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Soccer newsletter: U.S. Soccer should not reward pouters and malcontents

Gio Reyna is dejected after United States' loss to the Netherlands in the World Cup.
(Ebrahim Noroozi / Associated Press)
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Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we’ll discuss the Mexican national team’s disarray, Sacha Kljestan’s career change, Robbie Keane’s fond MLS memories with the Galaxy and the final stats from Qatar.

But we start once again with the soap opera that has engulfed the U.S. men’s team, as a temper tantrum from one of the roster’s youngest players and his parents has left the federation on the verge of idiocracy, with some arguing the whims of a supremely talented if injury-prone player should come before what’s best for the team and the federation.

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The player is Gio Reyna, who scored his first club goal since the World Cup on Sunday, then celebrated with a predictably petulant performance by putting his finger to his lips as if to ask for quiet, then sticking both fingers in his ears to show he is not hearing all the noise around him.

Good for Reyna. The score was a golazo, a line drive volleyed into the top corner of the net to give Borussia Dortmund a 4-3 win over Augsburg. It was a great score.

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But the noise he was trying not to hear was the echo of a cacophony he himself started two months ago, when he rejected coach Gregg Berhalter’s plan to use him off the bench in Qatar. Reyna pouted through much of the rest of the tournament, refused to put in a full effort in training and caused such a distraction that Berhalter nearly sent him home.

U.S. Soccer still has not recovered from the ugly aftermath. It will try to move on starting Wednesday, when it begins its drive to the 2026 World Cup with its first game of the new cycle against Serbia at BMO Stadium (formerly Banc of California Stadium). The fallout lingers with Anthony Hudson, Berhalter’s assistant and the team’s caretaker coach, fielding more questions about Berhalter than he did about the team in his first meeting with the media last Saturday.

“My conversations with all the players on the phone, and whoever I’ve spoken to, I think we all share the same sadness,” he said. “This is a real shame, because so much good work was done.”

But now that Reyna has scored a goal, everything is better, right? At 20, the future belongs to Reyna, not the 49-year-old Berhalter; never mind that Berhalter’s record over the last four years is the best for a men’s coach in U.S. Soccer history. Never mind that sources told ESPN’s Sam Borden that USMNT general manager Brian McBride is out after three years, another apparent casualty of l’affaire Reyna.

So let’s go ahead and sack the coach and general manager and make a deity of the dissenter. Who needs those pesky other guys anyway?

That would be a disaster, akin to putting the inmates in charge of the asylum. Coaching a team — or any group of people — is about what’s best for the collective, not any particular individual. Berhalter, with reason, thought Reyna was more useful coming off the bench. Reyna, who has been plagued by injuries, rarely has gone a full 90 minutes in a game in his national team career.

Same with his club. Reyna has made eight of his 11 Bundesliga appearances this season off the Dortmund bench, with his game-winning goal Sunday coming as a substitute. Reyna has proven to be a game-changing player off the bench, and that’s where Berhalter wanted to play him in the heat and humidity of Qatar.

Did it work? No, with Reyna playing just 52 minutes the U.S. scored three goals in four games and exited in the round of 16. But the conclusion that the strategy failed is unfair because Reyna never gave it a chance to work.

But at least Reyna, who teammates have called both supremely talented and immature, apologized to them for wrecking their World Cup before he left Qatar last month. That could have been the end of it; instead it was just the beginning.

Reyna’s father, Claudio, a U.S. captain in two World Cups and the best man at Berhalter’s wedding, complained about the coach’s approach in Qatar, dividing the team and creating the kind of toxic environment he would not have tolerated during his playing days. Yet it’s something he also did when Reyna was playing on the U-17 national team.

Claudio’s wife, Danielle, went that one better. Reacting to a talk Berhalter gave at a leadership conference in which he mentioned the distractions caused by a player he did not name — but who later was identified in the media as Gio — she told U.S. Soccer about a 1991 physical altercation between Berhalter and the woman, Rosalind Santana, who later became his wife.

The 31-year-old incident never was reported to authorities; Berhalter, then 18, said he sought counseling on his own and owned up to his mistakes and he and Santana — Danielle Reyna’s college roommate — married in 1999. Now, after the Reynas went public with a private matter, U.S. Soccer has hired an Atlanta law firm to probe Berhalter’s past; his future with the national team remains uncertain.

But by all means let’s fire the coach because Reyna scored a goal, proving he was right after all. What kind of a precedent would that set? If Christian Pulisic is unhappy with his playing time, would it be OK for him to pout? Is it OK for the best players to put themselves and their egos above what’s best for the team? That’s the undeniable message that rewarding the Reynas and sacking Berhalter sends.

I don’t understand all the support for a player — the only player on the team, mind you — who wanted the World Cup to be about him. Berhalter had a similar discipline problem in World Cup qualifying and took care of that by suspending midfielder Weston McKennie. McKennie got the message and seems to have been a model teammate ever since. Publicly, at least, everyone on the USMNT, from players through the coaches and medical staff, speaks highly of Berhalter.

Neither Reyna nor McKennie was called into the eight-day January camp because there is no FIFA competition window this month. But five of their Qatar teammates are there, alongside 13 other players seeking their first international caps. It’s fallen on them to get the focus back on soccer this week while Reyna celebrates blocking out the distractions he created.

“It’s the start of something new, the new cycle,” said defender Julian Gressel, who recently obtained U.S. citizenship and became eligible for the team. “It’s exciting. What they’ve done in the past was tremendous. And now to be part of that, and to be able to represent that on the field, is something very special.

“Coming in as a player you know what the standard is. And that’s the very top. That’s where the U.S. belongs, and that’s what we’re trying to get to. This is the start of it.”

Mexico needs to get its house in order as well

The U.S. national team is a hot mess. But it’s still in better shape than its counterpart in Mexico, which is coming off its worst World Cup performance in 44 years, doesn’t have a coach and last week was ordered to forfeit a pair of senior friendlies, forfeit three U-17 matches and pay a $10,900 fine for using U.S. forward Alejandro Zendejas, who is in camp with Hudson’s team this week.

FIFA announced the penalties last week after Zendejas was named to the U.S. team for this week’s friendlies with Serbia on Wednesday at BMO Stadium and Saturday with Colombia at Dignity Health Sports Park.

Zendejas was born in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just across the border, but moved to El Paso as a child and became a dual national. He played three matches for the U.S. at the U-17 World Cup, which counts as an official competition. To be eligible to play for Mexico, he would have had to request a one-time switch in affiliation.

Zendejas began his pro career in MLS as a homegrown player with FC Dallas before moving on to Liga MX, where he played with Guadalajara, Zacatepec, Nexcaxa and Club América.

In the search for a coach, Mexican journalist David Faitelson reported last week that former Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa, an Argentine who coached Chile and Argentina in the World Cup, tops the list of candidates. Tata Martino, Mexico’s coach in Qatar, also is from Argentina while his predecessor, Juan Carlos Osorio, is Colombian.

Many supporters want the team to return to a Mexican manager such as Miguel Herrera, who coached the team into the round of 16 in the 2014 World Cup. Faitelson said Herrera also is on the federation’s list of coaching possibilities.

Mexico, which will co-host the 2026 World Cup with the U.S. and Canada, hopes to name a new coach by the end of the month. Whoever gets the job will have a lot of work to do since Mexico had the second-oldest roster in each of the last two World Cups and its cupboard of talented, young players appears bare since Mexico did not qualify for the 2024 Olympics, a U-23 tournament.

Kljestan isn’t leaving the sport, just the game

Sacha Kljestan of the Galaxy plays against Charlotte FC last season.
Sacha Kljestan of the Galaxy plays against Charlotte FC last season.
(Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press)

Retirement as a player won’t mean retirement from soccer for Sacha Kljestan. It just means he’ll be sweating a lot less during games.

Hours after the former Chivas USA and Galaxy midfielder announced his was hanging up his cleats, Apple TV said Kljestan would join its broadcast team as a studio analyst for MLS games this season.

Apple TV, which signed a 10-year, $2.5-billion broadcast deal with MLS last year, has hired a deep roster of English- and Spanish-language play-by-play announcers and analysts including Taylor Twellman, Max Bretos, Steve Cangialosi, Marcelo Balboa, Maurice Edu, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Diego Valeri.

“This is kind of giving me an opportunity to take a little bit of a break from the day-to-day of what I’ve done for the last 20-something years, spend a little bit more time with my family during the week and then work on the weekends,” said Kljestan, 37, who said he will commute from his Orange County home to Apple TV’s East Coast studios.

Kljestan, a midfielder, played his first pro game in Carson for Chivas USA and his final pro game in the same stadium 17 years later for the Galaxy. In between, he played nearly 700 games in all competitions for five teams in two leagues and two countries, plus another 52 appearances for the national team.

He said he first talked with Apple TV near the end of the MLS season but continued discussions with the Galaxy about re-signing this winter.

“There were times during the season [when] I talked to different people about different things, trying to figure out whether it was going to be the end of my career or whether I was going to keep playing,” said Kljestan, who was an invaluable locker room leader in his three seasons with the Galaxy.

The picture became a little clearer last month after he finished working the World Cup in Qatar as part of Fox Sports’ broadcast team.

“That was really awesome because it gave me a crash course in broadcasting,” he said. “I [did] over 120 shows in 30 days, so I think that helped me make the decision to stop playing and to try this as my new career.

“I’m excited to start something new where I can try to challenge myself to be the best I can possibly be at something else. I worked my entire life to be a soccer player. I got to heights that I don’t think I could even imagine. I’m proud of the career that I had.”

But going directly from the pitch into the studio to comment on players who, just a couple of months ago, were teammates can be difficult. Be too honest with your criticism and you could lose friends; be too gentle and you could lose your credibility. Kljestan said he’ll be able to walk that tightrope without falling off.

“I never minded when someone criticized me on TV or in print or anything because I was my most harsh critic anyway,” he said. “Part of this business is accepting that when you’re a professional athlete. We’re all going to have to accept a little bit of criticism here and there.”

Kljestan said he also plans to continue work toward a coaching license and may pursue that in the future.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “I’m excited to see how far I can take my next career.”

Robbie is still Keane about his time with the Galaxy

Robbie Keane speaks at the statue ceremony for David Beckham in 2019.
Robbie Keane speaks at the statue ceremony for David Beckham in 2019.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Robbie Keane’s stay with the Galaxy was the most successful span in club history, one that featured three MLS Cup titles, a Supporters’ Shields and six consecutive playoff appearances.

The team is 11 games under .500 and has won just two playoff games since Keane was sent packing after the 2016 season, the franchise’s worst slump ever. So it’s probably no surprise to learn Keane’s memories of MLS are fond ones.

“I was there for 5½ years and I have to say it was probably one of the best times I’ve had in my career,” he said in a video blog last week.

“I always said if I went to go somewhere like that, I didn’t want to go there at 35, 36 where I couldn’t make an impact,” he continued. “I think going at 31, I was still playing at a high level, and I think, you know, David Beckham was the one that called me and said ‘I think you’re the final piece in the jigsaw that we need.’

“And before you know it, I was over there. Then a few months later we won the Cup.”

That 2011 title was just the first of three for Keane, who grew fond of the American custom in which championship teams are invited to the White House to meet the president. So Keane tried to return the favor when the Galaxy visited Ireland during the 2015 preseason.

“I rang our president, Michael D. Higgins, and asked could we go and visit him at his house,” Keane remembered. “When we came to Ireland, Michael D. Higgins was waiting at the front door with a few dogs. The lads were actually out on the gardens walking his dogs, so the lads were taking selfies with him.

“It was a little bit different.”

Listen to the full interview by clicking here.

Qatar, by the numbers

The final statistics are in from last month’s World Cup in Qatar, with FIFA saying “around 5 billion people” — out of a global population of approximately 8 billion — engaged with the tournament across an array of platforms and devices, from social media to TV broadcasts. The dramatic final between Argentina and France had a global reach of 1.5 billion with the far-less-dramatic opening match between Qatar and Ecuador drawing 550 million viewers. Total attendance was 3.4 million, third highest in history for a World Cup and trailing only the 2014 tournament in Brazil and the 1994 competition in the U.S.

Here are some more numbers from Qatar:

• 17,444,586 passenger trips on Doha Metro during the tournament.
• 4,278,000 visits to Fan Festival at Doha’s Corniche.
• 257,000 hospitality packages sold, generating record revenues.
• 24,000 tweets posted per second after France’s second goal in the final, most ever.
• Top five countries of ticket buyers: Qatar, USA, Saudi Arabia, England and Mexico.

Source: The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 by the numbers and Soccer America

And finally there’s this …

Speaking of World Cup attendance, more than a half-million tickets already have been sold for this summer’s Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, according to FIFA. The U.S. has purchased the third-most tickets after the two host countries. The record attendance for a Women’s World Cup is 1.34 million set in Canada in 2015 when games were played as part of doubleheaders, with the same crowd figure being counted for both games. ... The two-time defending champion U.S. women’s team warmed up for this summer’s tournament by beating New Zealand in a pair of friendlies this month, winning 4-0 and 5-0. The two games were the first the Americans have played in New Zealand, where the World Cup will open in July. Mallory Swanson (nee Pugh), who had a brace in the first game, finished the brief tour Down Under with three scores. Midfielder Rose Lavelle had two goals in the second game. ... Everton, which hasn’t been relegated out of the top flight of English soccer since 1951, sacked manager Frank Lampard on Monday with the team second to last in the 20-team Premier League table. Lampard was 9-21-8 in Premier League play, earning 35 points from 38 matches.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

In case you missed it

Galaxy transfers winger Samuel Grandsir to Le Havre

Amid U.S. men’s soccer turmoil, Anthony Hudson tries to keep team on course

LAFC announces renaming of Banc of California Stadium to BMO Stadium

USMNT’s 24-man roster for next World Cup cycle is announced

Quotebook

“It’s been definitely a long journey — a journey that I’ve enjoyed ever since I first stepped foot into the U.S. [and] fell in love with the country. That is why it’s really exciting to be able to represent the U.S. on the field.”

Vancouver Whitecaps defender Julian Gressel, a dual German-U.S. national, on getting his first call-up to the American national team at age 29

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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