Women urged to erase any records that they played soccer for Afghanistan amid Taliban return
Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with the human tragedy playing out in Afghanistan, where the U.S. withdrawal has allowed the Taliban to return to power.
The story, unfortunately, has a soccer angle. And it’s a grim one.
During the two-decade U.S. occupation, women and girls in Afghanistan made tremendous progress. According to the political website The Hill, before the collapse of the Afghan government earlier this month 28% of the country’s legislative body was composed of women, above the global average and 1% better than the record-high percentage of women in the U.S. Congress.
Twenty years ago, women were excluded from formal education in Afghanistan. Now there are 3.5 million women and girls enrolled in school. Once forbidden to work outside the home, women make up 21% of the Afghan workforce today.
Or at least they did.
Soccer, like school and work, also became accessible to females, with great results. That, too, is threatened by the return of the Taliban.
Rob Harris of the Associated Press wrote a gripping piece last week outlining the fear members of the Afghan women’s national soccer team feel, not just for their future as athletes but for their lives.
Khalida Popal, a member of the first Afghan women’s team and a former director with the country’s soccer federation, has been urging players to take down social media posts and delete photos to erase any record of their trailblazing accomplishments.
“That breaks my heart because of all these years we have worked to raise the visibility of women, and now I’m telling my women in Afghanistan to shut up and disappear,” Popal told Harris. “Their lives are in danger.”
The team was scheduled to play in the AFC Women’s Asian Cup next month. That almost certainly won’t happen.
Four years ago I wrote about Nadia Nadim, who fled Afghanistan at age 12 after the Taliban killed her father. In Afghanistan she was prevented from embracing her passion for soccer but in exile in rural Denmark she was encouraged to play.
She and two sisters were offered spots on a local club. When her family left their refugee center for an apartment, another team bought the girls bus passes to get them to the training center. With proper coaching, Nadim improved rapidly and shortly after obtaining Danish citizenship she made her debut for that country’s national team in 2009.
She’s now the sixth-leading scorer in Danish history and in 2017 helped the team reach the final of the European Championships for the first time by scoring the first goal in that game. Nadim, 33, speaks more than half a dozen languages, attended medical school, returned to the NWSL this season with Racing Louisville and scored twice in four games.
(By the way, those political commentators on Fox News and elsewhere who are fearing and lamenting the prospect of Afghan refugees coming to the U.S. might want to consider the benefits this country could get from the addition of more intelligent, motivated people like Nadim.)
None of what she has accomplished would have been possible in the old Afghanistan — or, apparently, the new one, something Nadim talked about in our conversation.
“I do believe women should have equal rights and the same opportunities as men,” she said. “How can you exclude 50% of the society? That’s insane.”
Indeed. But it also seems to be happening again, leaving me to wonder how many great players like Nadim and how many selfless, courageous women like Popal, the world will lose to the Taliban’s medieval ideology.
Nadim didn’t waste any time trying to do something about it. While playing in the Women’s Cup, a four-team tournament featuring Bayern Munich, Paris-Saint Germain and the Chicago Red Stars — won Saturday by Racing Louisville on penalty kicks — Nadim joined with her club; Greg Fischer, the city’s mayor; Victoire Cogevina, a UN ambassador for gender equality; and others in starting a campaign to raise money to support resettlement efforts for refugees, including Afghan women.
“This Cup was founded with the intention to celebrate women and gender equality,” Cogevina said. “It’s now our turn to use women’s football and this platform for healing.”
Nadim is wise enough to know the only thing that separated her from the girls and women left behind in Afghanistan was opportunity.
“To me, war and misery and everything that happens, that’s unfortunately a part of, I guess, our history as human beings on this planet,” she told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “But one thing that is so hard for me to understand, is, it’s not fair — why is this kid suffering, and this other kid not, just because of where the kid was born?
“[Some] were never given the chance and that’s for me, the hardest thing to accept.”
Meanwhile Popal, 34, said she received death threats for her work with women’s soccer in Afghanistan and eventually sought asylum in Denmark. But she’s remained in touch with the national team’s players and the stories she’s heard in the last week are soul-crushing.
“We felt so proud of wearing the jersey. It was the most beautiful thing ever,” Popal said of suiting up for the first women’s game in 2007. That hope and excitement has now been replaced by despair.
“Women,” she said, “lost hope.”
Their better Angels
Speaking of women who see soccer as a way to affect social change, Angel City, Southern California’s newest professional franchise which will begin play in the NWSL next year, accelerated its buildout this week by making national team star Christen Press its first player signing and Freya Coombe its first coach.
Team officials declined to discuss the details of the deal for Press, a Southern California native, but sources with knowledge of the contract say it is for three years and is worth a little more than $700,000, making Press among the best-paid players in league history.
In discussing her coaching style, Coombe said she wants her teams to play a possession-based, short-passing game but she also emphasized the importance of versatility in referencing the tactics of Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel. That wasn’t by chance. Coombe said she is a life-long Chelsea fan, as is Eniola Aluko, Angel City’s sporting director and the woman who hired Coombe.
Coombe’s top assistant Robert Udberg, whose hiring also was announced Monday, spent seven years as the head of development and performance manager for the Chelsea women’s team while Aluko was playing there.
The signings of Coombe, currently coaching in the NWSL with NJ/NY Gotham FC, and Press, who has been a free agent since leaving Manchester United last spring, come three months after Angel City hired Aluko, a former England international, away from Aston Villa.
And while that sounds fast, those decisions were not made quickly.
“If you’re making big decisions, you want to be able to go through a very objective and fair and time-consuming, if necessary, process,” said Aluko, who remains in London, unable to relocate permanently to Southern California because of visa complications. “So we landed with Freya and I’m very, very confident in that decision.”
Aluko, asked whether the selection of a coach affected the signing of players, or vice versa, said it’s all part of the same process.
“The process really is, find the coach and the players that are going to fit an overall strategy for Angel City,” she said. “The strategy and the plan is what dictates everything.”
Aluko wanted a coach that understood the NWSL, its rules, its players, its travel and its style of play. Coombe, in her second season as Gotham’s manager, checked those boxes.
As for her first player, Aluko wanted someone versatile, which would allow the team to play various styles. Press, 32, who scored or set up 41 goals in her last 43 games with the national team, is a proven finisher who has become more of a playmaker in recent years. She can play anywhere along the front line and has worked hard to improve her defense. So she ticked all those boxes.
“As part of building a team that is exciting and unpredictable and difficult to beat, you have to look at what players can fit into that,” Aluko said. “That is a dream for a coach because it means that a coach can adapt their tactics depending on the opposition.
“So bringing in players who are very intelligent, who are very strong in multiple positions, like Christen gives you an idea of what kind of team we’re trying to build.”
Press’ local roots also are an important attribute for a fledgling team trying to establish a foothold in a crowded sports landscape. She was born in Los Angeles, won two CIF titles at the Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, where she also lettered in track and tennis, and was a Hermann Trophy winner at Stanford.
“I wouldn’t be doing my job very well if I didn’t consider all of those factors,” Aluko said. “Signing somebody like Christen, who is from L.A., understands the community, understands all of the things that we’re trying to achieve with Angel City in terms of equality and pay equity … that’s what makes it such an incredible signing.
“It’s a multi-dimensional signing.”
For Press, the signing marks a homecoming. She said she attended one game of the L.A. Sol, Southern California’s last top-flight women’s pro team. The Sol folded in 2010 after one season. As a result Press has yet to play a home game in her pro career.
“My family and friends, they have followed me all over the world,” she said. “To be able to come and play in front of them week in and week out, it will absolutely be a dream come true.”
“Whether it’s in three years, six years or nine years I would love to finish my career in front of my friends and family and, obviously, the city of Los Angeles,” she added.
Losses, lessons piling up for LAFC and Galaxy
The losses are becoming more frequent and more painful for LAFC, which dropped its fourth game in a row Saturday in Vancouver on Ryan Gauld’s first MLS goal with a minute left in regulation.
The four-game losing streak is the longest in club history, as is the seven-game winless streak. And the two slides have combined to push LAFC (6-9-5) two places and four points out of a playoff berth. But it’s not just that LAFC is losing as much as it is how they’re losing that is frustrating coach Bob Bradley.
Two seasons ago LAFC matched the MLS record with 85 goals, and it started this season with the last two league scoring champions in Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi. Yet the team has scored just once from open play this month and hasn’t scored more than two goals in a game all season.
“I don’t have many words right now. Because it’s been too many times that look the same,” Bradley said. “I feel like right now, as I’m looking out there trying to figure out what to do to help these guys I can’t get one thing right.
“I’m trying everything I can to help these guys get over the hump but boy, it just feels like it’s the same story again.”
On Saturday, LAFC outshot Vancouver 24-10, putting seven of those tries on target. Yet Whitecaps keeper Maxime Crepeau was called on to make just one save.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, the team lost Vela to a right quadriceps injury in the 15th minute. Vela started just four regular-season games last year, partly because of injury, and played just 22 minutes in the first month this year after injuring the same right quadriceps in the season opener.
“Carlos’ quad has bothered him throughout this season,” Bradley said. “We were very cautious. It’s just a lingering injury that has hampered him throughout the season.”
Vela will not participate in Tuesday’s MLS Skills Challenge nor Wednesday’s All-Star Game against a Liga MX team at Banc of California Stadium. He’ll join the Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, who has missed the last two months with a calf injury, on the sideline. And because MLS rules require any selected all-star who passes up the game, for any reason, to sit out his next club game, a league spokesperson said Monday that Vela and Hernández will miss Saturday’s nationally televised El Tráfico as well.
The Galaxy, by the way, also are learning something about stinging losses, which is why coach Greg Vanney didn’t try to mask his displeasure after Friday’s 2-1 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, the team’s second consecutive loss at home.
“Our defending, in general, is just not good enough. We give away too many chances. We give away too many goals,” he said.
“It’s on me, and it’s going to change. We can’t keep conceding goals and chances at the rate we are, and it’s a mentality.
“We don’t do the little things that it takes to be a good defending team,” he went on. “And it’s going to end or guys aren’t going to be on the field.”
If Vanney thinks the defense has been poor, wait until he gets a look at the offense. The Galaxy scored just six times in their last seven games and haven’t had multiple goals in a game since July 21. Hernández still has twice as many goals as anyone on the team despite missing more than half the season. The team’s leading scorer in his absence, Rayan Raveloson, is a defensive midfielder.
Vanney suggested his team’s defensive failures and offensive struggles may be linked.
“Some of it is missing opportunities and some of it is because we don’t defend well, and we start too many attacks deep in our half of the field,” he said. “We are leaving out a whole section of the game, in my opinion, where the majority of goals are scored because it’s too easy for the opposition just to get into our half of the field.”
So even if the Galaxy recover the ball, Vanney said they do so deep in their own end and start their attacks farther from goal than any team in the league.
“We can help ourselves, we can build more momentum into our attacks if we can, as a group, change our mentality to defend, to be harder to play against, to recover balls in better ways, to play forward in those transitions,” he said. “I don’t think we have as many chances as we should because we start our attacks too deep too often. We need to start attacks higher which means we need to defend better and we need to recover balls higher.
“We love having the ball, but we don’t necessarily work the way we need to work to get the ball back, and that mentality has to shift.”
Vanney soon will be getting some time to work on that shift. After playing three times in seven days, the Galaxy have a full week off ahead of Saturday’s derby game at LAFC, followed by a two-week international break.
“We have three weeks to get better defensively,” he said. “Our defending and giving up chances is just ridiculous right now and it’s on me and we are going to change it.”
And finally there’s this …
Christian Pulisic’s availability for the USMNT’s first three World Cup qualifiers with El Salvador, Canada and Honduras was thrown into doubt last week when he was tested positive for COVID-19. Neither Chelsea, Pulisic’s club team, nor the U.S. Soccer Federation have released a timetable for Pulisic’s return. The national team is scheduled to gather in Nashville next Monday … In an effort to grow women’s soccer in the region, CONCACAF is introducing two new competitions, the W Championship, which will debut next year and serve as the qualifying tournament for the 2023 Women’s World Cup and 2024 Paris Olympics, and the 12-team W Gold Cup. Both tournaments will provide competitive opportunities for national teams in Central America and the Caribbean that traditionally have had trouble finding competitive games.... UCLA and USC are ranked in top 15 in the United Soccer Coaches preseason women’s poll, with the Bruins at No. 5 and the Trojans at No. 14. UCLA, which returns its top four scorers, including junior Mia Fishel who is on the Hermann Trophy watch list, opened its schedule with wins over Pepperdine, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. USC, which started its season with an exhibition win over Fullerton and a loss to Pepperdine, is led by senior forward Penelope Hocking, last season’s leading scorer and one of two Trojans on the Herrmann Trophy watch list.
“You work so hard the last 20 years to try to push forward, try to become better every day as a nation, try to improve, and suddenly you are just shot back to ground zero where, (we’re) even further away, like the Stone Age.”
Afghan refugee and NWSL player Nadia Nadim, in the Louisville Courier-Journal, on the situation in her homeland