Soccer newsletter: Mexico’s Atlas FC is all about breaking that jinx
Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s contribution to Real Madrid’s Champions League win, a possible thawing in the feud between Mexican national team coach Tata Martino and Galaxy captain Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, LAFC’s fans giving the team the silent treatment, and Angel City’s scoring woes.
However, we start in the Mexican league with Atlas FC, one of the country’s oldest clubs yet one that had claimed just two domestic league titles in its first 106 years. But after its victory over Pachuca on Sunday in the two-leg Liga MX Clausura final, it has two titles in six months. That’s quite a turnaround for a club even its employees thought was too jinxed to win.
Both titles came in closely fought two-leg finals. On Sunday, Pachuca won 2-1 on the field but Atlas’ 2-0 victory at home in the first leg gave it a 3-2 edge in the aggregate. Julian Quinones’ goal three minutes into stoppage time of the first leg and Julio Furch’s penalty-kick goal in first-half stoppage time of the second game proved crucial for Atlas, which had to close out the playoff a man down after midfielder Aníbal Chalá drew a red card in the 83rd minute.
Last December Atlas beat León in a tiebreaking, penalty-kick shootout in which Furch delivered the decisive blow.
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If there had been a jinx hanging over the club, those two results should have proven the spell had been lifted — which is exactly what club management had been trying to prove all along. When I visited Guadalajara last month to speak with Atlas president José Riestra and executive director Aníbal Fajer, they were clear that changing the attitude around the team was important to changing results.
“We cannot keep saying, ‘Well, it’s Atlas. We used to win sometimes.’ Our mission, our philosophy is to keep Atlas as a winning team,” Riestra said. “So we have to work on that every day, every single game, every single match. We have to keep our minds saying we have to win.
“That was part of our history. Now is different.”
Indeed it is, and it has the team’s new ownership to thank for that. When Grupo Orlegi bought the team from broadcast giant TV Azteca in the spring of 2019, Atlas was on its way to a second consecutive 17th-place finish in the overall league table. It had placed in the top 10 just once in 13 years.
But Orlegi, founded by former Querétaro and Santos Laguna executive Alejandro Irarragorri, has a well-earned reputation for turning clubs around, having won two titles with Santos.
Atlas FC has a large, devoted following and a rich history, having produced iconic players such as Jared Borgetti, Pavel Pardo, Andrés Guardado and Rafa Márquez, all of whom rank in the top four all time in either appearances or goals with the country’s national team. But it had lost its ambition, its facilities were aged and crumbling, there was little investment in cutting-edge technologies like analytics and an attitude of defeatism hung over the club when Orlegi took over.
Irarragorri’s group operates under what it calls its three pillars of success: infrastructure, structure and the processes they undergo. In Guadalajara, Orlegi inherited an aging stadium and a training ground at an abandoned country club that was too small to host the first team as well as the team’s academy and women’s team. Irarragorri quickly approved an investment of $15 million to construct a sprawling 18-acre, high-performance center in nearby Zapopan, yet it was the people around the club, the structure, that represented the biggest challenge in changing the team’s direction.
“We had to change the mentality,” Riestra said. “Nobody was taking responsibility. We said we have to change this. We have to put transformation in the minds of the players and the staff, the people working here and the fans.”
To make sure no one missed what was happening, Atlas adopted the slogan “Transformación” and stripped it across the front of the team’s red and black jersey where a sponsor’s name should have been. Winning once wasn’t exactly a transformation though, which made this spring’s Clausura season so important.
“We could repeat it,” Riestra said of the championship before Atlas’ final home game of the regular season. “We do it once, I’m sure we’ve got to do it a second time.”
Furch, who won a Clausura title under Orlegi at Santos Laguna, said the change in Guadalajara is contagious.
“People are enthusiastic. They are very eager, knowing we can continue to achieve things,” he said. “You can see the change in the club and we know what we are capable of.
“I myself know what the people or Orlegi are capable of. From now on this will be a team that wins many titles.”
Defender Luis Reyes, who scored the other Atlas goal in the two-leg, agreed.
“We are changing history,” he said. “Since the Orlegi Group arrived the mentality of the institution has changed a lot. Now it’s looking for championships.”
Real Madrid can thank Ronaldo for Champions League win
Real Madrid won the Champions League title four times in Cristiano Ronaldo’s last five seasons in Spain, so it was strange not to see him on the field last Saturday when Los Blancos won again. But if Ronaldo wasn’t there in person, his influence definitely was felt in Madrid’s 1-0 win over Liverpool.
That’s because when Ronaldo left Spain in 2018 after nine seasons, Madrid received a $125 million transfer fee from Juventus and was off the hook for the reported $66 million (a figure that likely is inflated) a year it would have had to pay Ronaldo to stay. That was money the team immediately reinvested in the club by luring goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois from Chelsea that summer and midfielder Eden Hazard a year later.
In fact, six of the 14 players Carlo Ancelotti used in the final, including Vinícius Junior, who scored the game’s only goal, joined Real’s first team after Ronaldo left.
“I don’t think Real have moved backwards since last beating Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2018,” former team president Ramón Calderón said in a radio interview last week.
Courtois rightly was named man of the match after a sterling performance in which he made nine saves, including three stops Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp praised as “world class.”
“When a goalkeeper is man of the match, you know something is going wrong for the other team,” Klopp added.
Liverpool had a 23-3 edge in shots and Real put just one of its tries on target. That lone attempt was Vinícius’ back-post finish off a ball from Federico Valverde in the 59th minute.
“Desire is what really makes the difference in a big final like this,” Courtois, who made a record nine saves in the final and a record 59 saves in the tournament, told the media. “The key is having repeated to myself, ‘Today is my day. This is what I’ve worked for. Today I’m going to win this trophy. I will not lose another final.’
“So to make that happen is a fantastic feeling.”
The victory was Real Madrid’s 14th in a Champions League final, double the number of the next-best club, AC Milan, and its second in as many tries over Liverpool. Real Madrid hasn’t lost in the title game since 1981, when it was beaten by Liverpool in a tournament then called the European Cup.
For Liverpool, Saturday’s loss was only its second in 32 matches in 2022, ending a season in which it won the FA and Carabao cups but lost the Premier League race by a point and the Champions League final by a goal. In six seasons in Liverpool, Klopp has taken the team to three Champions League finals and won one.
For Real Madrid and Ancelotti, who resigned at Everton last June to return to Spain, it was a magical season in which the team won La Liga by 13 points, making Ancelotti the first manager to win league titles in each of Europe’s top five leagues and the first to win four Champions League titles. The team also won the Supercopa de España.
Is détente at hand in Chicharito-Tata feud?
Galaxy captain Javier “Chicharito” Hernández is the all-time leading scorer on a Mexican national team in desperate need of offense. But he’s been exiled from the team since the fall of 2019.
Now, however, those frosty relations may be thawing. Hernández said last week he recently talked to Mexican manager Tata Martino for the first time in more than two years.
“There were approaches,” Hernández said in Spanish.
Gibrán Araige, who covers the national team for TUDN, said those discussions included the apology Martino has long insisted was a prerequisite for Hernández to return. Whether that will be enough to get him back on the team for this fall’s World Cup remains to be seen.
According to a then-member of the Mexican soccer federation, hours after scoring his 52nd and final international goal in a friendly with the U.S., Hernández violated team rules by holding a party at the hotel. It reportedly wasn’t his first transgression and Martino demanded he acknowledge the violations and apologize.
The player refused and Martino has enlisted the support of some veteran leaders in keeping “Chicharito” off the roster until he does.
“For now, he’s not in the long list of 38 players who will participate in the next five matches,” Yon De Luisa, president of the Mexican federation, said earlier this month.
Said another federation official: “He’s not being called up again under Martino.”
Time is running out for the player and coach to find a way forward. Hernández will turn 34 on Wednesday and Qatar represents his last chance at a World Cup. Martino’s contract expires a week after that tournament and he’s leading a team that was shut out three times in its last seven games and needed an own goal to beat Nigeria last Saturday.
To succeed in the World Cup, Martino needs someone who can finish. Hernández is well past his prime, but he scored 17 goals in 21 games last season and leads the Galaxy with seven goals in all competitions this year.
“There’s no doubt he’s in good form,” Martino acknowledged to the Athletic’s Felipe Cardenas earlier this spring. “That cannot be denied.”
That good form continued Sunday when Hernández’s second-half goal, the first of four unanswered goals from the Galaxy, sparked a 4-1 victory over Austin FC. It was the Galaxy’s first come-from-behind victory this season and the four goals scored were the most in a game since last July.
Hernández’s goal was his second in five days, after a score in last week’s U.S. Open Cup rout of LAFC, but his first in MLS play in more than six weeks. The Galaxy (7-5-2) have won five of the six games in which their captain has scored this season.
The star of the day, however, was Dejan Joveljic, who had been complaining about a lack of opportunity after playing just 193 minutes through the club’s first 13 games. He made the most of his opportunity Sunday, coming on in the 57th minute and setting up Hernández with a nifty back-heel pass four minutes later. Joveljic then scored two goals of his own before assisting on the final one by Efraín Álvarez.
“I’m a hard-working player and when I’m on the field, I want to use every chance,” Joveljic said.
Galaxy coach Greg Vanney prefers to use Hernández as a lone striker, and since Joveljic is misplaced as a winger he has found it difficult getting game time while Hernández is on the field. On Sunday, the two forwards showed such good chemistry together Vanney may have to rethink his approach during the international break.
“He’s made a difference. He’s brought energy, he’s brought confidence, he’s brought quality in the final actions,” Vanney said of Joveljic. “For us, now, [it’s] finding opportunities for him to continue to grow as a player and grow within our team.”
For LAFC, the sound of silence delivers a message
LAFC heads into the international break with the best record and most goals in MLS, but not everything is well with the black and gold. The team’s poor play in the U.S. Open Cup loss to the Galaxy at Dignity Health Sports Park — a loss that ran LAFC’s winless streak in Carson to eight games and left the team 1-3-0 in its four previous matches with MLS foes — so angered the club’s main supporters’ union, the 3252, that the north grandstand at Banc of California Stadium remained silent for the first 12 minutes of Saturday’s game with the San Jose Earthquakes.
Consider the message received because seconds after the fans started chanting again, Ryan Hollingshead scored his fourth goal of the year to give LAFC a 2-0 lead en route to a 3-2 win.
“The frustration with the performance and the results. I get it, we’re frustrated too,” said coach Steve Cherundolo, who has been a target of the fans’ ire on social media. “I understand their reaction. Not a problem. But I will say this: We are all better together. And hopefully we don’t have to repeat that anymore.
“With them there and our players feeding off of that, you ask any [visiting] player who has played here. It’s a very difficult place to come play.”
The three-week pause in the schedule will give the team time to do more than just get its mojo back, though. It also will give the team a chance to get healthy.
Captain Carlos Vela, who came out of the Galaxy game in the 20th minute with a quadriceps issue, did not suit up Saturday and is still unhappy his contract situation remains unresolved. Vela is playing on a contract extension that expires at the end of June and talks on a new 18-month deal apparently have stalled.
Vela was one of six players who missed the San Jose game to injury and that doesn’t include center back Eddie Segura, the team’s defensive rock last season. He has not played a minute since undergoing knee surgery 10 months ago.
The break also will give Cherundolo an opportunity to regroup. LAFC lost just one of its first 10 games and gave up multiple goals twice. But it goes into the break having lost three of its last five, including the U.S. Open Cup game, and has given up two or more goals in four of those games.
Even in victory Saturday, LAFC didn’t look sharp. It put nine shots on goal but got just three of them by San Jose keeper James Marcinkowski — and one of those came on a Crisitian Arango penalty kick in the eighth minute. LAFC keeper Maxime Crepeau, meanwhile, stopped just one of four shots San Jose put on target.
Brian Rodríguez, starting for the first time since April 9, was credited with an assist on Hollingshead’s goal and scored what proved to be the game-winner two minutes into the second half. He finished with a goal and assist for just the second time in MLS career.
For Hollingshead, there’s no doubt the best of LAFC is yet to come.
“We keep talking as a team on how scary it is that we don’t feel like we are at our potential yet and still sitting at the top of the table, playing well and winning games,” Hollingshead said. “So if we can push, especially getting our legs fresh, coming back from a little bit of a break, getting some guys healthy again, this last half of the season is going to be something fun to be a part of.”
Angel City still waiting for its offense to start the season
Angel City has three wins five games into its first NWSL season, one fewer than the number of goals the team has scored. The three victories are tied for second in the league behind the San Diego Wave, but the four goals are tied for second-worst, meaning something has to give.
Angel City (3-2-0) was held scoreless for the second time Sunday in a 1-0 loss to Gotham FC, the team’s second loss in four games at home. The only goal came in the 57th minute when forward Ifeoma Onumonu beat Angel City keeper DiDi Haracic with a right-footed blast. That was one of two shots Gotham put on target in a game in which it was outshot 23-7. But Gotham keeper Ashlyn Harris was up to the challenge in making six saves.
Alex Morgan of the league-leading Wave (4-2-0), who has six goals, has outscored the entire Angel City team this season. Morgan’s USWNT teammate Christen Press was supposed to provide the Angel City offense, but she has just one goal despite a team-leading 15 shots and seven shots on target.
And finally there’s this …
The Galaxy’s Jonathan Pérez and the LAFC trio of Antonio Leone, Christian Torres and Nathan Ordaz were called up to Mexico’s team for this month’s CONCACAF U-20 championship. The Galaxy’s Marcus Ferkranus and Jalen Neal, UCLA’s Tarun Karumanchi and Kobi Henry and Korede Osundina of the second-tier Orange County SC were named to the preliminary U.S. roster.
In case you missed it
Austin FC aims to blaze a trail of next-gen MLS success that usurps the old guard
Real Madrid wins Champions League final marred by crowd chaos
DiDi Haracic, Stefany Ferrer Van Ginkel shaped by harrowing journeys to Angel City FC
Galaxy again own bragging rights with U.S. Open Cup win over LAFC
Angel City partners with Tigres Femenil for first NWSL partnership with Liga MX
Mexico’s national soccer federation enters into U.S. promotional deal
“There’s literally a mass shooting every day. It actually struck me when we went to do a moment of silence today because we just did one three f—ing days ago … You know, it makes it seem pointless to come play really. It’s difficult to do that. I know everybody’s doing their job and having to show up today and trying to just sort of fake their way through it, but it’s so heartbreaking and yeah, obviously, things need to change.”
OL Reign and USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe, speaking at a postgame press conference Sunday on the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that left 21 dead
Until next time...
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