the USMNT four games into Berhalter’s tenure. “You’re starting to see the framework laid out,” Donovan said.“It doesn’t always come off perfectly but you can see the ideas that he’s trying to implement and over time.

Whether the guys can ultimately do it or not, we’ll see,” Donovan added. “But at least you can see that he’s trying to lay the groundwork.”

21. The 37-year-old Donovan, who came out of retirement for a third time earlier this year to play for the indoor San Diego Sockers, still has three weeks left in his Major Arena Soccer League season. He seems to be thoroughly enjoying the experience. “It’s so fun,” he said. “It’s just exciting. Every play matters. There’s so much nuance and strategy that you don’t really think about until you’re in it.”

22. A lifelong hockey fan whose father played the sport semi-professionally in his native Canada, Donovan only skated a few times growing up. Suddenly he finds himself changing shifts on the fly and marshaling the Sockers’ power-play. The similarities aren’t lost on Donovan. “It’s eerily similar to hockey in lot of ways,” he said of the indoor game.

23. I absolutely loved this story by Pablo Maurer on the friendship that’s developed between Wayne Rooney and D.C. United staffer Rory Molleda. Pablo’s doing some of the best work in the business right now.

24. Welcome back to the beat, Brian Straus. You’ve been missed.