ProSoccerTalk’s weekly MLS rankings

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Ten rounds remain, and the races for playoff spots are deliciously tight; our weekly re-ordering of Major League Soccer teams, following 24 rounds of play:

19. D.C. United – The average of Ben Olsen’s starters in a loss at Philadelphia was just more than 22 years old. On the other hand, the Black and Red did advance into the U.S. Open Cup final with a mid-week win at Chicago.

18. Toronto FC – Ryan Nelsen’s men were huffing and puffing and ready to blow the Seattle Sounders recently fortified house in during the last 45 minutes Saturday in Ontario. But some abysmal defending in the first 45 had left too large a deficit, and the Reds fell at home yet again.

17. Chivas USA – Still not much offense being generated in Goats Valley, but a 1-1 draw with Colorado at the StubHub Center can be considered a little bit of a “win” for the wayward club in 2013 – especially considering Chivas USA finished with nine men on the field. These needless ejections are killing the club.

16. FC Dallas – Blaz Perez scored twice as FC Dallas kept its fading playoff hopes alive in a 3-3 draw with the Galaxy. Set piece strikes are this club’s saving grace. Giving up three goals at home, however, is not a recipe for success. Overall, the club has allowed 11 goals in its last 5 league matches.

15. Columbus – Federico Higuain’s sumptuous chip was the icing on a desperately needed win, a 2-0 result over New York that keeps Columbus, now under new ownership, just close enough to remain a player in the post-season pursuit.

14. New England Revolution – Charlie Davies’ arrival into Gillette Stadium may not help – but it surely cannot hurt, either. The Revs were just blanked for the second consecutive match, falling at Sporting KC, 3-0. Kevin Alston returned to the starting lineup, a nice story on an otherwise forgettable evening.

13. San Jose Earthquakes – It was a bummer of a week for the ‘Quakes, but two matches in two Canadian cities just three nights apart was a tough task. San Jose fell to Montreal in a Champions League contest and then fell to Vancouver on Saturday in MLS action.

12. Houston Dynamo – The slow summer days are over for Dominic Kinnear’s men. Starting with Saturday’s big match in Houston against Clint Dempsey and Seattle, the Orange has a stretch of 7 matches in 23 days (including MLS matches and CONCACAF Champions League contests.)

11. Chicago Fire – A slightly injured Mike Magee did not dress for Saturday’s match in Bridgeview against Montreal – so the 2-1 win without a leading league MVP candidate is a terrific result for Frank Klopas’ team.

(MORE: MLS Round 24 week in review)

10. LA Galaxy – Bruce Arena was hopping mad about some of the Dallas goals in a 3-3 draw – and he was right. Then again, he’s also correct about his team’s need to defend better, especially on set pieces. All three FCD goals came off a corner kick or a free kick.

9. Montreal Impact – The Impact has just one win in its last eight games and has fallen from first to fourth over the last four weeks.

8. Philadelphia Union – Two months ago, it was unthinkable that anyone other than early season scoring sensation Jack McInerney would lead the team in scoring. And yet, today, Conor Casey’s nine goals is just one behind “Jack Mac’s” team-leading 10. Sebastien Le Toux leads MLS with 12 assists.

7. New York Red Bulls – No Tim Cahill and no Thierry Henry meant no offense in the 2-0 loss at Columbus. The club was also missing midfielder Loyd Sam and coach Mike Petke, who served a one-game suspension for previous sideline shenanigans.

6. Seattle Sounders – As we told you late Saturday night, the Sounders just went from too many star strikers to not enough of them. Eddie Johnson will be out for this week’s match in Houston, and possibly Obafemi Martins, too. A win on the road boosted the Sounders into second place in the standings (if you go by points per game).

5. Colorado Rapids – Martín Rivero’s wonderful header was the late equalizer against nine-man Chivas USA, the late, late capper Sunday night to MLS Round 24. Oscar Pareja’s team is unbeaten in its last eight.

4. Portland Timbers – It just has to be a better week in Portland Timbers Valley, doesn’t it? Smack in middle of having to listen to all this Dempsey Delirium, all that attention devoted to Clint Dempsey’s arrival in rival Seattle, the Timbers fell in a U.S. Open Cup semifinal, dropping an opportunity to host the 100-year-old tournament’s championship.

3. Vancouver Whitecaps – The Whitecaps are 8-3-3 since early May, one of the league’s more consistent sides. And in the MLS Weekly Review, we ask the question: are we giving enough credit to one Nigel Reo-Coker? He had two assists in the weekend win over San Jose.

2. Sporting Kansas City – DP striker Claudio Bieler has been a fine addition, but it is Kei Kamara who is driving the summer scoring around Sporting Park. Bieler has 9 goals in 24 matches, but Kamara has 7 in 14 matches since returning in the spring from England. He had two goals in Saturday’s commanding 3-0 win over New England.

1. Real Salt Lake – Two close wins made for a benchmark week around Rio Tinto. Jason Kreis’ useful blend of young and old contributed to a U.S. Open Cup semifinal win over Portland, and then again over the weekend to a 1-0 victory over Houston in league play. Alvaro Saborio (pictured above) has six goals in four games since returning from Costa Rican international duty.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.