Soccer newsletter: Liga MX’s Santos Laguna chases redemption after gutting loss to Cruz Azul
Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, coming to you today from a tiny hotel room in central Tokyo where I’m imprisoned – I mean quarantined -- ahead of the Olympic Games.
But the Olympics aren’t the only major competition that begins this week.
Liga MX’s Apertura also kicks off in a few days with Club América traveling to Querétaro to meet the Gallos Blancos on Thursday. Cruz Azul, the Clausura champion, opens its schedule July 26 at home against Mazatlán.
Santos Laguna, last season’s runner-up, will begin play Saturday at Tigres looking to make up the one goal that separated it from a possible Clausura title last May.
“It broke my heart,” Alejandro Irarragorri, founder of Santos’ ownership group, said in a teleconference call earlier this month. “We played much better football with a younger team.”
Irarragorri heads Grupo Orlegi, a diverse company that, in part, specializes in sports through Orlegi Sports. In addition to Santos Laguna, which is based in the northern city of Torreón, it owns Liga MX rival Atlas of Guadalajara and Tampico Madero FC of the second-tier Liga de Expansión.
Since Irarragorri became involved with Santos in 2006, the club has played in eight league finals. No club has appeared in more. And it has done that despite modest payrolls when compared to Liga MX’s giants.
Taking the next step will require greater resources and a bigger brand and Irarragorri thinks he knows where to find them, which is the strategy behind Orlegi Sports’ decision to join a growing number of Mexican soccer teams that have increased their focus on the U.S. market.
Orlegi Sports already has opened a temporary business office in Orange County with plans for a more permanent presence in Los Angeles. The office, Irarragorri said, will focus first on servicing a series of academies, including one that opened this summer in the state of Washington. But that, too, is part of a bigger strategy.
“The academies, they go hand in hand with the scouting,” he said. “And they go hand in hand with merchandising.”
Irarragorri also plans a more robust and integrated approach to servicing the needs of its U.S. fan base and for attracting U.S.-based sponsors.
“So you can be a fan of Santos and not live in Torreón,” he said. “We need to get you closer. And I think by doing that, from the U.S. and in the U.S., we will be much more straightforward going to our fans’ needs.”
As for commercial partners, Irarragorri said the passion of Liga MX fans and the massive TV ratings they have in the U.S. should make it an easy sell.
“If I were a U.S. company that had a presence in two markets, like Mexico and the U.S., I would use obviously a Mexican team because of the ratings it has in the U.S., that are only growing,” he said.
“We need to target that market, that American company market as a team, for them to consider us as they consider teams in the MLS for sponsorship purposes.”
The U.S.-Mexico border may be a political dividing line that has become more militarized and contentious in recent years. But the passion for soccer flows freely back and forth and that makes it unique. It also makes the idea of synergy between Liga MX and MLS a no-brainer, Irarragorri said.
The Mexican teams benefit by tapping into a larger, wealthier market with much greater disposable incomes. MLS benefits through its association with the Mexican fan base, a much larger TV audience and with iconic global brands like Chivas and Club América.
“Mexico is the only country in the world that has two natural markets,” Irarragorri said. “Two thousand miles of border with the U.S. Forty million people that are Mexican American.
“So if you look at it from a market perspective, on a purchasing power perspective, on a consumption perspective, when you combine them it’s difficult to find other leagues that have such a commitment of their fans and consumption that Mexican football has.”
Irarragorri isn’t the first to come to that conclusion. Club América opened an office in New York City in 2018. Liga MX held its Campeon de Campeones game between Cruz Azul vs. Leon last weekend at Dignity Health Sports Park and the league has teamed up with MLS on two cross-border tournaments as well as an All-Star Game next month between top players from both leagues.
There’s even been increasing talk of a formal merger between the two.
“I’ve been pushing the idea for some time now, of doing more things together, MLS and Liga MX,” Irarragorri said. “I’m sure that working together and playing more games, official games, on U.S. soil is going to be better for both in the long term.
“Soccer will definitely be, within the next 20-30 years, the number one or number two sport in the U.S. But I think we can actually get closer to that by joining forces.”
Irarragorri and Grupo Orlegi are positioning themselves to cash in. If they’re successful, Santos — as well as hard-luck Atlas, which won its only Liga MX trophy in 1951 — may reap the rewards.
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The stars are coming out
Speaking of the Mexico league, it announced the first 25 players on its team for the Aug. 25 Liga MX-MLS All-Star Game at Banc of California Stadium.
Goalkeepers: José de Jesús Corona, Cruz Azul; Alfredo Talavera, Pumas UNAM; Guillermo Ochoa, América
Defenders: Matheus Doria, Santos Laguna; Pablo Aguilar, Cruz Azul; Víctor Guzmán, Club Tijuana; César Montes, Monterrey; William Tesillo, León
Fullbacks: Fernando Navarro, León; Salvador Reyes, Puebla; Juan Marcelo Escobar, Cruz Azul; Jesús Gallardo, Monterrey
Midfielders: Luis Romo, Cruz Azul; Luis Montes, León; Fernando Gorriarán, Santos Laguna; Rubens Sambueza, Toluca; Guido Pizarro, Tigres UANL; Pedro Aquino, América; Diego Valdés, Santos Laguna; Ángel Mena, León
Forwards: Jonathan Rodríguez, Cruz Azul; Pedro Canelo, Toluca; Santiago Muñoz, Santos Laguna; André-Pierre Gignac, Tigres UANL; Rogelio Funes Mori, Monterrey
Manager: Juan Reynoso, Cruz Azul
The 26th player will be selected by LIGA BBVA MX Executive President Mikel Arriola through a process which will be announced in the coming days. Tickets for the game go on sale today 10 a.m. through Ticketmaster or by visiting LAFC.com. Fans can also purchase tickets for the 2021 Skills Challenge on Aug. 24 at Ticketmaster.com.
A women’s place is on the medal stand
The U.S. women kick off in Tokyo on Wednesday, raising the curtain on an Olympic Games that could prove to be the greatest global celebration of women athletes in history.
In addition to the U.S. soccer team, which includes two former world players of the year in Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. delegation will feature gymnast Simone Biles; track stars Allyson Felix, Gabby Thomas, Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad; swimmer Katie Ledecky and a U.S. water polo team that hasn’t lost since a major international competition since 2013.
“I think that we are going to seize it,” Ashleigh Johnson, goalie for the two-time defending champion water polo team, said of the opportunity awaiting women athletes in Japan. “It’s really important that the narrative is changing toward women and women in sports.
“We’re going to show the world the power of women.”
For Abby Wambach, who won two Olympic gold medals in soccer, the attention is long overdue.
“If we are flipping that script and giving women what they are due for years and years and decades of being in the shadows of men, then it is high time to celebrate women,” she said. “I’m proud that I was a part of the process of building the foundation to give some of these companies and media outlets the guts and the smarts to start investing and putting their money towards women.
“There will be some male gold medalists,” she continued. “But if we are only talking about the women athletes at this Olympics, I would not be upset about it.”
Wambach has retired from playing soccer but remains deeply involved in the sport. She continues to help build that foundation for female athletes as part of the massive, women-led ownership group that is bringing Angel City FC into the NWSL and through “Abby’s Place,” which debuted earlier this month on ESPN+.
In the seven-episode series, modeled after the successful “Peyton’s Places” hosted by former NFL quarterback Peyton Manning, Wambach will visit historic venues and visit with some of soccer’s biggest names in an effort to explore how soccer became the world’s most-beloved game.
“There’s so many little interesting things about the game that I’ve always been wondering [about],” she said. “What is it with the throw-in? Why the heck are we throwing the ball in with our hands? And who thought up this whole idea of a goalkeeper? Like what a weird concept to just throw in a player [and] give them a completely different set of rules.”
Johnson, whose team takes to the pool for its group-play opener Saturday, is the first black woman to play for the U.S. in Olympic water polo. But she’s trying to leverage her success, and these Games, for something bigger. As part of a women’s empowerment campaign led by Secret deodorant, she appears alongside soccer player Alex Morgan, BMX cyclist Chelsea Wolfe, basketball star Chiney Ogwumike and Paralympic cyclist Oksana Masters on “Just Watch Me” murals in New York City, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
“They’re empowering and highlighting women athletes performing at the highest level,” she said, “and that campaign is just going to help solve – or help more towards a better retention rate – for women in sports and girls in sports and allocate resources where women are competing at the highest level in sports aren’t being covered in the media at the same rate as their male counterparts.
“That’s not fair. And that’s something that I think is changing.”
Not a glittering Gold Cup for U.S., Mexico
Mexico and the U.S. are on to the final eight of the CONCACAF Gold Cup after closing group play with 1-0 wins on Sunday, Mexico over El Salvador and the U.S. over Canada.
But both teams had issues getting to the knockout stage, serving notice that neither should expect an easy run through World Cup qualifying which begins in September.
Defending champion Mexico lost its top scoring threat for the rest of the tournament when Hirving Lozano left the group-play opener with Trinidad and Tobago in the 10th minute with a head injury. Mexico scored just four times in three games without him, but it also posted three shutouts to advance to Saturday’s quarterfinal against the runner-up from Group D which finishes the stage tonight.
Mexico hasn’t allowed a goal in six games and 554 minutes since Christian Pulisic’s penalty-kick goal in last month’s Nations League final.
The U.S. also got off to a slow start and struggled to beat a Haitian team missing five players and a coach to positive COVID-19 tests. It then routed Martinique before barely beating Canada on Shad Moore’s first international goal off a low cross from the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget just 20 seconds into the match.
That marked the fourth consecutive game the U.S. has scored in the opening 15 minutes. But it was far from a complete effort from a young national team that accomplished its first aim in the tournament but did little else.
“Overall, we achieved our objective of the group phase, was the winner of the group, had the best goal difference in the group and we’re there,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Now all the focus is on the quarterfinals.”
The U.S. will play the second-place team from group C in Sunday’s quarterfinal.
LAFC, Galaxy heading in different directions
With Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi — the last two MLS scoring champions — scoring in the same game for the first time in more than a year, LAFC’s performance in last Saturday’s 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake was reminiscent of the team’s halcyon days of 2019, when it tied the league record with 85 goals en route to a Supporters’ Shield.
LAFC took a season-high 29 shots, limited RSL to just three shots of its own and basically dominated from start to finish in winning its third consecutive game and fourth in five tries. That’s the team’s best streak since 2019.
In the last two months LAFC has moved up nine spots into a tie for fourth in the Western Conference standings. With Kim Moon-hwan and Raheem Edwards providing some inspired play from the wings, Bob Bradley’s team may have found its stride.
“LAFC is a club that is expected to dominate games,” Kim, who picked up his first MLS assist on Vela’s game-winning goal, said through an interpreter.
But LAFC (6-4-3) is far from a finished product. It has just 17 goals in 13 games, about half its production rate in its first three seasons, and hasn’t scored more than twice in any game this season. But if it’s squandering its own chances, Bradley’s team is holding opponents to almost nothing. It limited RSL to three shots Saturday and has conceded a league-low 38 shots on goal while rookie goalkeeper Tomás Romero has had to make only 10 saves in his five starts. He is 4-1-0 with three shutouts.
“A lot of positives but a lot of things to work on,” defender Marco Farfan said.
Meanwhile the Galaxy (8-5-0), who suddenly find themselves short of heathy bodies, are heading the other way. Their 2-1 loss Saturday to Vancouver – the Whitecaps’ first victory since May 8 – was the second in three games without Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who also is expected to miss Wednesday’s game with Real Salt Lake because of an issue with his right calf, the same one he tore last summer and forced him to miss two months.
Center back Dan Steres returned from a hamstring injury that cost him four games, but he played just eight minutes against Vancouver. Midfielder Rayan Raveloson, who scored his second MLS goal on a first-half header, was subbed off at halftime with his own calf injury. With Lletget, Jonathan dos Santos and Efraín Álvarez among five players away on international duty, the once-deep Galaxy suddenly are thin.
And things aren’t about to get easier. The Galaxy play two more road matches in the next five days and have three games before the end of the month.
And finally there’s this …
Two members of Angel City’s sprawling group of investors said the team is pushing hard to land national team forward Christen Press, who is unsigned after her contract with Manchester United expired. Press is perhaps the hottest player on the U.S. team entering the Olympics, having been directly involved in 37 goals in her last 37 international games. She will be 33 before Angel City plays it first game next year, but her local roots — she was born in Los Angeles, won two CIF titles at Chadwick on the Palos Verdes Peninsula and played for Slammers FC of Newport Beach — make her an ideal first signing for the fledging club. To get a contract done, Angel City probably will have to make it a package deal that includes Tobin Heath … Angel City said it’s also making progress in finalizing plans for a training base that will include multiple fields that will allow the site to be a community resource. But it is taking its time on selecting the franchise’s first manager … Midfielder Formiga made Brazil’s Olympic roster at 44, and if Pia Sundhage uses her in a game in Japan, she will become the first player to appear in seven Summer Games. In fact, Formiga never has missed the Olympics and played in the inaugural women’s tournament in Atlanta as a teenager in 1996. According to Forbes’ Asif Burhan, only 31 athletes have competed in seven Olympics, but Formiga could become the first to do so in a team sport … For the second time in as many years Atlanta United has fired its coach in the middle of the season. It sacked Argentine Gabriel Heinze on Sunday after the team’s 2-7-4 start. Frank de Boer was fired last July after three consecutive losses in the MLS Is Back tournament.
“We have a young, sometimes naive, innocent group; guys that haven’t played in too many CONCACAF games that are difficult. The refereeing is different; the competition is different. So, we have to be savvier in the way we close out games.”
Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, on the young, inexperienced national team’s start to the Gold Cup
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