Hello and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. With the MLS season over, we’ll start this week with the U.S. national team which, depending on your point of view, either 1) pulled out of its tailspin with last week’s win over Canada or 2) accomplished nothing since the Americans were outplayed for long stretches by a team they have typically dominated.
It’s likely a bit of both.
On the positive side, the U.S. did what it had to do, avenging an October loss to Canada – its first to that country since 1985 – by scoring three goals in the first 34 minutes, then cruising to a 4-1 win.
Canada hadn’t allowed four goals in a game since October 2016. And with those scores the U.S. erased Canada’s lead in goal differential in the CONCACAF Nations League group standings, leaving the Americans in position to advance to the tournament semifinals with a win over Cuba today in the Cayman Islands.
What’s more the Americans accomplished all that without three of their best players, missing forward Christian Pulisic, midfielder Michael Bradley and goalkeeper Zack Steffen to injury.
But while the score was one-sided the game wasn’t. Canada had the ball for more than 60 of the 90 minutes, had just one fewer shot and completed 126 more passes than the Americans attempted.
“One thing I said to the team after the game is you have nights where you play absolutely brilliant, and everything works and you’re executing everything, you’re scoring goals. And then you have days that you don’t play great and things aren’t working and it’s not as fluid as it is normally,” embattled U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said afterward. “In all those cases you need to show the type of effort and type of tenacity that the group showed today.”
That kind of pride and passion have long been hallmarks of a U.S. program that can’t match the world’s top teams in talent. Yet it was noticeably absent in the loss to Canada and that, combined with a tactical approach that seemed ill-suited to his roster, had critics questioning Berhalter’s fitness for the job.
As a result, the fight the team showed in last week’s win was notable.
“There was some real big criticism on the group,” Berhalter admitted. “You know, it was a perceived lack of effort, a lack of heart. You couldn’t mention that today. The way the guys were fighting for each other, the way they had their back, the amount of effort that was put in. To me the difference was we were ready to overcome anything.”
That worked against Canada. But it will work against Mexico, a team the U.S. has beaten just once in its last six tries? It certainly won’t be enough against teams like England, Spain, Belgium, Germany or Brazil.
And it’s against those teams, not Canada, that the U.S. must start measuring itself.
If Berhalter can follow up the win over Canada by beating Cuba and ending his first year in charge by winning his Nations League group, it will certainly buy him some breathing room.
“They silenced some critics here,” Canadian coach John Herdman said.
Equally as encouraging was the performance of speedy teenager defender Sergiño Dest, who was impressive in his competitive debut with the U.S., one that cap-tied to Dutch-born dual national to the team. He helped set up the first two goals, giving the Americans a 2-0 lead after 23 minutes, attacked all night and was perhaps the best player at linking up with his teammates.
And he did that while matched against Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies.
“I just don’t play with stress,” Dest said. “I’m never scared to lose a ball. If I lose a ball, I lose a ball. If you don’t play with confidence you’re never going to play a really good game.”
That’s a lesson many of Dest’s older teammates should take.
(Check out the highlights by clicking here.)
‘Great’ White North?
Last week’s loss in Orlando notwithstanding, Canada is experiencing a soccer boom. Its women’s team is ranked seventh in the world and has medaled in the last two Olympics while the men’s team won 10 of its first 12 games under Herdman and is positioning itself to qualify for the final six-team hexagonal round of regional World Cup qualifying.
Along the way the sport has eclipsed even hockey, Canada’s national pastime, in popularity with Canada Soccer saying more than 865,000 people are registered to play soccer there. That’s twice the number registered for hockey.
When Kings’ defenseman Drew Doughty was growing up in London, Ontario, he was a standout soccer goalkeeper who seemed to be on track for a career with the national team. But he was also a talented hockey player and when he was 15 his parents told him to he had to pick a sport.
With soccer lagging in national interest at the time, Doughty, 29, took hockey -- which proved to be a good choice since he’ll make $77 million over the next seven NHL seasons. And those are 77 million good reasons why, despite soccer’s growth at the grassroots level, hockey will continue to be Canada’s No. 1 professional sport.
For now. But soccer, Doughty admitted, was gaining.
“Most of the top athletes are going to go to hockey,” he told my L.A. Times colleague Jack Harris last week. “We’re getting better as a national team [in soccer] but we still haven’t gotten too much. The sport is definitely growing in Canada since I was a kid.
“You’ve got more indoor facilities than we did when I was a kid. I’m just hoping we can put some good teams on the field and make a World Cup someday.”
With Canada set to join the U.S. and Mexico in hosting the 2026 World Cup, he won’t have to wait much longer.
The children are our future
DaMarcus Beasley was in Orlando for Friday’s game only he was dressed sharply in a suit and tie rather than wearing the U.S. crest he sported for 126 national team games and a record four World Cups in a 20-year career.
“No regrets, no second thoughts,” Beasley said of his decision to retire this fall. “First game I’m watching [since] I’m retired so this is different. But I’m excited for a new chapter.”
The Nations League game wasn’t the main reason Beasley was in Orlando. He originally came for a 20-year reunion of the U-17 team he played on, one that included Landon Donovan, Kyle Beckerman and Oguchi Onyewu. That team was undefeated in group play of its World Cup, making it to the semifinals before losing to Australia on penalty kicks.
That’s still the best performance ever for an American U-17 team and stands in sharp contrast to this year’s team, which was winless in group play in Brazil. It also underscores what U.S. Soccer is losing this fall with the announced retirements of Beasley, Tim Howard, Nick Rimando and Michael Parkhurst. Beckerman, Chris Wondolowski and Benny Feilhaber can’t be far behind.
Those seven have more than 430 international caps, 27 World Cup appearances and seven MLS Cup titles combined. That’s a lot of experience and accomplishments to be leaving at the same time.
“It was a great run. And it really goes that quick,” Beasley said. “When I look back at my whole career it’s like, ‘man, where did it go?’ It makes you really appreciate the game you [and] the relationships.”
Beasley would like to follow Donovan, his former teammate, into either coaching an administrative role in soccer – Donovan is doing both with the expansion San Diego Loyal of the second-tier USL Championship.
“I’m trying to stay in the game, do, you know, whatever comes to mind,” he said. “I’m really intrigued about the business side of the game. Front office, sporting director, technical director, whatever you want to call it. Just to learn more, to get my feet wet. Hopefully, sooner or later, I have some opportunities to do that.”
And while the national team is changing, Beasley is certain everything will be just fine.
“I’m excited about the future. I see it as a plus we’re getting all these young guys,” he said.
“The results will come. As far as identity, I think they’re on the right path of finding who they really are as a group as a team. Coming together, playing for one another. They have all the tools, to be a very good team and be back to being team in this region.”
So long Zlatan, we hardly knew you
Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s tweet last week announcing he was leaving the Galaxy after two seasons was expected, even if it did seem to catch the team by surprise.
“I came, I saw, I conquered,” he posted beside a visage of himself overlooking Dignity Health Sports Park with the South Bay stretching out in the background. “To the Galaxy fans -- you wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues ... Now go back to watch baseball.”
The departure of the Swedish superstar, who scored a franchise-record 30 goals this season, leading the Galaxy back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, was marked in a much-less dramatic way by the team’s communications staff: It emailed a straightforward, four-paragraph press release.
The team’s statement announcing that goalkeeper Matt Lampson had won the MLS Humanitarian of the Year award was twice as long.
Contrast that with how the team welcomed Ibra: with a full-page newspaper ad, a video featuring a live lion and a packed news conference in which several team executives, including AEG president Dan Beckerman, lavished praise on the player and those who signed him.
Most were quiet when Ibrahimovic left.
For all his dominance on the pitch, Ibrahimovic had clearly worn out his welcome in the locker room, the team’s front office and the league office by the time he tweeted his goodbye.
Teammates grew weary of their captain’s flamboyant on-field protests whenever they failed to get him ball. When rookie Emil Cuello didn’t react quickly enough as Ibrahimovic broke free on a counterattack late in a June game in Cincinnati, Ibrahimovic flopped face-first to the turf, where he remained for several moments as play continued around him.
Asked about Ibrahimovic’s departure before a national team training session last week, midfielder Sebastian Lletget couldn’t hide his indifference.
“Oh man, that guy,” he said. “I wish him the best, dude. It was a good run.”
The team, which paid Ibrahimovic a record $7.2 million, also tired of Ibrahimovic’s histrionics and selfishness despite the fact he kept the team relevant at a time when the second-year LAFC franchise was dominating attention up the freeway.
But Ibrahimovic was also suspended three times – and narrowly escaped censure two other times – for behavior that embarrassed the team.
Then there were the reports of a rift between Ibrahimovic and general manager Dennis te Kloese in the final days.
As for MLS, which welcomed the international legitimacy and attention Ibrahimovic brought to the league, it chafed under the player’s growingly pointed criticism, which touched on everything from quality of play and officiating to the use of a playoff tournament to decide the champion.
For Ibrahimovic, 38, MLS provided him not only with a decent payday but also a chance to prove that he was fit again after major reconstructive knee injury in 2017 had essentially ended his career in Europe.
Now that he’s rehabbed physically, expect Ibrahimovic, whose MLS contract expires Dec. 31, to pursue options elsewhere, with Italy’s AC Milan among the most-interested suitors.
(Relive the highlights of Ibrahimovic’s Galaxy career by clicking here.)
For MLS, Ibrahimovic’s departure comes just weeks after England’s Wayne Rooney and Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger played their final games in the league, leaving it without a major European superstar in uniform for the first time since David Beckham’s arrival in 2007.
That presents a massive opportunity for the league to continue its transition away from big-name but aging European players to mostly young, dynamic Latin Americans. Some of the league’s most successful teams over the last couple of seasons – Atlanta United, Seattle, LAFC, Philadelphia and Portland – have already been winning with players such as Venezuelan Josef Martinez, Mexicans Carlos Vela and Marco Fabian, Uruguayans Diego Rossi and Nicolas Lodeiro, Diego Valeri of Argentina and Peru’s Raul Ruidiaz.
Expect that trend to continue, if more slowly, because as New England coach and general Bruce Arena points out, the rush into South America by deep-pocketed teams like LAFC and Atlanta has driven up the price of the continent’s players dramatically over the past two seasons.
“South American now is almost cost-prohibitive,” he said. “Because of the money being spent there by Atlanta and LAFC, everyone thinks in South America now that the teams in MLS have a lot of money to spend. It’s becoming now too expensive.”
If MLS can manage that transition to young, talented if someone anonymous Latin Americans over older big-name Europeans, it would go a long way toward countering the mostly-disproven rhetoric that MLS is a retirement league while also improving play and continuing to increase the league’s Hispanic fan base, the fastest-growing segment of its audience.
“MLS was moving in the direction it was moving in because of the demographics in the United States. And from a commercial perspective, a marketing perspective, a branding perspective, certainly the Hispanic market is huge,” Arena said. “And we must attract that market to our league. That’s part of the emphasis in the players you recruit as well. However those things do change
“Every market’s going to be a little bit different. Galaxy has decided what their team’s going to look like. I would not be surprised if they signed more players from Argentina. That’s going to be their team. The Portlands and the Seattles and the Torontos, they’re all going to be balanced a little bit differently the way they recruit players. So everything is going to be unique. And I think that’s kind of the beautiful part of MLS. It’s tremendous. That’s what our country is too is it not? Our country is diverse and I think our league will be diverse.”
That’s a big break from the past, said Arena, who was one of the original coaches when the league launched in 1996.
“That used to be the MLS: Teams that looked fairly common to each other. There wasn’t much of a difference,” he said. “And now it’s got great variety. I think it’s tremendous.”
On Saturday, MLS released the names of the 222 players who have been left unprotected by their 2019 teams for today’s expansion draft, in which Nashville and Inter Miami will have the rights to choose as many as five players each.
With teams allowed to protect just 12 players each, LAFC and the Galaxy placed 28 players on the unprotected list combined.
LAFC: Lamar Batista, Steven Beitashour, Danilo Silva, Philip Ejimadu, Mohamed El-Munir, Alejandro Guido, Jordan Harvey, Dejan Jakovic, Tyler Miller, Lee Nguyen, Adrien Perez, Javier Perez, Josh Perez, Peter-Lee Vassell, Rodolfo Zelaya.
Galaxy: Favio Alvarez, Uriel Antuna, Servando Carrasco, Emil Cuello, Tomas Hilliard-Arce, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Perry Kitchen, Matt Lampson, Joao Pedro, Juninho, Chris Pontius, Jorgen Skjelvik, Diedie Traore.
Players wind up on the unprotected list for a variety of reasons, some strategic and some monetary. But regardless of the reason, suffice it to say it’s not a list you want to see your name on because it means your team has determined you are expendable (notice Carlos Vela, Diego Rossi, Jonathan dos Santos and Cristian Pavon weren’t included).
For LAFC, the decisions were clearly more difficult. Although the team is in the process of remaking its back line younger, it would prefer to keep veteran team leaders Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey around to help with that transition. But Beitashour is probably too expensive (he made $298,375 last year, according to the players’ association) and Harvey, who will be 36 next season, may be too old.
Those factors make it unlikely either Nashville or Miami will select either player though, which means both could resign with LAFC as free agents.
However the team appears comfortable cutting ties with goalkeeper Tyler Miller, who led the Western Conference in wins over the last two seasons, because it left him exposed but protected backup Pablo Sisniega.
For the Galaxy the decisions were far easier. Ibrahimovic has already said he won’t be back, Pontius announced his retirement (and his subsequent hiring by the Wasserman sports agency), Antuna and Alvarez are on loan and aren’t returning to MLS, the team isn’t interested in re-signing Skjelvik and it would welcome the unlikely prospect of someone claiming Kitchen and his $450,000 base salary.
Miami may do just that since Kitchen could step right into the team’s starting lineup.
The Galaxy really have only Miami to worry about since it is believed the team has a handshake agreement with Nashville that will prevent it from claiming any Galaxy players, a deal reached as part of last week’s Dave Romney trade.
The expansion draft will begin Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. PT. Once a player has been claimed from a club’s list of eligible players, Nashville SC and Inter Miami may no longer select players from that club’s list.
The newsletter will take next week off. I’m supposed to say it’s for Thanksgiving but the real reason is I’m going to Palm Springs for a Randy Rainbow concert. (Don’t know Randy Rainbow? Here’s his YouTube page. You’re welcome!)
“I am truly honored to be named the first manager in San Diego Loyal history. This is the right place, at the right time, with the right people for me to begin my managerial career.”
Landon Donovan, the former Galaxy and U.S. national team standout, on being named manager of the USL Championship’s expansion team in San Diego
Until next time