Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we explore the Women’s World Cup draw and Kelley O’Hara’s take on the team’s two-game losing streak; LAFC’s playoff win over the Galaxy; and the growing evidence that Qatar isn’t ready for the World Cup despite a 12-year head start.
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But we start with the Cristiano Ronaldo soap opera, the final act of which could feature the Portuguese star heading for MLS by next season. And while Southern California would be a logical landing place, clearing roster space for Ronaldo at either LAFC or the Galaxy would be tricky.
Let’s start with what we know.
Ronaldo was dropped from the Manchester United squad for last Saturday’s Premier League match at Chelsea after refusing Erik ten Hag’s order to enter the team’s previous game as a substitute, then showing up the manager by leaving the bench for the dressing room. He has started only two matches this season, scored just one goal and clearly has worn out his welcome with the coaching staff, fans and teammates.
Yet for the moment he appears trapped there. ESPN is reporting the team has made Ronaldo available on a free transfer but has received no acceptable offers for the player, who is reported to be making more than $24 million a year on a contract that runs through June. Ronaldo asked out last summer after scoring a team-high 24 goals for a club that finished fifth in the table and exited the Champions League in the round of 16.
Ronaldo, who turns 38 in February, returned to Manchester before last season after winning four Champions League titles in nine seasons at Real Madrid, followed by four seasons at Juventus, where he won two league crowns and a scoring title.
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But he’s clearly not the player he was in his final season in Italy, where he scored 36 times in 44 matches. And United isn’t eager to pay Ronaldo one of the world’s highest salaries to come off the bench — especially when he won’t do that.
A huge World Cup with Portugal could stir some interest in a transfer, although it’s hard to see many European clubs taking on that contract. The mess in Manchester could convince Ronaldo the time for a long-rumored MLS move is now, and if United proves willing to pay a substantial part of his contract just to get rid of the distraction, it could find several suitors.
Inter Miami, which counts former teammate David Beckham among its owners, probably would be the frontrunner. The team has ambition, money and, with the retirement of Gonzalo Higuaín, the expiration of Alejandro Pozuelo’s contract and Rodolfo Pizarro’s departure for Monterrey, open designated player spots as well.
Miami’s lifestyle and the relative ease of travel to Europe also would appeal to Ronaldo. But the player also has spoken favorably of Southern California, a favorite vacation spot for European footballers who appreciate the fact they are seldom recognized here. The appeal of growing his global brand in Hollywood probably would assuage the pain of the pay cut as well.
The Galaxy would appear the best fit since they have made a habit of big-name signings with Beckham, Robbie Keane, Steven Gerrard, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández. But the team already has the second-highest payroll in MLS, its three designated-player spots are full and it has not denied reports it already has a deal in place to bring Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez to Carson in January.
LAFC is a more interesting option. Despite this season’s signings of Gareth Bale and Giorgio Chiellini, the team traditionally has ignored splashy, big-name European veterans and spent on players such as Denis Bouanga and Cristian Tello who fit its system. But if Ronaldo became available, the team might again break with tradition.
However like the Galaxy, LAFC’s three DP spots are taken and Bale, should he return, has a contract for next year that is above the maximum MLS budget charge. General manager John Thorrington could solve that by buying down either Bouanga ($2.083 million) or Tello ($1.725 million), opening at least the possibility the reigning Supporters’ Shield winners could start next season with a front of line of Carlos Vela, Ronaldo and Bouanga.
It’s all a long shot, more wishful thinking than likely outcome, but the $14-million contract Toronto gave Lorenzo Insigne this season and the additional resources made available through the league’s new broadcast deal with Apple TV+ have altered the once-conservative MLS salary structure. The possibility of Ronaldo finishing his career in MLS — and in Southern California — makes too much sense to dismiss.
The draw for next summer’s Women’s World Cup was held Saturday in New Zealand and it couldn’t have gone much better for the U.S.
The Americans will open with Vietnam, which will be playing its first World Cup, and finish the first round against the winner of a three-way playoff involving Portugal, Cameroon and Thailand. Portugal never has played in a World Cup and Thailand lost to the U.S. 13-0 in the last tournament four years ago in France. Cameroon, meanwhile, has made it to the round of 16 twice.
The middle group-play game will be against the eighth-ranked Netherlands, the team the U.S. beat in France three years ago to win its second consecutive World Cup. The U.S. also faced the Dutch in the Tokyo Olympics quarterfinals, playing to a 2-2 draw in regulation time before advancing to the semifinals on penalty kicks.
The top two finishers in each four-team World Cup group advance to the knockout rounds.
The draw also was favorable for the U.S. geographically. Next summer’s monthlong tournament, which kicks off July 20, will be the first Women’s World Cup played in two countries, with the 64 games spread among five cities and six stadiums in Australia and four cities and stadiums in New Zealand. But the U.S. will play two of its three group-play matches in Auckland, the other 300 miles away in Wellington.
The Americans will enter the tournament riding a 17-game unbeaten streak in World Cup play, dating to the final group match in 2011. But they lost their only two games in October, in England and Spain, and that has alarm bells ringing less than nine months before next summer’s tournament.
Kelley O’Hara, who has won two World Cups with the U.S. and hopes to grab another next year, isn’t among those panicking.
A lingering hip injury kept her out of the two European friendlies and she wasn’t the only front-line player missing. Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Catarina Macario, Abby Dahlkemper, Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, Tierna Davidson and Emily Sonnett didn’t make the trip either.
In pointing out the absences, O’Hara wasn’t making excuses for the team’s first losing streak since 2017, she was providing context.
“Knowing this team and the players who did play the games and knowing Vlatko [Andonovski, the coach], they’re going to use it as a learning opportunity,” said O’Hara, 34, whose 156 caps rank sixth among active U.S. players. “Even I’m going to look at it as a learning opportunity.”
An unmistakable message from those losses, however, is the rest of the world is catching up. The Americans have won the last two World Cups but in the last two Olympics they’ve managed just one bronze medal. A decade ago, women’s soccer wasn’t taken seriously in places like Spain, the Netherlands, Iceland and Belgium; today those teams are ranked among the world’s top 20.
Want more evidence? The U.S. hasn’t advanced beyond the group stage of the U20 Women’s World Cup since 2016 and hasn’t won that event since 2012. Then it was bounced from the U17 World Cup by Nigeria last Friday.
Many of the countries now beating the U.S. did so after copying it.
“What’s the saying? High tides raise all boats?” O’Hara asked by phone. “In any industry you want that. You want to know that you won because you’re the absolute best and your competition is right with you, giving you a run for your money.”
That figures to make the task in next summer’s World Cup more challenging. No team of either gender has won three consecutive world championships; the U.S. could do that next year. Among players, only Pelé has won three titles as an individual. There are eight women, including O’Hara, still in the U.S. player pool who could match that next year.
“It’s going to feel similar to how I felt going into 2019,” she said. “There was a ton of pressure on us. We’d won 2015. A lot of people questioned if we could repeat.
“But at the end of the day, regardless if you’ve won a World Cup or won two World Cups or never won, World Cups are just pressure situations in themselves. So I just look at it as focus on the task at hand.”
For the time being that focus is on rehabbing her injury and getting fit for next summer. But she’s also working with VS, an interactive training platform that allows users to ask questions and receive responses in real-time from world-class athletes in 11 sports, including soccer.
“It’s a product that I would have loved to have as a kid, as a teenager, even a college student. Being able to learn from other people and hear their stories is so helpful,” said O’Hara, who provides coaching lessons and more in VS.
“The trap or the downfall sometimes in social media is that it’s everyone’s highlight reel. VS is the full story. That’s super important and influential on people who are potentially going to go through the same things as you. This concept of sharing your scars and allowing people to see, ‘Oh, this is where I stumbled and why I stumbled.’
“Hopefully hearing from me and my experience, if you come up against the same thing, you could do it differently and better.”
2023 Women’s World Cup draw
Group A: New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Switzerland
Group B: Australia, Ireland, Nigeria, Canada
Group C: Spain, Costa Rica, Zambia, Japan
Group D: England, Denmark, China, winner of playoff between Senegal, Haiti and Chile
Group E: U.S., Vietnam, Netherlands, winner of playoff between Cameroon, Thailand and Portugal
Group F: France, Jamaica, Brazil, winner of playoff between Taiwan-Paraguay and Papua New Guinea-Panama
Group G: Sweden, South Africa, Italy, Argentina
Group H: Germany, Morocco, Colombia, South Korea
For some LAFC fans, there’s a dreadful feeling that this postseason may be a case of déjà vu all over again.
In 2019, the team won the Supporters’ Shield, enjoyed a first-round playoff bye, beat the Galaxy in the Western Conference semifinals, then played host to the second-place team in the conference standings in the MLS Cup semifinals.
With last Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Galaxy, LAFC has traveled an identical path so far this season. But midfielder Kellyn Acosta said the trip doesn’t have to end as it did in 2019, when the black and gold fell at home to the Seattle Sounders.
“We’re talking about a game that happened three years ago,” Acosta said. “We have a totally different team, a team that faced a lot of adversity throughout this year. We have some great additions, guys who have a lot of experience and guys that know what it takes to win something. We take it game by game.
“We have to take what’s now. The next game is going to be a different challenge.”
That game will come next Sunday against Austin FC, one of only two visiting teams to win at Banc of California Stadium this year and one of two teams to beat LAFC twice. The other team was the Galaxy, whose season ended last Thursday when Cristian Arango scored in second-half stoppage time to rescue an LAFC team that twice had given up leads built on goals from Denis Bouanga.
“The game was electric. It had a bit of everything,” said Acosta, whose corner kick sent up Arango’s winner. “It was a roller coaster of emotions.”
But it turned on what Acosta said were minor adjustments made at halftime. LAFC paired Acosta and Ilie Sánchez as holding midfielders to contain the Galaxy’s Gastón Brugman and put pressure on Riqui Puig and Mark Delgado, forcing them to go side to side rather than attacking up the middle, as they had done successfully in the first half.
“The game was a tale of two halves,” Acosta said. “In the first half we were unable to get pressure onto the ball, causing the whole team to run. When we were able to build pressure and force them to play predictable, we could save some energy.”
LAFC’s work isn’t done with that win, though. The team needs two more victories to raise the MLS Cup and erase memories of 2019.
“Moving forward, we understand what’s coming our way,” coach Steve Cherundolo said of the Austin matchup. “No celebrations going on. This team is hungry, this team is excited and very focused at creating a final here in L.A.”
Added Acosta: “It’s a huge game, a game where we can win a trophy, Western Conference, and ultimately reach our goal, which is to get to the final.”
For the Galaxy, a season that appeared over in August was extended with an improbable playoff run that finally stalled at Banc of California Stadium, where the team’s last postseason appearance also ended. No one who played Thursday was in a Galaxy uniform for that 2019 game, but the loss, the team’s second in their last 13 games, stung just the same.
“Pain and disappointment. That’s the feeling that I have,” captain Javier “Chicharito” Hernández said. “We came to the semifinals of the conference against the best team in the league. We grew a lot, but for this organization it’s not enough. The standards are as high as they can [be] with winning trophies and playing in finals at least.”
Hernández, who led the team with 19 goals in all competition, will be back next year as will Puig and Brugman, giving coach Greg Vanney a solid foundation to build upon.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” Vanney said. “It’s been a hell of a stretch of games that the guys have put together in the last 12, 13 games. We’ve come a long way since a year and a half ago, two years ago. This group has proven that they’re capable of winning things.”
The Galaxy will pick up next season where they ended this one, facing LAFC in the regular-season opener at the Rose Bowl.
MLS playoff results and schedule
Western Conference Semifinals
LAFC 3, Galaxy 2
Austin 2, FC Dallas 1
Eastern Conference Semifinals
Philadelphia 1, Cincinnati 0
New York City 3, Montreal 1
All times Pacific
Austin at LAFC, noon
New York City at Philadelphia, 5 p.m.
Qatar World Cup organizers have warned residents about “congestion” in the first two weeks of the tournament while at the same time residents are complaining landlords have told them to vacate their apartments to make room for better-paying guests.
More than 1.2 million people are expected to flood the Gulf state during the month-long tournament, severely straining the smallest country ever to play host to a World Cup or Olympics.
Private cars will be banned from many streets and residents near some stadiums will need permits to get to their homes, organizers and government officials told a news conference as they outlined measures to avoid traffic jams during the World Cup, which begins Nov. 20.
Qatar has spent billions on a state-of-the-art driverless metro rail network that serves five of the eight stadiums. There also will be 3,200 extra buses and 3,000 taxis on the road. But with four group matches a day during the first two weeks of the tournament, officials are predicting more than 300,000 fans could be milling around the streets of Doha at the same time during the busiest days.
Housing during that time also will be crowded, so Qatari landlords have begin kicking out tenants, sometimes with little more than a few days’ notice, AFP reported.
One foreigner working for a major Qatari company told the news agency the owner of the block in which she lived wanted dozens of apartments emptied so he could earn more during the World Cup. The woman, who gave her name only as Reem, was moved to a hotel but she can stay there only until Nov. 15, five days before the tournament kicks off. After that she will move into “temporary” apartments, she said.
“Leaving home with all our belongings in bags and boxes to go into a hotel room was a disaster,” she said.
Properties in the tower where Reem used to live are advertised on booking.com for $1,700 a night during the World Cup with a minimum stay of 14 nights. In the two years she had been in the apartment, Reem said rent was $2,500 a month. On Airbnb, apartments for two people are listed for $2,500 a night.
Crystal Dunn’s goal three minutes into stoppage time lifted the Portland Thorns to a 2-1 win over the San Diego Wave and into Saturday’s NWSL final against the Kansas City Current, a 2-0 winner over the OL Reign in Sunday’s other playoff semifinal…Former Galaxy midfielder Steven Gerrard was last week fired as manager of Premier League club Aston Villa and replaced by Aaron Danks on an interim basis. Gerrard, who took over the team last November, was 13-19-8 with the Lions. Aston Villa beat Brentford 4-0 Sunday in its first game without Gerrard.
U.S. women’s soccer team to face Vietnam, Netherlands at next year’s World Cup
Cristian Arango’s stoppage-time goal lifts LAFC over Galaxy in MLS Cup Playoffs
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.
“I’ve always tried to set the example for the youngsters that grew in all the teams that I’ve represented. Unfortunately that’s not always possible and sometimes the heat of the moment gets the best of us. Right now, I just feel that I have to keep working hard in Carrington, support my teammates and be ready for everything in any given game. Giving in to the pressure is not an option. It never was.”
Cristiano Ronaldo’s non-apology for walking away from his team during last week’s game with Tottenham
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Kevin Baxter writes about soccer and other things for the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for 24 years. He has covered five World Cups, three Olympic Games, six World Series and a Super Bowl and has contributed to three Pulitzer Prize-winning series at The Times and Miami Herald. An essay he wrote in fifth grade was voted best in the class. He has a cool dog.
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