SoCal Soccer Spotlight: Angel City are playoff-bound

In Charlotte, were LAFC playing too fast? Plus, I apologize to a Galaxy player.

Hammond jumps into Thompson's arms.

Angel City impress against the Reign

Today’s column will be one of apologies. Two, to be exact.

My first apology is to you, the reader. What for, you may ask?

For waffling.

As recently as last week’s column, I couldn’t decide what I thought of Angel City FC and their playoff chances. But now I’ve made up my mind.

Angel City will make the playoffs. They’ll even win a playoff game, too.

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of taking in Angel City’s 2-1 victory over the OL Reign in person on a sunny evening at BMO Stadium.

That night, I saw a team that played resilient football, working in coordination on defense and using their rare opportunities with the ball to play it forward quickly and create shots.

I’ve mentioned many times before how head coach Becki Tweed has steadied the ship results-wise, but now that all her players have returned from the World Cup and have only the NWSL to worry about, their path to playoff contention looks clear.

The Reign had 59.6% possession and it felt like more, especially in the second half, when Megan Rapinoe had taken the field and provided the Reign with a creative outlet. The Seattle-based team cycled the ball out to Rapinoe on the left wing often, hoping she could unlock the Angel City defense.

But Angel City’s back line never wavered. Even as Rapinoe sent in cross after cross (she finished the match with 10!), the ACFC center back duo of Megan Reid and Sarah Gorden kept their composure and didn’t allow any Reign players to have a straightforward shooting opportunity. Goalkeeper DiDi Haračić offered her usual aggressive, claiming crosses and set piece deliveries with minimal fuss.

Even the penalty Angel City conceded wasn’t cause for structural concern. The defense was set and every Angel City player properly positioned themselves to make a tackle, but winger Scarlett Camberos found herself in unfamiliar territory and mistimed her challenge. On another day, ACFC would’ve kept a clean sheet against a perennial playoff team.

Even in the first half, Angel City pressed cohesively and in a measured fashion. The pink-and-black’s forward line tried to win the ball back quickly after a turnover, but if the initial harassing didn’t work, they sat in front of the Reign’s midfield to block passing lanes. It left the Reign centerbacks Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt with so few options that their midfielders Quinn and Emily Sonnett routinely had to drop in line with their defense just to receive the ball.

Tweed underscored the importance of their press in her post-game press conference.

“We never want to just sit in,” she said. “Our game identity relies on getting pressure on the ball.”

In attack, Angel City used the few breaks they had well. Even as a midfielder, Madison Hammond isn’t known for her superior passing ability, but she picked out Camberos with a beautiful ball over the top to completely expose the Reign’s transition defense. Camberos picked out striker Clarisse Le Bihan with a low cross across the box, who put Angel City up 1-0 and scored her first NWSL goal of the season.

Like a true underdog, ACFC also used set piece chaos to their advantage. In the 57th minute, Le Bihan delivered a free kick about 35 yards from goal right to the edge of the six yard box, finding Hammond wide open to volley the ball home.

I write all this to show how Angel City is already playing playoff soccer. They press together, but not over-eagerly. The back line limits mistakes and plays smartly with the ball. The attack has speed in transition and takes advantage of set pieces. These attributes are how teams beat supposedly more talented opposition, which, make no mistake, the Reign definitely were. Four U.S. women’s national team squad members from the 2023 World Cup started for the Reign, plus two Canadian regulars and Megan Rapinoe, who played the entire second half. Compare that to just two World Cup squad starters for Angel City.

With five matches remaining, Angel City only has to play one playoff team (by the current standings). They have a solid away record, too, having lost only two NWSL matches on the road this season (especially considering how the team started the season).

The team sits three points out of sixth place, just one win away. It’ll take multiple good results to stay there, but Angel City fans can be as optimistic as they’ve been all season.

Sidenote: It was cool (and simultaneously depressing) to see the two teams come together and take a pre-match photo holding a “Contigo Jenni” banner.

For those who are unaware, in the immediate aftermath of Spain’s World Cup victory, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, Luis Rubiales, kissed midfielder Jenni Hermoso without consent. His behavior would be unacceptable behind closed doors as well, but cameras witnessed the incident during Spain’s award ceremony, leading to immediate and fierce calls for Rubiales to resign as RFEF president. Even as pressure has mounted against him, Rubiales has refused to vacate his position, despite having received a 90-day suspension from FIFA.

The NWSL’s clubs and players do a great job of coming together to show support in these moments, but Rubiales’ actions serve as an unfortunate reminder that world soccer can improve in its treatment of women and the women’s game.

“There is still growth that needs to happen in federations, not only here, but also overseas,” Reign midfielder Olivia Van Der Jagt said after the match. “It’s just kind of a reminder that we have to never stop fighting.”

Sidenote 2: Caleb Williams was in attendance at BMO Stadium on Sunday as well, coming off of the Trojans’ 56-28 win against San Jose State on Saturday. It was a fun worlds-colliding moment for Los Angeles and added to a star-studded audience that included Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria, Hayley Kiyoko and Jane Fonda.

LAFC rush and drag

Just because LAFC have a playoff cushion doesn’t mean they can take it easy.

On the road in North Carolina, LAFC dropped Saturday’s game 2-1, with new striker Mario González scoring the black-and-gold’s lone goal.

LAFC were plagued by the same problem I wrote about at the end of July. The team never struggles to create chances, but their transitional style leaves games wide open and their defense exposed. Even with seemingly superior talent and a well-established coach in Steve Cherundolo, LAFC prefer not to belabor their opponent with possession. Against Charlotte, they only had 35% of the ball, according to FotMob.

They want to play the ball into Denis Bouanga as quickly as possible and allow him to take shots (he had four in this match, plus a goal disallowed for offsides), but their preference for fast play sometimes means their shot quality suffers.

For example, in the 56th minute, midfielder Timothy Tillman received the ball on the turn in midfield and immediately fired on goal from about 30 yards. As Charlotte goalkeeper Kristijan Kahlina stopped the ball with relative ease, I can imagine LAFC fans groaning in despair.

What was the point of shooting from there? Bouanga was in a position to make a run off the centerback and Carlos Vela was wide open on the left wing. I might be overreacting to one sequence, but Tillman’s decision emphasizes that LAFC are trained to chase shot volume over shot quality.

Sometimes the gambit pays off, like the Colorado Rapids on Aug. 23, when they scored four goals against the Western Conference’s worst team. But when you have enough talent to beat any team in the MLS, it seems like a bit of extra patience would make LAFC even more threatening.

Apologies to Billy Sharp

Now, for the second of two apologies.

In a desperate attempt to make the playoffs (or maybe just save face), the Galaxy made a series of free agent signings and transfers that I doubted would have any real effect on their season. Maya Yoshida, Diego Fagundez and Michael Barrios are not exactly a trio that strikes fear into their enemies’ hearts.

On August 15, to cap off the spending spree, Tom Bogert reported that the Galaxy had also signed Billy Sharp, the Sheffield United cult hero who scored 249 league goals from League Two to the Premier League. Sharp played about 19 years in England, an impressive feat for someone who once donned an undershirt with the words “fat lad from Sheffield,” but I can’t say I was impressed with the move.

Sharp had tailed off in the 2022-23 season, contributing 0.18 goals and assists per 90 minutes played. So I tweeted (X-ed?) this:

Whelp, I guess I’m already wrong.

Sorry, Billy Sharp.

It took Sharp just 22 minutes off the bench in his first appearance to score for the Galaxy. In a 3-0 victory against the Chicago Fire, Sharp sealed the win with a ninetieth-minute penalty to open his Galaxy account, also tallying a shot on target during his cameo.

Maybe the fat lad from Sheffield has the veteran nous the Galaxy have needed up front all season. I hope he continues to make me look silly.

Also, Riqui Puig continues to cook. With the notable exception of Lionel Messi, he might be the best player in the league right now. A ticket to Dignity Health Sports Park is worth it just to see the Spanish maestro in person.

Next games:

LAFC: Sunday, September 3 vs. Inter Miami (home) — IT’S MESSI TIME!!!

Angel City: Friday, September 1 vs. Kansas City Current (away)

LA Galaxy: Wednesday, August 30 vs. San Jose Earthquake (away)

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