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Soccer newsletter: LAFC’s Diego Rossi steps up big time

LAFC forward Diego Rossi takes a penalty kick, and scores, against the Seattle Sounders in Kissimmee, Fla., on Monday.
(Reinhold Matay / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer and, like the Galaxy, I’ve returned from Orlando and the MLS Is Back tournament without a win. They did get one more point than I did, however, and may also have figured a few things out in their final game, a 1-1 draw with Houston earned on a Cristian Pavón penalty kick in stoppage time.

We’ll go deeper into the Galaxy’s Florida adventure in a minute, but we start with LAFC, which rode two Diego Rossi goals to a 4-1 win over Seattle in Monday’s round-of-16 game to advance to a Friday quarterfinal with Orlando City.

With Carlos Vela, the reigning league MVP and the single-season MLS scoring leader, skipping the competition to care for his pregnant wife, the tournament has become a coming-out party of sorts for Rossi, who has stamped his name on the competition by scoring seven times.

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Only one other team in the tournament has more goals than that. And both of Rossi’s scores Monday were big ones that came at the expense of Seattle defender Xavier Arreaga.

The first, which opened the scoring, came in the 14th minute on a penalty kick after Arreaga was called for a foul for tripping Rossi at the edge of the 18-yard box. The second put a dagger in the heart of the Sounders, who had rallied to within a goal in the 82nd minute. On that one, Rossi took the ball from Arreaga in the Seattle penalty area, then beat goalkeeper Stefan Frei cleanly at the far post.

“Diego has been a really good player every year, but he’s grown. He’s improved,” said LAFC coach Bob Bradley. “He’s worked really hard on his finishing. His ability to take balls on the move, to make runs through the defense, he’s relentless.

“One of the things that we talked about after the Portland game [a 2-2 draw in group play] is still how on the field we have a young team, but … those guys have to really step up more and have personality and hold the other guys accountable. And Diego has really grown to handle that that kind of a role.”

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Here’s how dominant LAFC has been in this tournament: Not only does it lead the competition with 15 goals, but LAFC also has outshot the competition 86-11, averaging a shot every four minutes. And they’ve done without the team’s best player in Vela — although Rossi would be the best player on just about every other team in the league.

Consider that Rossi, 22, is not only an iron man, holding the franchise record in appearances with 72 and missing just two games in two-plus seasons, but his 36 goals trails just four players in MLS over that period.

Now just imagine what LAFC could do if the defense came around?

Well, imagine no more, because on Monday it did.

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The one goal it allowed is the fewest LAFC has given up since a shutout win over Inter Miami in the season opener in March. The team had given up 10 goals in four games since.

LAFC didn’t even allow a shot on goal until the 65th minute Monday and goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, who briefly lost the starting job, came up with a big save to keep Seattle from evening the game in the 77th minute, deflecting a stout shot from Raul Ruidiaz wide for one of his three saves.

“It was a big save at an important time,” Bradley said.

Vermeer wasn’t alone in having a big night, even if the defense gave up 11 shots.

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“The focus was really good,” Bradley said. “The reactions were at a high level. The back line, in different situations was connected and handled things well. When we lost balls our reactions and our ability to control situations was the best it’s been.”

And that helped LAFC scratch an itch that’s been bothering the team for ninth months. Last October, after the best regular season in MLS history, LAFC saw its push for a league championship end in a 3-1 loss to Seattle in the Western Conference quarterfinals. The Sounders would go on to win the MLS Cup.

On Monday, LAFC ended Seattle’s push for another title in the MLS Is Back tournament. And while that is hardly the MLS playoffs, forward Danny Musovski said the win felt great just the same.

“That was a big thing,” he said. “We did try to treat it like any other game, but obviously with how last year ended, we did want a little bit of revenge.

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“I don’t know if that’s the right word, but we wanted to come out and get that one back and we did.”

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MLS Is Back Round of 16

Orlando City 1, Montreal 0

Philadelphia 1, New England 0

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Sporting KC 0, Vancouver 0 (SKC advances on penalties)

New York City 3, Toronto 1

San Jose 5, Real Salt Lake 2

LAFC 4, Seattle 1

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Tuesday

Columbus Crew vs. Minnesota United

Portland vs. FC Cincinnati

Quarterfinals

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Thursday

Philadelphia vs. Sporting Kansas City

Friday

Orlando City vs. LAFC

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Saturday

New York City vs. Portland/FC Cincinnati winner

San Jose vs. Columbus/Minnesota United winner

Is it time for youth to be served with the Galaxy?

It’s hard to find a silver lining to the Galaxy’s start, which has been as dark as the storm clouds that seemed to hover above the team during its short stay in central Florida.

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With two points through five games, the team is off to the slowest start in franchise history and is last in the Western Conference table. The nine goals the Galaxy allowed in the three group-stage games was a tournament high, while just one of their four goals came from open play; two others came on penalty kicks, and one was an own goal.

The defense looks shaky, goalkeeper David Bingham and coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto often look lost, and two of the team’s three designated players — captains Jonathan dos Santos and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández — missed the last two games with injury. Neither is expected back until the middle of next month.

But if the light’s just right and you squint hard enough, you can find a glimmer of hope.

Teenager attackers Efrain Alvarez and Cameron Dunbar acquitted themselves well in limited playing time in Florida. So did Ethan Zubak, who made his first MLS start, and Gordon Wild, who made his MLS debut.

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“He did a pretty good job,” midfielder Joe Corona said of Alvarez, who came on in his place in the 77th minute of the group-play finale last week. “He’s hungry. He has a lot of potential.”

Julian Araujo, another teenager, also played well in his two starts in the tournament. And since it’s obvious the Galaxy aren’t going to compete for a title this season, or even a playoff berth, if the regular season is allowed to resume, why not give those five an extended chance to prove themselves?

“We are building for the future,” Schelotto conceded. “We had a lot players from Galaxy II or from the Academy; they show[ed] us that with their attitude and hard work, you can get results. I’m happy to give the young players an opportunity.”

“We need to keep building the team,” he added.

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(By the way, back to the black cloud for a second: If the season does resume and the Galaxy do miss the playoffs, it would be the third time in four seasons under four managers that the team failed to reach the postseason. That’s only happened one other time.)

The defense was solid in its final game at MLS Is Back, with the only goal coming on a long Darwin Quintero free kick that Bingham still hasn’t reacted to. Nick DePuy, who played well in the first two games of the season, replaced the struggling Giancarlo Gonzalez for the tournament finale with Houston and proved he deserves to be a first-choice center back.

It’s worth noting that the Galaxy have held opponents to one goal three times this season, and DePuy started all three of those games.

Sebastian Lletget, who has been asked to do different things this season, played all but one minute of the tournament despite the hot, humid conditions in Florida and may have been at this best in the final game, taking a game-high 79 touches, completing 50 of 52 passes and winning a team-high three fouls.

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So if the Galaxy haven’t exactly turned the corner, they may have at least entered the turn, and that’s probably enough progress to cool the hot seat Schelotto’s been occupying lately.

Sadly the manager, who repeatedly accused his players of quitting during the tournament, has publicly declined to assume any responsibility for the team’s slow start. Instead, he said the Galaxy deserved better in Florida. (How a coach can say a team quit but also deserved to win is unclear.)

But he, too, said progress was made in the Houston game.

“I think if you check the result and how we played in some games, it’s a little unfair,” he said. “We know we need to fight, we need to be organized.

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“If we keep fighting and stay organized as today, you can improve to be a much better team.”

Corona picked up on the same theme, saying he also thought the Galaxy deserved to win; it’s a bad look when a winless team blames fate for its misfortune. And it’s unlikely the Galaxy will fully turn the corner and become a contender again unless players and coaches start responsibility for the results.

CONCACAF widens invitation list for World Cup qualifying

In World Cup qualifying, the “hex” is out and the octagonal is in, with CONCACAF on Monday announcing a change to the qualifying tournament for the 2022 competition in Qatar necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than the usual six-team 10-game final round, CONCACAF’s three automatic World Cup qualifiers will be determined in an eight-nation, 14-match competition that will run from June 2021 through March 2022.

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The U.S. and Mexico were among six countries that were scheduled to begin the traditional “hexagonal” round of qualifying in September, but the COVID-19 pandemic closed the fall FIFA international windows, forcing CONCACAF to come up with a new tournament format.

Five countries — Mexico, the U.S., Costa Rica, Jamaica and Honduras — will advance automatically to the final round based on their FIFA world rankings. A two-round competition featuring the other 30 CONCACAF nations will determine the final three participants. Teams will be divided into six five-team groups, with the winners of each group advancing to a second series of two-leg playoffs to determine the final three teams in the octagonal.

Just as in the hex, the top three finishers in the final round will qualify directly for the World Cup with the fourth-place finisher advancing to an intercontinental playoff, where a final World Cup berth will be at stake.

“It’s good that we have clarity regarding the format and scheduling, which allows us to chart the course ahead,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said in a statement. “We are looking forward to the challenge that this new World Cup qualifying format will present.”

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CONCACAF on Monday also announced that the 2021 Gold Cup will be played July 10-Aug. 1. The U.S. is one of the 12 teams that has already qualified for the 16-team event.

“We have a busy 2021 that gives us the opportunity to compete for trophies and also take a big step towards qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” Berhalter said.

The U.S. did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time since 1986 after losing its final qualifying match to Trinidad and Tobago.

A (successful) league of their own

It sounds daft to suggest any sports league will look back on the spring and summer of 2020 as anything more than a dark and horrible time. And it has been, with COVID-19 killing more than 150,000 of our friends and neighbors, infecting nearly 4.4 million and destroying a humming economy.

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But it may also prove to be a seminal period in the history of the NWSL, which in the last week finished a successful tournament — the first to be completed in the U.S. during the COVID era — and welcomed a Southern California expansion team that has the potential to change the reputation and trajectory of the league.

The team, which be come the league’s 11th when it begins play in 2022, doesn’t have a name, colors or home yet, but you’ll recognize many of its 30 owners: actresses Natalie Portman, America Ferrera, Eva Longoria, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Chastain; former national team stars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Abby Wambach, Joy Fawcett and Tisha Venturini-Hoch; tennis star Serena Williams and her husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian; business leaders Kara Nortman and Julie Uhrman; and former Fox Sports executive David Nathanson.

There has never been an ownership group like it in NWSL — or in any professional league, for that matter. It’s majority female, and it includes some of the brightest lights in Hollywood and professional soccer, traits that give the new franchise instant credibility.

“We wanted to make sure that we brought in incredible partners who were from the soccer world, who are leaders in sport and tech and business and entertainment because that’s really so much what our city is about,” said Portman, who has been a hands-on owner from the moment the idea of a team took root 11 months ago. “Each of us has our kind of special ability to bring to the team.”

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The idea of bringing an NWSL team to Southern California, which has been without women’s professional soccer since the Sol folded in 2010, began percolating in August, weeks after the U.S. victory at the most-watched Women’s World Cup in history.

That tournament gave the NWSL a wave of momentum heading into its eighth season. Then a pandemic struck, leaving freshman commissioner Lisa Baird, who officially took office two days before COVID-19 shut down pro sports in the U.S., to find a way to salvage the season.

Not only did she pull that off, selling the owners and players on a tournament to be played behind closed doors and under quarantine in Utah, but she did so before any other commissioner, making NWSL the first U.S. league to play a competitive game during the pandemic.

And the tournament, which concluded last Saturday with the Houston Dash beating the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 in the final, was a rousing success. Not only did two of its 23 games appear on CBS — the first women’s professional leagues game to be broadcast on an over-the-air network in the U.S. — but according to spokesman Mark Jones, no one tested positive for COVID-19 during the 29-day competition.

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MLS has had 26 players and coaches test positive in quarantine in Orlando, the NBA has had two, and Major League Baseball saw 11 players test positive on just one team. They could all learn from the NWSL.

It’s unlikely the league will play again this year, so the Challenge Cup will be it for this season. But when the NWSL comes back next year it will have a 10th team, with Racing Louisville FC joining for 2021. Angel City FC will debut in 2022.

The start date for the Southern California franchise couldn’t be better, coming between the two biggest events in international soccer for the women — the Olympic Games and the 2023 World Cup.

”The growth trajectory of the NWSL is incredibly exciting, but we also need to be strategic and thoughtful about how fast we expand and the communities we partner with,” Baird said in a statement. “We’ve long sought the right partner in L.A., considering the NWSL fanbase that already exists in the region and the massive interest in women’s soccer in general. Those factors, along with an incredible ownership group, make this an ideal situation, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to move forward.”

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There’s really no good answer for why the league, which was founded in 2013, long ignored Southern California. The region is home to two of the nation’s best college programs at USC and UCLA, has produced numerous national team stars including Shannon Boxx, Christen Press, Whitney Engen, Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan and has tens of thousands of girls playing in organized leagues year-round.

That oversight has been corrected now, ending what has been a very good month for Baird and her league despite the difficult circumstances.

Podcast

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

Quotebook

“We have that team mentality that it’s next man up. We all train hard. You know when your number is called, you have to go in and perform for the team. There’s no transition period. We’re in a tournament and this is a must-win game. So everyone needs to step up.”

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LAFC forward Danny Musovski explaining, in part, how the team has overcome the absence of league MVP Carlos Vela

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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