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Soccer newsletter: L.A. should get plenty of 2026 World Cup matches

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 prospects that as many as a half-dozen World Cup matches will be played in Southern California when the tournament returns to the U.S. in 2026.

And while I don’t want to spoil the ending, let’s just say the prospects are very, very good.

The metro Los Angeles market already has played host to three World Cup finals with two of them – 1999 and 2003 – coming on the women’s side. So it almost felt like a formality when FIFA officials last week met virtually with representatives of the Rose Bowl and SoFi Stadium to discuss the logistics of staging matches and other events at those venues in 2026.

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That tournament, the first to include 48 teams, also will be the first to be shared by three host countries — the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Canada and Mexico will get 10 matches each while the rest of World Cup, including the quarterfinals, semifinals and final, will be played in the U.S.

Twenty-three candidates applied to be host cities, three each in Mexico and Canada. FIFA is expected to cut that number to 16 by the end of the year with 10 of those sites in the U.S.

With the U.S. slated to stage 60 matches, each host city can expect an average of six games.

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“Our Los Angeles committee has put forth two incredible stadium options for FIFA and U.S. Soccer to select from,” said Kathryn Schloessman of the Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Commission. She’s also president and CEO of the city’s World Cup host committee.

The 91,000-seat Rose Bowl had eight games, including the final, of the 1994 World Cup, and three matches, including the final, of the 1999 Women’s World Cup. It also has been the site of major international tournaments such as the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Copa América and 1984 Olympic Games. As a result, FIFA officials are comfortable with the stadium and its ability to put on a major event.

But SoFi Stadium, the $5.5-billion home of the Rams and Chargers, appears to be the stronger candidate to host the final. The year-old stadium, the most expensive sports venue in the world, can expand beyond its 70,000 capacity for NFL games. And its 260 executive suites are an enticing attraction for FIFA’s deep-pocketed sponsors. That’s 30 more suites than MetLife Stadium outside New York City, 80 more than Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium and five times as many as the Rose Bowl.

SoFi also is close to LAX and has several appealing security features including hidden entrances. Among the drawbacks is the stadium’s synthetic-turf field. FIFA rules stipulate World Cup games must be played on grass, which would require a natural-turf field to be laid down atop the plastic one. While that isn’t unusual, it often results in an uneven surface and dangerous seams that could affect play.

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“Stan Kroenke built SoFi Stadium and Hollywood Park to host world-class events, such as the FIFA World Cup, and we would be honored to have fans from all over the world at our facility,” Jason Gannon, the managing director for the stadium and Hollywood Park, said in a statement.

How Swede was this comeback?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic marked his first call-up to the Swedish national team since 2016 in predictable fashion.

“The return of the God,” he wrote on Twitter above a picture of himself in a Swedish shirt.

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He may not be too far off. Ibrahimovic admitted he’s not the player he was the last time he appeared in an international match, but his performance this season at age 39 for AC Milan certainly appears to have been divinely inspired. And the Galaxy probably deserve at least some of the credit.

Despite having battled COVID-19 last fall (Zlatan, naturally, won that battle) Ibrahimovic is fourth in the Serie A scoring table with 15 goals in as many league matches for second-place Milan, which is on track for its best finish since 2011-12, the last time Ibrahimovic led the team in scoring.

“I don’t want to be considered and called up for what I did before but for what I can give now,” Ibrahimovic said on the Swedish association’s official YouTube channel. “I can’t be the player I was five, 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Now I have a completely different physique and a completely different game.

“But I keep a very high level. I’m not on the squad list because my name is Zlatan and I’m Ibrahimovic. It’s because of what I add to the squad and what I have achieved.

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“I think I deserve it.”

Swedish manager Janne Andersson, who left Ibrahimovic off the 2018 World Cup squad, said he decided to recall him for World Cup qualifiers with Kosovo and Georgia after the two had what Andersson called a “great conversation.” Ibrahimovic is Sweden’s all-time leader with 62 international goals, his last coming against Denmark in Nov. 2015. He’s also second among active players with 116 caps.

But there’s a chance Ibrahimovic wouldn’t be playing for anyone, much less Sweden, if not for the Galaxy, which took a chance on him after a major knee surgery appeared to end his career in April 2017.

Ibrahimovic underwent reconstructive surgery and returned to the field seven months after the injury – “Lions don’t recover like humans,” he explained – but started just twice before Manchester United released him in early 2018. Nine days later he scored twice in 19 minutes in his MLS debut, the first of 52 goals he went on to score in 56 matches for the Galaxy. That proved his fitness and earned him a return to Milan at age 38.

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International competition

Speaking of Zlatan, during his time with the Galaxy the Swedish superstar was profuse in his praise for teenage midfielder Efraín Álvarez, who he called “the best player in MLS.”

“You have players that play football and you have players that think football. He’s a player that thinks football, and they’re better players, because the guys that play football they are trained to play football. The guys that think football, they are made to play football. That’s a big difference,” he said of his former teammate.

Uh, OK. But whatever Ibrahimovic just said, Álvarez has yet to live up to that hype. He’s scored just once (but has dished out five assists) in 1,236 MLS minutes over three seasons. That could make this a make-or-break year for Álvarez, who turns 19 in June, and not just with the Galaxy but internationally as well.

The first step in that latter process will be making a commitment to the U.S. or Mexico.

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Because Álvarez played for Mexico in a U-17 World Cup, he’s tentatively cap-tied to his parents’ homeland, although he still can request a one-time change of association to play for his birth country. And both countries are fighting for his affection.

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter called Álvarez into a national team training camp last December and said he wanted the player to see how the team operates before he made a decision. This month Mexican coach Tata Martino called Álvarez up for a pair of friendlies with “El Tri” in Europe, and Berhalter said he welcomed that.

“I have spoken to [Álvarez] about it and advocated for him to go out with the Mexican team,” Berhalter said. “He’s been in our environment and I think the only way for him to make an informed decision is to go into their environment.”

Berhalter has wooed more than a dozen top-level dual nationals since taking over the national team 2½ years ago. He has won commitments from the likes of Sergiño Dest, Sebastian Soto, Jesús Ferreira, Gio Reyna and most recently Yunus Musah, who had his choice of four countries to play for.

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Álvarez, who played three times for the U.S. U-15 team and 14 times for Mexican age-group teams, would be wise to consider more than just the training camp environment, however. Mexico has made it to the knockout round of the last seven World Cups and the U.S. failed to qualify for the last tournament, but Mexico’s team is aging. Ten of the 26 players called up for this month’s matches are older than 30 and Álvarez is the only teenager. Just three players remain from the U-23 squad that struck Olympic gold in 2012.

Compare that to the roster Berhalter called up for his team’s March friendlies. The average age of its players is less than a month over 23 years; 16 players are 22 of younger.

Yes, Mexico has some good, young players, which is why it is unbeaten two games into the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Guadalajara. But the U.S. senior team has a much deeper and much more talented young core. If he decided to play for the U.S., Álvarez would have to beat out the likes of Christian Pulisic, Reyna, Ferrera and Josh Sargent to get on the field. That competition will probably make him a much better player.

As Álvarez continues to weigh his options, Berhalter has promised there will be no pressure from the U.S. side.

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“For us, again, all it is about is saying, ‘There is an open door,’ and we want to create an environment that players want to be in. The rest is up to the players to decide in the end what they’re going to pursue,” he said.

“It’s smart for a player to see what’s out there and see what’s available.”

Ignoring their better Angels

Angel City FC, which has done so many things right since launching as an NWSL expansion franchise eight months ago, has drawn sharp criticism for its reaction to published reports linking former club investor David Dobrik, a YouTube celebrity, to accusations of rape and other serious misdeeds allegedly committed by his associates dating back to 2017.

Dobrik, who has denied any misdeeds, was welcomed to Angel City’s sprawling celebrity ownership group in December. Since then he has weathered a string of embarrassing allegations against himself and his “Vlog Squad,” including accusations of sexual assault, rape and bullying.

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Last July, five months before he became an Angel City owner, the 24-year-old Dobrik apologized for old videos in which he repeatedly used racial slurs and made racially insensitive jokes. Video has also surfaced of Dobrik making fun of Asians and Native Americans and calling anti-Semitic slurs “just words.”

Angel City, which has made women’s empowerment an important part of the club culture, clearly did a poor job vetting Dobrik because it welcomed him into its ownership group anyway.

In the wake of the recent reports several brands, including General Mills, EA Sports, Dollar Shave Club and DoorDash — Angel City’s primary kit sponsors — ended their relationships with Dobrik. In an internal memo written last week and obtained by The Athletic’s Meg Linehan, Angel City’s owner and president Julie Uhrman said Dobrik no longer is part of the club’s ownership group, news the team later confirmed in an unapologetic tweet that said Angel City was “focused on our future.”

There was no mention of the Dobrik controversy on the team’s website.

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Uhrman’s memo also suggested it took weeks for the club to decide to part with Dobrik and the team’s handling of the affair has angered supporters, who took to social media to demand an explanation and an apology and called the team’s response embarrassing and inadequate.

“From the beginning this club talked about uplifting women, and you have done the exact opposite,” one person wrote on Twitter in response to Angel City’s post. “A complete disgrace.”

Rebellion 99 and Angel City Valkyries, two of the team’s independent supporters’ group, also weighed in and called for Angel City to take public accountability for their actions. “The hesitancy of our front office to release information that adequately addresses and condemns the allegations of Dobrik is discouraging,” Rebellion 99 said. “We look forward to ACFC upholding its values.”

And finally there’s this…..

Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski continued his pursuit of Gerd Mueller’s single-season Bundesliga goal-scoring record with a hat trick Saturday, giving him 35 goals with eight games to play. Mueller scored 40 times for Bayern Munich in 1971-72. Lewandowski, 32, is chasing his fourth consecutive scoring title and sixth in eight seasons … The Galaxy have reached agreement on a deal with Cristian Pavón, though the Argentine World Cup player’s return to MLS is contingent on the disposition of a rape charge filed against him last year. Pavón led the Galaxy in goals and assists last season while on loan from Boca Juniors and after protracted negotiations this winter, the Galaxy reached a deal to acquire him permanently. But the club is now treading carefully given the seriousness of the charges, with some Galaxy officials privately siding with Pavón in the belief the charges are untrue … With wins over Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, the U.S. U-23 team heads into Wednesday’s group-play finale with Mexico having already qualified for the semifinal round of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament. A win in Sunday’s semifinal would send the U.S. back to the Olympics for the first time since 2008 … With two goals in Barcelona’s 6-1 win over Real Sociedad on Sunday, Dest became the first American with a brace in La Liga.

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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

“The potential in the United States and Mexico is enormous, each country by itself. But, of course, if you could bring those two together that would be incredible and that could quite well be the best league in the world.”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino, speaking with Reuters about a rumored merger between MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX

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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