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Soccer newsletter: The biggest game in LAFC’s short history is today

Kathryn Nesbitt
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

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 the biggest game in LAFC’s short history – one which comes just three days after the previous biggest game in LAFC history.

Because for all the team’s accomplishments in its first three seasons – a Supporters’ Shield, MLS records for single-season points and goals, three straight playoff appearances and consecutive scoring titles for Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi – LAFC has never played in a championship game. On Tuesday it will, facing Liga MX giant Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League final in an empty stadium in Orlando, Fla.

“Finals are special,” coach Bob Bradley said. “For players, for coaches, for fans, for clubs.

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Mexican teams have won all 11 titles since CONCACAF adopted the Champions League format in 2008. LAFC, meanwhile, is just the fourth MLS team to even qualify for the final and it had to break new ground to do that by beating three Liga MX teams in the same tournament.

First it knocked off León, the eventual Liga MX champion, in a two-leg playoff in February, before besting Cruz Azul and Club América in elimination games when the tournament resumed last week after a nine-month COVID-19 pause.

On Tuesday it will face a team that has played in four of the last five Champions League finals but is still looking for its first trophy.

“We knew from the beginning, from the draw, that it was going to be a tough task to get to the final, that we were going to have to go through a lot of giants,” midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “And we have. So now we’re here.”

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Well, they’re mostly here. LAFC will be missing defensive midfielder Eduard Atuesta, who was baited into a red card by América goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the first half of last Saturday’s semifinal. The incident led to a lot of pushing and shoving as the teams headed for their locker rooms at halftime, with an exchange between América manager Miguel Herrera and LAFC assistant coach Ante Razov earning both men four-game suspensions.

Herrera will serve his with another team after being fired by Club América on Monday.

LAFC’s second-half comeback from a 1-0 deficit despite playing a man down was dramatic and emotionally draining but Bradley said the team has had no chance to dwell on its significance.

“It’s just an excitement level for being in a final,” he said. “For showing people how we play football and for competing against a great team. That’s the only part we’re thinking about.”

Two of Tigres’ most important players, striker André-Pierre Gignac and midfielder Javier Aquino, missed training Monday with undisclosed muscle problems but are expected to play Tuesday. The loss of Atuesta will be a significant one for LAFC. The Colombian missed five games with a foot injury last summer and the team lost four of those matches.

“We wouldn’t be in the final if it wasn’t for Eduard,” Bradley said. “He’s an important player for us.”

Latif Blessing replaced Atuesta in the second half against América and the team responded with two Vela goals in the first 90 seconds before Blessing scored one of his own in stoppage time. Francisco Ginella is also a candidate to start.

Regardless of who starts in the middle Bradley will have Vela and Rossi up front and that’s generally been enough, especially against Mexican teams.

Vela, a two-time World Cup player for Mexico, never played a club game for a team in his homeland but has punished Mexican teams when he’s played against them, scoring five times in LAFC’s last three Champions League games.

“It’s special for him to play these games,” Bradley said. “You can tell that at the end of this year how much it means to him. And when that comes across to all the other players, that’s obviously a special kind of leadership.”

It’s leadership LAFC missed for much of the year since Vela, who broke the MLS scoring record in 2019, started just four times in the MLS regular season after tearing ligaments in his left knee. As a result LAFC stumbled through its truncated MLS schedule with an 9-8-5 record before being bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

Rossi, Vela’s sidekick the last two seasons, stepped up in the captain’s absence and led the league in scoring in the summer MLS Is Back tournament and the regular season, marking the first time teammates have led the league in goals in consecutive seasons.

That’s not the only thing that has made this a memorable year for Rossi though. At 22 he was also voted the league’s best young player, got called up for the Uruguayan national for the first time and then prepared for the three-game, seven-day dash to the Champions League finish line by recovering from COVID-19.

On Monday, Rossi put his coronavirus infection and his success in perspective.

“This year, it’s hard for everybody in the world,” he said. “I don’t think a person could imagine something like this. So it then depends on how you take the situation. You try to improve and have a good mentality to live with this new life we have to live with.

“Yes it was a different year, different emotions. It was a special year.”

One that would be made even more special if it ends with a confederation title and an invitation to February’s UEFA Club World Cup

“This club has always had aspirations to be a top team on the global scale,” said Kaye who, like Vela and Rossi, have been with LAFC from the start. “This final puts us within reach of getting there. Finals are a different type of game and I’m just glad that this club gets to see one so early in its history.”

A history the club could add another chapter to that story with one more win Tuesday.

No surprise: McKennie voted best USMNT player


Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie was voted U.S. Soccer’s player of the year for 2020 and the federation found a meaningful and creative way to inform him of the prize.

Between the ages of 6 and 9 McKennie lived with his family at the Ramstein Air Force Base in southwestern Germany, where he played for the Phoenix Otterbach youth club. He said he knew nothing about the national team until 2006, when the U.S. came to Germany to play in the World Cup.

He had a chance to visit that summer with U.S. players Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan and after that he said playing for the U.S. became a dream – one he realized in 2017 when he scored against Portugal in his senior international debut.

So last week the federation, with Juventus’ help, hatched a scheme to have Bocanegra tell McKennie he had been named the best player in the country. The club started by telling McKennie, whose nickname is Big Mac, that he had received a McDonalds-themed video from some kids. But when he opened the link, Bocanegra popped up on his screen instead.

“I want to thank everyone for this huge honor. It’s been a journey, especially through these difficult times during the pandemic,” McKennie said. “Our fans have stuck with us throughout and we really appreciate it. Hopefully in 2021 we can have many more memories together.”

McKennie started the year in Germany with Schalke before moving to Juventus on a year-long loan in August. He played in two of the four games on the national team’s COVID-interrupted schedule in 2020.

In voting by national team players and coaches, MLS and NWSL coaches, the U.S. Soccer board and select media members, McKennie got 44% of the vote to beat Christian Pulisic and Sergiño Dest. At 22, he is the fourth-youngest player to win the award after Pulisic, Donovan and Peter Vermes.

Sam Mewis was named the federation’s female player of the year. The former UCLA standout scored four times in eight games with the national team in 2020, a year that saw her jump from the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage to Manchester City of the Women’s Super League. Within weeks U.S. teammates Rose Lavelle, Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Alex Morgan announced they were following her to England.

“It’s obviously a huge honor to be a part of the list of players that have won this award in the past,” Mewis, 28, said in a statement. “It’s the team that does the work on the field and I just have so much respect for the other nominees this year and all my teammates.”

Mewis earned 45% of the vote to beat Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan.

Who would have guessed scoring would rise in a quarantine?

Whether you want to blame the pandemic, a crowded fixture schedule or just really bad defense, goals have been plentiful across Europe’s top five leagues this season with games in Germany, Italy and the U.K. all averaging more than 2.9 scores a game.

Germany’s Bundesliga leads the way with teams combining for 3.15 goals per game, actually down slightly from the last two seasons. Italy’s 20 Serie A teams are also scoring more than three goals combined per match for a second consecutive season at 3.13.

That’s more than half a goal better than Spain’s La Liga (2.42), where Barcelona’s Leo Messi scored last Saturday to tie Brazilian great Pele for most goals for a single club. Pele scored 643 times for Santos.

French clubs are scoring 2.77 times a game in Ligue 1.

But the big change is in England. With Manchester United and Liverpool combining for 13 goals in wins last weekend, Premier League games are averaging 2.91 goals a match this season. If the league maintains that pace, this will be the highest-scoring English first-division season in 53 years.

Games involving defending champion Liverpool are responsible for much of that offense. The Reds lead the league with 36 goals but have also conceded 19, meaning an average of 3.93 goals have been scored in games involving Liverpool this year. Liverpool scored an EPL season-best seven goals in last Saturday’s shutout win over Crystal Palace and also gave up that many in a 7-2 loss to Aston Villa in October.

Two other teams – Leeds (3.86) and Manchester United (3.77) – have also seen their EPL games average more than 3.75 goals in 2020.

Individually Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski leads Europe’s top leagues with 17 goals in 12 games, which not only has him on pace to win a fourth straight German scoring title and sixth in eight seasons, but he’s also on track to shatter Gerd Mueller’s single-season Bundesliga record of 40 goals in 1971-72.

Making history -- officially

Referees, like offensive linemen, are generally doing their best work when you don’t notice them. But three record-breaking officials in three different countries deserve attention for what they did this fall.

Earlier this month Stéphanie Frappart of France became the first woman to work the middle of men’s UEFA Champions League match when she officiated the Juventus-Dynamo Kyiv match won by Juventus. Frappart, 36, also did a Europa League game and was the first woman to referee in a major UEFA event when she officiated the 2019 Super Cup between Liverpool and Chelsea.

That year she also became the first woman to work a Ligue 1 match and handled the Women’s World Cup final between the Netherlands and U.S.

“I hope she will inspire thousands and thousands of young female referees around the world,” UEFA chief refereeing officer Roberto Rossetti said.

In the U.S. Kathryn Nesbitt made history twice, first when she served as an assistant referee in the MLS Is Back final and again 10 days ago when she became the first woman to work an MLS Cup final. That made her the first woman to work a championship game in any of the top five professional sports leagues in North America.

Nesbitt, one of 12 women regularly working MLS games, was named the 2020 MLS assistant referee of the year. In her day job Nesbitt, who has a PhD in chemistry, teaches at Towson University outside Baltimore.

Then there’s Norwegian referee Tom Harald Hagen, who took FIFA’s diversity pledge to heart when he came out as gay earlier this fall after a player in a game he was working used an anti-homosexual slur against an opposing coach.

“It’s time to say I’m gay,” Hagen told the Norwegian newspaper Glåmdalen. “Only positive things will come from this. For me it has always been a completely natural part of life. I never thought about when and how I will make this announcement, everything came naturally.”

He was right about the response.

“It has been an incredible number of nice words and messages,” he said. “I’m a little surprised over how much attention it has received but it’s very nice to read messages, especially from young football players, referees, supporters, players and coaches. Also, parents have thanked me on behalf of their children.”

Terje Svendsen, president of the Norwegian Football Federation, called Hagen a role model and expressed hope his example would convince others the sport is a welcome place for gays.

“If there is someone who is anxious to do it and who now dares, then it would have been very nice,” Hagen said. “That I am gay, I have been open for a long time. So it was a bit spontaneous that it became an issue. It has not been known to the outside world.”

Hagen, 42, who is also a teacher, has refereed Europa League matches as well as Euro and World Cup qualifiers. He is at least the fourth men’s soccer official to come out as gay. In 2017 assistant referee Matthew Nelson became the first MLS official to do so. He worked 15 MLS games this season.

Stoppage time

The newsletter will be taking a couple of weeks off for the holidays, so here’s hoping you have a safe, enjoyable rest of December. See you in January!

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

“It’s difficult to compare one league with another. They have different styles of football. There’s not just one way to play that’s correct.”

LAFC forward Diego Rossi, in Spanish, on whether MLS has pulled even with Mexico’s Liga MX given his team’s presence in Tuesday’s CONCACAF Champions League final with Tigres

Until next time...

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