Galaxy, LAFC presidents reflect on 9/11 experiences
Hello, and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a transformative moment in this nation’s history.
We’ve been reliving that day from numerous perspectives over the last week, but few experienced it as uniquely as the presidents of Southern California’s two MLS teams, the Galaxy’s Chris Klein and LAFC’s John Thorrington.
Klein was with the Kansas City Wizards — now Sporting Kansas City — in Peru, where they were scheduled to face Lima’s Sporting Cristal in a group-stage match of the Copa Merconorte the next day. Thorrington was in England playing for Huddersfield Town of the third-tier Football League.
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When the first plane flew into the north tower of the World Trade Center, Wizards coach Bob Gansler got a call from an assistant coach telling him to turn on the TV. Gansler initially thought what he was watching was a bad movie.
When a second plane slammed into the south tower 18 minutes later, “Everyone started to realize this was much more than an accident,” Klein remembered.
Gansler called the team together, beginning a series of emotional discussions that lasted most of the day. Three of the players and some of the coaches had family in the New York-New Jersey area whom they couldn’t reach, and the conversations quickly focused on what the team should do next.
Klein’s wife, Angela, was pregnant with the couple’s first child back home in a country under attack. Soccer suddenly seemed insignificant. Flights back to the U.S. were suspended, so they couldn’t leave, but should they play?
“The tournament didn’t cancel the game, and so we just kind of went through with it, which seemed like an OK decision at the time,” Klein recalled.
Except it wasn’t.
“We didn’t want to play,” Klein said. “Not that we were forced to. But that was a moment that you don’t get as an athlete very often, where the result in the game doesn’t matter.
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“Having to perform, we couldn’t find it. It just didn’t feel right. That we made a right or wrong decision, I don’t know. But just thinking back to that moment and playing there just didn’t feel right.”
Goalkeeper Tony Meola, who grew up 11 miles from the World Trade Center, agreed.
“To this day,” Meola said in a recent interview posted on Sporting Kansas City’s website, “the biggest regret of my career is not standing up for what I believed in and playing in that game.”
Major League Baseball, the NFL, NCAA football and several other sports leagues and organizations suspended their schedules for at least a week after the attacks. MLS ended its regular season and, after a pause, went straight to the playoffs. Even the UEFA Champions League postponed games scheduled for Sept. 12.
But the Wizards played, “maybe the only American sports team to play,” Klein said.
Not surprisingly, they didn’t play well, giving up goals two minutes apart midway through the first half in a 2-1 loss. The Wizards, who made the playoffs, won just once more in five tries that season.
“There was sort of just this empty feeling on Sept. 12,” Klein said. “Having [the game] so soon after and also being in a foreign country added to that isolation and loneliness that we felt. You can remember times during your playing career where getting back out on the field is that cathartic experience.
“In this case, it just wasn’t.”
For Thorrington, news of the attacks brought personal worry. His mother, Monique, who had been visiting him in Manchester, England, was still in the air on her way back when the terrorists began hijacking commercial flights, leading to a suspension of air travel all over the country. It was hours before he knew whether she was safe.
“I remember vividly, as though it was yesterday,” he said. “I was coming home from training, and I had something on TV and saw the flash breaking news. You’re just in disbelief as to what is going on.”
Huddersfield’s next game was four days away, at home against Blackpool. The coaching staff gave Thorrington the option of staying home, but he chose to play. And when he did, fans at the game, who had no other way of directly comforting Americans, made Thorrington a focus of their cheering.
“I remember being in a bit of a fog, but I do remember the game,” he said. “And I do remember chants of ‘USA!’ all around our stadium, which was really cool.”
Thorrington, a midfielder, scored his second goal of the season in the waning minutes of a 4-2 loss and was asked to do media after the game. He remembers that as being a surreal moment as well.
“It was all about 9/11,” he said of the interviews. “[At] times, it was sort of like I was a target when I was playing in away grounds. There were not many Americans. It was certainly a poignant and touching moment to hear that crowd chanting ‘USA’ in the aftermath of 9/11.
“I just remember thinking that you see people’s true colors in tragedy. Glimmers of hope and kindness and human spirit thankfully prevail.”
It perhaps was even more special because Thorrington, who was born in South Africa, is an immigrant who never took his U.S. citizenship for granted. He never felt more American than on that day, which is why he decided to play.
“It was more of a patriotic feeling,” he said. “I do feel intensely American, having been here since I was 2, and that is one thing we saw around 9/11. This coming together and that American spirit of, like, backs against the wall.
“I definitely felt that although I was half a world away.”
Those two games — one in Peru, the other 30 miles outside Manchester, England — hardly were highlights of either man’s soccer achievements. Klein, then 25, was in the fourth season of a professional career in which he has won an MLS Cup, a U.S. Open Cup and two Supporters’ Shields as a player and two more MLS titles as a Galaxy executive. A midfielder, he played 16 more games with the national team and set an MLS record for consecutive starts.
Thorrington, who was 21 then, played two more seasons in Europe and nine in MLS. He also made four appearances for the national team and, as the LAFC’s only general manager, constructed a team that put together the best regular-season record in league history in 2019.
Yet 9/11 also is a part of both those careers.
“Being in a foreign country and everything that surrounded it, it is something that I’ll never forget,” Klein said.
“That was a seminal moment for a lot of us, like a marker in time,” Thorrington agreed. “We all remember where we were and what happened. I can remember that game more vividly that some of the others that were 20 years ago.”
Young national team grows into qualifying tournament
For all the talk about the national team’s heavy European accent, Wednesday’s important World Cup qualifying win over Honduras was made in the USA.
When the game went from doubt to rout in the second half, six of the 11 players on the field were from MLS, not the EPL. The go-ahead goal and the final score came from FC Dallas and Galaxy players, not FC Barcelona and Galatasaray.
We probably should have seen that coming.
Many of coach Gregg Berhalter’s highest-profile players play in Europe, where their club seasons are just beginning while MLS players are two-thirds of the way through their schedules. That meant some players were fit, some weren’t and others weren’t available at all.
Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna and Manchester City’s Zack Steffen were out with injury or illness, and Juventus’ Weston McKennie was in Italy after being suspended.
That left Berhalter with many young MLS players to choose from in Honduras.
“It’s a nightmare trying to piece together a lineup,” said the former MLS coach, who also lost captain Christian Pulisic to an ankle injury early in the second half of the Honduras game. “You make concessions because guys are with new clubs, they’re not exactly fit or they’re not back in the starting 11 for the start of the season. And then you have injuries.
“So piecing all that together was challenging.”
What he came up with at the start — the youngest-ever U.S. lineup for a World Cup qualifier — didn’t work, and all that youth and inexperience resulted in a dreadful first half that ended with Honduras leading 1-0.
So Berhalter sent in Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson and the Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget to start the second half and all three made instant impacts, with Robinson scoring the first goal, Lletget getting the last and Aaronson scoring in between.
The night’s biggest difference-maker was FC Dallas teenager Ricardo Pepi, who scored the go-ahead goal and assisted on two others in the second half of his national team debut.
Pepi, 18, a dual national from El Paso, didn’t commit to playing for the U.S. until last month and hadn’t been called up by the team until the start of World Cup qualifying. With the short-handed U.S. playing its third game in seven days in the Honduran heat and humidity, Berhalter gave him the start in a game the Americans had to win.
And he didn’t disappoint.
“He had confidence in me so, you know, I just went out there and did my thing,” Pepi said. “I just go out there with the mindset of helping the team, you know, doing my best and working hard for the team. With that comes personal things.”
How much did Pepi help the team? Before Wednesday, the U.S. hadn’t won a road qualifier since 2013, hadn’t won in Honduras since 2009, and had won just twice in 33 road qualifiers in which it allowed the first goal. All three of those streaks ended in the 4-1 win.
If the U.S. had lost that game, its two points would have been the lowest total after three qualifiers since the team returned to the World Cup in 1990. And it would have been a point out of the cellar in the eight-team qualifying table.
Instead, it’s tied for second, two points behind Mexico, and is off to the best start in the final round of qualifying in 12 years. The three-goal win, meanwhile, was its largest margin of victory in a road qualifier since June 2005.
Almost forgotten is the fact the U.S., which had been shadowed by criticism after opening the qualifying tournament with two draws, is unbeaten in its last 12 games and has given up more than a goal just once during that streak.
Now the momentum shifts big time. Three of the final five qualifiers this year are at home, where the U.S. has lost just three of 31 qualifiers since 1989. Three of those games are against winless teams in Costa Rica and Jamaica.
Even bigger, though, is the experience the U.S. has gained just three games into the 14-game tournament. When the U.S. opened play Sept. 2, 19 players on its roster had not appeared in a qualifier. Now that number is three.
“It was a learning experience for me. About the opponents and the atmosphere,” Pepi said. “So it was very important for me to just be able to take that energy, manage it, and be ready and be prepared.”
Added Berhalter: “This is an extremely young group that had no experience going through this before. It’s not always going to be pretty, and it’s not always going to go our way. There’s going to be more ups and downs throughout the course of qualifying.
“But the key is just keep going and keep focused on improving and getting better. And if we can do that, it will be fun.”
U.S. vs Jamaica, Austin, Texas
Honduras vs. Costa Rica
Mexico vs. Canada
El Salvador vs. Panama
Panama vs. U.S., Panama City
Jamaica vs. Canada
Costa Rica vs. El Salvador
Mexico vs. Honduras
U.S. vs. Costa Rica, Columbus, Ohio
Canada vs. Panama
Honduras vs. Jamaica
El Salvador vs. Mexico
Galaxy, LAFC benefit from positive additions
Javier “Chicharito” Hernández returned to the Galaxy’s lineup Saturday for the first time in nearly 2½ months in the team’s 1-1 draw in Colorado.
Though he didn’t score in his 62-minute appearance, he did have an impact, drawing constant attention from Rapids defenders, which opened opportunities for his teammates.
He also made the roster deeper, allowing coach Greg Vanney to use Dejan Joveljić and Samuel Grandsir off the bench, with Grandsir scoring the tying goal with nine minutes left in regulation and giving the Galaxy its second consecutive draw after a two-game losing streak.
After playing without Hernández since June 26 — going 4-5-3 but falling just one spot, to fourth, in the Western Conference table — it was like the Galaxy made a trade for a top-tier attacker just as their playoff push started.
Chicharito’s return is important for other reasons too. Wednesday’s match against Houston is the Galaxy’s only September match at home, where they lead the conference with seven wins. The team finishes the month with three in a row on the road, where it is 4-4-3.
“It was great to see him back out there again because he’s an important piece of this group,” Vanney said of Hernández, who leads the team with 10 goals despite missing more than half the season.
It also was a milestone game for midfielder Sacha Kljestan, whose appearance off the bench was the 300th in a regular-season MLS game. That made Kljestan the 49th player in league history — and 12th active player — to reach that number.
“Being available is a skill. I have been available for my whole career,” said Kljestan, 36. “Some of that is a little bit of luck in not having any major injuries, and another part is how I handle myself professionally. I think I take care of myself.
“A lot of those games I can remember. You can tell me the game, and I can tell you the result. I’ll never forget my first game. I don’t really remember the 100th or 200th in MLS specifically, but there are a lot of games in there I’ve really enjoyed. I’m thankful to reach this milestone and hopefully keep going for many more.”
LAFC, meanwhile, is arguably playing its best MLS soccer in more than a year, and it’s doing that without the last two league scoring champions. Carlos Vela, who has appeared mostly disinterested since breaking the MLS scoring record in his MVP season in 2019, is out indefinitely because of an injury. Diego Rossi, the reigning Golden Boot winner, has moved to Turkish club Fenerbahce on loan.
Cristian Arango has stepped up in their absences to lead the team to points in three consecutive games, the most recent coming in Sunday’s 3-2 win over Real Salt Lake. With two goals against RSL, Arango has scored in each of his last three starts. More noteworthy, however, is how he has changed the team around him.
LAFC hadn’t scored more than two goals in a game all season before Arango’s arrival from Colombia’s Millonarios. But in his last three starts, the team hasn’t scored fewer than three times.
“The goals definitely give us confidence. My teammates continue to give me confidence,” said Arango, who ended his night with an off-key serenade for fans in the north end of Banc of California Stadium. “We are on an upward-bound path where all we can do is continue to gain.
“The mentality has been great. We deserve to get those victories. There’s only one path that we can take, and it’s continuing adding points and going upward.”
When Arango arrived, LAFC was halfway through a club-record eight-game winless streak; it hasn’t lost since he became a starter. And now only goal differential separates the team from a playoff berth with 11 games remaining.
However, six of the team’s next eight games are on the road, where LAFC has won just twice in 10 tries.
And finally there’s this …
Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice in his return to Manchester United in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Newcastle United. That kept the unbeaten Red Devils tied for the Premier League lead after four matches. … The U.S. Soccer Federation, in an effort to address charges of gender inequality in pay and other benefits between its men’s and women’s senior national teams, last week invited players from both teams to negotiate a more equitable split in FIFA prize money paid to men and women. … Catarina Macario, the future of the women’s national team, has four goals in in her first five games for French club Lyon.
“It’s another steppingstone. We’re still not there. We’re still one spot out of the playoff[s]. We’re trying to push this streak and go into the playoffs with a streak. So it’s a great win, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
LAFC’s Sebastien Ibeagha on the team’s win over Real Salt Lake, which left it just one spot outside the Western Conference playoff field
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