Soccer newsletter: There could be a changing of the guard atop CONCACAF
MONTERREY, Mexico — Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at Mark Geiger’s latest breakthrough as a FIFA official and derby week in Southern California, which saw two rivalry games played in a span of 27 hours at Banc of California Stadium, ending with LAFC and Angel City snatching important victories.
But we start in Monterrey, Mexico, where on Monday the U.S. beat Mexico again. And if you’re surprised by that, you probably get startled by sunrises too.
This is the women’s team we’re talking about, by the way. While the cross-border rivalry between the men’s teams remains competitive – barely, the U.S. has lost just four of its last 16 meetings with El Tri dating to 2011 – results between the two women’s teams have often been about as lopsided as a Kentucky Senate election.
Monday’s result was much closer, with a goal that bounced off Kristie Mewis’ thigh and into the net in the final minute of stoppage time standing as the only score in a 1-0 win. With the victory the U.S. finished group play of the CONCACAF Championship unbeaten and unscored upon.
The tournament is the qualifier for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Paris Olympics and in advancing to the semifinals, the U.S. has already assured itself of a World Cup spot. But it needs to win the tournament to grab the region’s only automatic berth in the next Olympics.
That could be a challenge and if the U.S. fails, there could a changing of the guard atop CONCACAF.
Monday’s win was important because it gives coach Vlatko Andonovski’s young, still-uncertain team both confidence and momentum heading into what comes next, which will be far more difficult than what’s just passed.
On Thursday, the U.S. will meet Costa Rica in the semifinals needing a win to advance to Monday’s final where it will likely meet Canada in a game that will determine the region’s lone automatic qualifier for the Paris Games.
That match could also determine which country – Canada, the U.S. or Mexico – can claim to be the region’s true soccer power. Here’s the case for the team from the Great White North:
The No. 1-ranked U.S. has long been CONCACAF’s – and the world’s – top women’s team. But the American men failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
The women won consecutive world titles under Jill Ellis but got just a bronze in the last two Olympic tournaments, losing to Canada in the semifinals in Japan last summer and falling to Sweden in the quarterfinals in 2016.
As for Mexico, its women, expected to compete for a World Cup berth here, disappointed and were eliminated from the tournament it is hosting without a win or a goal and with its coach, Monica Vergara, already talking about the next world championship in 2027. Mexico’s men have also struggled recently, its U-20 team losing in the quarterfinals of the Olympic qualifying event while the senior national team has won just six of its last 16 games, scoring multiple goals in just six of those matches.
Now compare all that with Canada, whose women have medaled in three straight Olympics, topped by a gold 11 months ago, and whose men won the CONCACAF men’s World Cup qualifying event last spring, going unbeaten against the U.S. and Mexico. That qualified Canada for its first World Cup since 1986.
If Canada, which has already qualified for the next Women’s World Cup, wins the CONCACAF W Championship next Monday – it warmed up for Thursday’s semifinal with Jamaica by closing group play with a 2-0 win over unbeaten Costa Rica – it will become just the second country since 2007 to win the men’s and women’s competitions in the same cycle.
“It’s where we want to be eventually, of course,” Vancouver Whitecaps’ forward Lucas Cavallini, who has 32 caps with the men’s national team, said when asked if Canada had become CONCACAF’s top country. “Historically we’re not. But now we are. And we’re going push to keep things like this.”
The U.S. women may soon be pushing to keep up.
The team is in the midst of a makeover. Its roster was the oldest in the Tokyo Games with an average age of 30.8; the team in Monterrey is more than three years younger. Yet even as it rebuilds it continues to win; Monday’s win extended the team’s unbeaten to 17 games dating to a 1-0 loss to Canada in the Olympic semifinals last August.
It’s still learning how to win tough games though. On Monday it had the ball for more than 60 of the 90 minutes and put six shots on goal to Mexico’s one. But it was a deflection off Mewis after a scramble in front of the net that was the only difference on the scoreboard.
“They made it hard for us,” Andonovski said.
“It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t nice. But we know that to win big tournaments, sometimes you have to find a way. If you ask me if we’re ready to play in the World Cup right now, I would say we’re probably not.
“But we’re heading in the right direction.”
They also appear to heading toward a match-up with Canada in which a trip to the Paris Olympics won’t be the only thing up for grabs.
Enjoying this newsletter? Consider subscribing to the Los Angeles Times
Your support helps us deliver the news that matters most. Become a subscriber.
FIFA counts on Geiger to make the right call — in the classroom
Speaking of the World Cup — the men’s version — a record six officials from the Professional Referees Organization, which supplies officials for pro games in the U.S. and Canada, were selected to work matches this year. Not on that list is Mark Geiger, a two-time World Cup official and arguably the most accomplished referee in U.S. history.
But Geiger, who retired from game-day duties in 2019, is putting his mark on the Qatar tournament as an instructor for officials, for the men’s tournament and next year’s women’s competition.
“It’s been a really interesting experience,” said Geiger, 47, who gave his first seminar last November, before the World Cup officials were selected. “For the longest time I was involved in the seminars on the referee side and really the format of these things never changed.
“But to be on this side teaching the material, it’s certainly been eye-opening.”
In 2014, Geiger became the first U.S. center referee assigned to a World Cup knockout match when he worked the round-of-16 game between France and Nigeria. Four years later in Russia he broke more new ground as the video assistant referee for the third-place game between England and Belgium.
That experience has served him well in his latest World Cup assignment since VAR remains one of the most controversial aspects of soccer officiating.
“A lot of what we’re doing right now with these seminars is making sure that we have uniformity and consistency among all the officials,” he said. “And what they can do then for VAR is apply those same considerations, whether you’re on the field or in the in the video operation room. They don’t necessarily use the clear and obvious error, but they tend to just ask themselves as a VAR, ‘Was the decision on their field correct or incorrect?’ And again, when you have the top VARs and the top match officials working a particular game, it becomes a pretty clear line of intervention.”
That’s not to say blending officials from around the world into a coherent group that sees every play the same way has been easy.
“When you have referees that are coming from all different domestic competitions where there may be different points of emphasis, it becomes difficult,” Geiger said. “That’s why these seminars become so important. So that they are looking at an incident the same way and should come out with the same outcome.
“One of the things we stress to the referees is to use your personality out on the field, the way that you manage players, talk with players, try to use prevention in different situations. They’re never going to ask referees to change their personality, but in terms of the final outcome, we’re hoping for that consistency from referee to referee.”
The image of U.S. officials has improved mightily in recent years. Kari Seitz, one of the first female referees to work the center in an MLS match and an official for four Women’s World Cups and four Olympic tournaments — she’s the only person to do that — was named FIFA’s head of women’s refereeing in 2016. Geiger is now running classroom programs for World Cup officials, six of whom come from the U.S. and Canada.
It’s a level of respect that has been long in coming but is well-earned.
“The referees that went before me really paved the way and helped me to develop and created opportunities for me,” Geiger said, name-checking Seitz, Brian Hall and Esfandiar Baharmast. “So we have had referees that have certainly paved the way to make my job a little bit easier.
“Me and my team needed to perform. We wouldn’t have been given the opportunities if we didn’t perform. But the black cloud was not necessarily over us because of what these other officials have done before us.”
The six PRO officials going to Qatar are referee Ismail Elfath, assistant referees Kyle Atkins, Kathryn Nesbitt and Corey Parker and video match officials Drew Fischer and Armando Villarreal.
A pair of rivalries without rival
Last week was rivalry week in Southern California soccer, and this time there was an interesting new twist. The clash between the Galaxy and LAFC you know about; it quickly has grown into the most passionate and intense in MLS. But the battle between NWSL expansion teams Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave is just beginning. And if first impressions are any indications, it too will soon be the best rivalry in its league.
Both NWSL teams were without their brightest stars, with Angel City having lost forward Christen Press to a knee injury while San Diego was lacking five starters, including Alex Morgan, the league’s leading scorer, to international duty.
They all missed a great game, one that ended with Angel City playing the final 11 minutes short-handed yet stealing a 2-1 win in front of an announced sold-out crowd of 22,000 at Banc of California Stadium.
“It reminded me of our first home game because it wasn’t just about the soccer competition. It was about making history,” said Angel City captain Ali Riley, who grew up in Los Angeles largely without women’s pro soccer. “I thought all day about how incredible it is to not just have one team in Southern California, but to now have two.
“I think this rivalry will set new standards and push the league further. We’ve been setting the bar and now I think we’re showing that there’s an audience and a market for this.”
San Diego forward Marleen Schimmer agreed: “It was an amazing atmosphere.”
Angel City, which leads the NWSL in home attendance by a wide margin, has played in front of two announced sellouts and has won them both. The team is 3-4-2 in its other nine games. And Claire Emslie, who came off the bench at halftime to score the winning goal in her NWSL debut, said the crowd makes a difference.
“The supporters were amazing,” said Emslie, a Scottish international who two months ago was making her final appearance for Everton in England’s Women’s Super League. “Right from warmups they were loud.
“I knew the atmosphere here would be great [but] it was better than I could have expected. It was incredible.”
Riley opened the scoring in the ninth minute by sending a ball from a difficult angle through the legs of goalkeeper Carly Telford for her first NWSL goal. San Diego (6-3-3) dominated in time of possession and outshot Angel City 19-9, but eight of those shots never got through the swarming pack of Angel City defenders who weren’t shy about putting their bodies in front of the ball.
Still, Kristen McNabb managed to find the equalizer for the league leaders 15 minutes into the second half. Yet that only served to set up a dramatic finish, with Emslie breaking the tie two minutes after teammate Tyler Lussi was expelled after drawing a second yellow card.
The sequence on the winning goal started with Cari Roccaro’s centering pass from the left wing drifting behind Sydney Leroux, who spun and reached back with her right foot but couldn’t reach the ball. That proved fortunate because while the defense collapsed on Leroux, Emslie, who had trailed the play into the penalty area, was wide open and had plenty of time and space to deliver a right-footed shot into the netting at the far side.
That capped a whirlwind week for Emslie.
“I arrived Tuesday night and managed to enjoy Los Angeles on Wednesday and got right into training on Thursday, which led me to play tonight,” she said.
As rivalries go it wasn’t bad for starters — although it was no match for the first edition of El Tráfico, the inter-city match between LAFC and the Galaxy. That one started with the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring two brilliant goals 14 minutes apart, the second coming in stoppage time, to hand LAFC the first loss in franchise history.
That also set the foundation for what has become a chippy, bitter derby that far exceeds any other in MLS for sheer passion. The latest edition Friday was sloppy at times, but it didn’t lack for drama, with the teams combining for three goals in an 11-minute span late in the second half of LAFC’s 3-2 victory.
The win kept LAFC (12-4-3) two points up on Austin FC in the Supporters’ Shield and Western Conference tables, but more importantly it snapped a five-game winless streak against the Galaxy (8-7-3), who have won just one of their last five matches in all competitions and are just a point above the conference’s playoff line.
“Finally getting that monkey off our back was a huge accomplishment for all of us and we’re able to move forward from here,” said LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who assisted on the first of José Cifuentes’ two goals.
A big reason why LAFC dumped the monkey was its ability to hold Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the Galaxy’s leading scorer, to one shot in 90 minutes. Chicharito scored the opening goal in both of the Galaxy’s wins over LAFC this season.
“We didn’t do a good job with him the first two games,” LAFC coach Steve Cherundolo said. “We did a great job with him tonight.”
Cristian Arango scored LAFC’s third goal on a breakaway in the 72nd minute to give LAFC a 3-1 lead. That proved to be the game-winner when Rayan Raveloson scored for the Galaxy with nine minutes left in regulation.
“Tonight we had to come out and be mentally strong no matter the cost,” Arango said in Spanish. “We wanted to win in front of our fans. That was our mentality and motivated us.”
Six weeks ago, those same fans made it clear another loss to the Galaxy would be unacceptable. After the last one, in U.S. Open Cup play, the usually boisterous supporters in the north stand stayed silent for the first 12 minutes of the next home game in protest.
The silent message was heard: LAFC has lost just once in six MLS games since. Through 19 games the team is just four points off the pace it set in 2019, when it posted the best season record in league history.
“If every game is like this against the Galaxy, then we are building something fantastic,” Cherundolo said.
Building something that may be about to get even more fantastic, in fact, because among the spectators Friday were Welsh national team captain Gareth Bale and former Italian captain Giorgio Chiellini, arguably the two biggest signings in LAFC history after Carlos Vela, the team’s first acquisition.
Both players were eligible to play but neither did, with Chiellini watching in uniform from the sideline while Bale, who arrived from Europe just a few hours before kickoff, greeted fans before the game, then watched in street clothes from the stands. Both players also took part in the postgame celebration with some of Bale’s new teammates, who had just been introduced, dousing him with water and an energy drink.
“You saw how quickly a player gets integrated into our circle,” Cherundolo said. “We will get Gareth in [uniform] ASAP. He was ready tonight, but I think it would have been asking a little much to have him come off the plane and right into the game.”
And finally there’s this …
After two years of fan disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, 11 of the 20 clubs in the English Premier League have raised their ticket prices, according to The Athletic. Fulham, newly promoted to the EPL, reported the largest increase at 30%. Five clubs are charging more than $1,200 for single-game tickets, led by Tottenham, whose most expensive ticket costs more than $2,400, The Athletic reported.
In case you missed it
Galaxy acquire Uruguayan midfielder Gastón Brugman
Emotional Sacha Kljestan asks Congress to ‘do something’ after Illinois mass shooting
El Tráfico showcases special rivalry between LAFC’s Ilie Sánchez, Galaxy’s Víctor Vázquez
“What makes her so special as a human being: She’s humble, she’s wild, she’s hilarious, she’s passionate and she always wants to do the right thing. And most of the time the right thing that she really wants to do is not going to benefit her in any way, it’s always going to benefit other people. I think she recognized, probably a few years ago, that she truly did have a platform to make change in some way, influence change in some way; it’s not for everyone. She takes that burden on and is really happy to run with that. I’ve changed, I’ve become a better person, because of her.”
OL Reign coach Laura Harvey on forward Megan Rapinoe, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday, the same day her USWNT qualified for next summer’s World Cup
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.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.