Soccer newsletter: Recapping the highs and lows of the 2022 World Cup


AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Hello and welcome to the weekly L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, coming to you for the final time from Qatar, where the World Cup ended Sunday with Argentina’s Lionel Messi finally claiming his first World Cup trophy. Today we’ll look at what the expanded tournament format for 2026 will mean for CONCACAF (spoiler alert: it’s not good), a cathartic adoption for two English players who went out in the quarterfinals and the joint investigation by the NWSL and its players association into charges of abuse and harassment in the league.

But we start with the World Cup, which was exciting yet exhausting, historic but inane. It kicked off amid reports of migrant worker deaths and suspended beer sales and ended with the death of three journalists, including former Sports Illustrated writer and Fox Sports commentator Grant Wahl, and champagne toasts for Argentina, which beat France in a penalty-kick shootout that decided what arguably was the most dramatic World Cup final ever.

In between there was soccer. Lots of it, with 64 games in 29 days.

Every World Cup has a theme, a story arc that develops organically and gives the tournament form and meaning. This World Cup never seemed to find that thread; instead it was a mishmash of several story lines.

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Belgium, a semifinalist four years ago and the No. 2 team in the world, went out in the group stage. So did Uruguay, Germany, Denmark and Mexico. For Mexico, which was shut out twice, it was the first time since 1978 that the country played in a World Cup and failed to reach the knockout stages.

Qatar, meanwhile, scored one goal, never led, didn’t win a game and did not even put a shot on goal in the tournament opener. It was the worst performance by a host country in World Cup history.

Yet none of that qualified as the biggest surprise of the first stage because Morocco won a group that included two top-three teams from 2018 in Belgium and Croatia, and Saudi Arabia stunned Argentina in its opener, ending the South Americans’ 36-match unbeaten streak.

Messi, meanwhile, had two goals and an assist as Argentina recovered from that opening upset to finish atop its group while Kylian Mbappe had three scores in France’s first two games. That set the Paris Saint-Germain teammates on a collision course to meet in what proved to be an amazing final.

The knockout rounds also were a mix of the improbable and the predictable. Portugal held Cristiano Ronaldo out of the starting lineup in its two elimination games and scored six times to beat Switzerland before getting shut out and eliminated by Morocco. Croatia, repeating its magical run of 2018 in which it won its first two knockout games on penalties, eliminated Japan and Brazil in shootouts to return to the semifinals.

For Brazil, FIFA’s top-ranked team and a heavy pre-tournament favorite, the loss marked the fourth time in five World Cups that it has been eliminated in the quarterfinals.

The U.S., meanwhile, went out in four games in which it scored three goals while one of its most potent forwards, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna, played just 53 minutes. Goalkeeper Matt Turner posted two clean sheets to become the first American to do that in the same World Cup since 1930. He would have had three shutouts if not for a late Gareth Bale penalty kick in a 1-1 draw with Wales.

Messi, meanwhile, had three goals and two assists as Argentina beat Australia, the Netherlands and Croatia to return to the final for the first time since 2014. Mbappe had two goals and an assist in wins over Poland, England and Morocco to help France reach the championship match for the second time in four years.

Morocco’s semifinal loss to France ended a historic run for the Atlas Lions. The team, with a largely French-born coaching staff and a roster in which 14 of the 26 players were born outside Morocco, nonetheless was little-known outside Africa when it arrived in Qatar. But everyone knew about Morocco by the time it reached the semifinals.

In the first Arab World Cup, it became the first Arab country — and second team from a majority-Muslim country — to reach the final four. It also was the first African team to get that far and just the third nation from outside Europe and South America to play in the semifinals after South Korea in 2002 and the U.S. in 1930.

Morocco got there by playing a disciplined game based on a stifling defense that gave up just an own goal through its first five games, shutting out Belgium, Croatia, Spain and Portugal.

Its straight-talking, infectious coach, Walid Regragui, thought to be in way over his head when he was promoted from a club in Morocco’s domestic league to national team coach in August, became the antidote to polished and boring managers such as France’s Didier Deschamps and Argentina’s Lionel Scaloni. Morocco’s irrepressible fans, with their rhythmic chants and high-pitched whistling, became the soundtrack for the tournament, and as the team continued winning an entire region of the world got behind the players.

“A victory for any Arab team is a victory for all Arabs,” said Nizar Ahmad, a 27-year-old nurse from Jordan who works in Qatar and attended Morocco’s match against Canada, while summing up the feelings of many. “We’re like the fingers of a fist.”

Morocco’s Cinderella run ended with consecutive losses to France in the semifinals and Croatia in the third-place game. After playing seven games in 24 days, the team, weakened by injury and fatigue, simply ran out of gas. But Regragui insisted that took nothing from its inspirational performance.

If Morocco can make it to the World Cup semifinals, he said, then anyone can aspire to greatness.

“Football makes people dream, especially children,” he said. “We have allowed them to dream. And they now dream of being footballers and getting to the World Cup.

“That is priceless. It means more than winning any match.”

Though Regragui was looking to the future, this World Cup likely marked the final turn on the world stage for many of the sport’s greatest players. Messi, 35, and Ronaldo, 37, who combined to play in 10 World Cups, win 13 world player of the year awards and score more than 200 international goals, likely won’t be back. Nor, likely, will Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, both 35; Germany’s Thomas Mueller, 33, and Manuel Neuer, 36; Brazil’s Thiago Silva, 38; Spain’s Sergio Busquets, 34; Poland’s Robert Lewandowski, 34; France’s Hugo Lloris,35 and Olivier Giroud, 36; and Japan’s Yuto Nagamoto, 36.

Brazil’s Neymar, 30, denied reports he played in his last World Cup game — but didn’t say he hadn’t either.

“It’s too early. I’ve no clear ideas yet — I can’t guarantee anything,” Neymar told Brazilian reporters.

Mexico’s Andres Guardado, 36, and Memo Ochoa, 37, who each participated in five World Cups, almost certainly are done too, although Ochoa has refused to close the door to one more tournament since the 2026 event will kick off in Mexico.

Also leaving is Croatia’s Luka Modric, a former Ballon d’Or winner who quietly put together a spectacular career in the shadow of Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He helped set up his country’s first goal in his last World Cup game, a 2-1 win over Morocco in Saturday’s consolation final. Modric, 37, who played in a Croatian-record 162 international matches and led the team to the semifinals of the last two World Cups, was captain of a golden generation that included defenders Dejan Lovren, 33, and Domagoj Vida, 33, and forward Ivan Perisic, 33, Croatia’s active goal-scoring leader.

“This is the end of the cycle for us, the end of a process. This is the last World Cup for some of my players,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic said.

France's Kylian Mbappe in action during a  World Cup quarterfinal soccer match

France’s Kylian Mbappe in action during the World Cup.

(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

Qatar’s best: World Cup award winners

Golden Boot (top scorer): Kylian Mbappe (France)

Golden Ball (top player): Lionel Messi (Argentina)

Golden Gloves (top goalkeeper): Emiliano Martínez (Argentina)

FIFA Young Player: Enzo Fernández (Argentina)

Top Scorers

Kylian Mbappe (France), 8 goals

Lionel Messi (Argentina), 7

Olivier Giroud (France), Julian Álvarez, (Argentina), 4 each

Enner Valencia (Ecuador), Cody Gakpo (Netherlands), Bukayo Saka (England), Alvaro Morata (Spain), Richarlison (Brazil), Goncalo Ramos (Portugal), Marcus Rashford (England), 3 each.


Harry Kane (England), Antoine Griezmann (France), Bruno Fernandes (Portugal), Ivan Perisic (Croatia), Lionel Messi (Argentina), 3 each.

Davy Klaassen (Netherlands), Denzel Dumfries (Netherlands), Phil Foden (England), Christian Pulisic (U.S.), Theo Hernandez (France), Kylian Mbappe (France), Jordi Alba (Spain), Mislav Orsi (Croatia), Dusan Tadic (Serbia), Andrija Zivkovic (Serbia), Vinicius Junior (Brazil), Raphael Guerreiro (Portugal), Diogo Dalot (Portugal), Joao Felix (Portugal), Marcus Thuram, (France), Osama Dembele (France), 2 each

Clean sheets

Jordan Pickford (England), Dominik Livakovic (Croatia), Emiliano Martínez (Argentina), Bono (Morocco), Alisson (Brazil), 3 each

Matt Turner (U.S.), Wojciech Szczesny (Poland), Thibaut Courtois (Belgium), Mathew Ryan (Australia), Aymen Dahmen (Tunisia), Unai Simon (Spain), Sergio Rochet (Uruguay), Andries Noppert (Netherlands), 2 each


Dominik Livakovic (Croatia), Wojciech Szczesny (Poland), 24 each

Andries Noppert (Netherlands), 20

Hugo Lloris (France), 17

Mathew Ryan (Australia), 14

Diogo Costa (Portugal), 13

Devis Epassy (Cameroon), Seung-gyu Kim (South Korea), 12 each

Aymen Dahmen (Tunisia), 11

Matt Turner (U.S.), Yann Sommer (Switzerland), Keylor Navas (Costa Rica), 10 each

Regional domination

With the World Cup expanding to 48 teams in 2026 and returning to North America for the first time in 32 years, CONCACAF’s invitation list will double from three automatic berths to six. One other country could qualify through an inter-confederation playoff, meaning as many as seven CONCACAF teams could be in the tournament.

Is that a good idea?

CONCACAF sent four teams to Qatar — the U.S., Canada and Mexico, which finished in the top three in the confederation’s seven-team qualifying tournament, and Costa Rica, which beat New Zealand in a one-game playoff. What happened when they got here? Canada and Costa Rica finished last in their four-team groups and Mexico finished a point out of the cellar. Those three countries combined for two wins and were outscored 21-7.

Only the U.S. advanced to the round of 16 though it hardly was a powerful performance: The Americans scored just three goals in four games and were ousted by the Netherlands in the first knockout game. It was the worst performance of any of the five FIFA confederations that sent teams to Qatar (with New Zealand’s playoff loss, Oceania was not represented).

Asia had three teams make the round of 16 in Japan, South Korea and Australia while Saudi Arabia opened the tournament by beating Argentina. Africa had two teams — Senegal and Morocco — advance out of the group stage with Morocco reaching the semifinals, the second team outside Europe and South America to get that far in 92 years. The first was South Korea in 2002.

CONMEBOL saw Argentina win the tournament and Brazil reach the quarterfinals. However UEFA, the European confederation, remains the most dominant. Thirteen of the 32 teams that qualified for Qatar came from Europe, four of them won their groups, eight reached the round of 16 and five played in the quarterfinals. France returned to the final and Croatia won the third-place game.

UEFA will gain three additional spots in the 2026 World Cup, guaranteeing it 16 teams.

The Year of the Cat

England's John Stones, left, challenges for the ball with France's Kylian Mbappe.

England’s John Stones, left, challenges for the ball with France’s Kylian Mbappe.

(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

The cat population in Qatar which, by some estimates, is larger than the human population, was reduced by one thanks to England’s participation in the World Cup.

Stray cats are everywhere in Qatar, in part because they are revered in Islam and that caused a problem for Brazil. When a stray tried to share the dais with winger Vinicius Jr. during a news conference, a media-relations officer grabbed it roughly with two hands and flung it to the floor. Brazil — ranked No. 1 in the world and a heavy tournament favorite — was ousted in its next game.

Call it Cat Carma.

Anyway, cats were treated more kindly in the English team’s camp, where Manchester City defenders John Stones and Kyle Walker grew fond of a kitten they named Dave. Walker promised to adopt the cat and bring it back to England if the team won the World Cup — then went through with the adoption anyway after England lost to France in the quarterfinals.

The cat will have to spend four months in quarantine before it can be reunited with its new friends in England.

“Some people really don’t like the cat, but I love him,” Walker told the Football Association’s official media channel

“First day we got there … Dave pops out,” Stones added. “Every night he sat there waiting for his food.”

Walker and Stones live south of Manchester in Cheshire, meaning Dave will soon be a Cheshire cat.

NWSL report doubles down on abuse in women’s soccer

Last week the NWSL and its players’ association released their long-awaited report on abuse, sexual harassment and coercion in the league and the inaction of those in power who allowed it to continue.

The 125-page report, made public two months after U.S. Soccer released the Yates Report, its own probe of misdeeds in women’s soccer, details how the NWSL and its clubs failed to protect players by discouraging the reporting of misconduct, providing inadequate guidance on what constitutes misconduct and failing to establish effective methods for reporting inappropriate behavior.

“The NWSL has … embraced greater accountability, and experienced a cultural shift regarding behaviors that are no longer tolerated,” the report read. “However, there is substantial work to be done. To that point, during this investigation, the Joint Investigative Team received reports of ongoing misconduct at more than half the League’s clubs.”

In some ways, the NWSL investigation went beyond the Yates Report, conducted by former acting U.S. attorney general Sally Q. Yates, by including new and graphic details about the behavior of former coaches Paul Riley, Rory Dames and Christy Holly.

The investigation also uncovered repeated instances of coaches and staff making derogatory comments about players and describing them using negative stereotypes regarding race, ethnicity and sexual orientation. Clubs were found to have shown insensitivity to LGBTQIA+ issues. Inappropriate comments about player weight and body types were a prevalent issue at many clubs, according to the report.

There was “a culture of abuse, silence and fear of retaliation due to a lack of job security” within the league, read the report, which also called on the NWSL to address “failures in institutional structures, policies, and procedures — at U.S. Soccer, the League, and individual clubs — that have allowed misconduct to persist.”

Similar to the Yates investigation, the league report also found U.S. Soccer, which helped launch the NWSL in 2013, did not properly investigate reports of misconduct within the league. As with the Yates report, the NWSL report includes a list of recommendations for addressing misconduct, including strengthening policies, developing guidelines concerning inappropriate behavior, implementing training for staff and coaches and centralizing hiring practices at the league and club level.

The Yates probe and the NWSL/NWSLPA investigation were launched after reporting by Meg Linehan in the Athletic in 2021 that detailed allegations of sexual harassment, coercion and misconduct against Riley, then manager of the Portland Thorns, and Dames, former manager of the Chicago Red Stars.

In 2021, five male head coaches were either fired or forced to resign for non-soccer reasons, among them alleged sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, racist remarks and perpetuating a toxic work culture. A sixth team terminated its general manager.

Last week’s report detailed allegations of misconduct that took place with Racing Louisville, North Carolina Courage, Houston Dash, OL Reign, Orlando Pride and NY/NJ Gotham FC as well as in Portland and Chicago. Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave, both NWSL expansion teams in 2022, were not cited in either the league report or the Yates investigation.

“What I was most looking forward to are the recommendations,” said U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone, who ordered the Yates Report. “As hard as it is to read both reports for me, my guiding light is OK, now we have a pathway out and [for] how we start to change it and make sure that our game is as safe as possible. And hopefully, that this never happens again.

“Everyone has the same goal — U.S. Soccer, NWSL, youth soccer, adult soccer, pro — to make our game as safe as possible and provide an environment that is developmentally appropriate for kids, adults, and professionals to grow and develop.

“So that’s where my focus is shifted. I’m glad the report’s out now so we can really focus on making the systemic changes that we need to make.”

A programming note

This is the final soccer newsletter of the year, as we’re about to take a two-week, post-World Cup break to rest, recuperate and do laundry. We’ll be back after the new year to start the next World Cup cycle heading toward the 2026 tournament. Enjoy the holidays. Talk to you in 2023.

And finally there’s this …

UCLA coach Margueritte Aozasa and assistants Gof Boyoko, Molly Poletto and Chelsea Tudela were selected the women’s NCAA national staff of the year by the United Soccer Coaches after leading the Bruins to a national title in their first season. UCLA (22-2-1) tied a school record with 22 victories and held the No. 1 national ranking for nine consecutive weeks. The Bruins gave up just 14 goals and recorded 14 shutouts while 18 players contributed to the team’s 68 goals. … Former UCLA player Milan Iloski, who led the second-tier USL Championship with a club-record 22 goals last season, will return to the Orange County Soccer Club after the team picked up his option for 2023. The team also made former El Paso center back Andrew Fox its first new signing for 2023. Fox, 29, a native of Huntingdon, England, made 86 appearances with El Paso over the past four seasons, scoring six goals and registering three assists … USMNT captain Tyler Adams and goalkeeper Matt Turner, the first American with two shutouts in the same World Cup since 1930, head the list of nominees of men’s player of the year while NWSL scoring champion Alex Morgan and league MVP Sophia Smith top the women’s list. Also among the five men’s finalists are World Cup players Christian Pulisic, Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson while Lindsey Horgan, Rose Lavelle and Mallory Pugh round out the women’s list. Santa Clarita’s Olivia Moultrie and Harvard-Westlake senior Alyssa Thompson are among the nominees for young women’s player of the year.

In case you missed it

What lessons can the 2026 World Cup in North America learn from 2022?

Analysis: Most dramatic World Cup final caps a unique tournament in Qatar

Analysis: Morocco won something much more valuable than third place at World Cup — respect


“It’s just crazy that it became a reality this way. I craved for this so much. I knew God would bring this gift to me. I had the feeling that this [World Cup] was the one.”

Lionel Messi, after winning his first World Cup on Sunday

Until next time…

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