SoCal Soccer Spotlight: Is the NWSL holding the USWNT back?

Also, Angel City’s unbeaten streak continues and reflecting on Diego Rossi at LAFC.

Rapinoe cries on the right while two teammates hug on the left.

You can’t beat Tweed!

They might struggle to score, but Angel City just won’t lose.

It’s become a recurring segment in this column that Becki Tweed’s reign as Angel City interim head coach has proved rock solid, and the streak has continued.

In all competitions, Angel City have earned four wins and four draws under Tweed and have shown no signs of slowing down. If anything, Angel City have been unlucky to not win more this summer; they outshot Racing Louisville 20 to 13 on Aug. 19, drawing the match 1-1.

Alyssa Thompson created a great near-post opportunity for Savannah McCaskill in the first half and Katlyn Johnson had a free header from close range that both could’ve gone in on another day. McCaskill did assist Johnson for the team’s one goal, though, continuing her good run of form against Louisville, against whom she scored and had an assist in April. Louisville’s goalkeeper Katie Lund also had a moment of madness in the 82nd minute, holding on to the ball for too long and allowing Angel City striker Syndey Leroux to almost slide tackle the ball into the net.

But the lack of execution in this match and others is making Angel City challenging to cover at the moment. On the one hand, Tweed has righted the ship impressively, making Angel City a savvy team that’s hard to beat. By all measures, she’s done a tremendous job.

Except, the NWSL season is short, and with every passing match, Angel City’s playoff hopes dwindle.

As excellent as the team has been since June 15 (when former head coach Freya Coombe was fired), they haven’t really moved up in the table. When Tweed took over, Angel City sat in 11th place. Now, they’re 10th, still four places and six points out of the playoffs.

It’s not an insurmountable gap, but beating Racing Louisville would’ve provided a much-needed boost. If Angel City had won, they would’ve pipped Louisville and the Houston Dash to eighth place, halving the difference to the playoff promised land.

In a sense, it’s probably reassuring that just one win would propel them so far forward. But given the lack of matches remaining, the pressure increases with every game they fail to win. At this point, Angel City probably needs 30 points to make the playoffs, assuming the clubs around them don’t go on a hot streak. That’s four wins, or three wins and three draws — and they’ve only won four NWSL matches all season.

Like I’ve written previously, they have a favorable schedule, but every matchday is do or die for ACFC.

Should the NWSL be worried?

Since the United States lost in the round of 16, for the purposes of this column, I didn’t follow the final matches of the Women’s World Cup as closely. But one thing that did cross my mind as Spain were crowned champions is that not one player who started the Women’s World Cup final for either Spain or England plays in the NWSL. In fact, even going down to the substitutes bench, no NWSL player appeared in the final.

Can the NWSL really claim to be one of the world’s best leagues if it produced zero World Cup finalists?

Now, I understand that I sound like a concern troll and that the NWSL’s potential presence in the World Cup was heavily dependent on the identity of its finalists. England fielded nine starters from the country’s Women’s Super League and Spain also had nine domestic league starters. If the U.S. had made the final, they could have easily fielded 10 U.S.-based players in the starting eleven.

Therein may lie the issue.

For the time being (and probably the rest of time), the NWSL and U.S. women’s national team have tied fates. As long as the USWNT’s best players ply their trade in the NWSL, their international performances will reflect on the strength of their league. That’s true for Spain and England, too.

Seven of Spain’s squad, including Golden Ball winner Aitana Bonmatí, play their club football for FC Barcelona, who, under the reign of head coaches Lluís Cortés and Jonatan Giráldez, have become arguably the greatest club team of all time — in men’s or women’s football. In just the 2022-23 season, Barcelona won 28 of 30 matches, scoring 118 goals and conceding just 10, winning both the Liga F and the UEFA Women’s Champions League. That’s simply absurd.

And the WSL, even beyond the excellence of its English players, has been attracting the world’s best players to raise the level of its competition. In recent seasons, Chelsea Women’s alone has signed Sam Kerr, Pernille Harder and Catarina Macario. Kerr’s transfer in particular marked a major shift of soccer’s tectonic plates, as she swapped the NWSL for the WSL and then promptly solidified her status as one of the world’s best players (she’s finished third in Ballon d’Or Féminin voting the past two seasons).

The NWSL appears to have fallen behind the top European clubs in terms of their international pulling power, which in turn means the level of competition has taken a hit. The NWSL can still develop American talent relatively effectively, but make no mistake, the Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich women’s teams would all beat any NWSL team right now.

In the wake of the Women’s World Cup, it behooves the NWSL to recruit international talent more aggressively to raise the league’s standard, and in turn, the USWNT’s.

Hurricane Hypothesis

Due to Tropical Storm Hilary (it was a hurricane down in Baja California, so it’s staying in the subtitle!) making landfall in Los Angeles over the weekend, LAFC and LA Galaxy saw their matches postponed, leaving me with no MLS updates to discuss.

I’m not letting the rain dampen my spirit, however, because I have an MLS hypothesis to pose for you in today’s final section:

If Diego Rossi had stayed with LAFC in 2021 instead of transferring to Fenerbahçe, would he be an MLS MVP candidate and would LAFC still have won the MLS Cup in 2022?

Unlike a true scientific experiment, I can’t prove anything definitively in this column, but let me walk you through my thinking.

In the season before his transfer, Rossi had become a true star for LAFC, scoring 14 goals and providing three assists in the 2020 season — his last full year with the club — and in 2019 he posted 22 total goal involvements. Rossi’s teammate and LAFC legend Carlos Vela won the 2019 MLS MVP, outshining Rossi’s achievements, but the Uruguayan winger had flashed future MVP potential.

He slowed down slightly in 2021, with seven goal involvements in 19 appearances before his move to Turkey, but his expected goals plus assists tally actually showed a higher value of 10, putting him on pace for 17.9 npxG+xA in a 34-game season, in line with his previous seasons. Nonetheless, Rossi had become a reliable second star next to Vela who proved he could take over when the Mexican forward retired or lost a step.

And if Rossi had never left the club, LAFC would probably never have signed Denis Bouanga, who’s enjoying an MVP-caliber season of his own right now.

My conclusion? If Rossi had stayed with LAFC, he would’ve assumed Bouanga’s role as the primary goalscorer, but a season earlier than Bouanga joined the club, meaning Rossi would have still propelled LAFC to the 2022 MLS Cup while also spearheading their efforts to repeat in 2023, winning an MVP this season as by far the league’s best player.

Maybe I’m talking crazy, but who knows, that’s the fun of this. We may still see Rossi win an MLS Cup if the Columbus Crew, whom he joined earlier this month, find their best form in the postseason.

Next games:

LAFC: Wednesday, Aug. 23 vs. Colorado Rapids (home — thanks, Hilary!)

Angel City: Sunday, Aug. 27 vs. Racing Louisville (home)

LA Galaxy: Saturday, Aug. 26 vs. Real Salt Lake (away)

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