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Soccer newsletter: An important week if U.S. men’s national team wants to make the World Cup

United States coach Gregg Berhalter.
United States coach Gregg Berhalter.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)
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MEXICO CITY — Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. Today we’ll be talking about Angel City’s historic debut, LAFC’s record-tying start and the Galaxy’s latest stumble.

But we start with the U.S. national team, which returns to World Cup qualifying Thursday with a chance to punch its ticket to this fall’s tournament in Qatar.

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The next three games are the most important of coach Gregg Berhalter‘s managerial career, but at least his team is in charge of its fate. Take five points from the matches with Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica, and the U.S. is back in the World Cup after missing out in 2018 for the first time in nearly four decades.

Anything less than that and … well, it gets complicated and may require the U.S. getting friendly results elsewhere. There’s even one not-so-far-fetched scenario in which the U.S. would go into the final qualifier next week in Costa Rica needing a win to keep its World Cup hopes alive.

And the Americans enter this crucial final stretch missing three key players in midfielder Weston McKennie, outside back Sergiño Dest and forward Brenden Aaronson, all of whom are out with injuries. Dest and Aaronson both went down in the last week, which scrambled Berhalter’s roster plans.

Yet the coach remains confident the team will get the job done.

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“We’re prepared,” he said. “As we enter this final window, we know there’s going to be challenges involved. We know there’s going to be ups, we know there’s going to be downs, but we’re in good position.”

Tyler Adams, left, and Gio Reyna celebrate with their gold medals in the CONCACAF Nations League last year.
Tyler Adams, left, and Gio Reyna celebrate with their gold medals in the CONCACAF Nations League last year.
(Associated Press)

The U.S. (6-2-3), second to unbeaten Canada in the eight-team table, must place in the top three to automatically qualify for Qatar. And with a four-point lead over fourth-place Panama and a five-point advantage over fifth-place Costa Rica, the Americans control their own destiny. But the road remaining is a tough one with games in Mexico and Costa Rica, where the U.S. has never won a qualifier, sandwiched around a home match with Panama, which already has beaten the Americans in this tournament.

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Plus playing three games in seven days, starting with one at altitude, will put a premium on depth, which is not exactly an American strength right now. In addition to missing McKennie, Dest and Aaronson, Berhalter is without goalkeeper Matt Turner. He also has questions about a number of other players coming back from injury, among them attacker Gio Reyna, who played 90 minutes Sunday for the first time since early September, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who played Sunday for the first time since Jan. 7.

And Tyler Adams, who isn’t injured, has played just 81 minutes in RB Leipzig’s last seven Bundesliga games. All that will put more pressure on Reyna, Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah in these three games.

“For us, it’s not trying to get cute. It’s trying to put teams on the field in each game we think can win the game,” Berhalter said. “The beauty of this thing is we have five subs and when we’re in Mexico City we’re going to use all five subs. And then it’s about, how are we planning for the next game.

“For us it’s only about staying in the moment, not getting ahead of ourselves and focusing on each training session and each game as they come,” he added. “If we do that, we will be successful.”

The U.S. squad is a young one and opened camp Monday with an average age of just over 24 years and an average of 12 appearances per player in competitive games.

No one on the team has been to a World Cup, something Berhalter could have rectified by calling up Wolfsburg center back John Brooks, who last played for the U.S. in September. Brooks missed the October qualifiers with an injury and Berhalter left him off the team in November and January because he said he was unhappy with Brooks’ form.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no road back.

“What we chose to do this window doesn’t determine his future with the national team. And I think that’s a very important distinction,” Berhalter said. “All these guys who weren’t included in the initial roster doesn’t mean that they don’t have a role to play in the future. So we did what we thought was best for this window in a way we want to play.”

Brooks appears to have gotten the message.

“Months ago, I accepted responsibility for my play and the decision that kept me off a roster,” he told ESPN commentator Derek Rae. “Now, I’m happy I’ve regained my form but unfortunately, I wasn’t invited to camp. I accept this as the coach’s decision, but I won’t accept that I can’t change this before the final World Cup roster selections.”

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The U.S. isn’t the only team that has everything to play for in this qualifying window. Mexico, which also has 21 points with three games left, faces the identical scenario as the U.S. but with the added challenge of a three-score deficit in goal differential to the Americans.

Mexico coach Tata Martino sits in his office at El Tri's training facility.
(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

El Tri hasn’t missed the World Cup since 1990, and if it loses to the U.S. on Thursday, Telemundo soccer analyst Miguel Gurwitz, who has covered the team for two decades, said it could cost coach Tata Martino his job. The U.S. beat Mexico three times last year — all in competitive matches — and three of Martino’s seven losses as Mexico’s coach have come against the U.S.

Those are the games Mexico wants most to win.

“For Mexico, this is a very important game,” Gurwitz said. “I think he’s playing a lot [for his] future in this game. I don’t think the Mexican [soccer] federation is thinking further than this 90 minutes.”

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

Next games

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Thursday
U.S. at Mexico
Panama vs. Honduras
Jamaica vs. El Salvador
Costa Rica vs. Canada

Sunday
Panama vs. U.S., at Orlando, Fla.
Canada vs. Jamaica
Honduras vs. Mexico
El Salvador vs. Costa Rica

Wed., March 30
U.S. at Costa Rica
Panama vs. Canada
Mexico vs. El Salvador
Jamaica vs. Honduras

Angel City-San Diego: How’s that for starters?

The result on the scoreboard really didn’t matter Saturday when top-tier women’s pro soccer finally returned to Southern California. Just kicking off the NWSL Challenge Cup game between Angel City and San Diego was cause for celebration — and it certainly wasn’t a party either team wanted to spoil with a loss.

So, fittingly, the match ended in a 1-1 draw.

Angel City FC's Jasmyne Spencer, left, and San Diego Wave FC's Kelsey Turnbow fight for the ball
Angel City FC’s Jasmyne Spencer, left, and San Diego Wave FC’s Kelsey Turnbow fight for the ball
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“Angel City playing, it’s huge, right?” Angel City coach Freya Coombe said after the game at Cal State Fullerton. “This has been months since the idea of ACFC came to mind, and now it’s in fruition. An amazing moment to get the first ball kicked in the first official competition.”

For San Diego’s Alex Morgan, who played high school soccer less than 10 miles away in Diamond Bar, Saturday’s game was long overdue.

“It’s so great to play in California in general and then just being 15 minutes away from where I grew up is really fun,” she said. “I have a lot of memories on this field, and then to see a packed stadium, to play our first official game of the year in front of this many fans, was really fun.

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“It was time for a team or multiple teams in California. I might be biased [but] I think Southern California is the mecca of youth soccer.”

Attendance was announced at 6,307 and those who were there made their presence felt.

Angel City FC supporters cheer in the stand at a game
Angel City FC supporter groups cheer on their team.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“We talked about it during warm-ups. We couldn’t hear each other speak, which is amazing for a Challenge Cup preseason game that isn’t even in our home stadium yet,” Angel City midfielder Savannah McCaskill said. “It’s an incredible atmosphere.”

As for the game, McCaskill gave Angel City the first goal and first lead in franchise history in the 49th minute, heading in a long, left-footed Ali Riley cross from the edge of the six-yard goal area. Second-half substitute Kaleigh Riehl matched that for San Diego in the 81st minute, when she deflected in Marleen Schimmer’s corner kick.

Now that the formalities are out of the way and both expansion teams have a game under their belts, it’s time to get down to business. Angel City will continue group play in the Challenge Cup by hosting Rose Lavelle and the OL Reign at Titan Stadium on Saturday, the same day San Diego plays Christine Sinclair and the Portland Thorns at the University of San Diego.

“There were some great things and there were some things to build off of and to improve on coming out of this match. Going forward, that’s what we’re going to address,” Angel City defender Vanessa Gilles said after the draw with San Diego. “We were exposed in ways that we haven’t been before.

“It’s a first for us all being on this team and we are all still getting to know each other.”

LAFC chasing records again. The Galaxy? Not so much

LAFC’s decision to make Steve Cherundolo its manager after Bob Bradley’s departure last year wasn’t universally welcomed by the team’s supporters. Cherundolo was one of the top defenders in national team history, but he’d never played or coached in MLS and in his one season as a coach in the U.S., his Las Vegas Lights went 6-23-3 in the second-tier USL Championship.

Four games into this season, however, he’s more than proved those doubters wrong. After Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, LAFC (3-0-1) not only is unbeaten, but it also leads the Western Conference and Supporters’ Shield standings while its two goals allowed are second fewest in the league.

And Cherundolo said the team hasn’t even hit stride yet.

“We can get much better. That’s something that I shared with the guys after the game,” he said. “We are satisfied with the effort, with the reaction, with the result. But we are not satisfied yet with our play throughout the course of the 90 minutes.”

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The 10-point start to the season matches that of the 2019 team, which went on to win the Supporters’ Shield and break the regular-season league record for points. That also was the season Carlos Vela broke the single-season scoring record with 34 goals.

With a first-half goal Sunday, Vela has scored four times this season, one ahead of the pace he set in 2019. He also had an assist against Vancouver, giving him 61 goals and 36 assists in 90 regular-season games. His four goals in 282 minutes this season are tied for most in MLS.

Vancouver goalkeeper Thomas Hasal allows a goal by LAFC's Ryan Hollingshead.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The other two goals Sunday came from new acquisition Ryan Hollingshead, the first two-goal game of his career.

“I’ve been saving it for L.A.,” he said. “It’s a good feeling. As a defender, I’m not in goal-scoring opportunities enough.”

Cherundolo and Hollingshead weren’t the only pieces LAFC added over the winter. Two of the team’s assistant coaches and five of the players who played Sunday weren’t here last season.

Cherundolo said a February trip to the desert helped the team bond.

“Any time you have a lot of fluctuation in the offseason, you’re going to want to first form a group,” he said. “I think our five days in Palm Springs in the preseason was super important for this group and for us as a staff as well.

“This group needed it and wanted it. “

Many players agreed.

“It was special. I came in, I think, three days before the Palm Springs trip,” said Hollingshead, who came to LAFC in a February trade with FC Dallas. “It all happened real, real quickly. I wasn’t following what LAFC was doing in the offseason, so when I came I thought I was the new guy.

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“It was fun being able to get everybody there, get them in Palm Springs, have time away from families, away from kind of just the hustle and bustle of life, and get everybody focused on football and on building team camaraderie.”

The two-week international break gives Cherundolo a chance to continue that team-building, but it also idles a squad riding a big wave of momentum. LAFC’s first game after the break is April 2 in Orlando.

If LAFC is soaring, the Galaxy (2-2-0) are heading in the other direction after their second consecutive loss, a 1-0 decision at home to Orlando City on Saturday. The shutout loss was the team’s first at home since July and came despite the fact it outshot Orlando City 20-6.

The only goal came from Facundo Torres in the ninth minute, and it proved to be enough with goalkeeper Pedro Gallese recording a club-record 14th clean sheet. For Galaxy coach Greg Vanney, the loss highlighted areas where his team must improve.

“We’re four games into the season. We still have a lot of growing to do as a group,” he said. “One of the things we need to improve on is just the timing and the final action; not bailing out of attacks for low-percentage situations and work better for high-percentage situations.

“We need to continue to build on every phase of the game.”

The Galaxy, who have won just four of 19 games dating to last August, also can use the two-week international break to heal after losing midfielder Douglas Costa to injury at halftime. Costa, who has struggled with soft-tissue injuries throughout his career, told Vanney he felt tightness in a hamstring about 10 minutes into the game and couldn’t really change speeds after that.

“If it was more severe, I think he would have pulled himself earlier,” Vanney said. “However, he certainty feels tight, so that’s something we’re definitely going to have to manage here over this break.”

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Border Crossing

When Hector Herrera joins the Houston Dynamo from Atlético Madrid in July, there will be a record eight national team players among the 16 Mexicans in the league.

Efraín Álvarez, Galaxy

Julián Araujo, Galaxy

Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Galaxy

Hector Herrera, Houston (joining in July)

Carlos Salcedo, Toronto

Jairo Torres, Chicago (joining May 1)

Josecarlos Van Rankin, Portland

Carlos Vela, LAFC

Source: Fox Soccer

The list doesn’t include Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa, who played twice for Mexico’s U-21 team but hasn’t been capped with the senior team, nor Alan Pulido, who is under contract with Sporting Kansas City but isn’t expected to play this season after undergoing knee surgery. Pulido has played 20 times for El Tri.

The list is somewhat misleading, though, since Vela says he has retired from international soccer, the Galaxy’s Hernández hasn’t played for El Tri in 2½ years and Torres and Van Rankin each played just once.

But Herrera’s 96 caps rank fifth among active players while the Galaxy’s Araujo, the only current MLS player called up by Mexico for World Cup qualifying, could become a mainstay at right back.

And finally there’s this …

With a brace in Saturday’s 4-0 win over Union Berlin, Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski reached 50 goals in all competitions for a third consecutive season. That’s 14 more goals than Cristiano Ronaldo (24) and Lionel Messi (12) have combined this season. And with 31 scores in 27 league matches, Lewandowski needs 10 in the final seven games to tie his year-old Bundesliga record of 41 in a season … New England’s Bruce Arena owns virtually every MLS coaching record, having won five league titles, four Supporters’ Shields and 241 regular-season games. But last week he made history of a different kind when he became the first coach to lose a game to the MLS expansion team from Charlotte. That came three days after the Revolution blew a 3-0 aggregate lead and lost to Pumas on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League.

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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

“The fans were incredible. The atmosphere was great. One of the best atmospheres I’ve coached in. It’s going to be a real rivalry that’s going to continue to grow. So that’s pleasing.”

San Diego Wave coach Casey Stoney after her expansion team’s 1-1 draw Saturday with Angel City in the first NWSL game in California

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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