Quick Six: Top story lines from the soccer weekend

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1. World Cup Qualifying catches up to the United States

World Cup Qualifying lasts too to avoid injuries, suspensions, or just bad luck during the tournament. The implications, however, are different in each region. In a confederations like Europe’s groups are so thin, you can still beat most of your competition when absences add up; whereas in Africa, a bad week can cost you your World Cup.

Like in South America, the final round of CONCACAF qualifying (North and Central America, plus the Caribbean) falls somewhere in between. Because half (or sometimes, more than half) of the group qualifies, you can afford a downtown, as long as you recover. You don’t have to be one of your final round’s best — you only have to be above average — even if the level of competition means absences will almost certainly cost you points.

That makes Friday’s result (and performance) easier to bear for the United States. They were without their best player (Michael Bradley) and biggest scoring threat (Jozy Altidore), but they were also in an environment were they weren’t favorites anyway. They didn’t play particularly well against a motivated opponent who’d dug in like they were the last line on the Eastern front. Particularly when you know you’ll see another day, those circumstances can be too much to overcome.

Thus ended the United States’ 12-game winning streak, a loss that also cost them first in CONCACAF qualifying. Now it’s a matter of rebounding. Again, though, they’ll be missing significant players in their next game, whether that’s through suspension (Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Altidore) or injury (Bradley).

Big picture, though, they’re still in better shape than the rival they’ll welcome to Columbus.

source: AP2. FMF passivity costs Mexico

There’s little worse than a lack of imagination. Not only does it make for a boring, mundane life, but it also keeps you from creating a future. It keeps you from recognizing potential. It keeps you from seeing better days ahead, and it prevents you from seeing beyond the surface of others.

The Mexican Federation’s inability to replace José Manuel De La Torre before Friday’s home loss to Honduras was a lack of imagination. Had they truly envision what their team could be, they wouldn’t have accepted “Chepo’s” failures. If they had the ability to see beyond their present (or the promise of their recent past), they would look to other coaches and imagine what their talented squad could do in another’s hands. Had they a more proactive vision for their future — one which included responses when the region’s best players veered off course — El Tri wouldn’t be fourth in CONCACAF qualifying entering Tuesday’s match in Columbus.

Now it’s up to Luis Fernando Tena to get the team back on track. And, of course, nothing says “well thought-out plan” like promoting the man who assisted the person you just fired. Regardless, the 55-year-old Tena (pictured, with FMF president Justino Compean) needs to provide some vision for a program that’s allowed their dream of becoming a world elite to descend into hopes of mere qualification for Brazil 2014.

source: Getty Images3. Spanish exhale in Helsinki

Spain was nervy about Friday’s game in Finland. They didn’t use those exact words, but you could read it between the lines. The current World, European champions had been scared by the 1-1 draw Finland took out of Gijón in March. They feared the Fins’ organization could handcuff them again on Friday, bringing France within striking distance in UEFA’s Group I.

And, of course, that never happened. Spain, forced forward by their fear, got an 18th minute goal from Jordi Alba to take an early lead. With Álvaro Negredo’s late insurance (86th minute), worries the Fins would again counter their way to a draw were placated. Spain got a 2-0 win in Helsinki and a three-point edge on France with two matches remaining.

Given those matches are at home against Belarus and Georgia, France can start planning for another playoff now. Yet beyond the result, there were some interesting tidbits from Spain’s trip to Finland. Marío Suárez stepped in for an injured Sergio Busquets and was fine in deep midfield, as was Raul Albiol in place of Gerard Piqué in central defense.

More significantly, 21-year-old Koke started over Alvaro Arbeloa at right back, as did Iker Casillas in goal. Whereas one move hints at a regular losing his place, the other tells us not even a benching at Real Madrid will take Spain’s captain out of Vicente Del Bosque’s lineup.

Elsewhere in European qualifying:

  • Group A: Belgium has a five-point lead on Croatia with two games to play after their 2-0 win in Scotland. A home win over Wales in the last round puts them through, as will a draw on Oct. 11 in Zagreb – a must-win for the Croats.
  • Group B: Alberto Gilardino’s goal gave Italy a 1-0 home win over second place Bulgaria, increasing the Azzurri’s lead to seven points. A win in any of their final three games (Czech Republic, Denmark, Armenia) sends them to Brazil. The Czechs, Danes, and Armenians are each one point behind Bulgaria for the potential playoff spot.
  • Group C: Germany (3-0 over Austria) and Sweden (2-1 at Ireland) not only affirmed their places (first and second) but dealt blows to the two chasing teams. Ireland and Austria are now three points out of a playoff spot, though the Swedes do face Austria and Germany over the final two rounds. The Germans lead the group by five.
  • Group D: The Netherlands needed a 94th minute penalty from Robin van Persie at Estonia to salvage a draw, and this group still isn’t close. Romania sits second, five points back, after their 3-0 win over Hungary, but they have little chance of tracking down the Oranje over the group’s final three rounds.
  • Group E: Switzerland’s surprise, home draw to Iceland (4-0) tightens thinks up, with Norway’s 2-0 win over Cyprus pulling them within four. The two teams meet in Oslo on Tuesday.
  • Group F: Cristiano Ronaldo’s 15-minute hat trick late on Friday gave Portugal a 4-2, come-from-behind win over Northern Ireland, keeping them two points clear at the top of the group. Russia, who’d beaten Luxembourg 4-1 at home earlier in the day, remains in pursuit.
  • Group G: Bosnia and Herzegonvina were upset at home 1-0 by Slovakia, allowing Greece’s 1-0 win in Liechtenstein to pull them even at the top of the group (both teams with 15 points through seven rounds). Bosnia, in Zilina on Tuesday, now faces the potential of dropping the second despite a +19 goal difference. Greece is unlikely to drop points at home to Lativa.

source: Reuters4. Upstarts’ dreams fading in South America

Runs to the semifinals of Copa America in 2011 where not only chalked up to a somewhat peculiar tournament but were also seen to portend something exciting for Peruvian, Venezuelan hopes of qualifying for World Cup 2014. Venezuela had never made a finals yet were seeing the benefits of cultural shifts from baseball to soccer slowly bear fruits. Peru, doormats of the region during the 2010 cycle, were witnessing head coach Sergio Markarián and the reintroduction of exiled talent vault them into continental contention. With Gerardo Martino gone for Paraguay, Marcelo Bielsa having left Chile, there could be room for two new South American qualifiers come Brazil.

While that’s likely the case, those spots are unlikely to be filled by Venezuela and Peru after this weekend. Venezuela, who have been in a qualifying position for most of the tournament, sit sixth after a decisive, 3-0 loss at Chile (fifth goes into a playoff). Meanwhile Peru, who had a chance to go fifth should they win at home against Uruguay, were handed a demoralizing defeat by La Celeste, Jefferson Farfan’s late goal not enough to offset Luís Suárez’s double. As a result, Uruguay, the continent’s champions, sit fifth, poised to rebound from their mid-cycle ennui.

The two teams likely to snag new World Cup spots are Colombia and Ecuador. The Colombians are now even with Argentina atop the standings after their 1-0 over Ecuador in Barranquilla, José Pekerman’s work paying off in a team that could be argued as the best, on form, in the region. And Ecuador, despite the loss, still claim fourth place ahead of Tuesday’s visit to Bolivia.

source: Reuters5. Africa down to 10 for 2014

As forgiving as Europe and CONCACAF’s qualifying campaigns can be, Africa’s is the opposite. After a preliminary, play-in round, teams get a six-match tournament (four-team groups, round robin), with only first place going through to the playoff round. There, 10 teams are paired off to compete in home-and-homes for the region’s five World Cup spots.

Have a bad week with injuries or suspensions against the tough team in your group? You’re done. You don’t have enough games to recover. If a player gets injured for his club the week before your do-or-die playoff? Tough. There’s no forgiveness in African qualifying, part of the reason we’re unlikely to see the region’s five best teams make it to Brazil.

After today’s results, we’re finally down to 10, the winner of each group to be drawn against another on Sept. 16 in Cairo. FIFA rankings separate the teams into seeded and unseeded pots, with a team from one drawn to face a nation from the other:

(Note: This is how the pots will probably play out. We won’t know officially until Sept. 12, when FIFA’s new rankings come out.)

Seeded

  • Cote d’Ivoire – The Ivorians had Group C locked up before Saturday’s 1-1 draw at home to Morocco.
  • Ghana – The Black Stars needed at least a result on Friday against Zambia in Kumasi, but goals by Abdul Waris and Kwadwo Asamoah gave them a 2-1 full points and Group D.
  • Cape Verde – A upset, 2-0 win at Tunisia on Saturday vaulted the Blue Sharks over the Eagles of Carthage, giving them Group B.
  • Nigeria – Two goals in a five-minute span around halftime gave the confederation champions a 2-0 win over visiting Malawi as well as Group F.
  • Algeria – The Desert Foxes not only take Group H from higher-ranked Mali (FIFA) but do so before Tuesday’s visit from the Malians to close group play.

Unseeded

  • Burkina Faso – Their 1-0 win Saturday over Gabon, combined with Congo’s draw in Niger, gave the Stallions a one-point win in Group E.
  • Cameroon – Aurelien Chedjou’s 42nd minute goal against visiting Libya gave the Indomitable Lions a 1-0 win Sunday in Yaoundé as well as first in Group I.
  • Senegal – Uganda needed a win in Marrakesh (match moved to a neutral site) but came up 1-0 losers as Sadio Mané’s 84th minute goal gave Senegal Group J.
  • Egypt – A perfect record through five rounds gives the Pharaohs Group G ahead of their Tuesday visit from Guinea.
  • Ethiopia – Saturday’s huge 2-1, come-from-behind win at Central Africa Republic gave the team first place over South Africa in Group A.

source:  6. International break breaks for Colorado Rapids

The downsides to Landon Donovan’s integration into the national team and Panamanian Jamie Penedo being signed as LA Galaxy’s new number one? International breaks become even worse for Bruce Arena’s side, who also lost Omar Gonzalez and Robbie Keane for Saturday’s visit from the Colorado Rapids. At a time of the season LA should be surging, World Cup Qualifying become a pothole.

Colorado took advantage. With a late goal from former Galaxy sniper Edson Buddle, Oscar Pareja’s team won a valuable three points in Carson, their 1-0 victory keeping them fourth in the Western Conference. On 42 points, they sit even with fifth place Portland, two ahead of sixth place Dallas, and one behind LA (third).

For a team that’s seen the rest of their Western Conference competition hold games in hand throughout the summer, it was a needed three points. Not only did the Rapids take them from the reigning champs, and not only was it a rare road win in a season that’s seen MLS clubs have trouble making up ground outside their own venues, but it also reminded everybody that the final months of the season aren’t automatically going to break against Colorado.

Yes, other teams will have a chance to make up points, but Colorado’s done a good job of stockpiling their own. And when they go heads up against their competition and to hold down their spot, they’re not just going to roll over and play victim to a narrative that has them coming back to the pack. Colorado’s a good, capable team, one that can take three points other teams may have been counting in their pockets.

And if they get a few breaks along the way, like World Cup Qualifying handcuffing the defending champs, so be it. That might make up for the weeks they’ve spent hearing others chirp about the games played column.

Wenger says Ozil, Sanchez want to stay at Arsenal

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Arsene Wenger has being discussing the situation regarding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil at Arsenal.

[ MORE: Sanchez to Chelsea? ]

Speaking to the media ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Manchester City on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com) at the Emirates Stadium, Wenger is hopeful his star duo will both remain with the Gunners beyond this summer.

Both Sanchez and Ozil are contracted to Arsenal until the summer of 2018 but are yet to agree a new deal and talks will not begin until the end of the current season.

Wenger isn’t too concerned despite Sanchez being linked with plenty of the biggest clubs on the planet.

“I personally believe both of them want to stay. I hope the club will find an agreement with them,” Wenger said.

Asked about his own future, Wenger had no update about reports suggesting he was about to sign a new two-year contract extension. That was despite saying before the international break that he would reveal his decision soon.

“It’s a subject that at the moment it is not sorted completely out,” Wenger said. “I’m very clear in my mind. Do I stay two months or two years? My commitment will be exactly the same all the time. It does not influence my attitude.”

So, Wenger is standing firm and did not want to get into any details regarding his own future as his current deal runs out in the summer.

However, the fact he said it is “not sorted completely out” suggests that talks are ongoing and that would also seem to point towards Wenger staying on after 20 years in charge.

There’s no doubt that this situation rumbling on has impacted Wenger’s team in recent weeks as Arsenal crashed out of the UEFA Champions League 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich and have also lost four of their last five Premier League games.

Bagging a big win this weekend against City would significantly boost Arsenal’s hopes of finishing in the top four but perhaps everyone connected with Arsenal is more eager to have Wenger’s future sorted and then everything else will slot into place.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
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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.