Soccer newsletter: U.S. men’s team faces downfall or new heights. Which will it be?

Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and today we look at one team’s motivation heading into the new MLS season, the challenges facing Galaxy coach Greg Vanney as the transfer window opens and the final figures from a very healthy 2022 transfer market.

But we start once again with U.S. Soccer, which is facing either an existential threat or an unparalleled opportunity, depending on your point of view. Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone leans toward the latter, which is understandable; she’s in charge and when she has remained optimistic in the past, things generally have worked out for the better.

When Cone was patrolling the midfield for the women’s national team, for example, she led by action, not by words. If she saw a play that had to be made or a hole that had to be plugged, she didn’t point fingers. She pointed herself in that direction and did what needed to be done.

That attitude made her a World Cup and two-time Olympic champion and got her inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Few people saw that skill set taking her to the top of the federation, though.

“No one in their right mind would have ever chosen me as the future president of U.S. Soccer,” Cone said. “You never know where leadership is going to come from. You never know who is going to be brought into leadership positions and need to perform.”

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Cone always stepped up and performed on the field, and so far she’s done the same in her nearly three years as president, guiding the federation through the COVID-19 lockdown, moving decisively to address charges of abuse and sexual harassment in the women’s game, and winning approval from the national teams on a historic pay equity agreement.

Now, however, she’s facing a series of complex and daunting challenges that threaten to slow, if not completely derail, U.S. Soccer’s progress at a time when the federation should be winding up for the World Cup’s return to North America in 2026.

A month into the new World Cup cycle, the men’s team is without a general manager or permanent coach and the federation is without a sporting director. The first position, vacated by Brian McBride this month, may never be filled. The other two won’t be filled until late summer at the earliest, said Cone, who first must replace Earnie Stewart as sporting director before Stewart’s replacement can hire a coach.

It’s a perfect storm at an imperfect time, one that could leave the federation stalled in a holding pattern heading into a busy year that could well be an inflection point for U.S. Soccer.

The CONCACAF U-17 championship, the qualifier for November’s World Cup, starts next month in Guatemala while the U-20 World Cup will kick off in May in Indonesia. The women’s team will begin pursuit of an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title this summer while the men’s team will resume play in the Nations League in March and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in June under caretaker coach Anthony Hudson, who was asked to manage the team through a week-long training camp in January and has no idea how long he’ll have the job.

The Olympic Games, the first since 2008 to feature both men’s and women’s teams from the U.S., are 18 months away.

A lot of corporate CEOs would say you couldn’t pay them enough to take on a situation like that, one that requires replacing all of an organization’s top leadership at a decisive and competitive moment. The federation doesn’t pay Cone, the only woman president in its history, anything to manage a $150-million organization with a staff of more than 250.

Julie Foudy, one of Cone’s longtime teammates with the national team, can’t think of anyone else she’d rather trust with getting this right.

“She cares deeply about the game,” Foudy said. “Her moral compass is fantastic. So much integrity. She’s willing to admit what she doesn’t know. She’s really good at making decisions when she does know or asking for help when she needs it.”

Cone, 44, one of nine women to lead one of FIFA’s 211 national federations, has no choice but to see the timing as good fortune rather than misfortune.

“This is the opportunity for us to take a holistic view and determine how we can be more effective and efficient moving forward,” she said. “While we certainly didn’t plan it this way … we want to do it right. We’re not going to rush it.

“I know this moment feels a bit uncertain [but] what it actually is, is a clean canvas.”

Meanwhile there has been good news amid the bad. Copa América, the South American confederation’s championship tournament, will be played in the U.S. next year with the U.S. men likely to be among the six CONCACAF teams that will take part. That will assure the Americans of being in at least one top-tier international tournament in the lead-up to the 2026 World Cup.

“It’s great,” Hudson said. “Over the last four years the team has had very lofty ambitions and we’ve worked toward changing our identity of how we play. And I feel we’ve done that. Everything is moving in the right direction.

“And then to get this news about the Copa América, it’s just another thing that’s going to give the country a big lift and help the sport grow.”

But it will mean nothing if Cone doesn’t first get U.S. Soccer’s house in order. The Atlanta law firm hired to investigate a 31-year-old domestic violence allegation against Gregg Berhalter is expected to release its report soon. That could provide clarity regarding the winningest men’s coach in U.S. Soccer history, who remains a candidate to manage the team.

Cone already has contracted with the New York-based Sportsology Group to direct the search to replace Stewart, the sporting director who accepted an offer to return to his native Netherlands with legendary Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. McBride’s job as general manager may not be filled, at least not immediately.

Whether Cone is steering U.S. Soccer into calmer waters or into an even bigger storm, only time will tell.

“She’s not afraid to make the tough decisions — which as we know is something that happens on a daily basis in a position like that,” Foudy said. “There’s some people who are paralyzed by that.”

Can Union turn pain of defeat into ultimate victory?

After Toronto lost the 2016 MLS Cup final to Seattle on penalty kicks, following a 120-minute game in which it didn’t allow a shot on goal, then-coach Greg Vanney said everyone on the team left the stadium focused on one thing: “How do we get better next year?”

That next year Toronto became the only team in MLS history to win a treble in capturing the league title, the Supporters’ Shield and the domestic Canadian Cup, the first of five trophies the team lifted in a four-season span.

The Philadelphia Union will enter the new MLS season next month in the same position Toronto was seven years ago. The Union lost the MLS Cup final to LAFC in November on penalty kicks after giving up a lead deep in extra time. And midfielder Jack McGlynn said the team is approaching the challenge the same way Toronto did.

“On our first day back, you could tell in their eyes that we’re hungry,” he said of his teammates. “We got the taste of the final and that’s not enough for us. We need to lift the trophy. So I think we’re going to come out really strong.

“Just getting back there is the most important thing. And I think once we get there, we can take care of business now.”

The Union has had the top point total in MLS twice in the last three seasons, winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2020, then equaling LAFC’s 67 points last season, only to lose the Shield on a tiebreaker. With any luck, Philadelphia easily could have won three trophies rather than one over that span.

McGlynn said the most painful memory wasn’t just that the team lost last season, but rather how it lost.

“To lose like that, it’s devastating,” he said. “I think you’d rather lose like 3-0 … Obviously it’s tough.”

Window dressing for the Galaxy?

LA Galaxy midfielder Riqui Puig gestures to fans before an MLS soccer match.

Can the Galaxy pick up another player like Riqui Puig?

(Raul Romero Jr. / Associated Press)

Speaking of Vanney, who now coaches the Galaxy, he faces a pair of looming deadlines to plug obvious holes in his team’s roster. The first is Feb. 25, when the Galaxy open the MLS season with reigning champion LAFC at the Rose Bowl. The second is April 24, when the league’s primary transfer window closes, after which the team will be prohibited by MLS from signing a player who requires an international transfer certificate from outside the U.S. and Canada during the summer transfer window.

The transfer window opens Tuesday.

That penalty is one of several MLS levied against the team for violating salary budget and roster guidelines when it signed Cristian Pavón to a TAM deal in the summer of 2019. In addition, the Galaxy was fined $1 million, forfeited $1 million in future general allocation money, and club president Chris Klein was suspended from sporting-related responsibilities through the end of the primary transfer window.

What that means is Vanney won’t be able to go outside the U.S. and Canada to improve his team this summer as he did last summer when he brought in Uruguayans Gastón Brugman and Martín Cáceres and Spaniard Riqui Puig, sparking a late-season drive that carried the team to just its second playoff appearance in six years. And the team’s needs are obvious: After trading Kevin Cabral to Colorado and seeing Samuel Grandsir return to France, the Galaxy have one reliable winger in Douglas Costa — and he spent most of this winter trying to put together a deal that would take him back to Brazil.

“We have a road map and things that we want to do and we’re trying not to leave things,” Vanney said. “We’re trying to accomplish the things we want in this window. We’d like to do it sooner rather than later and have whoever we’re going to be adding in. But it’s making good decisions and not rushing because we’re against the clock.”

Vanney, who was given the title of sporting director in addition to his coaching duties in the wake of Klein’s suspension, has a lot of resources to work with, having picked up a designated player spot with Cabral’s departure, two international roster slots and more than $1.6 million in salary cap space with the Cabral and Grandsir moves alone. But the dual roles mean he’ll be relying a lot on Michael Stephens, whom Vanney brought on last April as director of scouting.

“He also needs leadership and guidance from me in terms of our player profiles, what positions we need and what we’re looking for and how the pieces are going to fit together. But he’s got a good eye. He’s extremely organized,” Vanney said of Stephens. “He’s got a whole team now working together.

“We’ve made real strides to build that department and we’re in a much better proactive position than we’ve ever been.”

Vanney will continue as sporting director after Klein returns from his suspension in the spring, but the coach said he expects the team president to rejoin the team-building conversations.

“Ultimately we are a collaborative group,” Vanney said. “At this point Chris is outside of the collaborations on the technical side and we work with [AEG president] Dan Beckerman. He’s our point guy there. But I think when Chris comes back, he’ll slide into the discussions.

“Chris has been very supportive in our plan and our project. What we’re trying to do is rebuild the club and get back to competing for championships, but also building value inside of our group and building our infrastructure. He’s been very supportive in the vision.”

Soccer’s global marketplace continues to grow

FIFA released its global transfer report for 2022, with the number of international transfers for men’s professionals topping 20,000 for the first time and the number of transfers on the women’s side growing 19% from 2021.

But despite the volume of moves detailed last week, the total value of those transfers lagged behind the pre-COVID record of $7.35 billion spent in 2019. Just 2,843 of the transfers that took place on the men’s side in 2022 involved fees, which totaled $6.5 billion. The top 10 player transfers — topped by Antony’s $102-million move from Ajax to Manchester United — were responsible for 12.5% of the overall spending in the transfer market. A third of the overall transfer payments — a combined $2.2 billion — were made by English clubs.

Brazilian players again led the rankings in terms of players moved, at more than 2,000, and total transfer fees, which topped $843 million. France was second in both categories while three African nations — Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast — all made the top 10 in number of transfers.

Of the six FIFA confederations, CONCACAF was fifth in number of transfers and their combined value, topping only Oceania. The four highest-spending CONCACAF clubs, and seven of the top 10, are in MLS, topped by Charlotte FC.

On the women’s side, total transfer fees globally jumped more than 60% to $3.3 million. The U.S. led the world in the number of women players transferred at 164.

Men’s global transfer market, 2022

Club transfer spending, by country
1. England, $2.199.3 billion
2. Italy, $673.3 million
3. Spain, $592.3 million
4. France, $545.3 million
5. Germany, $537.6 million
8. USA, $181.5 million

Club transfer receipts, by country
1. France, $740.3 million
2. Germany, $639.3 million
3. Italy, $617.8 million
4. England, $600.5 million
5. Portugal, $579.7 million
12. USA, $135.2 million

Source: FIFA, Soccer America

And finally there’s this …

USWNT midfielder Sam Mewis, a key part of the 2019 World Cup-winning team, underwent knee surgery last week. Mewis, 30, who also had knee surgery in 2021, said there is no timeline for her return, but it seems unlikely she’ll be back in time for this summer’s World Cup in Australia/New Zealand. … Longtime Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl will be honored with this year’s Colin Jose Media Award, given to journalists who made long-term contributions to soccer in the United States. He will be honored at the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Frisco, Texas on May 6. Wahl, 49, collapsed and died of an aortic aneurysm while covering the Argentina-Netherlands quarterfinals at last fall’s World Cup in Qatar. … When the Barcelona women beat Levante Las Palmas 7-0 last Wednesday, it was the team’s 50th consecutive league win. No other pro team, men or women, has won more than 46 in a row, a record France’s Olympique Lyon set between December 2011 and January 2014. Barcelona followed that with a 6-0 win over Granadilla Tenerife on Sunday, its 51st league victory in a row. Barca Femeni’s streak began on June 6, 2021; it has outscored opponents 253-19 during the 51 wins.


Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

In case you missed it

USMNT unwraps some young gems and ends up with a tie against Colombia

Brandon Vázquez has shined for U.S. soccer. Could they lose him to Mexico?

U.S. Soccer loses two top leaders, jeopardizing Gregg Berhalter’s future as coach

Young USMNT takes first step toward to 2026 World Cup in loss to Serbia


This is every 5 a.m. road trip

This is every back-to-back tournament

This is every missed family vacation

This is every night spent in the car eating dinner and doing homework

This is missed birthdays and holidays

This is every lonely road trip spent in a hotel room

This is every long flight to another country

This is spending your off-season training and getting stronger instead of resting

This is powering through every setback and every injury so that your comeback was that much stronger

This the dream that you had at 5

This is the goal that you put on that little piece of paper every single year

This is worth every sacrifice

This, my J, is everything

What single soccer mom Sarah Neal, mother of Galaxy defender Jalen Neal, posted on social media Thursday, the morning after her son made his debut for the senior national team and played 90 minutes in a 2-1 loss to Serbia.

Until next time…

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.

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