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Soccer! Loss to Mexico shows U.S. men’s team still has a long way to go

United States midfielder Wil Trapp (6) competes againt Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado (18) in the first half Friday.
United States midfielder Wil Trapp (6) competes againt Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado (18) in the first half Sept. 6.
(Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the latest edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with one of the greatest rivalries in international soccer, the U.S. versus Mexico.

Lately, however, the rivalry has become a rout: The gap between the two teams is wider than it has been in years.

Mexico’s 3-0 win over the U.S. on Friday in East Rutherford, N.J., was the most one-sided result in the series in more than a decade. Include July’s 1-0 victory in the Gold Cup final, and Mexico has two shutout wins over the U.S. in as many months, improving El Tri’s record to 4-1-1 over the last 4½ years.

Mexico was so confident and dynamic and the U.S. so befuddled and outclassed last week it’s clear new coach Gregg Berhalter’s task of rebuilding the national team will be much more difficult than anticipated.

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Berhalter doesn’t see it that way, though, insisting against all available evidence that brighter days are just around the corner.

“At least we tried to play the way we are envisioning,” he said afterward. “We saw that [Gold Cup] performance and we wanted a different performance.”

It was different. But it wasn’t better.

After an even opening 20 minutes, Mexico seemed to switch gears. Tecatito Corona burst away from Christian Pulisic, dribbled through the legs of defender Sergino Dest and chipped the ball toward a wide-open Chicharito Hernandez in the center of the box. Hernandez nodded it home for his 52nd international goal, extending his Mexican record. (Watch the Hernandez goal here.)

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Mexico could have beaten the U.S. with its second team, something it proved late in the game when Erick Gutierrez and the Galaxy’s Uriel Antuna each scored within six minutes of coming off the bench. Gutierrez took advantage of some poor American ballhandling while Antuna’s goal came at the end of a counterattack. (Watch Gutierrez’s goal here.)

That made the scoreline more indicative of the play on the field, although Pulisic provided moments of individual brilliance while doing his best to keep the U.S. in the game. He got little help from the rest of a team that struggled to play the ball out of the back, as Berhalter’s style demands, and was unable to pass in space.

“We still play with fear against them. That is what I really can’t live with,” said Pulisic, who has yet to beat Mexico in a senior national team game. “That really needs to change.”

The best U.S. scoring chance came after Jordan Morris drew a penalty by going down in the box late in the game. Teenager Josh Sargent was allowed to step up and take the kick from the spot but Mexican keeper Jonathan Orozco guessed correctly, diving into the path of Sargent’s shot to make the save.

That there would be some major bumps in the road for Berhalter was expected. When he left MLS and the Columbus Crew to take the U.S. job in December, he inherited a program in need of a major overhaul. The team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup under Bruce Arena had grown old quickly and Berhalter had no choice but to start over, injecting youth and bold ambitions into the program alongside a dynamic and distinct playing style.

It would be a years-long project, one that would require patience, focus and commitment. Nine months into that experiment, Berhalter’s team is 8-4-1.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world,” Pulisic said of implementing Berhalter’s game plan.

Added the coach: “Internally, we believe we are making progress.”

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Outsiders apparently don’t agree, which led Berhalter to push back at reporters following Friday’s loss.

“I see where the narrative is going now: It’s why are we playing the way we are playing and we don’t have the players to do it. That’s what all of you guys are thinking,” he said.

“Our focus was to keep trying, to focus on making progress as a group. There were times when it was good and there were times when it wasn’t so good, but that’s going to be the case. To me, the message to the group is use this as an opportunity to continue to grow. And I think that is what we did.”

Contrast that with Tata Martino, who has made remarkable progress in his first nine months with Mexico. When he left MLS and league-champion Atlanta United to take the Mexico job in January, he also inherited a program in need of a major overhaul. Although the team made the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup, it failed to go any further for the seventh consecutive time. Plus its roster was one of the oldest in Russia, so Martino, like Berhalter, had no choice but to begin injecting youth of his own.

But while Berhalter has struggled, Martino is unbeaten in 11 games, with Mexico outscoring opponents 42-11.

“Our players are competing in leagues that are better than the players in the United States national team. And I also think that the Mexican league is above MLS,” Martino told reporters. “It’s very probable that [Berhalter] is right and that from his position he sees the Mexican national team as a little bit better than the U.S. in a general context.”

You can argue that first point. The lineup Berhalter started Friday included six players from major European leagues while Martino started six from Mexico’s domestic Liga MX. But he’s clearly right in his comparison of MLS and the Liga MX since Mexican teams have won the last 14 CONCACAF Champions League titles.

The U.S. may not soon close that gap, but Martino said it may not matter as long as the best and the brightest U.S. players continue to head for Europe. Mexico’s national team turned a corner when players such as Hernandez, Andres Guardado, Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Hector Herrera turned their back on the Liga MX to play in Europe. Now a second wave of Hirving Lozano, Gutierrez, Diego Lainez and Edson Alvarez have begun to follow.

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It’s a hint of a rainbow Berhalter might do well to grab a hold of because it’s one of the few that fit a narrative that better days are ahead.

“The United States has transformed into a country that exports a lot of young players to Europe,” Martino said. “The development of those players will bear fruits in the future.”

Berhalter and his team will get a chance to show what they learned in the Mexico game on Tuesday when they face Uruguay in St. Louis. Mexico will meet a Lionel Messi-less Argentina on Tuesday in San Antonio.

Antuna sandwiched?

Much has been made of the Galaxy’s decision to funnel everything they do offensively through captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is not shy about showing his emotion and frustration when he doesn’t get the ball.

And while that has worked well for Ibrahimvovic, who is tied for second in the league with 23 goals, it’s debatable whether it’s worked as well for everyone else: no other player has more than three goals and the Galaxy’s 41 as a team ranks 17th in the 24-team league.

Consider Antuna has thrived under the unselfish, attacking 4-3-3 formation Mexico plays under Martino. His second-half goal Friday in the 3-0 win over the U.S. was his fifth in seven appearances with the national team.

He’s scored three times in 25 games with the Galaxy.

(Watch Antuna’s latest score for Mexico here.)

Still believe Vela’s not the MVP?

LAFC may not be a one-man team. But its recent three-game winless streak, its longest slide of the season, proves there is one man on its roster who may be a little more important than the others.

As if to prove its captain is the league MVP, LAFC, whose 19-4-6 record is by far the best in MLS, hasn’t won since Carlos Vela left the field with a hamstring strain late in a 3-3 tie with the Galaxy last month. And after averaging more than 2.7 goals a game with him, they’ve scored just twice in 2¼ games without him.

Bob Bradley’s team — which dressed only 16 players because of Vela’s unavailability and the departure of five players for international duty — needed a late goal from Diego Rossi to escape Orlando with a 2-2 draw Saturday. LAFC then decamped for Philadelphia where Vela is expected to rejoin the team in training this week ahead of Saturday’s game with the Union, the league’s third-best team. Vela is officially listed as questionable for that game but it is likely he will play.

With or without Vela, the Philadelphia game will be a best team for a team that has just five games left to regain its footing before beginning the MLS playoffs. LAFC has already clinched a postseason berth and has virtually assured itself of a first-round bye and homefield advantage through the Western Conference playoffs.

LAFC has dropped points only 10 times this year — six draws, four losses — and just three of those games were against opponents currently in position to qualify for the playoffs. Seven of those games were on the road.

“As always, it’s hard to play on the road,” Rossi said.

LAFC’s other score Saturday came from Adrien Perez, who received playing time in Vela’s absence and made the most of it, scoring his first MLS goal.

With his goal Saturday, his 15th of the season, Rossi moved himself and Vela within one score of equaling the MLS record of 43 goals by a pair of teammates, set last season by Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron. (See Rossi’s goal here.)

2018 Atlanta United (43):

Josef Martinez, 31

Miguel Almiron, 12

2019 LAFC (42):

Carlos Vela, 27

Diego Rossi, 15

2012 San Jose Earthquakes (40):

Chris Wondolowski, 27

Alan Gordon, 13

Here are the MLS standings

Eastern Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

New York City 15 5 8 53 35 18 53

Philadelphia 15 8 6 54 42 12 51

Atlanta 15 10 3 47 33 14 48

D.C. United 11 10 9 39 38 1 42

New York Red Bulls 12 12 5 47 44 3 41

Toronto 11 10 8 49 46 3 41

New England 10 10 9 42 49 -7 39

________________________________________________

Montreal 11 15 4 42 56 -14 37

Orlando 9 13 8 37 41 -4 35

Chicago 8 12 10 44 43 1 34

Columbus 8 15 7 33 44 -11 31

Cincinnati 5 21 3 29 72 -43 18

Western Conference

W L T GF GA GD Pts.

LAFC 19 4 6 76 32 44 63

Seattle 13 9 7 46 45 1 46

Minnesota 13 9 6 46 37 9 45

San Jose 13 10 5 48 43 5 44

Salt Lake 13 11 4 40 35 5 43

Portland 13 11 4 45 41 4 43

Dallas 12 10 7 47 38 9 43
_________________________________________________________

Galaxy 13 12 3 41 45 -4 42

Kansas City 10 12 7 42 47 -5 37

Colorado 9 14 6 47 54 -7 33

Houston 9 15 4 38 49 -11 31

Vancouver 6 15 9 30 53 -23 27

Finally a league of their own?

The women’s national team drew a crowd of 49,504 to Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field for last month’s 4-0 win over Portugal in the second game of a five-game post-World Cup Victory Tour. (It beat Portugal again, 3-0, five days later before a sellout crowd of 19,600 at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minn.)

Not only was the turnout in Philadelphia the largest for a women’s match in the U.S. since the 1999 World Cup final, it’s also larger than any crowd the men’s national team has drawn for a friendly in more than four years.

Only two games in this summer’s Women’s World Cup — the final and U.S.-England semifinal — had larger crowds.

Last month Soccer America discussed the state of women’s soccer in the U.S. with Alyse LaHue, who has worked in four different incarnations of a women’s professional league in this country only to see the first three fail. The survivor, the National Women’s Soccer League, is enjoying uncommon attention in the wake of the World Cup.

LaHue, an adjunct professor at East Tennessee State, is also the co-founder, along with former Mexican national player Monica Gonzalez, of Gonzo Soccer, a nonprofit that empowers girls through soccer in the U.S, Mexico and Colombia. And she says the atmosphere around women’s soccer in the U.S. feels different this time.

“We’re in a different cultural moment right now,” LaHue, recently named general manager of the NWSL’s Sky Blue FC, told SA, “Obviously, there’s a lot of content politically happening in this country. We’ve seen a lot of movements taking place around gender equity, women’s empowerment, certainly some big moments like MeToo. You saw the gymnastics scandal. So what I see is there’s just a lot more content out there right now. I think this is a really big cultural moment for us that I’m seeing, and certainly for women.

“What makes this moment bigger is that we’re in the midst of a much different cultural moment in 2019 than we were in 2015. And with that, it’s provided a tremendous amount of opportunity for women’s sports in general and the conversation around women’s sports and the conversation around the lack of media attention that we get.”

The danger is the opportunity could prove fleeting.

“We’re in the midst of a really big moment right now that we also have to capitalize on,” she said. “Obviously we’ve seen the bumps around the league. It has been absolutely tremendous seeing so many teams break their own club attendance records right now. It’s really up to us as teams to keep that momentum going — to take care of fans, to make them feel valued, to make sure they’re going to come back to games, but we can’t do it alone.

“We need to continue to have sponsors engage in the game because sponsors do help push the conversation. They help draw a lot of attention to the team. So for me, obviously the teams individually have to do the work, but we also need help at the end of the day. You need support from a variety of outlets as well to keep it going.”

European wage gap continues growing

Manchester City has become the first club to spend more than 1 billion euros ($1.11 billion) in transfer indemnities to assemble its roster, according to the Swiss-based International Centre for Sports Studies.

Two other teams — Paris St-Germain (13 million euros or $1.009 billion) and Real Madrid (902 million euros/$998 million) — came close this summer. More troubling, however, is the fact the financial gap between the costliest and cheapest squad per league remains huge: a factor of 148 in Spain’s La Liga (Real Madrid vs Mallorca), 114 in France’s Ligue 1 (Paris St-Germain vs Nîmes), 85 in the German Bundesliga (Bayern vs Paderborn), 63 in Italy’s Serie A (Juventus vs Lecce) and x32 in the English Premier League (Manchester City vs Norwich).

Issue number 266 of the CIES Football Observatory presents the data for all teams in the big five leagues here.

A programming note

The L.A. Museum of the Holocaust is staging an important exhibition entitled “Venerated, Persecuted, Forgotten: Victims of Nazism at FC Bayern Munich.” Curated by the folks at Bayern Munich and appearing outside Europe for the first time, the exhibit tells the stories of nine players and officials who were persecuted — and in the case of most, murdered — by the Nazis because of their religion or political views.

One of the most compelling stories is that of former club president Kurt Landauer, who was forced to resign his post and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. He survived the Holocaust but when he returned to Munich after the war, he found his beloved team in shambles. In leading the effort to rebuild the club — and, by extension, German soccer — Landauer initiated some of the most important advances in the sport, including fiscal responsibility, corporate sponsorship and an international roster.

I have written extensively about Landauer, who is, very probably, the most important and influential soccer executive you’ve never heard of. The exhibition, opened during Bayern Munich’s summer visit to Los Angeles, will remain at the museum through Oct. 31.

On Sept. 11, the museum and Stefan Schneider, the consul general of Germany, will screen the film “A Life for Football” (in German with English subtitles), followed by a panel discussion with Alan Rothenberg, former U.S. Soccer president and chairman of the 1994 World Cup; Erit Yellen, president and CEO of ORNA Drive Productions and an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg school of communication and journalism; and Justin Greenberg, CEO of SoccerKids USA and founder of Maccabi Sports West.

I have been asked to moderate the panel. Space is limited so to RSVP for the event, click here for more information or call the museum at (323) 651-3704.

Quotebook

“I am a proud black woman. I play for a team and fans that I love. Acts of racism and hate hurt everyone. This club stands for equality. What we won’t accept from any fan is racism or discrimination at any level.”

Two-time Women’s World Cup champion Christen Press of the Utah Royals after Utah fans hurled racist comments at Portland Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch in last week’s NWSL game

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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