Soccer newsletter: Will MLS Cup final help make soccer mainstream in U.S.? It already is
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 injury-riddled U.S. men’s national team on the eve of the World Cup roster selection, at what the NFL’s upcoming game in Munich might mean for German soccer, and at the World Cup trophy’s visit to Los Angeles.
But we start with Saturday’s MLS Cup final, which ended with LAFC capturing its first league title, on penalty kicks against the visiting Philadelphia Union, after an exhausting and entertaining two hours. It was the best MLS championship game ever played, and it also might have been among the best club games in U.S. history.
Afterward, a breathless radio interviewer asked me whether I believed the game could make soccer a mainstream sport in the United States. What I wanted to say is: It already is a mainstream sport.
TUDN regularly gets TV audiences of more than 1 million for its broadcasts of Mexican soccer, and one in three adults in the United States consider themselves soccer fans, according to a Morning Consult survey. The United States has the most decorated women’s national team in history and the best women’s domestic league in the National Women’s Soccer League, which, like MLS, is expanding.
The World Cup is coming back in four years. The last time it was here, we put on the most successful tournament in World Cup history. So soccer no longer is a niche sport. That’s what I wanted to say.
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What I did say is the sport needs more games like Saturday’s, one in which LAFC and Philadelphia battled through more than 120 minutes of playing time and three rounds of penalty kicks to decide a champion.
Both answers are correct, of course.
Soccer no longer is fighting for a foothold in the U.S. sports landscape — it’s firmly entrenched and growing as fast as any other pro sport. But games like Saturday’s, which was as confounding as it was compelling, will only help that growth.
More than one player compared the emotional ride to a roller coaster.
“The game had a little bit of everything, for sure. Going up a goal, going down a goal, scoring in the last minutes of the game, PKs,” LAFC’s Kellyn Acosta said. “It was a roller coaster. It was craziness.”
There were more story lines than goals, more heroes than goats. Peter Guber, LAFC’s founding owner and a man who knows something about Hollywood having made movies that earned 50 Academy Award nominations, said it was so implausible that no studio would have accepted the script.
“That’s like a bunch of baloney. How can they do that?” he said. “I still don’t believe it. Incredible.”
It had season-ending injuries and red cards — in this case, on the same play. It also had unlikely leading men in Jack Elliott, Gareth Bale and John McCarthy, LAFC’s backup goalkeeper who played just three minutes of official time yet wound up as the game MVP.
“This one,” Philadelphia coach Jim Curtin added, “was an incredible game.”
Both teams got improbable goals in stoppage time of extra time, which would be like a baseball team scoring five outs into an extra inning. The Union’s came from Elliott, a defender who had never scored more than two goals in a season but got two in less than 30 minutes of his first MLS Cup final.
LAFC’s final goal, which tied the score 3-3, came from Bale, the hobbled Welsh superstar who had played just five minutes in the last six weeks but managed to head in Diego Palacios’ cross with just 90 seconds left in LAFC’s season to force a tiebreaking penalty shootout.
That’s when McCarthy stepped up. A journeyman who played just once this season, he was rushed off the bench late in the second extra period after Maxime Crepeau broke his right leg in a horrific collision with Philadelphia’s Cory Burke, who almost certainly would have scored the go-ahead goal had Crepeau not come off his line to challenge him. He drew a red card in the process.
Crepeau underwent successful surgery Sunday to repair the break and will miss the World Cup, where he would have played for Canada, and the start of the 2023 MLS season.
McCarthy, a Philadelphia native who acknowledged he would have been cheering for the Union had he not been playing for LAFC, spent four seasons with the team backing up Andre Blake, the league’s top goalkeeper. Now he and Blake would decide the championship by facing penalty kicks.
In seven seasons, McCarthy never had stopped a penalty kick in a regular-season game. In fact, in his only appearance with LAFC, he let two get by in a 2-0 loss in Colorado. On this day, he was not beaten as he dove to his right to stop José Martínez and to his left to stop Kai Wagner.
So when Ilie Sánchez slipped his right-footed shot under Blake at the end of the third round, the game was over.
“It was just a moment that you dream of as a kid,” McCarthy said. “To play in a final, first off, and then to play against a team that pushed us all the way until the last game of the season, it’s a dream come true.”
“That was his Rocky moment,” said Larry Berg, LAFC’s lead managing owner and a native Philadelphian in comparing McCarthy to the fictional boxer who also came from Philly. “We got our own Rocky in the locker room.”
There were clues this would be a memorable final once the matchup was set. It certainly was the most even final ever.
Since joining MLS in 2018, LAFC has amassed 273 regular-season points, tied with the Union for most in the league. LAFC won 79 games, Philadelphia 78. This season, the teams finished even with 67 points, with LAFC winning the Western Conference and the Union winning the Eastern Conference. The last three regular-season games they played against each other ended in draws.
Saturday’s final also was the first matching the two No. 1 playoff seeds since 2003. As for how the teams got there, however, the paths couldn’t have been more different.
LAFC, with big-name stars such as Bale, Acosta, Carlos Vela and Giorgio Chiellini, has eight millionaires on its roster. Philadelphia has just one player with a base salary of more than $1 million; even St. Louis, which doesn’t begin play until next season, had more millionaires on its team this year.
LAFC has the league’s sixth-highest payroll at $19 million, meaning it spent $284,000 for each of its 67 points. Philadelphia’s payroll of $10.4 million was next to last in MLS, meaning it paid $155,000 per point. Three of the players Philadelphia used Saturday came through its player-development system. Three of the players LAFC used started the year with major clubs in Europe.
Curtin has spent his entire coaching career with the Philadelphia, the last eight as manager. Steve Cherundolo is LAFC’s second coach in 11 months.
Different histories, different philosophies, different cultures but similar results, with both teams playing in an MLS Cup final for the first time. That too made the game compelling.
And to get back to the original question: What will make the sport more compelling to a U.S. audience? More games like Saturday’s wouldn’t hurt.
Unfortunately, MLS isn’t there yet. Few leagues are.
Turn on the English Premier League on any given weekend and it doesn’t matter who is playing; the game will be entertaining, exciting and competitive. In MLS, there are too few LAFC-Union games and too many D.C. United-Chicago Fire matches.
It’s easy to blame the league’s salary cap, which lavishes a lot of money on top players but leaves teams with little to spend in building out the middle of their rosters, which is where players who make the difference between great teams and mediocre ones live. But Philadelphia proved you can build a good club on the cheap if you invest in player development and spend judiciously.
LAFC-Philadelphia probably was the best of what domestic soccer can be in the United States and Canada and arguably set the bar for the league going forward — a bar LAFC is aiming at once again.
“It took us five years,” Vela, the first signing in club history, said in Spanish at Sunday’s victory celebration outside the stadium. “But the best is yet to come. This is the first of many.”
LAFC learned Monday that it would play Costa Rican club Alajuelense in the CONCACAF Champions League round of 16 in early March.
World Cup timing is proving to be a pain
Speaking of the World Cup, the United States will announce its team for this month’s tournament Wednesday. But given the way injuries have decimated the roster, coach Gregg Berhalter could have a tough time filling all 26 slots.
Defender Cameron Carter-Vickers was among the latest to go down after sitting out Celtic’s Champions League group-play match at Real Madrid last week. He returned to start and play a full 90 minutes in a win over Dundee United over the weekend, but the fact that we’re even talking about Carter-Vickers as a World Cup hopeful is a sign of just how depleted the U.S. team has become.
Not only did he not play in qualifying, he wasn’t even called up. But injuries to Miles Robinson and Chris Richards and a strong season in which Carter-Vickers helped Celtic win the Scottish Premiership has made him an option for Berhalter at center back.
Robinson is out of the picture after tearing his left Achilles in May. Richards, meanwhile, hasn’t played at all season. The United States kicks off its World Cup on Nov. 21 against Wales.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner, midfielder Luca de la Torre and forward Josh Sargent also were sidelined at the end of October with injuries. Sargent returned to play 90 minutes for Norwich City last weekend, and Turner dressed but didn’t play for Arsenal over the weekend. De la Torre is out at least another week.
Yet the most important question mark is the one hanging over midfielder Weston McKennie, a key cog in Berhalter’s team who has missed the last two games for Juventus. He could play in Thursday’s Serie A game against Hellas Verona.
Turner, De la Torre, Sargent and McKennie are expected to make Berhalter’s final cut, although it’s uncertain how many of the outfield players will be fit enough to play three group-play games in nine days.
So what’s behind the unprecedented rash of injuries for a team that almost certainly will be the youngest in the World Cup? You probably can blame the summer heat in Qatar, which forced FIFA to move the tournament to the fall and winter, right in the middle of the European club season.
All of the injured Americans play in Europe, and in a normal World Cup year, most would have been resting and recuperating for a month before being called into training camp. This year, many will be playing the weekend before the World Cup opens, so over the summer I asked players from European mega-clubs whether there would be a temptation to play cautiously in the run-up to the World Cup to avoid injury.
“I wouldn’t think like that,” said Jamal Musiala, Bayern Munich’s teenage midfielder, who will play in Qatar for Germany. “If you think that, that opens possibilities to actually getting [hurt]. You just go into every game how you would normally.”
The injury bug hasn’t only hit the United States. In fact, few of the 32 World Cup teams are completely healthy. Mexico’s Raúl Jiménez hasn’t played since Aug. 31, for example, and Jesús Corona is out after fracturing his left ankle in training with Sevilla. England defender Ben Chilwell was hobbled by a hamstring injury last week, the same issue that has left Romelu Lukaku, Belgium’s all-time scoring leader, questionable to play in Qatar.
France has ruled out N’Golo Kante (hamstring) and Paul Pogba (knee), while Wesley Fofana, Lucas Hernandez, Boubacar Kamara, Raphael Varane and Anthony Martial are questionable. Argentina could be without winger Angel Di Maria, who missed three weeks because of a hamstring problem; Germany will miss striker Timo Werner with an ankle injury, and goalkeeper Manuel Neuer’s status is in doubt because of a shoulder issue.
The GOAT goes to Germany
Tom Brady is going to Germany.
Allianz Stadium, home to Bayern Munich, the country’s most dominant football club, will host Brady, the NFL’s most dominant football player, on Sunday in the first NFL regular-season game to be played in Germany. The game will match Brady, a seven-time Super Bowl champion, and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers against coach Pete Carroll’s Seattle Seahawks.
“This is the first time that Allianz Arena is permitted to host a non-soccer event, as approved by the city,” said Bayern Munich President Herbert Hainer. “Normally only soccer games are allowed.”
With prices ranging between $65 and $165, the 75,000 tickets for the game sold out in minutes. At one point, there were more than 800,000 in the digital queue and Ticketmaster said it could have sold about 3 million tickets had that many been available.
“Most of the fans attending the Munich game will be Germans,” Hainer said.
But if Germany has emerged as an important market for the NFL, the United States has long been vital to Bayern Munich, which opened a marketing and public relations office in New York City eight years ago. The team also has made frequent summer tours of the United States, where it drew 78,128 fans to an NFL stadium, Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, for a friendly with Manchester City last July, one of 12 the team has played in the U.S. since 2014. The team also merchandises products with the NFL.
A regular-season game that will be nationally televised in the United States from its home stadium in Munich will only add to that exposure.
“Our club grows as a brand, especially in the U.S. with NFL games in Munich,” said Hainer, whose team is valued at $4.3 billion by Forbes, making it the fifth-richest in global soccer. “We would like to enhance our partnership with the NFL in general.”
Hainer said the Buccaneers will train at Bayern Munich’s sprawling youth team campus on the site of what once was a Nazi military base. The Seahawks will practice at Säbener Strasse, the first-team facility. The Bundesliga will pause play for the World Cup after this weekend’s games, which include Bayern playing at Schalke on Saturday. But Bayern plays at home Tuesday, leaving the grounds crew just four days to restripe the field for the NFL.
“We started preparations in the summer break with the first construction measures,” Hainer said. “Typical Germans. We wanted to be prepared.”
The NFL is playing five regular-season games outside the United States this season. Three already have been played in London — two at Tottenham and one at Wembley. The Arizona Cardinals will meet the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 21 in Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca.
Hainer said there are plans to play another NFL game in Munich over the next three seasons and as many as two more in Frankfurt.
“We have certainly seen an increase in interest in tackle football here,” he said from Germany.
While LAFC and the Union were fighting over the MLS Cup at Banc of California Stadium, Coca-Cola brought the World Cup trophy to LA Live, part of a whirlwind tour that will take it to 51 countries as a lead-up to this month’s tournament in Qatar.
“The FIFA World Cup Trophy is one of the greatest symbols in sport,” said Romy Gai, FIFA’s chief business officer. “Bringing it on tour gives us a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on the fantastic communities around the world who love the beautiful game.”
When it arrived at LAX, accompanied by former Brazilian star Kaka, soccer’s biggest prize was greeted by Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Dodgers broadcaster (and hardcore Real Madrid supporter) Jaime Jarrín and Angel City forward Christen Press, a two-time Women’s World Cup winner.
The 18-karat golf trophy, which weighs 13½ pounds, was designed in 1974, stands just over 14 inches tall and depicts two human figures holding the globe aloft. Tradition says the trophy, valued at $20 million but in reality priceless, can be touched by just a select few, including heads of state and former winners. That’s why Kaka, who won the World Cup in 2002, was the only one allowed to handle the trophy during its stop in Los Angeles.
More than 2,000 people, including hundreds of children, waited in line to see the trophy at LA Live.
“That’s when their dreams might be born,” Press said.
The trophy, as well as the World Cup, will be back in Southern California in four years after SoFi Stadium in Inglewood was chosen as one of 11 U.S. venues to host games in the 2026 tournament.
And finally there’s this …
Top-ranked UCLA earned a No. 1 seed into the women’s NCAA soccer tournament Monday. The Bruins (17-2) will play Northern Arizona on Friday. USC (12-2-3), which beat UCLA in the regular-season finale, will host UC Irvine (10-5-6) on Saturday in its playoff opener. … Gerard Piqué, a World Cup European Championship winner with Spain and a four-time Champions League winner with Manchester United and Barcelona, played his final game Saturday. The 35-year-old defender announced his retirement before Barcelona’s 2-0 win over Almería at Camp Nou. … Nashville midfielder Hany Mukhtar, who led MLS with 23 goals and had 11 assists, was named the league’s MVP ahead of Austin midfielder Sebastian Driussi and the Philadelphia Union’s Blake, who was named the league’s keeper of the year. … LAFC captain Vela was named to the league’s Best XI for the third time in five seasons. He was the only player from Southern California’s two MLS teams to win an individual postseason award.
In case you missed it
“It’s important for this club to go to the next level. It’s a club really on the rise, doing the right things, and it’s an important trophy for us, especially the first one, first major trophy. Hopefully there’s more to come.”
Gareth Bale, a five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, on what the first MLS Cup win might mean for LAFC
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