Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring their third goal against Paraguay in a 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Cordoba

Kind draws could give Messi, Ronaldo head start on World Cup 2014’s Golden Boot

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Lionel Messi went scoreless in the last World Cup. Cristiano Ronaldo scored once. In a combined four finals (both players debuted at Germany 2006), the world’s marquee duo have a combined three goals. For some, that lack of success on the biggest stage keeps them out of any best player ever debate. Thankfully, those people are outnumbers. Most have come to acknowledge the World Cup isn’t the be all, end all of world soccer.

But if Messi or Ronaldo fans are hoping their favorite players can dispel that minority opinion, Friday’s 2014 FIFA World Cup draw delivered good news. While Portugal was drawn into a difficult group (Germany, Ghana, U.S.A.), that quartet shares one quality with Argentina’s (Nigeria, Iran, Bosnia-Herzegovina): Neither group offers a lot of defense.

[MORE: 2014 World Cup Draw: Recapping the event]

For Messi, Bosnia-Herzegovina may end up the group’s second-best team, but in seven games against World Cup qualified countries over the last two years, Bosnia’s given up 11 goals, including four at home to the United States on Aug. 14. In late 2011, Bosnia gave up six to Portugal. Though they’re talented going forward, the World Cup debutants can be had at the back. Sure to play a more advanced role than he did at the last World Cup, Messi could be one of the beneficiaries, Argentina having already beaten Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 without Messi in St. Louis on Nov. 18.

The other members of Group F are less tested, with Nigeria and Iran having played a combined seven games against World Cup opposition since 2011. The African champions gave up 10 goals in five games this year to qualified nations (Italy, Spain, Uruguay, Mexico, Ivory Coast), while Iran kept clean sheets in both of their World Cup Qualifiers against South Korea. Carlos Queiroz’s team is generally considered one of the weakest in the field, but with the former Portugal boss in charge, they may prove the most difficult for Argentina to break down (though two games against South Korea are hardly cause for conclusions).

source: ReutersAs for Ronaldo, Germany is the big name in Group G, but Joachim Löw’s team has posted a terrible defensive record over the last two years. In 13 games against World Cup qualifiers, Germany has given up 21 goals. They gave up four to the United States in June (albeit with a mostly reserve team) and five to Switzerland last May. Among their more disturbing performances against non-World Cup competition, Germany has conceded four on one occasion (Sweden, Oct. 2012) and three on two others (Sweden, Oct. 2013; Paraguay, Aug. 2013). Although Germany kept a clean sheet against Portugal at Euro 2012, the broader defensive record is much more suspect.

The United States has been boom-or-bust, keeping seven clean sheets in 15 games against World Cup qualifiers over the last two years. They’ve also had two games where they’ve give up four goals (Brazil, May 2012; Belgium, May 2013) and three others where they conceded three times (Germany, June 2013; Bosnia-Herzegovina, Aug. 2013; Costa Rica, Sept. 2013). As others have noted, the U.S.’s current glaring weakness is at fullback, something that could cost them against Ronaldo.

Group G’s other team, Ghana, has played four 2014 World Cup teams since Jan. 2012 and never kept a clean sheet. Their latest such game was in August against Japan, with the Black Stars conceded three times against Asia’s champions.

The draws are encouraging if you’re hoping for goals from the game’s biggest stars, but there are a couple of problems with looking at Messi and Ronaldo’s prospects in this way. The players selected for the games in question may not have been part of their country’s “A team,” and even if they were, those players may have fallen out of favor over the last two years. The teams that show up in Brazil could be very different from those that had trouble keeping goals out.

But any other type of analysis brings in player and roster evaluations that can become subjective. From the right eyes and minds, those evaluations can be powerful. From those relying on reputation over performance, they’ can be useless. For this exercise, for better or worse, we only look at actual results from the last two years, letting you decide how much validity to give the “method.”

If you find any meaning in past results, you probably see a lot of room for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to put up some nice group stage numbers, perhaps sending them toward the tournament’s Golden Boot. If you don’t find the numbers convincing, you have to at least concede: Most of the teams trying to stop Messi and Ronaldo will need to be better in Brazil than they’ve been leading up to the World Cup.

U.S. Soccer announces Players of the Year nominees

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 01:  John Brooks #6 of United States and teammates Clint Dempsey #8,Michael Bradley #4,Geoff Cameron #20 and Julian Green #16 wait for the corner kick in the second half against Turkey during an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on June 1, 2014 in Harrison, New Jersey.The United States defeated Turkey 2-1.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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U.S. Soccer unveiled the finalists for its top 2016 Male, Female, and youth awards on Monday.

MLS stars Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey are joined by Geoff Cameron and Bobby Wood as top men’s player nominees. The winner will be announced on the eve of Saturday’s MLS Cup Final.

[ MLS: Best XI has historic American low ]

Stoke City’s Cameron and Hamburg’s Wood are the European-based players on the list, while Fabian Johnson did not make the cut. Dempsey has been limited by heart problems, but still found a way to the list.

John Brooks and Christian Pulisic are also notable exceptions, though the latter is a finalist for the younger award.

The five-woman list for Female Player of the Year sees Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, and Becky Sauerbrunn vying to finish second behind Carli Lloyd (Sorry, we couldn’t resist even with Heath’s incredible season).

The Young Male award promises to be a showdown between Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund) and Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), though it’s difficult to see the latter edging the former. Also in the frame are Spurs back Cameron Carter-Vickers, Atlanta United teenager Andrew Carleton and U.S. U-17 star Josh Sargent.

The Young Female nominees are midfielders Emily Ogle and Andi Sullivan, defenders Kaleigh Riehl and Karina Rodriguez and forward Ashley Sanchez.

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MLS Best XI has just two Americans (and that’s fine)

FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges, center, heads the ball near Seattle Sounders defender Zach Scott, second from left, in the second half of an MLS soccer playoff match, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Seattle. The Sounders beat FC Dallas 3-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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MLS released its season’s Best XI on Monday, and it’s the least American bunch in the history of the award.

Some have asked whether this be a concern. The short answer is: As long as you’re not a xenophobe, probably not.

There’s no question the league is better than ever, so in that sense no one should worry that only Matt Hedges and Sacha Kljestan earned nods in the league’s 3-4-3.

[ MORE: Atlanta signs second DP ]

Several times the league saw five Americans in its Best XI, and once it was four, but this year’s duo marks a new low.

MLS Best XI
GK – Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union / Jamaica)
D – Matt Hedges (FC Dallas / USA)
D – Jelle van Damme (LA Galaxy / Belgium)
D – Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids / Sweden)
M – Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas / Argentina)
M – Giovani Dos Santos (LA Galaxy / Mexico)
M – Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls / USA)
M – Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact / Argentina)
F – Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls / England)
F – David Villa (New York City FC / Spain)
F – Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC / Italy)

Now of course the next question is, “Where do players 12-24 come from?” Let’s make a quick second XI (and include Nicolas Lodeiro despite his half-season status because, well, did you watch any MLS this year?):

GK – David Bingham (San Jose / USA)
D – Ronald Matarrita (New York City / Costa Rica)
D – Laurent Ciman (Montreal / Belgium)
D – Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas / USA)
M – Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle / USA-Cuba)
M – Darlington Nagbe (Portland / USA)
M – Benny Feilhaber (Sporting KC / USA)
M – Diego Valeri (Portland / Argentina)
M – Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle / Uruguay)
F – Dom Dwyer (Sporting KC / England)
F – Ola Kamara (Columbus / Norway)

A bit better, huh? And Dwyer could be American in under a year. Next up would probably be several Americans (Dax McCarty, Luis Robles, Michael Bradley, Jordan Morris, Drew Moor).

The idea of better players shouldn’t be about Americans racking up the top spots, rather U.S. players being improved by the level of competition.

Look at the Premier League’s Best XI, the PFA Team of the Year, which had a total of four Englishmen (five if you include English-born Jamaican back Wes Morgan). While some will argue for a cap on foreign players — which MLS has — you don’t mess with what makes it great.

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After latest loss, Hull City gets blunt: “We need help”

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05:  Curtis Davies of Hull City jumps with Calum Chambers (25) and Victor Valdes of Middlesbrough (26) during the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Hull City at Riverside Stadium on December 5, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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Hull City players and staff are not being bashful.

Mired in the drop zone and following yet another loss, this one a relegation six-pointer at the hands of hosts Middlesbrough, Tigers were speaking out on the talent at the KC Stadium.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Manager Mike Phelan said “hopefully” there will be action by the club in the January transfer window, as the club continues its quest to stay in the Premier League.

Phelan said the club is lacking “firepower”, and veteran defender Charlie Davies put it even more plainly.

From the BBC:

“We need help. We made signings in the summer and they have done their bit but they were all last-minute. We are thin up top and we need someone who can put the ball in the net.”

Hull went through a mess during the summer, with player acquisition problematic and manager Steve Bruce quitting the club. After a hot start led to Phelan getting the job on a permament basis it’s clear that, like Swansea boss Bob Bradley, this isn’t about who’s in the dugout.

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Boro boss Karanka vows no complacency

MIDDLESBROUGH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 05:  Aitor Karanka manager of Middlesbrough and Mike Phelan manager of Hull City look on from the touchline during the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Hull City at Riverside Stadium on December 5, 2016 in Middlesbrough, England.  (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
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Middlesbrough manager Aitor Karanka stayed level-headed after a controlling 1-0 win over Hull City at the Riverside Stadium on Monday.

Aside from a couple of heart-in-throat moments near the 90th minute, Boro was all over the Tigers in earning three points and jumping into 13th place.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

“We deserved to win this game because we had a lot of chances,” Karanka said after the match on NBCSN. “We scored the goal, had a lot of possession, and were confident on the pitch. When we scored the goal, we had the spirit to manage this kind of game. It’s a game to be really proud of the team. It’s difficult to play Monday.”

He was asked whether Boro was better than being a relegation candidate.

“We have to fight relegation because we are a recently promoted team. We have to keep winning games, if you’re in the Premier League you’re going to pay if you’re complacent. We have done nothing yet.”

Boro appears to have the quality to stay up, and has an interesting road through the congested holiday season of fixtures: at Saints, home for Liverpool and Swansea, at Burnley and Manchester United, then home to Leicester on Jan. 2.

Find 7-8 points in there, and perhaps there will be some exhalations a few days into 2017.

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