Women’s World Cup preview
With the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicking off this week in Australia and New Zealand, LA’s club teams are taking the backseat in this week’s column. To put an Angel City spin on a World Cup preview, I have predicted how much each ACFC player at the tournament will play and how far their team will go.
(Note: Midfielder Amandine Henry received a call-up to France’s World Cup squad, but a calf injury ruled her out of the tournament and thus excluded her from this exercise.)
First up, let’s look at winger Jun Endo and the Japanese national team. Endo has been a mainstay for Angel City since their founding, having made 40 appearances for the club across its two seasons while being regularly involved in the Japan national setup despite her youth. At 23 years old, Endo already has 32 Japan caps and three goals.
Four years ago, she made two starts (three total appearances) at the 2019 World Cup, where the Netherlands knocked Japan out in the round of 16 – a disappointing result for the 2011 champions. Unfortunately for Endo and Japan, it’s hard to see them performing much better at this year’s tournament.
They have a solid group of players who play regularly for top European teams and in the NWSL, but they lack a reliable goalscorer to take them over the edge — and Endo probably can’t provide those goals. Endo is a proficient dribbler and ball carrier, but she only takes 1.37 shots per 90 minutes in the NWSL, with three total shots on target this season. Assuming Japan qualifies for the knockouts by securing second place in Group C, they would likely have to play Norway, a tough draw for any side.
Prediction: Endo starts every match, Japan places second in Group C but falls in the round of 16.
Angel City club captain Ali Riley may have grown up in Los Angeles, but she qualifies to play for New Zealand through her father and has been a stalwart for the Kiwis since 2007. Riley has 152 New Zealand caps and the 2023 tournament will be her fifth (and potentially final) World Cup.
She typically plays fullback at club level, but played centerback for New Zealand in their January friendlies against the US Women’s National Team (USWNT). Despite qualifying for the tournament regularly, New Zealand has never won a World Cup match. Thankfully for them, with this year’s expansion to 32 teams, New Zealand may no longer be one of the tournament’s worst sides.
According to FIFA’s world rankings, the 46th-ranked Philippines qualified for their first-ever tournament and landed in Group A alongside Norway, Switzerland and New Zealand. Norway will almost certainly win this group, but New Zealand have a golden opportunity to earn their first win against the Philippines on July 24 at Sky Stadium in Wellington. At 35, Riley could be playing in her last World Cup and, with the tournament on home soil, the Football Ferns will be as motivated as ever.
Prediction: Riley starts every match, New Zealand miss the knockouts but earn their first World Cup win.
Finally, we have Angel City’s two USWNT stars: Alyssa Thompson and Julie Ertz — one player at the beginning of her international career, the other probably playing in her final World Cup. Ertz played the entire match against the Netherlands in the 2019 World Cup final, but it’s no guarantee that Ertz starts in this year’s tournament.
Ertz did not play at all in the USWNT’s send-off match against Wales on July 9, but it’s also possible that manager Vlatko Andonovski was simply preserving her minutes for later. USWNT fans should hope that’s the case, because no one in the squad can play the defensive midfield role better than her. That being said, Andonovski may opt for a no-DM midfield against Vietnam and Portugal in the group stage, as the U.S. will expect to dominate those matches. Once the team reaches the knockout stage, though, Ertz’s experience and leadership will be vital to the team.
On the attacking end, Thompson started at left wing against Wales — a positive sign for sure — but it’s unlikely that the team relies on her during on the tournament, especially after Trinity Rodman scored two goals off the bench in the same game. Right now, Andonovski and the fans should consider whatever Thompson contributes as an added bonus. If she provides a spark off the bench, it might help the USWNT win a tight match, but she simply does not belong in the starting 11 yet. In addition to Rodman’s recent excellence, Sophia Smith is the reigning NWSL MVP and Alex Morgan has shown no signs of slowing down.
Prediction: Ertz only starts one group stage match, while Thompson plays a super-sub role. USWNT tops Group E and makes a run to the final, where they lose to England (sorry guys, England are really good!).
LA clubs send three players to MLS All-Star Game
As expected, Dénis Bouanga and Riqui Puig have earned their first MLS All-Star accolades after both players posted a strong opening half of the year. Bouanga in particular has thrived in his first full season for LAFC, with 12 goals and two assists in 19 starts. Only Nashville SC’s Hany Mukhtar has more MLS goals than the Gabonian so far, giving Bouanga a real opportunity to win this season’s Golden Boot award. Mukhtar’s status as Nashville’s designated penalty-taker boosts his tally, whereas Carlos Vela is LAFC’s typical first-choice.
As one of the 14 “Coach’s Picks” for All-Star coach Wayne Rooney, LAFC’s Ryan Hollingshead will travel to Washington, D.C., for the game, too. Hollingshead lacks the flashy, attacking-oriented qualities that earn players fan votes, but the 32-year-old American defender absolutely deserves the selection. Per FBRef’s defensive action stats, Hollingshead averages 4.36 tackles plus interceptions per 90 minutes, a really solid number for any defender, but especially for a fullback who likes to get forward such as him. Hollingshead takes almost one shot per match and can progress the ball competently with either his passing or dribbling. He may not be a household name, but Hollingshead is a seasoned MLS pro who has legitimately earned this All-Star appearance.
The MLS All-Stars will play Arsenal in the nation’s capital on Wednesday, July 19, at 5:30 p.m. PDT.
Break comes at the right time for LAFC
Bouanga may be racking up goals, but LAFC have had a torrid summer. Since the club beat San Jose on May 20, LAFC have played 14 matches in all competitions and won just three, while drawing three and losing eight. On Saturday, Vela opened the scoring against Minnesota United, but it took only three minutes for the Loons to equalize and LAFC held on for dear life to draw 1-1. Thankfully for the black and gold, this hasn’t really impacted their playoff hopes, as they still occupy second in the West, nine points above Minnesota in 10th (one place outside the playoffs). But the table can be a slippery slope and no club needs a break more than LAFC.
After the All-Star game, the MLS will begin the inaugural Leagues Cup, a new World Cup-style tournament pitting MLS clubs against their Liga MX counterparts. As the reigning MLS champion, however, LAFC have automatically bypassed the group stage and won’t begin play until the round of 32 (Pachuca earned Mexico’s bye on the other side of the bracket), meaning the club won’t play their first match until August 2 at the earliest. This gives the squad the rest of July to recoup and sort out any tactical issues.
Fixture congestion has certainly not helped the team’s recent struggles. With their run to the CONCACAF Champions League final, LAFC have played eight more matches this season than MLS teams who did not qualify for that tournament. Head Coach Steve Cherundolo would be smart to go light in the team’s training sessions and leave time for plenty of ice baths and sports massages. Don’t expect LAFC to go down without a fight.
Angel City: Saturday, July 29 vs. Portland Thorns (home)
LA Galaxy: Tuesday, July 25 vs. León (home)
“SoCal Soccer Spotlight” is a column by Jack Hallinan about the professional soccer landscape in Los Angeles.