Soccer newsletter: Manchester City’s Erling Haaland is good and could get better

Erling Haaland celebrates his goal against Aston Villa.
(Rui Vieira / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at LAFC grinding its way back to the top of the MLS standings while an embarrassing finish leaves the Galaxy below the playoff line; at Mexico’s ill-timed slide into mediocrity; and at Orange County’s post-championship hangover.

But we begin with Erling Haaland’s record-tying start for Manchester City, with his goal in Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Aston Villa making him just the second player in Premier League history to score 10 times in his first six league games. Micky Quinn was the first to do it, for Coventry City in the Premier League’s debut season in 1992.

Quinn finished with 17 goals that season but Haaland, the only EPL player to score two hat tricks before the end of August, may just be getting started, leaving the record of 32 goals in a 38-game season by Liverpool’s Mo Salah in danger.

Here’s why his record start portends more to come:

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Just two months past his 22nd birthday, Haaland was a proven goal scorer before joining City this summer, having tallied 49 times in 52 league games for Borussia Dortmund the last two seasons. But he relied on service from Jadon Sancho and Marco Reus, neither of whom had more than 13 assists in a season with Haaland. At City, he has Kevin De Bruyne, who has led the league in assists three times, tying the EPL record with 20 three years ago. Haaland couldn’t ask for a better setup man.

Then there’s the sheer potency of the City attack. In his final two seasons at Dortmund, no teammate scored more than nine goals, leaving Haaland to account for nearly a third of the team’s offense. At City, he plays for a team that has averaged 97 goals a year over the last five full seasons. Haaland’s 10 scores are more than 13 other Premier League rivals have as a team, but it’s just half of Manchester City’s total. That means defenses will not be able to focus solely on Haaland as they did in Germany.

And finally there’s the disparate nature of this year’s EPL schedule, which will be interrupted for more than six weeks by the World Cup. Haaland’s Norway did not qualify for the tournament, which will allow him to take a break to heal any bumps and bruises from the first half of the season.


Man City, of course, needed more offense about as much as Nicki Minaj needed more eyeliner. Under Pep Guardiola, the team has led the EPL in scoring five consecutive seasons and won league titles in four of them. Much of that scoring has come from the likes of Phil Foden, Sergio Aguero, De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, who were in Manchester when Guardiola arrived, or players such as Gabriel Jesus and Ilkay Gundogan, who joined in the coach’s first two seasons.

Which isn’t to say Guardiola ignored the transfer market, often a fickle suitor. Last summer, for example, he sent $115 million to Aston Villa for midfielder Jack Grealish, who hardly proved a game-changer after starting 22 games and finishing with three goals and three assists. Still, Guardiola has hit more than he’s missed in acquiring Riyad Mahrez, Ederson, Bernardo Silva, Kyle Walker, Jesus, Gundogan, Leroy Sane, John Stones, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Rúben Dias since coming to Manchester in 2016.

The Haaland deal was far from a sure thing. Over the last two seasons only Robert Lewandowski scored more Bundesliga goals than Haaland, but there was no guarantee he would adapt to Guardiola’s tactics or to the far deeper, far more competitive Premier League. Still, it was a relatively affordable gamble by City’s standards and cost less than $60 million. As for Haaland, it brought him to a team that allowed him to compete for championships, something that seemed beyond his reach at Dortmund.

“I know he’s happy scoring goals, but I think what he wants is to win,” Guardiola said. “The records are OK, but I’m pretty sure he would not like it if we did not win.”

Haaland also gives Guardiola something he didn’t have: a Zlatan-esque striker with speed, size (he’s 6 foot 5 and 194 pounds), athleticism and uncanny instincts. His pace and power will give him an advantage against any Premier League defender and his goal Saturday was a perfect example of all his talents and skills coming together, with Haaland racing to the goal post, then leaping to get his left boot on a picture-perfect De Bruyne cross. Six of Haaland’s 10 goals have come from inside the six-yard goal area.

“He is a special talent. He smells the box like no one else,” Guardiola said. “That’s Erling.”

And you want to hear something scary? Guardiola said Haaland still hasn’t fully developed a feel for his teammates or City’s pressing, possession-based style. That style has required him to wait patiently for the ball in the box, limiting his touches; in fact, through five matches Haaland averaged just 24.6 touches per 90 minutes, fewest of any player since Guardiola came to City in 2016 — and that includes goalkeepers.

If he nails those two things the team, unbeaten through six games, could be rewriting the EPL record books again and finally may claim the one prize that has eluded it: a Champions League trophy.


LAFC goes back in front

Los Angeles FC midfielder Ryan Hollingshead during the first half.
LAFC midfielder Ryan Hollingshead
(Michael Wyke / Associated Press)

LAFC entered Sunday’s game with Real Salt Lake looking up at somebody in the Supporters’ Shield race for the first time in months. But after Ryan Hollingshead’s second-half goal sparked the Black and Gold to a 2-0 win that snapped a three-game losing streak, LAFC again leads the way by a whisker.

Hollingshead later identified an unusual reason for the team’s return to form: his mustache. Earlier this summer Hollingshead’s wife Taylor asked him to shave it off and the team went into a tailspin. With the facial hair back in place Sunday, Hollingshead scored his fifth goal of the season and LAFC (19-7-3) returned to the top of the standings, where it leads the Philadelphia Union on a tiebreaker.

“At this point, it’s just the facts. Shave the mustache, lost a couple games in a row. Brought the mustache back and it’s scoring goals and winning games,” Hollingshead told former LAFC defender-turned-pundit Jordan Harvey on the team’s postgame show. “This thing may have to stay for the rest of the season.”

Under first-year coach Steve Cherundolo, LAFC, the deepest team in MLS, doesn’t so much beat opponents as it wears them down with relentless offensive pressure. Sunday’s game was a perfect example of that, with LAFC taking 12 shots, five of them on goal, in the second half. Forty-one of LAFC’s 59 goals this season have come in the second half, when it has outscored opponents by 30.

Finishing the season atop the regular-season standings would guarantee home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, which could prove key. LAFC is a league-best 12-1-2 at home this season and 7-6-1 on the road.

“When things don’t go well, we’ve seen why,” said goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau, who made five saves to record his career-high ninth shutout of the season. “Things don’t go well when your intensity isn’t high and your passing is a little sloppy.


“Tonight, was a good step forward. It is really important to have that win because we’re home. The expectations of our supporters is the three points.”

Cristian Arango had LAFC’s other goal, his team-best 15th of the season, and newly acquired designated player Denis Bouanga made his first start and played 70 minutes on a hot, humid night at Banc of California Stadium.

“Denis is a player who fits our model to a ’T’,” Cherundolo said. “The more he plays, the better he’ll get because the better understanding his teammates will have for him.”

Galaxy pays for Chicharito’s poor instincts

While LAFC was repositioning itself favorably in the playoff picture Sunday, the Galaxy once again stumbled and settled for a 2-2 tie with Sporting Kansas City when Javier “Chicharito” Hernández set a soft penalty kick right into the hands of goalkeeper John Pulskamp deep into stoppage time. The embarrassing Panenka kept the Galaxy (11-11-6) three points below the Western Conference’s playoff line although they have two games in hand over the Portland Timbers, the team directly above them.

The result extended the Galaxy’s unbeaten streak to a season-best five games, but it also marked the third time in that streak they have given away a second-half lead and been forced to accept a draw. They’ve dropped six points in the process.

“My instinct today was wrong,” said Hernández, who scored both Galaxy goals, the second on a penalty kick in the 88th minute. “And of course the consequences are we didn’t get the three points. I [made] a huge mistake and I’ll take the responsibility.”


The two earlier goals gave Hernández a team-high 14 for the season, including seven in his last six games. They also gave him 201 club goals for his career. But he flubbed the chance for this second MLS hat trick when he lofted a soft shot toward the center of the goal that didn’t fool Pulskamp. The result also spoiled another splendid performance by former Barcelona midfielder Riqui Puig, who had a 95% accuracy rate on 82 completed passes, including one that led to Hernández’s first goal. Puig has two assists and a goal in his first three MLS starts.

How low can Mexico go?

Things have gone from bad to worse for the Mexican national team, which has little more than two months to pull out of its current death spiral before kicking off against Poland in this fall’s World Cup.

Last week’s 1-0 loss to Paraguay in Atlanta left El Tri with just one win in its last five games; that was a 3-0 victory over Suriname (FIFA world ranking: 143) in June. Mexico has been shut out six times in 13 games this year and scored just one goal in three others. It hasn’t beaten a World Cup qualifier in just over a year.

In the loss to Paraguay, Mexico had the ball for nearly 65 of the 90 minutes, outshot the South Americans 23-2 and put seven shots on target — and didn’t score. Yes, Mexico used an alternate roster, but embattled coach Tata Martino said before the game he expects half the players who were in Atlanta also will be in Qatar in November. So “alternate,” in this case, doesn’t mean second string.

Martino also said the game would serve as an audition for Alexis Vega and Uriel Antuna to stake a claim to the open winger spot abandoned by Jesús “Tecatito” Corona, who will miss the World Cup after breaking a leg and sustaining ligament damage to an ankle in a training injury with his club team in Sevilla.

Meanwhile central striker Raúl Jiménez is coming back from injury and Hirving Lozano, who was off to a slow start with Napoli, was stretchered off the field after taking a blow to the face in Saturday’s match with Lazio. That leaves Mexico with some real doubts about its ability to score in the World Cup, where it will face Argentina and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Poland, in group play.


And Mexico’s problems aren’t confined to the field. The Athletic reported last week that several media outlets in Mexico said Martino was so upset by the federation’s decision to oust sporting director Gerardo Torrado in July that the coach offered his resignation. The federation refused to accept it and Torrado convinced Martino to stay through the World Cup. But those revelations added more drama to a telenovela that seems to add plot twists on a weekly basis.

Mexico has few more chances to get it right. It will play Peru on Sept. 24 at the Rose Bowl and Colombia on Sept. 27 in Santa Clara as part of a World Cup send-off tour. Since the games are in California, why not use them to bring “Chicharito” into camp? Martino hasn’t called in “Chicharito” since the player, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, reportedly violated team rules after an exhibition game with the U.S. in New Jersey and refused to apologize.

The two have acknowledged they had conversations in recent months. So despite the differences that remain, Martino needs to bury the hatchet and summon “Chicharito,” a three-time World Cup veteran who, despite Sunday’s PK costly miscue, may be the most in-form Mexican forward available.

What does he have to lose? Martino, whose contract ends when the World Cup does, was pelted with calls of “Fuera Tata” in Atlanta. He later admitted the attitude around the team is one of pessimism. The only question now is does the coach want to go out with a bang or a whimper?

Orange County’s spark fails to ignite another playoff drive

The Orange County Soccer Club was languishing in the middle of the Pacific Division standings at the end of last summer, a 1-5-2 stretch leaving a playoff berth unlikely. The team needed a spark to turn things around and it found one in assistant coach Richard Chaplow, who was promoted to replace longtime manager Braeden Cloutier in late August.

OCSC went 10-3-4 the rest of the way and won two playoff games on penalty kicks before thumping the Tampa Bay Rowdies in the USL Championship title game to win its first national crown.

Another summer swoon this season, one that has seen the team win once in six tries, has dropped OCSC to the bottom of the 13-team Western Conference standings. And Chaplow is trying to convince himself the team is just a spark away from turning things around again.

“We proved last year anything’s possible,” he said. “I really believe that we just need a bit of momentum, a little bit of confidence.”


Chaplow had hoped that spark would come from the Galaxy’s poorly handled decision to petition the City of Irvine to kick OCSC out of its longtime home at the Orange County Great Park, giving the MLS team exclusive rights to Championship Stadium for its Next Pro team. OCSC fans flooded the city council chambers in support of the team last month and the Galaxy backed down. But the issue hasn’t been decided.

“The inspiration that the fans brought to the chambers at Irvine City Council, we spoke about that. We showed the players a video,” said Chaplow, who asked his team for the same fight and devotion. And it did, for a night.

That won’t be enough to get it back to the playoffs, though.

After Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Memphis 901, Orange County (6-11-10) is eight points below the Western Conference playoff line with seven matches to play — including two must-win games this week. That leaves it with precious little room for error.

The team faced similar long odds last season and prevailed but the difference this year in Orange County is the defending league champion, which means the players wear a big, bright target on their backs every time they take the field.

“Coming off the back of the championship, we found it difficult just to get our momentum going,” Chaplow conceded.

“Ultimately we probably had a little bit of a championship hangover. Guys came into the building and they probably didn’t really hit the heights that they expected of themselves, that we expected. That probably affected their confidence. So we had sort of two different challenges going on.


“We’ve just been hit with punch after punch,” he continued. “Injuries. COVID. All sorts of different challenges that yes, you always come across in a normal season. It just feels like it’s been a lot this year.”

There have been highlights. The team, which values its ability to move players up the soccer ladder, sent Haitian international Ronaldo Damus, the MVP of the team’s title run, to Swedish club Sundsvall in March for a six-figure transfer fee. Two months later OCSC got a USL Championship-record transfer fee of $700,000 for Kobi Henry, who signed a five-year contract with Reims.

Chaplow replaced Damus with former UCLA standout Milan Iloski, who has a league-leading 19 goals in 26 games. The club has already turned down multiple transfer offers for Iloski, who will almost certainly be gone by next season.

“When we look back on the season, we’ll be better for it,” Chaplow said. “The tough times that we’ve experienced this year will definitely make us stronger. If you take your foot off the gas 5%, that’s a lot, And maybe that happened. We don’t know.”

And finally there’s this …

The women’s national team added to a number of impressive streaks Saturday with a 4-0 win over Nigeria. The victory was the 12th in a row for the U.S., which has outscored opponents 50-1 over that span. The win also extended the team’s home unbeaten streak to 70 games while the clean sheet, the ninth in a row, matched its third-longest shutout streak. Two of the goals came from Sophia Smith, who has 10 in 22 caps. Smith also picked up an assist on Lindsay Horan’s goal while the final score came on an Alex Morgan penalty kick … U.S. international Antonee Robinson, who had played every minute for Fulham through its first five Premier League games, limped off the field in the 29th minute Saturday with a right ankle injury. The severity of the injury isn’t known but the left back is a key part of the USMNT. Losing him this close to the World Cup would be a severe blow to the Americans’ chances.

In case you missed it

Analysis: With Mexico soccer in a dire state, its president laments missed opportunities

Snapdragon Stadium to attract record NWSL crowd when Angel City visits San Diego


Cal State L.A. looks to defend NCAA Division II men’s soccer title under new coach


“He stepped up and he made a decision. It was the wrong decision. He knows that. He knows how I feel. He knows how his teammates feel.”

Galaxy coach Greg Vanney after Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s soft penalty kick resulted in an easy save and cost his team two points in a 2-2 draw with Sporting Kansas City on Sunday. Hernández has missed half of his eight PKs since coming to the Galaxy three years ago

Until next time...

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