Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.
Every player on the Women’s World Cup championship team took a different journey to the top of the podium in France. Megan Rapinoe overcame three knee surgeries and Rose Lavelle a serious hamstring injury. Carli Lloyd almost quit the game after being cut from a U-23 team when she was in college. Alyssa Naeher started four games in three years as Hope Solo’s back-up before getting her shot at 28.
But few of those trips were like Jessica McDonald’s.
The only mother on the team, McDonald didn’t get her first national team cap until she was 28. Alex Morgan has played more than 100 international games by that stage in her career.
But then Morgan didn’t suffer a catastrophic knee injury in her first professional start. The league McDonald was part of then suspended operations while she was in rehab and she gave birth before she played another game, this time in Australia.
So when she got the phone call from coach Jill Ellis telling her she had made the World Cup team at the age of 31, she cried.
“When I got my first cap I didn’t think I’d be here,” said McDonald, who played just 45 minutes in the World Cup but almost scored in a group-play game with Chile. “I’m, like, overwhelmed with joy because I’m kind of surprised, almost to a certain extent because of how my journey’s been.
“It’s been up and down a little bit. Everything that has to do with success in my career has almost become a shock to me.”
Then there’s Tierna Davidson, 20, the youngest women to start a World Cup game for the U.S. in 24 years. She finished that game, also against Chile, with two assists.
(Click here to watch Davidson’s corner kick set Julie Ertz for a goal against Chile.)
“It’s wild to think that even just four years ago, with the 2015 World Cup, I was sitting on the couch watching it as a fan. And it was a dream to be able to play in it,” Davidson said. “But it’s definitely not something I thought would [turn] into reality so quickly.”
Two players, at opposite ends of their careers, yet both contributed in their own way to a team that went undefeated in France, giving the U.S. a second consecutive Women’s World Cup title and a fourth world championship overall.
“We absolutely learn from each other. And we learn from every teammate,” Davidson said. “Many people can look up to Jessica and see what perseverance does. Her career has been up and down, there’s been lots of hardships. To just be here and have this experience and to be able to say to say ‘yeah I was on the World Cup team after this roller-coaster of a career’ is really impressive.
“You can really see an amazing story written through all 23 of us.”
Defender Ali Krieger said the U.S. was so deep its bench constituted the second-best team in France. That was the team Davidson and McDonald played on, the one that drilled the starters in training every day, the one that kept the regulars on their toes by constantly pushing to take those starting spots away.
“It takes 23. It takes every single person on this roster,” said goalkeeper Naeher, who didn’t get off the bench in the 2015 Women’s World Cup but played every minute of this summer’s tournament.
For Davidson making the World Cup team was more than just the fulfillment of a childhood dream. It was also a learning experience and motivation to make sure she’s on the U.S. team four years from now.
“There are so many veteran players that have been here for years and have a third, fourth World Cup. To be able to play beside them and to learn, really, what it means to be on the road for a whole six weeks and to play seven games is something that you can’t get by just reading about it or talking about it. You kind of really have to be in it,” she said.
“I’m just trying to be a sponge because I know that I do have the opportunity to continue down this road and to possibly be here for a long time. So I want to kind of soak up and learn everything that I can so that if I have the opportunity to be here in four years, I can then have a little bit of experience that I can bestow upon younger players.”
It’s unlikely McDonald will be back; she was the sixth-oldest player on the team in France. After riding in the ticker-tape parade in Manhattan and accepting the key to the city from New York mayor Bill de Blasio, McDonald returned to her other full-time job: being a mother to 7-year-old Jeremiah, who followed her around France.
After the final Jeremiah joined his mom on the field to admire her medal and sprinkle celebratory confetti over her head.
“Today I guess who I’m working hardest for is my kid, for a better future for him,” McDonald said. “I want this to inspire him. He’s at an age right now [where] he’s going to remember this. He’s going to remember being in France. And hopefully whatever he does in the future, this is going to inspire him. That, deep down, is what is making so happy with this experience. Because he’s a part of it as well.”
Asked what it all means for her, McDonald smiled.
“I’m older and this is sort of a one-of-a-kind journey,” she said. “You work so hard, you work so hard and it happens and you’re like ‘omigod. What’s happening?’
“So to be one of the 23 best in the world, it’s a really humbling experience.”
LAFC: The best there ever was?
I understand emotions are a little heightened this week, what with the season’s first El Trafico – and can we please find a better name for the Galaxy-LAFC rivalry? – taking place Friday at Dignity Health Sports Park. But rooting allegiances aside, can’t we just agree that, after 20 games, LAFC is the best team in MLS – and maybe the best in league history?
Last week’s win in Houston was an exclamation point to that argument. Playing its fourth game in 10 days in near 100-degree temperatures against a team that was unbeaten at home, LAFC fell behind in the third minute, then rallied for a 3-1 win.
LAFC has lost just one of its last 12 league games; leads the Supporter’s Shield standings with a 14-2-4 record; has an MLS-best 53 goals, 14 more than anyone else; have conceded a league-low 17 scores; and have a goal differential of 36. No other MLS team is in double digits.
The second-year team is on pace to crush league records in every significant category. And captain Carlos Vela, who didn’t even play in Houston, is on pace to break the league’s single-season record for goals while becoming the first MLS player with 20 goals and 20 assists in the same year.
“From the beginning, when the club was announced, there were people inside the organization who did an amazing job of connecting into the community and creating momentum and creating a positive kind of energy about what the stadium was going to be and what kind of football was going to be in there,” coach Bob Bradley said. “So the credit goes to the people who got the ball rolling, and we’ve been able to build a team that loves playing the way we do, that is excited to step on the field and try to create chances, try to play forward, and play the kind of football that those incredible supporters can appreciate. So the connection that we have with the city and the supporters is special, and we are proud of what we try to do every time we step on the field.”
The Houston game was indicative of just how special the team is. Playing two time zones and less than 48 hours removed from a U.S. Open Cup loss to the Portland Timbers, Bradley had to rest many of his regulars. But the team hardly missed a beat with defender Mohamed El Munir making a spectacular sliding clearance to save a goal in the first half; with Dejan Jakovic – recently recalled from the USL – and Tristan Blackmon playing well in central defense; and with Adama Diomande, starting for just the sixth time this season, scoring twice.
“We knew we are a good team and we knew we could grind out a win here. I think the guys showed the amount of heart that we have at this club,” goalkeeper Tyler Miller said.
Added Diomande: “It’s very hot. People were [saying] before the start that maybe we didn’t have a squad to play. And we did a great job for the people who haven’t really played so much. It was a really good win for us.”
(You can watch the highlights by clicking here.)
Now comes El Trafico (really? This is embarrassing), a derby game LAFC has never won, losing once and playing to two draws with the Galaxy last year. The numbers leave no doubt that LAFC is the best team in MLS. But without a win Friday it will be no better than the second-best team in Southern California.
Galaxy would follow a leader…if they had one
For the Galaxy, last Friday was arguably the best and one of the worst nights of David Bingham’s professional career as a goalkeeper.
Playing against the San Jose Earthquakes, the team that first benched him, then basically pushed him out of the door and down to Southern California and the Galaxy, Bingham made 14 saves. That’s just not a career best; it’s a franchise record and equals the second-most saves in MLS history.
Tony Meola is the only MLS goalkeeper who has had more and he set his record 22 years ago.
But there were three shots Bingham didn’t save and that resulted in a 3-1 loss.
Bingham deserved a better fate (See for yourself here by clicking here) but his teammates couldn’t deliver one.
The Galaxy’s only shot on target came less than two minutes after kickoff and resulted in their only goal. San Jose outshot them 32-4 after that in what was a dismal, embarrassing and wholly forgettable night for the team.
The Quakes didn’t take a shot until the 12th minute, then took one every 2 ½ minutes, on average, after that. The Galaxy had just two – both by Rolf Feltscher, a defender – between the 23rd and 69th minute.
The Galaxy were helpless against the onslaught.
“We deserved to lose, we played bad,” coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “We couldn’t stop them.”
But the most significant part of the night happened after game in the Galaxy locker room where the team’s supposed leaders failed to take any accountability for the disaster.
Bingham, frustrated over having nothing to show for a fantastic performance, refused to speak with the media. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who wore the captain’s armband and failed to take a shot, was gone before the dressing-room door even opened. And Jonathan dos Santos, the team’s other captain also declined to talk – although he did answer questions from Spanish-speaking reporters who surrounded him in a hallway as he tried to sneak out a back way, avoiding both the fans in the Champions Lounge and the media.
A team that had shown no heart on the field showed even less spine off it. Let my clarify here that I hate the MLS rule that contractually requires all players to be available to the media after every game and training session – a rule everyone basically ignores anyway. Players should be paid for playing not for talking.
But if the Galaxy had any true leaders they would have been rushing to the cameras and microphones to take responsibility for the debacle and to promise it wouldn’t happen again. That’s one of the things that separate good teams from bad ones. Do the players have each others’ backs? Are they accountable to the fans and to one another?
It’s easy to take the credit for a 3-0 win. It’s fun to face the media when you’ve scored a hat trick. Anyone can do that. But when a team embarrasses itself, its leaders need to step up, take the blame and perform penance.
Instead they left Feltscher and Joe Corona to answer for the loss.
“During games like that, you have to sometimes improvise and try to fix the problem,” Corona said. “We had a great start with a quick goal and in the first 15 to 20 minutes we had the ball. But after that I think the team didn’t play how we trained and it showed. It showed and I think the whole team is very disappointed and we’re going to have to analyze the game and see what went wrong.
“Tonight was just one of those bad games. I have faith that we’re going to turn this around and we’re going to compete for a championship.”
That has no chance of happening if the Galaxy don’t find some leadership soon. The San Jose game was a rivalry game, the Cali Classico, the kind veteran players should be motivated for. There will be even more on the line Friday in the first Southern California derby with LAFC, the best team in the league.
After failing to show up during – or after – the game with the Earthquakes, the Galaxy can’t afford to miss this week’s game too.
Here are the MLS standings
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
Philadelphia 10 6 6 39 32 7 36
DC United 8 5 8 27 23 4 32
New York Red Bulls 9 7 4 35 28 7 31
Atlanta United 9 8 3 28 25 3 30
Montreal 9 10 3 26 36 -10 30
New York City 7 3 8 31 22 9 29
Toronto 7 8 5 32 33 -1 26
Orlando 7 9 4 28 27 1 25
New England 6 8 6 24 38 -14 24
Chicago 5 9 7 32 31 1 22
Columbus 5 14 2 17 31 -14 17
FC Cincinnati 5 13 2 20 45 -25 17
W L T GF GA GD Pts.
LAFC 14 2 4 53 17 36 46
Seattle 10 5 5 31 26 5 35
Galaxy 11 8 1 27 25 2 34
Minnesota 10 7 3 37 29 8 33
San Jose 9 7 4 33 31 2 31
Salt Lake 9 9 2 29 29 0 29
Dallas 8 8 5 29 26 3 29
Houston 8 8 3 29 28 1 27
Kansas City 6 7 7 32 34 -2 25
Portland 7 8 3 28 30 -2 24
Colorado 5 10 5 31 40 -9 20
Vancouver 4 9 8 22 34 -12 20
Just don’t bite anyone
Bradley makes no secret of his affection for the style of soccer Barcelona plays, going so far as to liken his LAFC players to those on the Spanish superlcub. Bradley calls Vela “our Messi,” for example, a comparison that Vela said makes him uncomfortable.
So I asked forward Christian Ramirez, tied for fourth on the team with four scores, who his Barcelona doppelganger is.
“I actually sat and watched some video of [Luis] Suarez lately,” Ramirez said of the Uruguayan star. “It’s more of just his movement, getting involved with the midfielders and then making runs from deeper instead of just off the back shoulder. They’re showing his movements within that narrow [range] of runs, and just the spot that he likes to pick so that I can bring some of that to my game.
“And I think I’m slowly started to progress in that aspect.”
He loves L.A.!
Midfielder Uriel Antuna returned to the Galaxy last Friday after a spectacular debut with Mexico’s senior national team in the Gold Cup, in which his four goals made him the tournament’s fourth-leading scorer.
“I am very happy with the tournament I had,” he said in Spanish. “I was ready for the opportunity I was given and I took advantage of it the best I could.”
But the 21-year-old from Durango, Mexico, was also happy to return to Southern California.
“Well it’s not like Mexico,” he said of L.A. “But it’s fine.”
“It’s a beautiful city,” he continued in Spanish. “There are Mexicans wherever you want to find Mexicans. It’s a very quiet city with a pleasant climate; not too cold or hot.”
The food, he said, is also fine.
“Horchata, tacos,” he said. “If you do not have it here, there is material to do it like in Mexico, there is food to do it like in Mexico, ingredients to make it.”
“This is my charge to everyone. We have to be better. We have to love more, hate less. We’ve got to listen more and talk less. We’ve got to know that this is everybody’s responsibility.”
Two-time Women’s World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe, challenging Americans to come together
Until next time