SoCal Soccer Spotlight: Reflecting on the Leagues Cup

Plus, addressing the USWNT’s elimination and the Neymar-to-MLS rumors.

Bouanga in black jersey sticks his tongue out at the keeper in pink.

The Leagues Cup in review

One LA team can walk away from the Leagues Cup with their heads held high; the other should be hitting the panic button. I think you can guess who’s who.

After enduring a shaky July that saw them win just one match, LAFC immediately bounced back to form in the Leagues Cup. As noted previously, the downtown club earned a bye to the round of 32 as MLS Cup champs, so skipping the group stage gave them about two and a half weeks to rest and work on the training ground. It certainly helped.

The team scored 13 goals in their three matches but unfortunately lost to Liga MX titans C.F. Monterrey 2-3 in the quarterfinal. If Monterrey win the tournament (they have the second-best odds to do so, behind only Messi’s Inter Miami), LAFC will come away looking even better.

Most importantly, LAFC crushed Real Salt Lake 4-0, with Denis Bouanga scoring twice in the second half and assisting youngster Nathan Ordaz as well. Salt Lake sit in third in the MLS’ Western Conference (currently level on points with LAFC, who have played one fewer game), so beating them thoroughly bodes well for the remainder of the season.

What else bodes well, you ask? Bouanga looks like a legit MLS MVP candidate. Including LAFC’s 7-1 demolition of FC Juárez, Bouanga scored six goals and provided three assists in this tournament, adding to his 12 MLS goals and two assists. Only Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar can hold a candle to Bouanga among current players in North America.

The defensive collapse against Monterrey should worry fans slightly, but the team’s attack makes them as dangerous as any team in MLS and affirms their status as a Contender for the Cup™.

The Galaxy, however, saw their Big Bang in early July turn into a dumpster fire.

It’s hard to say that the Galaxy have had any “positive momentum” in 2023, but entering the Leagues Cup, they appeared to have found some decent form. From June 11 to July 8, the team drew four games and won two, with both wins coming against last season’s MLS Cup finalists — LAFC and the Philadelphia Union. Riqui Puig had earned an All-Star appearance and was playing the best football of his MLS career so far.

It came crashing down rather quickly. The Galaxy lost both Leagues Cup matches, scoring just one goal and missing the knockout stage entirely.

To make matters worse, the Galaxy’s first Leagues Cup opponents, León, had a travel nightmare going from Vancouver to Los Angeles that forced the match to be delayed. With León’s travel disrupted, the visiting players’ bodies would’ve been discombobulated and their training limited — the Galaxy faced them at the perfect time. Yet, they couldn’t even score.

The match reminded Galaxy fans that the striker position is a black hole for them. Preston Judd has caught (perhaps unfair) strays in this column for his former frosted tips, but with every passing week, he looks more like a USL Championship player, not an MLS one.

The 24-year-old American took zero shots against León and completed four of his eight attempted passes. A striker either needs to take shots and make incisive passes, but Judd can’t do either. It’s odd that head coach Greg Vanney persists with him, when Dejan Jovelić could at least offer more of a threat in front of goal.

The Galaxy aren’t mathematically out of the MLS playoff race yet, but they’ll need to become a totally different team to qualify. By the time the Galaxy return to action, they will have had three weeks off from games —even more time than LAFC just had— so maybe the downtime will help them blood the new signings. Edwin Cerillo (from FC Dallas) will provide solid midfield depth and Michael Barrios (from the Colorado Rapids) could give Tyler Boyd a rest at right wing, but Diego Fagúndez will have Galaxy fans most excited. Don’t expect him to score much, though. The Uruguayan-American has just two goals in 2023.

A World Cup from hell

I didn’t miss anything from the Women’s World Cup while on vacation, right? I assume the U.S. women’s national team waltzed into the semifinals?

I wish it were true.

As everyone surely knows, the USWNT limped into the round of 16 having finished second in Group E and lost to their perennial World Cup rivals Sweden on penalties.

I’m no doctor, but if I had to diagnose the problem, the USWNT simply lacked efficiency and ruthlessness in front of goal. The U.S. outshot the Netherlands 18 to five, Portugal 17 to four and Sweden 22 to nine and scored exactly one goal between those three games.

For contrast, semifinalists England had just 10 shots against tournament upstarts Colombia in the quarterfinals, but still managed to score twice in regular time to seal the game. In the round of 16, Australia also had a shot deficit against Denmark, but the Matildas scored twice without their star striker Sam Kerr even on the pitch.

The best tournament teams convert whatever chances they create and find solutions with their backs against the wall. No Kerr? No problem, Australia said. Against Colombia, England were missing Lauren James, who scored twice and assisted three goals against China in the final group game, due to suspension. They kept calm, plugged Ella Toone into James’ position and carried on.

U.S. fans can whine about pre-tournament injuries to Mallory Swason, Becky Sauerbrunn or Catarina Macario, but ultimately they had enough talent to win this tournament (or at least make the semis). The team, and head coach Vlatko Andonovski, however, did not find solutions in difficult situations.

It’s hard to see Andonovski keeping his job through the next World Cup cycle. If anything, the U.S. Soccer Federation should try and poach the Australian women’s national team coach Tony Gustavsson — a former Jill Ellis assistant who won the World Cup as part of the U.S. staff in 2019 — for the masterful way he’s handled Kerr’s injury and taken the Matildas to their first World Cup semifinal.

By 2027, the USWNT will have fully flushed out the Rapinoe-Morgan-Ertz generation and Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Swanson can run the show. Even if the rest of the world has “caught up” to the U.S., I’ll still take that front three against anyone (not to mention Alyssa Thompson).

The disappointment is real, but the future remains bright.

Neymar to LAFC: What if?

Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior has become the latest big-name player to sign for a Saudi Arabian club (Al Hilal in this case), following Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez from earlier this summer.

However, transfer guru (and guy who probably averages 2.3 hours of sleep per night) Fabrizio Romano reported that Neymar received MLS offers before a potential $400 million contract swayed him to choose the Saudi Pro League. Supposedly, LAFC was one of the clubs considering a move for Neymar.

Neymar, who is tied with Pelé for most all-time Brazil goals, won’t join the hunt for the 2023 MLS Cup, but the rumors got me thinking: what if Neymar did join LAFC? What position would he play? How would he perform? Would LAFC automatically be the league’s best team?

What lies below is my Neymar-to-LAFC thought exercise, in bullet point form:

  • Outside of Messi, Neymar would immediately become the second-best player to ever play in the MLS. Galaxy fans might argue that Zlatan Ibrahimović occupies that title, but at his peak, Neymar legitimately threatened the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly.
  • If Neymar had joined this summer, LAFC would have the most talented trio of attackers in the league. A front three of Carlos Vela, Denis Bouanga and Neymar would have the ability to rotate positions and create goals at will. He favors the left wing, but could also play as a No. 10 behind an unconventional front two of Vela and Bouanga.
  • While Neymar struggled with injuries in the 2022/23 season, when he did play, he created 0.77 non-penalty expected goals and assists per 90 minutes, meaning he contributed chances worth about three goals for every four games (per FBRef). That ranks in the 99th percentile. In real terms, he even outperformed his “expected” totals, scoring 13 goals and accumulating 11 assists in Ligue 1 in just 20 games played, to go along with two goals and two assists in the Champions League group stages. Again, outside of Messi, MLS has never seen a player who was this productive in Europe so recently.
  • The Brazilian star has one of the world’s worst injury records (and has a reputation of taking time off during the season to party), so it’s unclear how seriously he would take MLS and how much he would actually play. Whereas Messi appears to have fully bought into his new club and immediately carried them to a tournament semifinal, we’ve also seen the likes of Gareth Bale use the MLS as essentially a pre-World Cup retreat. The Welshman played a surprisingly vital role in winning LAFC the MLS Cup, but started just two matches for the club. It’s unclear where Neymar would fall on the Messi-to-Bale spectrum.
  • Neymar will sign only a two-year contract with Al Hilal, meaning he could still play in MLS sooner rather than later. In the summer of 2025 (when his Saudi deal expires), Neymar will still only be 33, three years younger than Messi is currently. Al Hilal or another Saudi team could easily throw bags of money at him to stay, but Neymar had fairly positive things to say about his former teammate’s move to Inter Miami and attended Game 4 of the NBA Finals earlier this summer in … Miami. Playing at any MLS club would bring Neymar closer to his home country, which must appeal to him (I think we can count Minnesota United out of the sweepstakes, though).

So, it seems like Neymar might eventually want to play in MLS. Both LA teams could be on the table in two years, but might Neymar prefer to sign with Inter Miami, where he’d become Messi’s supposed successor once again? Only time will tell.

Next games:

LAFC: Sunday, Aug. 20 vs. Colorado Rapids (home — I will be attending!)

Angel City: Saturday, Aug. 19 vs. Racing Louisville (away)

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.