Soccer newsletter: Record-setting weekend for soccer in Southern California
Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today we’ll discuss how Giorgio Chiellini has found happiness at LAFC, how the Galaxy are sliding toward another long offseason, how the Sacramento Republic and Todd Dunivant are proving they belong in MLS and how England’s Everton honored a supporter for his work on behalf of Ukrainian refugees.
But we start an amazing 24-hour period in Southern California soccer, one in which four games in L.A. and Orange countries combined to draw a record attendance of 142,990. The games — Seattle vs. LAFC at Banc of California Stadium, Real Madrid vs. Juventus at the Rose Bowl, San Diego vs. Orange County at the Great Park of Irvine and the OL Reign vs. Angel City at Banc of California Stadium — were sellouts, meaning not one ticket for the four pro games in Southern California this weekend went unclaimed.
The big game was the Rose Bowl match won 2-0 by Real Madrid, the reigning Champions League winner, over Juventus, a perennial Italian power. The game, the final in a five-game tour arranged by AEG, drew 93,702 fans, the most for a club game in Southern California and the largest for any soccer match in the U.S. since the summer of 2018, when more than 101,000 people packed Michigan’s Big House to watch Liverpool and Manchester United.
Charlie Stillitano, the man who promoted the Michigan game and, along with his partners at Relevant Sports Group, pioneered the idea of having major European teams tour in the U.S. each summer, staged three matches in Michigan Stadium and sold more than 100,000 tickets for each. Those games became his calling card in the U.S. and Europe.
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“I’d be in a taxi in Europe, and no matter what country I was in, the guy would go ‘Michigan! Michigan!’” Stillitano said. “In some ways it’s stunning when you hear numbers like 90,000, 100,000. They just don’t happen every day.”
Stillitano hasn’t put on a match in the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in earnest in March 2020, limited attendance at live sporting events and kept the European teams at home. But he was at the Rose Bowl on Saturday as a fan and said the massive crowd, which surprised AEG promoters, was the result of two things.
“There’s a very educated fan base that wants to see the best players in the world. And there’s pent-up demand because they haven’t been here in a few years,” he said. “But I think it goes hand in glove with the fact that this has become a soccer nation.
“It’s no longer a country that is looking for soccer to find its place. It’s here.”
And if the U.S. truly is a soccer country, Los Angeles and Orange counties are its capital. The Rose Bowl is one of just two stadiums to host two World Cup finals — the men’s in 1994 and the women’s in 1999. Add in the 2003 women’s World Cup final played at the Home Depot Center in Carson, and Los Angeles County becomes the only metro area on the planet to stage three World Cup title games.
There also are two MLS teams here — the winningest team in league history in the Galaxy and the winningest in recent history in LAFC — and a fledgling NWSL team which has sold out three of the first seven homes games in franchise history. The area also is home to half a dozen successful college programs and more youth soccer players than most other states.
As a result Tom Braun, senior vice president of soccer, business operations and business development for AEG, who put together the Soccer Champions Tour, is bullish on the U.S. and Southern California soccer markets.
“We didn’t see it as risky,” he said of the four-city tour, which also visited San Francisco, Las Vegas and Dallas and averaged more than 56,000 fans a game. “We saw it as these teams haven’t been here because of COVID. They haven’t been to Los Angeles in a while. They haven’t been to the cities that we’ve taken them to.”
Braun said AEG already is thinking about expanding the tour for 2023 and Pasadena would be a logical site for another game.
“The Rose Bowl is an incredibly special place,” Braun said. “The energy that 90,000 people create in this building is like no other building in the world.”
Carlo Ancelloti agreed. The Real Madrid coach has won a record four Champions League trophies during a 30-year coaching career that has seen him manage at some of the biggest clubs in the world, but he has had few experiences like the one in Pasadena last Saturday.
“It was a great atmosphere. The fans greeted us with a lot of love,” he said in Spanish.
Ten largest soccer crowds in the U.S. this year:
1. Real Madrid vs. Juventus, Rose Bowl (friendly), 93,702
2. Manchester City vs. Bayern Munich in Green Bay, Wis. (friendly), 78,128
3. Charlotte FC vs. Galaxy (MLS), 74,479
4. Seattle Sounders vs. UNAM (Concacaf Champions League), 68,741
5. Atlanta United vs. Sporting KC (MLS), 67,523
6. Atlanta United vs. Austin FC (MLS), 67,516
7. Arsenal vs. Chelsea in Orlando, Fla. (friendly), 63,811
8. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid in Las Vegas (friendly), 61,299
9. Manchester City vs. Club America in Houston (friendly), 61,223
10. Mexico vs. Ecuador in Chicago (friendly), 61,104
Attendance at weekend games in Southern California
Real Madrid vs. Juventus, Rose Bowl (friendly), Saturday, 93,702
Seattle Sounders at LAFC, Banc of California Stadium (MLS), Friday, 22,111
OL Reign at Angel City, Banc of California Stadium (NWSL), Saturday, 22,000
San Diego Loyal at Orange County SC, Orange County Great Park in Irvine (USL Championship), Saturday, 5,177
Chiellini rekindles amore for soccer at LAFC
Multiple motives were offered for Giorgio Chiellini’s decision to leave Italy weeks before his 38th birthday and finish his outstanding career in MLS with LAFC. It seemed a strange decision for an iconic player who has played in two World Cups, captained Italy to a European championship and won nine Serie A titles with Juventus.
But his joyful play since arriving in the U.S. has betrayed the real reason: after two decades playing in the pressure-packed environment of Italian soccer, he wanted to regain the joy of playing that had drawn him to the game as a youngster.
“It’s my passion. And I still feel good. Good enough to play good enough to train every day and try this new experience,” said Chiellini, who smiled his way through an unusually long session with reporters after Friday’s 2-1 win over the Sounders. “My experience in Juventus arrived at the end. Because I really did [give] everything I had in my body.
“But at the same time I feel I’m still good to play another season.”
LAFC general manager John Thorrington admitted he signed Chiellini, one of the best center backs of his generation, to help tutor a group of young, talented defenders. So far, however, his biggest contribution has been an infectious enthusiasm that has swept through his new team.
“I’ve very pleased with Giorgio,” coach Steve Cherundolo said. ”What I’m most pleased with is how engaged he is, how emotional he is for the group. And how happy he is for the group.
“It’s like he’s been here for five years. It’s really incredible and it’s a testament to his character.”
In the first half of Friday’s game Chiellini, who hasn’t scored in nearly three years, uncorked a wicked left-footed shot from more than 40 yards out that was deflected just wide of the left post. Chiellini reacted with a sly grin the Fox TV cameras picked up.
“If I scored, I think all my teammates and maybe all of fans [would] come inside the pitch,” he said with a laugh afterward. “I would have a fine, but it doesn’t matter. One time in life I take an out-of-the-box [shot]. I didn’t really realize what happened.
“You can see,” he added, “I’m enjoying playing.”
LAFC is enjoying it too since it has lost just one MLS game since Chiellini signed with the team six weeks ago and is 4-0 in games in which he played. At 15-4-3 overall, LAFC already has three more points than it collected in all of 2021 and is on pace to break New England’s year-old league record of 73 points in a season.
The goals Saturday came from Mahala Opoku and Carlos Vela, who scored eight minutes apart late in the first half to erase a 1-0 deficit. For Vela the goal, his seventh of the season, stopped a seven-game scoreless streak in all competition.
LAFC did not allow a shot on target, with Seattle’s only score coming on a Jesús Murillo own goal.
LAFC also got 27 minutes from Gareth Bale, the team’s other major European addition. That’s the longest Bale has gone in three MLS appearances, a sign the best team in the league is about to get much better.
“Gareth’s quality on the ball is clear with every touch he takes. He showed more of that tonight,” Cherundolo said. “He’s constantly working toward getting match minutes. He will gradually get sharper, get better and be more prolific.”
Bale, like Chiellini, has contributed to lightening a dressing room atmosphere that has been tense in the past.
“Any player will tell you if they have a smile on their face, they enjoy football more. You play better, a bit more enthusiastically, and life seems a little bit better,” Bale said in a TV interview. “I want to get back to enjoy my football, and I feel like I am on the road to do[ing] that.
“I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.”
If LAFC is flying, the Galaxy appear to be coming in for a crash landing. With a 1-0 loss in Dallas on Saturday, the team’s fourth loss in five games, the Galaxy dropped a point below the Western Conference playoff line. The team has won just twice in nine games in all competitions since returning from June’s short international break.
Franco Jara’s goal in the eighth minute was the only shot Dallas got by Galaxy keeper Jonathan Bond, who deserved a better fate after making seven saves, one off his season high. Dejan Joveljic, the Galaxy’s leading scorer with nine goals, had a chance at an equalizer shortly after coming on in the 63th minute, but Dallas keeper Maarten Paes guessed perfectly on Joveljic’s penalty kick, diving to his right to make the save and preserve his second consecutive shutout.
“There’s still a large chunk of the season to go, but it’s getting to that point where we do need results,” Bond said of the Galaxy (9-10-3), which has made the playoffs just once since 2016. “We wanted to take at least something from the game.
“I thought we were more than deserving of getting at least a point.”
Long live the Republic (and Todd Dunivant)!
The Sacramento Republic expected it would be playing in MLS next summer, but billionaire businessman Ronald Burkle pulled out of the team’s expansion bid, leaving it high, dry and stuck in the second-tier USL Championship.
But if you can’t join them, you might as well beat them and the Republic has gone unbeaten against MLS teams this year in dispatching the San Jose Earthquakes, the Galaxy and, most recently, Sporting Kansas City to become the first lower-division team to reach the U.S. Open final since 2008 — and just the fourth to do so in the MLS era.
The Republic will meet Orlando City, a 5-1 semifinal winner over the New York Red Bulls, in September in Florida after beating SKC on penalty kicks Wednesday in front of a crowd of 11,500 at Heart Health Grounds. Anyone who doubted Sacramento’s passion for soccer were proved wrong when tickets for the game sold out less than two hours after they went on sale.
Sacramento’s U.S. Open Cup success, coming at time when the team stands fifth in the USL Championship’s 13-team Western Conference, raises questions about the strength of MLS compared with the second-tier league. All three of the MLS clubs the Republic beat in the tournament have losing records, and only the SKC game was really competitive. So is MLS a lot weaker that we thought or is the USL Championship a lot stronger?
Perhaps that question will be answered in next month’s final. For now, let’s just applaud what Sacramento and Todd Dunivant, the ex-Galaxy defender who is the club’s president and general manager, have accomplished.
The hero of the win over SKC was goalkeeper Danny Vitiello, who’s never played a minute above the USL Championship. He faced 31 shots from Sporting KC and made eight saves during 120 scoreless minutes before winning the shootout with a save on former U.S. national team player Graham Zusi.
However, the hero of the Sacramento franchise is Dunivant, a four-time MLS Cup winner with the Galaxy. Dunivant, who has an economics degree from Stanford, not only kept the Republic together after the disappointment of the MLS expansion fiasco but has pushed the club in the community — Sacramento’s average attendance of 10.436 last season was third-highest in the USL Championship — while putting a winning team on the field.
“For our fan base sure, MLS continues. Questions continue to be raised about that. And we understand that. We’re still exploring options there,” he said.
“But understanding that we have a great thing going here with or without MLS, we’re celebrating that. We don’t have to wait around. We can move things forward. It’s going to be a big deal for our city to once again show what we’re about.”
If Dunivant was able to build a winning team on and off the field in a league with an average payroll of about $1.5 million and in a city larger than the ones seven current MLS teams call home, imagine what he could do in a large MLS market, where individual players make six or seven times the USL average?
Just 41 and only seven seasons removed from his playing career, expect Dunivant to become a hot commodity this summer and fall. Atlanta United, for example, lost President Darren Eales to the Premier League’s Newcastle United two weeks ago and the search for his replacement could set off a chain reaction throughout the league, creating several attractive front-office openings.
U.S. Open Cup lower-division semifinals winners (MLS era)
1996: Rochester Raging Rhinos (A-League) 3, Colorado Rapids (MLS) 0
1999: Rochester Raging Rhinos (A-League) 3, Columbus Crew (MLS) 2 (Rochester won the final, beating Colorado 2-0)
2008: Charleston Battery 1, Seattle Sounders (USL) 1
(Charleston Battery won 4-3 on penalties)
2022: Sacramento Republic FC (USL Championship) 0, Sporting KC (MLS) 0
(Sacramento FC won 5-4 on penalties)
Source: Soccer America
Everton gives Ukraine relief hero a shot he’ll never forget
Paul Stratton thought he had the best seat in the house for Everton’s preseason friendly with Ukrainian club Dynamo Kiev last week, a charity game to raise money and awareness for relief efforts tied to the ongoing war.
What he didn’t know was his seat on the Everton bench and the Everton kit he had been given were arranged by “Michael McIntyre’s Big Show,” a BBC program. The show’s producers chose Stratton, a fierce Everton supporter, in recognition of his work helping Ukrainian refugees in which he drove multiple times to Poland to deliver relief supplies.
What they didn’t tell him was manager Frank Lampard was going to sub him in for former English international Dele Ali to take a penalty kick in front of a Goodison Park crowd of 30,000, one which rose to their feet as one to salute Stratton.
Stratton buried his shot, which barely got off the ground, helped in large part by the fact the Dynamo keeper never moved. After the goal, Stratton raced — relatively speaking — to the goal line, gingerly dropped to his knees and celebrated as the Everton players surrounded him.
Members of both teams applauded.
A former police officer who now works for the Liverpool Council as a fraud investigator, Stratton and his brother first made the 2,800-mile round trip to Przemyśl, in Poland, in the early days after Russia’s invasion to help evacuees.
“I couldn’t just sit here and do nothing,” he told the Liverpool Express.
On that first trip the brothers met the mayor of Przemyśl and asked what else they could do.
“He looked at us and said, ‘Just buy chocolate for the children. It’s the only thing that makes them smile’,” Stratton said.
So they emptied out the local supermarket by buying $200 of chocolate bars. They were gone in two minutes.
The one that got away
When Tobin Heath, a two-time World Cup winner with the women’s national team, returned from Arsenal earlier this year, the smart money had her rejoining Christen Press with Angel City. But the team apparently had little interest and last month Heath instead signed with the OL Reign.
Heath introduced herself to a regretful Angel City and its fans Saturday by coming off the bench with seven minutes to play and scoring the winning goal six minutes later in a 3-2 Reign win. The goal was her first in NWSL play since September 2019 and it capped a comeback from a 2-0 halftime deficit.
With the loss Angel City (5-5-2) dropped two points below the playoff line with 10 games left. The Reign, which was missing Megan Rapinoe to a red-card suspension, is 5-3-5.
“It’s a place where people don’t get to see these clubs much. The stadiums are always full. The results in these games don’t have much influence. [But] we also try to make it a nice show.”
New Juventus midfielder Ángel Di María on how European clubs approach summer friendlies in the U.S.
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