SoCal Soccer Spotlight: The rise of Savannah McCaskill

LA Galaxy fill needs; the World Cup provides some surprises.

McCaskill and teammates hug in black jerseys.

Savannah McCaskill: ACFC’s cult hero

Every club needs a good cult hero. Angel City FC has a great one. I would wait to tell you who it is, but it’s already in the section title. Spoiler alert!

Before I dig into how McCaskill has earned cult hero status at BMO Stadium, I feel obligated to present a list of qualifications for becoming a club football cult hero:

  1. You can’t be too good. This one may sound odd, considering fans generally want their players to perform as well as possible. But if a player has a starring role for multiple seasons, then they just become a “club legend.” For example, John Terry is a Chelsea FC legend, because he made 716 appearances for the club, winning multiple Premier League titles as a captain. David Luiz, however, falls into the cult hero category because he performed well, but not exceptionally, and for other reasons listed below.
  2. Your best performances come at opportune moments, often in cup competitions. This one is crucial. Much like a superhero, a cult hero steps up when their club needs them most, like scoring equalizing or game-winning goals when facing elimination. Case in point: Ole Gunnar Solskjæer at Manchester United. The Norwegian striker made his name as the prototypical super-sub and most notably scored the winning goal during stoppage time in the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich.
  3. You have an atypical and/or endearing aspect to your game or appearance that makes you unique. Back to the David Luiz example — the Brazilian centerback had an epic afro. Additionally, he took free kicks for Chelsea, an unusual role for a centerback. His trademark style was to hit the ball so that it dipped violently downward as it approached goal, fooling many keepers. He also scored this open-play belter against Fulham.

To be clear, labeling McCaskill a cult hero is not an insult. She could yet become a club legend, as she has the requisite pedigree to be one: collegiate star, No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NWSL Draft and six U.S. women’s national team caps.

It just hasn’t worked out for her so far. Angel City is McCaskill’s fourth NWSL team, and she arguably played her best football in Australia, on loan to Sydney FC. There, she scored two goals in the 2019 W-League Grand Final to help win 4-2. In that match, though, we might have seen an inkling of McCaskill’s future cult hero status.

With those matters of eligibility out of the way, we move on to McCaskill and the recent performance that has cemented her status as a cult hero, if she wasn’t already.

The South Carolina native scored a brace against the Portland Thorns on July 29, winning Angel City the match and, more importantly, keeping them alive in the NWSL Challenge Cup. It was the second match in a row where McCaskill provided a boost in front of goal, having scored the equalizer in their 2-1 win against North Carolina Courage in early July.

I’m going to list a few facts about McCaskill’s latest performance in Portland and, well, let me know if you hear anything familiar:

  1. McCaskill scored two goals in a cup competition.
  2. McCaskill’s performance kept her team alive in said cup competition.
  3. McCaskill scored a spectacular free kick to win the game.

I think you get the point. I rest my case.

In all seriousness, McCaskill’s recent surge has literally kept Angel City’s season on track. In their speculative hunt for a playoff place, every match feels like a must-win, even Challenge Cup matches such as this one, which don’t count towards the team’s NWSL regular-season record. This isn’t an NBA or MLB season where teams can afford to throw away a few games to rest players or experiment with a different lineup. Even while their stars are away for the World Cup, head coach Becki Tweed needs to figure out which players she can rely on as the season comes to a close.

McCaskill can be that player who lifts her club with a few mammoth performances.

This Challenge Cup win should also remind Angel City fans that success comes in multiple forms. Even if they miss the true NWSL playoffs, making the Challenge Cup semifinals would be a great achievement for ACFC (it would admittedly require a multi-goal win and a multi-goal loss for Kansas City Current in the final group stage game).

If nothing else, players like McCaskill give priceless joy to the fans from relatively success-starved clubs. Long live the cult hero.

Yoshida signs for the Galaxy

The Athletic’s Tom Bogert, the Fabrizio Romano of U.S. soccer, reported on July 28 that Japan international centerback Maya Yoshida will sign as a free agent for LA Galaxy.

The club haven’t announced the move yet, as they cannot officially sign any players from abroad until the league-wide summer transfer window ends on Aug. 2, due to sanctions for a 2019 violation of MLS roster and salary rules. But if Bogert has reported it, then it’s as good as done.

Yoshida certainly fills a need for the club from Carson. Uruguayan centerback Martín Cáceres, who spent time at Barcelona and Juventus among other European clubs, was a marquee signing for the Galaxy last summer, but made only five starts in 2022 and 15 this season before surgery for an avulsion fracture ended his year. The Galaxy recently used $125,000 of guaranteed General Allocation Money (guaranteed GAM, what a mouthful) to acquire central defender Tony Alfaro from New York City FC, but the 30-year-old American is a reserve option, having only made six MLS appearances in New York in 2023.

But does Yoshida move the needle on the Galaxy’s playoff hopes? It’s hard to say.

Yoshida will bring a lot of European experience to MLS. During his time in the Premier League, Serie A, the Eredivisie and the Bundesliga, Yoshida made 309 appearances and has played in three World Cups, even starting all four of Japan’s matches in Qatar this past December. His pedigree is solid.

He also hasn’t played on many “good” teams. The Southampton squads of 2013-2017 were probably the best sides Yoshida has appeared for, placing eighth, seventh, sixth and eighth again in consecutive seasons, before the club tumbled down the Premier League table during his later years on England’s south coast.

Even in those seasons, Yoshida never locked down a role as a guaranteed starter. The most appearances he made in one of those four Premier League campaigns was 23 in 2016-17, where he posted a combined three tackles and interceptions per game. Yoshida earned a similar 2.82 figure for Schalke in the Bundesliga this past season, when the historic German club placed 17th in the league and were relegated to the Zweite Bundesliga. Not exactly spectacular.

Maybe I’m being harsh. After all, signing any player with genuine Premier League experience as a free agent would be a coup for most MLS clubs, especially for a team so low down in the table. But when Galaxy fans look across to their city rivals and see Giorgio Chiellini holding down the fort for LAFC, I’m sure the Yoshida signing feels less exciting.

If nothing else, he can serve as a quality minute-eater in Cáceres’ absence. The Galaxy could use anybody’s help, having exited the Leagues Cup on Sunday after losing the second group-stage game to the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-2. The result quashed any hopes that the inter-league tournament could kickstart the Galaxy’s season, putting even more pressure on their MLS run-in.

World CUpdate Pt. 2

I owe an apology to the Japanese national team. In my World Cup preview, I questioned Jun Endo and her team’s ability to score and predicted they would face a round of 16 exit.

With their group stage games completed, I could not have been more wrong. Japan have scored 11 goals in three matches — the most of any team so far — and have yet to concede, placing them firmly among the tournament favorites. On matchday three, they smashed Spain 4-0, with Endo assisting the first goal and featuring at left wing-back in Japan’s 3-4-3 formation once again. Endo played a lethal ball across the pitch for right-winger Hinata Miyazawa to run onto and the floodgates opened for Japan from there.

They will play Norway in the first knockout game and would potentially face the U.S. in the quarterfinals if both teams go through.

Ali Riley’s New Zealand will miss the knockouts after failing to beat Switzerland on matchday three, but can hold their heads high having secured New Zealand’s first-ever Women’s World Cup win. Riley will be able to re-join her Angel City teammates in training soon as they prepare for the rest of the 2023 campaign.

USC’s very own Ashleigh Plumptre also deserves a shoutout. Her Nigeria team placed second in Group B, squeezing past Canada to earn a round of 16 berth. They are set to play England, who just put six goals past China (no slouches themselves as FIFA’s 14th-ranked team, for what it’s worth). The quarterfinals seem unlikely for the Super Falcons (another S-tier nickname), but Plumptre has acquitted herself well, starting all three matches at left back and helping the defense keep two clean sheets.

Now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: what the hell is going on with the USWNT?

The four-time world champions eked through to the next round in uncharacteristic fashion, winning just one of three group games and failing to score against Portugal in their third match. Unlike the Vietnam or Netherlands matches, it’s hard to say the U.S. deserved to win this game, with Portugal dominating possession and nearly scoring a game-winner in the 91st minute to send the U.S. home.

From the Angel City angle, Julie Ertz played another solid match at centerback and Alyssa Thompson made a cameo off the bench for her sixth cap, but didn’t have time to affect the game. Given the U.S.’s attacking issues, perhaps Thompson deserves more of an opportunity to provide a spark.

Regardless, the USWNT needs to shape up quickly if they expect to make a fourth consecutive final. They’ll play Sweden in the round of 16, who scored nine and conceded just one goal in the group stage.

Stoppage Time: Galaxy making moves?

Just when I thought I was done, Bogert dropped another one!

Yesterday, Bogert reported that the Galaxy traded for Austin FC star Diego Fagundez, who has two goals and an assist in 14 starts this season. The Galaxy sent midfielder Memo Rodriguez to Austin in addition to $300,000 GAM plus add-ons up to $900,000 — a hefty, hefty fee.

Fagundez hasn’t had an exceptional season so far, but he still manages to help his teammates score goals, with 4.25 shot-creating actions per 90 according to FBRef (shot-creating actions count all passes, take-ons and fouls that lead directly to a shot). That figure puts him in the 73rd percentile among his positional peers in leagues similar in quality to the MLS.

The Uruguay-born player moved to the U.S. with his family as a five-year-old and has become an MLS mainstay, making 280 appearances for the New England Revolution before joining the Texas expansion team for its inaugural 2021 season.

Fagundez will likely rotate with Douglas Costa and Tyler Boyd for a spot at left-wing.

(By the way, there will be no column next week, I’ll see you on 8/16.)

Next games:

LAFC: Wednesday, Aug. 2 vs. FC Juárez (away)

Angel City: Saturday, Aug. 5 vs. San Diego Wave (home)

LA Galaxy: Sunday, Aug. 20 vs. Real Salt Lake (home)

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