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Soccer newsletter: Ukraine stands tall in defeat

Ukraine's Andriy Yarmolenko during the World Cup 2022 qualifying match against Wales.
Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko during the World Cup 2022 qualifying match against Wales.
(Rui Vieira / Associated Press)
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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 take a deep dive on MLS salaries, look at the World Cup preparations of the United States and Mexico, and offer a solution for Angel City’s scoring woes. But we start with Ukraine, which saw its longshot hopes of securing a World Cup berth get washed out in a rainy Cardiff City Stadium in a 1-0 loss to Wales on Sunday.

Fairy tales don’t always end the way we want them to, but for Ukraine the result was heartbreaking for several reasons. The loss was Ukraine’s first in World Cup qualifying and came in what might have been the team’s best game. Ukraine had the ball for more than an hour of the 90 minutes, outshot Wales 22-9, put nine of those shots on goal and completed 300 more passes.

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But the only score came on Gareth Bale’s free kick in the 34th minute that appeared headed into the waiting gloves of Ukrainian goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan when captain Andriy Yarmolenko tried to head the ball out of danger and instead redirected it past Bushchan and into the net.

Wales, gifted an own goal, spent much of the rest of the rainy evening bunkering in, keeping as many as nine men behind the ball and absorbing the relentless Ukrainian attack but never conceding.

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“I don’t think we deserved to lose,” Ukraine’s Oleksandr Zinchenko told Sky Sports. “But that’s football. It happens.”

Wales players celebrate at the end of the World Cup 2022 qualifying match between Wales and Ukraine.
(Rui Vieira / Associated Press)

The game was much bigger than a soccer match because the Ukrainians were playing for people back home who continue to suffer more than 100 days after Russia’s unprovoked invasion. Days earlier, Ukraine had beaten Scotland to advance to the playoff final against Wales. The winner would head to Qatar this fall to open the World Cup against the United States.

For the Ukrainians, playing on the road for the second time in four days against a well-rested team, a victory would have provided a monumental morale boost — one that just eluded them.

“There is a dead silence in the locker room,” Ukrainian coach Oleksandr Petrakov said afterward.

Petrakov is a perfect example of the pluck, spirit and determination of the Ukrainians, who have risen to the occasion in both war and soccer.

In the early hours of the invasion, Petrakov asked to join the territorial defense force, but, at age 64 and with no combat experience, he was turned away. So he fought for his country’s sovereignty on the soccer field instead.

His own playing career was undistinguished and consisted mostly of stints with lower-division clubs — and even a few games with a Soviet military team. After taking over the Ukrainian national team last August, he showed few signs of the kind of graceful leadership he soon would be forced to exhibit.

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He got his players to focus as much as possible on the game and not the war while winning friendlies against clubs from Germany and Italy and playing to a draw with a Croatian team before the win over Scotland left them a win away from the country’s second World Cup berth and first in 16 years.

That only ratcheted up the pressure.

“Everyone knows the situation in Ukraine ... and we need to show the performances of our lives,” Zinchenko said before the match against Wales. “We dream as a team to be in the World Cup.”

None of that was lost on the Welsh, who repeatedly stressed their solidarity with Ukraine — with the exception of a 90-minute period Sunday.

Wales manager Robert Page admitted to the BBC that “most of the world want Ukraine to get through,” but Wales, the third-oldest national team in the world, had its own dream too. It hasn’t been to a World Cup since 1958.

“Opportunities like this don’t come around every day,” Page said. “If we could click our fingers and take away the pain the Ukraine are going through, we’d do it in a heartbeat. But when it comes to football and the whistle goes, we’ll want to win that game.

“Business is business.”

Page — the caretaker manager for Ryan Giggs, who has been away from the team as he deals with allegations of assault — rolled the dice on one decision Sunday, and the gamble paid off handsomely when the aging Wayne Hennessey, who started just seven games in goal for his club teams the last three years, played superbly, making nine saves.

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“That’s the best game I’ve had in a Welsh shirt,” he confessed.

Added Bale, the team captain: “The result is the greatest in Welsh football history. We’re going to a World Cup. It means everything. [It’s] what dreams are made of.”

For Ukraine, which must prepare for Wednesday’s Nations League match against Ireland, its third game in eight days, it’s the kind of loss that builds character. And Petrakov again displayed that by stepping up to take the blame for the loss.

“I have no complaints about my players,” he said. “Pour everything on the head coach. The team wins, the head coach loses.”

“We did everything that we could,” he continued. “I really want the people of Ukraine to remember our efforts.”

Breaking down MLS spending

The Chicago Fire's Xherdan Shaqiri is Major League Soccer's highest-paid player.
(Doug Murray / Associated Press)

In its release of league-wide salary figures last month, the MLS Players Association touted the continued double-digit growth in the average base salary for non-designated players on the senior roster. Pay for players in that category jumped to $438,728 in 2022, an increase of nearly $41,000. And salaries for players in roster spots four through 18 grew on average more than 10% per year over the last five years.

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Which is all great for the players and the league’s continued well-being. Those, however, are not the numbers many fans examine . Here are some other numbers that, when you break them down, provide a pretty good hint at who’s spending wisely … and who’s just spending.

Let’s start with overall payroll, one of the only statistics in which the Galaxy lead the Western Conference:

Atlanta, $20.999 million

Galaxy, $20.528 million

Miami, $18.882 million

New England, $18.141 million

Chicago, $17.645 million

Seattle, $16.983 million

New York City, $15.543

Toronto, $15.213 million

Dallas, $15.031 million

Columbus. $14.978 million

LAFC, $14.563 million

Cincinnati, $13.789 million

Austin, $13.754 million

Kansas City, $13.631 million

Minnesota, $13.240 million

Montreal, $12.920 million

DC United, $12.483 million

Vancouver, $11.946 million

Philadelphia, $11.808 million

New York Red Bulls, $11.726 million

Nashville, $11.710 million

Houston, $11.548 million

San Jose, $11.541 million

Orlando, $11.509 million

Colorado, $11.390 million

Portland, $11.311 million

Charlotte, $10.708 million

Salt Lake, $10.477 million

With Javier “Chicharito” Hernández guaranteed $6 million in the final season of his three-year contract, the Galaxy also have the best-paid player in the conference.

Highest-paid players

(guaranteed compensation)

Xherdan Shaqiri, Chicago, M, $8.153 million

Chicharito, F, Galaxy, $6 million

Gonzalo Higuaín, Miami, F, $5.793 million

Alejandro Pozuelo, Toronto, M, $4.693 million

Jozy Altidore, New England, F, $4.264 million

Josef Martínez, Atlanta, F, $4.141 million

Carlos Vela, LAFC, F, $4.050 million

Luis Araujo, Atlanta, F, $3.941 million

Lucas Zelarayan, Columbus, M, $3.7 million

Gil Carles, New England, M, $3.545 million

So what does it all mean? Soccer America did its own analysis and drew some interesting conclusions — one of which was that LAFC general manager John Thorrington had an excellent winter.

Thorrington managed to acquire seven MLS veterans through trades or free agency and squeeze them under the league salary cap. All have contributed to a quick start that has LAFC (9-3-2) atop the Supporters’ Shield standings a season after failing to make the playoffs.

Here are the seven new players:

1. Kellyn Acosta, $1,215,000

2. Ilie Sanchez, $1,150,000

3. Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, $647,860

4. Franco Escobar, $550,000

5. Doniel Henry, $403,000

6. Ryan Hollingshead, $393,750

7. Maxime Crepeau, $302,500

Paul Kennedy, Soccer America’s Hall of Fame editor, crunched the numbers even further to show what a club’s spending says about its philosophy and success.

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Take the Chicago Fire, for example. The team has the highest-paid player in MLS history in Swiss forward Xherdan Shaqiri, 30, who is guaranteed more than $8.1 million this season. The team spent another $8 million on the transfer fee but has gotten just three goals and six assists in 12 games for its largess.

Chicago has the fifth-highest payroll in the league, but nearly 46% of that money is going to Shaqiri. As a result, just seven other Fire players make more than $300,000 a year, the fewest on any roster in the league. Not surprisingly, Chicago (2-7-5) has the worst record in the league.

Compare that with New York City, the reigning MLS champion and current Eastern Conference leader, which has spread its spending around. The team has a league-high 12 players making guaranteed compensation at or above the 2022 maximum salary budget charge.

The top dozen salaries on NYCFC’s books:

1. Thiago Martins, $1.962 million

2. Maxi Moralez, $1.3 million

3. Talles Magno, $1.198 million

4. *Alexandru Mitrita, $1.15 million

5. Taty Castellanos (2019 transfer), $1.076 million

6. Heber, $914,000

7. Alexander Callens, $814,000

8. Anton Tinnerholm, $800,000

9. Maxime Chanot, $700,000

10. Alfredo Morales, $662,250

11. Gabriel Pereira, $624,500

12. Santiago Rodriguez, $612,500

*— on loan.

So which teams are getting the most bang for their buck … and who’s getting the least?

Cost per point

(Five best teams)

Real Salt Lake, $419,114 per point

Philadelphia, $472,322

LAFC, $502,197

Montreal, $516,751

Nashville, $532,313

(Five worst teams)

Chicago, $1.604 million

Atlanta, $1.312 million

New England, $1.134 million

Seattle, $1.061 million

Miami, $1.049 million

Here are a few more basic numbers:

MLS millionaires club

(all figures guaranteed compensation)

91: Players making at least $1 million

29: Players making at least $2 million

16: Players making at least $3 million

3: Players making $5 million

15: Americans making at least $1 million

1: Canadians making at least $1 million

Spendings by position

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(top 3 clubs)

Forward

Galaxy, $12.453 million

Atlanta, $9.598 million

Dallas, $7.108 million

Midfield

Chicago, $11.86 million

Columbus, $9.723 million

Seattle, $9.207 million

Defender

New York City, $5.952 million

Toronto, $4.489 million

Miami, $4.410 million

Goalkeeper

Philadelphia, $1.256 million

Columbus, $1.147 million

DC United, $1.069 million

U.S., Mexico take different paths to the World Cup

U.S. forward Paul Arriola, left, and Uruguay midfielder Manuel Ugarte battle for the ball.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

With Wales’ victory over Ukraine, the United States learned Sunday who it will play in its World Cup opener in Qatar. Then hours later, it fought Uruguay, the No. 13 team in the FIFA rankings, to a scoreless draw. It was the team’s second friendly of the June window against a World Cup qualifier. In the first game, it beat No. 24 Morocco 3-0.

“We talked about wanting to keep progressing, keep moving forward as a group,” said manager Gregg Berhalter, who was missing his first-choice goalkeeper in Zack Steffen and one of his top center backs in Miles Robinson.

“We played two games against World Cup opponents and didn’t give up a goal. There are positives to it.”

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The U.S. will play Grenada on Friday and El Salvador on June 14 in group play of the CONCACAF Nations League before resuming its World Cup preparations in September in Europe.

“The idea is to play quality teams,” said Berhalter, whose team extended its unbeaten streak at home to 25 matches, one short of the record, with Sunday’s draw in Kansas City, Kan. “You want into go in the World Cup with confidence that you can beat anyone on any given day.”

Uruguay outshot the U.S. 12-9, but goalkeeper Sean Johnson came up with three saves, including a goal-line stop of Darwin Nuñezs left-footed shot in the 63rd minute. That was the best scoring opportunity for either team on the day.

In the Morocco game, the U.S. got first-half goals from Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah and a second-half, penalty-kick goal from Haji Wright in his international debut. Morocco peppered the U.S. net with 22 shots and forced Matt Turner to make eight saves to earn his 12th shutout in his 17th appearance.

The game, played in Cincinnati, also marked the return of Weston McKennie, who missed the final three World Cup qualifiers after breaking a bone in his left foot in February.

“Now it’s full steam ahead, concentrating on Wales,” Berhalter said.

The road ahead could be a little bumpier for Mexico, which failed to score in either of its two June friendlies. El Tri lost to Uruguay 3-0 in Glendale, Ariz., before playing Ecuador to a scoreless draw in Chicago. Mexico has been blanked in five of nine games and three of its last four, the exception a 2-1 victory over Nigeria in which one of Mexico’s scores came on an own goal.

El Tri has scored just one goal of its own in the last 407 minutes dating to the first half of its final World Cup qualifier in March. And that goal came on a penalty kick.

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All of which has turned up the heat on manager Tata Martino, who said his team is not ready for Qatar.

“This is part of the preparation, and in the preparation, as has happened in the last four years, there are good and difficult moments,” Martino said. “Obviously, if I were convinced that this can’t be corrected, we wouldn’t be talking.”

Mexico, which lacked for creativity, managed just 19 shots and put just four on target in the two games combined. Uruguay, by way of comparison, had four shots on target, and three of them went in.

The Ecuador game at Soldier Field also was marred by the return of an anti-gay chant in the final minutes that caused Panamanian referee Oliver Vergara to halt the match. Players from both teams gathered in the center circle until Vergara allowed play to resume after a brief pause.

Mexico will face Suriname and Jamaica in Nations League group play this month before resuming its World Cup preparations in September.

Angel City’s scoring solution

Tobin Heath, left, and Australia's Steph Catley during last year's Summer Olympics.
(Associated Press)

Speaking of teams that are having trouble scoring, Angel City was shut out for the third time in six matches and saw its scoreless streak grow to 200 consecutive minutes in Friday night’s 3-0 road loss to the Portland Thorns.

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But there might be a simple answer to the team’s scoring woes: Tobin Heath.

The two-time World Cup and Olympic champion is in Southern California and out of contract after her season with Arsenal ended early because of a hamstring injury. Her 2021 season with Manchester City also ended early because of knee and ankle injuries.

But if Heath, 34, can get healthy, Angel City would do well to sign her because she could provide the offensive spark the team has been missing six games into a season in which it has scored just four times. Heath, who has been visible around Banc of California Stadium since returning from England, also could provide the key to unlocking Christen Press, her teammate with the Pali Blues, the U.S. women’s national team and Manchester United. Press has scored just once despite taking a team-high 16 shots, including seven on goal.

To get Heath, Angel City (3-3-0) first would have to outbid the OL Reign to obtain her NWSL rights from Racing Louisville, which traded away its claim to Press last August in exchange for Angel City’s first-round pick in the 2022 draft, $75,000 in allocation money and full roster protection in the expansion draft.

When Angel City first expressed an interest in Press, it was believed it would be a package deal, but team executives at the time said they were interested only in Press and gave her a three-year deal worth just less than $700,000, at the time the richest contract in NWSL history. Heath signed with Arsenal 11 days later.

Racing Louisville President James O’Connor said he has had “dialogue” with Heath’s agent about the player’s future. The Reign also have expressed interest.

“I think they’re trying to figure out what the next step is for them. I think they maybe have their own idea what they want to do,” said O’Connor, who added that when his team originally acquired the rights to Press and Heath, it partly was in the hopes they might be worth something in trade one day.

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One rival NWSL club executive said a Heath-Press reunion in Los Angeles makes too much sense for it not to happen.

“Likely only going to one place,” the executive said of Heath.

And finally there’s this …

Midfielder Catarina Macario, the brightest of a new generation of USWNT stars, will miss next month’s World Cup and Olympic qualifying tournament after sustaining an anterior cruciate ligament injury that will require surgery. Macario, who led Lyon with 23 goals this season, was injured early in the team’s final game against FC Issy on Wednesday and could be out six months. She matched Mallory Pugh with a team-high five goals in as many games for the national team this year. … With his two goals in the Galaxy’s 4-1 victory over Austin last month, Dejan Joveljic is averaging a score every 75 minutes of playing time. That trails only Atlanta’s Dom Dwyer (every 68 minutes) among MLS players with at least three scores. But Joveljic also has two assists, meaning he has contributed to a score every 45 minutes.

In case you missed it

USMNT forwards struggle for goals in World Cup tuneup vs. Uruguay

Ukraine misses out on World Cup after losing 1-0 to Wales

More than just a game: World Cup qualifier ‘like a moment of hope’ for Ukraine

Commentary: Austin FC aims to blaze a trail of next-gen MLS success that usurps the old guard

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Quotebook

“Until it touches you personally, no one will understand what war is. We are here now, and people are dying there. I don’t know what words to choose for the guys on the front line. Guys, we did everything we could today.”

Ukrainian coach Oleksandr Petrakov, after his team’s 1-0 loss to Wales in World Cup qualifying Sunday

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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