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Soccer newsletter: Qatar vows it will be ready to host 1.2 million World Cup visitors

A clock in Doha, Qatar, counts down the days until it hosts the next FIFA World Cup.
(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)
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Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with a Galaxy win and an LAFC loss; Sydney Leroux’s homecoming with Angel City; the U.S. men qualifying for the Olympics for the first time since 2008; and an age-old problem plaguing Mexico’s national team.

But we start in Qatar, site of this year’s World Cup, which will be played in the fall for the first time. And for anyone who still doubts the wisdom of delaying the tournament five months, know that it was 100 degrees in Doha last Thursday, the date the round of 16 started in the last World Cup in Russia

That was at 8 in the morning.

Four hours later it was 107, which actually marked a cooling trend since it was 115 at the start of the week, when the overnight low was 97.

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Playing soccer in Qatar in the summer would be like playing in the middle of a wildfire. Just walking down the street was enough to leave one bathed in sweat; running on a soccer pitch for 90 minutes would be suicide.

When the tournament kicks off with Senegal meeting the Netherlands on Nov. 21, on the other hand, the high temperatures are forecast to be in the mid-80s. If that still sounds uncomfortable, Qatar’s eight stadiums are air-conditioned, with a row of fist-sized vents under each seat and much larger waist-level ducts running along both sidelines.

Air conditioning vents underneath seats help keep fans cool at soccer matches in Doha, Qatar.
(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

Qatar has had 12 years to prepare for this World Cup. When it became the first Middle Eastern country — and first Muslim nation — to win a World Cup bid in 2010, the staff working on the project could fit in one room. That staff now numbers more than 1,000 and fills much of the Al Bidda tower, a 43-story office building that looks like the World Cup trophy without the ball on top.

Qatar’s ambitions for the tournament have grown with the organizing committee’s size. Yet with the stadiums built amid scrutiny over harsh treatment of migrant workers, the major infrastructure projects complete and the 32-team field set, concerns remain over how a country smaller than Connecticut with a population roughly equal to Chicago’s will deal with more than 1.2 million visitors in less than a month.

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The Qatar World Cup will be the most geographically concentrated in history, with all eight stadiums separated by less than 50 miles. FIFA said it received more than 24 million requests for tickets to the 28-day tournament. About 1.8 million tickets already are gone, with another six-week round of sales beginning July 5.

The majority of tickets have gone to buyers in Qatar, but fans in Argentina, the U.K., France, Germany, India, Mexico and the U.S. also have purchased significant amounts.

Omar Al-Jaber, the official in charge of accommodations for the tournament’s organizing committee, tried to allay fears about the housing situation at a press briefing in Doha last week, but he appeared to struggle with basic facts regarding bookings and rooms available, requiring his staff to draft a statement clarifying the numbers hours later.

A building in Doha, Qatar, displays flags of teams poised to the play in the FIFA World Cup.
(Kevin Baxter / Los Angeles Times)

According to Reuters, Qatar Tourism said the country had about 30,000 regular hotel rooms, but 80% of those have been booked by FIFA for official guests. That has forced organizers to find creative housing options, from private residences to 4,000 rooms on two cruise ships that will be moored at the port of Doha. There also will be 1,000 Bedouin-style desert tents, while French hospitality company Accor will oversee more than 60,000 residential apartments and villas, staffed by 12,000 temporary workers.

Those workers will also need accommodations.

Al-Jaber said more than 130,000 rooms will be available during the tournament, with prices starting at about $80. As many as a half-dozen Gulf Arab airlines will operate more than 160 daily flights from neighboring countries, allowing fans to shuttle back and forth without requiring a room in Qatar.

During past World Cups, fans generally have arranged their own accommodations, but organizers of the Qatar tournament are asking ticket-holders to use a special portal to book their stay for this tournament.

“We will be under pressure until the first match starts,” Al-Jabber said. “This is that heat of the tournament. It’s just normal and we are ready for that.”

But if Al-Jabber is feeling pressure, the rest of the country is feeling excited as the World Cup approaches. Banners and billboards welcoming the tournament dot the city while a major thoroughfare that slices through the center of Doha is lined with giant half-buried soccer balls painted in the flags of the participating countries. Flags also hang from a nearby parking garage next to a banner with the organizing committee’s slogan “All is Now.”

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You don’t even have to be in the country to experience the World Cup anticipation.

Book a flight on the government-owned Qatar Airways and you’ll be asked which World Cup teams you’re supporting. Board a flight and you’ll be greeted by a length safety briefing taped in a soccer dressing room and featuring Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, Brazil’s Neymar and former Brazilian star Cafu.

In the run-up to the tournament, Qatar has hosted many international sporting events, including the world track championships, a Formula 1 race and the 16-team Arab Cup soccer tournament, which was played in the six of the eight World Cup stadiums and served as a test event.

Qatar spent more than $6.5 billion on stadium construction, but that’s just a small part of the estimated $200 billion it will spend on the National Vision 2030 modernization and development project the country launched in 2008, two years before it landed the World Cup.

“A lot of these mega-infrastructure projects in the country have been brought forward to meet the demand of the tournament,” said Fatma Al-Nuaimi, the communications director for the World Cup organizing committee. . “But also to continue to serve our ambitious plan beyond the tournament.”

That plan almost certainly will include a bid for the 2036 Olympics if this fall’s soccer tournament goes well. Doha, which will host the 2030 Asian Games, applied for the 2016 and 2020 Games but did not make the final round in the selection process.

Like the World Cup, the Olympics never have been staged in the Middle East or a Muslim country. And like the World Cup, if the Games come to Qatar they will have to be held in the fall.

“I think they’re definitely hoping for that,” said Alexandra Chalat, the director of community engagement and World Cup legacy for the Qatar Foundation, a state-led nonprofit.

Galaxy, LAFC take different routes into El Tráfico

Galaxy forward Raheem Edwards controls the ball against CF Montreal midfielder Victor Wanyama and midfielder Matko Miljevic
Galaxy forward Raheem Edwards, right, controls the ball against CF Montreal midfielder Victor Wanyama, left, and midfielder Matko Miljevic in Carson, Calif., Monday.
(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Staging a World Cup in a closet-sized country may be a difficult undertaking, but so is figuring out the Galaxy, who have been maddeningly inconsistent this season. So what to make of Monday’s dominant 4-0 win over Montreal?

Will that momentum carry over to Friday’s El Tráfico with LAFC at Banc of California Stadium? Or will the pendulum swing back the other way, as it as done for most of the season? The Galaxy (8-6-3) haven’t won back-to-back games since April.

Consider the fact Greg Vanney’s team was winless in June, including a U.S. Open Cup loss to the Sacramento Republic, which plays in the second-tier USL Championship. Or that the win was just the team’s second in MLS play since May 8, with the Galaxy scoring four goals in both victories.

And the team may soon be getting some help, with the Galaxy likely to announce the signing of Uruguayan midfielder Gastón Brugman this week. Brugman, who will turn 30 in September, played on loan in the Spanish second division last season with Real Oviedo.

Two of the goals Monday came from Rayan Raveloson, his first two of the season. The others came from forwards Javier “Chicharito” Hernández and Dejan Joveljic, who started together for the first time this year. Raveloson got a nice back-heel assist on his second goal from Sacha Kljestan, who played 13 minutes in his first appearance since May 18.

Kljestan then used his appearance at the postgame news conference to talk about Monday’s deadly shooting in Highland Park, Ill.

“I’m actually going to keep this really brief and not answer any questions about the game. I’m not joking,” began Kljestan, whose 13-minute appearance off the bench was his first in nearly two months. “I’m sick to my stomach about what’s happened in Illinois today. And I think we need to talk about gun control. You guys can write about the game if you want, but I don’t really give a s---. It’s a sick, vicious cycle that keeps happening over and over and we’re doing nothing about it. And it makes me sick.”

LAFC warmed up for Friday’s El Tráfico with a 1-0 loss in Vancouver and it also about to get some reinforcements. Giorgio Chiellini, the former Italian national team captain, already is in L.A. and could play against the Galaxy while Gareth Bale, the Welsh national team captain, could arrive this week.

Those additions follow the return of center back Eddie Segura, who played last week for the first time since undergoing knee surgery a year ago. Segura had a three-minute cameo late in Wednesday’s win over Dallas then played the entire second half Saturday in Vancouver, where LAFC lost on Andrés Cubas’ goal in the 89th minute.

The loss was the first in MLS play since mid-May for league-leading LAFC (11-4-3), which didn’t put a shot on goal against the Whitecaps. Carlos Vela did not make the trip to Canada because of a leg injury. His availability for the Galaxy game Friday in unknown.

Fast start, disappointing finish for Angel City in Leroux’s debut

Speaking of debuts, Sydney Leroux made her first appearance for Angel City Friday, coming off the bench in the 64th minute against the Portland Thorns. But that was about the only memorable moment in the final 30 minutes of a match that ended in a 1-1 tie when Portland’s Yazmeen Ryan scored deep into stoppage time to deny Angel City its third win at Banc of California Stadium.

“The week was crazy,” said Leroux, a former UCLA scoring champion who was traded Tuesday from Orlando, arrived in L.A. on Wednesday and played in a game two days later. “I feel like the last three days have been a blur, but I’m so excited to be here. The atmosphere is amazing.”

Leroux already has scored at the Banc but that goal, in May, came in a 1-0 Orlando win. Acquired to replace Christen Press, who will miss the rest of the season following knee surgery, Leroux didn’t get off a shot in her Angel City debut. But coach Freya Coombe said it was important to get her on the field with her new team.

“She had very little time to be with our group,” she said. “We’re looking forward to more things to come when we are able to put in some work on the training field and have her properly integrated.”

Angel City’s goal in the second minute was scored by Savannah McCaskill, who saw Portland keeper Shelby Hogan dive to her right to save her penalty shot before she calmly knocked in the rebound for her team-leading third score of the season. Ryan matched that in the sixth minute of extra time with a far-post header.

Angel City hosts the San Diego Wave, the other NWSL expansion team, on Saturday. However, the matchup has lost much of its spark since both teams will be missing their Southern California-born stars in Press, who was on the field on crutches after Friday’s game, and San Diego’s Alex Morgan, the league’s leading scorer who is with the U.S. national team.

Morgan scored twice in the first 23 minutes Monday in a 3-0 U.S. win over Haiti in the opener of the CONCACAF W Championship, the qualifier for both the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics.

U.S. qualifies, Mexico mystifies

The U.S. men qualified for the 2024 Olympics and 2023 U-20 World Cup by winning its third consecutive CONCACAF U-20 title with a convincing 6-0 win over the Dominican Republic in Sunday’s final.

The Americans finished the tournament unbeaten at 7-0-1 and outscored opponents 31-2. All seven wins were shutouts, with only a 2-2 group-play draw with Canada spoiling the Americans’ record. The U.S. did not concede a goal in its final 471 minutes and has gone 20 games without losing in the CONCACAF U-20 tournament, dating to 2017.

Mexico, meanwhile, lost to Guatemala on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals and will miss both the Olympics and U-20 World Cup. The Olympic champion in 2012 and bronze medalists in Tokyo last summer, Mexico has missed the Summer Games just once since 2000.

We’ll get back to Mexico in a second, but first the U.S.

Philadelphia Union midfielder Paxten Aaronson (30) celebrates after scoring a goal
Philadelphia Union midfielder Paxten Aaronson (30) celebrates after scoring a goal during the second half of a match against FC Cincinnati on Oct. 9, 2021, in Cincinnati.
(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

The Olympic qualification is the country’s first since 2008 and it got there with a deep U-20 team that got goals from 13 players. Paxten Aaronson, who scored twice in the final, finished the tournament with seven goals and won the Golden Boot as the leading scorer and Golden Ball as best player. Quinn Sullivan, Aaronson’s Philadelphia Union teammate, scored six times.

The U.S. has made it to the quarterfinals of the last three U-20 World Cups, a biennial competition which hasn’t been played since 2019 because of the COVID pandemic. Add the U-20 team’s success to the senior national team, the youngest to qualify for this fall’s World Cup with an average age of 24 years, and the U.S. appears to be set up nicely, not only for Qatar but going forward in the 2026 tournament, which it will host alongside Mexico and Canada.

Mexico’s struggles on the age-group level, meanwhile, couldn’t come at a worse time.

The average age of the players on the senior World Cup roster four years ago was just a few months shy of 30, making it the second-oldest team in Russia. In its final qualifier for the 2022 World Cup last March, six of the 16 players Mexico used were at least 29, headed by captain Guillermo Ochoa and striker Raúl Jiménez.

If midfielder Andrés Guardado, 35, makes the team for Qatar, he and Ochoa will be playing in their fifth World Cup. That they’re still there speaks to how thin the talent at the youth levels has become.

This isn’t a problem that developed overnight. Mexico’s Olympic successes masked a decline that has seen the country get past the round of 16 in the U-20 World Cup just once since 2011 — and that’s left the aging and aptly-named senior team with little in the way of reinforcement.

The Mexican federation and the domestic Liga MX have tried to remedy that by mandating first-division teams give minutes to players under 21. A similar rule used between 2005-2011 was instrumental in the development of Chicharito, Hector Moreno and Guardado.

Then in 2019 the league, at the urging of national team coach Tata Martino, also agreed to lower the number of foreign-born players allowed on each team to create roster spots for Mexican nationals. Yet the struggles for Martino and his offensively challenged team have only deepened, with El Tri winning just six of its last 16 games dating to last October, scoring multiple goals in just six of those matches. All six of those wins came against teams that failed to qualify for the World Cup.

In its last eight games with countries that will be in Qatar, Mexico went 0-4-4 and failed to score in five of those games. That’s not good for a team that will face Lionel Messi and Argentina, ranked third in the world by FIFA, in Qatar.

It also leaves the federation with a massive rebuilding task following Qatar if it hopes to be competitive in 2026.

In case you missed it

Emotional Sacha Kljestan asks Congress to ‘do something’ after Illinois mass shooting

Megan Rapinoe: Presidential award is ‘validation of all the things that I’ve stood for’

New Angel City forward Sydney Leroux says Kobe Bryant taught her to ‘never soften’

Alex Morgan scores twice and USWNT down Haiti 3-0

Rayan Raveloson scores two goals as Galaxy defeat Montreal

MLS-best LAFC loses at Vancouver on goal in the 89th minute

And finally there’s this …

Former UCLA star Milan Iloski scored three times in two games, accounting for all of Orange County SC’s goals last week and giving him a USL Champion-leading 12 scores for the season. The reigning league champion, OCSC (4-8-6) is 12th in the 13-team Western Conference standings.

Quotebook

“I’m totally overwhelmed and just completely honored by this. It’s really hard to find the words to express how special this is and what this means to me.”

USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe on becoming the first soccer player and sixth female athlete to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor

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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