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Soccer newsletter: Meet the woman who saved the NWSL

NWSL interim CEO Marla Messing presents the championship trophy to Washington Spirit during the NWSL Championship
NWSL interim CEO Marla Messing presents the championship trophy to Washington Spirit in 2021.
(Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer. Today we’ll look at how LAFC is beating the Galaxy at its own game and at a telling result for the women’s national team as it prepares for World Cup and Olympic qualifying. But we start with Marla Messing, the woman who saved the NWSL.

I spoke to Messing by phone on a weekday afternoon last month, which may not sound noteworthy. But to people who know her, finding Messing free in the middle of a workday is about as rare as a solar eclipse or a Bigfoot sighting: It can happen, just not very often.

Messing played huge roles in bringing the 1994 World Cup and 1999 Women’s World Cup to the U.S. and in between helped launched MLS. As vice president of the Olympic and Paralympic Committee, she helped Los Angeles land the 2028 Summer Olympics, then for two years she was the chief executive officer of the U.S. Tennis Assn. in Southern California.

And she did all that while raising three children, which brings to mind the late Ann Richards’ quote about Ginger Rogers, who, the Texas governor said, “Did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”

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Messing, in fact, submitted the then-outrageous plan to hold the 1999 Women’s World Cup in NFL stadiums two days before giving birth for the first time. The tournament went on to become the best-attended in women’s soccer history, and Messing’s first daughter Natalie went on to play college soccer at Brown.

Even Ginger Rogers never tried that.

Messing’s latest project might have topped all that for degree of difficulty. Last October, she was named the interim chief executive of the NWSL, charged with staving off an existential threat. Allegations of sexual harassment, inappropriate conduct and homophobic comments had rocked the league and forced the resignation or removal of Commissioner Lisa Baird, general counsel Lisa Levine and, eventually, five of the league’s 10 coaches.

The fledgling players’ union had begun flexing its muscles in demanding reform and a voice in the league’s future and was threatening a strike if it didn’t get both. The ownership group in Washington was in turmoil while some of the new investors in San Diego, Los Angeles and Orlando, Fla., were beginning to grow uneasy.

Messing not only stopped the bleeding, but in 6 1/2 months as CEO she reached a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement with the players’ association; announced an eight-year sponsorship agreement with Nike, one of more than a dozen multiyear corporate partnerships with the league and oversaw the sale of the Spirit to entrepreneur Michele Kang for a record $35 million.

By the time Messing’s interim term ended at the end of April and she turned the league over to new Commissioner Jessica Berman, the NWSL, which many feared was headed for dissolution, was entertaining expansion offers from nearly a half-dozen suitors.

“The NWSL was in a state of crisis last fall and needed an experienced executive to help manage a very difficult period in the league’s history,” Berman said last week. “Marla provided much-needed leadership and stability during her tenure as interim CEO and we’re better off because of it.”

Which isn’t to say it was easy. And when she was done, Messing was exhausted.

“I went from, I feel like, working 19 hours a day for six-plus months and it just took me a little bit to decompress. Go to the eye doctor and the dentist and all the things I didn’t do while I was working,” she said.

“I’m only now starting to think about what’s next. So I really am not officially doing anything.”

Messing, 58, could retire now, of course, with a résumé few U.S. sports executives — and even fewer soccer executives — could match.

“The men’s World Cup, when no one thought that would be successful. When I look at the women’s World Cup and I see what has happened with that event over the ensuing years, obviously ’99 was a huge, huge success,” she said.

“I feel very proud of the work I’ve done over the years and how I’ve contributed.”

For that she can thank a caffeine habit.

After finishing law school at the University of Chicago, Messing moved to Southern California to accept a job with the law firm Latham & Watkins, where she had an office two doors down from one occupied by Alan Rothenberg. The two met often at the coffee machine, Messing said, and those daily conversations eventually led Rothenberg, then president of U.S. Soccer, to ask Messing to help him organize the 1994 World Cup.

“In this world of remote work, something like that could never happen,” she said. “That literally changed my life, changed my career, and gave me all these opportunities to get involved in the sport of soccer.

“So I always tell young [people] ‘Go into the office. You need to meet people. Things can happen in that environment.’ ”

But if it was Rothenberg who opened the door, it was Messing who entered the room and set up shop, parlaying that friendship into a career in which she has continued to help achieve the impossible.

There was huge doubt the U.S., which didn’t even have a first-division soccer league, could successfully stage a World Cup. Yet the 1994 tournament remains the best-attended in history. Five years later the idea that women’s soccer could fill a football stadium was laughable.

Yet seven of the tournament’s 32 games drew crowds of more than 65,000, topped by the 90,185 for the final at the Rose Bowl. The 1999 tournament remains the best-attended Women’s World Cup in history.

In between, Messing was senior vice-president for MLS, which at the time seemed like an equally quixotic attempt at establishing a first-division professional league in a country that repeatedly had thrown off attempts to establish a soccer foothold.

MLS now has 28 teams playing in two countries, 18 states and the District of Columbia and its average attendance ranks sixth in the world.

Those accomplishments are what led Cindy Parlow Cone, U.S. Soccer’s current president, to call last fall and ask if she’d like to take on one more impossible mission: saving the NWSL. Even Messing had to think about it first.

“I was concerned that maybe it was an intractable situation and that ultimately I wouldn’t be able to be helpful,” she said. “But I found it was a labor of love.”

The idea that the job was simply interim — meaning no matter how well she did, it wouldn’t become permanent — was key to making it work, Messing said.

“There were really hard decisions that had to be made and eggs that had to be broken,” she said. “If I had a North Star, it was always to do the right thing. And I feel very comfortable with all the decisions I made. I believe they were all in the best interests of the league, the league’s long-term success and the players getting the respect they deserve.

“So I was able to make decisions based on what I thought was the right thing to do as opposed to thinking about long-term relationships.”

As a result, the league, in its 10th season, never has been healthier. It has a record 12 teams, with more expected to join shortly. Salaries are up across the board. So is average attendance and confidence in the league is high as well.

“The ownership groups around the table are really impressive and strong,” said Minnesota Vikings owner Mark Wilf, whose family took over the NWSL’s Orlando Pride last summer. “Well-capitalized investors that are willing to invest.”

I can’t wait to see what Messing tackles next.

Thorrington’s moves make LAFC best MLS team

Gareth Bale
(Peter Dejong / Associated Press)

John Thorrington is having the best year of any general manager in MLS history. And it’s not even close.

Over the winter he signed midfielder Ilie Sánchez as a free agent and traded for midfielder Kellyn Acosta, goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau and defender Ryan Hollingshead, completely remaking a team that has missed the playoffs in 2021 and spurring a climb to the top of the Supporters’ Shield standings this year.

But that was just a warm-up. Over the last three weeks, Thorrington added former Italian national team captain Giorgio Chiellini, a player his club manager at Juventus called the best defender in the world, and Welsh national team captain Gareth Bale, a five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid and once the most expensive transfer in history.

Thorrington got them both on multi-season contracts without paying a transfer fee or using a designated-player spot. Never before has an MLS team added so much for so little so quickly. And Thorrington may not be done. He still has a designated player spot left to fill.

Thorrington said both players will be eligible to play once the transfer window opens July 7. LAFC plays the Galaxy the next day.

Chiellini’s contract is for 18 months, Bale’s is reportedly for 12 months with an option, and both were signed with targeted allocation money, meaning they will make no more than $1.612 million per season. They’re also coming for different reasons.

Thorrington is looking to Chiellini, 37, to provide mentoring and leadership for an outstanding crop of young defenders, seven of whom are under the age of 26. Juventus let him out of his contract a year earlier to make that happen.

Bale, who turns 33 in July, is out of a contract at Real Madrid and is coming for more selfish reasons. After helping Wales qualify for just its second World Cup earlier this month, the once-prolific winger needs to play every week to be fit for this fall’s tournament in Qatar. Last season he played a career-low seven times for Real Madrid, who paid a record $106.5 million to acquire him in 2013. Even if he had stayed in Europe with another club, he would miss more than six weeks of preparation since most leagues won’t begin play until mid-August.

“The benefit of him joining a group like we already have is we’ll play him as much as we can,” Thorrington said. “We expect him to be a top, but we will do so sensibly.

“I think when Gareth is looking at what he needs to do, his priority will be at LAFC. But we’re not naïve to the fact that he, like some other players of ours, have a World Cup on the horizon. How we manage his preparation ahead of that will be important to Gareth and for the success of LAFC.”

LAFC (10-3-3) has 18 regular-season games remaining after Sunday’s 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls and, presumably, a long playoff run that could last into early November. Both goals came within a three-minute span of the second half, the first by Cristian Arango in the 67th minute and the second from Diego Palacios, the first of his MLS career. Crepeau made four saves in goal to record his fifth clean sheet of the season but his first since May 21.

How important is Bale to what happens going forward? The Spanish sports daily Marca reported Bale was the third-highest-paid player in Europe last season at $35.3 million. With LAFC, he won’t even be the highest-paid player at his position. That honor goes to captain Carlos Vela, the former league MVP who had refused to commit to an extension when his contract runs out at the end of the month.

After the Bale acquisition was announced, an MLS source with knowledge of Vela’s intentions said the former Mexican national team star will sign a new contract this week. Vela celebrated the decision with his team-leading fourth assist of the season on Arango’s goal.

While LAFC was advancing both in the standings and with its roster the Galaxy, once the favored MLS destination for big-name European talent, did nothing.

The team’s scheduled match with San Jose on Saturday at Stanford Stadium was postponed because of an equipment failure caused by the nearby Edgewood Fire. That game has been rescheduled for Sept. 24.

As for their roster, the Galaxy are in desperate need of help in the midfield with either a playmaking No. 10 or a defensive midfielder — maybe both. They also could use help on the back line.

Technical director Jovan Kirovski can’t afford to sit out the transfer period, not with his crosstown rival making the kind of league-rattling moves that once defined the Galaxy.

Good and bad news for USWNT

U.S. women's soccer player Becky Sauerbrunn and coach Vlatko Andonovski.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

With the CONCACAF W Championships, the qualifying tournament for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics, drawing nearer the pressure to perform is increasing for Vlatko Andonovski’s women’s national team. In that way Saturday’s 3-0 win over Colombia in the first of two friendlies not only was troubling but also reassuring.

Troubling because the U.S. failed to convert on two penalty kicks — although much of the credit for that goes to former University of Miami keeper Catalina Pérez, who made splendid stops on Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle. But the Americans also were sloppy on less obvious opportunities, and their seemingly uncoordinated attack could cost them in tight games when the CONCACAF tournament kicks off next month in Mexico.

The win, however, also was reassuring because the team largely stuck with Andonovski’s strategy.

“We want to minimize the opponent’s time on the ball,” he said before the game. “The term that we use is we attack without a ball. We don’t defend for our lives. We don’t defend our goal, we attack.

“We do want to get in people’s faces. That has been the mentality of this team since Day 1, 30 years ago. It’s the culture of this team. It’s the culture of this country. I don’t think we know how to sit back and be passive. It’s being on the front foot, going at people and being aggressive and intense.”

The team certainly was that against Colombia, outshooting the visitors 22-1 and putting eight shots on goal in handing the South Americans their first loss since September.

All the goals came in the second half, the first two from Sophia Smith off assists from Lavelle and the last from Taylor Kornieck, who got an assist from Megan Rapinoe, the 72nd of her career.

The goals for Smith gave her a share of the team lead with five on the year. Kornieck’s goal in stoppage time came 18 minutes into her international debut.

The U.S. extended its home unbeaten streak to 68 games, during which it has outscored opponents 258-28. Problem is, the qualifying tournament won’t be played in the U.S. And the last time the U.S. played a qualifying tournament in Mexico in 2010, it lost to the host country and had to beat Italy in a two-leg playoff to reach the 2011 World Cup.

This summer’s eight-team tournament will run from July 4 to July 18 and will be played in two stadiums in Monterrey, Estadio Universitario and Estadio BBVA. The reigning World Cup champion U.S. was drawn into Group A and will face Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico. Group B is made up of reigning Olympic champion Canada, Trinidad and Tobago, Panama and Costa Rica.

The top two teams in each group will earn spots in the 2023 World Cup in addition to advancing to the semifinals. The third-place teams in each group will go on to a 10-team, inter-confederation playoff next February to determine the final qualifiers in a 32-team World Cup field.

Only the CONCACAF tournament champion will get an automatic berth in the Paris Olympics. However, either the second- or third-place team can move on by winning a playoff in September.

Atlas is cashing in on its transformación

When Grupo Orlegi bought Atlas FC from broadcast giant TV Azteca in 2019, it was convinced the long-suffering team, which hadn’t won a domestic league title since 1951, could be made competitive. And it was just as certain a successful club would be a profitable one.

The players have proven ownership right on the first point in winning two Liga MX titles in the last seven months. We soon may get an indication if the ownership was right on the second point with Aníbal Fajer, Atlas’ executive director, promising to announce a new slate of sponsors this summer.

“I think Atlas is still undervalued, but we’re coming there,” said Fajer, formerly the team’s director of revenue. “So if we were 50% undervalued, I think we’re [on] the way up.”

Atlas, which lost to Cruz Azul on penalty kicks in the Liga MX Campeon de Campeones at a soldout Dignity Health Sports Park on Sunday, played with the word “transformación” in place of a sponsor’s logo across the front of its red-and-black jersey during the Clausura. That was part of a campaign to change the attitude of supporters and team employees who didn’t think the team could win.

Now that the transformación is complete the team has a new shirt-front sponsor: Grupo Caliente is a multinational conglomerate and the largest sports betting company in Mexico. The deal is worth $3.5 million this season, according to Mexican news reports. Atlas debuted the Caliente logo Sunday, beneath the three championship stars on its jersey.

Caliente has a sponsorship presence with 12 of the 18 first-division clubs in Mexico.

And finally there’s this …

FIFA last week approved an expansion of World Cup rosters from 23 to 26 players for this fall’s tournament in Qatar, citing the “unique timing” of the competition in the global calendar. FIFA also set 26 as the number of people (15 substitutes and 11 team officials, one of them the team doctor) who will be allowed to sit on the team bench … Much attention was rightly focused on the Ukrainian national team during its ultimately unsuccessful attempt to qualify for this fall’s World Cup. Now the war-battered country’s women’s team is trying to earn a spot in the World Cup next summer, a campaign that got off to a poor start Friday with a 4-0 loss to Scotland. Ukraine will try to rebound Tuesday against Hungary in a game that will played in Poland because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In case you missed it

Angel City to host game with Mexico women’s national team on Sept. 5

Hernández: Gareth Bale signing with LAFC showcases how U.S. is winning over European stars

Gareth Bale agrees to one-year deal with LAFC

Quotebook

“You don’t win five Champions League trophies, you’re not the most valuable player of recent times, if you don’t have that hunger. We did our due diligence and I’m really excited about what this change of scene will mean for Gareth and his ability to focus on playing. If Gareth was making this decision with a financial motive, he wouldn’t be in MLS. I think what he saw in LAFC is a unique opportunity to make a real impact.”

John Thorrington, LAFC’s general manager and co-president, on the team’s latest big-name addition

Until next time...

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