Soccer newsletter: It’s win or go home for U.S. in World Cup today

Tyler Adams of the United States, right, fights for the ball against England's Mason Mount.
(Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

DOHA, Qatar — Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at Mexico’s World Cup struggles, the surprises of the tournament so far, MLS’ expanded presence in the World Cup and Landon Donovan getting voted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

But first we check in with the U.S. national team, which faces a do-or-die scenario in its final group-play game Tuesday with Iran. There’s a catch though because to win, the U.S. will have to score and that hasn’t exactly been a strong point lately.


To move on to the knockout stages, something the U.S. has done in three of the previous four World Cups it played in this century, the Americans must beat Iran. Nothing short of the three points will do.

Iran, on the other hand, can eliminate the U.S. and advance with just a draw. A loss, however, and it’s out.

“This is a knockout game for both teams,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “So it’s going to be a high level of intensity.”

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And probably not a whole lot of scoring, which is good for the Americans since their only goal in the World Cup came 36 minutes into their first game with Wales, when a beautiful through ball from Christian Pulisic set up Tim Weah to score. The U.S. hasn’t scored since. And while one goal was enough to get the Americans two draws, it won’t be enough to get by Iran and on to the knockout rounds.

“In this game we’re going to need to score,” Berhalter said. “That’s going to have to happen. So we stay calm, we have a plan and we go out and try to execute that plan.”

If only it were that easy. Including the one goal in two games in Qatar, the U.S. has scored just twice in its last five games dating to mid-June, getting shut out three times. Go back a little further, to a 2-0 loss in Costa Rica in the final World Cup qualifier in March, and the U.S. has been held scoreless five times in nine matches.

But Berhalter suggested Monday there were not big changes coming. Asked if he was considering inserting midfielder Gio Reyna along the front as a striker, he said no.

“They’ve been OK,” he said of his forwards, hardly a ringing endorsement. “It’s up to the rest of the group to give them quality service so that they can finish off some of these opportunities. Hopefully in this Iran game, we can get some good balls into the box and help these guys out a little bit.

“In terms of alternatives in the striker position, we’re comfortable with the three that we have.”

Although anything short of the round of 16 would be a failure, this tournament was primarily about experience. The U.S. has the second-youngest roster in Qatar, averaging slightly more than 25 years of age, and the core of the team — Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Reyna, Weston McKennie, Weah and Sergiño Dest — all are younger than that. That sets up the team nicely for the next World Cup, which will played in North America.


Coming into this tournament only one player, defender DeAndre Yedlin, had been to a World Cup. Now 25 others have as well.

But there’s a difference between getting to the World Cup and truly competing in one.

“We said that this team is going to be judged on what we do at the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “So that’s fine. We’ll deal with it.”

One thing the U.S. learned here was the World Cup doesn’t exist in a fishbowl. Every team and many reporters come with their own agendas, which is why Iranian reporters harassed Berhalter and U.S. captain Adams with questions on everything from the placement of U.S. warships and the American immigration policy to the country’s history of racism.

Missing, for the most part, were questions about soccer. One U.S. Soccer official said he had seen nothing like that news conference in decades with the team.

Both Adams and Berhalter dodged the landmines artfully, avoiding the soundbite the Iranians were looking for and keeping the focus on soccer.

“For us it’s a soccer game against a good team. And it’s not much more than that,” Berhalter said. “It’s a knockout game. Both teams want to go to the next round. Both teams are desperate to win the next round. And that’s how we’re looking at this match.”

The Iranians’ passion stemmed from U.S. Soccer social media posts over weekend that removed the Islamic Republic’s emblem from the Iranian flag. According to a U.S. federation spokesman that was done to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” Over the last two months millions of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in police custody in September after being detained for wearing her hijab incorrectly.


But the gesture backfired with Iranian state television saying the move was akin to “removing the symbol of Allah” from the Iranian flag and demanded the American team be disqualified from the tournament. On Monday, Berhalter apologized but said the players and coaching staff were not aware of the posts.

Carlos Queiroz, the coach who has taken Iran to three consecutive World Cups, repeatedly was asked leading questions in the hopes he would say something critical of the American team but he didn’t take the bait either.

“The team in this group that produced the best two performances was, without any doubt, the United States. They played two great and fantastic games,” he said.

Queiroz also gave an impassioned reply when asked about the power of football to overcome the politics that have overshadowed this World Cup.

“You don’t know what one simple ball can do for kids who sometimes for one or two days don’t eat,” he said. “They don’t have nothing to dress. And when we stop our cars, we open the cars and we put one ball in those parks. And you cannot imagine the magic moment that happens in the faces of kids and from sadness they change in one fraction to a smile. This is our mission.

“We have our solidarity with all humanitarian causes, but we are in solidarity to the humanitarian causes all over the world, whatever they are, whoever they are. If you talk about human rights, racism, kids that die in schools with shootings, we are in solidarity. We support all those causes. But here our mission is to bring the smiles for the people, at least for 90 minutes, right?”


When he finished, the conference room broke into applause.

A combined audience of 20 million watched the Americans’ last group-play match with England on Fox and Telemundo despite the fact that game kicked off midday on a Friday.

Mexico headed for a lot of soul-searching

Mexico's coach, Tata Martino ,calls out to his players during the World Cup.
(Jorge Saenz / Associated Press)

Mexico came to Qatar looking for the quinto partido, the fifth World Cup game, which it hasn’t played in since 1986. It’s likely to head home Thursday after just tres partidos for the first time since 1978, ending a streak of eight World Cups in which Mexico advanced out of group play.

Two games into this tournament Mexico has nothing to show for its participation. It is last in its four-country group and is the only team without a win or a goal. In fact, Mexico hasn’t scored in the World Cup in 384 consecutive minutes dating to the second game of group play in Russia. The goals in that game came from Carlos Vela and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, neither of whom was invited to Qatar.

Manager Tata Martino’s contract expires at the end of the year and his fate has been known for some time, which makes him a lame-duck manager. Yom de Luisa, who took over as president of the Mexican soccer federation after the last World Cup, is certain to go as well since this arguably has been the most disastrous year for Mexican soccer in recent memory.

Not only will the men’s team likely make its earliest World Cup exit in four decades, but also the women’s team failed to qualify for next summer’s Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics despite hosting the qualifying tournament. The men’s U23 team, the bronze medalist in Tokyo, failed to qualify for its Olympic tournament for the first time since 2008.

Not renewing the contracts of Martino and De Luisa would complete a housecleaning that began in July when De Luisa fired Ignacio Hierro, the director of national teams, and U20 coach Luis Perez and forced the resignation of sporting director Gerardo Torrado. He also fired most of the top coaches on the women’s side, including senior national team manager Monica Vergara.

But all that came too late and Mexico’s recent struggles do not bode well for the program with less than four years to prepare for the next World Cup, which it will host along with the U.S. and Canada. While the Americans and Canadians brought talented young teams to Qatar to gain experience and build chemistry for 2026, Martino largely stuck with the old guard: El Tri had the second-oldest team at the last World Cup in Russia and it has the second-oldest team in Qatar.


Injuries to key players such as Raúl Jiménez and Jesús Corona hurt. But other teams, including France and Germany, are missing more players than Mexico and their depth allowed them to fill in. Mexico has no depth and appears to have few hotshot prospects in the pipeline.

Mexico still has a mathematical chance of advancing in Qatar but it’s the longest of long shots. El Tri would have to beat Saudi Arabia in its final game — ask Argentina how easy that is — and would need Poland beat Argentina and would have to make up a huge goal differential to Argentina in the process.

For a team whose last World Cup goal came 52 months ago, the odds of all that happening aren’t good.

“As long as there’s a chance, we need to try,” Martino said. “Is it difficult? Yes.”

Added midfielder Roberto Alvarado: “There is still a little hope. We have to lift our heads for this last game and give everything on the field.”

Upsets and firsts

Ecuador's Enner Valencia scores his side's first goal during the Netherlands-Ecuador match.
(Natacha Pisarenko / Associated Press)

The final round of group play begins Tuesday, but this already has been a World Cup of surprises.


Who, for example, had Saudi Arabi beating Argentina and snapping the South Americans’ 36-game unbeaten streak one shy of matching Italy’s record? The Saudis certainly didn’t because they declared a national holiday when it happened.

Who had No. 22 Morocco shutting out No. 2 Belgium with its backup goalkeeper and likely taking Belgium’s place in the knockout rounds? Moroccans in Belgium and the Netherlands certainly didn’t since Moroccan fans rioted in the streets of Antwerp, Brussels and Rotterdam in celebration. That led to 20 arrests.

Who figured Qatar, with its unlimited resources and 12 years of preparation, would be the first host country to be eliminated in two games? Or who knew that Costa Rica and goalkeeper Keylor Navas would bounce back from a 7-0 drubbing by Spain to shut out Japan four days later?

Who thought Ecuador’s Enner Valencia would share the scoring lead with France’s Kylian Mbappe after two games?

Then there were the firsts — some good, some not so good.

Canada got its first goal in its fifth World Cup game but still is looking for its first point. Robert Lewandowski got his first World Cup goal for Poland in a 2-0 win over Saudi Arabia, but that came four days after he was denied on a penalty kick for the first time in his international career when Memo Ochoa stopped him in a scoreless tie with Mexico.

In its rout of Costa Rica, Spain became the first team in World Cup history to possess the ball more than 81% of the game and the second to complete more than 1,000 passes. The first? Spain, four years ago in Russia.

In losing its opener to Ecuador 2-0, Qatar became the first host nation to be held without a shot on goal since the U.S. in 1994. In the same game Valencia became the first player with a brace in a World Cup opener.

After the Saudi debacle left Argentina heading for the exits, Lionel Messi rescued his country’s World Cup hopes with a goal and an assist in the final 30 minutes against Mexico. In the same game, Messi picked up his eighth World Cup goal in his 21st appearance, tying Diego Maradona in both categories. The game drew an electric crowd of 88,966, largest for a World Cup game since the 1994 final at the Rose Bowl.

Through the first 20 games there were five scoreless draws, four more than in the entire 64-game tournament in Russia and just two shy of the World Cup record of seven. That happened four times, most recently in 2014.


It wouldn’t be a surprise if there were more surprises ahead.

MLS in the World Cup

After one of the most successful seasons in its 27-year history, MLS has 37 players in Qatar this month, including five from league-champion LAFC

Canada (11) and the U.S. (9) combine for more than half that total and only CF Montreal, with six players, is better represented than LAFC, which has Kellyn Acosta playing for the U.S., Gareth Bale for Wales and José Cifuentes, Jhegson Méndez and Diego Palacios for Ecuador. LAFC would have had a sixth had Canadian goalkeeper Maxime Crepeau not been injured in stoppage time of the MLS Cup final.

LAFC also has two former players in Qatar in Canadian midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, now with Toronto, and U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman, now with Nashville.

The Galaxy, who for the first time in history do not have a player on the U.S. team, are represented by Uruguayan defender Martín Cáceres.

MLS players in the World Cup

Thiago Almada (M, Atlanta United)

Milos Degenek (D, Columbus Crew)

Lucas Cavallini (F, Vancouver Whitecaps FC)
Alistair Johnston (D, CF Montréal)
Mark-Anthony Kaye (M, Toronto FC)
Ismaël Koné (M, CF Montréal)
Richie Laryea (D, Toronto FC)
Kamal Miller (D, CF Montréal)
Jonathan Osorio (M, Toronto FC)
James Pantemis (GK, CF Montréal)
Samuel Piette (M, CF Montréal)
Dayne St. Clair (GK, Minnesota United FC)
Joel Waterman (D, CF Montréal)

Olivier Mbaizo (D, Philadelphia Union)
Nouhou Tolo (D, Seattle Sounders)

Costa Rica
Daniel Chacón (D, Colorado Rapids 2)
Ronald Matarrita (D, FC Cincinnati)
Bryan Oviedo (D, Real Salt Lake)

Xavier Arreaga (D, Seattle Sounders FC)
José Cifuentes (M, LAFC)
Sebastian Méndez (M, LAFC)
Diego Palacios (D, LAFC)

Héctor Herrera (M, Houston Dynamo FC)

Karol Swiderski (F, Charlotte FC)

Xherdan Shaqiri (M, Chicago Fire FC)

Martín Cáceres (D, Galaxy)
Facundo Torres (F, Orlando City SC)

Kellyn Acosta (M, LAFC)
Jesus Ferreira (F, FC Dallas)
Sean Johnson (GK, New York City FC)
Aaron Long (D, New York Red Bulls)
Shaq Moore (D, Nashville SC)
Jordan Morris (F, Seattle Sounders FC)
Cristian Roldan (M, Seattle Sounders FC)
DeAndre Yedlin (D, Inter Miami CF)
Walker Zimmerman (D, Nashville SC)

Gareth Bale (F, LAFC)

Landon Donovan is a Hall of Famer

Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, who combined to play in seven World Cups, were elected last weekend to the National Soccer Hall of Fame alongside Lauren Cheney Holiday, a Women’s World Cup champion.

Donovan, who retired as the all-time leading goalscorer in MLS and with the national team, won a record six MLS Cups, including four with the Galaxy, and four CONCACAF Gold Cups with the national team. Chris Wondolowski has since eclipsed Donovan’s MLS record of 145 goals while Clint Dempsey matched his 57 national team scores. But Donovan, who played as a midfielder and forward, still holds the record for assists with 58, while his 157 international appearances trail only former Galaxy teammate Cobi Jones.

So dominant was Donovan, a 13-time MLS all-star, that the league named its MVP award after him. The Ontario native, widely regarded as the best player in U.S. history, now is the coach and part owner of the San Diego Loyal of the second-tier USL Championship. Donovan is the seventh person with a Galaxy affiliation to be inducted into the Hall, joining coaches Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena, players Jones, Alexi Lalas and Paul Caligiuri, and owner Phil Anschutz.

Beasley, born six weeks after Donovan in 1982, played on nine teams in six countries during a 20-year career and is the only American man to play in four World Cups. He finished with 126 international caps, seventh on the U.S. list. A winger and outside back, Beasley won two Eredivisie titles with PSV Eindhoven, two Scottish Premier League titles with Rangers and five Gold Cups with the U.S., leading the tournament in scoring in 2005. He was a five-time MLS all-star.

Holiday, who was runner-up for the Hermann award as a sophomore at UCLA, began her pro career in L.A. with the Pali Blues, won two Olympic titles and a World Cup in 2015, her final season. She also won the NWSL scoring title and MVP award in 2013 and league championships in 2014 and 2015. A midfielder, she played in 133 games for the U.S. and scored 24 goals.

The three players will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas, on May 6.

Our World Cup coverage

For all of our World Cup coverage, visit our World Cup page here.

In case you missed it

World Cup schedule: Start times for every match and how to watch


World Cup: U.S. briefly protests Iran by stripping flag of Islamic Republic emblem online

World Cup notes: Fox, U.S. score big numbers with TV audience

Heat is on El Tri after Lionel Messi leads Argentina to World Cup win over Mexico

World Cup: U.S. gains confidence but not win in scoreless tie against England


“There’s discrimination everywhere you go. One thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit in in different cultures and kind of assimilating to different cultures, is that in the U.S. we’re continuing to make progress every single day. ... It’s a process. As long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”

U.S. captain Tyler Adams when asked why he played for the U.S. given the country’s history of racism


Until next time...

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