Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
If it’s Tuesday – which I think it is – we’re on the way to Paris for Friday’s Women’s World Cup quarterfinal between the unbeaten U.S. and unbeaten France, the tournament host.
This is the matchup everyone had circled on their calendar when the draw was announced in December.
“I hope it’s huge and crazy. That’s what it should be,” said U.S. captain Megan Rapinoe, whose two penalty kicks dispatched Spain in Monday’s Round-of-16 game in Reims. “This is the best game, what everybody wanted.
“We want it. It seems like they’re up for it. It’s going to be totally awesome. These are the biggest games that you kind of dreamed about as a kid.”
The U.S., the defending champion, is ranked No. 1 in the world and has lost just once in the last 23 months -- to France, in France, earlier this year.
France, whose women’s team is ranked fourth in the world, is bidding to become the first country to hold both the men’s and women’s World Cup titles at the same time. The French men won their tournament last summer in Russia.
The U.S. got here by cruising through group play, beating Thailand, Chile and Sweden by a combined 18-0, then escaping its match with Spain on Monday in the round of 16 thanks in part to a soft penalty call on Spanish midfielder Virginia Torrecilla in the 71st minute.
Rose Lavelle was chasing a bouncing ball through the box when Torrecilla reached out for it, brushing Lavelle, who tumbled to the turf. Hungarian referee Katalin Kulcsar blew her whistle and pointed to the spot, then consulted video replays – a four-minute review in which she looked at the play from about a dozen angles –to confirm the call.
Even Lavelle said she didn’t expect the play to result in a penalty.
“I got a little kick in the shin and she called it,” she said. “I was a little surprised because it was definitely a physical match but at the same time, a foul’s a foul.
“I did get kicked. I didn’t flop.”
Rapinoe’s first penalty kick came in the seventh minute after Tobin Heath was brought down in the box by Spain’s Maria Leon. The Spanish evened things two minutes later when a poor pass from goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to Becky Sauerbrunn was intercepted by Lucia Garcia. She pushed the ball ahead for Jennifer Hermoso, who put a right-footed shot over a rapidly retreated Naeher and inside the right post.
The game remained even until Rapinoe’s second PK in the 76th minute. The U.S. has never trailed in the Women’s World Cup but the 67 minutes they were tied with Spain on Monday was the longest they’ve gone in the tournament without a lead.
France was also fortunate to win its Round-of-16 game, needing extra time to beat Brazil on Amandine Henry’s goal in the 107thminute. France must regroup quickly because after whipping South Korea in the tournament opener, it took late goals to beat Norway and Nigeria to give the hosts their group title.
That won’t work against the U.S. but France is still unbeaten in the tournament and will be playing before a pro-French crowd Friday at Parc des Princes.
For the U.S., that will make Monday’s gut-check against Spain valuable.
“That’s a big step for us, a big test for us now moving forward to have done that,” said Naeher, who hadn’t conceded a goal since April. “Things are going to get tougher and tougher. It’s win or good home at this point. Everything’s going to just keep intensifying from here.
“It’s the World Cup. There are no easy games left.”
Added defender Crystal Dunn: “It’s important for every team. Every team has to have faced some type of challenge. Today was a great testament of how we collectively dug deep. And those are the kinds of games it comes down to some days. At the end of the day it’s not about not being tested it’s about reacting to when you are tested.”
For Spain, a Women’s World Cup debutante four years ago when it finished last in its group, Monday’s game was further evidence its national program is on the brink of becoming a power.
Spain in ranked 13th in the world, its U-17 team won its World Cup last year and the U-20s made the final of theirs. Barcelona, where 10 national team members play their club soccer, has made massive investments in its women’s program since the last World Cup and last weekend Real Madrid, the richest soccer club on the planet, announced that it would be sponsoring a women’s team for the first time this season.
“Today we demonstrated on the field what kind of game we can play,” coach Jorge Vilda said in Spanish. “The best thing is the future is wonderful. We’re going to keep growing.”
Vilda said he was especially humbled by how his players, through disappointed, handled the decisive penalty call and the video review that confirmed it.
“I’m very proud of the way my players reacted to the decision of the VAR,” he said. “The strong mentality we displayed at the time also shows we’re growing and the potential we have.”
You can watch highlights of the U.S.-Chile match by clicking here.
Best of the rest
With just two Round-of-16 games left – Italy was playing China and the Netherlands faced Japan on Tuesday -- there have been few surprises so far in this World Cup, with Australia’s penalty-kick loss to Norway qualifying as probably the biggest.
Although none of the four World Cup debutantes — Chile, South Africa, Scotland and Jamaica — survived the group stage, for the first time two African teams, Nigeria and Cameroon, made the round of 16. Neither stayed long, with both losing and failing to score in their first elimination games.
New Zealand also left early, the fifth time it has played in a Women’s World Cup without winning a game. It is 0-12-3 in the tournament all-time.
It did get a goal in France, although it didn’t come from a Kiwi player; Cameroon’s Aurelle Awona gifted New Zealand with an own goal for its only score of the tournament in the 80th minute of its final game.
Thailand, embarrassed when the U.S. scored 13 goals – 10 after halftime -- against it in the opening game, captured hearts in its second game when captain Kanjana Sungngoen scored her country’s only goal of the tournament with less than two minutes remaining in stoppage time of a 5-1 loss to Sweden.
Many on the Thai sideline burst into tears.
“Everyone was very happy that we at least scored one,’' Kanjana said through an interpreter.
That was the team’s only moment of joy, though. Thailand gave up 102 shots and a Women’s World Cup-record 20 goals. The team’s goal differential of minus-19 was also a record.
Canada’s Christine Sinclair also got a goal in group play, the 182nd of her international career, moving her to within two of Abby Wambach’s all-time record. But that’s all she got since Canada was knocked out by Sweden in the second round.
Speaking of Sweden, eight of the nine European teams in the tournament advanced to the second round, with five winning their groups.
Too late, too little….but revenge nonetheless
Trinidad and Tobago knocked the U.S. out of the last men’s World Cup with a stunning upset on the final day of CONCACAF qualifying. By the end of that week Bruce Arena had resigned as coach, by the end of the month Dave Sarachan was appointed the interim manager and by early the next year, Sunil Gulati had stepped aside U.S. Soccer’s president.
All because of a pair of quirky goals on a wet field at the worst time possible.
Gregg Berhalter, appointed as the new full-time in coach in December, was tasked with putting all that back together. And while the project remains very much a work in progress, last Saturday he proved he can at least beat Trinidad and Tobago, with the U.S. winning 6-0 to clinch a place in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup with one group-stage match left to play.
The scoreline matched the largest-ever margin of victory in a Gold Cup match by the U.S.
“I didn’t like to say it, but I definitely had a little chip on my shoulder today. I hope you could see that,” said midfielder Christian Pulisic, one of four U.S. players who took part in both the qualifying loss and last week’s Gold Cup win.
Five of the goals came in the second half with former Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes getting two, giving him 10 international goals for his career, and Aaron Long scoring twice, marking the first time the U.S. has had two players with a brace in the same game since an 8-0 win over Barbados in a 2008 World Cup qualifier.
Long’s goals also made him the first defender to score twice in a game in national team history.
Pulisic, who turned in a great defensive effort, also had a score in the second half for the U.S., which improved to 2-0 with 10 goals and two shutouts in the tournament.
“The team is getting confident. And they’re getting fit,” Berhalter said. “We still know that there’s a lot we can improve on and we want to keep progressing in this tournament.
The U.S. will finish group play Wednesday against unbeaten Panama, the team that went to Russia last summer in the Americans’ place.
“We have an extremely positive mentality and we’re just focused on the Gold Cup,” said Zardes, whose team-leading four goals this year is a career high in international play. “As a team we have goals…and we’re not looking too far ahead. We want to keep checking off those little objectives.”
(Watch Zardes score his first goal against Trinidad by clicking here.)
The U.S. will play its quarterfinal Sunday in Philadelphia although its opponent will be determined by the results of the U.S.-Panama game and Tuesday’s final group-play matches in Group C, with Jamaica playing Curacao and Honduras facing El Salvador at Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park.
In its U.S. Gold Cup opener, a 4-0 win over Guyana, Tyler Boyd – a New Zealand-born dual national who played last season in Turkey, scored the 1,000th goal in national team history. The first came 103 years ago, in the “All-American” soccer team’s first international game, a 3-2 win over Sweden in Stockholm.
Some historical accounts give that goal to captain Thomas “Tommy” Swords but U.S. Soccer favors C.H. Spalding, who later played baseball with the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Senators under the name Dick Spalding, batting .299 in 131 games as an outfielder in 1927-28.
Coming in through the window
Mexico is on to the Gold Cup quarterfinals as well after thrashing a group that included Canada, Cuba and Martinique, outscoring them 13-3 combined.
Four of those goals came from Galaxy midfielder Uriel Antuna, who scored two minutes into his national team debut and finished the game against Cuba with a hat trick. Mexico is so deep, Antuna didn’t ever dress for the next game but scored the opening goal in a 3-2 win over Martinique in the group-play final.
Antuna was invited into the national team camp earlier this month but was basically cut from the Gold Cup roster twice before finally grabbing the final spot as an injury replacement for Club America defender Jorge Sanchez. And he got his first start in a competitive international match when Monterrey attacker Rodolfo Pizarro reported to the Rose Bowl with a minor muscle issue.
None of that would have happened had not a number of front-line Mexican players – among them Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Hirving Lozano – declined invitations to play for new national team coach Tata Martino.
“When players don’t come, the doors open for others and sometimes even the window,” Martino said. “Uriel came in through the window and has earned his spot.” Mexico will play Costa Rica in its quarterfinal Saturday in Houston.
Here’s the remaining Gold Cup schedule (some assembly required)
Banc of California Stadium
Jamaica vs. Curacao, Honduras vs. El Salvador
Children’s Mercy Park, Kansas City, Kans.
Trinidad & Tobago vs. Guyana, Panama vs. United States
NRG Stadium, Houston
Match 25: Canada vs. Haiti, Mexico vs. Costa Rica (NRG Stadium, Houston; 7 p.m. ET)
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Match 27: Jamaica/El Salvador/Curacao vs. U.S./Panama
Match 28: U.S./Panama vs. Jamaica/El Salvador/Curacao
Match 29: Winners of Houston semifinals
Match 30: Winners of Philadelphia semifinals
Galaxy continue climb up the table
For those players who didn’t make a Gold Cup roster, the MLS returned last weekend with the Galaxy making its first trip to Cincinnati to play the league’s newest team and returning with a 2-0 victory.
The Galaxy were missing four starters to international duty but it hardly mattered. They got goals from Ema Boateng and Favio Alvarez in the first 15 minutes then sat back and defended, improving to 10-6-1 and matching Philadelphia for second in the Supporters’ Shield standings.
The win was the third in four MLS games for the Galaxy.
(Watch the highlights here.)
“I feel a little frustration from not taking control of the game, but you know sometimes that happens,” Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said.
The Galaxy won despite missing midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, who has been arguably their best player this season. Dos Santos is playing for Mexico in the Gold Cup. Also missing was center back Giancarlo Gonzalez, who is playing for Costa Rica.
Gonzalez’s absence opened a spot for Dave Romney, who has started three MLS games this year, all of which ended in shutout victories for the Galaxy. In games in which Romney hasn’t played the Galaxy is 7-6-1 with three shutouts.
Southern California’s other MLS team, LAFC, won’t return from its 26-day Gold Cup break until Friday, when it plays in Colorado. But Bob Bradley’s team has made good use of its break, beating league rivals Real Salt Lake and San Jose to advance to next month’s quarterfinals in the U.S. Open Cup.
Carlos Vela and Adama Diomande both scored goals in both games; for Vela, who leads MLS in scoring with 16 goals in as many games, the two Open Cup scores ran his goal-scoring streak to seven games in all competitions.
(Watch Vela score against San Jose by clicking here.)
For the second time in as many seasons – LAFC is only two seasons’ old, after all – the team will play the Portland Timbers at home in a Gold Cup quarterfinal. The game is scheduled for July 10 at Banc of California Stadium.
Last July it won that match-up to advance to the semifinals, where it lost to the Houston Dynamo on penalty kicks. This summer’s Portland game is scheduled for July 10 at Banc of California Stadium.
“You earn the Cup every round,” Bradley said. “There are teams that sometimes rotate and maybe if they get far enough in the tournament, they start to take it more seriously. We’ve tried to put the best team that we can on the field. The schedule worked in our favor for that, this weird June schedule where we had a league match in the beginning and then the one with Colorado coming up so as it turned out, these two matches helped us keep going in June.
“I think the players did a really good job of knowing that we’d throw in some days off but at the same time, the continuation of the right kind of training and the right kind of work that we needed to do to make sure that in June we kept moving forward as a team, that we couldn’t all of a sudden end up with a weird schedule and allow ourselves to fall backwards. The credit goes to the players, the key guys, the leaders. There’s one thing that I think is so important in this and it’s that I think these guys still enjoy the kind of football we try to play, so when they show up in training every day, training’s fun.”
With regular keeper Tyler Miller playing for the U.S. in the Gold Cup, back-up Pablo Sisniega started both Open Cup games, giving up just a goal and making eight saves against San Jose.
“It was an incredible experience,” Sisniega said of his first game in front of the 3252 supporters’ union. “These games are a little different. They’re a little more open and a little more intense. I’m happy with the result and the work the team put in.”
The Open Cup, in its 106th year, is the oldest soccer competition in the U.S., but the Galaxy is one of those teams that hasn’t taken the tournament all that seriously in recent years. The Galaxy won its first Open Cup game earlier this month, beating the fourth-tier Orange County Football Club at home. But then it sent a mostly second-string team to Portland for a round-of-16 game, which they lost 4-0.
It’s the second season in a row the Galaxy has lost in the tournament’s final 16.
Summer of soccer
Next month EPL power Arsenal – whose owner, Stan Kroenke, also own the NFL’s Rams – will meet seven-time defending Bundesliga champion Bayern Munich in an International Champions Cup game at Dignity Health Sports Park, the first of at least four international games to be played in Southern California this summer.
And that doesn’t include the four CONCACAF Gold Cup games that were scheduled here this month. The final two, matching Jamaica against Curacao and El Salvador against Honduras, will be played Tuesday night at Banc of California Stadium in Exposition Park.
The Arsenal-Munich game will be played July 17 followed six days later by the first Leagues Cup game between the Galaxy and Mexican club Tijuana at the Dignity Health Sports Park. Depending on the quarterfinal results, the Leagues Cup could return to Carson on Aug. 20 for a semifinal.
Then in September four South American teams will face off in friendlies at the Coliseum, with Argentina scheduled to meet Chile on Sept. 5 and Brazil facing Peru on Sept. 10.
“I think the strength of this team is we have a lot of strengths,” midfielder Rose Lavelle on what makes the U.S. women’s team so good.
Until next time