Soccer newsletter: It’s hard not to get excited about the potential of the U.S. men’s team
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer and we start today with Gregg Berhalter’s Kiddie Korps, one of the youngest and most dynamic national teams in U.S. history. And one that’s undefeated in 2020 after Monday’s 6-2 rout of Panama.
Yes, yes I know that result came at the expense of a hapless team that has plummeted to eighth in the CONCACAF rankings since making its first World Cup appearance in 2018 — a World Cup the U.S. didn’t attend. But it follows by four days a stout defensive effort in a scoreless draw with Wales and comes at the end of a weeklong camp in which Berhalter had just four full training sessions with a roster of players who, in some cases, were meeting each other for the first time.
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So throw out all the caveats you want, but it’s hard not to get excited about the potential, the depth and the diversity of the talent pool Berhalter is building.
“All we wanted to do from the beginning is get the fans on our side. It was an important thing, important step for us,” Berhalter said. “People are excited to watch.”
With reason. Consider the team Berhalter started Monday. With an average age of 22 years 154 days it was the second-youngest starting XI in national team history. Not that you’d know that from watching them play – or hearing them talk.
“I wasn’t nervous,” said forward Gio Reyna, who scored the first U.S. goal. “I’ve been playing this game for a long time so I’m pretty confident.”
Reyna turned 18 three days earlier.
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“We’re all hungry to play, hungry to start, to show what we’re made of,” said forward Nicholas Gioacchini, 20, who made his first national team start and put the U.S. in front to stay with a pair of goals four minutes apart midway through the first half.
Then there’s Sebastian Soto and Richy Ledezma, two more 20-year-olds, who came off the bench late in the game to make their national team debuts while combining for two goals, both by Soto off assists from Ledezma. For Soto, the brace made him the first U.S. player in the modern era to score twice in his first international game and the first in 67 years to do so as a substitute.
The youth movement ran deep through the team Berhalter used against Panama. While Reyna is the third-youngest goal-scorer in national team history, he was just one of four teenagers who played Monday – and he wasn’t even the youngest since Yunus Musah won’t turn 18 until after Thanksgiving, making him just the fourth American to appear in multiple international matches before he was old enough to vote.
In addition to Gioacchini, Soto and Ledezma, Berhalter gave another 20-year-old, Bayern Munich defender Chris Richards, his first national team minutes, making him the ninth U.S. player to earn his first cap in the last five days.
The U.S. starting lineup, the first featuring all European-based players since June 2011, included players from clubs in eight European countries and the continent’s top four soccer leagues. And that didn’t even include the team’s best player, 22-year-old Chelsea midfielder Christian Pulisic, who had to leave camp and return to England to rehab a hamstring injury.
It’s a mix of youth, experience and talent the U.S. has never seen.
“I’m still trying to take it all in,” said Ledezma, in his first season with PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch first division.. “Honestly it’s a dream come true. I mean I’m only 20 years old and I’m making that transition from America to Europe. It’s not an easy thing to do.”
In a silver-lining-to-black-cloud kind of way, the pandemic may actually have broadened Berhalter’s reach and deepened his pool of available players because while COVID-19 sidelined the national team for more than eight months, it also forced the staff to call up two distinctly different rosters for the three games the U.S. has played this year, a largely domestic team in January and a European-based one this month. As a result 55 players were called up in the last 12 months, some of whom may not have gotten a look under normal circumstances.
And since the October 2017 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that kept the U.S. out of the last World Cup, Berhalter and Dave Sarachan, the interim coach who preceded him, have used 90 players with 52 making their international debuts in that time.
That could pay huge dividends in 2021, which will be a hectic year marked by four competitions including the Tokyo Olympics and World Cup qualifying.
“We’re trying to develop our group, we’re trying to give these guys confidence,” Berhalter said. “We’re trying to give these guys a way to play and, you know, just enjoy every moment together.
“It’s a great group of guys, a dynamic group of guys. What we’re focused on right now is ourselves and how we can just get better.”
U.S. women going Dutch with World Cup rematch in their return
The women’s national team will play its first game since March when it takes on the Netherlands on Friday, Nov. 27 in Breda, about 70 miles south of Amsterdam. Coach Vlatko Andonovski will announce his roster Tuesday and the team will begin gathering this weekend for a six-day training camp ahead of the match.
The U.S. staged an 11-day training camp for domestic-based players at the end of October in Colorado but the team hasn’t played since the SheBelieves Cup on March 11. The 261-day gap between games is the longest for the USWNT since the early 1990s.
The top-ranked U.S. beat No. 4 Netherlands before a capacity crowd in last year’s Women’s World Cup final in Lyon, France. The rematch will be played without fans.
“First, everyone is just really excited to have an international match,” Andonovski said in a statement. “That it’s against the Netherlands makes it even better and more challenging. We had to get back on the field for a real game at some point, so it might as well be against one of the best teams in the world.
“We have a lot of work to do before the Olympics and facing a really talented Dutch team will give us a good look at where we are at the end of this very unusual year.”
As they did during the training camp in Colorado, the U.S. players and staff will operate inside a highly controlled environment at the team hotel, following U.S. Soccer’s COVID-19 protocols, the UEFA Return to Play Protocols and the guidelines of The Royal Netherlands Football Assn. The U.S. delegation received an exemption from quarantine provided to pro sports organizations. Everyone entering the environment will be tested for COVID-19 before traveling, upon arrival and every two days thereafter. The U.S. will not begin full team training until the results of all arrival tests are confirmed.
The nation’s fan in chief
Speaking of the U.S. national team, it is about to see an old friend move into the White House. Although Joe Biden did not play soccer, his sons Beau and Hunter did. And in his eight years as Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden became the country’s No. 1 soccer ambassador, according to Soccer America, attending the Philadelphia Union’s first game as well as three of the four World Cups played while he was in office, missing only the 2011 women’s final.
His wife Jill, joined by Chelsea Clinton, represented the U.S. in his place.
“You have to attend the World Cup to [understand] what it means,” Biden said after going to the 2014 tournament in Brazil. “It’s the most unusual sporting event I’ve ever attended, and I’ve attended thousands. It’s in the air, it’s a palpable sense of energy that I’ve never quite experienced.
“It’s the most consequential sporting event in the world...we have our Super Bowl, we have our World Series, the NBA Finals, March Madness, but my Lord, there is nothing quite like the World Cup.”
Biden’s granddaughter Maisy Biden was a goalkeeper on the varsity team at the Sidwell Friends School and last May, when he was running for the Democratic nomination, Biden tweeted his support of the women’s national team in their pay dispute with U.S. Soccer.
White House soccer trivia
Here are some little-known – or at least little-appreciated – facts uniting the U.S. presidency with the world’s game, courtesy of those presidential historians at Soccer America.
- George H.W. Bush, who starred at Andover, also played on Yale’s freshman team, making him the only president who played college soccer. And his wife Barbara is the only First Lady who played in college, having captained the team at Smith College.
- When Pele arrived at the at the White House for a state dinner in honor of Brazilian president Jose Sarney in 1986, Ronald Reagan greeted him. “My name is Ronald Reagan, I’m the president of the United States of America,” he said. “But you don’t need to introduce yourself, because everyone knows who Pele is.” Pele was also invited to the White House by Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
- Bill Clinton was the president to attend a World Cup final when he took in the 1999 women’s title game with China, won by the U.S. on penalty kicks, at the Rose Bowl. Seven years later Clinton, by then out of office, attended the 2006 men’s final between Italy and France in Berlin.
COVID’s soccer side effects
There is no end to the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is negatively impacting global soccer. But the women’s game has been particularly hard hit.
A 17-page report released last week by FIFPRO, the global players’ union, and based on data collected from women players in 62 counties from July through October, found widespread incidents of wage cuts, job losses and poor communications over the effects of the pandemic.
“Like most industries, women’s football is being severely affected by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Amanda Vandervort, FIFPRO’s chief women’s football officer, said in a statement from the union’s based in the Netherlands. “Both players and the game itself need strategic support to get through these tough times.”
Here are some of the findings of the FIFPRO report:
Wages and benefits: In 47% of the countries surveyed said player salaries were reduced or suspended; in 27% non-financial support such as meals, insurance and gym memberships was reduced or eliminated; and in 24% player contracts were ended or altered. In 26% of countries women’s clubs were not included in “return to play” protocols.
Communication: Many players complained clubs, leagues and federations were not communicating enough about personal health and wellbeing. In 69% of the countries surveyed, communication by leagues and clubs was rated as poor or very poor. In more than half the countries, national federations did not reach out at all and in more than a quarter of the countries surveyed women’s clubs were not included in “return to play” protocols
Health Support: Players in 40% of the countries surveyed received no health support and in two-thirds players did not receive physical support (e.g. injury treatment). In 84% players said they did not receive mental health support.
“This survey underlines the extent to which women footballers are routinely overlooked in many parts of the world,” said Jonas Baer-Hoffman, the union’s general secretary. “Yet there are also positive steps by some stakeholders to invest in and support women’s football during the pandemic.”
The survey’s authors listed some of them. In Italy, for example, one of the countries hardest-hit by the virus, the national federation and the government worked together to get the country’s top-tier women’s league professional status beginning in 2022 and in Argentina the national federation announced a five-year plan to extend the professional status of the women’s league there. In the Netherlands players successfully lobbied the government to allow the women’s league to return to play along with the men’s league.
The NWSL was also lauded for staging two successful tournaments while guaranteeing all contracts at full value, including salary, housing, insurance, child care and other benefits
“We need more concerted action or there is a real danger that progress toward gender equality in parts of world football will be set back years,” Baer-Hoffman said.
MLS getting a late start on playoffs – without some of its stars
The MLS playoffs open Friday, less than a week before Thanksgiving, the latest postseason start in league history. The delay was caused by the coronavirus pandemic, of course, which halted play for four months and resulted in the shortest regular season ever at 23 games.
And eight teams didn’t even play that many.
A record 18 teams made the playoffs, which begin with play-in matches – think Major League Baseball wild-card games – involving the final four teams in the Eastern Conference. LAFC, which finished seventh in the Western Conference, plays its first game Nov. 24 in Seattle.
LAFC is expected to be without four starters, including Diego Rossi, the league’s leading scorer. Rossi, along with Uruguayan teammate Brian Rodríguez and Ecuadorans José Cifuentes and Diego Palacios, were called up to their national squads for World Cup qualifiers and will have to quarantine for 10 days before rejoining their club teams.
Cifuentes and Palacios may do their quarantines in Ecuador after testing positive for COVID-19. Six Ecuadoran players have contracted COVID in the last week. But there will be no quarantine necessary for Seattle’s Raúl Ruidiaz, who contracted COVID-19 while playing for Peru last month and is now, in MLS parlance, “a recovered person.”
“The way the schedule has been put together, things like points per game per standings and all these things, they are all products of a crazy year,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “But one big one is playing playoff games when you don’t have players back from international break with quarantine. Is it frustrating? It is incredibly frustrating. But there’s nothing that we can do. So you make sure that everybody that’s going to be here is ready.
“Scheduling international breaks, playing games when players are away, those are things that need to be improved. Can you imagine the Champions League final between Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain and both teams missing a bunch of guys on quarantine? Everybody would go crazy.”
Rossi, 22, picked up another honor Monday when he was named the Best Young Player in MLS in voting of his peers, club officials and the media. The award recognizes the league’s top player aged 22 or younger. Rodríguez, 20, finished sixth in the balloting.
The playoff schedule:
Eastern Conference Play-In Round
(All times Pacific)
3:30 p.m. -- No. 8 New England Revolution vs. No. 9 Montreal Impact (FS1/FOX Deportes)
6 p.m. -- No. 7 Nashville SC vs. No. 10 Inter Miami CF (ESPN2/ESPN Deportes)
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
9 a.m. -- No. 4 Orlando City SC vs. No. 5 New York City FC (UniMás/TUDN)
3 p.m. -- No. 3 Columbus Crew SC vs. No. 6 New York Red Bulls (UniMás/TUDN)
Tuesday, Nov. 24
3 p.m. -- No. 2 Toronto FC vs. higher advancing seed from the play-in round (FS1/FOX Deportes)
5 p.m. -- No. 1 Philadelphia Union vs. lower advancing seed of the play-in round (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)
Western Conference Quarterfinals
1 p.m. -- No.1 Sporting Kansas City vs. No. 8 San Jose Earthquakes (FS1/FOX Deportes)
4:30 p.m. -- No. 4 Minnesota United FC vs. No. 5 Colorado Rapids (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)
7 p.m. -- No. 3 Portland Timbers vs. No. 6 FC Dallas (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)
Tuesday, Nov. 24
7:30 p.m. -- No. 2 Seattle Sounders FC vs. No. 7 LAFC (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)
The shirts off their backs
Speaking of the MLS, on-field production apparently has little effect on off-field popularity since the league’s top two best-selling jerseys belong to pair of Southern California players – LAFC’s Carlos Vela and the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández-- who combined for just 11 starts and six goals this season.
Rossi, meanwhile, saw 16 players sell more shirts. The Galaxy’s Jonathan dos Santos is 20th, a place ahead of Cristian Pavón, who led the Galaxy in goals and assists.
The rankings, based on overall retail sales of MLS jerseys on MLSstore.com since the beginning of 2020 through the end of the regular season, features players from 13 clubs and 10 countries: Argentina, Colombia, France, Mexico, Peru, Portugal, Scotland, Uruguay, Venezuela and the U.S.
The top 25 best-selling jerseys in MLS:
- Carlos Vela – LAFC
- Javier Hernández – Galaxy
- Josef Martinez – Atlanta United
- Jordan Morris – Seattle Sounders FC
- Rodolfo Pizarro – Inter Miami CF
- Gonzalo Higuaín – Inter Miami CF
- Nani – Orlando City SC
- Raúl Ruidíaz – Seattle Sounders FC
- Blaise Matuidi – Inter Miami CF
- Brenden Aaronson – Philadelphia Union
- Diego Valeri – Portland Timbers
- Alejandro Bedoya – Philadelphia Union
- Diego Chara – Portland Timbers
- Alan Pulido – Sporting Kansas City
- Nicolas Lodeiro – Seattle Sounders FC
- Edison Flores – D.C. United
- Diego Rossi – LAFC
- Johnny Russell – Sporting Kansas City
- Chris Wondolowsi – San Jose Earthquakes
- Jonathan dos Santos – Galaxy
- Cristian Pavón – Galaxy
- Walker Zimmerman – Nashville SC
- Lucas Zelarayan – Columbus Crew SC
- Cristian Roldan – Seattle Sounders FC
- Ezequiel Barco – Atlanta United
“Don’t get me wrong. I want to be a head coach in Major League Soccer. I’m happy to be doing what I’m doing, but I do have an ambition to be a head coach in this league still. And I think I can be.”
Dominic Kinnear, who finished the season as the Galaxy’s interim coach for the second time in three seasons, speaking with Soccer America on his plans going forward.
This newsletter goes on hiatus next week for Thanksgiving, but we’ll see you again in two weeks.
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