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Soccer newsletter: Ray Noriega shares hurdles he endured to cheer at 114 USMNT games

U.S. men's soccer fan Ray Noriega poses with mascots during one of his trips to support the team.
(Courtesy of Ray Noriega )
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Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at how a new-look LAFC is writing an updated story of success, how the Galaxy is continuing to struggle to find momentum and how Angel City’s preseason has so far been a lesson in perseverance.

But we start with Ray Noriega, who has more caps with the national team than any player on the roster. Exactly how many caps he has, however, has been lost to the passage of time.

“I can’t quite remember,” he said.

His own record-keeping shows 114 men’s national team games, but he thinks the number should be higher.

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“When I was younger,” he said, “I wasn’t keeping track.”

Even at the lower figure, Noriega would rank 10th on the all-time U.S. list, which is remarkable since he hasn’t played a game of soccer since middle school. In fact, Noriega has never gotten out of the stands during any of his national team appearances.

Yet in following the team around the world, the U.S. Soccer superfan has made sacrifices and endured deprivations that match some made by the players.

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He was hit by a battery in a stadium in Costa Rica, by a baseball in Panama and with a bag of excrement in Mexico. Airlines have lost his luggage and canceled his flights. In the most recent World Cup qualifying cycle, he was on the road for 44 days, visiting eight countries and 13 cities and sitting through games in 85% humidity and temperatures below zero.

He had to pass a COVID-19 test 13 times.

“Just because of so many games that I’ve gone to, there’s always one story in each of those countries where like something weird happens,” he said with a shrug. “That makes for a good story. And that’s what’s so fun.”

Ray Noriega, center, is decked in patriotic clothing while he plays a drum during a U.S. men's national team match.
(Courtesy of Ray Noriega)

Noriega, 37, who lives in Tustin, hasn’t missed a U.S. qualifier since 2002 and was one of eight U.S. fans who made all 14 games in the most recent cycle, which ended last month with the U.S. winning a place in this fall’s World Cup in Qatar. Those will be the last qualifiers until 2029 — and could be the final ones ever under the current format.

The U.S. will play host to the 2026 tournament, alongside Mexico and Canada, meaning all three countries likely will be given automatic spots in the field. And for the 2030 World Cup, which will feature 48 teams, including at least six from CONCACAF, the regional qualifying event will have to expand.

That pause will be a good thing for Noriega’s bank account. He travels a lot for his job servicing point-of-sale systems for high-capacity sports and entertainment venues, which has allowed him to book thousands of frequent-flier miles and hotel points he can use on his soccer travels. But even with those savings, he’s spent at least $125,000 traveling to U.S. games on five continents. In reality, he’s spent probably twice that much; the record keeping is a little spotty there as well.

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And that doesn’t even include the four dozen or so women’s national team games he’s attended.

Some people play video games, collect stamps or go hunting. Noriega’s hobby is watching U.S. soccer.

The seed for that was planted early, in 1994, when his father, John, took him to a World Cup group-play game against Colombia at the Rose Bowl. Baseball was the major sport in Noriega’s family and the hope was 9-year-old Ray would be bored by the soccer match, which was supposed to end in a one-sided Colombian win.

That plan backfired when the Americans, aided by an own goal from Colombian defender Andrés Escobar, scored an upset win and advanced to the knockout rounds. Noriega was hooked.

“That match solidified me wanting to watch,” he said.

It wasn’t so much the soccer that attracted him as it was the sense of community he found at national team games.

“I had a friend who just watched the national team and that was it. And it was like, ‘Well, this is something I can get behind,’” he said. “If you’re watching a team, let’s say the Galaxy, you’re mostly going to find fans in L.A. But everybody can root for the U.S. because we’re all Americans.

“That kind of felt that felt more fun to engage in. That you could go anywhere, to any town, not knowing anybody and make friends. That’s more unique to soccer than it is other sports. It just felt more engaging. That I felt the connection there made me want to go to more games.”

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That and the memories. Noriega, who used to run the Orange County chapter of the American Outlaws, the largest U.S. supporters organization, still travels with group, spending as many as three days in each city visiting museums and other landmarks, trying to drink up the history and culture.

“Whenever we have a good group of us that all travel together, we always want to do something. At least one thing local, at the very least,” he said. “People kind of sit in their hotel room and go to the beaches or whatnot. We want to still be [doing] something historical or cultural or whatever.”

The American fans also are aware they are cultural ambassadors of a sort and try to carry themselves that way.

“We don’t want to feel like we’re arrogant, stupid Americans that come in, take things for granted, expect things and then leave,” he said. “So we always try to overcompensate, even when we maybe don’t need to, in just being extra friendly, extra courteous.

“We definitely feel like we’re representing not just a supporters group, but a group of fans as well. And we want people to have a good experience with us because we want to be able to come back.”

During the most recent qualifying cycle, he said the friendliest people were in Honduras and the best atmosphere was in El Salvador, where the U.S. fans were given a standing ovation from the respectful locals simply for showing up. As for the most memorable game, Noriega first picked the 2-0 November win over Mexico in Cincinnati before backtracking when reminded of the 3-0 win over Honduras in minus-3-degree temperatures in St. Paul, Minn. That game left some players suffering from hypothermia while others had frostbite.

“That was a bizarre game,” he said.

And another one for Noriega’s growing list of national team appearances.

The U.S. road to Qatar, by the numbers

Speaking of the just-concluded CONCACAF qualifiers, U.S. Soccer’s Jeff Crandall — who celebrated his 100th national team cap in the final game in Costa Rica — broke down the tournament numerically. Here’s what he found:

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24.07: The average age, in years, of the U.S. players who appeared in the 14 qualifying matches, making it the youngest of the 29 teams already qualified for Qatar. The Americans are more than 18 months younger than Ecuador, the next-youngest team with an average age of 25.81 years.

29: The number of players making their qualifying debuts in this cycle. With Aaron Long and Erik Palmer-Brown appearing as substitutes against Mexico in Estadio Azteca last month, the U.S. tied the record for most first-time players used in a qualifying tournament, first set in the run-up to the 1998 World Cup in France. Of the 29 used in this cycle, a record 19 were 23 or younger.

U.S. midfielder Kellyn Acosta, left, and Mexico forward Jesus Corona vie for the ball in a match last month.
U.S. midfielder Kellyn Acosta, left, and Mexico forward Jesus Corona vie for the ball in a match last month.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

3: The number of players — Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams and Antonee Robinson — who appeared in 13 of the 14 qualifiers. Robinson led all players in minutes played with 1,061. Brenden Aaronson entered the final window on pace to be the only player to appear in all 14 matches, but a knee injury forced him to withdraw from the March camp.

5: Goals scored by Christian Pulisic to lead the team. That gave him 12 in World Cup qualifying, matching Eddie Johnson for fourth on the all-time U.S. list, one back of Landon Donovan.

3: The number of assists for teenager Ricardo Pepi — who also had three goals — enough to share the team lead with Pulisic and Robinson.

Best LAFC team ever?

Los Angeles FC players celebrate their side's second goal against Inter Miami.
LAFC players celebrate a goal against Inter Miami last month.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

Three years ago, LAFC broke the single-season points record, tied the record for goals in a season and shattered the mark for goal differential in what was arguably the greatest season in MLS history.

This year’s team may be better.

After Sunday’s methodical 3-1 win over Sporting Kansas City, LAFC leads the Supporters’ Shield standings at 5-1-1 and is tied for the league lead with 17 goals and a plus-10 differential. And it’s done all that under a first-year coach, Steve Cherundolo, who has brought a new energy, lineup and playing style.

Six of the players Cherundolo started Sunday weren’t with the team at this point last season and eight of the team’s 17 goals have come from new players. The breakneck pressing, possession-based, short-passing strategy the team used under Bob Bradley has been replaced by a more controlled, direct, counter-attacking style.

The results, however, have been about the same. Where the 2019 team was 6-0-1 with 21 goals through seven games, Cherundolo’s team is 5-1-1 with 17 goals, with only a loss to the Galaxy spoiling the start. This team is more balanced than the 2019 squad, with 10 players contributing to the scoring, five with two or more goals. In 2019, seven players had scored through seven games but Diego Rossi and Carlos Vela accounted for two-thirds of the goals.

Assistant Ante Razov, the only coach remaining from the 2019 team, says the best is yet to come.

“We have several new players, a new head coach. It’s natural that the new players are going to take time to get accustomed to some of the principles,” he said. “That is a work in progress.”

Defender Ryan Hollingshead agrees.

“We don’t feel like we’re clicking on all cylinders right now,” he said before the Galaxy game. “We don’t feel like we’re playing to our ability; we’re not playing as well as we can play. There’s still a lot of things we think we can tighten up. And that’s a scary thought.”

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Scary for opponents, that is.

“How I judge and view success is if we are maximizing our potential. And if we are not, I will make sure they know that,” Cherundolo said. “I don’t understand why we would accept anything less than playing to our limits.”

Cherundolo deserves a lot of credit for LAFC’s fast start. Not only has he brought a new attitude and style, but he’s also made the right tactical moves at the right time. The two second-half goals that made the difference Sunday were scored by Ismael Tajouri-Shradi and José Cifuentes, whom the coach sent in off the bench in the 66th minute.

That LAFC can get better is underscored by the fact Eddie Segura, the team’s best center back, hasn’t played as he recovers from knee surgery and midfielder Kellyn Acosta, arguably the team’s best playmaker, is still looking for his first goal or assist with LAFC.

Yet determining just how good LAFC has been is complicated. Although all five wins have been by multiple goals, just two of the seven games came against teams with winning records — one a win over Orlando City and the other a loss to the Galaxy. Its next matches are against Cincinnati and Minnesota, teams that are a combined 5-6-3.

And LAFC faces the Orange County Soccer Club, the reigning USL Championship winner, in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday.

But we may get some answers after that when LAFC plays host to the Philadelphia Union, which lead the Eastern Conference and trail LAFC on goal differential in the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Three weeks from now, who knows how good LAFC will be?

“Nobody’s won the title after [seven] games,” Razov said. “So I hope we’re not at our best right now. Teams are going to improve. We have a lot of room for improvement.

“I think the players want to improve. We see a cohesive, collective unit that is trying to win the games [but] is also trying to improve the game model. And so those are very positive sides.”

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If LAFC is steadily moving forward, the Galaxy once again appear stuck in neutral after a scoreless draw with the Chicago Fire.

Sure, it’s a point on the road, one earned in frigid conditions on a poor, narrow field and a result that allowed the team to extend its unbeaten streak to three games. It was also the third clean sheet of the season for goalkeeper Jonathan Bond, who has given up six goals in seven games.

But it came in an ugly game in which neither team managed a shot on goal. That may be OK for the Fire, who under defensive-minded coach Ezra Hendrickson have scored just five times. But it’s not acceptable for a Galaxy team led by Javier “Chicharito” Hernández — who is tied for the MLS lead in goals (5) and shots on target (12) — and midfielder Daniel Costa.

Hernández and Costa both found the back of the net in Chicago, but the two goals were negated by offside calls. The Galaxy also lost a first-half scoring chance when an apparent hand ball in the Fire penalty area wasn’t called.

“It’s one of those days where it’s not going to be pretty football,” midfielder Mark Delgado said. “They put everyone behind the ball to not give up a goal. It’s the way they want to play.

“Given the circumstances, I feel like we did an OK job. We obviously can do better but we are happy to take home a point and move forward and continue building because it wasn’t an easy game by any means.”

Maybe. However, it also continues a troublesome trend under coach Greg Vanney, one in which the Galaxy follow a gutsy, character-revealing win — in this case, the 2-1 victory over an unbeaten LAFC — by falling flat a week later.

Yes, the Fire made things tough. But the Galaxy, who had a chance to move atop the division standings for a day, also lacked creativity.

“The conditions didn’t make for a great day,” Vanney said. “It’s tough to play in the opposition’s half when they’re just smashing long balls into your half of the field and you’re having to deal with it. No matter what, they’re going to put the ball back in your half of the field and it’s not necessarily through passing; it’s just launching balls up to the forward.

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“But this group showed resiliency and it showed, on the road on a tough day, the ability to put two balls in the back of the net even though we didn’t get it. It’s a good point on the road.”

To truly challenge the likes of LAFC or the Union at the top of the table, the Galaxy are going to have to put good performances together on a consistent basis and they haven’t done that under Vanney, never winning more than two games in a row. The road gets tougher ahead, with the team following Tuesday’s U.S. Open match with the San Diego Loyal with seven games against MLS clubs with winning records.

Angel City experiencing growing pains

For Angel City, the NWSL Challenge Cup tournament was never anything more than a shake-out cruise; a kind of primer for the expansion club’s first season. And so far, it’s proving to be a painful and bruising one for the winless team, whose last loss Sunday came when Olivia Van der Jagt’s header squeezed under the crossbar just before time expired, giving the OL Reign a 2-1 victory.

“The last goal was a sucker punch,” coach Freya Coombe said.

A sucker punch that handed Angel City its fourth straight loss, dropping it to 0-4-1 with a league-worst 13 goals allowed and minus-8 goal differential with one Cup game to play. The winning goal came just 10 minutes after Angel City tied the score on a well-placed Simone Charley header.

“For us, it is about learning to fight until the end,” said Charley, whose team was seconds away from its first road point when Van der Jagt scored. “We are still a new team. We are still getting to know each other.

“This is literally a brick-by-brick type thing. I hate that we learned this the hard way. This is just another step in our learning process. It is really frustrating, but we learn this lesson and we move on.”

Angel City meets the Portland Thorns on Sunday at Cal State Fullerton in its final dress rehearsal before the curtain goes up on its first NWSL season April 29 at Banc of California Stadium.

And finally there’s this ...

Matias Almeyda will no longer coach the San Jose Earthquakes, the team announced Monday. Alex Covelo, coach for Earthquakes II in MLS NEXT Pro, will take over on an interim basis, making his debut when the Quakes play Bay Cities FC in the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday. Almeyda was 31-42-25 in four seasons. His next stop could be with Chivas of Mexico’s Liga MX, where he coached for 2½ years before coming to MLS. ... Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan sustained what could be a career-ending injury Saturday when he ruptured the Achilles tendon in his right leg in the 73rd minute of a scoreless draw with Cincinnati. Guzan, 37, got his pro start with Chivas USA and went on to play in England with Aston Villa, Hull City and Middlesbrough before returning to the U.S. with Atlanta in 2017. A back-up to Tim Howard in two World Cups, Guzan had 33 wins in 64 games, fourth all-time for the U.S. ... With Liverpool and Manchester City both advancing to the Champions League semifinals, the English Premier League is likely to have a team in the final for the fourth time in five seasons. If both teams win, it would be the third all-EPL final in four tries. Manchester City, which lost to Chelsea in last year’s final, meets Spain’s Real Madrid in the semis April 26 while Liverpool, which beat Tottenham in the 2019 title game, plays Spain’s Villarreal on April 27.

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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

“This group is something special. I think this year is going to be a lot of fun. We just have to focus and keep going this way.”

LAFC forward Ismael Tajouri-Shradi after Sunday’s win over Sporting Kansas City

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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