Soccer newsletter: Eva Longoria, Uzo Aduba and more fired up about Angel City opener
Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we offer solutions on how to fix the punchless Galaxy offense and the lack of parity in Europe’s top leagues, offered around a check-in with LAFC, the best team in MLS nearly a quarter of the way into the season.
But we start with Angel City, the expansion women’s soccer team which makes its long-awaited NWSL debut on Friday at Banc of California Stadium.
It has been nearly 13 years since the L.A. Sol played the last top-flight women’s pro game in Southern California and 22 months since entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, venture capitalist Kara Nortman and actress Natalie Portman, backed by a celebrity-driven investor group that has grown to nearly 100 — were awarded the rights to an NWSL team in the summer of 2020.
The timing was perfect and awful at the same time. Perfect because it followed by less than a year the U.S. women’s second consecutive World Cup win and came as the country began ramping up for the men’s World Cup, which will return to the U.S. in 2026.
It also was awful because Angel City’s introductory news conference came four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, which refuses to go away.
“I think it made us more thoughtful and strategic about how we connected with people,” said Mia Hamm, a two-time World Cup and Olympic champion and one of Angel City’s initial investors. “There’s so many eyes on this game. [It was] an opportunity to bring people in that haven’t been a part of the soccer community and who just want to be part of something new and different and exciting.”
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Those people have grown to include a fan base of 15,300 season-ticket holders, which is more than the Galaxy. But it started with an owner/investor group of Hollywood celebrities, former athletes and venture capitalists, most of whom never had backed a soccer team before.
Many did so for the same reason. Angel City, with the largest female-led ownership group in professional sports, promised to be socially oriented and to level the playing field for women athletes. And with the active involvement of savvy investors like Norman and Reddit co-founder Alexi Ohanian, it looked to be a wise financial opportunity as well.
“It seemed like a sound investment,” actress Uzo Aduba said. “There is so much room to grow, so many prospects.”
But there was a personal connection too. Aduba, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, attended Boston University on a track scholarship and it was there she was introduced to opera and acting, interests that changed her life and left her with a deep appreciation for how sports can foster opportunity and change.
“It makes sense for people who are looking to find places to invest,” she said. “I think it’s a sound place to invest not only your money, but your time and attention.”
Actress Eva Longoria agreed. Among her past investments were restaurants on Hollywood Boulevard and the Las Vegas Strip and a clothing line. But Angel City offered a chance to do something positive for the community and for her portfolio at the same time.
“It’s what I’m involved in in my life. This is the DNA of who I am,” she said. “This is my activism and my philanthropy and my joy all mixed into one.
“Investing for a purpose, you know? Not just for monetary gain,” Longoria continued. “It’s investing to make sure that women are represented in a field where even female sports are male-owned and male-run. We thought why not change that and be the example that we want to see?”
Other high-profile financial backers include singers Christina Aguilera and Becky G; actresses Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Garner and America Ferrera; and athletes and former athletes Cobi Jones, Candace Parker, P.K. Subban and Lindsey Vonn. But the backbone of the group may be the former U.S. national team players Hamm and Julie Foudy, who rallied to the cause.
Most — like Foudy, Shannon Boxx, Rachel Buehler, Lauren Holiday and Joy Fawcett — boast deep playing ties to Southern California, something Hamm does not have.
“One of the things we talked about is not every young player that comes to the stadium is going to be able to connect with me. But they’ll connect with one of the players, either on our team or in our ownership group,” Hamm said. “It’s really important to say thank you to the players that were the foundation of the game here in Southern California.”
Foudy, like Hamm a two-time World Cup and Olympic champion and U.S. Soccer hall of famer, said the opportunity to invest in the game for a new generation was a big draw for many of the women. But so was the chance to make a difference in how Angel City was run.
“There should be players on every ownership group,” said Foudy, who lived through the financial collapse of two previous women’s pro leagues in the U.S. “In term of just being able to provide a perspective that a lot of owners don’t have, I think it’s super helpful.
“That’s what I’m so thrilled about. This is hopefully a playbook for not just soccer, but for other sports as well on the women’s side.”
Given Angel City’s preseason, it may be more realistic to root for the end of misogyny and sexism in sports than for the first-year team to win a league title. Angel City did beat the COVID-depleted Portland Thorns 1-0 in its final NWSL Challenge Cup game Sunday, but it finished the tournament 1-4-1, surrendered a league-high 13 goals and posted a league-worst, minus-7 goal differential.
Things won’t get any easier Friday when Angel City opens its first regular season against the North Carolina Courage, a two-time league champion. But Hamm said the team, its investors and fans will be winners no matter the final score.
“I’m going to feel so many emotions,” she said of Friday. “Just getting on the field, [knowing] just how much time and effort and money that takes. And being able to kind of feel the energy from the supporters because I know it’s going to be amazing.
“I’m excited to be able to share it with my kids and to have my daughters and son in that stadium and see what is possible.”
Joveljić is the answer for Galaxy
The Galaxy may have found the fix for its slumbering offense in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Nashville. The question now is will they have the courage to implement it?
Its name is Dejan Joveljić, who came off the bench in the 78th minute, scored the game’s only goal eight minutes later, then shared some of his frustration over having played just 51 minutes in the team’s first eight games.
“I showed that I need to get more minutes,” he said.
And he’s right.
Joveljić, 22, joined the Galaxy last summer and, with Javier “Chicharito” Hernández dealing with a calf injury, the Serbian played in 14 of the team’s final 16 games and started in six of them.
With Chicharito healthy so far this season, Joveljić hasn’t found a spot in coach Greg Vanney’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Getting him on the field would mean pairing him up top with Hernández in a more traditional 4-4-2, and Vanney appears reluctant to take Chicharito out of that target striker role.
“Dejan is not really a winger, so I was a little hesitant to make that change,” Vanney said of the decision to sub Joveljić on for the underperforming Kévin Cabral on Saturday.
Vanney no longer may have a choice. Including last week’s U.S. Open Cup win over the San Diego Loyal, the Galaxy have scored just two goals in their last three games. They are seventh in MLS in shots taken but second from the bottom in the 28-team league in shooting percentage, meaning they are creating chances but not finishing them.
“He’s a hell of a finisher,” Vanney said. “We’ve been talking a lot over the last two weeks about when we have a lot of possession, just how he can still be a goal scorer and impact the game.”
Well, putting him on the field might be a start. And sitting Cabral would be the obvious change.
Cabral, a designated player, hasn’t lived up to the hype that preceded him when he arrived from France last season. He was expected to be an offensive force but doesn’t have a goal or assist in MLS play this season and has put just three shots on frame.
The fact that the three shots on target are tied for third on the team not only shows how much the Galaxy are struggling for offense but also how one-dimensional the team has become with Chicharito, who has scored half the team’s 10 goals, as its only serious attacking threat.
The team’s attack is so one-dimensional, in fact, Portland defender Bill Tuiloma, who had an own goal earlier this month, is tied for second on the Galaxy in scoring.
“I don’t want to say that I’m frustrated, but I’m not satisfied for sure because I’m not playing,” Joveljić said. “I know that in my position is the best striker in this league and I’m going to have little minutes alongside him. I need to wait for my chance.”
But he’s confident a pairing with Hernández would work.
“I like to train with Chicharito, and it’s an amazing feeling to be with him on the field,” he said. “I want to play with him. Two strikers, why not?”
On the other end of the field, the team’s defense has been solid. The Galaxy (5-2-1 and unbeaten in their last five matches in all competitions) have allowed just six goals, second-fewest in the league, and Saturday’s shutout was the fourth in eight games for keeper Jonathan Bond, matching his total from all of last season. But the real change from last year has been in front of Bond.
Last season, he was third in the league in saves and faced more than 5 ½ shots on goal a game. This season, that number has been halved, with Bond making 16 saves in eight starts.
Some pain, lots of gain for LAFC
Saturday’s win left the Galaxy third in the Western Conference standings and fourth in the Supporters’ Shield race, two tables currently led by LAFC, which continues to wear down opponents. The latest win came Sunday, when Steve Cherundolo’s team rallied from a halftime deficit to beat FC Cincinnati 2-1.
LAFC (6-1-1) leads the league in wins (six) and points (19) and is second in goals (19) and goal differential (11).
“This team understands what it takes to win in this league,” said Cherundolo, who already has won as many times as an MLS manager as he did in 32 games with the Las Vegas Lights in the second-tier USL Championship last season. “They understand that sometimes it hurts, and you have to work hard.”
After his team gave up a goal deep into first-half stoppage time, a disappointed Cherundolo said he challenged his team at halftime.
“You dug yourself a hole; get yourselves out,” the coach told his team.
And it responded, with Kellyn Acosta tying the score 14 minutes into the second half. Danny Musovski then came off the bench to score the game-winner in the 79th minute, following a Cincinnati turnover in its own end.
“Any time you can score a game-winning goal, that’s a special feeling,” Musovski said.
Carlos Vela got the assist on the deciding goal, just his second point in four MLS matches in April.
The fast start for LAFC, which has come from behind in three of its last four wins, matches that of the 2019 team which also was 6-1-1 through eight games. But that team didn’t lose again until the 17th game of the season en route to breaking the league record for points in a season under former coach Bob Bradley, now with Toronto FC.
“Obviously we don’t want to keep coming back. We want to start the game off a little stronger, be on the front foot,” Acosta said. “It hasn’t really gone our way in that sense, so moving forward we need to have better first halves.”
Whether Cherundolo’s team is as good as the 2019 one is tough to measure. It struggled to beat Cincinnati, which was without seven starters, including its leading scorer and starting goalkeeper. And just one of LAFC’s six wins have come against a team with a winning record.
The coach said the team has lots of room for improvement.
“We are very happy with the result. Three points on the road is never easy in MLS,” Cherundolo said, adding: “We are not happy with the way we played. There was a lot missing tonight. Even though it wasn’t pretty, we’ll take it.
“It’s moments like these that make us even stronger.”
LAFC may find out a lot about itself in the next three weeks with home games coming up against Minnesota (4-2-2), Philadelphia (5-1-2) and Austin (5-1-2).
“We’ve just got to keep moving forward, keep growing,” Acosta said “We can’t be content. We’ve got to keep pushing. We know we can play better.”
More of the same in European title races
Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain clinched domestic championships Saturday, officially sewing up league races that had long been decided. But those might be accomplishments that should be mourned, not celebrated, since it only underscores how top-heavy Europe’s best leagues have become.
For Munich, a 3-1 win over second-place Borussia Dortmund gave it a 10th consecutive Bundesliga title and its 19th crown in 26 seasons. Most of those league races haven’t even been close, with just one of the last nine decided by single digits in points.
Bayern leads Dortmund by 12 points with three games left this season.
For PSG, which leads Marseille by 13 points with four games left, the Ligue 1 championship was its eighth in 10 years. It never really should have been in doubt when you consider the team’s payroll of $673 million represents 37% of the 20-team league’s total spending on salary, according to the French sports daily L’Equipe. PSG’s wage bill is the largest in Europe, the paper said.
As a result, the richer continue to get richer, although that free spending hasn’t helped PSG outside of France. It was eliminated from the Champions League tournament, a competition it’s never won, in the round of 16 this winter. Only twice this century has it advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the world’s most important club event.
That kind of dominance, in France and Germany, makes the league season a farce since everyone else is playing for second even before the first game kicks off.
Parity hardly exists elsewhere in Europe, with Inter Milan and Juventus combining to win 15 of the last 16 Italian titles. Spain’s La Liga has had just three different champions in the last 17 seasons.
Only in Italy could there be a change with AC Milan, which hasn’t won in 11 years, leading reigning champion Inter Milan by two points with four games left.
In the English Premier League three teams — Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea — remain mathematically viable. Those teams have accounted for nine of the last 12 league champions.
ESPN’s Bill Connelly examined how we got here earlier this season and came to the obvious conclusion: money.
The Bosman ruling of 1995, which prevented clubs from collecting transfer fees from out-of-contract players, helped teams with bigger brands and deeper pockets stockpile talent. The conversion of the European Cup into the lucrative Champions League at about the same time further funneled ungodly amounts of money to the wealthier clubs, making it harder — if not impossible — for smaller teams like Leicester City to break through.
The pandemic then highlighted the effects of this inequality.
The fix, Connelly said, could come from new financial regulations UEFA has drafted to replace the Financial Fair Play guidelines that proved too easy to circumvent. Salary caps have also been suggested as have U.S.-style playoffs, which immediately would give hope to the hopeless and inject some excitement into league races that too frequently seem predetermined.
Neither measure was implemented but keep in mind that in MLS, which has both a salary cap and playoffs, only one team has won as many as two titles in the last nine years. And the team that has won the regular-season Supporters’ Shield has gone on to win the playoff tournament just once in the last 11 years.
And finally there’s this…
Sunday’s 2-0 loss to Liverpool in the Merseyside Derby dropped Everton into the relegation zone with six games to play. The Toffees, who trail 17th-place Burnley by two points, have been relegated just twice, the last time coming in 1951. ... In Mexico, seven teams earned playoff berths over the weekend. Pachuca and Tigres will finish one-two in the Liga MX Clausura standings, securing spots in the playoff quarterfinals. Puebla, Cruz Azul, Monterrey, reigning champion Atlas, Necaxa, América, Chivas and San Luis have also won spots in the postseason tournament while two spots remain open with one game to play. Six teams remain mathematically alive to win one of those invitations.
“When people look at our ownership group, like wow that’s a lot of people. And it is. But all of us have different life experiences and ideas. We just want to make our club the best club in the world. We want to make sure that not just the players but our supporters, the people that spend their hard-earned money to come in and be a part of our club, feel valued.”
Angel City founding investor Mia Hamm on the expansion team’s ownership group, which numbers nearly 100