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Soccer newsletter: Big challenges loom for LAFC, USWNT and USMNT

Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sánchez kicks the ball during a 2020 match against the San Jose Earthquakes
LAFC has discussed potentially signing Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sánchez, a source told The Times.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to the first L.A. Times soccer newsletter of 2022. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and we start the new year with a look at how LAFC and the men’s and women’s national teams are preparing for what will be a busy season.

For LAFC, whose players will begin reporting to training camp this weekend, it will be a year of transition. Bob Bradley, who led the team to one of the most successful starts for an expansion franchise in MLS history, is gone and was replaced by Steve Cherundolo. Also gone are more than a dozen players who were on the roster at one time in 2021, among them former MLS All-Stars Mark-Anthony Kaye, Diego Rossi and Eduard Atuesta.

And more, among them captain Carlos Vela, could be leaving before summer starts.

The winter, general manager John Thorrington said, has been his busiest since 2018, when he was putting together the first roster in franchise history. He had to replace his manager and much of the coaching staff; decided not to re-sign two of his three goalkeepers; sold Atuesta to Brazilian club Palmeiras and began negotiations on a contract extension with Vela — negotiations both sides have reason to hope fail.

“There are more changes than is normal for us in an offseason,” he said. “And then you add to that the process of finalizing and securing the head coach.”

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Bradley, the only manager LAFC has known, announced he was leaving the team 11 days after failing to qualify it for the playoffs last November, kicking off what Thorrington said was a thorough and exhaustive search for his replacement. But that process really began last winter when he lured Cherundolo home from Germany to coach the Las Vegas Lights, LAFC’s affiliate in the second-tier USL Championship.

The question at the time was why would a highly respected former Bundesliga assistant coach leave the German youth national team program to take over a fledgling development team in a second-division U.S. league? Well, one reason was Bradley was entering the final year of his contract when Cherundolo arrived — and days after Bradley’s departure he emerged as the favorite to replace him.

“This has always been part of the potential succession plan. Exactly when it would materialize was unknown when he came,” said Thorrington, who made his U.S. senior national team debut in 2001 as a second-half substitute for Cherundolo. “But it was not just happenstance that Steve was here at LAFC.”

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Nor is it just happenstance that Cherundolo is well-positioned to lead the team into what the coach and general manager went to great pains to deny would be a rebuilding year.

“I don’t think I would use that word,” the coach said. “I don’t think the number of changes means that we’re rebuilding. The trick in building rosters is not going out and trying to replace players with somebody else. It’s always a matter of mixing and matching people’s personality with character and qualities on the field.”

However, just giving the task ahead another name (the general manager, for the record, prefers “evolution”) doesn’t change the fact that LAFC is beginning the first significant transition in the team’s short history. For starters, the switch from the gruff, unsmiling and uber-serious Bradley to the affable Cherundolo is bound to influence the team’s culture. And when Thorrington completes the sale of Rossi to Turkish club Fenerbahçe, just two players — Vela and midfielder Latif Blessing — will remain from the 2018 roster.

Vela soon could join the exodus. The forward, who turns 32 in March and was the best-paid player in MLS last year with a guaranteed salary of $6.3 million, is coming off two injury-plagued seasons. In November the team exercised a contract option that will keep him under club control until June, giving LAFC five months to work out a transfer before the summer window opens. Any extension that would keep Vela with LAFC beyond that would have to an include a sizable discount, a team executive confirmed.

Another sign that Vela could be on his way out came from Thorrington, who said the team was looking to fill the designated-player spot Rossi is vacating with a veteran attacker who would provide scoring punch in addition to character and leadership.

In other words, another Vela. An LAFC executive confirmed the team has discussed former Sporting Kansas City midfielder Ilie Sánchez, 31, a free agent from Spain who got his soccer start at Barcelona. There are reports LAFC may be interested in former USMNT World Cup player Julian Green, who is in Germany

An announcement on a signing is expected early this week.

Los Angeles FC goalkeeper Tomas Romero jumps to stop a shot against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
Los Angeles FC goalkeeper Tomas Romero stops a shot against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

But that’s not the only hole the general manager has to fill. LAFC figures to start camp with 21-year-old Tomas Romero as the only keeper with MLS experience and with center back Eddie Segura working his way back from season-ending knee surgery. (Questions about Segura’s fitness and the depth at center back may have influenced the decision to acquire Argentine defender Franco Escobar from Atlanta United last month.)

In the midfield, last summer’s trade of Kaye and this winter’s sale of Atuesta, a two-dimensional No. 6, leaves the team lacking star power and depth, which is where the interest in Sánchez comes from. The team figures to start the season with one of the league’s most explosive attacking trios in Brian Rodríguez, Cristian Arango and Vela, but of the forwards behind them only two — Danny Musovski and the newly acquired Ismael Tajouri-Shradi — have played more than eight games in MLS.

Whichever way the team goes, LAFC has plenty of resources to fill those holes. Roster moves beginning last summer helped Thorrington shed more than $4 million in payroll obligations from 2021 — a number that could grow substantially depending on what happens with Vela. The team also picked up nearly $2 million in allocation money in the trades of Kaye, Corey Baird and Bryce Duke over the last six months.

“We are in a strong position to improve the team, which is what we plan to do,” Thorrington said.

Whether Cherundolo counts as an improvement remains to be seen; he certainly has massive shoes to fill.

Las Vegas went 6-23-3 in his only season as manager, but that was a year in which the focus was on development more than winning, he said. This year as many as eight of the players Cherundolo developed with the Lights could see significant minutes with LAFC, something Thorrington said gives the team “a large degree of continuity.”

Cherundolo also brings patience to the job, something he’ll likely need as LAFC rebuilds … er, evolves. Bradley, now the manager in Toronto, unquestionably is one of the top coaches not just in MLS but in U.S. Soccer history, but his grinding, demanding approach to the game wore thin in L.A. and made him ill-suited for leading a makeover.

Cherundolo’s pedigree as a youth coach, on the other hand, brings a welcome change, even as he pledges to play the same possession-based attacking kind of game.

“Steve has a unique personality. You hear about it from all the players he’s played with, from players he’s coached, both with Vegas and players in Germany,” said Thorrington, who roomed with Cherundolo when both played for U.S. age-group national teams.

“Steve has an amazing ability to connect with people. Young players nowadays greatly benefit from the way Steve will be able to connect with them.”

Great expectations await USMNT, USWNT

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter reacts after defeating Mexico 2-0 during a FIFA World Cup qualifying match
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter reacts after defeating Mexico 2-0 during a FIFA World Cup qualifying match on Nov. 12 in Cincinnati.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

The year could be even more consequential for the two U.S. national teams, both of which face World Cup qualifying campaigns. And if the men make the cut, which they didn’t do in 2017, they’ll be returning to the world championship tournament in November in Qatar.

Gregg Berhalter’s team, trailing unbeaten Canada by a point atop the CONCACAF table eight games into the 14-game tournament, returns to qualifying Jan. 27, when it plays host to El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. will follow that by facing Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, then three days later finish the first FIFA window of the year against Honduras in St. Paul, Minn.

El Salvador and Honduras have one win between them and have been outscored by 16 goals combined in the tournament, so anything less than six points from those two games — both at home — would be a major disappointment for the Americans. That also would turn up the pressure for the final three qualifiers — with Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica — in March. The top three finishers in the qualifying tournament earn automatic berths in the World Cup.

Because many of his domestic-based players were unengaged since the last round of qualifiers in November, Berhalter held a short training camp in January, then called 20 players into a “preparation camp” that opened last Friday in Phoenix. The core of the roster remains in Europe but will rejoin the team on Jan. 23 ahead of the game with El Salvador.

Berhalter used 57 players last year when the U.S. went 17-2-3. (One of those 57 was Ricardo Pepi, 18, who made his international debut in September. Last weekend, days after completing a $20 million transfer to Augsburg, he became the seventh American to play in the Bundesliga before turning 19 when he came on in the second half of Saturday’s 3-1 loss to Hoffenheim.)

The U.S. also beat Mexico three times and won the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Nations League last year. But all that will mean little if the U.S. can’t finish the job and win a trip to Qatar.

CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table

Pts. W-L-T GF GA GD

Canada 16 4-0-4 13 6 7

U.S. 15 4-1-3 12 5 7

Mexico 14 4-2-2 11 7 4

Panama 14 4-2-2 11 9 2

Costa Rica 9 2-3-3 6 7 -2

Jamaica 7 1-3-4 6 10 -4

El Salvador 6 1-4-3 4 10 -6

Honduras 3 0-5-3 5 15 -10

Next games

Jan. 27

U.S. vs. El Salvador

Costa Rica vs. Panama

Jamaica vs. Mexico

Honduras vs. Canada

Jan. 30

U.S. at Canada

Mexico vs. Costa Rica

Honduras vs. El Salvador

Panama vs. Jamaica

Feb. 2

U.S. vs. Honduras

Jamaica vs. Costa Rica

Mexico vs. Panama

El Salvador vs. Canada

U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski gestures to his players during a match against Australia
U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski gestures to his players during a match against Australia at Stadium Australia in Sydney on Nov. 27.
(Mark Baker / Associated Press)

The women’s team, in transition after a disappointing third-place finish in last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, will begin its new year next month at Dignity Health Sports Park when it kicks off the four-team SheBelieves Cup against the Czech Republic. That will mark the beginning of a busy five months for coach Vlatko Andonovski, who needs to rejuvenate his roster ahead of this July’s CONCACAF W Championship, which will serve as a qualifying tournament for the 2023 Women’s World Cup and 2024 Olympics.

The U.S. fielded the oldest team in the Tokyo Games, and even with the retirement of Carli Lloyd, 39, Andonovski still has 13 players aged 30 or over in 40-woman player pool. Four of them — Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath — are at forward, where the team desperately needs to get younger.

One player who appears ready to step up in Ashley Hatch, a 26-year-old from San Dimas who marked her first two international starts by scoring two of the Americans’ four goals in November’s two-match visit to Australia.

“SheBelieves will be extremely valuable for the continued development of the team,” Andonovski said. “When we are integrating newer players, we need as many games as possible.”

The coach probably would prefer stiffer opponents — the U.S. is 28-1-3 against the Czech Republic, Iceland and New Zealand, the other teams in the competition, having outscored those teams 108-13 combined.

The SheBelieves Cup was launched in 2016 when Jill Ellis, then coach of the top-ranked national team, determined the U.S. wasn’t getting any better beating up on the likes of Mexico, Costa Rica and Trinidad & Tobago, as it had the year before. So it invited Germany, France and England — all ranked in the top five in the world by FIFA — to play in a week-long tournament in the U.S.

Over the next five years SheBelieves also drew Canada, the reigning Olympic champion; Japan; Brazil; and Spain. But this winter England launched a tournament of its own for the same dates and landed Germany, France and Canada as its opponents.

MLS: It means My Last Stand for some World Cup hopefuls

Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne runs during a Europa League Group C soccer match
Napoli’s Lorenzo Insigne runs during a Europa League Group C soccer match against Leicester City on Sept.16.
(Rui Vieira / Associated Press)

There may be more to Lorenzo Insigne’s recent decision to leave Italy’s Napoli this summer for Toronto FC than the reported $15 million annual salary, more than double the MLS-record $7.2 million the Galaxy gave Zlatan Ibrahimovic in 2018.

Insigne, who will be 31 when he joins Toronto, scored 19 Serie A goals in the 2020-21 season, which he capped by winning a European Championship with Italy. But of the 11 players Insigne is battling for a roster spot on the country’s World Cup team, only Ciro Immobile, 31, is older than Insigne.

So coming to MLS in the summer and playing weekly through the end of the regular season, which concludes 16 days before the first winter World Cup in Qatar, could provide Insigne with the best chance to prove — and maintain — his fitness in the hope of making his second World Cup team. Staying in Serie A would mean he’d be just a few weeks removed from training camp when Italy’s World Cup roster is chosen.

Then after the tournament, Insigne will return to Toronto to finish out his playing days with a lucrative four-year contract. There’s really little downside to the move, which makes it a trend to keep an eye on during the summer transfer window.

“I have sensed a heightened urgency for players that have their thoughts into the World Cup and how they can best prepare for that,” Thorrington said. “I have also fielded called with that in mind from foreign players, from guys in South America, from players in Europe and their agents thinking that this is an ideal option for a player to come in and play on a big stage and prepare themselves for the World Cup.”

Insigne may need the extra time to prove his health more than most. A day after signing his landmark deal with MLS, he was subbed off 29 minutes into Napoli’s 1-0 win over Sampdoria with an apparent groin injury, the third in a series of recent issues. In November he had a knee tendinopathy issue followed by a minor calf contracture. In December, he tested positive for COVID-19.

AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic gestures during a Serie A match against Napoli on Dec. 19.
(Antonio Calanni / Associated Press)

And finally there’s this …

Speaking of Ibrahimovic, he continues to defy age despite turning 40 last October. His goal in the second minute of AC Milan’s 3-0 win over Venezia on Sunday gave him a team-leading eight in 13 Serie A games. His team trails crosstown rival Inter Milan by one point in the Italian table. The score also gave Ibrahimovic goals against 80 teams in Europe’s top five leagues (La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga, English Premier League and Ligue 1), matching Cristiano Ronaldo’s record. Ibrahimovic also scored league goals against 19 MLS teams and 17 teams in the Dutch Eredivisie, beginning with a go-ahead goal for Ajax in a win over Feyenoord in August, 2001 … Despite Friday’s 2-1 loss to Monchengladbach, Bayern Munich (14-3-1) has so dominated the Bundesliga that fourth-place Freiburg is nearer the relegation zone than it is the top of the table. The ageless Robert Lewandowski, 33, scored Bayern’s only goal in the loss, his European-leading 20th of the season in 18 league matches. That keeps him on pace to win his fifth consecutive German scoring title. It also would be his seventh Golden Boot in nine seasons. Gerd Muller is the only other player to win seven Bundesliga scoring titles … Remember when Real Madrid-Barcelona used to be a rivalry? Twenty-one games into the Spanish season, first-place Real Madrid (15-2-4) not only leads sixth-place Barcelona (8-4-8) by 17 points in the table, but Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, with a combined 29 goals, have scored just two fewer times than the entire Barcelona roster.

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

“Stepping down as president — a job I loved — was deeply humbling. I’m running for U.S. Soccer president because I believe that the years ahead will be the most important period in the history of our federation and a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform soccer in America for decades to come. We need to prepare to host the FIFA World Cup 2026, the largest World Cup ever and one of the most complex global sporting events ever held. The eyes of the world will be upon us, and we need to be ready to shine.”

Former USSF president Carlos Cordeiro, announcing his intention to run for re-election to the post he forfeited in March 2020, days after the federation’s lawyers included disparaging remarks in legal briefs filed in an equal-pay lawsuit with the women’s national team. Voting for the next president will be held at U.S. Soccer’s national council meeting March 5 in Atlanta

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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