Welcome to Onside/Offside! Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed, what to keep an eye on in the coming days and of course, certain things that probably deserved extra love and criticism.
This week, a personal and professional look at Unai Emery's incredible work with Aston Villa, Lionel Scaloni's uncertainty and why it could be a problem for Argentina in 2024, an MLS Cup to celebrate and much more!
Hosting Copa America in the U.S comes with a wonderful conundrum because even though the USMNT is the geographical host, the support for other nations is going to be intoxicating. I witnessed this sentiment at Copa America Centenario in 2016.
Mexico, for example, is the most popular team in North America. Miami, the Latin American capital of the world, will have a heavy dose of South and Central American fans, while Lionel Messi has galvanized the community that goes beyond Argentina. So unless you're Mexico in Texas or California, throw "home" advantage out the window.
From a matchup perspective, I think Marcelo Bielsa's Uruguay is the last opponent Gregg Berhalter's side needed in its group, and La Celeste -- second in World Cup qualifiers -- are favorites to top it, but that will be America's last game. So really, Panama is the USMNT's most important hurdle to overcome in order to advance as Bolívia, with all due respect, will bow out.
The biggest issue for me, however, lies in Group B. Mexico has the support and talent, and it's definitely the favorite on paper, but it has not looked as good as we once remembered it. Ecuador's ongoing project with its tremendously dynamic team will be a problem, as will Venezuela, currently fourth in World Cup qualifiers. Then there's Jamaica, which fought hard to get here; yes, it is least favored to get out of the group, but the talent, which includes Leon Bailey, Demarai Gray, Michail Antonio and Andre Blake, might not be as easy to deal with.
As for my Peru, don't even get me started. Not only do we have to face Argentina, but bitter rival Chile is also in the group. If Canada makes it through, then the mountain becomes that much steeper. Never mind the fact that manager Juan Reynoso is on his way out after a disastrous start to World Cup qualifiers that have seen Peru score just one goal and get zero wins after six matches.
The Columbus Crew are the original gangsters of MLS. Their former stadium was the first soccer-specific ground built by an MLS club, which set off a benchmark for others to follow. They are the representatives of Ohio soccer culture, which is a major component inside America's soccer fandom. Columbus has always been seen as a "small market club" because it is not a New York or LA, but make no mistake about it, the Crew are a huge reason for the sport's growth in the United States.
Columbus is making its fourth MLS Cup appearance after winning it twice before (2008 and 2020) and just like its last title, the team is at home again, which makes the club favored to win on Saturday. This is a statistical advantage, not an opinion, as the only time the visiting team has come out victorious in a final hosted by the team with the better regular-season record was in 2021, when NYCFC defeated Portland Timbers on penalties.
But here comes LAFC, the present-day kings of the league, looking to win back-to-back championships for the first time since its neighbors and local rivals LA Galaxy did it in 2011 and 2012. LAFC is a tremendous story, not even 10 years old and already looking like a dynasty in the making. If the West Coast club wins on Saturday, it would be an incredible achievement, especially as more and more teams continue to bring star power to their clubs. But LAFC (like Columbus) has a strong sense of identity and its supporters are the undoubted, proverbial fire in every game.
On the pitch, it will also be a fun watch as the Crew love to have the ball, while LAFC loves to let you have it before hitting you in transition. Tremendous talent everywhere. In one Columbus corner you have Cucho Hernández, Diego Rossi (formerly at LAFC) and the man everyone loves in Darlington Nagbe, while L.A. possesses MLS' goal-scoring machine in Dénis Bouanga, the Serie A, Champions League, Euro winner Giorgio Chiellini and of course, Carlos Vela -- who is literally the face of the franchise. This could be his last ever game for LAFC as his contract runs out at the end of this month, with no talks of an extension upon the writing of the article.
After Aston Villa's magnificent, overwhelming victory against Man City on Wednesday, it's fair to say that I haven't quite calmed down yet, nor descended from the clouds. It is not an exaggeration to state that it was the best performance I have ever seen from my club in the Premier League. Unai Emery finally defeated Pep Guardiola, but it wasn't just a win, it was a knockout punch as the home side outclassed City in almost every department.
Villa's 22 shots was the most Pep Guardiola's side has conceded in the league while the treble winners only managed two shots against Villa -- the fewest ever against a Guardiola team from a run of 535 matches. The biggest favor Villa did to City that night was allowing it to stay 1-0.
Numbers aside, this journey under Emery is a renaissance for Villa fans. Villa, who were relegated in 2016, nearly faced the reality of liquidation and have never truly received the respect they often ache for, are a totally different club under the Basque manager.
As someone who started following this club upon immigrating to England from Peru in the early '90s, helping me create a bridge to acclimatize to my new home, I can't help but romanticize the whole thing. At the final whistle on Wednesday, I cried. It means that much to me and many other Villains who share my sentiment. This sport can bring out the cynic in all of us, but at the core of it all, it's about passion and an emotion that can only happen inside a prosperous football community.
But that was Wednesday, and make no mistake about it, Emery has forgotten all about it. In fact, it might as well not exist because Arsenal are coming to town and that is the only thing that matters now. Arsenal, the leaders of the table -- also managed by a Basque man obsessed with perfection and a will to learn -- are a totally different animal. Given City's recent struggles, they are a much harder test.
For one, the battle will be in the midfield, and this is the advantage Villa had over City on Wednesday. But Arsenal have Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard to worry about. It's been 25 years since Villa fans saw their club face-to-face and win against the Gunners (two wins in 2020 and 2021 with no fans inside stadiums during COVID) at Villa Park but if this season has taught us anything, it's that anything is possible.
When Argentina won Copa America in 2021, it was significant for many reasons. To begin with, it was the end of their 28-year drought without a major trophy. It was also Messi's first ever major title with the senior national team, thus generating a new relationship and sense of trust and belief with national team fans, notably after losing two prior Copa America finals against Chile in 2015 and 2016.
Most importantly, however, it was also manager Lionel Scaloni's first commemorative chapter since he took on the role of rebirthing La Albiceleste in 2018, a move that was questioned by many, including Diego Maradona. After coming third in the 2019 tournament, there was an even bigger call to fire Scaloni, but the federation stuck with him. Two years later, they were champions, and as we look ahead to next summer's Copa America edition, Argentina will enter it as World Cup champions and the best team in the world.
Scaloni has been completely vindicated and once again, his team will arrive in the U.S next summer as the undoubted favorites. This could also have a poetic narrative as this might just be Messi's final one. The group (Peru, Chile and Canada or Trinidad and Tobago) is relatively easy for them, and the bracket's format points to the fact that -- if everything goes to plan -- they wouldn't even have to face Brazil or Uruguay in the final, which consequently is in Miami -- Messi's home and a cultural haven for Argentinians in the U.S.
But at this point, Argentina doesn't even know if Scaloni will be there. After last month's win against Brazil in World Cup qualifiers, the 45-year-old manager added doubt in the postgame presser. "Argentina needs a coach who has all the energy possible and who is well," he said. "I have a lot of things to think about during this time."
Then, on Thursday night after the draw, he once again stated an air of uncertainty to Tyc Sports. "I am here because I am still the coach, but I'm still thinking about my decision. I said after the Brazil game that it is a moment to think and I am still in that instance. I am calmly thinking, how everything goes, whether to restart or what," said Scaloni.
This has to be rectified sooner rather than later because the last thing Argentin want is to enter this competition with little time to prepare. Yes, they are a formidable force, but what's made them so electric is twofold: the talent and Scaloni's management. It's obviously a monumental task that comes with so much pressure, that's why Scaloni keeps referring to "energy," because to be Argentina's head coach means to deal with an avalanche of expectation as well as earning the trust of the greatest player the game has ever seen.
I read an outstandingly good quote from Taylor Swift recently, as she commented on haters and those who have criticized her throughout the years. "There's no point in actively trying to quote-unquote defeat your enemies," said the music icon to Time magazine, as she was named 2023 Person of the Year. "Trash takes itself out every single time."
This line should be echoed by all of us, including supporters of women's football. I mention this because of the words from Joey Bartom, a controversial former player and manager who recently came out with one of the most misogynistic comments I've read in a while.
Since then, he has doubled and tripled down, including an appearance on "Piers Morgan Uncensored," to defend his laughable point. "You have to be there on merit, not to fit this woke agenda that is going on in society," he said, when discussing female pundits in men's football and going as far as comparing them to him talking about "knitting." "You don't have to have played the game, a lot of managers haven't, a lot of commentators haven't. But they've earned the right with hard work over a prolonged period of time to get into that space."
Barton was saying this as images of Alex Scott MBE (Champions League, WSL, FA Cup champion, World Cup runner-up and 140 appearances for England), Karen Carney (four World Cups, four Euros, third-most appearances for England) and Eniola Aluko (Serie A, WSL champion, former sporting director) appeared on the screen.
What makes this type of person so angry at seeing a woman in the men's game? I'll tell you the answer: it's jealousy. It's fear. It's ignorance. And sadly, women in football will never stop fighting this battle. Barton represents millions of others who think like this, not because it has any merit, but because the merit lies in their anger, it justifies their agenda. It has nothing to do with "wokeness."
I can only imagine how devastating it must be for women all over the globe reading and seeing comments such as Barton's and having to fight 10 times harder than men for their quality to be recognized, never mind accepted. And I'm not even talking about the football industry anymore.
So in general, there are a few ways we all can react to Barton's comments. One of them is anger; another is frustration. While understandable, it seems like nothing will change Barton's mind, so in the end, I think the best strategy is self-preservation. Ignorance can't be reversed unless the person committing the act is willing to change, and this is not the case here, so comments like Barton's need to be combated with a collective desire to grow. Collective is the operative word here, and as the fight continues, remember the words of Taylor Swift: In the end, trash takes itself out.
Congrats to Lionel Messi for winning Time magazine's Athlete of the Year, becoming the first male soccer player to win the award. I was lucky enough to cover his arrival to South Florida, which included a one-on-one with the man himself, and this isn't hyperbole: The summer completely changed the cultural landscape of sports in America.
In fact, the shift of sporting attention in the country is fast gearing towards soccer and Messi's role with Inter Miami and MLS plays the biggest factor. With competitions such as Copa America, Club World Cup and the World Cup in 2026, the train keeps moving and La Pulga acts as conductor.