SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer, and today’s lineup includes Tata Martino’s future with Mexico, Jurgen Klinsmann’s take on the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, Angel City’s first loss and Kévin Cabral’s uneven start with the Galaxy.
But we start with World Cup qualifying, which sees the U.S. heading to San Jose, Costa Rica, on Wednesday after Sunday’s 5-1 win over Panama in Orlando, Fla.. And the Americans as are about as close to securing a spot in the tournament as it can get without actually having one.
But that little, tiny bit of daylight that still exists between going to Qatar and not is what coach Gregg Berhalter is focused on.
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Five years ago, Berhalter settled onto his living room sofa with friends to watch the final qualifier of the last cycle. The U.S. had just beaten Panama by four goals in Orlando and needed only a draw in Trinidad to advance. Even a loss wouldn’t eliminate the Americans if the rest of the CONCACAF games played out as expected.
But nothing went to form that day. The U.S. lost to last-place Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras beat Mexico with the help of an own goal and a phantom score lifted Panama over Costa Rica. The Americans dropped from third to fifth in the table and, like Berhalter, wound up watching the World Cup from their sofas.
So when some U.S. players unfurled a banner Sunday that read “qualified” in a salute to their home supporters after another four-goal win over Panama, Berhalter wasn’t ready to celebrate. There’s still one game left to play, and his team needs no reminder that in CONCACAF anything can happen.
“We know we’re not there yet, despite what that banner might have said,” offered Berhalter, whose team got a hat trick from Christian Pulisic in its win at Exploria Stadium. “We know we still have a game to go and it’s a difficult game.
“So our job right now is to recover and go compete in San Jose, where we’ve never won before.”
Despite the similarities between this qualifying cycle and the last, the U.S. has a much bigger cushion now than it did in 2017. The Americans will enter Wednesday’s game in Costa Rica trailing only Canada in the table. They lead Mexico on goal differential and have a three-point bulge on Costa Rica for the third and final automatic spot in the World Cup field.
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To lose that berth, the U.S. would have to lose to Costa Rica by at least six goals and Mexico would have to beat or tie El Salvador in its final. The U.S. has never won a game in Costa Rica — its best qualifying result there was a draw in 1985 — but the Americans haven’t lost a game by six goals to anybody in more than four decades.
Berhalter was in first grade when that last happened. The U.S. may not have a ticket to Qatar punched just yet, it probably can start checking on airfare and hotels.
Despite the apparent ease of Sunday’s win — the U.S. led 4-0 at halftime on the strength of two penalty-kick goals from Pulisic and scores from Jesús Ferreira and Paul Arriola — behind the scenes the team had a lot of adversity to overcome. The Americans were missing five starters to injury and a positive COVID-19 test, and about 20 other members of the team’s traveling group were dealing with severe stomach flu.
“I won’t get into specifics,” Berhalter said. “It was something that we had to deal with. What we have to do is just deal with it in the most effective way we could and keep moving forward.”
They did that behind Pulisic, who was the target of some overly physical play from Panama. The rough treatment seemed to fuel him, however, with the U.S. captain completing his first international hat trick with a splendid goal in the 65th minute that included a spin move and a nutmeg that freed him from two defenders before a clinical right-footed finish.
“Obviously a huge result,” Pulisic said. “We needed the three points bad to put us in a really good spot to qualify and we’re really happy with the performance. It feels great to get a hat trick, but more importantly just to help the team to win.
“We have one more really important game and we’re taking it very seriously. We need to go in and get the job done.”
Sunday’s five goals equaled the second-most by a U.S. team in the final round of World Cup qualifying. It also was the team’s sixth consecutive qualifying win at home, where it has dropped just two of a possible 21 points.
The eight-team, 14-game final round of qualifying, necessitated by the global pandemic, was the most arduous in CONCACAF history, with four of the five qualifying windows featuring three games in seven days. Yet the U.S. seemed to grow stronger as the tournament went on, as it surrendered multiple goals just once and posted six shutouts.
“We really had to call on our depth,” said Berhalter, who gave more than three dozen players a cap in the first 13 qualifiers. “It was something where guys needed to step up. We talked early on about the next-man-up mentality. We have complete faith in anyone who’s called in; we don’t call players in unless we trust them and we think they can perform at a good level.
“So you know, I’m not surprised. It makes a difference when you when you can call on these guys to perform.”
Still, Arriola cautioned, the mission hasn’t been completed. He was on the team that won in Orlando, then lost in Trinidad, five years ago, so he needs no reminder that in CONCACAF it isn’t over until it’s over.
“I’m not celebrating anything. I was in this exact position, or a very similar position, [five] years ago. And we know how that qualification ended,” he said Sunday.
“Obviously a huge result,” he continued. “We needed the three points bad to put us in a really good spot to qualify. But the job’s not done yet.
Mexico is about to move on, but will Tata go, too?
Mexico also moved to within a hair’s breadth of the World Cup with a 1-0 win over Honduras on Sunday. And it did so without coach Tata Martino, who did not make the trip to San Pedro Sula on the recommendation of doctors after he underwent retinal detachment surgery. The team was coached by assistant Jorge Theiler instead.
Now the question is will Martino accompany the team to Qatar should it secure its World Cup berth with a win or draw at home against El Salvador on Wednesday?
Mexico has struggled under Martino over the last year in losing three times to the U.S. and scoring multiple goals just four times in their first 13 qualifiers. As a result, discontent with the manager is growing, and with a 7 ½-month gap between the end of qualifying and the start of this fall’s World Cup in Qatar, this would be the time to make a change – if, indeed, a change is coming.
Martino’s contract ends just after the World Cup does in December.
Martino was hired in January 2019 and was unbeaten in his first 11 games, losing just once in his first 22. But Mexico has won just 15 of its last 29 games under Martino and has been shut out eight times.
After the scoreless draw with the U.S. last week at Estadio Azteca, the Mexican sports tabloid Esto topped its coverage with the headline Fuera Tata.
That’s not a good sign.
Mexico has gotten old fast. A third of the players called up for the final round of qualifiers are older than 29, and that doesn’t include captain Andrés Guardado, 35, who is injured — and Martino seemingly has done little to rejuvenate his squad.
Contrast that with the U.S. under Berhalter, who was hired six weeks before Martino and is playing with a roster that averages 24 years of age.
Just getting to the World Cup isn’t the problem for Mexico, which is one of the things that makes managing El Tri so challenging. In fact, qualifying isn’t even the main goal. Getting to the World Cup quarterfinals is.
Mexico has made it to that elusive quinto partido just twice, most recently in 1986. It has lost in the first round-of-16 game seven times since then. So once Mexico secures its place in Qatar, the question for the country’s soccer federation will be is Martino the man who can get it over that hump and to the fifth game this year?
At this point, the evidence suggests he is not.
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying table
Pts. W L T GF GA GD
Canada-@ 28 8 1 4 23 6 17
U.S. 25 7 2 4 21 8 13
Mexico 25 7 2 4 15 8 7
Costa Rica 22 6 3 4 11 8 3
Panama 18 5 5 3 16 19 -3
El Salvador 10 2 7 4 8 16 -8
Jamaica 8 1 7 5 10 21 -11
Honduras 4 0 9 4 6 24 -18
U.S. 0, Mexico 0
Panama 1, Honduras 1
Jamaica 1, El Salvador 1
Costa Rica 1, Canada 0
U.S. 5, Panama 1
Canada 4, Jamaica 0
Mexico 1, Honduras 0
Costa Rica 2, El Salvador 1
U.S. at Costa Rica
Panama vs. Canada
Mexico vs. El Salvador
Jamaica vs. Honduras
@ — qualified for World Cup
Thanks for the memories
The scoreless draw between the U.S. and Mexico last Thursday in Estadio Azteca was the third draw in as many qualifying cycles between the two border rivals in Mexico and ran the Americans’ unbeaten streak versus Mexico to four games.
If it also proves to be the last qualifier the U.S. plays there, count former national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann among those who will miss the game.
“Mexico vs USA is always special,” said Klinsmann, the only U.S. coach ever to win in Mexico.
Since the U.S. returned to the World Cup in 1990, CONCACAF’s qualifying format has seen Mexico and the U.S. play in Estadio Azteca once every four years. That’s helped the rivalry grow into one of the best in international sports.
Now that is about to change.
Because both countries are co-hosting the 2026 World Cup, it’s unlikely either will have to qualify in the next cycle. And with the World Cup field expanding to 48 teams, doubling the number of automatic spots allotted to CONCACAF, the qualifying format is certain to change ahead of the 2030 tournament. One possibility would place the U.S. and Mexico is separate qualifying groups, meaning they would not have to play one another.
And if the World Cup winds up being played every two years instead of every four, as Klinsmann believes it soon will, that would dilute the importance of qualifiers even further.
Mexico and the U.S. still would meet in the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup and Nations League, however, and Klinsmann thinks that will raise the profile of those competitions.
“With the new approach, more CONCACAF teams can participate at the World Cup, and it might give more meaning to the Gold Cup in between,” he said.
Loss provides a lesson for Angel City
When Angel City traded for midfielder Savannah McCaskill in December, the team thought she could become a game-changing player. It’s taken just two games for McCaskill to prove the team right.
After scoring her team’s only goal in its Challenge Cup opener with San Diego, McCaskill picked up a red card with her team down 2-0 a half hour into her second game last Saturday at Cal State Fullerton. That left Angel City to play shorthanded the rest of the way in a 3-1 loss to the OL Reign.
For Angel City coach Freya Coombe, the first loss in franchise history was a learning experience.
“We use the Challenge Cup as a process to test our team and today we were tested,” she said. “I was really pleased with the performance despite being a player down. We didn’t roll over.”
Angel City (0-1-1) outshot the Reign 16-13 and built slight edges in time of possession and passing. But it also conceded two goals in the first 17 minutes and that left it chasing the game — a chase that became more difficult when McCaskill was sent off following a reckless challenge on the Reign’s Veronica Latsko.
The Reign added a third goal five minutes into the second half before Tyler Lussi pulled that back with the second goal in ACFC history in the 67th minute. But the game got no closer.
Angel City forward Simone Charley echoed her coach’s comments about the loss being a lesson in playing with adversity.
“It’s an opportunity to practice being down. Things aren’t always going to go your way,” she said. “You have to look at it as an opportunity to face something that we don’t want to face.
“Now when the regular season starts, it’s nothing new. We’ve been here before. We know how to handle it.”
Angel City will hit the road for the first time Wednesday in Portland to continue Challenge Cup group play against Christine Sinclair and the unbeaten Thorns (1-0-1).
Cabral’s start a mixed one with Galaxy
When the Galaxy signed Kevin Cabral to a young designated-player contract before last season, the team cited his age, speed and a pedigree that included five years in the player-development system at Paris-St. Germain in hyping him as someone they thought could be a game-changing presence.
Four games into his second MLS season Cabral, 22, has yet to live up to that hype with just five goals and two assists in 32 games. And coach Greg Vanney suggested after the Galaxy’s last game, a 1-0 loss to Orlando City, that he’s growing frustrated.
“Kevin needs to be more consistent, and he needs to be more productive,” he said.
Cabral’s likely to keep getting chances — among outfield players only Julian Araujo has played more minutes for Vanney the last two years — because he brings a work rate and a skill set no one else on the team can match.
“The running Kevin does and the work that he does, we don’t have anyone on our team who does that,” Vanney said. “The consistency of working behind the back line, running through the back line, working to add another player in front of goal.
“There’s things that I think we have to be patient with because he does those things differently than anyone else on our team. And that creates opportunity and space and control for others.”
But while Cabral has gotten into dangerous positions, it hasn’t resulted in goals or assists, hamstringing an offense that has been held to a goal or less three times in four games this season. That’s something Vanney is addressing during the Galaxy’s current international break.
“The execution side of things, for sure that has to take a big step forward because we need more end product,” Vanney said of Cabral, who is in the second season of a five-year contract. “That side is definitely a work in progress. But the running and the sprinting, we don’t have anyone that’s even close to him in our group that gives us that on a consistent basis. There’s value in that for us.
“Right now when we’re searching for goals, we need the final piece, too.”
And finally there’s this …
Italy, a four-time World Cup winner and the reigning European champion, will miss the World Cup for the second consecutive time after losing to North Macedonia 1-0 in a UEFA playoff qualifier in Palermo. It’s the first time Italy has missed consecutive world championships, and the team has won just one World Cup game since its last title in 2006. The latest loss came in particularly heartbreaking fashion for Italy, ranked sixth in the world by FIFA, with North Macedonia’s Aleksandar Trajkovski scoring two minutes into stoppage time. Italy took 32 shots to just four for North Macedonia, ranked 67th in the world. Italy was unbeaten in qualifying, but four of its eight matches ended in draws, placing it second in its group and forcing it into a playoff. North Macedonia will kick off against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal at about the time you are reading this newsletter Tuesday for a chance to advance to its first World Cup.
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 met someone really special yesterday. His name was Mason, and his one request was that if I scored, he wanted to see a worm celebration. That’s what that was for.”
Christian Pulisic after celebrating one of his three goals Sunday with a worm dance, making good on a promise to 15-year-old Mason Ogle, the USMNT’s match-day ambassador who has been diagnosed with bone cancer
Until next time…
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