Cristiano Ronaldo

European World Cup qualifying playoff round: Excellent matchups across the board

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The playoff round in Europe’s World Cup qualifying procedure are a fantastic reminder that not only does Europe have just an unbelievably strong lineup of teams, but also how difficult it truly is to make the World Cup.

The following have already qualified: Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Russia, Netherlands, Bosnia, and England.

However, that leaves four more spots for European teams to snatch, and the matches to take place Friday are a treat.

First up is Iceland at Croatia at 2pm ET.  The Croatians are the favorites in the tie, but the team is in a state of flux and with the first leg in Reykjavik, it’s a chance for Iceland to not only make a statement but put themselves in an envious position.

With Croatia losing their last two matches in the group stage of qualifying to Belgium and Scotland, manager Igor Stimac decided to resign after a tumultuous one year in charge. Niko Kovac has taken over, and the Blazers will look to follow the Berlin-born man’s half-German, half-Croatian playing mentality.

At 2:45 the other three matches get under way.  These will no doubt be headlined by the matchup between Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden in Lisbon.

Both teams are coming off vastly different stories in their group stage travels.  Portugal got what appeared to be a cake walk of a draw, but could not overcome a surprisingly strong Russia side and finished in second place by 1 point.  Their 21 points was the second-most of any group-stage runners up.

Sweden, on the other hand, faced a very difficult draw with Germany, Austria, and Republic of Ireland all in the mix and surprised a few by qualifying for the playoff round, even coming back from 3 goals down to draw 4-4 with Germany in Berlin.

The Swedes have come out swinging in the press before the match, with Ibrahimovic saying that “we deserve to go to Brazil more” despite the Portugese being the favorites.

source: AP
Ballon d’Or favorite Franck Ribery will look to help France overtake Ukraine en route to Brazil.

France hosts Ukraine in another exciting draw.

Les Bleus had a horrendous draw in the group stage, with the presence of defending champoins Spain in the five-team group making automatic qualification almost impossible.

However, their trek to the 2014 World Cup won’t be a guarantee either against a Ukrainian side that has kept seven clean sheets in a row. Seven!

France, despite boasting big attacking names like Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba, and Ballon d’Or favorite Franck Ribery, have also held a strong defensive unit, allowing just two goals to Belarus in their last six matches dating back to June.

Finally, Greece has Romania in their path to Brazil as the Greeks only missed out on automatic qualification on goal differential having finished level on points with Bosnia.

The Greeks come into the match in Athens having kept a whopping 11 clean sheets in their last 12 matches, a 3-1 loss to Bosnia the only exception.  Their outstanding defensive form is being led by Borussia Dortmund’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who has taken the defensive leadership all on his own in the long-term injury absence of young star Kyriakos Papadopoulos.

The Romanians are no slouch, however, having pipped Turkey and Hungary for their spot in the playoff round.

Is MLS MVP a three-horse race at the All-Star “break”?

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco laughs after being named Major League Soccer's 2015 Most Valuable Player in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec.  2, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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With the 2016 MLS All-Star Game set to be played Thursday night (versus Arsenal, at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif.), it got me thinking about the race for this year’s Most Valuable Player award. (If MLS is going to continue holding the All-Star Game every year — and they are — it should include an actual break, as is the case in all other America sports.)

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While the field is a small one at this point of the campaign, it’s also much closer than it was last year, when Sebastian Giovinco took home the honor in an absolute landslide of a vote.

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

The reigning MVP is on pace for something of a come-down in his second season in MLS, but when you put up 22 goals and 16 assists in your debut campaign, can you really expect to replicate that kind of production from one year to the next? Still, 11 goals (on the most shots in the league – 124) and 7 assists through 20 games (Giovinco has played in 19) has him on pace for 18 goals and 12 assists. Of course, when you consider he snapped a skid of eight games without a goal with a hat trick Saturday night, and that he’s unlikely to endure such a slump through the final 14 games, 18 and 12 should be considered the proverbial floor.

TFC have scored just 25 goals this season, and Giovinco has scored or assisted 18 of them (72 percent).

As for TFC’s present standing and how that impacts Giovinco’s MVP candidacy, fifth place through 20 games is a disappointment considering this was to be “the year” where they were less of a collection of talent, and more a functional team. Of course, injuries (and national team call-ups) have robbed the Reds of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Will Johnson for lengthy periods already. That TFC find themselves presently a playoff team, and a measly six points back of the Eastern Conference’s top spot with two games in hand, should benefit Giovinco’s case more than hurt it.

David Villa, New York City FC

This one’s pretty simple: NYCFC weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the top spot of the East this season, yet that’s where they find themselves at the break, and Villa has spearheaded their unlikely run by scoring 13 goals (most in MLS – on 117 shots – 46 more than the next-closest player) and one assist through 22 games (Villa has played in 21). The question is this, though: will Patrick Vieira’s side still be there come the end of the season? So much of Villa’s claim to MVP is that he’s been the best player on one of the best (and certainly most surprising) teams in MLS this year.

If they’re to fall back into the pack (they’re just two points clear of the New York Red Bulls following Sunday’s 4-1 derby disaster, and only four points from fourth), Villa will quickly fall from MVP candidate to “the best best player on a subpar team.”

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
(AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact

The Impact have, for my money, the most complete roster in the Eastern Conference. Didier Drogba is arguably the most dominant goal-scoring force MLS has ever seen (8 goals in 12 appearances this season; 11 in 11 last year), and the depth in midfield and defense is unparalleled, yet Piatti has been the unrivaled star through the first 20 games of the season (he has played in 18). His 12 goals and 5 assists are rivaled only by Giovinco’s numbers, and he’s been a far more consistent contributor than the Italian (never more than three games without a goal, while playing as a non-forward, unlike Giovinco).

The knock on Piatti has always been his inability to stay healthy and approach a pace of 30 appearances in a single season. Finally consistently healthy in 2016, he’s taken his short-term production and replicated that same kind of output over 90 percent of his team’s games this season. If he can reach 30 games played this year, Piatti has the best chance of stopping Giovinco from becoming the first back-to-back MVP winner in league history.

Montreal Impact's Ignacio Piatti, left, of Argentina, scores a goal as Vancouver Whitecaps' Kendall Waston, of Costa Rica, defends during first half MLS soccer action, in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

On the fringe, with a chance to catch the leaders: Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls – 5 goals, 12 assists), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers – 9 goals, 5 assists)

MLS Snapshot: Sporting KC 3-0 Seattle Sounders (video)

Sporting Kansas City forward Dom Dwyer, center, is congratulated by teammates, including midfielder Roger Espinoza (27), following his goal during the first half of an MLS soccer match against the Houston Dynamo in Kansas City, Kan., Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
AP Photo/Orlin Wagner
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The game in 100 words (or less): It would appear, based on the optics of the Seattle Sounders’ 3-0 defeat at the hands of Sporting Kansas City, a result that sees Sigi Schmid’s side fall 10 points adrift of the Western Conference playoff places, that the legendary coach’s time in the Emerald City has run out. It wasn’t the final score, or the fact that the Sounders were out-shot 18-1 on the afternoon, but the manner in which they arrived at those embarrassing figures — essentially giving up and waving the white flag over the game’s final 30 minutes — that sends a message loudly and clearly to Sounders’ front office: we aren’t playing for this guy anymore. Here’s the problem for Seattle, though: Jason Kreis, the presumptive Sigi replacement with an eye toward reuniting with Garth Lagerwey, was announced as Orlando City SC’s new head coach on Tuesday. Nothing would make the Sounders look more unprepared than firing Schmid five days after the best available MLS coach was plucked off the market.

[ MORE: Catch up on all of Saturday night’s MLS action ]

Three moments that mattered 

21′ — Dwyer heads home from Espinoza’s cross for 1-0 — Defending optional for Seattle, as everyone in and around the penalty area did very little to close down or mark anyone in white.

45+3′ — Peterson goes upper-90 for 2-0 — First-time hit, upper-90. Jacob Peterson makes it 2-0.

79′ — Dwyer makes it 3-0 after Sounders all but quit — Questionable “effort” from the Sounders, to be sure.

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Man of the match: Dom Dwyer

Goalscorers: Dwyer (21′, 79′), Peterson (45+3′)

NYCFC’s Vieira blames derby loss on RBNY’s Marsch “crying all week”

New York City FC's head coach Patrick Vieira looks on from the sideline during the second half of an MLS soccer game against the Montreal Impact, in Montreal, Sunday, July 17, 2016. (Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press via AP)
Graham Hughes /The Canadian Press via AP
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Patrick Vieira is very mad, and with good reason, but he might want to reconsider where he directs his displeasure following the New York City FC’s latest embarrassment at the hands of the New York Red Bulls, 4-1 on Sunday .

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In Vieira’s estimation, Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch and referee Mark Geiger were co-men of the match; Marsch for his pre-game comments — “crying,” in Vieira’s words — and Geiger for playing into Marsch’s devious, revolutionary plan.

Adults … they’re just like us!

In the two sides’ three meetings this season, the Red Bulls won twice and lost once, by a combined score of 11-3.

New York is red: BWP, Kljestan torture NYC in (another) blowout

HARRISON, NJ - MARCH 22:  Bradley Wright-Phillips #99 of New York Red Bulls celebrates a goal against the D.C. United during their match at Red Bull Arena on March 22, 2015 in Harrison, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
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New York Red Bulls rode a wave of first half goals to a heated and entertaining 4-1 win over New York City FC on Sunday at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.

Sacha Kljestan had two assists and converted a penalty, while Bradley Wright-Phillips netted a brace and Ronald Zubar (!!) also scored for RBNY. If you’re keeping score at home that’s a combined 11-1 score line for RBNY in home Derby games this season.

Tommy McNamara scored a gorgeous goal before halftime to give City life. Aside from McNamara cranking a second-half effort off the crossbar, the rest of the life came in the form of pushing, shoving and fouling. Frank Lampard mixed it up with Kljestan, while Ethan White took two yellows for a late red card.

[ MORE: A Pogba Primer ]

The win gives the Red Bulls bragging rights for at least the regular season, as RBNY won 2 of 3 season matches against its area rivals.

NYC remains atop the East, while the Red Bulls are five points back in fourth.

Here’s the goal that got us started, as Kljestan slipped through BWP for a finish he’ll rarely miss (even when ice-cold).

Zubar then headed in a Kljestan pass to make it 2-0 before a handball allowed Kljestan to collect a goal for himself.

BWP restored the three-goal lead with 20 minutes to play, as he won a 50-50 ball played over the top and had all day to toy with Josh Saunders en route to his 11th of the season.