Soccer newsletter: Qatar does not seem ready for the World Cup
Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at the final training camp for the injury-hampered men’s national team ahead of its first World Cup in eight years; at LAFC clinching home-field advantage for the Western Conference playoffs and the Galaxy’s push just to get to the postseason; and a record-setting night for Angel City and the National Women’s Soccer League.
But we start in Doha, Qatar, where the final test event for this fall’s World Cup was held this month. And to call it a disaster would be a massive understatement.
The single game was marred by logistical snafus, long lines, a lack of water, faulty cooling systems and other problems, casting doubt about Qatar’s ability to stage a full monthlong, 64-game World Cup this fall.
The Lusail Super Cup between Al Hilal, winner of the Saudi professional league, and Zamalek SC, the Egyptian champion, was played Sept. 9 at Lusail Stadium, Qatar’s largest stadium and the site of December’s World Cup final. The match drew nearly 78,000, slightly less than capacity, but still the largest crowd for a soccer match in Qatari history.
Problems arose even before the doors opened.
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Ambulances, whose drivers had passes for lots that didn’t exist, made multiple trips around the stadium looking for places to park, while the Doha News, an English-language daily, said fans who drove to the game were directed to distant lots where shuttle buses would be waiting to take them to the stadium. But some buses never showed, forcing fans to walk more than 45 minutes in 95-degree temperatures.
“My wife almost fainted. It was a very bad experience for all of us,” a man, identified only as Mohammed, told the newspaper.
Once they got to the stadium, people had to wait in long lines for mandatory checks of their Ehteraz, a COVID-19 app everyone must show to enter public facilities in Qatar.
Many fans took to social media to express their frustration over a “lack of organization,” inadequate staffing and “clueless volunteers.” One woman spent 20 minutes trying to find a bathroom because none of the workers in the stadium seemed to know where one was located. There also were glitches with the stadium sound system, which was muffled and difficult to understand.
Despite the heat — or perhaps because of it — stadium concession stands ran out of water in the first half and the much-hyped air conditioning system failed to keep the grandstands cool.
“It was so hot inside. After hours of waiting in the heat, I expected to at least relax when I enter[ed], but I was sweating like crazy and everyone was fanning themselves with either papers or flags,” one person told the Doha News.
Things didn’t get any better after the match. The stadium is about 400 yards from a Metro station, but fans were forced to wait in a line that snaked more than a mile back and forth through an empty lot. Officials said that was a precaution to prevent a stampede.
“This is such a mess,” Eslam, an Egyptian who lives in Doha, told Reuters. “I don’t want to go to the World Cup anymore. Not if it’s like this.”
World Cup organizers appeared unconcerned.
“As a test event, the Super Cup was designed to identify any operational issues and learn lessons that may be applied to help Qatar deliver a seamless experience for all at the FIFA World Cup 2022,” the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said in a statement. “Every team involved in the event’s organization gained invaluable experience they will carry into this year’s tournament.”
U.S. roster still unsettled two months from Qatar
Speaking of the World Cup, the United States is returning to the tournament after an eight-year absence. Yet two months before his team’s first game in Qatar, coach Gregg Berhalter’s roster is unsettled.
The Americans opened their final camp before the World Cup on Monday in Cologne, Germany, ahead of friendlies against Japan on Friday in Dusseldorf and Saudi Arabia on Sept. 27 in Murcia, Spain. And while there were a lot of familiar faces there — Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic, Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, and Leeds United teammates Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams — there also were some key players missing.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen (knee), defender Antonee Robinson (ankle), midfielder Cristian Roldan (groin) and forward Tim Weah (foot/ankle) were left off the September roster because of injuries. Berhalter is hopeful all four will be available for Qatar. Then between the time the roster was announced and the camp opened, midfielder Yunus Musah and defenders Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards were forced to pull out. They have been replaced by Johnny Cardoso, Mark McKenzie and Erik Palmer-Brown.
Berhalter did get some important players back, with forwards Ricardo Pepi and Gio Reyna returning to the national team for the first time since the March qualifiers and defender Sergiño Dest getting his first call-up since January. Forward Josh Sargent was summoned for the first time in more than a year.
All that coming and going, the coach said, means there still are significant roster decisions still to be made.
“This is not the final roster,” Berhalter emphasized multiple times during a video call with reporters. “It’s not the final roster for the World Cup. A lot can happen between now and November. That was the conversation I had with the players not selected in this camp.
“Some of the positions, we’re looking to evaluate certain guys that we don’t have enough information on. Other players just weren’t selected.”
Goalkeeper, an area of strength during World Cup qualifying, clearly has become a concern for Berhalter. With Matt Turner starting eight games and the oft-injured Steffen six, the United States conceded just eight times in 14 qualifiers; only Canada gave up fewer goals. Now Steffen is out and Turner has played just once since moving from the New England Revolution to Arsenal in June.
“I don’t expect fitness to be an issue. Maybe a little bit of rhythm and rust could come into play,” Berhalter said of Turner. “Would I like to see him playing every week? Yes. But that’s not the case.”
As for Steffen, Berhalter said he just needs to stay healthy.
“It’s getting rhythm, it’s getting training,” he said. “He’s been out a considerable amount of time. The important thing is to stay in his daily environment [and] work every single day to get back on the field.”
If Steffen can’t make it back, that would open a spot for either Ethan Horvath or Sean Johnson. Horvath hasn’t played for the national team since the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, and Johnson’s last cap was in February 2020.
Injuries also have shaken up the Americans’ back line. The absence of Robinson combined with the knee injury in May that probably has Miles Robinson out of the World Cup leaves Berhalter without his two most dependable defenders, who trailed only Adams in terms of starts and minutes played during qualifying.
The roster Berhalter called up this month averages about 24½ years of age, and the United States almost is certain to have the youngest team in Qatar. So the coach is putting a lot of emphasis on team chemistry, which is why 24 of the 26 players called up Wednesday participated in at least one World Cup qualifying camp.
“We’re not going to be the most talented team at the World Cup, and we’re going to have to compensate for that by being a cohesive unit and having a great team spirit,” Berhalter said. “Part of it is leaning on guys that have been there before and been around the group before and understand the team culture and understand their teammates really well.”
There’s no place like home for LAFC
LAFC wasn’t even on the field when it clinched home-field advantage for the Western Conference playoffs. That happened Saturday, when Austin played Nashville to a 1-1 draw, guaranteeing LAFC would finish atop the conference’s regular-season table.
On Sunday, the team showed why that’s important by extending its home winning streak to nine games, tied for the second longest in MLS over the last 20 years, with a 3-1 victory over the Houston Dynamo. LAFC is a league-best 13-1-2 at Banc of California Stadium but just 7-7-2 on the road.
Yet the team still has a bit of unfinished business to take care of with two games left. LAFC (20-8-4) is tied with the Philadelphia Union in the Supporters’ Shield race, and the winner of that not only gets a shiny trophy but also home-field advantage for the MLS Cup, should they make it that far.
“It is super important to us,” said defender Ryan Hollingshead, who matched a career high with his sixth goal of the season Sunday. “There are three trophies to win. Open Cup, we lost too early. So now we have Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup and we want to win both of those.”
LAFC captured the Shield in 2019, then won just once in the playoffs, falling two wins short of a league championship. That’s another thing the team wants to correct in what already has been a record-setting season.
Sunday’s result made Steve Cherundolo the first coach in the MLS’ modern era to win 20 games in his debut season. Former LAFC coach Bob Bradley and Tampa Bay’s Thomas Rongen both won 20 in their first seasons in the 1990s, when games could not end in a draw.
The first two goals came on penalty kicks from Carlos Vela, giving him 11 on the season to go with 12 assists. It’s the third time in five MLS seasons that Vela has reached double digits in goals and assists.
LAFC won’t play again until Oct. 2, a good thing because it lost 11 players to international duty. It will close out the regular season against Portland and Nashville, two teams in position to reach the postseason. Philadelphia (18-4-10) will play Charlotte and Toronto, both of them below the Eastern Conference playoff line.
“Our focus is always on the next game, as it has been the entire season. I think that’s the best way to deal with situations like this,” Cherundolo said. “Our focus is purely on Portland.”
Galaxy regain control of their destiny
While LAFC was sewing up home-field advantage for the conference portion of the playoffs, the Galaxy have been struggling just to qualify. But they took a big step toward making that a reality Saturday by scoring three times in a nine-minute span of the first half to rout the Colorado Rapids 4-1.
The victory moved the Galaxy (12-12-7) above the playoff line on a tiebreaker over Real Salt Lake. More importantly, however, it leaves the Galaxy in control of their own destiny.
Win two of their final three games and the Galaxy, who have a game in hand on their closest pursuers, go back to the postseason for the second time since 2016. Take four points from their final three games against San Jose, Real Salt Lake and Houston and only RSL and Seattle can pass them — and both would have to win out to do so.
In other words, it’s looking pretty good.
“It’s a great feeling emotionally,” coach Greg Vanney said. “We have a pretty emotional group. We probably ride our results more than we should. So any time we have good results, we take that step forward. It’s an emotional boost for this group in particular. I think that’s a good sign.
“We still have a lot of work to do. It’s just one game at a time and one play at a time.”
A couple of midfielders who weren’t on the team at the start of July did much of the heavy lifting Saturday, with Gastón Brugman scoring his first two MLS goals and Riqui Puig gathering three assists to become the first Galaxy player to do that in one game since Landon Donovan in September 2014.
Puig has started six games since joining the Galaxy and has either a goal or assist in five of them. His five assists in just 564 minutes ranks third on the team.
The other goals Saturday came from Raheem Edwards, his first in MLS since March 2019, and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who notched his team-leading 15th of the year on a back-heel deflection.
The Galaxy have lost just one game Puig has played in and just three of 11 in which Brugman has appeared, but chemistry has been a problem at times. Brugman said everything clicked against Colorado — with the exception of Douglas Costa taking a silly red card in the 62nd minute for an infraction that could lead to a longer suspension.
“We are more solid, and we’re more of a unit,” Brugman said.
“It’s dependent on us,” he added of the playoff chase. “We have three finals to play, and we’ll give it our best.”
Did NWSL get timing right on SoCal expansion?
When the LA Sol folded in 2010 after their only season in the WPS, top-flight pro women’s soccer in Southern California disappeared.
The area has more women and girls playing soccer than any place in the country — maybe more than any similarly sized area in the world. It’s home to a number of nationally ranked college teams and is the birthplace of some of the best players in history, including Hall of Famers Julie Foudy, Shannon Boxx, Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck and future inductees Alex Morgan and Christen Press.
But until this season, the NWSL’s 10th, Southern California didn’t have a pro team. And supporters of expansion teams in San Diego and Los Angeles have proved what an oversight that was.
On Saturday night, the San Diego Wave moved out of tiny Torero Stadium on the University of San Diego campus and into Snapdragon Stadium, their new 32,000-seat home in Mission Valley, and sold out the place while breaking the league record for a game. The attendance was announced, oddly, as exactly 32,000, making it the second largest for a women’s club game in U.S. history, trailing only the 34,148 who showed up for the first game in WUSA history in 2001.
Angel City, meanwhile, is averaging 18,755 per game at Banc of California Stadium, which Soccer Stadium Digest reported is the second-best mark in NWSL history. That’s also more than 14 MLS clubs and eight Major League Baseball teams are averaging this season.
An expected sellout for the team’s final home game Sunday will drive that number even higher.
“To think that there wasn’t a team in California before this year is just crazy, because seeing the fan bases, it’s incredible,” Morgan said.
“To see San Diego embracing us so quickly in the way that they did, it was just a great moment.”
So is this a case of the NWSL waiting too long or a case of the league getting the timing just right?
“Way back in the previous iterations of women’s professional soccer, there was a team in both L.A. and San Diego,” said Jill Ellis, the former national coach who is president of the Wave. “Sometimes you have to reflect and say, ‘Maybe the time wasn’t right.’ I’m not saying that in a negative way because I don’t think we are where we are [without] these previous iterations.
“It’s such a fertile landscape for women’s soccer that, yes, it completely made sense. We can create a rivalry that is one of the best in sports in this country.”
That last part already is well on its way to fruition. The two teams have played twice this season and sold out both games, with the home team emerging with a one-goal victory each time. Combined, the two crowds would have filled Dodger Stadium.
And one reason both games sold out is because huge numbers of supporters of the visiting team made the 122-mile trip up (or down) the freeway, which points not only to the strength of the growing rivalry but to the strengths of the two expansion franchises.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Angel City President and co-founder Julie Uhrman said of San Diego’s success. “And I don’t believe it would have happened if it wasn’t for their northern rival, Angel City.”
The fans who made the trip south Saturday likely left disappointed, with teenager Jaedyn Shaw’s first-half goal and Kailen Sheridan’s second-half stop of a Savannah McCaskill penalty kick giving San Diego a 1-0 win that lifted the Wave (10-6-4) to the top of the NWSL table and closer to becoming the first expansion team to qualify for the playoffs.
For Angel City (7-7-5), the loss left the team four points below the playoff line with three games remaining and with little margin for error.
“We have to win out,” coach Freya Coombe said.
She’s talking about the standings when she says that. Because off the field, San Diego and Angel City already have proved to be big winners.
And finally there’s this …
Erling Haaland’s game-winning goal in Manchester City’s win over Borussia Dortmund was his 26th goal in 22 Champions League games. He’s only 22 years old. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the only players with more than 100 goals in the tournament’s history. Haaland then scored his 11th Premier League goal in seven matches in City’s 3-0 weekend win over Wolverhampton, making him the first player in EPL history to score in each of his first four road games. ... The Irvine City Council voted unanimously to extend the Orange County Soccer Club’s stay at Championship Stadium through the 2023 season. OCSC has played in the Orange County Great Park since 2017, but last month the team was facing eviction after the Galaxy asked the city for exclusive pro soccer rights to the stadium for its MLS Next Pro team. After last week’s vote, a Galaxy spokesperson said the club’s reserve team will play at Dignity Health Sports Park.
“I love breaking records. It’s really a fun time to be a soccer player.”
San Diego Wave forward Alex Morgan, after her team beat Angel City 1-0 in front of an NWSL-record crowd of 32,000 on Saturday night at the newly opened Snapdragon Stadium
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