Soccer newsletter: Men in Blazers star pens a moving book

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Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with a book that has both nothing and everything to do with soccer because, at its core, it’s one that reminds us dreams only come true if you believe in them.

First, however, you must suffer.

Roger Bennett, the irrepressible half of the “Men in Blazers,” the two-man podcast and frequent NBCSN show that focuses mainly on the Premier League, never has been shy about sharing the depression of his childhood in 1980s Liverpool. As he remembers it, it was a cold, dreary place of Dickensian despair and hopelessness, relieved only occasionally by the success of the Everton football club, which won eight trophies that decade.

So like many Europeans, he was determined to seek his fame, fortune and freedom in the U.S. — Chicago in particular, home to the Bears and White Sox and the backdrop for “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” The fact that he’s succeeded is the impetus behind “(Re)Born in the USA: An Englishman’s Love Letter to His Chosen Home,” a 318-page paean to America.

The book, which drops today, opens as many immigrant tales do, with the author’s quest to become a citizen.

“I’ve always considered myself an American who was born in an Englishman’s body. The notion of America has really been that animating one in my life,” said Bennett, who took the oath in 2018, something he calls “the single greatest achievement in my lifetime.”

The America Bennett pined after growing up was one President Ronald Reagan described as a shining city upon a hill. But the one he was sworn into was one President Donald Trump described as “American carnage.” It was the kind of precipitous drop mirrored by Bennett’s beloved Everton, which hasn’t won a league title since Reagan left office.

But then America, like Premier League success, is more an ideal than an actual thing, something aspirational that belongs less to the person or club on top than to those striving to make something of themselves. For Bennett, it made perfect sense to write his tribute to his adopted homeland while trapped by a deadly pandemic in an Upper West Side apartment listening to a soundtrack that was equal parts protest marches and the sirens of ambulances racing to pick up COVID patients.

“The impetus of writing the book was definitely the grim everyday reality I was exposed to,” he said. “I almost retreated into this notion of the American dream, which had elevated my life. I wanted to retrace my steps, to try to understand that dream.”

“It wasn’t just the pandemic,” he continued. “It was the Black Lives Matter movement. Then the toxicity of the 2020 election, all three of these things overlapping. The book is a love letter to America, but it’s an examination of the power of the American dream.

“What that is and what that dream could and should be.”

Bennett, 50, has made good on his aspirations, of course. He began his American adventure by working as a baker, a waiter and later as a librarian. He won’t tarnish those noble trades by claiming to have gone on to bigger and better things, but he has hosted an eight-part podcast series for HBO, created both an architectural design competition and record label and written eight books in addition to his punditry.

He’s a renaissance man whose interests range far and wide, from poetry and literature to music preservation and, of course, soccer.

If you’ve never seen nor heard “Men in Blazers,” you may be taking yourself or your soccer — maybe both — a bit too seriously. Bennett and co-host Michael Davies, a fellow Brit, met when their wives dragged them to a wedding on the day of the World Cup final in 2006, and they’ve been conspiring and commiserating on their soccer musings ever since.

Their reverence for the sport is total, while their irreverence reminds us the most important part of fun and games is the fun.

Winning is also nice, though, and Bennett, whose DNA is nine parts optimism and one part sarcasm, has no doubt his new homeland is closer to winning a World Cup than his ancestral one, whose only title came four years before he was born.

If American movies, music and pop culture fueled the adolescent dreams that eventually became Bennett’s adult reality, who’s to say Christian Pulisic can’t do the same for today’s youth? God knows American soccer fans have had more than their share of suffering, so isn’t it time for their dream to come true?

Maybe, Bennett wonders, that’s the real reason behind his sojourn to a foreign land.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the United States will win a World Cup, and then when that moment happens, I don’t care what happens to me from then on,” he said. “I’ll feel like my job is done.”

Vlatko Andonovski exchanges a high-five with Alex Morgan

U.S. women’s national soccer team coach Vlatko Andonovski, left, greets Alex Morgan before an international friendly soccer match June 10 in Houston.

(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

For experienced USWNT, age is just a number

The roster that women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski chose for next month’s Olympic Games is the oldest and most decorated in U.S. soccer history, averaging 30.8 years of age and 111 caps. The 18 women also have combined for 26 World Cup winners’ medals with midfielder Kristie Mewis the only player selected who wasn’t on the 2019 World Cup team in France.

That level of depth and talent explains why the U.S. will go into the Olympics not just ranked No. 1 in the world, a spot the team has held for more than 13 of the 18 years the FIFA rankings have been in existence, but with a 124-point lead over No. 2 Germany, the largest-ever margin between the top two spots.

In many ways, Andonovski’s roster choices understandably were safe and predictable. A successful NWSL coach, this was the first time he had to cut a roster down for a major international tournament and he didn’t overthink it.

“Initially I thought it was going to be very hard,” he said. “But the closer it got, it actually got a little bit easier to make the final selections.”

The choices, however, may spark a major rebuilding effort after the Games.

Five players — goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and forwards Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath — will be at least 35 when the next Women’s World Cup kicks off in 2023. Three others — defender Kelley O’Hara and forwards Alex Morgan and Christen Press — will be at least 34.

All eight are starters, so if a significant number of them retire from international play in the next two years Andonovski could be left with a talented but inexperienced lineup in Australia/New Zealand. Yet with just a couple of different choices for the Tokyo team, he could have begun building the foundation for that necessary roster overhaul.

Catarina Macario, 21, is a dynamic attacker who soon will be a breakout star, but she’s just an alternate on the Tokyo team and is unlikely to play. The same goes for forward Lynn Williams, 28. In their places Andonovski chose Julie Ertz and Heath, both of whom are carrying injuries to Japan.

Defender Margaret Purce, 25, is another young player who made a case for selection although the final spot went to Mewis, 30, who gives the team added depth in midfield.

Compare Andonovski’s roster to the one chosen by Jill Ellis for the 2016 Olympics. Nine players from the 2015 World Cup team did not make the team for Brazil. Three of the players who did — teen Mallory Pugh, Allie Long and Crystal Dunn — were playing in their first major international competition and five were under the age of 25.

It’s important to note that team lost in the quarterfinals, marking the first time the U.S. failed to reach the gold-medal final. But Pugh, Long and Dunn all went on to play in the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

On the Tokyo team, only Mewis has not played in a senior-level world championship, and Tierna Davidson is the only player younger than 26.

 Tierna Davidson on the soccer field

United States defender Tierna Davidson (12) controls a ball during the second half of a SheBelieves Cup against Argentina Feb. 24 in Orlando, Fla.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

The choices led one reporter to ask Andonovski whether he had felt pressure from either his veteran players or from U.S. Soccer to stick with the team’s aging, if hugely successful and marketable, stars.

“It is 100% my decision and I will take full responsibility for every decision that I make for this Olympics and going forward,” he answered.

Andonovski also had an answer for worries that his roster is too old to play six games in 17 days, which is what it will have to do if the U.S. is to make the final for the sixth time in seven Olympics.

“I don’t look at age because there’s so many other things that we look at before we see how old they are,” he said. “The most important thing is whether they perform or not, whether they’re going to be able to help us win the Olympics or not.

“We do look at data that we get from the physical perspective [and] they’re hitting all the numbers that they need in order to fulfill the tests that we believe are going to be given them.”

Under Vanney, things are starting to add up for Galaxy…

Before last week’s stoppage-time loss to the Galaxy, Vancouver Whitecaps coach Marc dos Santos was asked how the team had changed under Greg Vanney.

“I think the sum of the parts have improved,” he said. “The defense got better. The options they got in the back improved their back line. The options they brought in the midfield, in the wings, improved that. When you have one player in every line improving the line, it affects the next one.

“The last two years, they had very good options up top. Especially the year they played [Uriel] Antuna, [Cristian] Pavon and Ibra [Zlatan Ibrahimovic]. For MLS, it’s hard to find a better front three. But then they were incredibly unbalanced in the back with a lot of inexperience. And now I think they addressed that. That was the beginning of the improvement of their team.

“It’s definitely not the same LA Galaxy.”

Definitely.

This Galaxy followed last Wednesday’s road win over the Whitecaps with a victory over the Earthquakes in San Jose, with Javier “Chicharito” Hernández scoring twice to take over sole possession of the league scoring lead with 10 goals in as many games. That also won Chicharito his third MLS player of the week award. With goalkeeper Jonathan Bond also winning that honor once, the Galaxy have collected four top-player awards through 10 games. No other team has more than two.

And Vanney’s team, at 7-3-0 and with 21 points, is off to the fifth-best, 10-game start in franchise history. It will finish June third in the Western Conference table, just the second time since 2015 the team has entered July that high in the table.

… while LAFC continues to search for momentum

After talisman Carlos Vela went down in the season opener, LAFC understandably struggled for offense, going winless in four games and scoring just three times.

Then Vela returned to start four games in a row and the team lost just once, with the captain contributing to four of its six goals.

But coach Bob Bradley’s team appeared to take another step back last Saturday in Kansas City, when it lost defender Tristan Blackmon to a red card and then lost a lead in a 2-1 defeat. At 3-4-3 the team is off to the worst start in franchise history.

With the team fighting through a span that will see it play five times in 19 days, Vela spent nearly the first hour of Saturday’s match on the bench before coming on a minute before Blackmon went out and four minutes before Kansas City erased LAFC’s 1-0 lead. He didn’t help much, taking just one shot in the final 33 minutes as LAFC was outshot 15-6 on the day.

Kansas City also dominated in time of possession and attempted 120 more passes. It was hardly a typical LAFC performance.

So is the team simply in a slump or is there something more serious going on? Since returning from the MLS Is Back tournament last August, LAFC is 10-12-5 in regular-season play, its worst stretch ever.

In their first two seasons combined, the team lost just 13 regular-season games.

“Finding a way to get past it, learning from mistakes, it gets old talking about it,” a frustrated Bradley said after the latest loss. “In too many cases we repeat mistakes. That’s the most frustrating and the hardest part right now.”

LAFC hasn’t won consecutive games this season — in fact, it hasn’t won twice in any month this season. And things aren’t about to get any easier: The team plays two road games in five days beginning with Saturday’s match at Real Salt Lake. LAFC hasn’t won an MLS road game in eight tries, including the playoffs, dating to last October.

Brazil midfielder Andressa on the field with Americans Lynn Williams and Emily Sonnett.

Brazil midfielder Andressa (7) is separated from the ball by United States forward Lynn Williams (6) and defender Emily Sonnett (14) during the SheBelieves Cup.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

And finally there’s this …

Lynn Williams apparently felt she had something to prove to Andonovski after being left off the main 18-woman roster for the Olympics. Williams scored a pair of braces four days apart for the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage after learning she would be an alternate in Tokyo. … With the final qualifying matches for the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicking off Friday, joining the European Championship and Copa América, which are deep into the knockout stages, there will be 24 top-flight international matches played between July 2 and the Euro final July 11 in London. You can thank COVID-19 protocols for that since the pandemic pushed the Euro and the Copa América back a year … Speaking of the Euros, a day after defending champion Portugal was eliminated, Croatia and France, who met in the last World Cup final, also went out with Croatia falling to Spain in extra time and France losing to Switzerland on penalties. Of the 10 teams still alive entering Tuesday, five — Denmark, Sweden, Ukraine, Switzerland and Belgium — never have won a continental or world title.

Podcast

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.

Quotebook

“In football, we win together and we lose together. We’re all responsible for the elimination. It’s painful and there is no one to point the finger at. We all fought together against the opponent and there is no excuse to seek.”

French goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, to BeIN Sports, after teammate Kylian Mbappe’s penalty-kick miss eliminated the reigning world champions in the quarterfinals of the European Championship

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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