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Soccer newsletter: Can the U.S. women’s team erase its last Olympic memory?

AFP-Getty_United States v Haiti Group A - 2020 CONCACAF(9).JPG
Christen Press
(Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with the women’s national team.

With last Friday’s methodical 4-0 win over Mexico, the reigning World Cup champions claimed their ticket to a seventh consecutive Olympic Games, a tournament they’ve already won four times. But the last Summer Games in Brazil didn’t go so well, with Sweden eliminating the U.S. on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals, marking the Americans’ earliest Olympic exit ever.

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Four years ago the U.S. was seeking to become the first country to win World Cup and Olympic titles in consecutive years, something they’ll be trying to achieve again this summer. And they say they learned things from the failure in Brazil that will help this time around.

“The mentality that the group that was a part of 2015 and 2016 is bringing into this transition [is] that we have to have a short memory,” said Christen Press, voted the outstanding player of the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, which the U.S. ended with a 3-0 win over Canada on Sunday.

“We have to let go of the World Cup and we have to go into this like this is our big tournament for the next three years. That’s a good lesson to have learned.”

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Vlatko Andonovski, who replaced Jill Ellis as coach after last year’s World Cup triumph, agrees the focus needs to be on the future and not the past.

“They are the world champions. And you’re never going to take that away,” he said. “But we have different challenges, new challenges in front of us. They understand that every team, every game that we play now is a different challenge.

“And the Olympics, it’s going be a great challenge for us.”

Real challenges seems to be few and far behind for this team no matter who’s the coach. With Sunday’s win over Canada in the qualifying tournament final, the top-ranked U.S ran its unbeaten streak to 28 games over the last 13 months. It hasn’t allowed a goal since November, hasn’t lost on home soil since July 2017 and has never lost a World Cup qualifier.

In fact the U.S. hasn’t even allowed a goal in a World Cup qualifier in 12 years, outscoring the opposition 91-0 over that span. Yet the players insist the team can get better.

A lot better.

“Our control of the game while we have the ball [must evolve],” said Megan Rapinoe, who scored the final goal of the qualifying tournament, her first since last July’s World Cup final with the Netherlands. “We still just don’t quite have the balance right. Sometimes we still just force it and force it and force it.

“And then too many turnovers. We allow teams to stay in the game and feel like they’re in the game when we need to control it better.”

The national team Andonovski inherited from Ellis is, without doubt, the greatest in women’s soccer history -- and maybe the most dominant ever, regardless of gender. It is unbeaten in 17 consecutive World Cup games dating to group play in 2011 (it played Japan to a draw in the final that year, losing on penalty kicks). And it hasn’t even trailed in a World Cup game since the 2011 quarterfinals.

But Andonovski thinks his first team can get better – which is where his second team comes in because they make training sessions far more challenging than many of the games the U.S. plays.

“We compete all the time,” midfielder Julie Ertz said. “It’s the same every game, every play, every practice. It’s very intense, and we take it very seriously.

“Training’s really competitive. I mean, everyone’s kind of fighting for a spot as well. And the beauty of it – I think we’ve seen it here as well as at the World Cup – [is] just versatility and rotation, being able to rotate so many players and players coming in and making a huge impact.”

Mexican coach Christopher Cuellar admitted as much after his team’s one-sided loss to the Americans.

“The competition they have here in the U.S., the number of options they have, I think every practice is probably tougher than a lot of their matches,” he said. “When you train at that level and you have that type of competition, the game comes a little easier.

“They take players off, put fresh legs on. It’s tough to handle that.”

Unbeaten Galaxy have unanswered questions

Goals by Ethan Zubak and Cristian Pavón gave the Galaxy a 2-1 win over the New England Revolution in a closed-door exhibition Monday in Carson. But while the result kept the team unbeaten this winter, it did little to answer the most pressing questions surrounding the club.

The Galaxy, which gave up 59 goals last season, desperately needs another center back to push incumbent starters Daniel Steres and Giancarlo González. And though general manager Dennis te Kloese kicked the tires on a number of deals this offseason, he couldn’t find a match that worked.

Te Kloese said Monday the search continues but it could be one that lasts into the summer when the European transfer windows reopen.

The attack remains a work in progress as well. Zubak, playing up front while Javier “Chicharito” Hernández completes his immigration paperwork, has two goals this winter but he’s not the striker the Galaxy will be counting on when the season starts later this month. Hernández is.

The Galaxy say he has been unable to take regular reps with the first team while his visa is being sorted out, something he went to Mexico to complete. He could be back as early as Tuesday, giving him 18 days to get match-sharp and in sync with wingers Aleksandar Katai and Pavón.

Getting on the same page with new teammates is not an easy task, something center back Walker Zimmerman learned when he checked in at LAFC’s training camp last week after a month away with the U.S. national team — and something he’ll face again after LAFC traded him to the expansion Nashville franchise this week.

“That takes a little bit of time,” he said, before the trade. “Are they right-footed or left-footed? I don’t know. I haven’t been around.

“Are they fast? Do they like balls received in this way? Are they making these kinds of runs? Developing that chemistry comes down to just spending time with them, training every day.”

At a team event Saturday, Hernández said he was ready to go.

“I need to be patient. It’s out of my hands,” he said. “A lot of people are doing the best they can so I can get my visa.

“I’m going to be ready.”

Galaxy captain Jonathan dos Santos can’t say the same thing – at least not with any confidence.

Dos Santos, dressed in a Galaxy track suit and wearing sandals instead of cleats, watched Monday’s game from a bench on the sidelines. He is rehabbing an undisclosed injury, believed to be a groin strain, but said he is hopeful he’ll be ready for the team’s Feb. 29 opener in Houston.

LAFC adds Wright-Phillips to the mix

LAFC is also unbeaten in 2020 but its preseason has hardly been smooth. And that could be a problem since the team opens its season next Tuesday in León, Mexico, in the first leg of a two-game CONCACAF Champions League playoff against the current Liga MX leaders.

Bob Bradley’s team has been without seven players, who were either nursing injuries or off on international duty, for most of training camp. And that number doesn’t include forward Adama Diomande, who broke a bone in his foot in the team’s second preseason game.

Diomande is expected to miss a couple of months and the team moved quickly to replace him, adding Bradley Wright-Phillips, a two-time MLS scoring champion, who was not re-signed by the New York Red Bulls.

A formal announcement of Wright-Phillips’ signing is expected early this week.

Wright-Phillips, who turns 35 last month, started just nine games, scoring twice, in 2019. LAFC invited him to the start of training camp and although the team let him go last month, Bradley apparently saw enough to bring him back once Diomande went down.

“We all know he’s a very good player. He does all the things we know he can do,” the coach said. “Last year he was injured a lot, so want[ed] to get an idea physically where he is.”

If he proves healthy the addition of Wright-Phillips, who scored at least 17 goals in five straight MLS seasons, will add to what is already a formidable attack. Captain Carlos Vela scored a league-record 34 goals last season and Diego Rossi added 16, making them the most prolific duo in MLS history. This year they’ll be joined up front by Uruguayan teenager Brian Rodriguez.

And that attack will get even stronger when Diomande, who had 20 goals in 43 games in his first season and a half in the league, returns. All that will be needed since LAFC could play more than 50 matches this season if it goes deep into the Champions League and U.S. Open tournaments.

Olympic-sized worries

The International Olympic Committee and Japan, the host country for this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, have insisted the Games will go ahead as planned despite the deadly coronavirus. But the outbreak of the infectious disease is already wreaking havoc with qualifying for the Games’ women’s soccer tournament.

The ongoing Asian tournament was moved twice, first from Wuhan to Nanjing and then to Sydney, Australia, because of the coronavirus outbreak. And the Chinese team, which traveled to Australia without stars Wang Shuang and Yao Wei, was quarantined in Brisbane, where its opening match was delayed. As the team waited for its first game, it was forced to train in hotel hallways and ballrooms.

Remarkably, the Chinese won their first two matches, beating Taiwan on Monday, to advance to a two-leg playoff next month against either South Korea or Vietnam.

On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency but the IOC said it has “never discussed canceling the games” and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe stated last week the competition would go forward as planned.

The soccer competition is scheduled to kick off July 22, two days before the opening ceremonies.

Seeing Red once again

We discussed Liverpool’s record-setting Premier League season at length last week. But we didn’t have enough room to get to everything. So here are a few more numbers that show just how ridiculous the Reds’ current campaign has been:

Liverpool has beaten all 19 EPL opponents this season, something that’s happened just six other times in the EPL era. And the Reds are getting better as the season wears on with nine of their last 10 EPL wins coming by way of shutouts. In the last two months only Wolverhampton’s Raúl Jiménez has managed to score against them.

Liverpool hasn’t lost at home since April 23, 2017; more than 1,000 days and 53 home matches have passed since then. And as Ryan Sidle, a writer for the Manchester-based social media outlet SPORTbible noted, a lot has happened in that span:

--Wayne Rooney played for Manchester United, Everton, DC United and Derby County. He’s also played for England, retired from international duty, then come out of that retirement to play a one-off game.

--Brexit was delayed three times before finally going into effect.

--Manager David Moyes was hired by West Ham United, let go by West Ham United, then rehired by West Ham United.

--Lionel Messi scored 122 goals for Barcelona.

--Three new iPhones were introduced.

Alumni news

Former Galaxy captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic had an assist and scored off a corner kick, his second goal since moving to Italy, to give AC Milan a 2-0 lead at halftime of Sunday’s Milan Derby. But the advantage didn’t hold with Inter scoring four unanswered goals in the second half in a 4-2 win.

Why is that significant?

The loss was AC Milan’s first since Ibrahimovic joined the team last month. Milan was 3-0-2 in his first five games and while Sunday’s loss dropped it to 10th in the standings, the table is tight with Milan just three points out of European tournament berth.

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

“Obviously 2016 didn’t go the way we wanted it to go. There’s hunger, there’s desire, and then we’ve got the back-to-back on our backs as well. That’s something that hasn’t been done. [There’s] a lot of pressure. But that’s what makes it really special and really great.”

Carli Lloyd, a two-time women’s player of the year, on the women’s national team, which can erase the memories of a dismal Rio Olympics performance by striking gold in Tokyo and becoming the first country to win a World Cup and Olympic title in back-to-back years

Until next time...
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