Soccer newsletter: World’s nations stand with Ukraine’s Cup bid

Soccer newsletter: World’s nations stand with Ukraine’s Cup bid

Hello, and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we wonder why LAFC assistant Ante Razov isn’t yet a head coach, go over the Galaxy’s recent struggles, break down a diverse MLS player pool and look at the two Southern California expansion teams that are at the top of the National Women’s Soccer League table after three weeks.

But we start today with the Ukrainian national team, which faces the unprecedented task of trying to qualify for its first World Cup in 16 years at the same time the nation’s very existence hangs in the balance.

Ukraine continued preparations for its June qualifier in Scotland when it met German club Borussia Monchengladbach on Wednesday in its first international match since November. A lot has changed since then.

Russia’s senseless and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February has decimated the country, razed cities, killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 14 million, nearly half of whom have fled the country. With the Ukrainian government mustering all men of military age for the war effort, the players on the 23-player national team needed special permission to leave the country and train in the Slovenian Alps.

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Yet in its own way, the team’s pursuit of a World Cup berth also has rallied Ukrainians.

“Every day, we receive messages from our soldiers,” midfielder Taras Stepanenko told reporters before the game against Monchengladbach. “A lot of soldiers, a lot of people in Ukraine love football, and they [have] only one demand: ‘Please do everything you can to go to the World Cup.’

“For them, it’s like a moment of hope. It will be like a celebration for the country. That’s why we have to play. We have to play with our soul, with our heart. This is very, very important. It will be very emotional for my country, for our players and for all Ukraine.”

Taras Stepanenko of Ukraine’s national soccer team.

(Darko Bandic / Associated Press)

The team also will have to overcome long odds to win a spot in Qatar, beating Scotland on June 1 in Glasgow and, if it wins that, beating Wales four days later in Cardiff. But then the Ukrainians already have defied much longer odds by holding off, and in many places defeating, the Russian army for nearly three months.

“I don’t want anything … no house, no car,” coach Oleksandr Petrakov said. “But if I take the team to Qatar, I have lived my life for a reason.”

Petrakov is aware his team is being cheered by much of the world — including the U.S. national team, which would play Ukraine in its World Cup opener if Petrakov’s team prevails in its upcoming qualifiers.

“I think we’re all pulling for Ukraine,” American coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We’re all behind them, all supporting them.”

In the Monchengladbach game, which Ukraine won 2-1, Petrakov used a team composed entirely of players from the Ukrainian Premier League, which suspended its season at the start of the invasion. For the qualifiers, he is expected to call in reinforcements, including Manchester City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko, Benfica’s Roman Yaremchuk and West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko, the national team’s leading active scorer with 44 international goals.

LAFC assistant deserves a head coaching job

Despite Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Colorado, LAFC (7-2-2) leads the MLS in points and goals and is just one point off the pace the team set through 11 games in 2019, when it broke the MLS record for points in a season en route to a Supporters’ Shield. It’s done so despite an offseason makeover in which it changed managers, lost two assistant coaches and added five new starters.

In fact, the only holdover in the technical area is assistant coach Ante Razov, and that leads to a question: Why is he not managing his own MLS club?

“It is a goal of mine,” he said of becoming a head coach. “[But] I’m very happy with where I am. Every day, I’m evolving and learning. It’s not going to change my life if it doesn’t come, but I’ll be ready for it if it does.”

Razov has spent most of his career in the presence of coaching giants. After graduating from Fontana High, he went on to play for Sigi Schmid at UCLA before joining the original Galaxy team in 1996. With the Galaxy, his teammates included Greg Vanney, Robin Fraser, Chris Armas, Cobi Jones and Curt Onalfo, all of whom went on to become MLS managers.

Razov played for Bob Bradley on three teams, including an MLS Cup champion in Chicago in 1998, and for Bruce Arena, the winningest coach in American history, on the national team. He won an MLS Cup in 2016 as an assistant to Brian Schmetzer in Seattle. But he had his greatest success, and learned the most, after being reunited with Bradley with LAFC.

“LAFC would not be as good in as good a place if it wasn’t for the structure that was built by Bob,” he said. “That is clear. I will argue that till the end of my time. I was fortunate to work with him, and the club is fortunate that he was there.”

But Bradley, the second-winningest active coach in MLS, has a losing record and a negative goal differential with Toronto, while LAFC, under first-year coach Steve Cherundolo, leads the league in wins (seven) and points (23), is tied for the lead in goals (23), is second in differential (plus-11) and is challenging the franchise records Bradley left behind.

And because Razov is the only remaining coaching link between Bradley’s LAFC staff and the one Cherundolo has rebuilt, it’s fair to ask just how much of that success is because of the assistant coach. (Consider too that Razov, who had an undisclosed illness, was not on the sideline Saturday in Colorado when LAFC lost for only the second time this season while being shut out for the first time since September.)

Eight teams have changed coaches since the end of last season, and none of them hired Razov.

“I’ve had a couple of discussions with some teams,” he said almost conspiratorially, glancing around the LAFC practice facility to see whether anyone was listening. “I’m not one that openly throws my name into the ring. You have to pick situations that work for you.

“I would not just take anything, because I have ideas.”

Ideas a lot like the ones he has helped Bradley and Cherundolo implement in the last five seasons.

“I’m a big proponent of the way LAFC plays,” Razov said. “I worked hand in hand with Bob on this. And it’s not me just liking what he did. It’s me actually believing in this way of playing.”

LAFC didn’t play that way Saturday, when it gave up two first-half goals on penalty kicks by Gyasi Zardes and Diego Rubio to spoil an otherwise sterling debut by goalkeeper John McCarthy, who made four saves.

The team had not conceded a penalty kick in a league-record 46 matches dating to November 2020.

LAFC took just 17 players to Colorado because of what the team said were injuries, then lost defender Ryan Hollingshead in the 40th minute. Captain Carlos Vela did not put a shot on target for the fifth game in a row and extended his scoreless streak to seven MLS games.

“We all watched a very poor football match today,” Cherundolo said. “It is our ambition to win every game, and to do that we need to play better.”

LAFC doesn’t have much time to fix that because it faces Austin, which is tied for the MLS lead in goals, on Wednesday night at Banc of California Stadium. The match will be the second of five games in a two-week span for the Black and Gold. Included in that schedule is the U.S. Open Cup game against the Galaxy on May 25 in Carson.

Punchless Galaxy booed at home

Galaxy forward Douglas Costa

(Jacob Kupferman / Associated Press)

The Galaxy also had a forgettable weekend, stumbling through their worst performance of the season in a 3-1 loss to FC Dallas on Saturday night at Dignity Health Sports Park. And many in the sellout crowd of 25,147 voiced their disappointment by booing the team off the field afterward.

Dallas took advantage of defensive breakdowns to build a 3-0 lead in the first 23 minutes of a game the Galaxy never really were a part of. The three goals surrendered matched a season high for the Galaxy, who had conceded just three times in the previous six games combined.

The team’s only goal came from Douglas Costa in the 67th minute. The Galaxy (6-4-1) haven’t scored multiple times in a game in more than a month, and Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, the team’s leading scorer, is without a goal in his last five MLS games.

Only six teams in MLS have fewer goals than the Galaxy’s 12 on the season.

“We weren’t up to the speed of it right from the start,” Vanney, the Galaxy’s coach, said. “I felt like we were slow with the ball. We were passive sometimes. We weren’t transitioning fast enough.

“We gave up three goals in 12 minutes, a lot of which are our own mistakes. Then we’re spending roughly 70 minutes chasing the game.”

Saturday’s loss also was the start of a busy period for the Galaxy, who face Minnesota United on Wednesday in the second of five games in 15 days.

“I’m personally of the mind that every time I lose a game, I’m happy when there’s a game three days later because it’s a chance to make things right,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “So yeah, I’m happy, we’re playing again.

“It’s one game at a time. We can’t look too far ahead. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

MLS goes global

Speaking of MLS, a record 82 countries were represented on its 28 opening-day rosters, making it the most diverse first-division soccer league in the world. The number also marks a 37% increase from 2010, when MLS teams featured players born in 60 countries.

The U.S. is represented by 350 players, with another 46 coming from Canada, accounting for 50.1% of the roster spots. Argentina had the next most players with 40.

The Galaxy roster includes players from a dozen countries, including the U.S. and Canada, one more than LAFC.

Italy’s Serie A is the most diverse major European league, with players from 62 countries. France’s Ligue 1 is next with 60, followed by the English Premier League (59), Spain’s La Liga (54) and the German Bundesliga (52).

Forty-three of the U.S. states have players in MLS, led by California with 64. That’s more than double the 26 players from second-place New York. MLS also is one of the youngest leagues in the world with the players on its rosters averaging just more than 25 years of age.

Five youngest MLS teams (by average age of players logging minutes)

New York Red Bulls, 22.79 years

Toronto, 23.68

Montreal, 24.26

Chicago 24.41

Dallas, 24.65

Five oldest MLS teams (by average age of players logging minutes)

Nashville, 28.11 years

Columbus, 27.89

New England, 27.63

Minnesota United, 27.32

Colorado, 27.29

The Galaxy and LAFC land between these two groupings, the Galaxy with an average age of 26.7 and LAFC 26.0.

Source: MLS

Expanding possibilities for San Diego Wave, Angel City FC

San Diego’s Alex Morgan, middle, and Angel City’s Christen Press (23) during a match in April.

(Justin Fine / AP)

Expansion teams are supposed to leave the starting gate slowly and feel their way through their first seasons. But that hasn’t been the case with the San Diego Wave and Angel City FC, who are first and second, respectively, in the NWSL standings three weeks into their first regular seasons.

San Diego remained unbeaten with a 2-1 win over the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday, the same day Angel City picked up the first road victory in franchise history with a 1-0 win over the defending league champion Washington Spirit.

Alex Morgan padded her league lead with her fifth goal of the season for San Diego (3-0-0), which gave up its only score of the season in the final minute of regulation. Three of Morgan’s goals have come on penalty kicks.

For Angel City (2-1-0), Christen Press’ first goal for her hometown team, which came in the 42nd minute, was the difference.

“It’s really important for us as an expansion team to have short-term memories when it comes to performances that we’re not happy with so we can continue to take points,” Press said of Angel City, which was coming off its first loss.

“We were feeling the effects of the loss last week and wanted to put that right and build momentum again,” coach Freya Coombe said. “It’s important for us. We’ve got to try to compete every game and everywhere we go.”

Angel City returns to Banc of California Stadium on Saturday to face the winless Kansas City Current.

And finally there’s this …

Santa Ana native Christian Ramirez, who scored four goals in 17 games in parts of two seasons with LAFC, had 13 goals and four assists in all competitions for Aberdeen of the Scottish Premier League. … Milan IIoski had three of Orange County’s five first-half goals in a 5-1 win over FC Tulsa on Friday. It was the 10th time in USL Championship history that a team scored five times in one half, and it was the fourth hat trick in OCSC history. Orange County (3-3-3), the reigning league champion, is 10th in the 13-team Western Conference standings but has lost just one of its last five games.

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

“We feel that we’re not alone, the whole world is behind us.”

Former Ukrainian national team star Andriy Voronin, who left his job as an assistant coach with Dynamo Moscow after the Russian invasion of his country, on the support Ukraine has received in its push for a World Cup berth

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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