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UEFA World Cup Qualifying: Four countries could book their tickets to Brazil

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The penultimate round of UEFA World Cup qualifying kicks off on Friday, October 11, with the final matches — and the ultimate winners and losers — to be played out on Tuesday, October 15. Just two countries have qualified out of Europe thus far: Italy and the Netherlands.

That means there are still eleven spots up for grabs. Seven groups are left to be decided, while eight second-place countries will qualify for the playoff round. As there are nine groups in UEFA qualifying, that means one second-place country won’t even get a second chance. Right now that country is Iceland, who have the same number of points as Bulgaria, but Bulgaria have the better goal difference. Of course, all could change over the final two rounds.

A few countries are this close to booking their trips to Brazil. Belgium and Germany are guaranteed at least a spot in the playoff round, while Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Spain and France will all take at least second place in their groups. As for the Friday night matches, Belgium, Russia, Switzerland and Germany could all clinch their place in World Cup 2014.

(MORE: What’s at stake in upcoming World Cup qualifying)

Now let’s take a closer look, group by group:

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Croatia-Belgium
Wales-Macedonia

With everyone else eliminated from Group A, Croatia and Belgium are now fighting it out to avoid the playoffs. Belgium, undefeated and on a six-game winning streak, are in a much better position than the hosts, and can qualify for Brazil by taking just a point. The visitors are without Vincent Kompany and Christian Benteke, but considering their wealth of attacking options, it’s highly likely they’ll manage at least a draw.

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Armenia- Bulgaria
Malta-Czech Republic
Denmark-Italy

Italy have already punched their ticket, but hosts Denmark are one point back of second-placed Bulgaria. With Italy likely to trot out some less experienced faces in the front line — the rumor is that Antonio Candreva and Alessandro Diamanti will flank Pablo Osvaldo — the Danes may fancy their chances at getting a win and slipping into the playoffs. Bulgaria, meanwhile, must face Armenia, who technically still have a chance, although they’ll need to win both matches while hoping everyone above them slips up.

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Faroe Islands-Kazakhstan
Germany-Republic of Ireland
Sweden-Austria

While technically Germany need a win against Ireland to secure qualification, a point is almost certainly sufficient — they’ve got a goal difference that’s fifteen better than second-placed Sweden. Speaking of Sweden, their trip to the playoffs isn’t assured. If Austria win, that puts the two on level terms, but Austria’s final match is against the Faroe Islands, who have yet to earn a point, while Sweden face Germany in the last round. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and company will really want to make themselves secure with a win against Austria tonight.

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Netherlands-Hungary
Andorra-Romania
Estonia-Turkey

It’s still quite a fight in Group D. Holland is already through, but that leaves Hungary in second, with Romania and Turkey each just a point behind. If the Netherlands approach the match with little concern, Hungary should be able to hang on and slip into the playoffs, particularly as they face minnows Andorra in the last round. Turkey have the toughest battle, having to face Holland in the last round, but they’ve won their last four matches and are more likely to be concentrating on whether or not Hungary will slip up.

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Iceland- Cyprus
Albania-Switzerland
Slovenia-Norway

Seems like everything is up in the air in this group. If Switzerland pull off a win against Albania, they’re through. They’re also through with a draw if Iceland can’t win, and even a loss is ok if neither Slovenia nor Iceland come away with all three points. So, barring a big slip, let’s just say the Swiss are through to Brazil. It’s the second-place race that’s interesting, with Iceland currently occupying that slot, Slovenia one point back, Norway one point back of them and Albania one point back of them. Yeah, it’s unlikely that it’ll be anyone other than Slovenia or Iceland, but it’s still possible. Plus, there’s the added factor that, with the second place team in Group E holding so few points at the moment, whoever takes it will have to up their game to make sure they’re not at the bottom of those second placed finishers.

Yes, it’s definitely enough to make your head hurt.

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Luxembourg-Russia
Portugal-Israel
Azerbaijan-Northern Ireland

There’s just a point separating Russia and Portugal, but if Russia win and Portugal lose, that point is enough to put the Russians through to Brazil. With Luxembourg having won just once, it should be simple enough for Fabio Capello’s men to get the job done. It’ll be harder for Portugal, as technically Israel aren’t out of it yet. A win against Cristiano Ronaldo and his merry marauders, plus victory against Northern Ireland, will see Israel slip in if Portugal can’t pull off victory in the last round against Luxembourg.

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Lithuania-Latvia
Bosnia and Herzegovina- Liechtenstein
Greece-Slovakia

It’s only Greece and Bosnia that remain in the running in this group. The two are even on points, but it’s Bosnia that have the upper hand, boasting an impressive +20 goal difference, compared with Greece’s +5. Plus, Greece have to face Slovakia, who’ve looked quite lively over their last two outings, while Bosnia get Liechtenstein, who are bottom of the group with just two points. Neither side can secure their place tonight, and it’ll likely go down to the final minutes of the final round.

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England-Montenegro
Moldova-San Marino

Ukraine-Poland

Ah, this group. All eyes on England vs. Montenegro, as the world waits to see if the founders of football manage to make it to the World Cup. England are just a point above Montenegro, although Ukraine, with a better goal difference, sit in between. Montenegro managed a point against the Three Lions the last time out, and, despite attempting to qualify for their first World Cup as an independent nation, are facing much less pressure at Wembley. Getting a point here means it goes down to the wire in this group, particularly if Ukraine beat Poland, as they face San Marino in the last round and will most likely end up being the ones heading straight to Brazil.

(MORE: taking a closer look at England vs. Montenegro)

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Spain-Belarus

Just one match in Group I, and while it won’t punch Spain’s ticket to Brazil, the match against bottom-of-the-group Belarus could very well put France into the playoffs. Having played one less match than les bleus, Spain need just four points against Belarus and Georgia to end qualification on top of the group.

Mike Francesa rants about Sports Illustrated’s Copa America coverage, Lionel Messi cover

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - MAY 11: Copa America 2016 is displayed during the Soccerex Americas Forum Mexico City Day 1 at Camino Real Polanco Hotel on May 11, 2016 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Victor Chavez/Getty Images for Soccerex)
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Clueless clown Sports talk host Mike Francesa is known for being a crotchety, opinionated old man who has trouble adapting to changing times.

He’s had plenty of sparkling moments where he displays his ignorance room to grow when it comes to the world outside of New York sports, such as his knowledge of the Catholic hierarchy or his love for synergistic network promotion. He is the Tommy Wiseau of sports broadcasting.

So when Mike’s beloved childhood magazine Sports Illustrated soiled its cover with a picture of Lionel Messi, whom apparently he nor any of his staffers know anything about beyond his last name, the man was enraged.

You can listen to the whole segment here. Let’s break this gold mine down.

I got my SI, and the cover is “Summer of Soccer.” Where is the summer of soccer going to be? I have no idea. Now, I know I get accused of knowing nothing about soccer, because I don’t. I know absolutely zero about soccer, and that’s more than I want to know. Sorry! Just being honest. It’s a little late for me and soccer.

So…uh…why are you talking about it then?

On the eve of ‘Copa America’ SI has how many pages in its magazine this week…1…2…3…4…5…6…7…8…9…10…11…pages on this event. 11 pages, and I can’t find anybody who’s ever heard of it. 11 pages…you gotta be kidding me! No wonder they can’t give them away. This is a magazine that, as a child, I used to read it from cover to cover.”

So Mike thinks magazines don’t sell because they cover soccer, and he thinks that because he never read about soccer as a child, he shouldn’t have to read about that dang sport now.

He proceeds to then ask his cohost/producer/sidekick if he’d ever heard of Lionel Messi, to which his cohost/producer/sidekick sheepishly says he’s heard of him but only by his last name. Let’s just skip that part.

I’m sure to soccer fans this is an enormous event, which God bless them, I have no issue with. But mainstream America is not paying…doesn’t even know…if I go out and poll the newsroom, no one’s ever heard of this event. My guys in here didn’t even know what it was…nor have I! Nobody’s ever mentioned it. Has anyone ever called you [producer] to promote the Copa America on my show? [he says no]. If you’re going to promote something in sports you’re going to do it on this show. Bottom line is no one’s ever done that.

Guys, we should all just go home, we forgot to promote soccer on Francesa. Fuggetaboutit.

He then stumbled through reading what the Copa America actually is and what it entails, with an overly forced exasperated tone just to prove how frustrated he is with Sports Illustrated. Shame on them! Oh, and in this part he calls FIFA “Fie-fuh,” confuses the Olympics with an actual team that’s playing, and thinks it will be played in France. Yawn. Let’s wrap this up.

To spend 12 pages in SI on that? I mean, listen, I understand there are people here who love soccer, and they’ll be glued to it, and watch it on TV, which I understand, but man, how is that going to be part of mainstream America? I don’t get it.

You know, I don’t get it either. We should all just go home. Go home everyone! Fun’s over, we’ve been found out.

I left out the part where he calls Sports Illustrated “a sad reminder of the of a different world.” Ironic considering who it’s coming from.

For the record, callers lit Francesa up after this, so some justice was served. If you can’t get enough of the Francesa soccer shenanigans, check out this MLS read he attempts to get through, which takes him two and a half minutes and our hero realizes that NYCFC doesn’t have a “nickname” and that David Villa is pronounced like Pancho Villa. Stuff of legends.

Cellar dwelling Houston Dynamo, Owen Coyle decide to part ways

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10:  Head Coach Owen Coyle of the Houston Dynamo smiles prior to an MLS soccer game against Toronto FC at BMO Field on May 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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A week ago, Owen Coyle was whispered as possibly leaving the Houston Dynamo to lead Celtic.

With that opening filled by Brendan Rodgers, the Dynamo and Coyle cut ties anyway.

[ USMNT-ECUADOR: Match recap | Player ratings | 3 things ]

Coyle struggled to pick up the pieces left behind by Dominic Kinnear in Houston, and the Dynamo are dead last in Major League Soccer after a quarter of the season.

On Wednesday night, the Dynamo announced that Coyle wanted to be closer to his family in England and would be leaving the club immediately.

From HoustonDynamo.com:

“I asked Chris (Canetti) if I could speak with him today and I explained to him the challenge of being away from my family and how we all want the best for Houston Dynamo,” Coyle said. “I want to wish all members of the staff, from owner Gabriel Brener to president Chris Canetti to general manager Matt Jordan, everyone has been such a source of support, along with the players and the technical staff. I’d like to thank the Dynamo supporters, who have been outstanding. We have a brilliant club, and I have no doubt success is just around the corner.”

The Dynamo went 14W-21L-11T during his reign, but have also been severely lacking in talent. The long delay from acquiring Cubo Torres to getting him on the pitch was one of the many things that frustrated progress in Houston.

Coyle is best known for his time with Bolton Wanderers, though that ended early in a Championship season following relegation. Houston is 3W-7L-2T this season, and has Vancouver up next.

Wade Barrett and a pair of Dynamo assistants will lead the club in the interim.

Three things we learned from the late USMNT win over Ecuador

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Frickson Erazo #3 of Ecuador battle for control of the ball against Clint Dempsey #8 of the United States in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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Darlington Nagbe was the star against Ecuador, giving the United States the late 1-0 win in Frisco. There wasn’t much to take away from the match, but one attacking setup certainly performed better than the other, and that was the biggest talking point.

[ RECAP – United States earns late win over Ecuador ]

Three things we learned

1 – When the US plays good defense, it has a creativity problem.

This isn’t anything new, as teams who sit back obviously will have less of the ball. But this isn’t exactly that. The US defended quite well through the first 45 minutes, and they held the majority of the possession, but they failed to do much with it. It resulted in…

That. Yuck. It was horrid to watch, and is frustrating given the level of competition being faced compared to the level of competition to come.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings against Ecuador ]

2 – Does the Pulisic-Wood-Nagbe lineup have more to offer?

The United States began with Clint Dempsey isolated up front, supported by Gyasi Zardes and Graham Zusi, with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones sitting deep. That lineup was utter trash in the attacking half, producing one good chance in the first half which Zardes flubbed. When Klinsmann switched things up soon after halftime, bringing on Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe, and Alejandro Bedoya, the attack began to show life. It certainly helped that all those substitutes were placed in their natural positions, something not always a given for Klinsmann. This may give the US manager a good look at the more creative setup, and could bode well for the aforementioned players heading into the Copa America. There are obvious downsides to this lineup, such as lack of experience, but it might be worth the risk, especially with those players much more likely to be contributors in 2018 given their age.

3 – Christian Pulisic can actually be a useful piece this summer

On for the final half-hour, the young Borussia Dortmund winger provided positive touches along the left flank. He created a few opportunities for Bobby Wood and Graham Zusi, a promising development to push back against the “he’s not ready” crowd. Pulisic was electric down the left, and was vital in the push the last 20 minutes. It’s just 20 minutes, but it’s a promising small sample size.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s late win over Ecuador

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Brad Guzman #1 of the United States blocks a shot against Ecuador in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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“Fits and starts” is a good way to describe the United States friendly against Ecuador in Texas on Wednesday, a match that ended 1-0 to the hosts after a controlling second half.

The Yanks took more than 20 minutes to get their act together, and then had a bit of trouble penetrating La Tricolor’s back four.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

The second half, however, was straight-up dominant. The lack of finish was troubling, but Darlington Nagbe took care of that. The Portland Timbers man not only scored, but also piled vindication on supporters who couldn’t wait to see him up high, and Michael Bradley deep.

And Christian Pulisic, well, he’s a swoon-worthy talent.

STARTING XI

Brad Guzan — 8 — Didn’t have a ton to do, but did it very well. A welcome improvement from the Aston Villa keeper.

Fabian Johnson — 6 — Probably deserves a 7, but that missed trap of a Jermaine Jones cross was just so ugly.

Steve Birnbaum — 6 — Very shaky early, but settled into the game.

FRISCO, TX - MAY 25:  Christian Noboa #6 of Ecuador takes a shot against John Brooks #6 of the United States and Brad Guzman #1 of the United States in the first half during an International Friendly match at Toyota Stadium on May 25, 2016 in Frisco, Texas.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
 (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

John Brooks (off 78′) — 7 — Played very well after a weak opening 10 minutes or so. Still takes chances like the center back version of Jermaine Jones, but those chances came off well on Wednesday.

DeAndre Yedlin — 6 — Hit and miss from the right back, who had a heck of a task in dealing with Jefferson Montero. Still, the defensive improvement is impossible to ignore.

Kyle Beckerman (off HT) — 6 — Might’ve picked up an injury. Hard-nosed as usual, but feels like he’s a single lost step away from not fitting the bill.

Jermaine Jones (off 64′) — 6 — Playing as an attack-minded mid with some defensive responsibilities may be the role he was meant to play, and his early second half was promising before subbing off for Bedoya.

Michael Bradley — 7 — No surprise that he — and the States — thrived once Klinsmann moved the Toronto FC man deeper in the midfield.

Gyasi Zardes (off HT) — 5 — The effort was there, as were the runs. The kid works hard and has a brain for the game, but his first touch betrayed him once again. Should’ve been 1-0.

Graham Zusi (off, 88′)– 7 — You know what you’re getting with Zusi, and the Sporting KC man was one of several players who played an assist-worthy ball in this one. Bedoya tapped his 72nd minute pass just wide of the far post.

Clint Dempsey (off 63′) — 5 —  Will be kicking himself for a poor first touch on an early second half cross from Bobby Wood. Didn’t get much service in the first half, but did play a great ball to Zardes.

Substitutes

Darlington Nagbe (on HT) — 8 — This guy. We all knew he had it in him, even Klinsmann after a long enough wait. He was the best player on the pitch in the second half.

Bobby Wood (on HT) — 6 — Missed a few key chances, but set up Nagbe’s winner.

Christian Pulisic (on 63′) — 7 — Dangerous, lively, and that touch. More of him, please.

Alejandro Bedoya (on 64′) — 6 — Should’ve scored, but didn’t. Also probably should’ve started, so we’ll cut him a bit of slack.

Matt Besler (on 78′) — 6 — Totally fine, but Ecuador rarely tested during his tenure.

Michael Orozco (on 88′) — N/A