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Soccer newsletter: Who will Mexico, USMNT turn to during the Gold Cup?

United States Sebastian Lletget, right. battles for the ball with Costa Rica's Yeltsin Tejeda
The United States’ Sebastian Lletget, right. battles for the ball with Costa Rica’s Yeltsin Tejeda, during an international friendly June 9 in Sandy, Utah.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with the CONCACAF Gold Cup. For fans of the national team the regional championship is something of an appetizer this year, with the final eight-team World Cup qualifying tournament that kicks off in less than two months serving as the main course.

The Gold Cup is held in odd-number years and in 2017 it began about eight months after the final round of World Cup qualifiers had started. But this year the order is reversed with COVID-19 not only delaying the final round of qualifying, but also expanding it and turning the tournament into an eight-team, seven-month sprint.

With that competition scheduled to start 32 days after the Gold Cup final this year the region’s two giants, the U.S. and Mexico, have given their biggest stars the summer off and will send ‘B’ teams to the Gold Cup.

The start of preseason training camps for European teams also was a factor in roster selection.

That means no Christian Pulisic, Sergiño Dest, Gio Reyna or Weston McKennie for the U.S. while Mexico will send goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, midfielders Uriel Antuna, Diego Lainez and Sebastián Córdova and forward Alexis Vega to Japan to play with the Olympic team. Andrés Guardado, J.J. Macias and Raúl Jiménez also were left off Mexico’s Gold Cup roster, although their absences are being blamed on injury.

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“The most important thing is in September, the qualifying,” Mexican coach Tata Martino said in Spanish.

Either way, that’s good news for a lot of players who otherwise might not have suited up this summer but now find themselves with as many as six games to prove they deserve to play in the qualifiers as well. And U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, whose team opened training camp Monday in Kansas City, Kan., where it will play its three group-stage games, made clear that’s how he’s approaching the 16-team tournament.

“We were thinking about one big roster, not two separate rosters,” he said in a statement. “The idea was to prepare our entire player pool in a competitive CONCACAF format for World Cup qualifying. By the end of this tournament, we’re going to have virtually the entire player pool prepared for World Cup qualifying.”

Only three players — the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget, Colorado’s Kellyn Acosta and Boavista’s Reggie Cannon, one of four European-based players on the summer roster — return from the U.S. team that won the inaugural Nations League last month. All three likely will be on the team this fall as well.

Most of the other 20 players on the Gold Cup team need a big tournament to improve their chances.

Gyasi Zardes, a favorite of Berhalter when he played for the coach in Columbus, had fallen out of the national team picture but is back and will be playing in his fourth Gold Cup. D.C. United’s Paul Arriola, who played in the final qualifier in 2017, is returning from a severe quadriceps injury and has a chance to show he is fit.

But Berhalter is deep at forward. The midfield is another story, which gives San Jose’s Jackson Yueill and Seattle’s Cristian Roldan — whose brother, defender Alex Roldan, will play for El Salvador in the Gold Cup – hope they can push themselves into the mix for qualifiers. There also is an opportunity on the back line with Nashville’s Walker Zimmerman, the reigning MLS defender of the year, best positioned to take advantage.

LA Galaxy midfielder Efrain Alvarez, left, hits Austin FC defender Zan Kolmanic in the face
LA Galaxy midfielder Efrain Alvarez, left, hits Austin FC defender Zan Kolmanic in the face as they battle for the ball May 15 in Carson, Calif.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

On the Mexican side Martino, whose aging team is desperately in need of fresh blood, appears ready to audition Galaxy midfielder Efraín Álvarez, 19, and Pachuca’s Érick Sánchez, 21, two young players with 31 minutes of first-team experience between them.

“The congestion of competition may have deprived us of being able to put together our best team because there are many who would normally be here who are going to Japan,” Martino said before his team’s comfortable 4-0 rout of an inexperienced Nigerian team at the Coliseum last Saturday.

The U.S., which is in Group B, will open its Gold Cup on July 11 against the winner of Tuesday’s playoff between Haiti and Bermuda. It also will play Martinique (July 15) and Canada (July 18) in pool play with all three games at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan.

Mexico, which plays in Group A, will face the Trinidad-French Guiana playoff winner on July 10 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas before playing Curacao (July 14) and El Salvador (July 18) at the Cotton Bowl.

Group C, which will play in Orlando, Fla., includes Costa Rica, Jamaica, Suriname and either Guatemala or Guadeloupe while Group D is made up of Honduras, Panama, Grenada and Qatar, which has been invited to play in the federation championship for the first time. Group D will play five games in Houston and one in Orlando.

The top two teams in each group will advance to the quarterfinals. The championship match will be played Aug. 1 in Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, which already has sold out.

LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo, left, hits Seattle Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe in the face
LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo, left, hits Seattle Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe in the face as they battle for the ball June 19 in Carson, Calif.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Profit sharing

The Galaxy have signed defender Julian Araujo to a 4 ½-year contract extension and reportedly are close to agreeing on a multi-year extension with Álvarez. The Galaxy sought the extensions now because the club believes the teenagers, both 19, soon could be targeted for lucrative transfers, which would allow the Galaxy to cash in.

Araujo’s extension, which will be announced Tuesday morning, is the Galaxy’s first signing under the U-22 initiative, which allows teams to sign up to three players aged 22 and younger to lucrative contracts at a reduced budget charge. Araujo has started 10 games this season and played well. He also played for the U.S. U-23 team in the Olympic qualifying tournament last March but turned down an invitation to play in this month’s Gold Cup because, as a dual national, he wants to keep his options to play for Mexico at the senior level.

Araujo , who can play right back or on the right wing, had a base salary of $140,000 under his old contract, according to the MLS players union. His new deal, the second-longest in Galaxy history, will run through 2025 and probably will raise his salary substantially. Earlier this year Araujo was linked to talks with Juventus and Tottenham, with the English club reportedly prepared to offer nearly $6.3 million for Araujo.

Álvarez, 19, who is on international duty with the Mexican national team, has shown flashes of brilliance during four MLS seasons in which he earned praise from former teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

“He’s by far the biggest talent [in MLS],” Ibrahimovic said. “Because he thinks football. He has that football in him, and it’s natural. It didn’t come by him training or something.

“He goes on the field, and you see when he plays, he’s all natural: the way he thinks, the way he moves the ball, the way he touches the ball. By far the best player in MLS.”

Álvarez has yet to show that talent on a consistent basis, although his six starts this season match a career high. He also scored his second career goal, a game-winner in extra time against Vancouver. His current contract with the Galaxy will pay him a base salary of $104,000 this season.

The signing of Álvarez’s extension reportedly has been delayed by his departure last week to join Mexico’s Gold Cup team. No details on his deal were available, but he also may be signing under the U-22 initiative.

Earlier this year the Galaxy signed French winger Kévin Cabral to a five-year designated-player contract with a one-year option. Cabral, who turns 22 on Saturday, will receive a base salary of $1.44 million. Should he return to Europe anytime in the next six years the Galaxy could profit off that move too.

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, left, celebrates with Sebastian Lletget
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, left, celebrates with Sebastian Lletget at the end of an international friendly soccer match between Northern Ireland and United States at Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland March 28.
(Peter Morrison / Associated Press)

Role player

Speaking of the Gold Cup team, Lletget, the only player who has appeared in every U.S. game over the last two calendar years, was something of a surprise selection given his emerging status as a mainstay of Berhalter’s first-choice team. But the coach said that doesn’t make his presence on the World Cup qualifying roster any less likely.

“I think it makes it more likely,” he said. “We’re showing our dependence on Sebastian again and how good of a player he is. I think this is a positive sign.”

One thing that makes the repeated transitions from club to national team and back difficult is how Lletget is deployed, with Berhalter frequently using him in an attacking role while Greg Vanney, 11 games into his first season as Galaxy coach, has played Lletget in a defensive posture.

“I’ve worked with [Lletget] a lot longer than Greg has and so we understand him really well,” Berhalter said. “Greg is a good coach and he’s going to figure out how to use him best because Sebastian’s a really talented player.

“If you think about Sebastian’s impact when we first took over, it’s not nearly as influential as it is now. He grew on us, so to speak. Once you understand Sebastian, understand what makes him tick, you understand how good of a player he is. It’s easy to deploy him in the way you play.”

Lletget said it’s up to him to remember who he’s playing for and what he’s being asked to do.

“It’s similar, but they do have different ways of seeing the game. I enjoy learning from it,” he said. “For me it just show the versatility that I’ve always wanted to show. For someone in Vanney’s position, you want to just find a way to use your guys in the best way possible and the way they can be effective.”

Los Angeles Galaxy forward Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (14) tries to adjust to a juke move
Los Angeles Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (14) tries to adjust to a juke move during a match against the San Jose Earthquakes May 29 at Dignity Health Sports Center in Carson, Calif.
(Peter Joneleit / Associated Press)

Shallow depth

If the injuries that sidelined Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Sega Coulibaly prove to be significant, the Galaxy (7-4-0) could be in a world of hurt since they’re already missing six players to a combination of suspension, injuries and international duty.

Hernández, who was dealing with a tender right calf most of last week, was scratched just before the start of Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Sporting Kansas City. That’s the same calf Hernández tore last year and caused him to miss two months. Coulibaly went out late in the first half with a right abductor injury.

Vanney said both players were to be re-examined Monday, but a Galaxy spokesperson declined to provide an update and said their conditions would be addressed Tuesday. If either can’t go in Wednesday’s game with FC Dallas, that will add to a growing list of players who suddenly have become unavailable.

Center back Daniel Steres has played just eight minutes in the last four weeks because of a hamstring injury. Midfielders Jonathan dos Santos and Álvarez are away with the Mexican national team, most likely through the end of the month, and center back Derrick Williams has one match left on his six-game suspension. By the time he returns July 17, Lletget will have left to play for the U.S.

Also gone for the Gold Cup for at least two weeks of international duty are defenders Oniel Fisher (Jamaica) and Giancarlo González (Costa Rica).

“It is unfortunate when you have guys go down with an injury, and I think right now we are suffering on the back side, the defensive side, from the injuries,” defender Jorge Villafaña said.

Equally concerning should be the team’s uneven results. Vanney said the Galaxy played its best two games of the season in its last two home matches with Seattle and Sporting Kansas City, but it lost both and hasn’t beaten a team with a winning record this season.

It’s an especially different team without Hernández, who leads the league with 10 goals. No other Galaxy player has scored more than once from the run of play.

Vanney clearly needs to diversify the attack but more importantly needs players who can finish. His team took 19 shots and put seven on target Sunday, but no one could get the ball past Kansas City keeper Tim Melia.

Contrast that with Hernández, who is scoring on better than 71% of his shots on goal, the best rate of any MLS player with at least six goals.

“The part that missed was to put the ball in the back of the net,” Vanney said. “We have to score because it doesn’t matter how well you play.

“At the end of the day, we want to win the game, right? We don’t want to keep talking about moral performance victories. We need to score.”

That could be difficult it Hernández if is out beyond Wednesday.

Los Angeles FC goalkeeper Tomas Romero grabs a corner kick
Los Angeles FC goalkeeper Tomas Romero grabs a corner kick during a match against FC Dallas June 23 in Los Angeles.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

LAFC, meanwhile, also is struggling to score but it got a big performance from rookie Tomas Romero in goal Saturday to beat Real Salt Lake 1-0 for its first road win of the year.

Romero, 20, who declined an opportunity to play with El Salvador in the Gold Cup, replaced Pablo Sisniega three games ago and, with two huge saves Saturday, has posted shutouts in two of those starts. He’s got a lot of help from his defense, though, facing just seven shots in those three games.

Eddie Segura saved the clean sheet in Salt Lake City with a clutch clearance off the goal line.

“I didn’t necessarily expect to be starting in my first season,” Romero said. “But when someone gives you a chance, you just to take it, do your best. I just want to keep this momentum moving forward.

“I have to do my best if I want to keep playing.”

In front of him midfielder José Cifuentes appears to have solidified a starting job of his own. Cifuentes, who began Saturday’s game on the bench for just the third time in 11 games, came on in the 67th minute and scored the game’s only goal two minutes later. LAFC (4-4-3), which tied the MLS single-season scoring record in 2019, have multiple goals in just three games this season and have just 13 in 11 games on the season.

“We’ve got to find ways to sharpen up some of our advantages and score more goals,” coach Bob Bradley said.

“A win away is sometimes about mentality. One thing that we certainly feel good about is that overall, we’ve defended well in almost every game. So we’re going to put it all together at some point.”

United States' Tobin Heath, second from right, celebrates with teammates after scoring
The United States’ Tobin Heath, second from right, celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during an international friendly soccer match against Mexico July 1 in East Hartford, Conn.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

And finally there’s this …

Tobin Heath showed she’s ready for Tokyo by scoring her second goal in as many games as the U.S. women’s team routed Mexico 4-0 on Monday in its final tune-up for the Olympics. Heath, who missed more than six months with injury, scored in both of her appearances for the U.S. this month. The U.S., unbeaten at 22-0-1 under coach Vlatko Andonovski, will open Olympic group play on July 21 against Sweden … Olivia Moultrie came on in the 83rd minute of Portland’s 2-0 win over Racing Louisville on Saturday and, at 15, became the youngest player in NWSL history. The former Canyon County resident, who moved to Portland at 13 to train in the Thorns’ academy program, challenged a league rule requiring players be at least 18 to sign a pro contract. A federal judge determined the NWSL can’t enforce that requirement, clearing Moultrie to sign a three-year deal with the Thorns … The European Championships resume Tuesday with Italy meeting Spain in the first semifinal at London’s Wembley Stadium. England faces Denmark in the other semi on Wednesday at Wembley. England is the only one of the four finalists to never have won a Euro although Denmark is the sentimental favorite after it lost Christian Eriksen to cardiac arrest in its tournament opener, with only the quick work of team doctors and trainers saving his life.

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

“He’s always been a very important part of the team and he still is. Of course we carry him in our hearts. He should have been here. It’s still something we’re struggling with, but making him proud is something that makes me happy.”

Midfielder Thomas Delaney, speaking through an interpreter, on the inspiration Denmark gets from teammate Christian Eriksen, who nearly died of cardiac arrest in the team’s Euro opener

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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