SoCal Soccer Spotlight: LA Galaxy Stuns LAFC in July 4 Tráfico

Angel City tries to improve its fortunes after an HBO docuseries displayed its off-field success.

Puig jogging in white Galaxy kit.

Puig brings the fireworks in El Tráfico

In front of an MLS-record crowd of 82,110 at the Rose Bowl, LA Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig put on a stunning display against the favorites LAFC, helping his club arrest their four-game winless streak with a 2-1 victory.

Puig simply looked a cut above every player on the pitch. Each Galaxy attack flowed through him, allowing him to dictate the game in varied ways. Sometimes, Puig would drop deep and play long passes into Douglas Costa or Tyler Boyd to pin the LAFC defense back. Other times, he would simply carry the ball through midfield himself, shaking off LAFC defenders like flies. According to FotMob’s match-tracking stats, Puig completed 10 out of 10 dribbles in El Tráfico and played nine passes into the final third. He assisted Boyd’s opening goal and scored the winner with a lung-busting run into the box to tap Boyd’s cross past LAFC keeper John McCarthy.

While Puig and the Galaxy put forth a spirited performance, LAFC can only blame themselves for the loss. Steve Cherundolo’s team took 17 shots and even put eight of them on target, creating more than enough opportunities to score a second goal. Left winger Denis Bouanga had a night he’d surely like to forget, taking eight shots without converting. The Gabonese forward has scored 11 goals in MLS this season — the second most in the league — but he lacked his usual cool finishing at the Rose Bowl.

The loss leaves LAFC third in the Western Conference with one game in hand on second-place Seattle, while the Galaxy are still 13th in the West and the fourth-worst team in the entire MLS by record.

If Puig keeps playing like he did on Independence Day, though, at least Galaxy fans will be entertained.

Angel City: It’s all about the money

Let’s get one thing straight: HBO’s Angel City series is a business documentary, not a sports one.

Of course, I’m being a bit absolutist here, but not by much. Over Angel City’s three-episode run, it becomes apparent that the club’s ownership group had more interest in building a profitable and sustainable business than they did in fielding the most competitive team possible.

I don’t mean that as a criticism. In the series, the club’s primary three owners — entrepreneur Julie Uhrman, venture capitalist Kara Nortman and actor Natalie Portman — speak at length about their desire to prove that women’s sports can be as popular and highly-valued as men’s professional sports. Given the success that Angel City has had off the field, it’s impossible to say that owners did not achieve their goal. Angel City earned a $100 million team valuation before they ever played a match, higher than any other NWSL club’s estimated value. According to The Athletic, the club has over $40 million of sponsorship deals and in its first season averaged an attendance of about 19,000 fans per game, more than 14 MLS clubs. The business clearly works.

But at times the documentary struggles to decide whether it wants to focus on the owners building a brand, or the players’ successes and failures on the field.

The sporting drama revolves around Angel City’s efforts to make the playoffs in the club’s first season (spoiler alert: they didn’t). As an expansion team, Angel City had to work with a hodgepodge group of players in 2022. The upside of that, from a documentarian’s lens, is that less-heralded players tend to have great stories about how they clawed their way to the top level. Except, the series only deigns to give the audience brief glimpses of these tales.

For example, DiDi Haračić, Angel City’s goalkeeper, arrived in the US with her family as a 2-year-old refugee of the early ‘90s Bosnian War and she spent her first 10 seasons as a professional footballer as a backup keeper before Angel City finally gave her a chance to be the No. 1. That’s a fantastic story that arguably deserves a whole episode unto itself, but the documentary brushes through it much too quickly.

The series also introduces the audience to many players whose “arcs,” in so much as they have them, never see completion. The camera takes us into club captain Ali Riley’s childhood home, where she talks about how the legendary U.S. Women’s National Team “‘99ers” squad inspired her to become a professional, but as the team nears the end of its season in the third episode, Riley is nowhere to be found.

There’s a lot to enjoy in Angel City, but as a sports story, it over-promised and under-delivered, much like Angel City have done on the pitch. In the third episode, when the club ultimately does not qualify for the NWSL playoffs, the audience briefly sees that the player and coaching staff are disappointed with the result, before quickly moving on to the owners’ discussions of the Yates Report fallout and their positive vision for the NWSL’s future.

To be sure, that future indeed looks bright. But when the show ended with a series of valuation and attendance graphics straight from the slide deck of a consulting presentation, Angel City bared its true colors.

Tweed steadies the ship, but is it enough?

Just as Angel City missed the playoffs in 2022, the club’s wait to play postseason games seems likely to continue this season.

The Becki Tweed reign at Angel City has had a fairly auspicious start, but it remains to be seen whether or not the English coach can actually take the team to the next level. When the club fired Freya Coombe, it sat in 11th place. Despite not having lost a game in Tweed’s first four matches in charge, the pink-and-black still sit second-to-last.

That’s partly because Tweed, in the classic fashion of an interim coach, has steadied the defense while the attack is still sputtering. Through four games, Angel City has conceded two goals, keeping two clean sheets in NWSL play, but has only scored four, all of which have been against rivals San Diego Wave, who they played twice within 11 days.

The club’s latest match, against the awkwardly-named NJ/NY Gotham FC, seemed to epitomize the Tweed era so far. Angel City played solid enough defense to win the match, but when presented with a golden opportunity to score, they failed to capitalize. In the 28th minute, defender Megan Reid played attacking midfielder Savannah McCaskill through on goal with a beautiful over-the-top ball, but even with just the goalkeeper to beat, McCaskill failed to convert.

If Angel City hopes to make a late-season surge up the table, they need to start turning these 0-0 draws into 1-0 wins.

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