SPORTS DIGEST: U.S. men’s team advances in soccer’s World Cup

By Don Wanlass

Contributing Writer

The first professional sporting event I ever covered was a soccer game. The Los Angeles Aztecs were an expansion team in the North American Soccer League in 1974, playing their home games at East Los Angeles College.

I was a young reporter at the East Los Angeles Tribune who volunteered to cover the team. I could write my stories on company time but I didn’t get paid for going to the games.

I didn’t care. It was a professional sporting event and I watched from the press box and had access to the locker room after the game, just like the sports writers from The Times and Herald Examiner.

Doug McMillan from Scotland was the team’s leading scorer and the league’s rookie of the year. Tony Douglas from Trinidad and Tobago was a talented midfielder. Kelvin Barclay, also from Trinidad and Tobago, was the starting goalkeeper until he got caught out of position on two goals in the fourth game of the season and was fired by head coach Alex Perolli, an Albanian who spoke several languages and tried to explain the game of soccer to sportswriters who didn’t understand it.

The Aztecs went 11-7-2 that first season, winning the Western Division and advancing to the playoffs. In the playoffs, they defeated the Boston Minutemen, 2-0, in the semifinals and then beat the Miami Toros on penalty kicks to win the NASL championship in their first season.

The owner sold the team after that season, the team began playing its home games at El Camino College in Torrance and that was it for me and the Aztecs.

That was American soccer 48 years ago. An expansion team could win the league championship.

Fast forward to 2022 and the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team has advanced to the knockout round of the World Cup in Qatar, captivating American sports fans in the process.

An estimated 20 million people tuned in to watch the U.S. play England to a scoreless tie Nov. 25. Millions more watched Nov. 29 when the U.S. shut out Iran, 1-0, to advance out of Group B.

It was a must-win game for the U.S. Iran would have advanced with a tie and played that way most of the game.

Christian Pulisic, the U.S. team’s best player, scored the only goal in the 38th minute, injuring himself when he crashed into the goalie shortly after kicking it past him, and the U.S. team hung on for the next 52 minutes (and nine extra minutes during stoppage time) to advance to play the Netherlands Dec. 3 in the round of 16. A win against Netherlands will probably mean a rematch with England.

One of the players contributing to the success of the U.S. team in Qatar is Haji Wright, a forward from Los Angeles. Wright, 24, has played in all three games so far for the U.S., starting game two against England and coming off the bench against Wales and Iran.

He grew up playing soccer in Southern California. In fact, when he was a fifth grader at Linwood Howe Elementary School in Culver City, he wrote in his yearbook “when I am 25 years old I hope to be the best professional soccer player in the world.

“I want to be a soccer player because I love the thrill of soccer,” he added.

Wright may not be the best player in the world but he’s playing in the World Cup at age 24.

He played for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s youth academy team for several years.

He first represented the U.S. in 2017 in the under 17 World Cup. In 34 games with the Under 17 group, Wright scored 27 goals.

He scored a goal in the first game he ever played for the U.S. Men’s Team, scoring on a penalty kick against Morocco in 2022.

Wright is part of the young nucleus the U.S. Soccer Federation is grooming to become a force in world soccer by the time the World Cup comes here in 2026.

He played with Pulisic, U.S. Men’s captain Tyler Adams and Luca de la Torre on that Under 17 team seven years ago.

All of the remaining games in the World Cup are win-or-go-home contests. There will be no more ties.

If a game is tied at the end of regulation play, two 15-minute periods will be played. If the game remains tied after an additional 30 minutes, penalty kicks will decide the game.

The U.S. team is happy to advance to the knockout round, especially after failing to qualify for the 2018 games.

Any additional wins will be icing on the cake and good experience for the young group of players that make up the majority of the U.S. roster. Everything now is pointed to being better in 2026.

HEISMAN WATCH: In 2002 and 2004, USC quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, respectively, won the Heisman Trophy, cementing the winning votes with their performances against Notre Dame.

Caleb Williams might have done the same thing Nov. 26. The sophomore transfer from Oklahoma willed the Trojans to a 38-27 win over the Fighting Irish, throwing for 232 yards and a touchdown, running for another 35 yards and three touchdowns and making spectacular play after spectacular play that should put him in New York Dec. 10 to become the eighth Trojan — yes, I still count Reggie Bush as a Heisman winner — to win the award.

USC now has a chance to qualify for the College Football Playoff for the first time in its nine-year history.

All the Trojans have to do is defeat Utah Dec. 2 in the Pac 12 Championship Game in Las Vegas. The Trojans were fourth in the next to last playoff rankings Nov. 29, finishing ahead of Ohio State and Alabama, who will be ready to slide past USC if it falls to Utah.

A win against Utah would avenge USC’s only loss this season. The Trojans lost to the Utes, 43-42 Oct. 16, when Utah quarterback Cameron Rising scrambled for a two-point conversion with 48 seconds left to win the game for Utah.

The Trojans led most of the way in that game, but their defense couldn’t get off the field in the last five minutes of the game when Utah drove 75 yards in 15 plays for the winning score.

Williams threw for 381 yards and five touchdowns in that game. On the season, he’s thrown for 3,712 yards and 34 touchdowns while accounting for another 351 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing. His 55-yard run against Utah is the Trojans longest run from scrimmage this season.

Williams isn’t a one-man band for the Trojans, but he is definitely the team leader.

The Trojans depth has shined through the last two weeks with running back Austin Jones stepping up after Travis Dye went down with a season-ending injury.

Jones gained 120 yards in 21 carries and two touchdowns against UCLA Nov. 19 in his first start replacing Dye.

Against Notre Dame, he gained 154 yards in 25 carries, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.

Defensively, the Trojans slowed the Notre Dame ground game, holding the Fighting Irish to only 90 yards rushing. The Trojans also forced two turnovers, giving them 26 on the season.

Offensively, the Trojans have turned the ball over only four times all season.

It has been quite a turnaround season for the Trojans under first-year coach Lincoln Riley. One more win will make it even better.

STILL IN THE HUNT: The Los Angeles Chargers kept their playoff hopes alive with a come-from-behind 25-24 win over the Arizona Cardinals Nov. 27. Quarterback Justin Herbert hit Austin Ekeler with a 1-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left in the game, then hit tight end Gerald Everett for a two-point conversion and the winning points.

The win lifted the Chargers to a 6-5 record, tied with the New England Patriots for the eighth best record in the AFC. Seven teams from each conference make the playoffs.

The Chargers face the Raiders in Las Vegas Dec. 4, part of a closing schedule that has the Chargers playing teams with losing records in four of their final six games. The two teams with winning records — the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans —face the Chargers in back-to-back weeks Dec. 11 and 18.

The Dec. 11 game with Miami will be the Sunday night game on NBC.

The Chargers have been an up and down team all season. Most of their games have been decided by less than a touchdown. Their two worst losses both came at home — to Jacksonville, 38-10 Sept. 25 and to Seattle, 37-23 Oct. 23.

They play Kansas City, the best team in the AFC, tough, losing by a field goal both times.

Herbert continues to be one of the top young quarterbacks in the league. He has thrown for 3,004 yards with 19 touchdowns in 11 games, despite a beat-up offensive line and injuries to his two top receivers, Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.

Williams has missed three games and Allen has sat out seven so far.

The Trojans also have been missing their best defensive lineman, Joey Boza, for most of the season.

Second-year coach Brandon Staley has taken a lot of heat for some of his fourth-down gambles, but his decision to go for two points Nov. 27 instead of kicking the tying extra point paid off.

The Rams, on the other hand, are done. They have lost three straight games, are last in the NFC West at 3-8 and could easily go 0-6 down the stretch, especially if quarterback Matthew Stafford can’t come back from head and neck injuries.

They host the Seattle Seahawks, one of the surprise teams in the league this year, at SoFi Stadium Dec. 4. At 6-5, the Seahawks find themselves a game behind the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC West after trading star quarterback Russell Wilson to Denver in the off-season.

Wilson has been terrible for the Broncos and his replacement, Gino Smith, has revived his career while leading Seattle to six wins.

The Rams might be ready to mail in the rest of the season. Bryce Perkins has shown few signs of being an NFL quarterback while subbing for Stafford the last two weeks.

He completed only 13 of 23 passes for 100 yards against Kansas City Nov. 27 after going 5 of 10 for 64 yards after replacing Stafford the week before against the Saints.

He outgained Cam Akers by seven yards rushing against the Chiefs, but made no one forget Lamar Jackson running the football.

The Rams gambled big last year and wound up winning the Super Bowl. They are paying for that success this season.