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Soccer newsletter: There’s a lot of blame to go around for Olympics failure (but it’s mainly FIFA’s fault)

Sebastian Soto reacts at the end of a match against Honduras.
Sebastian Soto reacts at the end of a match against Honduras.
(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 soccer’s version of the Olympic trials, an event that has long been more a case of tribulation for the U.S.

With Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Honduras in the semifinals of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Guadalajara, the U.S. will miss the Summer Games for a third consecutive cycle and fourth time in five tries. Only this time the loss was far more devastating because the U.S. could have fielded a medal contender in Tokyo if only it had gotten that far.

But if the U.S. is really that good, why couldn’t it qualify? The answer is complicated and has almost as much to do with FIFA as it does with U.S. Soccer.

FIFA, the world governing body for global soccer, doesn’t want the men’s Olympic tournament to challenge the quadrennial World Cup for importance and prestige and it has worked hard to water down the event. The International Olympic Committee, not wanting soccer to upstage traditional sports such as track and field and swimming, has gone along.

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Pro players were banned from the Olympics until 1984, for example, which kept the world’s best players from taking part. Then when that ban was lifted FIFA made the 1992 tournament an age-group event and limited rosters to players aged 23 and under – with three exceptions per team.

And finally, just to make sure everyone got the message FIFA didn’t intend to take the Olympics seriously, it ruled club teams did not have to release players for age-group tournaments as they must for senior international games, including friendlies. (The women’s Olympic tournament, which debuted in 1996 five years after the first Women’s World Cup, so far has escaped FIFA’s meddling and remains the second-most important women’s event in international soccer.)

A unique convergence of events last weekend underscored how harmful the FIFA policies can be to the men’s event – or at least to the U.S. team. Consider that four hours after a U.S. senior national team featuring 15 U-23 players beat Northern Ireland in Belfast, the U-23 team kicked off against Honduras. That team did not have the luxury of using age-eligible players such as Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Sergiño Dest and Yunus Musah, all of whom played in Belfast, because their clubs blocked them from going.

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Would the U.S. have beaten Honduras with them? Probably. But we can’t know for sure. And by the way, it should be noted Honduras and Mexico did not have some of their age-eligible senior players, such as Betis midfielder Diego Lainez or Genk defender Gerardo Arteaga, and they still qualified for the Tokyo Games. In fact, Honduras will be playing in its fourth consecutive Summer Games under the new rules while Mexico was the 2012 Olympic champion. (And it wasn’t just European clubs that blocked release of U.S. players for the CONCACAF qualifiers. MLS club Atlanta United also refused to let three players leave its preseason training camp while domestic teams in Mexico and Honduras generally supported their Olympic teams.)

So the U.S. failures can’t be pinned on FIFA alone. In fact, much of the blame belongs with a national team program that lacks depth. Those failures have haunted the U.S. through the last three Olympic cycles, but they’re especially painful this year since the Americans had the potential to field its best-ever U-23 team in Tokyo if key players had been able to secure releases from their teams during preseason camp.

Not qualifying, conversely, is a severe setback for a country that missed the last World Cup yet still wants to consider itself a budding soccer nation.

“Quite frankly, it also comes down to U.S. Soccer not prioritizing the Olympic qualification,” said FOX Soccer analyst Stuart Holden who, in 2008, became the last American to score a game-winning goal in an Olympic match. “Ultimately they landed on this group and felt that this group was good enough to qualify us to the Olympics. It wasn’t our best group, but they still should qualify.”

They didn’t. Again. And as a result some of the world’s best U-23 players -- Pulisic, Reyna, Dest, Musah – will be watching the Olympics on TV this summer.

And that’s just the way FIFA wanted it.

Galaxy roster still under construction

The start of the MLS regular season is less than three weeks away and Greg Vanney, who is about to start his first year as coach of the Galaxy, hasn’t had a full team to work with all winter. Three starters – midfielders Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos and defender Julian Araujo – have been off on international duty. So has midfielder Efraín Álvarez, who also figures heavily in the team’s plans.

Goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann, defenders Oneil Fisher, Giancarlo González, Derrick Williams and Jorge Villafaña and striker Javier Hernández have missed training with injuries and midfielders Samuel Grandsir and Víctor Vázquez aren’t in the country yet.

And that’s just accounting for the players who are signed. Cristian Pavón’s future with the team remains uncertain as he defends himself against a rape charge in Argentina and Vanney is hopeful of signing as many as four to five more players, making his roster very much a work in progress.

That hasn’t hurt the team much in preseason play, however, because Saturday’s 1-0 win over the New England Revolution at an empty Dignity Health Sports Park left the Galaxy unbeaten in four matches. And new goalkeeper Jonathan Bond was the star in the latest one with six saves in 60 minutes of play. Jonathan Perez scored the lone goal in the 22nd minute.

Vanney still conceded he has a lot of work to do molding his players into a team, especially since so many of the ones he expects to be counting on aren’t in camp.

“We still have plenty of faces and names to get in and to add. So we’re a light bunch right now,” he said. “But the chemistry is great, the work rate is great. They’re finding success and learning, and so all that is moving in the right direction.

“The one thing that we want to establish with everybody that’s here is our culture, our style of play and get as many guys on the same page understanding what we’re trying to do. Once that chemistry is developed and once the understanding of what we’re trying to do is in the team, it’s easier to add pieces when the collective already has a good understanding.”

It’s possible – probably likely – that Vanney won’t have his best 11 healthy players and on the field together until May. He’ll then lose as many as four starters to international duty again in June and July. As for the players who have been on the field in training and preseason scrimmages, Vanney said he’s seeing progress.

“We’re really starting to see awareness of one another, positional understanding, understanding of what it is that we’re trying to do from a style-of-play perspective,” he said. “We’ve had some good moments and those moments have become more consistent with each game.”

Vanney said he expected Grandsir and Vázquez, whom have played at a high level in Europe, to pick things up quickly when they arrive. Of more concern is the players who have yet to sign – none of whom Vanney named.

“We’re at the finish line with a few we’d love to get across,” he said. “We are obviously still scouting and this is a process, for me, about being disciplined and finding the right quality of player and person that we want to add to our group.

“We’re not looking to just take any player and throw them in because we need a player. We need very specific skill sets to fit what we’re trying to do.”

One very specific role the team has yet to fill is defensive midfielder. Plugging that hole, Vanney said, would allow Dos Santos to play box-to-box and get more involved in the offense.

No shortage of goals for LAFC

When Carlos Vela, the reigning MVP and MLS scoring leader, elected not to go to Orlando, Fla. for last summer’s MLS Is Back tournament, Diego Rossi stepped up and scored a tournament-best seven goals.

When Vela tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in LAFC’s first game back in L.A., Rossi stepped up and won the regular-season scoring title. But if you think any of that is special, well then you must not be Diego Rossi.

For him, that was all part of the job.

“No. no,” he said dismissively in Spanish. “It is something that sometimes happens. You have to be prepared for that type of situation. It was no problem. Far from it.”

Rossi’s success has left LAFC with a situation no team in MLS history has faced. He and Vela are the first teammates to win MLS goal-scoring titles in consecutive years and, if both stay healthy, they’ll be on the field together in 2021 – with just one ball to share between them.

Again, Rossi said, no problem.

“Each one is going to shoot when they have the chance,” said Rossi, who scored the first goal in LAFC history. “That doesn’t mean one has the responsibility to shoot. It depends on the play.

“The name doesn’t matter. The intention is to make the team better. We understand each other very well and it has nothing to do with the fact that one year one has been the leading scorer and another year it was the other.”

In LAFC’s short existence, no one has scored more goals than Vela’s 52 or handed out more assists than his 29. But Rossi, 23, is second in both categories with 42 and 20, respectively, and his 82 starts also are the most in club history. Last year Rossi also was named the best young player in MLS.

He and Vela are the main reasons no MLS team has more wins, points or goals in the last three seasons than LAFC. But that success has paid off in just one trophy – the Supporters’ Shield in 2019 – and three early exits from the playoffs.

Vela said that has to change.

“My goal, the individual goal, is to make the MVP. For the group, the goal is to win the championship,” he said of LAFC’s targets for 2021. “We are doing right the right thing. But we are still missing something.

“So we are working on that so that this year.”

The knee injury that limited him to four starts and seven regular-season games last season is healed, Vela said, and at 32 he’s feeling fit after a long offseason.

“I feel ready,” he said. “I feel 100% to be in my top level from the start. And I hope to until the end.

“My goal is to make a great season, score a lot of goals, help my team to be in the top of the league. And of course go for the title.”

And finally there’s this…..

Sergio Aguero, whose stoppage-time goal gave Manchester City its first Premier League title in 2012, announced Monday he is leaving City after the season. Aguero, 32, scored 181 goals in 10 seasons in Manchester and is the only player remaining from that 2012 team … The Neymar Jr Institution, which helps underprivileged children in Sao Paolo, has been closed for a year due to the COVID pandemic, but Neymar has been paying the salary of his 142 employees since the closing, according to media reports … Four women officials from the U.S. made history over the last five days when they called men’s World Cup qualifiers. Kathryn Nesbitt, the 2020 MLS assistant referee of the year, became the first female official to work a men’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifier when she was on the touchline for Canada’s win over Bermuda last Thursday in Orlando, Fla. Last Saturday Jennifer Garner was an assistant referee and Tori Penso the fourth official for Aruba vs. Suriname in Bradenton, Fla., while Nesbitt worked the Anguilla-Dominican Republic in Miami. Then on Monday, Brooke Mayo was an assistant referee and Penso the fourth official for Cayman Islands vs. Canada in Bradenton. Nesbitt received her FIFA badge in 2016, Garner and Mayo got their badges in 2018 and Penso earned hers this year … Zlatan Ibrahimovic assisted on a pair of goals in his return to the Swedish national team. He set up the only score a 1-0 win over Georgia, then assisted on one of three goals in a 3-0 victory over Kosovo in World Cup qualifying. Ibrahimovic last played for Sweden in 2016.

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 a fact of life that you lose more than you win. And it’s always going to be about who gets up and moves forward the quickest. These disappointments happen in your life over and over and over again, and you have no choice but to move forward. And I hope that these players do that.”

U.S. coach Jason Kreis after his U-23 team was eliminated for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in a 2-1 semifinal loss to Honduras on Sunday.

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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