SoCal Soccer Spotlight: Angel City woes and LAFC triumphs

While LAFC looks ready to waltz into the playoffs, LA’s other squads find themselves in a rut.

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“SoCal Soccer Spotlight” is a column by Jack Hallinan about the professional soccer landscape in Los Angeles.

Who Will Take Over at Angel City?

After a tumultuous start to the season, Angel City FC fired head coach Freya Coombe on June 15. At the time of Coombe’s firing, the team had played 11 matches for a record of two wins, three draws and six losses. They were second-to-last place in the NWSL, better only than the Kansas City Current.

Former sporting director Eni Aluko (whose role at Angel City changed to Director of Recruitment when Angela Hucles took over as general manager) appointed Coombe to be the club’s first ever head coach after she led NJ/NY Gotham to a fifth-place finish in the 2021 NWSL season. Gotham conceded the second-fewest goals in the league that season (21), but her team’s attack struggled at times, scoring only 29 in 24 matches. In Angel City’s debut season in 2022, from a simple goals for and against perspective, Coombe basically replicated her Gotham side with less impressive resources. They were defensively solid for an unfancied team, letting in the tied for fourth-fewest goals, but only scoring 23, tied for third-fewest.

That pattern did not continue in Angel City’s second campaign. In fact, in the 2023 season, Coombe’s side has suffered from the opposite affliction. While Angel City would certainly do with more firepower — Alyssa Thompson and Claire Emslie co-lead the squad with just three goals each — the team’s 16 total goals actually ranks seventh in the league, just outside of the playoffs. Their 22 goals conceded, however, has them as the third-worst defense, only two better than second-worst Kansas City. To put that figure in perspective, with nine NWSL matches left to play, Angel City will almost surely surpass their total goals conceded in 2022, when they allowed 27.

Becki Tweed will assume interim head coach duties after serving as Coombe’s assistant at both Angel City and Gotham. Tweed is undefeated in her two matches so far, leading the squad to a 2-1 win over SoCal rivals San Diego Wave and a scoreless draw against Houston Dash. Tweed has sufficient coaching experience at both the NWSL and international level (as a former U-20 USWNT assistant) that if she continues winning matches, Angel City could very possibly appoint her full-time.

That being said, the club will likely wait until the end of the season to conduct a thorough head coach search. OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey’s contract is up at the conclusion of the 2023 season, of which Angel City is surely aware. Harvey, a two-time NWSL Coach of the Year, rescued OL Reign’s season in 2022, steering them to first in the table after taking over in August. OL Reign currently sit third on 23 points, only two behind league-leaders Portland and just behind North Carolina Courage on goal difference.

If hiring a coach with NWSL experience is the goal, the club could do much worse than Harvey.

Thompson and Ertz Named to USWNT Roster

Despite Angel City’s up-and-down (mostly down) season so far, both Thompson and Julie Ertz will represent the US Women’s National Team at the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

Ertz’ inclusion was not much of a surprise, as the midfielder has already been a part of two World Cup-winning sides and made over 100 appearances for the national team.

While pundits have speculated Thompson might earn a spot ever since she forewent college soccer to enter the NWSL draft, the 18-year-old’s addition to the squad is nonetheless remarkable. She will be the team’s youngest player at the World Cup and likely one of the youngest players at the whole tournament. How much Thompson actually features remains to be seen, but the experience will no doubt be excellent for her career.

MLS Clubs’ Opposite Fortunes

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For LAFC, it’s the former, and for the LA Galaxy — you guessed it — it’s the latter.

After winning the MLS Cup in 2022, LAFC’s good fortunes have continued as they currently sit tied for first place atop the Western Conference, with one game in hand on St. Louis City. Most encouragingly, though, is that LAFC fans would probably say that their team has a higher performance gear still left to reach this season. Head coach Steve Cherundolo has rotated his squad regularly because the team made a deep run in the CONCACAF Champions League. The black and gold progressed all the way to the final where they faced Mexican side León, losing 1-3 on aggregate in the two legs. With that competition out of the way, Cherundolo & Co. can focus more heavily on the league, where they have already been among the MLS’ best.

LAFC has a deep roster that can be competitive no matter who steps onto the field. The team recently defeated Sporting Kansas City with a starting front three of Stipe Biuk, Nathan Ordaz and Mateusz Bogusz. Typically, LAFC first-choice attack trio would be Denis Bouanga, Kwadwo Opoku and club legend Carlos Vela, so to win a match with none of those players starting deserves merit. Kellyn Acosta has also struggled with an injury in June, but he should be ready to return to the lineup for the Leagues Cup, a new showcase tournament where MLS teams will compete against Liga MX clubs. As the MLS champ for 2022, LAFC have automatically qualified for the Round of 32 and will skip the group stage, allowing them extra time to rest and prepare for the second half of the season.

It’s important to note that on a league-wide scale, the Eastern Conference currently dominates the Supporters’ Shield standings. Four Eastern teams sit above St. Louis and LAFC in the cumulative table, so LAFC have some serious wood to chop to retain that trophy. Regardless, LAFC are poised to make another serious run at the MLS Cup. No team has retained the title since LA Galaxy did so in 2011 and 2012.

The Galaxy, meanwhile, have almost no hope of regaining their former title. They are ten points adrift of the playoffs in the West, with only three league wins so far this season. The team’s three Designated Players — Douglas Costa, Riqui Puig and Chicharito — have all either underperformed or been scarcely available. Costa has made just seven appearances, providing two assists and scoring zero goals. Chicharito tore his ACL this month, ruling him out for the remainder of the season. Even when he played, the Mexican legend had scored only one goal this season. Puig has played 17 of the 18 matches, adding three total goal contributions, but the midfielder can’t turn around the team’s fortunes by himself. It figures to be a long and painful season for Galaxy fans.

If there’s one thing to take solace in, they did defeat LAFC 2-0 in the U.S. Open Cup (we don’t have to mention who played for LAFC in that game).

Thanks for reading my debut column on everything LA soccer. In next week’s edition, I will give my review of the HBO’s Angel City docuseries, provide an update on the Tweed reign and recap the El Tráfico derby match taking place at the Rose Bowl.