Los Angeles Soccer: Chris Birchall
President Obama teased David Beckham and Robbie Keane, recognized Landon Donovan as someone “who has done more for American soccer than just about anybody” and praised the Galaxy for having “lived up to hype” as he honored the MLS Cup champions Tuesday at the White House.
The president's rollicking address, which betrayed more than a passing knowledge of the game and the team, offered a nice respite for the struggling champions, who are 3-5-2 and haven't won in their last four games.
Instead, the focus was on last year, when the Galaxy romped to Major League Soccer's Supporters' Shield, setting a post-shootout era points record in the process, and swept through the playoffs to win their third MLS Cup title, to go with their 2002 and 2005 triumphs.
“It's an amazing tradition to have, for teams to be able to come here," Beckham told media covering the event. "Because you come out meeting the president, and it's motivation -- it motivates you to want to come back next year. I hope we do, because it's a great day, a proud day for all of us.”
Obama regaled a gathering in the East Room -- moved from the South Lawn because of a thundershower threat -- with jokes at the expense of L.A.'s two biggest foreign stars, recounted their title triumph last Nov. 20 over the Houston Dynamo, and applauded head coach Bruce Arena for taking the Galaxy “from worst to first in just four years.”
“The truth is, in America, most professional soccer players have the luxury of being able to walk around without being recognized,” the president noted. “But not these guys. This is the Miami Heat of soccer. And together, they represent one of the most talented lineups that MLS has ever seen.”
“It makes you realize that people care, people take notice,” Donovan said afterward. “At the end of the day, we’re just playing a soccer game, so I get it, there are a lot more important things going on in the world. But it’s still cool to know that you inspire people and people care about what you’re doing.”
The Galaxy ate it up on an emotional afternoon that featured a brief reunion with goalkeeper Josh Saunders, who is in MLS's substance-abuse treatment program and had been away from the team since April 27.
“It was very nice to see Josh,” Donovan said. “We're all very much encouraged to see him and see how he's doing. I know it was a big deal for him, and I think we're all really excited that he could be a part of it.”
Several figures on last year's championship team weren't invited to be part of the ceremony. Only current Galaxy players and coaches who were with the club in 2011 were honored -- newcomers sat with the audience -- and not everybody was pleased about that.
Midfielder Chris Birchall, so key in the second-leg victory over New York in the first round of the playoffs but now with the Columbus Crew, took to his Twitter account to express his unhappiness Thursday night, also mentioning retired defender Frankie Hejduk, who is now with Columbus' front office.
Former Galaxy midfielder Chris Birchall is back in Major League Soccer after signing a multi-year contract with the Columbus Crew, the team announced Monday.
Birchall, 28, a rugged, energetic holding midfielder, spent three seasons with the Galaxy, starting 46 games in 57 league appearances with a goal and an assist. He also made nine playoff appearances, seeing time in all four postseason games last year -- memorably stepping in for suspended Juninho to clamp down New York's midfield in the second leg of the Western Conference semifinals.
He also played in four CONCACAF Champions League and one U.S. Open Cup game last year.
Birchall, a Trinidad & Tobago national-teamer, departed during the offseason to pursue opportunities at home in England, but he was hamstrung by sanctions preventing his former club Port Vale from signing new players. By the time he told Galaxy coach Bruce Arena that he was interested in returning, L.A. had already made roster moves to replace him.
Because his contract expired and the Galaxy did not offer him a new pact, they did not retain his rights within MLS.
CARSON -- The Galaxy play the second of three games in eight days Wednesday night at Seattle -- a showdown of two of Major League Soccer's most competitive organizations (Real Salt Lake being the third) -- and head coach Bruce Arena, wary of overuse (and CenturyLink Field's artificial surface) is likely to rotate his lineup.
Among the missing could be David Beckham, who doesn't do well on the fake stuff and rarely plays all three matches in these type of spans, and Robbie Keane. Neither trained Monday, with Arena saying he was “just giving them an opportunity to rest a few nagging injuries.”
Captain Landon Donovan expects there to be some changes.
“Given Bruce's history, yeah,” he said. “But you never know. Sometimes you just push through and play guys. It's early in the season, so there's still a lot of energy, but we'll see.”
The Galaxy has plenty of experience playing three in eight or three or nine. They did so seven or eight or nine times last year, depending on how you keep count -- they had 10 games in 29 days during September into October -- and went 11-6-4 in these games, a few CONCACAF Champions League group contests included.
They opened this season with three in eight days, losing their Champions League quarterfinal series to Toronto FC and MLS opener to Real Salt Lake, and Arena afterward acknowledged it would have been smarter to rotate his lineup after using virtually the same group for all three.
Sigi Schmid is dealing with similar concerns for Seattle. The Sounders are playing their second of five games in 15 days.
The turf is a concern, although it's new turf, installed during the offseason to replace one of the league most-hated surfaces. “I haven't heard anything,” said forward Pat Noonan, who spent the past two seasons with the Sounders, “but I know it can't be worse than last year. It was beaten pretty good last year. I'm sure it's an upgrade.”
Artificial turf is artificial turf, Arena says.
Robbie Keane's six-week loan to Aston Villa ends with Saturday's game at Wigan Athletic, but Villans boss Alex McLeish sounds as if he wouldn't mind bringing back the Irishman full-time.
Keane, 31, rejoins the Galaxy following Ireland's friendly Wednesday against the Czech Republic in Dublin, but his impact with Villa -- and the enjoyment he has derived playing for the American-owned, Birmingham-based club -- has endowed speculation that he'd like to return to the English Premier League.
Keane joined the Galaxy in August and scored four goals in 11 MLS regular-season and playoff and CONCACAF Champions League matches (and four more in the three-game postseason tour of Asia and Australia). He has three goals in four EPL starts for Villa, and British tabloid The Sun reported last week that he was homesick and considering a return to England, where he has spent the vast majority of his career.
“When I go back to L.A., it could be totally different,” The Sun quoted Keane. “At this moment in time, I can't tell what will happen. It's a case of watch this space. But people have seen over the years with the clubs I've been at, how quickly I leave if I don't think I fit in.”
McLeish was asked if he'd consider bringing Keane back in the summer transfer window.
“I don’t know,” he replied, according to the Birmingham Mail. “We have to get through this season and then see where we are in terms of recruitment for the summer. ... I think Robbie’s had a good influence on the place. There’s his movement, his ability to get on the ball or lose a defender, and his appetite for getting in the box.
“I’d like to think that other players who have got their own qualities that are different from Robbie’s will see one or two of the things in his game that they can use to enhance their game as well.”
McLeish said he had no insight into Keane's thoughts about the Galaxy and the EPL.
“Has he missed the Premier League? Maybe. I don’t know,” McLeish said. “Where he is right now, there’s probably a pretty glamorous feeling about it, jetting to play in L.A. and then jetting to play over in New York and places like that. It sounds like there’s a kind of world-class connotation to that.
Midfielder Chris Birchall is still searching for a home after the Galaxy effectively cut ties with him two weeks ago, and it's not coming easy.
The humble Englishman is training with his former club Port Vale and set to sign a month-to-month contract as he looks for a bigger and better opportunity, but part of him would like to be in L.A.
Birchall, 27, told Stoke-on-Trent-based daily The Sentinel that his 2012 option with the Galaxy, including a pay raise, would have kicked in had he made 20 league starts. He made 18, one in a playoff game, plus single starts in the CONCACAF Champions League and U.S. Open Cup. It wasn't good enough.
“The option was taken out of my hands, and it was then up to Galaxy to make me an offer,” Birchall told the newspaper. “I knew they weren't going to offer me an increased wage, but I didn't expect to be offered less money than what I was already earning.
“There are no hard feelings because we ended up winning everything last season, plus I have a good relationship with the management and coaching staff. The manager knew my intention to come back to England even if I had been offered the better option because I wanted to see what my options are.”
Birchall made $144,000 in base salary last year, but the Galaxy -- needing to clear cap space to make the kind of moves they've been making since winning the MLS Cup title -- declined the option on his contract. Talks continued into January, but Birchall wanted to see what his options were at home, and by the end of the month, the Galaxy's roster was virtually finished.
Birchall announced via Twitter two weeks ago that it was certain he would not return to L.A. That's not entirely a bad thing. His greatest difficulty in L.A. was visa issues that prevented his fiancee, Lucy, and their son, Ashley, from spending more than 90 days with him at a time.
CARSON -- Chris Birchall, an honest, humble, hard-working midfielder who in the past 2½ seasons provided the Galaxy energy and depth -- and a little bit of bite -- won't be back this year. The Englishman, who had been pursuing options at home after his MLS contract expired, revealed the news in a post Monday on his Twitter account.
“Disappointed to say that I will not be returning to LA Galaxy,” Birchall tweeted. “I would like to thank everyone for a Superb 3years,fans exceptional!!Thankyou!”
The decision was not Birchall's, he revealed in a tweet to teammate Bryan Jordan. “Not what I wanted but will miss you all,” he posted.
Birchall, 27, who plays internationally for his mother's native Trinidad & Tobago, started 44 competitive games for L.A. the past two seasons and 50 in all after signing during the 2009 summer transfer window. The fan favorite primarily toiled in central midfield, although he also spelled Landon Donovan on the right side, and although he started the majority of league games in 2010-11, he wasn't considered a first-choice player.
When his contract ran out on Dec. 31, he informed the Galaxy he wanted to find a club in England but was interested in keeping his options with the Galaxy open. As L.A. has filled spots, the opportunity to return has narrowed, and last week's acquisition of former UCLA All-American Kyle Nakazawa in a trade from Philadelphia appears to have closed it.
CARSON -- David Beckham's signing, made official last week, answered the greatest of offseason questions for the Galaxy. As the club heads into preseason training, with its first on-field session slated for Monday morning at Home Depot Center, there's one more gnawing concern: the backline.
It was defense that made the difference in L.A.'s runs last season to the MLS Cup and Supporters' Shield titles, with Omar Gonzalez's exquisite play at center back setting the tone for a club that tied the Major League Soccer record for shutouts, with 17, and added five more in the playoffs and CONCACAF Champions League.
The torn anterior cruciate ligament Gonzalez sustained on Jan. 5, in his first practice following a short-term loan deal to Germany's FC Nuremberg, leaves a massive hole in the middle of the Galaxy's backline, and how they deal with it will have much influence on what they achieve in 2012.
Here's a quick look at the Galaxy as their campaign begins:
- LAST YEAR?
Best Galaxy team in history? Oh, yeah. (Sorry, '96ers.) In MLS annals? Hard to argue. They amassed 67 points (most of the post-shootout era) on a 19-5-10 campaign, was the only club in a remarkably balanced league that conceded less than a goal per game, cruised to the Supporters' Shield (as regular-season champ, quietly the most meaningful of MLS's prizes), then went 4-0 through the playoffs, capping the campaign with a 1-0 triumph over Houston, not nearly so close, in an MLS Cup final played before the home fans.
Beckham's midfield partner, Juninho, is gone, two remarkable seasons in L.A. paving his way to Sao Paulo's first team. Backline leader Omar Gonzalez is out for maybe the entire season after shredding the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
The Galaxy needs to adequately replace both if they are to contend for a third straight Supporters' Shield and back-to-back MLS Cup titles, and Beckham could well be the key to doing so.
That's what Tim Leiweke says.
“He is out as we speak helping Bruce [Arena, the Galaxy's head coach and general manager] with a couple players we're trying to bring here,” said Leiweke, president and CEO of Galaxy owner AEG. “We're out of Designated Player slots, so we'll see how good a recruiter he is. Because they have to accept a salary that is not a Designated Player salary.
“He's helping us get better. He's the guy who helped me get [Irish striker] Robbie Keane. It took us one day to get Robbie Keane, 'cause David picked up the phone and recruited him.”
The Galaxy found a replacement for Juninho before Sao Paulo recalled his loan deal, signing his Brazilian countryman Marcelo Sarvas from Costa Rican powerhouse Alajuelense. Beckham and Sarvas met for the first time following the news conference Thursday afternoon at Staples Center to present Beckham after he signed on for two more years with the club.
Miguel Lopez's loan assignment with the Galaxy has ended, and has the Argentine midfielder/forward has returned to Quilmes, the suburban Buenos Aires club has confirmed.
Paolo Cardozo's situation isn't so clear.
Lopez began training last week with Quilmes, which is preparing for next month's start to the Clausura campaign in the second-tier Nacional B Division. The Galaxy, which signed Lopez on loan last January, has not announced any move involving the player, who told an Argentine newspaper that his time in L.A. was most beneficial.
“The experience was very positive,” Lopez said, according to reports in Diario Perspectiva Sur. “The city, the people, the club, everything was very good -- both on and off the field. And the experience helped me grow as a player, taught me another kind of football that can help me contribute here. Because it is a very physical football [in MLS], and that helped me a lot.”
Cardozo, whom the Galaxy selected in the first round of last year's MLS SuperDraft, also was set to return to Quilmes, according to Diario El Sol, which quoted head coach Ricardo Caruso Lombardi as saying he needed “to see the two players. If I like them both, then they'll be welcomed here.”
Lopez was on the roster for Quilmes' camp this week in Mar del Plata, but Cardozo is not on the list.
Lopez, 23, started 14 and played in 24 league games for the Galaxy last season, scoring a goal and adding three assists. He played in 32 first-team games in all.
Cardozo, who impressed last season with extraordinary skill on the ball -- he was the Galaxy's most technical player -- started eight and played in 18 league matches and featured in 27 first-team games. He also played in all nine MLS Reserve League matches, scoring two goals.
UPDATE (3:30 p.m.): Galaxy coach/GM Bruce Arena confirmed Tuesday that Lopez has returned to Quilmes but that he anticipates Cardozo, who is on loan from Quilmes, will return to the Galaxy this season.
He also said New Zealander defender Andrew Boyens, selected from Chivas in the re-entry draft, has been signed and that the club is looking to extend the loan agreement with Sao Paulo for central defender Leonardo.
NO CONWAY: Goalkeeper Jon Conway, whom the Galaxy selected in last month's second-stage re-entry draft, announced his retirement Tuesday after 12 seasons in MLS.
Counting down the 11 biggest 2011 stories in Southern California soccer ...
The Galaxy have had some sensational years since they first kicked a ball back in 1996. That inaugural season was something, and '98, too, and '99, the titles in 2002 and '05, the 2009 turnaround.
Nothing like what they experienced in 2011.
L.A. won everything that matters, did everything they sought to do, and they did so in a spotlight that shone more brightly than any had illuminated Major League Soccer's first 15 seasons. They did so with charm, grit and verve through superb efforts by superstars and role players all orchestrated by America's best coach -- Bruce Arena -- doing his best work.
The Galaxy romped to their second straight Supporters' Shield, the regular-season championship, setting a post-shootout era points record with 63 (from a 19-5-10 record), then swept four playoff matches -- with a masterful performance before the home fans to beat Houston in the final -- to claim the franchise's third MLS Cup championship. Through one four-month, 20-game stretch, they lost just one league game.
From August on, they pressed through the best quartet in the CONCACAF Champions League's second stage, capturing the Group A title with dramatic, must-win victories over Mexico's Morelia and at Motagua in Honduras. They'll be big favorites in their quarterfinal series against Toronto FC in March.
They tied an MLS single-season mark with 17 shutouts, with two more in the playoffs and three in the Champions League, despite season-long injury struggles that sidelined nearly every major player at some point and played particular havoc at the back.
The stars came up huge. David Beckham, drawing greater attention in the final season of his five-year contract, was magnificent at the center of the Galaxy's attack. Landon Donovan netted 17 goals in all despite a quad injury that slowed him considerably the final three months of the season. Robbie Keane's August arrival, accompanied by Juan Pablo Angel's departure, provided a quality finisher with great vision and a knack for opening up the tightest spaces.
Brad Friedel's criticism of Landon Donovan? It's all a misunderstanding, the American goalkeeper said Friday, after his remarks to BBC's World Service earlier this week caused a major stir in soccer circles on this side of the Atlantic.
“Not in a million years would I disparage an American player,” Friedel told Major League Soccer's website after comments he made, that Donovan “chose to take the easy road and stay in the States” rather than play in England and that “he gets a lot more notoriety because [soccer is] sponsorship-driven” in the U.S., went viral Thursday.
Friedel, 40, the former U.S. national team star who plays for Tottenham in London, reached out the MLS's website and to Donovan's representatives to apologize that what he said was twisted so badly.
His remarks came in response to a question about midfielder Clint Dempsey, who scored his 37th English Premier League goal Monday for Fulham, setting a new standard for Americans in the world's most respected league.
“My two comments were that Clint plays over here and a lot of it is sponsorship-driven [in the US], trying to create heroes over in the U.S.,” Friedel said. “I used Landon as an example. When I said 'easy road,' I’m not saying that everything Landon has done is easy because he stayed in the U.S. I’m not saying that at all. I could have used other players as an example. It’s just that Landon came up at the tip of my tongue because he’s one of the best U.S. players.
“At no time did I want to disparage or demean Landon Donovan in an way, shape or form. And if people read my quotes in a negative manner, I apologize for that. But at no time would I ever speak publicly in a negative way about another American player and mean it and actually go out and have a go at the guy. That’s not me. That’s not my personality.”
Now we're left to wait, a few weeks probably, before we learn whether David Beckham will return to the Galaxy, a decision he says he'll make during Christmas break with his family.
If his deliberations lead to Paris Saint-Germain, then he wrapped up his tenure with L.A. with a string of stunning performances, the last in his finale, an entertaining friendly Tuesday against the Melbourne Victory.
Beckham was creative and vibrant, steering a Galaxy attack that finally came alive in the second half of a 2-2 draw at Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. L.A., its legs weary from the long postseason trek, rallied from a two-goal deficit on two Robbie Keane penalties, then won a post-90 minute shootout from the spot.
It was a decent close to a spectacular season that began, with preseason work, way back in January, and when they regroup next month -- after about six weeks off -- so much will depend on what decision Beckham makes. He is so vital to how they attack that an offensive rethink will be necessary if he signs in France or, less likely, England.
That was apparent again Tuesday, with Beckham again dictating the Galaxy attack, delivering telling long balls, bending crosses and space-opening passes -- and, more so than usual, getting ahead in the attack and finding a few scoring chances.
Beckham's best chance came from 60 yards. A Victory giveaway in the 13th minute gave him an open path in the center circle, and seeing goalkeeper Ante Covic well off his line, he blasted a line drive that drifted left. It was almost a replica of his near-goal Saturday against the Philippines.
Chris Birchall, forced to skip the first leg of the Galaxy's postseason tour of Asia and Australia, has joined his teammates in Manila after dealing with a family emergency.
The English midfielder expects to be ready for Saturday's friendly against the Philippines' national team, a game that begins at 3:30 a.m. PST and will be televised by Fox Soccer Channel.
Birchall, who pulled out of the Jakarta portion of the trip after a family matter emerged over Thanksgiving, arrived Thursday night in the Philippine capital after flying from Los Angeles through Tokyo.
“Family comes first, and that was the most important thing to me,” Birchall told the Galaxy's website. “Obviously, I wanted to come with the guys from the start so that we could feel like a team and celebrate that we won the MLS Cup, but with the situation at home, it was a no-brainer that I had to stay. But thankfully everything went well and I was able to join the team and celebrate our accomplishments.
“It made it fun that when I got here, the guys weren’t expecting to see me until the morning, but I surprised them, met up with them all right when I got here. We’ve got a great team spirit, and it’s nice to know that your other players want you around and think that you're fun to have around. It’s nice to feel like I was wanted.”
Birchall was disappointed he couldn't travel to Jakarta last weekend nor play in Wednesday's victory over Indonesia's national team, but he was buoyed because of “players like Robbie [Keane], Becks and Josh [Saunders], especially, saying that they were gutted that I couldn’t come but that they sent their best and hoped that I could make it out at some point.”
When the crisis at home waned earlier this week, the Galaxy set up a marathon trip -- 19 hours in the air -- to get Birchall into camp. He followed a 13-hour flight to Tokyo with a six-hour trek to Manila.
The Galaxy are a couple days into their postseason tour and about to play the first of three games, and already they're having a blast. Jakarta has been most welcoming and they found the clinic with local kids, in the stadium in which they'll battle Indonesia's national team Wednesday, quite invigorating.
A certain 90 minutes a week and a half ago gets the credit.
L.A. is looking at its tour of Indonesia, the Philippines and Australia as a celebration after clinching an MLS Cup/Supporters' Shield double with a 1-0 triumph Nov. 20 over Houston.
“I think it would have been one awful trip if we would have lost [in the MLS Cup final],” Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said before the team departed California. “I think with a win we can go there in a little better frame of mind and relax and enjoy it.”
This is the fourth and most elaborate postseason trip the Galaxy has taken in David Beckham's five seasons with the club, with stops ahead in Manila (for a game Saturday against the Philippines' national team) and Melbourne (for Tuesday's finale against the Melbourne Victory), and it feels a lot different than last year's trek to Newcastle, Australia.
“It's more exciting if we won than if we lost, like last year,” defender A.J. DeLaGarza said. “Last year was terrible. We just lost to Dallas pretty bad [in the Western Conference final], and we had a long flight to Australia for just one game. Missing Thanksgiving and stuff with your family -- all those things added up.”
“We knew if we slipped up [this year], it would have been one of those trips that would have been miserable,” said midfielder Chris Birchall, who ended up skipping the trip, the team said, to deal with “non-team related matters.” “We're going to go celebrate, because I think we've worked for it, but we're over there for a reason, as well, to promote the game and promote the MLS and really have a good time and show the fans we appreciate the support worldwide.”
The Galaxy faces Indonesia's national team, with some under-23 players sprinkled in from the team that won silver at the South East Asian Games, in Wednesday's friendly at Gelora Bung Karno Stadium in Jakarta. (Kickoff is 4 a.m. PT; Fox Soccer Channel will televise.) Ticket sales have been slow -- promoters said only about 20,000 had been sold through Tuesday -- and fans have complained about the price of tickets for the second and third games of the tour.
If David Beckham decides his future is in France, might Didier Drogba fill his shoes?
Drogba's agent suggested it could happen after the Ivorian striker declined to extend his contract with English Premier League giant Chelsea.
Drogba, 33, among the world's elite forwards, is expected to sign in Russia or Qatar, but Thierno Seydi, his Senegal-based agent, said he could end up with the Galaxy.
“L.A. Galaxy are a possibility, among many others,” Seydi said, in comments published Tuesday in British tabloid The Sun. “He has been linked with Anzhi Makhachkala in Russia, as they pay well. But neither Didier nor I have had an offer from them.”
The Galaxy has been linked in the media with many top players, including Ronaldinho, Frank Lampard, Alessandro Del Piero, Luca Toni, Guti -- and now German star Michael Ballack, too, according to a report in German tabloid Berliner Kurier. The club does not comment on potential signings and, unlike many top European clubs, does not campaign through the media.
Beckham's five-year contract with the Galaxy expires in December, and he'll decide after the club's postseason tour of Asia and Australia whether to re-sign with L.A., accept offers from Paris Saint-Germain or English club Tottenham or retire. He is not expected to retire.