Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
The U.S. national team played its first game in 15 months under a permanent head coach when Gregg Berhalter roamed the technical area during the Americans’ 3-0 win over Panama on Sunday before a cozy gathering of 9,040 close friends and family members in Glendale, Ariz. (According to Soccer America, the “crowd” was just 14.3% of capacity at State Farm Stadium, making it the fifth-smallest in 25 years for a home friendly measured by the size of the venue.)
Seven players, including five starters, made their international debuts and two of them — the Chicago Fire’s Djordje Mihailovic and LAFC’s Christian Ramirez scored. Three others — Corey Baird, Jonathan Lewis and versatile defender Nick Lima, the man of the match — got assists.
Then there was Michael Bradley, who came into the game with nearly 40 more caps than the rest of the roster combined. Playing for the fifth coach of his national team career, he turned in his best game for the U.S. in nearly two years, linking the defense to the attack as a deep-lying midfielder while providing some calm and experience to a young team.
And in goal Zack Steffen and Sean Johnson made four saves to post the shutout. All in all, not bad for starters.
“It’s nice to put in the work over an extended period of time and then get a reward like that,” said Berhalter, who began working with the all-MLS team for the first time just three weeks ago. “The guys should be proud of themselves. They really worked hard.”
(Take a look here at Nick Lima’s well-timed tackle and better-placed cross to LAFC’s Walker Zimmerman for the second U.S. goal against Panama.)
Technically, Berhalter is taking over for Bruce Arena, the man who gave him his start in coaching as a player-assistant with the Galaxy in 2011. Arena resigned as manager after the final game of an unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign in 2017 and Dave Sarachan, his longtime lieutenant with the Galaxy and the national team, managed the team on an interim basis until Berhalter’s appointment last month.
Sunday’s win made him just the third national team manager to debut with a victory in 34 years. And the implementation of the complicated, possession-oriented, attacking style he imported from his previous job with the Columbus Crew was smoother than expected — although it came against an even younger, less-experienced Panama team that hardly offered stiff competition.
“The ideas are there, the philosophy was there,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “Obviously we can get better.”
The U.S. isn’t the only North American national team in transition under a manager who coached last year in MLS. Mexico, without a permanent coach since Juan Carlos Osorio left weeks after the team was eliminated from last summer’s World Cup in Russia, earlier this month hired former Atlanta United coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, who has a successful track record of rebuilding and turning teams around.
The similarities between the two national teams don’t end there.
The U.S. is remaking its roster around a young core led by 20-year-old Christian Pulisic, a once-in-a-generation midfielder who, because he is playing in Europe, was not called into Berhalter’s first training camp. Mexico is rebuilding around a young core led by 18-year-old Diego Lainez, a game-changing midfielder who, 19 days ago, became the youngest player to leave the Liga MX for Europe when he signed a $14-million contract with Spain’s Real Betis.
Martino won’t call up his first roster until late March, ahead of California friendlies with Chile, in San Diego, and Paraguay, in Santa Clara. But the Argentine — whose coaching resume includes a season with Barcelona, a World Cup quarterfinal with Paraguay and an MLS Cup with Atlanta — is already getting to know his players, with Mexican federation president Yon de Luisa, sporting director Guillermo Cantu and Gerardo Torrado, director of the national team, taking him on tour of Liga MX clubs.
While Berhalter has been tasked with providing direction for a national program coming off its first World Cup qualifying failure in 32 years, Martino is taking over a team muddled in mediocrity.
Mexico has exited seven consecutive World Cups in the round of 16, and of the eight nations that have played in that tournament at least 15 times, Mexico is the only one that has yet to win the title.
Its 27 World Cup losses are the most ever.
The team Osorio took to Russia was the oldest and one of the most experienced in the tournament, boasting 13 players with more than 50 caps. But it was probably the last stand for the country’s Golden Generation, one that excited passions and promise with a U-17 world championship in 2005 and an Olympic gold medal in 2012.
That promise never materialized at the senior level, however, and with the youngest of the eight core members of that team turning 33 before the next World Cup kicks off in Qatar in 2022, Martino — signed through 2022 at a reported cost of $8.8 million — has a massive rebuilding project on his hands.
Fortunately he has some good pieces to work with beginning on the backline with Celta de Vigo’s Nestor Araujo, who missed the tournament in Russia with injury, Frankfurt’s Carlos Salcedo, Monterrey’s Jesus Gallardo, Club America’s Edson Alvarez and Diego Reyes, who is on loan to Spanish club Leganes.
Mexican American teenager Jonathan Gonzalez is part of a young midfield that includes Lainez and Roberto Alvarado, the oldest member of the trio at 20.
Hirving Lozano, 23, who scored the goal that beat Germany in Mexico’s World Cup opener, is the best of Martino’s options up front.
“Generational changes are not made at a stroke,” Martino, pleading for patience, said at his introductory news conference. “Fifteen players are not deleted and 15 new ones brought. It is a process that takes time and [in Mexico] it has already begun.”
Begun under caretaker manager Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, who built some experience into a Mexican team that stumbled to a 6-1-9 record in 2018. He also saw his young charges introduced to one of the most heated rivalries in world sport.
When the U.S. and Mexico met last September, eight of Mexico’s starters were 24 or younger. On the other side, eight of the 11 U.S. starters were 23 or younger and just three U.S. players entered the game with more than nine appearances for the national team.
Many had never faced the other at the senior level. Yet the game — a not-so-friendly friendly — turned when 23-year-old American defender Matt Miazga, the tallest player on the field at 6 feet 4, bumped, then mocked the diminutive Lainez, the smallest at 5 feet 5. Moments later Mexico’s Angel Zaldivar retaliated against midfielder Wil Trapp, drawing a red card that helped the U.S. to a 1-0 victory.
Just goes to show you’re never too young to appreciate history.
Click here to watch Miazga’s addition to the long list of memorable moments in the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Landon Donovan is coming out of retirement.
This makes it three un-retirements for the leading scorer in MLS history, the co-leader in national team goals and the man whose name now adorns the MLS’ MVP trophy. Four if you count his winter sabbatical in 2013 that cost him both his spot on the national team and three games at the start of the 2013 MLS season.
This time he’s coming back to join the San Diego Sockers of the 17-team Major Arena Soccer League. Donovan, 36, has never played indoor soccer, where tighter spaces, hockey-style boards and fast play figure to offer new challenges. But he said he has been intrigued by the game since training with the Sockers a couple of years ago.
Other aren’t so sure this is a good idea.
“Landon’s crazy,” said a former confidant who said he was surprised by the announcement.
Donovan is either bored or needs the MASL-record $250,000 the Sockers will pay him for the rest of the season — or both, the friend said.
Donovan first retired after winning his record sixth MLS Cup in 2014. Earlier that year coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped him from the U.S. national team less than a month before that summer’s World Cup, a snub that clearly impacted Donovan’s enthusiasm for the game.
He came back two years later to help the injury-plagued Galaxy make a run at the playoffs, appearing in nine games, including the playoffs, and picking up a goal and an assist. When the Galaxy declined to offer him a contract for 2017, Donovan spoke to at least one other MLS team before deciding to retire a second time.
That lasted just a year with Donovan resurfacing again last January with Leon of Mexico’s Liga MX, who gave him $3 million and a rented house to come south. At the time Donovan said he missed the game and said he felt he had a lot to give.
Leon cut him six months later after eight scoreless appearances.
Donovan made similar comments about a renewed enthusiasm for the game at his introductory MASL news conference last week but said he’s aware each new un-retirement is met with skepticism by many.
“It’s easy to say I don’t care what other people think, but I’m human and we’re social creatures and we all want to be liked, right?” Donovan told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Fortunately for me, I’ve been dealing with public attention since I was 15. I am at peace with my life. I am happy with what I have accomplished.
“This was an opportunity to check off boxes. Does it make me happy? Is it enjoyable? Am I passionate about it? Is it good for my family and me? This checks off all those boxes. Why wouldn’t I do that? For me it was a no-brainer.”
Donovan is scheduled to make his MASL debut Feb. 15.
No matter what happens with his indoor soccer career, Donovan figures to be back in the news when the MLS season starts and San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski renews his pursuit of Donovan’s regular-season scoring mark.
Wondolowski finished 2018 with 10 goals, his lowest total in nine years, leaving him one short of tying Donovan’s total of 145. The Earthquakes open the new season March 2 against Montreal and teammate Danny Hoesen said the team is committed to getting Wondolowski the record goal.
“Wondo’s a great guy. He’s done so much for this league and country,” Hoesen said. “Obviously if we can help him, we’ll try. And we spoke about it. He’s so humble he doesn’t think about himself. And we all want the best for him and to break this record.
“Hopefully with as many goals as possible.”
While one goal would get him a share of the regular-season record, Wondolowski, who turned 36 on Monday, has virtually no shot at the all-time MLS record since Donovan scored 25 times in 44 playoff games, giving him 170 goals overall. Wondolowski has scored just once in six career postseason games.
That other football
LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye says he’ll be rooting for the Rams in Sunday’s Super Bowl even though he questions whether the team should be playing in the game at all.
At issue is the controversial non-call on the third-down play in the NFC Championship game in which Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman wiped out Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis. That forced New Orleans to kick a go-ahead field goal then give the ball back to the Rams, who had enough time to drive to a game-tying kick of their own.
The Rams then won the game on Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal in overtime.
Kaye thinks the officials, who are allowed to consult video reviews of some plays but couldn’t take a slo-mo look at the Robey-Coleman incident, should copy MLS, which allows a video assistant referee to alert the center official when an obvious mistake has been made. The official can then review video of the play and overturn the original call if he thinks a mistake was made.
“In a game where it’s that intense and there’s so much on the line, why not?” Kaye said of VAR in the NFL. “They review a lot of the plays right? So why not make sure you review something like that so people can’t talk it after the game.
“But I don’t know. It’s not my game.”
Teammate Lee Nguyen also said he’ll also be pulling for the Rams on Sunday but admits his allegiances are strained. Nguyen spent his first 6½ MLS seasons playing for the New England Revolution, who share both an owner and a stadium with the New England Patriots, the Rams’ Super Bowl opponent.
“I still have some friends on the Pats. I’ll always wish well for them,” he said. “But I want the best for the city of L.A. so obviously I want the Rams to win, and then celebrate.
“At the same time, I’m hoping for a good game.”
Until next time