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Soccer newsletter: U.S. women’s team faces first test under new coach

US Womens Soccer
Vlatko Andonovski
(Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer and today we’ll talk about the men’s national team beginning its second year under coach Gregg Berhalter, the many ways in which the Galaxy will be different with Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, we’ll check in LAFC’s training camp and its first friendly of the month and we’ll share some tributes to Kobe Bryant.

But we start with the World Cup champion women’s national team, which will open play in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament this evening, facing Haiti at BBVA Stadium in Houston (FS2, 5:30 p.m. PT).

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The Americans will also play Costa Rica and Panama in group play and if they finish in the top two in that group – there’s a pretty good chance of that since the U.S. is unbeaten and has outscored the three countries in its group 131-2 in 22 previous matches – they will advance to next week’s semifinals at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, needing a win there to qualify for this summer’s Tokyo Games.

The Americans’ semifinal final opponent will come from the second group, made up of Mexico, Canada, Jamaica and Saint Kitts and Nevis. And there’s a pretty good chance they’ll get by whoever is put in front of them since the U.S. has played more games in Carson than in any other U.S. stadium and it has never dropped a point there, going 14-0.

But there is one difference this time: The qualifying tournament will mark the first competitive games for new coach Vlatko Andonovski, who replaced two-time World Cup champion Jill Ellis in October.

A club coach his whole career, Andonovski, 43, won back-to-back NWSL titles in Kansas City. He said that experience with the league, home to every national team player, has helped make the transition easier.

“I knew the players very well,” said Andonovski, who named 18 players from last year’s World Cup team to his 20-woman roster for the Olympic qualifiers.
“Now the part that I’ve been trying to adjust to is the tournament games, like the qualifying tournament where we have five games in two weeks.”

Andonovski insists he’s not looking past qualifying but if he makes it to Tokyo his team will have a chance to become the first to win world and Olympic titles in consecutive years. That won’t be easy since this summer’s field will be the deepest in Olympic history with Japan, Brazil, England, the Netherlands and Sweden having already won spots in the 12-team event.

All five made the round of 16 in last summer’s World Cup with England and the Netherlands both falling to the U.S. in the final four.

“It’s a great challenge,” said Andonovski, who will be missing captain Alex Morgan in the qualifiers to maternity leave. “If we don’t keep evolving other teams are going to catch us.

“Every game evolves, every game changes. We have to change with it. We have to stay in love with new soccer trends. And in some ways we want to be trendsetters. We want to be the ones that, we’re going to make changes and have other teams follow.”

Just hours before the qualifying tournament was supposed to start, CONCACAF reached agreement on a three-year deal that gave Fox the English-language rights to the games in addition to men’s Olympic qualifiers this spring in Mexico, the 2021 and 2023 Gold Cups and the next three editions of the CONCACAF Champions League.

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Here is the television schedule for the women’s qualifying event (all times Pacific):

Tuesday: Costa Rica-Panama, FS2, 2:50 p.m.; U.S.- Haiti, FS2, 5:30 p.m.

Wednesday: Canada-St. Kitts and Nevis, FS2, 2:20 p.m.; Mexico-Jamaica, FS2, 5 p.m.

Friday: Haiti-Costa Rica, FOX Soccer Plus, 2:50 p.m.; Panama-U.S., FOX Soccer Plus, 5:30 p.m.

Saturday: Saint Kitts and Nevis-Mexico, FS2, 12:20 p.m,; Jamaica-Canada, FOX Soccer Plus, 3 p.m.

Feb 3: Panama-Haiti, FS2, 2:50 p.m.; U.S.-Costa Rica, FS1, 5:30 p.m.

Feb. 4: Canada-Mexico, FS2, 3:20 p.m.; Jamaica-St. Kitts and Nevis, FS2, 6 p.m.

Feb. 7 (semifinals at Dignity Health Sports Park): First game, FOX Soccer Plus, 4 p.m.; Second game, FS1, 7 p.m.

Feb. 9: (final at Dignity Health Sports Park: FS2, 3 p.m.

Coming back for seconds

To say that Gregg Berhalter’s first year as coach of the men’s national team had its ups and downs would be an understatement.

On the positive side the Americans went 11-5-2 in 2019, making Berhalter the second-fastest USMNT coach to reach 10 wins. His team also made it to the Gold Cup final and qualified for this summer’s semifinals of the first CONCACAF Nations League.

On the flip side the U.S. failed to score in consecutive games with Mexico, lost to Canada for the first time in 34 years and saw its players struggle to adapt to Berhalter’s challenging style of play.

Berhalter’s second year didn’t start much smoother with the U.S. Soccer Federation making a last-minute audible and moving the team’s January training camp from Doha, Qatar, to Bradenton, Fla., after a U.S. military attack killed a top Iranian general in Iraq, heightening anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.

Despite the change, the coach said the camp went well – just how well will be answered Saturday when the U.S. plays its first official match of 2020, facing Costa Rica at Dignity Health Sports Park.

“It’s been a productive three weeks,” Berhalter said in a phone call Monday. “The players are ready to compete.”

Because neither the training camp nor Saturday’s friendly fall within a FIFA window, the 22-man team Berhalter chose includes just three players not on MLS rosters. But 13 players on the roster are age-eligible for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, a U-23 competition that will kick off in March.

And Berhalter said he had that event in mind when he put together a roster that includes Galaxy defender Julian Araujo and former Galaxy academy player Ulysses Llanez, now with German club Wolfsburg. Both are just 18.

“We had two objectives,” he said. “The first thing was to try to continue to move our group along, the guys that have been involved with the full national team. And the second thing was to be able to evaluate a new group.

“This gives us the opportunity to evaluate some players for the Olympic pool and see if they can make it for qualifying.”

Costa Rica will also be bringing a young roster into Saturday’s game, another thing that will benefit the U.S. since the Americans open the qualifying tournament against Costa Rica.

“We didn’t know the Olympic qualifiers [schedule] before we scheduled the game. So it wasn’t intentional,” Berhalter said. “But it will give us a good opportunity to look at some of the younger players up close.”

A change in fortunes?

The Galaxy’s acquisition last week of Javier “Chicharito” Hernández has created more excitement in a short period of time than any other signing in MLS history, save the deal that brought David Beckham to Carson.

But will it be as transformative?

Beckham’s arrival changed everything, altering MLS’ financial structure by ushering in the designated-player rule and stamping the league, which just a few years earlier had nearly gone bankrupt, as one with vision and ambition.

And after a slow start in which Beckham appeared unsure whether he wanted to play here or in Europe, the former English national team captain became one of the league’s best salesmen, helping lure the likes of Robbie Keane, Frank Lampard, Thierry Henry and Steven Gerrard to the U.S.

He also won titles in his final two seasons and this year will enter MLS league in another capacity, as president and co-owner of Inter Miami, the league’s 26th franchise. That’s twice as many teams as MLS had when Beckham signed as a player.

Hernández, who is not training with the Galaxy as he awaits his visa, won’t accomplish all that. But he will have an impact.

The most popular Mexican player of the last decade and the national team’s all-time leading scorer, he is handsome, charismatic, cooperative and quotable in both English and Spanish. That makes him a marketer’s dream – especially in Southern California, home to more Mexicans than any place outside Mexico City.

Reigning league MVP Carlos Vela remains the best Mexican player in MLS -- and he may be the league’s best player period -- but Hernández is already the favorite Mexican player. And all that bodes well for a Galaxy team that has long had trouble gaining traction in the Mexican-American community.

In fact the team, which saw home attendance drop 5% last year with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, sold more than 750 new season-ticket packages and 2,500 individual-game tickets in the two weeks since Hernández’s neared fruition. On Monday the Galaxy said the renewal rate for current season-ticket holders was at 85%, a record.

So Hernández ticks a lot of important boxes for a Galaxy team both in transition and with aspirations of once again becoming the premier franchise in MLS. And they spent handsomely to get him, paying Spanish club Sevilla a record $10-million transfer and giving Hernández a three-year contract with a base salary of $6 million. He also has an option for a fourth season.

Hernández then made it clear he appreciates the confidence the team has shown in him.

“It’s not like I’m very selfish coming here, getting my goals, getting my attention and then I leave,” he said. “That’s never going to happen. I’m very emotional. Right now I am because it’s a very important move for MLS and my career. I’m very glad and happy this came true.”

In fact, in his introductory news conference Hernández made a point of distinguishing himself from the Galaxy’s last major signing. Ibrahimovic, who earned an MLS-record $7.2 million last season, scored a franchise-record 30 goals and had 52 goals in 56 MLS games over two seasons. But the team failed to make the playoffs in 2018 and won just once in the postseason last year.

“I prefer to score 20, 15 or 10 goals, and help get this team to a championship,” Hernández said. “If not it’s very selfish coming here.”

Eighteen miles north of Hernández’s new home, LAFC coach Bob Bradley welcomed the player to MLS and to the pitched derby between his club and the Galaxy.

“I think Chicharito’s great for the league,” he said. “And certainly when you think of the rivalry that we have with the Galaxy, and of course, then, the rivalry between Chicharito and Carlos Vela, I think that part’s great.”

The rivalry will be tamer though with the quiet, humble Hernández replacing the loud, boastful Ibrahimovic.

“He liked to play the villain role. He’s pretty good at playing the villain role,” Bradley said of Ibrahimovic. “Chicharito, he smiles a lot.”

Fast start

Speaking of Vela and LAFC, both started the new year off on the right foot – or the left foot in Vela’s case – with the LAFC captain bending in a left-footed shot from the top of the box in the 10th minute to start his team to a 2-0 win over Uruguayan power Peñarol last Saturday at Banc of California Stadium.

With LAFC missing seven key players to either injury or international duty, Bradley’s roster included three visiting players from USL Championship side Phoenix Rising and five players from LAFC’s academy system. And all but one of them got on the field as Bradley emptied his bench, using 26 players in the friendly.

“With young guys it’s not so much that they show leadership. It’s that they showed some personality. They showed that they’re not afraid,” Bradley said. “That’s the most important thing with young players. That you challenge them that when they step on the field that they try to make the players, that they react, that they never back down to any situation.”

Adrien Perez scored the other goal in the 40th minute, banging home the rebound of a save after a Vela corner kick. That, too, was important to Bradley, who saw Perez make big strides last year despite getting just 206 minutes of playing time.

“There were times last year where in training, he scored goals and we can see the progress,” Bradley said. “It didn’t always amount to that many chances on the field. But he worked hard and he continues to pick up ideas.”

Bradley has frequently compared Vela to Lionel Messi in an effort to motivate him. Lately he’s tried the same tactic with Perez by likening him to Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, whose often unsung play has been key to the team’s success.

“You just try to use that as an example to a player like Adrien so that every day he’s got something in his mind that he can focus on,” Bradley said.

Perez smiled when asked whether the comparison brought pressure with it.

“It’s nice to be compared to one of the best strikers in the Premier League, probably in the world,” he said.

Remembering a legend

The brightest lights of the soccer universe reached out with tributes following Kobe Bryant’s death Sunday. Here are some of those messages: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZLWudPL8ZM

Bryant was an NBA legend but he was also a soccer fan. So after scoring his second goal of Paris Saint-Germaine’s 2-0 win over Lille on a second-half penalty kick Sunday, Neymar gave his own salute to his friend. Watch it here.

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.

Quotebook

“It’s just one of those moments where you can kind of get goosebumps, get chills, just thinking ‘that can’t be serious.’ It kind of again puts things in perspective. There’s so much more outside of our sport – outside of sports in general – that matters. He’s inspired me, he’s inspired thousands, millions, hundreds of millions of people through his game, through his mentality as a competitor. We’ve all grown up hearing stories of Kobe in the gym at three in the morning. That’s what Kobe did. That’s what I want to do.”

LAFC defender Walker Zimmerman on learning of the death of Bryant.

Until next time...
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