SoCal Soccer Spotlight: Have Angel City reached a turning point?

Meanwhile, LAFC make a trade, and Puig continues to impress.

Kwadwo in black and gold jersey wins a header.

Angel City stun first-place NC Courage

Even if Angel City misses the playoffs, they’ll at least have a signature victory by which to remember the 2023 season.

On Sunday, the team defeated the NWSL’s first-place club, the North Carolina Courage, in a 2-1 victory on home soil at BMO Stadium. After falling behind 0-1 in the 15th minute from a Brianna Pinto goal created by a scintillating, quick Courage attack, Savannah McCaskill equalized just two minutes later. The Los Angeles fans had to wait until the 77th minute for a winning goal, when Elizabeth Eddy lashed a shot across goal that Courage centerback Kaleigh Kurtz deflected into her own net.

After five matches unbeaten with three wins against teams currently set to qualify for the playoffs, we can officially declare that Angel City are experiencing the infamous soccer phenomenon known colloquially across the pond as “new manager bounce.”

Based on the imbalance of scoring opportunities, Angel City did not simply get lucky with this win — they outplayed the Courage, straight up. Angel City had 21 shots to North Carolina’s nine and, according to FotMob’s match stats, created four “big chances” while the Courage had none. The shots passed the eye test, too. Sarah Gorden arguably should’ve put ACFC up before the first half even ended, when she had a wide-open, unpressured volley off a corner kick in the 40th minute that hit the post.

It should also be said that Angel City’s current run of form — their best of the season so far — could simply be due to some positive regression in their underlying numbers. According to FootyStats, Angel City have created shots worth 1.41 expected goals per match this season while only scoring 1.2 actual goals per match. It wouldn’t be surprising if Angel City start converting a few more shots than they did in the first half of the season.

Angel City have also managed this run without their supposed best players, Alyssa Thompson and Julie Ertz, who are with the U.S. Women’s National Team ahead of the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which starts next week in Australia and New Zealand. Club captain Ali Riley, Jun Endo and new signing Amandine Henry were all called up to their national sides as well, although Henry has been ruled out from competing in the World Cup due to a calf injury.

Before you try to poke a hole in that argument, yes, every NWSL club has lost players to the World Cup. But many of the clubs ahead of Angel City in the table, including the Courage, have deeper squads that are less reliant on individual star power to cover up holes elsewhere in the team. The Courage also have a handful of players who could easily be in contention for USWNT squad places for the next World Cup, when the generation of Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan has fully turned over, such as Pinto and centerback Malia Berkely. Even if you leave the temporary weakness of their opponents aside, executing a turnaround without Ertz and Riley’s experience and Thompson’s spark is still impressive.

After 15 matchdays, Angel City sit 10th out of 12 in the table on 17 points, four behind sixth-place San Diego Wave, who occupy the final playoff spot. With each week, it looks increasingly possible that Angel City could sneak into that final qualifying position.

Opoku trade signals future moves for LAFC

LAFC made a surprising trade on July 5 when they sent winger Kwadwo Opoku to CF Montréal in exchange for $1.75 million in general allocation money (a.k.a. GAM, one of the MLS’ acronyms for their overcomplicated system of financial exchanges between clubs that is impenetrable for any soccer fans who are used to following soccer transfers elsewhere in the globe).

Here’s what you really need to take away from the Opoku trade: despite sitting comfortably in a Western Conference playoff spot, LAFC were not satisfied with the status quo and are loading up for one or two big acquisitions in the summer transfer window.

Opoku made 34 appearances for LAFC in their MLS Cup-winning 2022 season, establishing himself as a key member of the club’s rotation of first-team regulars. That role continued into 2023, where he has been a member of the LAFC’s best front three alongside Denis Bouanga and Carlos Vela. Ultimately, though, it seems like LAFC wants to add a potential star attacker to replace Opoku. For all of the Ghanaian winger’s hard running and tidy passing, he hasn’t offered much of a goal threat. In the past season and a half, Opoku has contributed nine goals and four assists — an okay return for a team’s third musketeer, but not a title-winning contribution, at least in LAFC’s eyes.

So, who will LAFC move for? It’s not clear yet, but they now have two methods to recruit a game-changing pair of players.

For one, LAFC has an open Designated Player spot, which allows MLS clubs to sign up to three players whose salaries can exceed the typical wage limit. Vela and Bouanga are the two players at the club who currently fall into this category, both obvious star attackers. This gives LAFC carte blanche to arrange a transfer for, most likely, a player currently in Europe or South America who would slot straight into the starting eleven. LAFC are looking for a player with potential Gareth Bale-esque impact here, although it must be said that Bale didn’t start many matches and was also signed using targeted allocation money (TAM — another weird acronym!), not a DP spot.

Should LAFC look towards South America, my recommendation would be striker Mateo Retegui from Tigre in Argentina. The 24-year-old Retegui has scored 11 goals in 20 matches so far this season and has growing name recommendation in Europe after he made his international debut for the Italian national team. If Retegui pops in MLS, LAFC could eventually sell him to a European club and collect a healthy profit. Even if he didn’t contribute in the MLS, he would still have suitors back in Argentina or among the lower-tier Italian clubs considering his national team reputation.

LAFC might also decide to keep their DP spot open and wait for the right player, but if they do, they could also use the $1.75 million in GAM they received in the Opoku trade to acquire a proven MLS body in midfield or defense and give Stipe Biuk, the 20-year-old Croatian winger, more attacking responsibility.

The club has options. Expect them to act on it.

Are the Galaxy trending up after their Tráfico victory?

To quickly wrap this week’s column, the team from Carson carried their momentum from El Tráfico into a home match against a solid Philadelphia Union side, who the Galaxy beat 3-1.

Tyler Boyd and Riqui Puig, the stars of last week’s Tráfico, contributed here once again, each with a goal. Boyd scored the opener while Puig capped off the win with the Galaxy’s third. More importantly, Puig continues to be the beating heart of this Galaxy team, completing 70 of his 85 passes, which is an unremarkable stat on its own, but here’s the catch: Puig completed more passes than any other player on the pitch attempted.

Even with Chicharito sidelined for the remainder of the season, LA Galaxy are officially on “never say never” watch for playoff qualification.

Next games:

LAFC: Saturday, July 15 vs. Minnesota United (away)

Angel City: Saturday, July 29 vs. Portland Thorns (home)

LA Galaxy: Saturday, July 15 vs. Vancouver Whitecaps (away)

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