New SI priorities mean I’m writing more this year, so I’m going to be firing up mailbag columns once every two weeks in 2020. The best place to send your thoughtful, probing and amusing questions about anything soccer—domestic or international, men’s or women’s—is on my Twitter feed at @GrantWahl, so let me hear what’s on your mind!
Before we dive into your questions, let’s start with new info on Friday’s big story: Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, MLS’s white whale, finally signing a contract to join the L.A. Galaxy. SI.com has learned that L.A. is paying Sevilla a transfer fee of €8.5 million ($9.4 million), which is the same amount that Sevilla paid West Ham for Chicharito last year. Chicharito’s deal with the Galaxy is a three-year guaranteed contract, and it’s laden with incentives. I’m now told that his guaranteed annual salary will be around $6 million, so while Chicharito’s incentives may cause him to take home more money than any other player in MLS, his guaranteed money on the MLS players' union salary list may come in just under Carlos Vela and Jozy Altidore’s $6.3 million.
How big is this signing in MLS history? In terms of overall impact, I agree with my man Stu Holden, who says it’s bigger than any signing except David Beckham. Like Beckham, Chicharito isn’t the best player to ever come to MLS, but as Mexico’s all-time leading goal-scorer and the most popular El Tri player, Hernández will absolutely move the needle with the Mexican-American soccer fan base in the United States (which is huge).
At 31, he’s also still young enough to make a big impact scoring goals. Will he score as many as Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored between the regular season and playoffs in 2019 for the Galaxy (31) or compatriot Vela did for LAFC (36)? We’ll see. But this is a seismic signing for L.A. and for MLS.
Now let's dive into your questions:
When we’ve had MLS playoffs that feature a lot of upsets and lower-seeded/away teams winning, we’ve winced and worried about changing the format, not rewarding regular season success enough. But these NFL playoffs have featured that, and I’ve seen a more positive reaction to surprises and underdogs. Why do you think it’s different? - John Strong, Portland, Ore.
John Strong of Fox Sports in the house! Thanks for sending the question. I think there are a few reasons. The main one is we see established top leagues outside of MLS and Liga MX (which is to say, European leagues) that don’t have playoffs at all and make that comparison, which is something you don’t have with the NFL and its long playoff tradition. But there are other differences, too:
• A much smaller percentage of NFL teams make the playoffs than MLS teams do, so you feel like almost all the NFL postseason teams are “deserving” of being there.
• MLS has twice as many regular-season games as the NFL does, so perhaps people think that a higher-seeded playoff team having one bad day in MLS should mean less than it does in the NFL.
• The NFL gives lower-seeded playoff teams a higher hill to climb than has typically been the case in the MLS playoffs. In the NFL playoffs, winning on the road is hard, especially if the home team has had a week longer of rest heading into the game. However, the new MLS playoff format in 2019 (with byes for the conference champions and single-game elimination in every game) seems more like the NFL playoff format, and so even though the two MLS conference champions (LAFC and Atlanta) lost at home in the conference finals, I didn’t sense that there was a major outcry about it seeming “unfair.”
Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham: Which club has the best managerial situation right now, and for the next two to four years? - @RickLeibling
Good question! This is a matter of personal taste, obviously, but let’s start by ruling out Ole Gunnar Solskjaer of Man United for either answer. He seems like a good man, but how much lower of a club do you think he would be managing right now if he weren’t the United manager? If I need to win one game right now, I’d take José Mourinho of Spurs, but I wouldn’t necessarily feel good about the means of getting that result.
In terms of the next two to four years, my pick would be Mikel Arteta of Arsenal, slightly ahead of Chelsea’s Frank Lampard. We have yet to see much in terms of Arteta as a head coach, but I do think there has been great value in the years he has spent working as Pep Guardiola’s assistant, and I think Arsenal screwed up by not hiring Arteta two years ago when it had the chance. I also feel more positive in the longer term about the kind of football Arteta wants to play than, say, Mourinho.
Is there anything in soccer similar to the Astros cheating scandal going on now? - @Zero_Dice
The closest recent thing I can think of is Marcelo Bielsa of Leeds United admitting last year that he had sent an assistant to spy on opposing teams’ closed training sessions—something that apparently is more common in South America than in other locales. But there’s nothing in soccer that’s quite like the Astros’ systematically stealing signs from opponents. (Also worth noting is that Bielsa kept his job, whereas the managers involved in this baseball scandal have not.)
Better than Bill B in NE, mate??? - @Brit1502
This question is in reference to my in-depth feature this week on Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, which you should most definitely read! I raise the (obviously arguable) possibility that Klopp may be the best coach right now in any sport, anywhere. This is subjective! But I would argue that it is indeed the case right now. Klopp’s Liverpool is performing at a ridiculously high level, and it has reached the last two Champions League finals, winning it last season. Plus, Klopp has overperformed now at Liverpool, Dortmund and Mainz based on the club’s revenues. And he has to coach in a sport that has players from all manner of countries, speaking all manner of languages, and he still connects with them.
Could you make an argument for Bill Belichick, Pep Guardiola, Gregg Popovich or Mike Krzyzewski? Sure. But for me, Klopp is the guy right now.
Thoughts on Sky Blue’s move for Mallory Pugh? - @JayJayPost
Well, your question came in before Friday’s news that Pugh was one of the cuts for the 20-player Olympic qualifying roster for the USWNT. So it’s a pivotal time for Pugh, who’s still 21 years old but hasn’t continued developing like so many thought she would after making the 2016 Olympic squad as a 17-year-old.
U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said on Friday that Pugh has been “inconsistent” in camp, and while she still has a shot of making the roster for the Olympics itself, how she performs with Sky Blue will have a major impact on that. Let’s just say she should be motivated.
I like what Sky Blue is doing to turn itself from NWSL laughingstock into a team with real possibilities. That includes moving home games to Red Bull Arena, which makes it a New York team, but it also includes moves that have seen player acquisitions like Pugh, McCall Zerboni and Midge Purce. I think this could be the change that Pugh needs to get back on track.
Any insight into CBA negotiations? Will the MLS season start on time? - @stuartvenzke
I just spent the past few days in Los Angeles at the MLS Media Day(s), and from talking to people there, I’d say that I think the season will start on time. There’s a lot of work still to do, but people on both sides have said that the tenor of the talks has been mostly positive.
I would love your view on the recent aggregation of domestic rights in the USA by ESPN+. No one can argue the financial value of $5/month. My concern is the minimal investment in the leagues they represent, compared to the NBC "gold standard" product w/ the Premier League. - @vav717
When you say “minimal investment,” do you mean in studio shows and shoulder programming for those leagues? I would say a couple of things about ESPN+: First, of all the “added paywalls” for watching soccer in the U.S., it’s the best one in terms of what you get for your money. That includes Serie A, MLS out-of-market games, and the English Championship and FA Cup, among other properties. (The Bundesliga will arrive next season.) And I do like the daily ESPN FC studio show that is on ESPN+. But yes, I would like to see more studio shows on particular leagues and more high-end, ambitious storytelling about people in those leagues.
See you next time!