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Soccer newsletter: Ada Hegerberg keeps her focus on improving the sport

Ada Hegerberg in 2019.
Ada Hegerberg of Lyon celebrates her goal during the women’s soccer UEFA Champions League final match in 2019.
(Balazs Czagany / Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at Angel City’s emotional NWSL debut and the differing approaches used by LAFC (mostly successful) and the Galaxy (not so much). But we start with Norwegian superstar Ada Hegerberg, who arguably has done more to advance the cause of gender equality in soccer than anyone who has played the game.

Former U.S. national team players including Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Cindy Parlow — now U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone — once refused to play to push their demands for better pay. And current national teamers including Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Christen Press repeatedly have sued the U.S. federation in their fight for equal pay and better treatment.

But only Hegerberg, recipient of the Ballon d’Or in 2018 and a two-time winner of the BBC’s women’s player of the year award, actually walked away from her national team at the height of her career, passing up a chance to play in a World Cup and forfeiting lucrative sponsorship opportunities, to press her point.

“I have to say, it’s really hard to picture it still,” Hegerberg said by phone from Lyon, France, where she is preparing for this month’s Champions League final with Barcelona. “But I just really hope I did everything for my sport to be appreciated, respected and left in a better way than what I found it in.

“It’s much bigger than me.”

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Which is the way she wants to keep it. In reaching out to arrange last week’s interview, Hegerberg’s publicist didn’t mention her client’s push for a sixth Champions League crown or her record 57 Champions League goals. In fact, she didn’t want to talk about either.

“Ada,” the publicist said “is using her platform and voice to promote female equity, equality and empowerment.”

Ada Hegerberg in 2018.
Ada Hegerberg in 2018.
(Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

Yes, she is. After she walked away from the national team in 2017 to highlight the Norwegian federation’s treatment of women players, the federation caved almost immediately, negotiating a deal that doubled the women’s pay and resulted in what the federation said would be equal salaries for men and women. It was the first deal of its kind in international soccer.

For Hegerberg, however, it wasn’t enough. To keep the pressure on, she sat out nearly five years before returning to the team last month. In her first game back, she scored a hat trick in a World Cup qualifying win over Kosovo.

“I’m very happy to be back,” she said. “Obviously, it was not a decision that was made overnight. I had very interesting and important talks with our new president, Lise Klaveness, who I played with when I was very young.

“So I kind of felt like I was speaking to an ex-colleague, to someone who actually also saw the same challenges that I did back in 2017.”

Interesting, isn’t it, that Hegerberg believes her voice had been heard only after a former women’s national team player became president of the Norwegian federation? Just as it fell to Cone, a former World Cup champion turned federation president, to broker a solution to the current American national team’s lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. Maybe all national federations should hire retired women’s players as their presidents.

As for the five years she missed, Hegerberg said there are no regrets.

“I know that a lot of women work hard for us to be where we are,” she said. “So I felt like we have this huge responsibility to continue to drive that circle so that these young girls coming up find [a] more professional and better football world.”

Hegerberg’s activism has made her, at just 26, one of the most powerful and influential female athletes worldwide. Nike built an entire marketing campaign around her work for gender equality and sustainability. But that only works as long as Hegerberg produces on the field — and she has, having averaged more than 36 goals in all competition in the six seasons preceding a serious knee injury in January 2020 that kept her out for 21 months.

Now she’s back in the Champions League final against Barcelona, which arguably has surpassed Lyon as Europe’s top team by winning 40 consecutive matches this season before losing 2-0 to Wolfsburg on Saturday in the second leg of a Champions League semifinal it already had wrapped up. Barcelona also drew two crowds of more than 91,500 at Camp Nou, twice breaking the world record for highest attendance at a women’s match.

“It’s very inspiring,” Hegerberg said. “I really hope that you have a trend where it’s stabilized. We do the job on the pitch in order to inspire so that people actually can find purpose in getting back to the stadium again. Now I just hope it continues all over Europe.”

Women’s soccer certainly is on the rise on the continent. Top-flight leagues are thriving in Spain, France and England. In Italy, women last week won the right to ditch the amateur status that had limited their pay and will be considered fully professional beginning July 1.

That’s a trend Hegerberg did a lot to influence — and one she hopes to continue. It could be a decade or more before she is ready to retire, but when she does, she wants to be remembered not for what she won but for what she did.

“Football is my biggest passion,” she said. “So I just hope that I’m being remembered as someone who was true to herself and who gave it all to inspire the next generation to believe in themselves and do the same thing.”

Women’s Champions League Final Tale of the Tape

40-1-0: Record in all competitions

27-0: Record in Spanish Primera Iberdrola

9-1: Record in UEFA Women’s Champions League

2-0: Record in Spanish Supercopa Femenina

2-0: Record in Spanish Copa de la Reina

197-16: Goal difference in all competitions

91,553: Attendance for home Champions League quarterfinal vs. Real Madrid

91,648: Attendance for home Champions League semifinal vs. Wolfsburg

Olympique Lyonnais

29-3-1: Record in all competitions

18-0-1: Record in Division 1 Feminine

10-2-0: Record in UEFA Women’s Champions League

1-1-0: Record in Coupe de France Feminine

108-21: Goal difference in all competitions

20,017: Attendance for home Champions League quarterfinal vs. Juventus

22,774: Attendance for home Champions League semifinal vs. Paris Saint-Germain

Angel City not bad for starters

Christen Press
Christen Press
(Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

One thing Hegerberg likes about U.S. women’s soccer, aside from the national team and its activism, is the deep-pocketed group of owners and investors behind Angel City, Los Angeles’ newest professional sports team. Angel City opened its first NWSL regular season Friday with a 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage.

But there’s a catch.

“Money is great,” she said. “The most important thing is obviously that investments are used in the correct manner, that there’s always a long-term investment. Building something great takes time. As long as they’re in it for the long, it’s very positive.”

The investors say they are.

“We also realize that it’s not a quick turn, investing in a league of any sort,” said Foudy, a two-time World Cup and Olympic champion who was an original Angel City investor. “This is a long play. We want to be in it for a long time because it can take decades before you get any return on what you put in.”

That depends on how you measure return. But the investment Foudy and the nearly 100 other Angel City owners and investors made in bringing the NWSL to Los Angeles paid immediate dividends Friday when a loud and enthusiastic crowd announced at 22,000 packed Banc of California Stadium for the return of women’s pro soccer to Southern California.

“No matter what happens this season, no one can ever take tonight away from us and this crowd,” said Angel City captain Ali Riley, who left the field in tears. “To feel that was unbelievable.

“I will never forget this.”

Riley, a Southern California native, hoped to be drafted by the Los Angeles Sol of Women’s Professional Soccer, but the team folded after just one season in 2009 and it wasn’t until Friday that top-flight women’s pro soccer returned to the Southland. It was greeted by a loud and enthusiastic crowd.

“It’s the best environment that I’ve ever coached in,” Angel City manager Freya Coombe said.

Added midfielder Dani Weatherholt, another Southern Californian: “My teammates were screaming and crying tears of joy, and it meant the world to me. So many young girls and boys in this community look up to us, and it’s truly special. Looking in the stands and seeing my family just meant the world to me.”

The players fed off the crowd, with Jun Endo setting up Vanessa Gilles for the first goal in franchise history, then scoring the second one herself, all in the first 13 minutes. North Carolina outshot Angel City and built big leads in possession and passing, but Angel City goalkeeper DiDi Haracic made four saves to preserve the win.

“It was an unreal feeling to have all those people backing us,” Weatherholt said of the crowd. “I think it will be a huge part of our identity. It’s going to be … our fortress. This community loves soccer, and it was very evident.”

Riley, who went to the Harvard-Westlake School, then played for her father’s New Zealand squad in four Women’s World Cups, said her soccer career took root when, as an 11-year-old, she attended the 1999 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl. Twenty-three years later, she returned home to play her first club game as a professional less than 16 miles from where she grew up.

“That was what put this idea in my head,” Riley said of that 1999 game. “I had no idea how it would happen, but it planted the seed that maybe one day I could play soccer on a stage like that. So now for us to be here and for those little girls to see that, just that kind of visibility and how we are in the field with all different skin colors, all different experiences, all different backgrounds, such a diverse and inclusive group, I think that’s really important.

“And that’s what the club stands for as well.”

Five largest crowds, first NWSL home game

1. Orlando Pride 3, Houston Dash 1 (2016), 23,403

2. Angel City FC 2, NC Courage 1 (2022), 22,000

3. Utah Royals 0, Chicago Red Stars 1 (2018), 19,203

4. Portland Thorns 2, Seattle Reign 1 (2013), 16,479

5. Houston Dash 0, Portland Thorns 1 (2014), 8,097

Source: Soccer America

Feast or famine for MLS clubs

LAFC midfielder Jose Cifuentes.
(Associated Press)

LAFC’s quick start this season not only matches the best beginning in franchise history, but it’s also bucking a league-wide trend that has hampered the Galaxy through its first nine games.

Scoring is down across MLS, averaging just 2.66 goals a game through 110 matches. If teams continue scoring — or rather, not scoring — at that pace it will be the lowest average for goals per game since 2013, continuing a trend in which scoring has declined steadily since 2018, LAFC’s first season.

But that hasn’t slowed the black and gold. Under new coach Steve Cherundolo, LAFC (7-1-1) leads the Supporters’ Shield standings with 22 points and is second in the league in goals (21) and goal differential (+13) after Sunday’s 2-0 win over Minnesota United. The team record after nine games matches that of the 2019 team, which broke the MLS record for points and goal differential and tied the record for goals.

That 2019 team largely was one-dimensional — Carlos Vela, with a league-record 34 goals and 15 assists, participated in nearly 60% of the team’s 85 goals — but this year’s team has had a dozen players score, with eight of those goals coming from second-half substitutes.

“Contributions from the bench have been the story this year,” said Cherundolo, who got goals Sunday from Ryan Hollingshead and José Cifuentes, neither of whom was in the game before the 63rd minute. “We’ve been very happy with our bench play.

“I think that is maybe a little secret to our success, being able to put on fresh legs with enough quality to change the dynamic of a game,” he continued. “I’ve been extremely pleased with the players to also grasp that concept of even if I don’t start, I can still be the star for the day and I can still help the team win.”

Continuing to keep pace with the 2018 team will be tough. That one didn’t lose its second game until late June. But this year’s roster hasn’t come close to reaching its potential, said Hollingshead, a defender who is second on the team with three goals.

Eddie Segura, arguably the best center back on the roster, hasn’t played a minute this season after undergoing knee surgery last summer and designated player Brian Rodriguez, who started the first six games, hasn’t played in a month as he deals with a hamstring injury.

“It’s still too early,” Hollingshead said. “We still have a lot to prove, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

Javier “Chicharito” Hernández
(Associated Press)

The Galaxy, meanwhile, appear to be stuck in neutral. While LAFC is balanced and multi-dimensional on offense, the Galaxy’s attack starts and stops with Javier “Chicharito” Hernández.

And lately it’s been stopping. Hernández hasn’t scored in 347 MLS minutes, and the team has just one goal in its last three league games.

Finishing has been the problem for the Galaxy, who had more than twice as many shots in Saturday’s 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake but were shut out for the third time in six games. The Galaxy (5-3-1) have scored multiple goals in a game just three times this season.

Hernández, who has scored five times, is the only player with multiple goals and the only one with more than five shots on goal for the season. That makes it too easy on opponents, who know if they stop Chicharito, they’ll stop the Galaxy.

One solution would be playing Hernández alongside Serbian forward Dejan Joveljić, whom coach Greg Vanney called the best finisher on the team. Joveljić came off the bench to bag the only goal in the team’s last win and also found the back of the net as a substitute Saturday, only to have the goal denied on an offside call.

Vanney, however, seems reluctant to pair him with Hernández in the starting lineup because he is wary of how that might impact the team’s defense. If the Galaxy don’t score, though, they won’t win many games no matter how good they are defensively.

“He’s a goal scorer,” Sacha Kljestan said of Joveljić. “He’s like Chicharito. They live and breathe goals. It’s not easy being stuck on the bench behind Chicharito, who for the last year and a half has been scoring a lot of goals and doing so well for our team.

“When he gets his chances, we know that he’s a guy that can bury them.”

And finally there’s this …

With Saturday’s 4-0 victory over Sevilla, Real Madrid clinched the La Liga title and made coach Carlo Ancelotti the first manager to win championships in all five major European leagues. Ancelotti previously won Italy’s Serie A with AC Milan, France’s Ligue 1 with Paris Saint-Germain, the English Premier League with Chelsea, and the German Bundesliga with Bayern Munich … Record-setting goalkeeper Hope Solo has requested a postponement of her Hall of Fame induction ceremony until next year after agreeing to enter an in-patient alcohol treatment program. Solo, who was scheduled to be honored May 21, was arrested in North Carolina on March 31 on charges of misdemeanor child abuse, resisting arrest and impaired driving after she was found passed out in her vehicle with the engine running and her 2-year-old twins in the back seat.

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

“I was too good for the whole competition. That is what I showed. And I’m the best ever to play in MLS. That is not me having ego or trying to show off now. That is true. When I was there, I enjoyed [it]. I had a good time. I like the way they were working, the way they were doing the marketing stuff. [Playing in MLS] was the best way for me to come back after my injury. I was in the best condition ever. And I’m very proud I played for the MLS. There was no empty stadiums when I was playing. It was even overbooked, so I cannot complain.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, talking to ESPN about his two seasons with the Galaxy. He has not ruled out a return to MLS.

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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