Soccer newsletter: Is it possible to have too many great players?
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 women’s national team, which opened the new year with a 4-0 win over Colombia on Monday.
And all four goals come from the Mewis family: Sam, the U.S. Soccer’s player of the year for 2020, had a hat trick and her older sister Kristie scored once.
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The win was the 12th in as many games for coach Vlatko Andonovski, who is off to best start of any coach in U.S. Soccer history. But his toughest decisions are still to come.
In the win over Colombia, Andonovski, welcomed Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe back from 10-month absences — and immediately put both in the starting lineup. Lloyd, 38, rewarded him with two assists in a 90-minute effort while Rapinoe, 35, who played a half, assisted on the first goal.
“Both of them seem to just be ageless,” Sam Mewis said. “They clearly have been training this whole time and just continuing to grow and improve. And it’s incredible playing with such world-class players.
“They’ve just set such a high standard for the rest of the team. So regardless of when the last time they played was, they’re both incredible players and incredible people. This team is really lucky to have people that are so dedicated, so committed and so good, were it’s just a lot of fun playing with them. They’re both really talented.”
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But so are Christen Press, Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan, who passed up this training camp, Press and Heath to remain in England with their club team and Morgan because she tested positive for the coronavirus. All three are likely to be back when the national team gathers again next month for the SheBelieves Cup and that will leave Andonovski with a dilemma.
In 2019, Lloyd led the U.S. in goals with 16 but Morgan, 31, started over her in the World Cup. Rapinoe tied Morgan for the World Cup lead in goals and was named FIFA player of the year in 2019, but Heath, 32, battled her for starts and minutes in 2020.
And then there’s Press, 32, who tied for the team lead with seven scores last year, earning a contract with Manchester United in the Women’s Super League.
That leaves five starters for three spots.
When Tom Sermanni was coach of the national team, he was fond of saying the U.S. was the best team in the world and the U.S. bench was the second-best. That may never be truer than it is this year, with veterans like Lloyd, who is coming off a knee injury, and Rapinoe, who took a sabbatical, returning to camp as refreshed and as determined as ever.
“Both Carli and Pinoe actually look better than what we expected. They look better than last time we saw them in terms of physical preparedness, mental preparedness,” Andonovski said.
They certainly showed that against Colombia.
“They executed the things that they were supposed to do,” the coach said. “I thought Megan was creative. And Carli, the main goal is to assist, create opportunities, or score goals. And they did that. But then on top of that, I thought they were very good in regaining possession of the ball fast and helped us mean maintain the possession for a longer period of time.”
Those are all things Press, Heath and Morgan also do well, of course. But there’s not enough minutes at forward for everyone.
But then Andonovski’s team is deep everywhere. In the midfield he has Mewis and Lindsey Horan, who tied for the team lead with seven goals last year and started 2020 by setting up three of the four against Colombia. With Julie Ertz as the holding midfielder that leaves eight players – including World Cup star Rose Lavelle and Catarina Macario, a two-time Hermann Trophy winner, battling for whatever playing time is left.
On defense, the U.S. has seven World Cup veterans for four spots. And in goal Andonovski has Alyssa Naeher, who hasn’t given up a goal in her last eight games.
It’s an embarrassment of riches and it’s also the reason the U.S. has lost just once in its last 62 games. The Americans no longer win games, they dominate them. Which is why they look to training sessions for their main challenges and why Andonovski faces a challenge in keeping everyone happy, productive and motivated.
As a result practices are often harder than the games for the U.S.
Colombia, which hadn’t played a game in 14 months, had an all-domestic roster and was missing four players to COVID-related issues, did well to hold the scoreline to 4-0 Monday. The South Americans had the ball just a third of the time and were outshot 22-0.
“When you’re the No. 1 team in the world for quite some time and when you win championships, it’s hard to stay at the top,” Lloyd said. “It’s somewhat easy to get there. But staying at the top and not just staying at the top, but continuously pushing on to be better than we were?
“Each year is incredibly difficult. I’ve been a part of this team for 16 years now and it’s just a mindset. It’s ingrained in everybody. When you step foot on the field, and you grab the red, white and blue, you’re putting on the responsibility of having a target on your back and and having to just raise the bar. It’s amazing. We all know where we want to be. This is just the start of the year. So we’re all you know, kind of just pushing on and being the best version of ourselves.”
What they’re pushing for this year is the Tokyo Olympics, a goal that may prove to be a mirage given the challenges of the global pandemic, more about which later. But if the Games are played, the most difficult part for Andonovski may be picking his roster.
The second-best team in the world may get left home.
Taking advantage of a fresh start
MLS, which has added eight teams in the last six seasons, will be expanding again this year when Austin FC begins play, bringing the league to 27 teams. And for some of the players who will stock that roster, the transition from an established franchise to a first-year team figures to be challenging.
Just ask Dave Romney, who played five seasons for the Galaxy, an original MLS team, before being traded to Nashville in November 2019, four months before the Tennessee team’s first game.
“It was definitely a different experience,” said Romney, the ninth acquisition in Nashville’s history. “The year was so odd from a COVID perspective that I just kind of took everything in stride. The only thing I really care about is if the training fields are solid and they were.
“As long as the staff is solid and fields are good, trainings will be at a high level.”
Nashville also played at a high level, rebounding from a slow start to reach the Eastern Conference semifinals, becoming the first MLS expansion team to get that far in more than two decades. And it gave up less than a goal a game in getting there, the best mark by a first-year team in league history.
MLS expansion over the last decade has been broader than in any other first-division pro sports league in the country. And many of those first-year teams have found immediate success, with Nashville and Inter Miami joining Atlanta United, New York City FC and LAFC in making the playoffs in their inaugural seasons.
Austin appears to be following the Nashville blueprint, building from the back and emphasizing defense in some of its early signings. Last month the team traded for outside backs Ben Sweat and Nick Lima and this month it signed center back Matt Besler as a free agent. All three have played for the U.S. national team but only Sweat, who played for Inter Miami last year, has been on an expansion team.
That experience will be invaluable said Walker Zimmerman, who began his professional career with an original MLS franchise in Dallas but has since played for two first-year teams, LAFC in 2018 and Nashville in 2020.
“There were things and experiences that I had learned in terms of culture and how to raise the level of play around me and to bring what I had learned from L.A. in Nashville,” said Zimmerman, the MLS defender of the year last season.
Will Japan let the Games begin?
CONCACAF confirmed last week that the region’s eight-team Olympic qualifying tournament will remain in Guadalajara, where it was scheduled to be played last March before being postponed by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The U.S., which has qualified for the men’s Olympic tournament just once since 2000, is in group A with Mexico, the 2012 Olympic champion, as well as Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. Honduras, Canada, El Salvador and Haiti are in group B.
Round-robin play will begin March 18 with the top two teams from each group advancing to the semifinals and the two finalists qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in July.
Provided there is a Tokyo Olympics, that is. The Games, originally scheduled for the summer of 2020, were also postponed by the coronavirus pandemic and many in Japan don’t want to see them played there this summer either.
With COVID deaths having surpassed 2 million worldwide last week and the number of global infections nearing 100 million in 219 countries, Japan no longer appears eager to have a lot of visitors stop by this summer. A survey conducted in early January by Japanese public broadcaster NHK found just 16% of respondents said the Olympics should go ahead as planned, a drop of 11 percentage points from the previous poll last month. Seventy-seven percent thought they should be cancelled or postponed.
The country has managed COVID better than many nations with just more than 4,500 Japanese having died from the virus in the last year. The U.S. lost nearly that many in one day last week.
But in addition to concerns about the global numbers, which continue to spiral out of control, and the emergence of a new highly contagious “super strain,” people in Japan have also been spooked by a steady rise in COVID cases at home that has forced health authorities to declare a state of emergency covering more than half of the country’s 126 million.
Olympic officials have predicted the Games would bring more than 15,000 athletes from 206 nations to Japan. Another 500,000 spectators were expected to follow, although the global pandemic could reduce that number substantially.
Even so, greater Tokyo, one of the most densely populated places on the planet, would face a massive challenge trying to keep tens of thousands of visitors free of infection while also protecting the 38 million who live in an area only slightly larger than Jacksonville, Fla.
Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister and president of the local organizing committee, pledged the Games will go on this summer, calling another postponement “absolutely impossible.”
According to Time magazine, Japan has earmarked $12.6 billion for the event, although a government audit last year put spending for the Games at twice that, making Tokyo the most expensive summer Games ever. All but $5.6 billion is public money.
When Greg Vanney accepted the head coaching job with the Galaxy, he left behind a vacancy in Toronto, one that was filled last week by Chris Armas. That’s not the first time the two men’s careers have intersected.
Vanney and Armas were teammates on the first Galaxy team in 1996 and are two of five players from that team who went on to become MLS managers, a list that includes Curt Onalfo, Cobi Jones and Robin Fraser.
A sixth player, Jorge Salcedo, would become head coach at UCLA while three others, Ante Razov, Dan Calichman and David Kramer have been MLS assistants.
Vanney says that is no coincidence but rather a product of the kind of players coach Lothar Osiander sought for that first season.
“There was something about that group,” Vanney said. “He really put the team together based off of character and characteristics. So he did his homework in looking for guys like Robin Fraser, Dan Calichman and myself, Chris Armas.
“We were soccer junkies. We were guys that had good character references, that fit what he was looking for.”
All five men who went on to become managers have won either MLS Cups or Supporters’ Shields – sometimes both. Vanney won both trophies in 2017 with a staff that included Fraser, now the manager of the Colorado Rapids, and Calichman, who is following Vanney to the Galaxy as an assistant. Onalfo, who managed D.C. United, the Kansas City Wizards and the Galaxy, was on Bruce Arena’s staff in Carson when the Galaxy won three championships and a Supporters’ Shields and Armas won Supporters’ Shields as both an assistant and head coach with the New York Reds Bulls.
Jones, meanwhile, won two Shields and two MLS Cups as a player while Razov won one of each as a player, then added a second Supporters Shield as an LAFC assistant in 2019.
Vanney said much of that success was borne from the lessons learned in that first season with the Galaxy when the team trained on an open field in front of the Rose Bowl, one the players had to clear or glass and rocks beforehand.
“The game wasn’t as organized as it is now,” he said. “I grew up training two times a week with our team. So if you were going to make it as a pro it’s because you spent hours and hours on your own training.
“We were our own developers and we were our own sort of educators in the game. So I think that translated into that group of players that have carried on sort of that development and that growth.”
And finally there’s this…..
Dave Sarachan, Arena’s long-time assistant with the Galaxy and the man who replaced him on an interim basis with the U.S. national team, has left North Carolina FC after two seasons after the team’s decision to drop down from the second-tier USL Championship. The team was 22-18-9 under Sarachan…. LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye was one of three players elected last week to a three-year term on the executive board of the MLS Players Assn. Nashville’s Jalil Anibaba and Inter Miami’s Victor Ulloa were the other two additions to the eight-man panel. A ninth spot remains open due to the retirement of goalkeeper Luis Robles…. Speaking of the managerial successes of former Galaxy players, Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are arguably the most dominant first-division team in Europe, with Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Motherwell leaving it unbeaten at 21-0-3 after 24 league matches – 18 which ended in shutouts. Rangers have outscored opponents 60-7 in league play and won their Europa League group with four wins and two draws. The team’s only loss this season in any competition came against St. Mirren on a stoppage-time goal in the quarterfinals of the Scottish League Cup last month. Gerrard is 97-20-32 in parts of three seasons with Rangers…. Yorba Linda teenager Matthew Hoppe scored for the fourth time in two games for Schalke in a 3-1 loss at Eintracht Frankfurt on Sunday. Hoppe, 19, is the only American who has scored four times in consecutive Bundesliga match days.
“Things have come full circle for me. My family was at the start of my career and now they’re getting to be a part of it at the end. So I’m really grateful. It’s been great, especially around the holidays, just being able to spend time with them. I just feel really good about where I’m at in life, who I am as a person and a player.”
Carli Lloyd on reconnecting with family during a year in which she was sidelined by knee surgery.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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