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Soccer newsletter: USMNT’s success masks scoring woes that threaten its World Cup bid

U.S. forwards Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent leave the pitch with their heads down following a 1-1 draw with Canada
U.S. forwards Christian Pulisic (10) and Josh Sargent (9) leave the pitch following a 1-1 draw with Canada during a World Cup soccer qualifier Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with the U.S. national team, which is unbeaten — but also winless — two games into World Cup qualifying.

Gregg Berhalter’s team opened its campaign last week with a scoreless draw under difficult conditions in El Salvador, an acceptable result in CONCACAF. Sunday’s 1-1 tie with Canada in Nashville was not. And alarm bells already are ringing.

The U.S. didn’t get a win from its first two qualifiers in 2017, which cost coach Jurgen Klinsmann his job. The team never fully recovered and missed the World Cup for the first time in 32 years.

The tournament used to consist of six teams and 10 games then. This year, because of changes wrought by COVID-19, it’s been expanded to eight teams and 14 games, which gives the U.S. ample time to recover. Only Mexico and Panama have wins in the first two rounds, leaving five teams bunched within a point for the third and final qualifying spot heading into Wednesday’s third match day, which will see the U.S. play in Honduras.

“We have a long way to go,” U.S. captain Christian Pulisic said. “[But] we have to turn it around and start winning games.”

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If only it were that easy.

The U.S. entered the tournament ranked 10th in the world, with 17 wins in its past 19 games and summer victories over Mexico in the final of the Gold Cup and Nations League tournaments. But scratch below the surface and those results may be misleading.

In Nations League, the U.S. needed a goal in the final minute of regulation to beat Honduras and advance to the final, where it won in extra time on a penalty kick. And the road to the Gold Cup trophy was even more precarious, with five 1-0 wins in six games.

In the last three Gold Cup wins, the deciding goal came in the 83rd minute or later. That’s a thin edge to be riding and maybe the very young U.S. team finally has lost its balance; maybe the results in qualifying are more reflective of the team’s strength and quality than the two tournaments this summer. Maybe the U.S. really is just a paper tiger.

Nineteen players hadn’t played in a World Cup qualifier before last week and so far, the stage seems too big for many.

Then there are off-the-field issues, chief among them Weston McKennie’s suspension. Berhalter repeatedly refused to discuss what led to the suspension but McKennie, on social media, said he violated the team’s COVID-19 protocols, something he was caught doing last April when he was sanctioned by his club team, Juventus, after he and two teammates hosted a party.

U.S. forward Christian Pulisic (10) reacts to missing a shot against Canada.
U.S. forward Christian Pulisic (10) reacts to missing a shot against Canada during a World Cup soccer qualifier Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.
(Mark Humphrey / Associated Press)

McKennie is one of the national team’s best players and had been considered a leader, which makes his selfish and boneheaded actions in Nashville all the more troublesome. McKennie knew the U.S. already was without forward Gio Reyna (hamstring) and goalkeeper Zack Steffen (back spasms, then a positive COVID-19 test) while Pulisic was questionable for Sunday. Yet he knowingly put his participation and his teammates’ health at risk.

Compounding that, the U.S. lost Barcelona defender Sergiño Dest to an ankle injury late in the first half and his replacement, DeAndre Yedlin, was the player who got beat on Canada’s game-tying goal.

Whether the McKennie case speaks to a broader problem with the team’s culture isn’t known, but credit Berhalter for acting quickly and decisively. On Monday, McKennie was removed from the roster and sent back to Italy to join Juventus, his club team.

“There are high expectations for those who are a part of the U.S. men’s national team, and in order to be successful it’s important that everyone in the group is accountable,” Berhalter said in a statement

Then there’s the Canada game itself. The U.S. was tentative, uninspired and lacked grit and conviction. The Americans had possession for more than 70% of the game and took twice as many shots as Canada, but they wasted most of that advantage. After taking their only lead of the tournament, they gave it up just seven minutes later.

Statistician Paul Carr of TruMediaSports produced a chart Monday morning showing just 25% of the passes the U.S. made against Canada went forward.

Perhaps the best assessment of the state of the team after Sunday’s game came from midfielder Tyler Adams.

“We need to find ways to be a little bit more threatening, dangerous,” he said.

“We’ve got to have a long look in the mirror and really establish what our goals are here. If we don’t go out there and do the things we’re good at, there we’re just a group of names on a piece of paper.”

CONCACAF World Cup qualifying

The CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table showing the U.S. tied for third
(Times staff)

RESULTS:

Sept. 2
U.S. 0, El Salvador 0
Mexico 2, Jamaica 1
Costa Rica 0, Panama 0
Canada 1, Honduras 1

Sept. 5
U.S. 1, Canada 1
Mexico 1, Costa Rica 0
Panama 3, Jamaica 0
El Salvador 0, Honduras 0

NEXT GAMES:
Wednesday
El Salvador at Canada, 4:30 p.m. PDT
Mexico at Panama, 5 p.m. PDT
Jamaica at Costa Rica, 6 p.m. PDT
U.S. at Honduras, 7 p.m. PDT

LAFC snaps winless streak sans Diego

Diego Rossi slipped away in the night and jetted to Turkey a week ago to join Fenerbahce on a loan with an option to buy, a purchase LAFC clearly is expecting to go through.

And how did his former team respond? By scoring a season-high four goals in a 4-0 win over Sporting Kansas City last Friday that snapped an eight-game winless streak and gave the club its first victory since mid-July.

It also was LAFC’s most one-sided victory in nearly a year and much of that offense came from 18-year-old defender Mamadou Fall, who scored the first two goals on the first shots he put on target in his MLS career. Fall, a Senegalese who signed with the team in June, was making his fourth start and scored both times on headers.

Rossi’s departure was hardly surprising. If anything, it came a year or two later than expected. When the Uruguayan, LAFC’s second designated player, met with general manager John Thorrington and coach Bob Bradley in the fall of 2017 to discuss his first MLS contract, he told them he would just be passing through on his way to Europe.

Then COVID intervened and depressed the transfer market, even after Rossi won the MLS Golden Boot and was named the league’s best young player last season. If reports from Istanbul are correct, Fenerbahce’s purchase price for Rossi is about $7 million, far below his market value and less than what LAFC expected to get.

However, the deal finally allows the club and player to move on.

“It’s the fulfillment of a plan and a vision that’s been in place since Day 1, which was to identify young talent, develop that young talent and move them on in a way that is beneficial for both the player and the club,” Thorrington said.

The move, just as the summer transfer window was closing and the playoff race was heating up, could hurt LAFC in the short term.

“Losing Diego will require others to step up,” Thorrington acknowledged. “This is not ideal timing. I can certainly recognize that.”

Fall stepped up last Friday, providing some momentum for a roster remake that had begun even before Rossi left. Earlier this summer Thorrington traded midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye and forward Corey Baird for a combined $1.75 million in allocation money and two international roster spots. Midfielder Eduard Atuesta could be the next to go and defender Jordan Harvey, whose contract expires at the end of the season, probably won’t be returning.

Whitecaps defender Cristian Gutierrez (3) and LAFC forward Carlos Vela (10) vie for the ball
Whitecaps defender Cristian Gutierrez (3) and LAFC forward Carlos Vela (10) vie for the ball in Los Angeles on July 24.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The biggest question marks now are forward Carlos Vela, the league’s highest-paid player with guaranteed compensation of $6.3 million, and Bradley, the coach. Both reportedly are in the final months of their contracts.

Vela, 32, LAFC’s first signing, broke the single-season scoring record in 2019, when he was the league’s MVP. But he has started less than half of LAFC’s games since then because of injury and personal reasons and said in a TV interview last month he misses Europe, where he played most of his career.

Returning from his current injury, a strained quadriceps, isn’t a question “of days but week to week,” Thorrington said.

Bradley, the only manager the club has known, led LAFC to a Supporters’ Shield and the best regular-season record in league history in the team’s second season. But LAFC, 7-9-6 this season, has gone 16-17-11 in regular-season play since 2019 and Bradley’s passion about the style of play he prefers seems to have worn thin in the dressing room.

If the team misses the seven-team Western Conference playoff field — LAFC currently is ninth in the table — a change may become necessary. On the other hand, Bradley has built dominant teams from scratch twice in his MLS career and the remake LAFC is beginning would give him a chance to do that again.

With the influx of allocation money, the loss of Rossi’s $1.05 million contract — the second-highest on the team — and the possible opening of two designated-player spots, Thorrington and Bradley will have a lot of room to operate this winter. That was the plan all along.

“Everything we do is with the intent of improving our team and making our team better in any way we can,” said Thorrington, who added he’s already been exploring several designated-player possibilities.

“This is a deal that our ownership group is comfortable with in the short, medium and long term,” he said. “What is exciting for the club in that regard is the resources that this will generate in order to improve the team.”

A legacy of lords and serfs lives on in England

Cristiano Ronaldo hasn’t played a game for Manchester United since 2009. But the recent $18 million transfer that will return him to the Premier League after the international break has widened an already huge gap between England’s top teams and the rest of the pack.

And former United goalkeeper Tim Howard, now a soccer pundit for NBC, said that’s a good thing.

“It’s the best football news I’ve heard in a long, long time,” said Howard, who joined United in 2003, the same season Ronaldo did, then retired a year before his old teammate returned.

“To have him back, look, there’s always been a tilt of power at the top. There’s going to be certain teams that can’t necessarily compete with that,” Howard said.

By certain teams, he means the vast majority of the 20-team league, teams whose supporters start the season hoping their club can hold the big boys to a draw or two along the way. Or maybe steal a fifth-place finish which would qualify for play in the Europa League.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo gives a thumbs up before a Euro 2020 match
Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo gives a thumbs up before a Euro 2020 match against Belgium on June 27.
(Thanassis Stavrakis / Associated Press)

But competing for an EPL title? Out of the question.

“When you talk about appeasing a fanbase and having success, Brighton doesn’t have to win the league to have success,” said Howard, who didn’t play on a league champion in 13 seasons with Manchester United and Everton. “If they don’t win the title, they’re still able to be proud of their team and feel like they had a successful campaign.

“Very rarely is a Leicester going to win the title. Very rarely is a Blackburn going to win the title. But there’s always that dream. There’s always a possibility. That’s why we watch and that’s why we love it.”

Just seven clubs have won the EPL since its founding in 1992-93. Take out Blackburn and Leicester City, who were Cinderella champions in 1995 and 2016, respectively, and the winner’s trophy mostly has been passed between United (13 titles), Manchester City and Chelsea (five each) and Arsenal (three, the most recent in 2004). Most everybody else is eliminated in the summer transfer window, which this year saw United land Ronaldo, Raphael Varana and Jadon Sancho for $195 million, Chelsea pay $135 million for Romelu Lukaku and City get Jack Grealish for the $139 million.

According to Spotrac.com, 13 EPL teams are spending less than $80 million on their entire roster, much less for one player.

“This year, more than ever,” Howard said, “we’ve gone back to the powers that be in terms of Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, Man City. I can’t see anybody outside of that breaking into the top four.

“When Chelsea made that move to get Lukaku, they started becoming this juggernaut,” he added. “United had to do something to change that. This is a chess match.”

But if the mid-table teams can appease their fans by simply avoiding relegation and scoring an upset or two along the way, for the Big Four a league title no longer is enough. Manchester City, for example, has won three of the last four EPL crowns – and finished second the other time. So anything short of a Champions League win this season would be a failure.

(The same could be said for Paris Saint-Germain, which is why it committed more than $82 million to add Lionel Messi to an attack that already had Kylian Mbappe and Neymar.)

“Clearly there’s been a mandate at the club to say ‘OK, we can win league titles. We’ve shown that,’ ” Howard said. “The luster will really wear off from that. [They] need Champions League.”

And finally there’s this …

Last month’s MLS-Liga MX All-Star Game at Banc of California was watched by 1.6 million people in Mexico, more than double the previous highest audience for an MLS All-Star Game in Mexico. That’s slightly more than the total U.S. audience of 1.575 million on Univision, TUDN and FS1 … Former USWNT coach Jill Ellis, a two-time World Cup champion and the winningest coach in U.S. Soccer history, has been chosen by FIFA to lead a technical advisory group on the future of women’s soccer. Ellis currently is president of the NWSL expansion team in San Diego.

Quotebook

“Why did they start the game and stop it after five minutes? We’ve been here at the stadium for an hour, they could have told us.”

Lionel Messi after Argentina’s World Cup qualifier in Sao Paulo was suspended just moments after kickoff by Brazilian health officials, who objected to the participation of four Argentine players they say broke quarantine rules.

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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