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.

PL Sunday preview: Can Man United, Liverpool keep pace?

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Highly unlikely to overcome 14- and 21-point deficits in the title race, respectively, Manchester United and Liverpool — along with the rest of the Premier League’s top-six — are merely in a race for second. West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth — their opponents on Sunday, respectively — fear relegation.

[ PL ROUNDUP: Man City untouchable; Chelsea, Arsenal win narrowly ]

West Brom vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Try telling Jose Mourinho, the only man in the PL still refusing to concede the title to Manchester City, that the title race is over. The performances have often been ugly and ground out until the final whistle — especially in the absence of Paul Pogba, who’ll once again be unavailable through suspension — but Mourinho’s men have won five of their last six (the only defeat coming last weekend, to Man City) as they head into Sunday’s annual trip to the Hawthorns, where they’ll face 19th-place West Brom. The Baggies haven’t won in their last 15 PL outings (eight draws), a woeful run which dates back to the second week of the 2017-18 season.

While United have been nearly impenetrable defensively (11 goals conceded in 17 games), a pair of costly errors — each committed by star striker Romelu Lukaku — cost the Red Devils dearly against City, as did their recurring inability (against the PL’s top teams) to control the game through possession and create scoring chances with consistency. The same struggles reared their ugly heads in a 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday.

As poor as the results have been over the course of four months, West Brom can hang their hat on a decent defensive record — just 22 goals conceded in 17 games, which puts them squarely in the middle of the table. If Alan Pardew‘s side sets out to defend for 90 minutes, the Baggies might just get something out of Sunday’s clash. Pardew was quite pleased by the improvements he saw during Wednesday’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool, and he’s hoping for a repeat performance against United.

“We kept them very quiet and created on transition better moments, in the limited number that we had, than we did at Swansea,” he said. “That’s an improvement, but still an area to work on. We had some really strong performances — and if you get four or five ‘eights’ in your team that normally constitutes points.”

INJURIES: West Brom — OUT: Nacer Chadli (hip), Matt Phillips (hamstring), Craig Dawson (knee), James Morrison (achilles); RETURNING: Gareth Barry (thigh)| Man United — OUT: Paul Pogba (suspension), Eric Bailly (ankle), Marouane Fellaini (knee), Michael Carrick (heart)


Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Every time Liverpool take a step or two forward, they take a step or two right back to where they began. Case in point: back-to-back wins over Stoke City and Bright & Hove Albion, by a combined score of 8-1, which briefly vaulted them ahead of Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur in the race for the top-four; followed by back-to-back draws against bottom-half sides Everton and West Brom.

With that side, Jurgen Klopp‘s side is unbeaten in its last eight league games and boasts one of the league’s most potent attacking records (34 goals conceded in 17 games — third-most behind the two Manchester clubs).

Cherries boss Eddie Howe was encouraged by his side’s performances in that narrow loss to United, and the 40-year-old can sense that better days are on the near horizon.

“We’re disappointed because we’ve been beaten, but I’m really pleased with the performance,” he said. “I thought we were very good today and were very disciplined out of possession. We were also very good with the ball and created numerous chances. We really did establish ourselves in the game very early and there were some really good individual performances today. The team functioned very well.”

INJURIES: Bournemouth — OUT: Tyrone Mings (back), Brad Smith (hip), Adam Federici (knee) | Liverpool — OUT: Alberto Moreno (ankle), Adam Lallana (fitness), Joel Matip (thigh), Nathaniel Clyne (back), Emre Can (suspensions); QUESTIONABLE: Daniel Sturridge (hamstring)

PL roundup: Chalk at the top, blowouts at the bottom

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Get caught up on all of Saturday’s Premier League fixtures…

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Manchester City 4-1 Tottenham HotspurFULL RECAP

What’s left to say about Man City at this point? Christmas is still nine days away, and their lead in the title race has already ballooned to 14 points. Pep Guardiola‘s side will have such an advantage that they’ll be able to choose between chasing the elusive unbeaten PL season, or resting key players with an eye toward winning the UEFA Champions League. Or, you know, he might just choose to do both, because he can.

Anyway, Ilkay Gudogan, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling (twice) scored the goals as City blew the doors off Tottenham. Christian Eriksen‘s consolation goal was little more than a 92nd-minute pity present.

Chelsea 1-0 SouthamptonFULL RECAP

Marcos Alonso scored a stunning free kick — what else? (WATCH HERE) — to give Chelsea a 1-0 victory over Southampton at Stamford Bridge. The Blues had ample opportunity to put the game to bed, but much like fellow top-four chasers Arsenal, couldn’t do so and were made to sweat all the way through the game’s final moments. The victory pulls Antonio Conte‘s side level with Manchester United for second in the PL table, though United don’t play until Sunday.

Arsenal 1-0 Newcastle UnitedFULL RECAP

Mesut Ozil scored one of the goals of the season (WATCH HERE), and it was all Arsenal needed to edge past Newcastle and leave Rafa Benitez‘s side sitting in the relegation zone another few days, at least. Thanks to points dropped by Tottenham and Burnley (yes, Burnley), Arsenal now sit fourth in the league table with only Liverpool capable of leapfrogging them this weekend.

Leicester City 0-3 Crystal PalaceFULL RECAP

The good times were really rolling for Leicester, who entered Saturday’s clash with Palace riding a five-game unbeaten streak (four straight wins) under new manager Claude Puel. Oh, how quickly fortunes can change in the PL. Christian Benteke and Wilfried Zaha had the visitors 2-0 up by halftime, and Bakary Sako added another goal during second-half stoppage time, just for good measure. Speaking of fortunes changing quickly, Palace now sit 14th in the league table, four places and two points clear of the relegation zone.

Roy Hodgson, miracle worker.

Watford 1-4 Huddersfield TownFULL RECAP

Huddersfield will stave off relegation quite comfortably if they can continue picking up lopsided wins every second or third game for the rest of the season, even if they’re sandwiched by blowout defeats. Saturday’s romp past Watford will surely go down as the most straightforward all season, as the Terriers went 2-0 up in 23 minutes, then went a man up after Troy Deeney was sent off in the 33rd. It was 3-0 after five second-half minutes, and 4-0 with more than 20 minutes still to play. Back up to 11th, David Wagner‘s side is six points clear of relegation just one game shy of the halfway mark.

Stoke City 0-3 West Ham UnitedFULL RECAP

Marko Arnautovic haunted his former club, Stoke City, as he scored a goal and was a constant threat throughout West Ham’s 3-0 victory at the bet365 Stadium. That makes three games without a loss, including two wins, for the Hammers under new manager David Moyes. Like Palace, they are also now two points clear of the relegation zone.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0-0 BurnleyFULL RECAP

Burnely, who began the weekend level with Tottenham and Liverpool (and ahead of Arsenal) for fourth place, dropped points for the first time in three games. Brighton, meanwhile, haven’t won in their last seven PL games and have slowly but surely slid back to the relegation-fighting pack.

Sunday’s PL schedule

West Bromwich Albion vs. Manchester United — 9:15 a.m. ET
Bournemouth vs. Liverpool — 11:30 a.m. ET

World champs! Ronaldo goal gives Madrid a 3rd CWC title

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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo scored from a free-kick to help Real Madrid claim its third Club World Cup title after beating Brazilian team Gremio 1-0 Saturday.

The Ballon d’Or winner fired his right-footed shot between two players in Gremio’s defensive wall, leaving goalkeeper Marcelo Grohe no hope of reaching the ball before it bounced inside the post in the 53rd minute.

Madrid defended the title it won last season as it collected its fifth trophy of 2017, along with the Champions League, Spanish league, European Super Cup and Spanish Super Cup.

Ronaldo celebrated the goal by rushing to Madrid’s dugout where he was embraced by his teammates. The goal increased Ronaldo’s record to seven goals in the competition. He also scored in Madrid’s 2-1 comeback win over Al Jazira in the semifinals.

“What am I going to say? The numbers speak for themselves. I am very happy. The team played fantastically well and it has won another title,” Ronaldo said. “We played a very good game and deserved the victory.”

Madrid equaled Barcelona’s record of three titles for the short knockout tournament between the champions of FIFA’s six continental confederations and the host nation’s league winner.

European clubs have won 10 of the last 11 Club World Cups, with only Brazil’s Corinthians interrupting that streak in 2012 when it defeated Chelsea.

Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane played the same starting 11 from last season’s Champions League final in June, when Madrid crushed Juventus 4-1 – led by Ronaldo’s double.

The European champions outclassed Gremio throughout the match, but the closest it got to scoring in the first half was Dani Carvajal’s goal-bound volley in the 20th that was cleared by Pedro Geromel.

While Gremio had to scramble on several occasions to stop Madrid inside its own area, the closest the South American champions came at the other end was a free-kick by Edilson that swerved onto the top netting near the half-hour mark.

Geromel had tried to set the tone early on with a hard tackle that left Ronaldo writhing in pain, and hoping for a booking that never came.

Ronaldo had a poor first half. He twice erred in short passes with his back heel that failed to reach his teammates, and he squandered a good opportunity when he took too long to shoot when a loose ball fell to him close to the net.

All that changed after the interval. Ronaldo baited Jailson into fouling him outside the area with some fancy dribbling, setting up his winner.

Ronaldo thought he had another goal moments later, but Karim Benzema was ruled offside before he passed the ball back to Ronaldo.

Marcelo Grohe kept his side in the game by pushing Luka Modric’s shot onto his post and denied Ronaldo a second goal, but Gremio never mounted a serious response to get the equalizer.

Bundesliga wrap: Pulisic’s late winner sends BVB 3rd (video)

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While Bayern Munich continue to run away with their sixth straight Bundesliga title, the royal rumble over who’ll finish second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth — seven sides are currently separated by four points from second to eighth — rages on.

[ MORE: Man City make it 16 straight wins | Three studs, three duds ]

Stuttgart 0-1 Bayern Munich

You’ll quickly notice an emerging theme from Saturday’s games: late, result-altering goals.

Bayern dominated every phase of play the way they usually do, but were made to wait 79 minutes for a breakthrough. It was beginning to look as if their lead might shrink to seven points this weekend, but Thomas Mueller was more than happy to play the part of hero.

There was further heartbreak for Stuttgart, who then had a penalty kick saved by Lars Ulreich in the 93rd minute.

Borussia Dortmund 2-1 Hoffenheim

Dortmund have won back-to-back league games, for the first time since September, since firing manager Peter Bosz last week, and this one came courtesy of a certain, well-known American teenager.

Mark Uth put Hoffenheim ahead in the 21st minute, and Dortmund appeared to be headed for their first loss under new boss Peter Stoger. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang brought the home side back to level terms in the 63rd minute, but again, it seemed for the longest time that it wouldn’t be enough.

Then came the 89th minute, time for Christian Pulisic to shine. The presence of mind to flick the ball over the goalkeeper with his first touch, the control to drop the ball exactly where he wanted it on the other side, the quick feet to maneuver his way around the ‘keeper. The euphoric feeling as he slams the ball into an empty net.

Eintracht Frankfurt 2-2 Schalke

Schalke are making something of a routine out of falling behind by multiple goals, only to roar back to life and rescue a point in the game’s dying moments. First, there was the comeback from 4-0 against Dortmund. Today, the hill to climb was halved in size, but the point won is no less significant.

After falling 1-0 behind in the 1st minute and 2-0 behind in the 64th, Domenico Tedesco’s side got goals from Breel Embolo in the 81st minute and Naldo — scorer of the final goal in that 4-4 thriller — in the 94th.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away Pts
 Bayern Munich 17 13 2 2 37 11 26 7-1-0 6-1-2 41
 FC Schalke 04 17 8 6 3 28 21 7 5-3-1 3-3-2 30
 Borussia Dortmund 17 8 4 5 39 24 15 4-1-3 4-3-2 28
 RB Leipzig 16 8 4 4 25 22 3 5-2-0 3-2-4 28
 Moenchengladbach 17 8 4 5 27 28 -1 5-2-2 3-2-3 28
 Bayer Leverkusen 16 7 6 3 30 19 11 4-4-0 3-2-3 27
 1899 Hoffenheim 17 7 5 5 27 22 5 5-3-1 2-2-4 26
 Eintracht Frankfurt 17 7 5 5 20 18 2 2-2-4 5-3-1 26

Elsewhere in the Bundesliga

Augsburg 3-3 Freiburg
Werder Bremen 2-2 Mainz
Cologne 1-0 Wolfsburg

Sunday’s Bundesliga schedule

Hannover vs. Bayern Leverkusen — 9:30 a.m. ET
RB Leipzig vs. Hertha Berlin — 12 p.m. ET