Soccer newsletter: U.S., Mexico struggling ahead of 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 Galaxy moving a big step closer to a playoff berth, Angel City’s path to the postseason narrowing and “Ted Lasso” going straight to video (game) as it waits for its third season to debut on Apple TV+.
But we start with the final World Cup preparations for the U.S. and Mexico. The tournament will kick off in Qatar in less than two months, and judging from the teams’ recent play, neither is ready.
“We’ve got work to do,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said after last week’s 2-0 loss to Japan in Dusseldorf, Germany. “We clearly need to improve.”
“You always try to keep improving,” Mexican coach Tata Martino agreed after his injury-riddled team beat Peru 1-0 at the Rose Bowl. “We want to work on all areas. Nothing specific.”
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How bad was it? The U.S., playing without captain Christian Pulisic, who was a late scratch after taking a knock in training, didn’t put a shot on target. Mexico, missing five of its top offensive threats because of injury, put just one try on frame but fortunately that one, off the left foot of Hirving Lozano, deflected into the net off the gloved right hand of Peruvian goalkeeper Pedro Gallese. It gave Mexico its first score in 220 minutes and its first win since early June.
Both will have one more chance to get it right with the U.S. facing Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in Murcia, Spain, while Mexico meets Colombia on Tuesday night in Santa Clara.
Berhalter said his team performed well below expectations in the Japan loss but believes the wake-up call came in time to make a difference.
“I’m really glad the game happened when it did,” he told reporters Monday. “It was poor coaching, poor execution, poor training beforehand, a lot of everything. It’s just one of those games and we were very bad.”
According to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Berhalter and his staff expected their players would embrace the complicated tactical schemes they wanted to employ despite the fact the team hasn’t been together for more than three months. They were wrong. And that likely will influence the way they conduct their preparations for the World Cup.
“We took for granted that they understood what we wanted,” Berhalter said. “So we were training details. ‘You know this, now we’re going to go into detail.’ We took for granted that the players were competent in this.
“But they didn’t understand. They didn’t know it. That’s what it was.”
As a result, the U.S. was slow to react to Japan’s press, which forced the U.S. into 28 turnovers in the first 30 minutes in the defensive third of the field alone, according to ESPN. Defenders Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long were particularly poor at playing the ball out of the back, and midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams were equally as sloppy.
Pulisic is expected to return for the match with Saudi Arabia and start alongside Ricardo Pepi, but Reggie Cannon will not play after straining a groin muscle against Japan. He joins a growing list of potential starters who are out with injury, one which includes forward Tim Weah, defenders Antonee Robinson, Miles Robinson and Chris Richards, midfielder Yunus Musah and goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
The Japan match gave Berhalter the chance to see 17 players, including midfielder Gio Reyna and defender Sam Vines, who made their first starts in more than a year, and second-half substitutes Josh Sargent, Johnny Cardoso and Mark McKenzie, who made their first appearances of 2022. Of them, only Reyna impressed, showing occasional flashes of creativity.
Up front, Jesús Ferreira might have blown a chance to claim the vacant No. 9 role when he sent a header over the crossbar in the seventh minute of a half in which he took only 14 touches. Sargent came on at halftime and managed just 15 touches and zero shots.
Mexico, meanwhile, is also dealing with some injury issues with five of its key players – Rogelio Funes Mori, Hector Herrera, Raúl Jiménez, Luis Romo and Jesús Manuel Corona — sidelined. Corona, who broke a bone in his left leg and tore ligaments in his left ankle during a training session last month, is unlikely to be back for the World Cup and Martino sounded pessimistic about Jiménez after Saturday’s win over Peru.
As a result, Mexico turned to Henry Martín, its third-choice center forward, and the lack of chemistry and creativity grounded the offense to a halt. Despite a comfortable edge in possession, El Tri managed just four shots and the goal — on Mexico’s only shot on target –—went in off the keeper’s hands.
That was a welcome break, though, because Mexico had been shut out three times in its previous five games.
“We understood what we needed to modify and we are trying to generate a more positive dynamic on the pitch,” Martino said afterward.
Unfortunately for Mexico, the simplest and likely most effective modification is one Martino said he won’t consider. On the same night Mexico was struggling against Peru, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, had two goals in the Galaxy’s win over the San Jose Earthquakes. He now has a team-high 17 for the year.
A rift between the coach and Hernández has kept the Galaxy captain off Martino’s roster since September 2019. And with Mexico in dire need of a scoring threat and some veteran leadership up front, Martino made clear last week he’s not about to change his mind.
“As I’ve been saying all along,” Martino repeated, “I’ve decided to go with other forwards.”
If Jiménez and Mori are unable to return for Qatar, Mexico probably would go with Martín, 29, who has 24 international caps, backed by 21-year-old Santiago Giménez, who has made eight international appearances. Hernández, 34, has more than three times as many caps and more than six times as many goals as Martín and Giménez combined, yet he’ll be watching the World Cup on TV.
The Mexico-Peru game drew 62,729 fans, the 10th-largest crowd for a soccer match in the U.S. this year.
Top 10 soccer crowds in the U.S., 2022
1. Real Madrid vs. Juventus, Rose Bowl, friendly, 93,702
2. Man. City vs. Bayern Munich, Green Bay, WI, friendly, 78,128
3. Charlotte FC vs. LA Galaxy, Charlotte, N.C., MLS, 74,479
4. Galaxy vs. Guadalajara/LAFC vs. Club America, Inglewood, Leagues Cup exhibition, 71,189
5. Seattle Sounders vs. UNAM, Seattle, CONCACAF Champions League, 68,741
6. Atlanta United vs. Seattle Sounders, Atlanta, MLS, 68,586
7. Atlanta United vs. Sporting KC, Atlanta, MLS, 67,523
8. Atlanta United vs. Austin FC, Atlanta, MLS, 67,516
9. Arsenal vs. Chelsea, Orlando, friendly, 63,811
10. Mexico vs. Peru, Rose Bowl, friendly 62,729
Source: Soccer America
Galaxy in control of their playoff destiny
A couple of weeks ago it seemed like the Galaxy would need a miracle to reach the playoffs. But after last Saturday’s 3-2 win over San Jose at Stanford Stadium, it will take something just short of a miracle to keep them out.
“The momentum is there,” Hernández said. “And we can feel it.”
The win lifted the Galaxy into fifth place in the Western Conference table, one point and two places above the playoff line with two games remaining.
All they need is a draw in Saturday’s home match with Real Salt Lake to clinch their second postseason berth since 2016. Even a loss would keep the Galaxy in playoff position heading into the final weekend of the season since they own the first tiebreaker, total wins, over RSL.
The Galaxy finish their schedule at Houston while RSL plays host to Portland. Vancouver and Seattle still are mathematically alive, but the Whitecaps would have to win their final two games and overcome a 22-goal deficit in the goal differential to the Galaxy. The Sounders need at least seven points from their final three matches.
“The mindset is good. Guys are confident. I think that’s been building,” coach Greg Vanney said. “Even in the stretch where we were getting draws, in many of those games we were positioned to win. It’s just about finishing opportunities when we have opportunities.”
The Galaxy have lost just one of their last nine games dating to Aug. 6. That coincides with the addition of midfielder Riqui Puig from Barcelona and a hot streak that has seen Hernández score eight times.
The Galaxy have lost only one of the eight games in which Puig has played and though he didn’t get on the scoresheet Saturday — just the second time in seven starts that has happened — he completed 54 of 55 passes.
Hernández, meanwhile, scored once in each half to give him 17 goals, matching his total from last year. Only Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar has more goals over the past two seasons.
“You want your striker to be hot at this time of year,” Vanney said. “He’s finding good spots, he’s putting it in the back of the net. That breeds confidence for him and for the group, so that’s always positive.”
The Galaxy’s other goal came from midfielder Gastón Brugman in the closing minutes of the first half, his third in two games.
The game originally was scheduled to be played in late June but was postponed when the Edgewood Fire caused a power outage on the Stanford campus.
Angel City now must rely on others
Speaking of postseason berths, Angel City was in control of its destiny heading into Sunday’s game with Racing Louisville. Win out against Louisville and the Chicago Red Stars, and the team would finish its first season in the playoffs. Anything short of that and it would need help.
Well, now it needs help.
Sunday’s lackluster 3-1 loss in front of an announced sellout crowd at Banc of California Stadium leaves Angel City two places and two points below the NWSL playoff line, with only a narrow path to the postseason. For Angel City to advance, North Carolina must lose Friday in San Diego and Angel City must win Sunday in Chicago. If North Carolina draws, Angel City can match the Courage on points but the first tiebreaker in the NWSL is goal differential, and Angel City trails North Carolina by 15 in that department.
“We have to go at it as if San Diego is going to win. So we have to prepare like we’re going to go in and get the job done. We’re still in control of that,” said midfielder Savannah McCaskill, who was credited with her team-leading seventh goal of the season in the 14th minute when a low, right-footed shot from Jun Endo struck McCaskill in the midsection and caromed off the goal post and across the goal line.
Louisville responded with three unanswered goals, all following Angel City mistakes.
“This wasn’t our best performance as a team,” McCaskill said. “That’s a really big learning moment for us as a club. When we are in these tough moments, we have to show up and perform. We can’t rely on what we did in previous games.”
Previous games are a big reason Angel City (8-8-5) is still chasing a playoff berth. Sunday’s match was the team’s fifth in two weeks and Angel City won just one of those while dropping 11 of a possible 15 points. On three other occasions this season, Angel City let a lead get away after the 82nd minute, costing it another six points.
“We weren’t ourselves,” coach Freya Coombe said after the loss to Louisville, her team’s third in four games. “If you compare the performance to when we played against the Washington Spirit (a 2-1 win), it was night and day in terms of their energy and our ability to move the ball well to be good in possession to build.
“It’s been rough if we think about some of the late goals that we conceded, in terms of where that might put us in a table had we not conceded those goals.”
The final weekend of the NWSL season could be a wild one. Four of the six playoff berths are reserved but there are four teams — Houston, North Carolina, Chicago and Angel City — still fighting for the last two. The Dash (9-6-6, 33 points) is fifth, two points ahead of the Courage (9-8-4). The Red Stars (8-7-6) are just a point below the line in seventh and a point up on Angel City.
Houston needs at least a draw Saturday in Washington to secure a place in the postseason while North Carolina needs a win in San Diego. Given North Carolina’s goal differential of +13, Chicago and Angel City need wins if they hope to advance.
“I think that’s doable,” McCaskill said of her team’s chances.
‘Ted Lasso’ is in FIFA; TV return has been delayed
Season three of Jason Sudeikis’ soccer-themed series “Ted Lasso” has been delayed significantly, reportedly because of major production issues that could push the season debut on Apple TV+ into 2023. But if you’re jonesing on Richmond AFC and don’t think you can make it to next year without some contact with Roy Kent and Co., EA Sports has you covered.
The video game manufacturer announced last week the Greyhounds will be one of the playable teams in FIFA 23, which will be released to the public Friday. That brings Sudeikis and friend Brendan Hunt, co-creator of the series, full circle since it was an early version of the FIFA game that inspired that Lasso character.
As Sudeikis told me just before the TV show’s debut, Lasso was born around 2001, in the dressing room of a small, aging theater in Amsterdam where he and Hunt were performing with the improvisational comedy troupe Boom Chicago. Hunt had come to the Netherlands as a Chicago Bears fan, one who despised soccer and its archaic rules. But he was swept up in the sport’s culture in Amsterdam and to cultivate that, Sudeikis bought a PlayStation so he and Hunt could play the soccer video game while unwinding between shows.
“The bulk of my soccer knowledge and love comes from playing ‘FIFA,’ ” Sudeikis told me.
He and Hunt, being comedians, eventually began to wonder what might happen if a tackle football coach from the U.S. decided to give soccer a try. The Lasso character — with Hunt as his loyal assistant, coach Beard — debuted nearly a decade ago in a couple of promos for NBC’s coverage of the Premier League and was so well-received it eventually became a TV show.
Forty Emmy nominations and 11 wins later, production for season three has gone deep into stoppage time. After picking up a second consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series earlier this month, Sudeikis alluded to the delay by saying the show will return “at some point.”
That’s about as much as anyone connected to the show has said publicly about the delay. Production didn’t begin until March, much later than the first two seasons, and puck.news reported last week the start was pushed back after Sudeikis, who was promoted to showrunner, ordered significant rewrites.
In addition, plans to shoot at Stamford Bridge were put on hold by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which forced Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich to sell the club.
Meanwhile, we have the video game. Richmond AFC will appear under the Rest of the World category. Sudeikis’ title character will be available in the game as will players including Jamie Tartt, Roy Kent, Sam Obisanya and Dani Rojas.
And finally there’s this …
The Galaxy will announce Tuesday that they will open the 2023 MLS season against LAFC at the Rose Bowl on Feb. 25. The Galaxy played their first seven MLS seasons at the stadium in Pasadena before Dignity Health Sports Park was built in Carson. … The Orange County Soccer Club will meet second-tier German club Hamburg SV in a friendly at Championship Soccer Stadium in Irvine on Nov. 15, five days before the World Cup kicks off in Qatar. The evening match will include a German Beerfest and a World Cup theme.
“When I was playing youth soccer, I wasn’t the kid that was dreaming of playing in the World Cup. I was the kid dreaming about organizing one.”
JT Batson, U.S. Soccer’s new CEO and secretary general, to Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy on his earliest connections to the game
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