Soccer newsletter: Young players continue to standout on USMNT
MINNEAPOLIS — Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter; I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we take a look at Tim Weah scoring by passing up a shot, coach John Herdman turning Canada into a destination for soccer players and the Galaxy’s big, BIG gamble with Douglas Costa.
But first CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, where another young American announced his presence with authority in last week’s 3-0 win over a near-frozen Honduran team in St. Paul, Minn., the only game in U.S. soccer history in which the final score was higher than the temperature, which was -1 at the final whistle.
So far in this qualifying cycle the U.S. has seen young players such as Ricardo Pepi, Yunus Musah, Antonee “Jedi” Robinson and Brenden Aaronson, among others, emerge from relative obscurity with brilliant performances.
Against Honduras it was Luca de la Torre’s turn.
“In some ways, I worked my whole life for this,” said De la Torre, who was a dynamic presence in the midfield in his first international start.
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“I feel like I deserved that opportunity for a long time,” he added. “I’ve been in good form for my club, and every time I got the chance with the national team in the substitute appearances I felt I did well. Today I just did my best. And then it’s the manager’s decision, but I’m happy with the way I played, so I can live with whatever happens after that.”
De la Torre was tasked with bringing the ball forward and he did that well, unlocking the Honduran lines with precision passes. He also drew three fouls, two of which led to set-piece goals.
“He definitely had a great game,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “[He] was confident on the ball and made the right decisions and really grew into the game as it went on. You could tell once he started having some successful dribbles he just kept growing into the game and definitely became a big, bright spot for us.”
For anyone who has been following youth soccer in Southern California, the name already was familiar. De la Torre grew up in San Diego — where his parents are scientists — and played for the Nomad Soccer Club and San Diego Surf before joining the Fulham academy in 2013, after his freshman year at Torrey Pines High. His father is Spanish and De la Torre holds a Spanish passport, which eased his move to Europe and made him eligible to play for Spain. But he apparently never took that option seriously and made 43 appearances with the U-17 and U-20 national teams, followed by his senior team debut in 2018.
Coach Gregg Berhalter earlier had praised De la Torre’s talents at breaking lines on the dribble and his abilities in combination play. De la Torre also is fast enough to run by defenders when he can, and quick-thinking enough to find other solutions when he can’t.
But Berhalter used him for just 14 minutes off the bench in his only qualifying appearance and didn’t even call him up for the two-game November window. However, with Tyler Adams unavailable against Honduras with a hamstring strain, Berhalter reworked his midfield by sitting Musah and using De la Torre in his place on the frozen tundra at Allianz Field. And De la Torre made the most of the opportunity.
“Luca is a great story. It’s a great story of a guy who has been patient in finding a level he can compete at in week in and week out,” said Berhalter, who called De la Torre’s performance “excellent, exceptional” and said the coaches had chosen him as their man of the match.
De la Torre, who is playing in the Dutch Eredivisie for Hercules, where he is second in starts and minutes played, said he felt comfortable both in the extreme cold and with his teammates, many of whom he frequently played with on age-group teams.
“We’ve been playing together since we were like 13, so it’s quite easy to fit in with those guys,” he said. “And when we play like we did today, it’s enjoyable.”
The question now is what happens next? On Berhalter’s midfield depth chart, De la Torre apparently has supplanted Sebastian Lletget, who didn’t dress for the first two games of the last window and didn’t get off the bench for the third. But he’s probably still behind Musah, who sat out the Honduras game after starting in seven consecutive qualifiers.
What happens next with the team is even more important. To advance directly to the World Cup, the U.S. must finish in the top three in the eight-team tournament, and it will enter the final qualifying window in March well-placed to do that. But with just four points separating the three teams competing for CONCACAF’s final two World Cup berths — Canada probably has the top spot wrapped up — it’s far from a sure thing.
The Americans, second to Canada in the table at 6-2-3, will open the March window in Mexico, which trails the U.S. on goal differential, then play Panama in Orlando, Fla.
Win both and the U.S. is on its way to Qatar. Lose or draw both and the U.S. could go to Costa Rica for the final game needing a win just to finish fourth and qualify for an inter-confederation playoff, where a final World Cup spot will be up for grabs.
“[We’re] happy as we move into the next window,” Berhalter said after the Honduras game. “Now we’re in position and it’s about closing out in the next window.”
A sporting call
A remarkable decision by U.S. forward Tim Weah to pass up an easy goal in the name of sportsmanship and concern for an injured Honduran player in the second half of last week’s game hasn’t received nearly the attention and praise it deserved.
In the 59th minute, with the U.S. leading 2-0 and comfortably in control, Jordan Morris got off a strong right-footed shot from outside the box that back-up goalkeeper Edrick Menjivar parried off to his left with two hands. Menjivar — who was in the game only because starter Luis López left at halftime with hypothermia — and Weah raced after the loose ball with Weah arriving first and getting off a right-footed shot of his own that struck Menjivar on the side of the head from close range.
The ball caromed high into the air and dropped back at Weah’s feet at the end line. With Menjivar still on the ground with an apparent head injury, a pass from Weah to any of three wide-open attackers in the penalty area would have produced an easy U.S. goal. Instead, Weah took two touches, placed his foot atop the ball for a moment to size up the situation, then nudged the ball out of bounds with the side of his foot.
The other 20 players on the field who weren’t on the ground seemed stunned, as did Weah, who offered a palms-up shrug as if to say, “What was I supposed to do?”
As Weah headed over to check on Menjivar a number of Honduran players – including the substitutes who were warming up in the area – came over to shake his hand and a few teammates slapped him on the back as well.
Here’s video of the play courtesy of Fox Sports:
U.S. forward Tim Weah nudges the ball out of bounds to stop play after Honduras goalkeeper Edrick Menjivar is goes down with an injury.
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table
Pts. W-L-T GF GA GD
Canada 25 7-0-4 19 5 14
U.S. 21 6-2-3 16 7 9
Mexico 21 6-2-3 14 8 6
Panama 17 5-4-2 14 13 1
Costa Rica 16 4-3-4 8 7 1
El Salvador 9 2-6-3 6 13 -7
Jamaica 7 1-6-4 9 16 -7
Honduras 3 0-8-3 5 22 -17
U.S. 3, Honduras 0
Costa Rica 1, Jamaica 0
Mexico 1, Panama 0
Canada 2, El Salvador 0
U.S. at Mexico
Panama vs. Honduras
Jamaica vs. El Salvador
Costa Rica vs. Canada
Panama at U.S. (Orlando, Fla.)
Canada vs. Jamaica
Honduras vs. Mexico
El Salvador vs. Costa Rica
U.S. at Costa Rica
Panama vs. Canada
Mexico vs. El Salvador
Jamaica vs. Honduras
O Canada! Our home and adopted land!
Speaking of World Cup qualifying, unbeaten Canada will go into the final window needing a draw at Costa Rica or a Panama loss or draw against visiting Honduras to clinch its first berth in the quadrennial tournament since 1986. And goalkeeper Milan Borjan, whose 61 caps are tied for third among active players, knows the reason for the turnaround.
“I can just say two words,” he said. “John Herdman.”
Herdman, who coached Canada to the quarterfinals of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, took over the perpetually struggling men’s program in 2018 and immediately began turning things around.
Canada’s low international profile has always made it tough for the national team to schedule quality opponents and it played just four times that first year. But it won all four – albeit against poor competition – without allowing a goal. It hasn’t looked back since while losing just six of 38 games under Herdman.
Canada ran the table in its penultimate round of World Cup qualifying. It beat its six qualifying opponents by a combined score of 31-1; made the semifinals of the 2021 Gold Cup, its best finish in 14 years, and is the only team that has yet to lose in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
It has scored the most goals in the tournament, given up the fewest and by far is the most confident team in the competition, something the players credit to their coach.
“John does a great job of setting us up tactically,” defender Sam Adekugbe said. “But on top of that, he has a very flexible formation and tactics. We’re able to get the best out of each other.”
Herdman’s success and style is turning the Canadian program around in other ways, too. Rather than fleeing the national team, players are now flocking to it. In last week’s 2-0 win over the U.S., for example, Herdman used four players who are dual nationals, meaning they were eligible to play elsewhere but chose to play for Canada. Among them were Borjan, who has a tournament-leading five shutouts in eight games, and U.S.-born forward Jonathan David, who immigrated to Canada from Haiti.
The youthful and enthusiastic Herdman, 46, said he expects that trend to continue.
“We’ve got a high immigrant population. Many of those people have come from football countries,” he said. “Marco Flores might be looking, after this [U.S.] game and, you know, wondering whether he wants to play for Mexico or Canada.”
Flores, 18, born in Canada to an English mother and a Mexican father, had his choice of three national teams and chose Mexico. He made his international debut in the 83rd minute of a friendly with Chile last December. But he isn’t cap-tied to El Tri, meaning he still could petition FIFA for a change of affiliation and play for Canada.
“This is what we’re starting to provoke across the world, when these dual-passport players are looking at where they pledge their international futures. All of this is important to our success,” said Herdman, an immigrant himself who was born in England and got his managerial debut with the New Zealand women’s team, which he took to two World Cups.
It makes a difference, the Yugoslav-born Borjan said, when you’re playing for a country because you want to, not because you have no other options.
“Canada gave my family everything. It gave them a better life, gave them good schools, everything,” said Borjan, whose family was forced from their home by the Croatian civil war and eventually was welcomed in Canada when he was 13. “So this is the way, my way to return [that] to Canada. I think it’s the same with all other guys.
“Canada is a multicultural country and we fight for what’s given to us. Canada gave us peace, a better life, everything. And this is the just the way for us to return it to Canada, bringing them to the World Cup. When somebody gives you that much love you have to return it. And we’re doing our best to return that love to this amazing country.”
English-language TV audience for the six home U.S. qualifiers
U.S.-Mexico (ESPN2), 1.315 million
U.S.-Honduras (FS1), 843,000
U.S.-Canada (FS1), 776,000
U.S.-El Salvador (ESPN2), 727,000
U.S.-Costa Rica (ESPN2), 651,000
U.S.-Jamaica (ESPN2), 596,000
Source: Soccer America
The 15 countries that have qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar:
Qatar, Germany, Denmark, Brazil, France, Belgium, Croatia, Spain, Serbia, England, Switzerland, Netherlands, Argentina, Iran, South Korea.
That list includes the Final Four from 2018 in defending champion France, runner-up Croatia, third-place Belgium and England. South Korea’s qualification makes it the sixth nation to play in 10 consecutive World Cups after Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina and Spain.
Will Galaxy’s roll of the dice come up snake eyes?
The Galaxy’s acquisition of former Brazilian international Douglas Costa to a multiyear contract is a huge gamble, one with an immense upside but also one with an equally large downside.
(The Galaxy, by the way, have not confirmed the deal but they’re about the only ones who haven’t. The player made no secret of it, posting a selfie on social media that shows him wearing a Galaxy jersey and standing in front of a palm tree. Confirmation of the deal has also been widely reported elsewhere on the internet and even Wikipedia last week updated its Costa page to list him as a Galaxy player.)
It will be entirely up to Costa to determine how this turns out.
There’s no doubting Costa’s talents, but his age alone – he’ll be 33 by the time his contract expires after the 2023 season – make the signing risky. Then there’s the money, reportedly $5 million, which would have made him the fourth-best-paid player in MLS last season. The signing, which will reportedly begin with a six-month loan, also will leave the Galaxy without a designated-player spot. (All those figures are unconfirmed, however, since the Galaxy remains coyly mum.)
Another potential problem is Costa’s mercurial nature. He won 21 trophies in Europe with Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayern Munich and Juventus, but he was playing on loan with Gremio, a team that had dropped to the Brazilian second division when the Galaxy opened talks with his agent.
Galaxy coach Greg Vanney appeared to acknowledge the peril in the deal.
“Costa was – and is – one of the best players in the world when he’s fully fit and ready to go. We all know who he is,” Vanney said last month.
But the Galaxy also know Costa can be something much less when he’s not fit and not ready to go. His discipline, mentality and consistency have been frequently questioned throughout his career, which partly explains how he went from a Champions League quarterfinalist in Germany to a second-tier team in Brazil in less than a year.
While with Juventus, for example, he was involved in an auto accident, then flew to Paris to attend a birthday party for Neymar, a Brazilian teammate. Technically none of that broke any team rules, but it was considered reckless and unprofessional by many around the club.
Injuries have been an even bigger drag on his career. Costa has made more than 27 league appearances in a season just once in his career, and two years ago he said he hired a mental coach to help him deal with the side effects of his injuries that had him considering retirement.
Given the difficulties of travel in MLS, which will be compounded by a compacted schedule in this World Cup year, Costa’s fitness could be a season-long issue for the Galaxy.
Of greater concern is the fact the Galaxy have made this exact same bet in the past and lost. They signed Steven Gerrard for $6.13 million for 2016, only to have injuries limit him to just 18 starts during a season in which he flew back to Europe to do TV commentary. And Gio dos Santos struggled – often unsuccessfully – to stay healthy and motivated during his four seasons with the team, a stay that ended with the Galaxy paying him $6 million to leave rather than stay for the 2019 campaign.
MLS can be a difficult league, even for great players. The travel and schedule are exhausting, the weather extremes in a continent-sized country, even in summer, can be trying, the play is more physical than many top-tier leagues and the surfaces, both natural and artificial, are uneven at best.
The Galaxy apparently learned from those earlier experiences since Costa’s deal is being reported as a six-month loan followed by a 1 ½-year contract, which could limit the damage – if there is any.
Costa is a great player, as were Gerrard and Dos Santos, and his greatness may take MLS by storm. But his history offers little certainty that this deal is anything more than another roll of the dice.
And it’s one the team once again has wagered heavily on.
And finally there’s this …
Last week the Columbus Crew traded midfielder Sebastian Berhalter, son of Gregg Berhalter, the national team coach, to Vancouver, where he joined midfielder Jay Herdman, the son of Canadian national team coach John… CONCACAF’s player of the year nominees include four Americans: midfielder Weston McKennie and forward Christian Pulisic on the men’s side and winger Crystal Dunn and midfielder Lindsey Horan on the women’s side. Other finalists for the men’s award are Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies of Canada, Hirving Lozano of Mexico and Jamaica’s Michail Antonio. The women’s field includes Canadians Stephanie Labbe, Christine Sinclair and Jessie Fleming – who also played at UCLA – and Mexico’s Stephany Mayor…. Diego Rossi, scoreless since Oct. 17, has apparently worn out his welcome with Turkish club Fenerbahçe, which may seek to return him to LAFC when his loan runs out in June…. Angel City will make its NWSL debut March 19 at Cal State Fullerton, where it will open the Challenge Cup against the San Diego Wave.
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.
“The boys never gave up….it just shows that if you work hard, if you persevere, you will get what you want.”
Senegal coach Aliou Cissé after his team beat Egypt on penalty kicks to win its first Africa Cup of Nations title
Until next time...
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