Soccer newsletter: Analyzing the U.S. men’s difficult World Cup draw

United States coach Gregg Berhalter looks on after a FIFA World Cup qualifying match against El Salvador on Jan. 27
United States coach Gregg Berhalter looks on after a FIFA World Cup qualifying match against El Salvador on Jan. 27 in Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. won 1-0.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we’ll look ahead to Saturday’s El Tráfico and back at Angel City’s winless start. But we start with the World Cup and last week’s tournament draw, which placed the U.S. in a group with England, Iran and the winner of a June playoff involving Wales, Scotland and Ukraine for this fall’s tournament in Qatar.

The draw in Doha, where the World Cup will kick off in late November, came less than two days hours after the Americans’ final qualifier in Costa Rica and that left U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter with an exhausting 21-hour trip from Central America to the Middle East for the ceremony.

“I don’t even know what day it is,” he said after the event which, for the record, took place Friday. “I’m going on fumes. It’s a positive type of fumes, you know, when you’re at the World Cup draw. I’m not complaining right now about being tired.”


But he does have reason to complain about the draw. Not only was the U.S. placed in a group with two European teams – the Americans are 1-10-6 against European teams since returning to the World Cup in 1990 – but it was drawn into Group B, which begins play on the first day of the tournament, Nov. 21.

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That could be a huge handicap for the U.S. since players won’t be released from their clubs until Nov. 14, leaving Berhalter little time to prepare the team for its opening match against the winner of the UEFA playoff involving Wales, Scotland and Ukraine.

“We have to be in Qatar five days before your first game. And that’s basically when the guys are released,” Berhalter said. “So, a little bit of change of plans based on when we’re playing, but we’ll deal with it.”

U.S. captain Christian Pulisic looks on during a FIFA World Cup qualifying win over Panama
United States’ Christian Pulisic during the first half of a World Cup qualifying match against Panama this year.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

That also will put added importance on the national team’s summer training camps and games.

“It does make June important, and it makes September important,” Berhalter said. “Guys need to be available for that, involved in that if they want an opportunity to go to the World Cup.”

The group also could prove to be among the most competitive of the eight in the World Cup. If No. 18 Wales wins the three-team UEFA playoff and joins England (No. 5), the U.S. (15) and Iran (21) in Group B, it will be the only group with four teams ranked in the top 21 in the world by FIFA.


And if Ukraine wins the UEFA playoff, which was delayed by Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, the U.S. will open the World Cup against a sentimental favorite that undoubtedly will have much of the world behind it.

Berhalter welcomed that last challenge.

“If Ukraine makes it there, it’s a wonderful accomplishment,” he said. “If the people of Ukraine can get some hope by their team playing in the World Cup, it’s amazing.

“I think we’re all pulling for Ukraine. We’re all behind them all supporting them.”

To advance out of the first round, which the U.S. has done in three of its last four World Cup appearances, a team must finish in the top two in its four-team group.

For the players, who ended their qualifying campaign by winning just two of their final five games, the last a 2-0 loss in Costa Rica that dropped them to third in the CONCACAF tournament, simply being involved in a World Cup draw was more important than who they would play and when.

“It was a dream of mine to play in a World Cup,” said Christian Pulisic, who was on the team that narrowly missed out in 2018. “To be in this position now and to have a big game playing England in a World Cup makes me smile. I’m just excited for it. I think we all are.

“Just counting down the days, really.”

For midfielder Weston McKennie, the difficultly of the draw will make the World Cup that much more special for a U.S. team that will be the youngest in the tournament.


“We’re just all excited. We’re all looking forward to it,” he said. “We all know it’s going to be a challenge but that’s something that we’ve always embraced, and that’s something that we’ve always been able to do, is face adversity.

“All the guys are up for a challenge.”

The groups (FIFA rankings in parentheses):

Group A
Qatar (51), Ecuador (46), Senegal (20), Netherlands (10)

Nov. 21: Qatar vs. Ecuador; Senegal vs. Netherlands

Nov. 25: Qatar vs. Senegal; Netherlands vs. Ecuador

Nov. 29: Netherlands vs. Qatar; Ecuador vs. Senegal

Group B
England (5), Iran (21), U.S. (15), Wales (18)/Scotland (39)/Ukraine (27)

Nov. 21: England vs. Iran; U.S. vs. Wales (18)/Scotland (39)/Ukraine

Nov. 25: England vs. U.S.; Wales/Scotland/Ukraine vs. Iran

Nov. 29: Wales/Scotland/Ukraine vs. England; Iran vs. U.S.

Group C
Argentina (4), Saudi Arabia (49), Mexico (9), Poland (26)

Nov. 22: Argentina vs. Saudi Arabia; Mexico vs. Poland

Nov. 26: Argentina vs. Mexico; Poland vs. Saudi Arabi

Nov. 30: Poland vs. Argentina; Mexico vs. Saudi Arabia

Group D
France (3), Peru (22)/UAE (68)/Australia (42), Denmark (11), Tunisia (35)

Nov. 22: France vs. Peru/UAE/Australia; Denmark vs. Tunisia

Nov. 26: France vs. Denmark; Tunisia vs. Peru/UAE/Australia

Nov. 30: Tunisia vs. France; Peru/UAE/Australia vs. Denmark

Group E
Spain (7), Costa Rica (31)/New Zealand (101), Germany (12), Japan (23)

Nov. 23: Spain vs. Costa Rica/New Zealand; Germany vs. Japan

Nov. 27: Spain vs. Germany; Japan vs. Costa Rica/New Zealand

Dec. 1: Japan vs. Spain; Costa Rica/New Zealand vs. Germany

Group F
Belgium (2), Canada (38), Morocco (24), Croatia (16)

Nov. 23: Belgium vs. Canada; Morocco vs. Croatia

Nov. 27: Belgium vs. Morocco; Croatia vs. Canada

Dec. 1: Croatia vs. Belgium; Canada vs. Morocco

Group G
Brazil (1), Serbia (25), Switzerland (14), Cameroon (37)

Nov. 24: Brazil vs. Serbia; Switzerland vs. Cameroon

Nov. 28: Brazil vs. Switzerland; Cameroon vs. Serbia

Dec. 2: Cameroon vs. Brazil; Serbia vs. Switzerland

Group H
Portugal (8), Ghana (60), Uruguay (13), South Korea (29)

Nov. 24: Portugal vs. Ghana; Uruguay vs. South Korea

Nov. 28: Portugal vs. Uruguay; South Korea vs. Ghana

Dec. 2: South Korea vs. Portugal; Ghana vs. Uruguay

Keylor Navas’ most important save

Costa Rica's goalkeeper Keylor Navas celebrates against the United States last month.
Costa Rica’s goalkeeper Keylor Navas celebrates against the United States last month.
(Moises Castillo / Associated Press)

Only Canada gave up fewer goals than Costa Rica in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and a big reason for that was goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who started 13 of his team’s 14 games. He gave up six goals and posted seven shutouts – the final one coming in last week’s win over the U.S. That result sent Costa Rica on to a June playoff with New Zealand, where a final World Cup berth will be at stake.

But Navas may have made his biggest saves of the year in France, where he plays for Paris St.-Germain. There Navas and his wife Andrea Salas welcomed approximately 30 Ukrainians who fled the Russian invasion of their country. The couple bought 30 beds and installed them in their home theater. Salas was cooking for her guests and the couple have provided clothes and other necessities, according to the Spanish journal Sport.

Salas also made social-media pleas in multiple languages for others to help Ukrainian refugees in calling for donations or supplies and clothes.

“Hands that give,” she wrote “will never be empty.”

PSG did not confirm the number of people Navas has taken in “because Keylor does not want to promote” his gesture, the team said.


CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table


Canada-@ 28 8 2 4 23 7 16

Mexico-@ 28 8 2 4 17 8 9

U.S.- @ 25 7 3 4 21 10 11

Costa Rica-# 25 7 3 4 13 8 5

Panama 21 6 5 3 17 19 -2

Jamaica 11 2 7 5 12 22 -10

El Salvador 10 2 8 4 8 18 -10

Honduras 4 0 10 4 7 26 -19

@ - qualified for World Cup
# - qualified for June inter-confederation playoff with New Zealand for the final World Cup berth

Leading scorers

6 goals: Cyle Larin, Canada

5 goals: Jonathan David, Canada; Christian Pulisic, U.S.

4 goals: Rolando Blackburn, Panama

3 goals: Tajon Buchanan, Canada; Michail Antonio, Jamacia; Raúl Jiménez, Mexico; Ricardo Pepi, U.S.; Cecilio Waterman, Panama

Embracing El Tráfico

LA Galaxy forward Javier Hernandez (14) plays against the Charlotte FC.
LA Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez
(Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press)

The Galaxy won a game they really couldn’t afford to lose Sunday, ending a two-game losing streak with a 3-1 win at Portland behind two goals from Javier “Chicharito” Hernández.

There’s a lot to celebrate in that sentence, but by the time Hernández got to the microphone for the post-game media availability, he already was looking ahead to this weekend’s inter-city derby with LAFC at Dignity Health Sports Park.

“It’s an amazing feeling to bounce back after two very difficult losses, and this result is going to give us a lot of confidence for El Tráfico,” said Hernández, whose brace earned him MLS Player of the Week honors.

His two goals also gave him four for the season, the same as LAFC captain Carlos Vela. The two Mexican stars share the second spot in the MLS scoring race behind Cincinnati’s Brandon Vázquez, but they’ve never shared the field in an El Tráfico.

Hernández wasn’t here for the first two years of the rivalry, when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Vela combined for 19 goals in six games. Injuries forced Hernández to miss all four games in 2020 and Vela sat out last season’s three matches. Both appear fit now – Vela has started all five of LAFC’s games this season and has gone at least 70 minutes in four of them. Hernández has played all but four minutes of the Galaxy’s first five games.

That figures to add a little spice to a date players on both teams circle on their calendars when the schedule comes out each year.

“We are going to turn the page and start focusing on a very beautiful El Tráfico match in our stadium, with our people, with our fans,” Hernández said after Sunday’s win.


The Galaxy (3-2-0) leads the series 5-3-5 and have never lost to LAFC at home in winning four of the six meetings. LAFC (4-0-1), however, comes into this one unbeaten under new coach Steve Cherundolo and is tied for the MLS lead in points and goals with 13. That matches the 2019 team for the best start in franchise history.

The 2019 team went on to break the MLS record for points and tied the record for goals.

LAFC’s latest win was a hard-fought, 4-2 victory in Orlando last Saturday. After that game, Cherundolo said his focus also was shifting to El Tráfico.

“Every win builds confidence in what we do and the trust grows within the group,” he said. “Our focus now is directed toward the derby.

“Of course, we take this game very seriously,” he added.

His players are even more enthusiastic about Saturday.

“I can’t wait,” goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau said. “It’s going to be cool. It’s going to be really exciting. Big week coming up.”

Not exactly a heavenly start for Angel City

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)

Long before the NWSL’s preseason Challenge Cup started, Angel City said it planned to approach the tournament as a kind of dress rehearsal for the regular season. Turns out that was a good call because the team clearly is not ready to raise the curtain on its first season.

Saturday’s 4-2 road loss to the San Diego Wave was Angel City’s third defeat in a row and the third consecutive game in which it conceded at least three goals. It is winless at 0-3-1 with two Cup games remaining.


Angel City’s 11 goals allowed and minus-7 goal differential are the worst in the tournament while the team’s one point through four games is tied for last. But even if the games don’t count, the results still sting.

“I’d be lying if I said we weren’t frustrated,” midfielder Jasmyne Spencer said “We’re all really competitive, and we want to win. We want to get points out of these games. But we also realize that this is our eighth week and fourth game ever together.

“Coming off of a three-game week is always tough, but we’re just going to continue building and growing. We’ll go back and see what we can fix and improve on and take it one week at a time.”

Coach Freya Coombe also blamed a schedule that saw her team play three times in eight days, the last two on the road, for Saturday’s poor performance.

“We are fatigued from playing three games so close together. The turnaround from our last game in Portland away, and then coming here with the early kickoff, has been hard,” she said. “But ultimately, we have to be better defensively. We have to be more compact.

“We have to be accountable for what we’ve done today and fix it.”

One bright spot was Christen Press’ first goal in an Angel City uniform in the 59th minute, which tied the game 2-2. But it was undone by two goals from Alex Morgan, the second putting San Diego ahead to stay.


Angel City heads back out on the road on Easter Sunday when it plays the OL Reign in Seattle.

And finally there’s this ….

A crowd of 91,533, a record for a women’s game, watched Barcelona beat Real Madrid 5-2 last Wednesday in a Champions League match at Camp Nou. It was the first time Barcelona’s women’s team played a match at Camp Nou in front of fans and the crowd eclipsed the 90,185 that showed up at the Rose Bowl for the 1999 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and China. Many of those in attendance were Barcelona club members who were given free tickets two months ago. The cheapest tickets for non-members was $16.


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.


“Two different experiences. Back in 2018, not qualifying, it was gut wrenching to let down our fans, our nation and to watch the World Cup from our couch. To be part of a team given another chance to redeem myself is huge. It’s been a long seven months, but we reached our objective.”

LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta, one of four holdovers from the 2018 U.S. team that did not qualify for the last World Cup, on earning a spot in the Qatar tournament

Until next time...

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