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Soccer newsletter: Lots of news to catch up on after the break

Hello and welcome to 2020’s first edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer and thanks for waiting for me; like most of Europe’s major leagues I was ordered to take a short holiday break.

So what did we miss?

Well the Galaxy have been busy after a quiet winter, confirming two signings since Dec. 31. But they still have a long way to go to replace the 30 goals Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored last season.

Ibrahimovic, you may have heard, returned to Serie A on Monday with AC Milan.

LAFC’s Steven Beitashour is once again looking for work after leading a team to a record-setting season; the men’s and women’s national teams are in camp about 50 miles apart in central Florida, preparing for what will be an important year for both; and the ambitious Orange County Soccer Club has entered into a working partnership with Rangers FC of Glasgow.

We start with the Galaxy.

Country club

Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto had great success as both a player and manager in his native Argentina. And though he’s now more than 6,000 miles from home, he seems determined to surround himself with every Argentine player he can scoop up.

Last year he brought in attackers Favio Álvarez and Cristian Pavón on loan and drafted Buenos Aires-born midfielder Emil Cuello. Álvarez won’t be back but the Galaxy recently added veteran left back Emiliani Insúa, who was in the Boca Juniors youth system when Schelotto was playing for the first-division team.

The Galaxy also added a non-Argentine – surprise! – in Aleksandar Katai, 28, a Serbian winger. He spent the last two seasons with the Chicago Fire, who declined his contract option. Katai made a guaranteed $1.38 million in Chicago last season and though details of his deal with the Galaxy have not been released, it’s certain he took a cut in pay.

Insúa, who celebrates his 31st birthday on Jan. 7, has a big-team pedigree, having played for Liverpool, Galatasaray, Sporting CP, Atletico Madrid and Rayo Vallecano. He spent the last four years in Germany with Stuttgart.

And Schelotto may not be done adding Latin Americans to his defense since the team is in extended talks with center back Carlos Zambrano, who has also been targeted by the Seattle Sounders, according to reports. Zambrano, 30, a Peruvian international, is with Dynamo Kyiv of the Ukrainian Premier League, though he’s played only sparingly the last two years.

If Zambrano joins the team, Schelotto could use a lineup with nine of 11 starters either having been born in Latin America or born to Latin American parents.

The addition of Insúa strengthens a back line that gave up 59 goals last season and could make Jorgen Skjelvik expendable. The Norwegian, who made more than $1 million last season, is still under contract but fell out of favor last season, playing just 18 minutes in the team’s final seven games and not even suiting up for the two playoff matches.

The Galaxy are keen to move Skjelvik, perhaps sending him out on loan.

Where the team still needs help, through, is up front. Katai had 18 goals and 12 assists in two seasons with the Chicago Fire -- Ibrahimovic had that many goals in the last four months last year.

With Ibrahimovic (30 goals), Uriel Antuna (6), Álvarez (3), Chris Pontius (2) and Diego Polenta and Ema Boateng (1 each) all gone, the Galaxy have lost 43 of their 58 goals from last season.

The addition of Katai does make it unlikely midfielder Romain Alessandrini will return however. Alessandrini, a designated player, had 24 goals and 21 assists in his first two seasons before missing most of last year with injury.

The Lion’s new den

Ibrahimovic marked his return to Serie A on Monday in Milan’s scoreless draw with visiting Sampdoria, playing 35 minutes off the bench and taking one shot. And though Milan was the destination he had targeted from the time he began burning the bridge linking him to MLS last summer, the player and his Italian-born agent, Mino Raiola, almost didn’t get the deal done.

Ibrahimovic, 38, went into the talks last fall seeking an 18-month contract and a promise he would play a prominent role in the team. Milan countered with a six-month offer worth about $2.2 million, a $5 million cut from his 2019 salary with the Galaxy. And as for Ibrahimovic’s role with the team, there were no promises.

Then came Milan’s 5-0 loss to Atalanta in the final game before the winter break, the team’s most one-sided defeat in more than two decades and one that dropped it to 11th in the Serie A table, left it with a negative goal differential and pushed it nine points out of a European tournament berth. The team, which didn’t have a player with more than four league goals, desperately needed a spark and something to distract fans from what was shaping up to be the worst season in a generation.

And who better to do that than the entertaining Ibrahimovic, who led Milan to its last league title in 2010-11?

The team, suddenly motivated to get a deal done, gave Raiola a Christmas deadline for accepting its offer and scheduled a Dec. 26 meeting with the agent to discuss the final terms. According to media reports the team nearly offered $3.3 million and a renewal option for next season based on performance. That was more than enough to win over Ibrahimovic whose partner, Helena Seger, is said to prefer the fashion capital of Milan over the other European stops the family has made in Malmo, Turin, Paris, Barcelona and Manchester.

Not everyone is happy with Ibra however. Supporters of Swedish club Malmo destroyed a statue of the Swedish superstar outside the stadium in his hometown, ostensibly to protest Ibrahimovic’s part ownership in rival club Hammarby.

The 9-foot, 1,100-pound bronze sculpture, unveiled in October with Ibrahimovic in attendance, had previously been set on fire and had its nose broken off. Then vandals, working in the early morning hours Sunday, sawed the statue off at the ankles, leaving only the two feet on the platform while the rest of the body toppled over a security fence. The statue’s face was covered in a shirt bearing the Swedish badge and graffiti reading “take away” in Swedish was scrawled next to the statue..

AEG, the Galaxy’s parent company, helped Ibrahimovic obtain a 25% interest in Hammarby in November. The agreement was part of the deal that brought Ibrahimovic to MLS in 2018. At the time of his signing, the Galaxy had no DP spots available and could only pay Ibrahimovic $1.5 million, so they offered him a share of the Stockholm-based club when he left MLS.

Ibrahimovic earned a league-record $7.2-million last year.

I wonder if AEG should post guards at the David Beckham statue outside Dignity Health Sports Park. Beckham, whose 2007 contract with the Galaxy allowed him to purchase a rival MLS expansion franchise at a deeply discounted price, will see his team enter the league this year.

Beckham’s Inter Miami plays the Galaxy in its first home game in March.

Not a sure Beitashour

The day after Christmas a story on the MLS website included LAFC defender Steven Beitashour on the MLS team of the decade. That is, he was named the best right back in the league over the last 10 years.

But apparently he’s not the best right back LAFC general manager John Thorrington thinks he can sign because Beitashour, one of the team’s most popular and accessible players, remains without a contract less than a week before the team opens training camp. And the former Iranian World Cup player appears doubtful he’ll get one.

“Not much talk, unfortunately, with LAFC,” said Beitashour, a free agent. “More talk with a few other MLS clubs and a couple of clubs in Asia.”

This has been a repeating theme for Beitashour in his 10-year MLS career, one in which he has played a key role in helping four teams to franchise-record seasons, only to be sent packing, told he was too expensive.

As a rookie he joined a San Jose Earthquakes team coming off two straight losing seasons. Three years later, the Quakes set team records for wins and points while reaching the playoff quarterfinals.

He then moved to Vancouver, which had made the playoffs just once before his arrival. In Beitashour’s two seasons there, the Whitecaps reached 50 points in successive seasons, advanced to the conference semifinals and won a Canadian championship. Next he went to Toronto, a team that had gone nine seasons without a winning record. In his two years there, Beitashour helped Toronto to two MLS Cup finals, a league-record 69-point season in 2017 and the only treble — an MLS title, a domestic cup win and a Supporters’ Shield — in league history.

LAFC topped that point total last year, going 21-4-9, breaking the league record with 72 points and winning the Supporters’ Shield while giving up a league-low 37 goals. It was also a memorable year for Beitashour personally, with the player and his wife Karlie welcoming their first child, Brayden, last Feburary. But while veteran defenders Dejan Jakovic and Jordan Harvey were given new contracts Beitashour, whose 54 regular-season starts are the most by a defender in LAFC’s brief history, was not.

Beitashour, 32, made a guaranteed $298,375 last season, less than half of what center back Walker Zimmerman, the team’s highest-paid defender, got. Rookie Diego Palacios, who had never played an MLS game when he signed with LAFC, also had a larger contract last season.

“I guess I’m used to it at this point,” Beitashour complained. “Fourth team I’ve helped reach their highest point total in club history and now the fourth team that wants to wait to give me a good offer. It’s crazy how every team I go to the exact same thing happens. You couldn’t write this stuff. The coincidences are remarkable.”

National emergency

The men’s and women’s national teams opened training camp this week, starting what will be a consequential year for both teams, as well as the federation that oversees them.

And for a federation that really needed no more drama, it got some just the same when it made a last-minute decision to pull the men’s camp out of Qatar amid heightened tensions in the Middle East after the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Some team officials were already in Doha, host city for the 2022 World Cup, when the decision was made late Friday. They evacuated immediately and players were sent emails telling them to report to the IMG facility in Bradenton, Fla., instead.

The move, which a federation spokesman said came “out of an abundance of caution” and not in response to any specific threat, will likely mean the cancellation of “closed-door” scrimmages scheduled for the Aspire Academy in Doha, including one with Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg. RB Salzburg is coached by former MLS manager and national team assistant Jesse Marsch. That game was scheduled for Jan. 18.

The decision to pull out of Qatar was the right one, even if it was an expensive one. But it also adds to the turmoil surrounding the federation, which entered 2020 without full-time coaches for 13 of its 14 age-group national teams. (On Monday, veteran NWSL coach Laura Harvey was named coach of the women’s U-20 team.)

U.S. Soccer also remains without a CEO nearly 18 months after Dan Flynn, who held the post for 19 years, announced he would be retiring. And it is negotiating a new collective-bargaining agreement with the men’s players at the same time it is defending itself against six lawsuits, including the pay-equity complaint filed by members of the women’s team, a discrimination suit brought by former player Hope Solo and antitrust claims from the North American Soccer League and soccer promoter Relevent Sports.

On the field the men’s team must rebound from an uneven first season under coach Gregg Berhalter before World Cup qualifying begins in September. The men, who missed the last World Cup, will play their first game of 2020 against Costa Rica on Feb. 1 at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson.

The women’s team, less than six months removed from a second consecutive world championship are in Tampa for a 10-day camp ahead of the Olympic qualifying tournament, which begins Jan. 28 in Texas.

The semifinals and final of the eight-team competition will be played next month at DHSP.

Vlatko Andonovski, who took over the women’s team when Jill Ellis stepped down in October, has called up 22 of the 23 players from the World Cup team, the only exception being co-captain Alex Morgan, who is pregnant.

The appointment of Andonovski and the temporary absence of Morgan has cleared the way for Carli Lloyd, a two-time FIFA player of the year, to return to the starting lineup after seeing her playing time greatly reduced in the last two years under Ellis. Lloyd, 37, said before last summer’s World Cup the tournament could be her last depending on who was coaching the team in the Olympics.

She apparently found Andonovski, a longtime NWSL coach, to her liking since her personal trainer, James Galanis, confirmed Lloyd intends to play in Tokyo this summer.

International relations

The Orange County Soccer Club may not be the biggest or best team in what is becoming a crowded soccer landscape in Southern California. But under general manager Oliver Wyss and owner James Keston, who bought the team in 2016, OCSC may be the Southland’s most creative and ambitious club.

Last month the team, which plays in the second-tier USL Championship, entered into a strategic partnership with Rangers of the Scottish Premier League that will focus on youth development and commercial activities.

Rangers, coached by former Liverpool legend and Galaxy midfielder Steven Gerrard, will loan players to Orange County beginning this month. Last month three OCSC players – Francis Jacobs, Aaron Cervantes and Diego Lopez – played in Rangers academy matches. All three signed with OCSC as teenagers as part of team’s “Pathway to Professional” project, one Keston and Wyss hope will make OCSC a stepping stone from youth leagues to professional soccer.

Also as part of the accord, members of the Rangers’ coaching staff will transfer from Glasgow to Irvine to help train Orange County players and Rangers Soccer Schools will join with OCSC to provide both coaching sessions and week-long clinics to boys and girls in Southern California.

“The club’s international strategy is a core pillar to our growth plans and this relationship gives Rangers a permanent presence in the U.S. and a platform to develop further,” Rangers’ managing director Stewart Robertson said in a statement.

For Rangers, the partnership with OCSC follows a similar agreement with Bengaluru FC in India.

Quotebook

“What matters now is that I’m back and I’m happy. I’ve always said this is my home and I’m finally back. I’ve played for other teams in my years, but finally I’m back and that’s all that matters.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, on Milan TV, welcoming himself back to the city after two seasons with the Galaxy

Until next time

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