Left behind: the best players not heading to the World Cup


Yes, there are a host of players who aren’t going to the World Cup. That’s because the soccer gods have come to the conclusion that there can only be 32 teams in the tournament, which means some talented souls have to watch from the comfort of their own living room.

And yes, there are some incredible men that won’t be going due to the fact that fate is cruel, and they picked up severe injuries that will leave them out of contention in Brazil. This list includes Christian Benteke, Theo Walcott and, most likely, Radamel Falcao.

But what of the ones whose countries qualified, yet still won’t be boarding the plane? In some cases, their national team coaches had reasons for keeping them out of the squad. In others, their lack of inclusion remains a true head-scratcher.

(Clicking the country’s link will take you to the full provisional World Cup roster)

Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Borussia Mönchengladbach and Germany)
Manuel Neuer will be in the net for Germany. We all know it. But why can’t ter Stegen be included as backup? Instead it’s Ron-Robert Zieler, who at least has a fun double-barrelled first name as well. Still, ter Stegen plays for a better club, made more saves, and is on his way to Barcelona to continue his career. Maybe he made fun of Jogi at some point.

Ashley Cole (Chelsea and England)
Cole must’ve thought his chances for England were good after fighting his way back into the Chelsea squad. But Roy Hodgson, slightly surprisingly, gave his England squad a more youthful feel, and it’s Luke Shaw that will take up the role of the understudy of Leighton Baines. It’s a bonus for England, having to choose between talented left-backs rather than taking along Stephen Warnock, but it’s gotta hurt for the 33-year-old to miss out on his last chance for his country. Cole retired from international football after getting the news that he wasn’t headed to Brazil.

Miranda (Atlético Madrid and Brazil)
Miranda edges out Filipe Luís only based on the fact that he managed two goals, but really, why would Luiz Felipe Scolari neglect to bring either? Perhaps Big Phil is a Barcelona fan, and doesn’t like the fact that Atleti could trump them to the title. In general, Scolari seems intent on bringing veterans, but with these two at 29 and 28 respectively, it’s not like they’re short on experience (which could be a reason for leaving out PSG’s talented Marquinhos). And when you add the fact Napoli’s Henrique is going…well, he did play under Scolari for three seasons at Palmeiras, but he only made the partenopei starting XI thanks to injury crisis. Brazil may very well regret not giving one of these two a look.

Samir Nasri (Manchester City and France)
Well, this one was confusing. Nasri impressed at title-winning Manchester City this season, where he had seven goals and seven assists. He was involved in France’s World Cup qualification, making four appearances. So why isn’t he part of les bleus? Turns out Didier Deschamps thinks Nasri has a bit of an attitude problem, and doesn’t appreciate being left on the bench. He likely also now thinks Nasri’s girlfriend has an attitude problem, after she lashed out on twitter when the French squad was announced.

Radja Nainggolan (Midfielder, AS Roma and Belgium)
Yes, Belgium are stuffed to the gills with midfielders, so it’s natural that some of them get left behind. But Nainggolan is a special sort of midfield man – one that could add some protection to the defense, which often looks shaky and uncertain. Just ask Cagliari, who certainly slipped in the standings after Nainggolan went off to Roma in the middle of the season. He adds strength and steel to the middle of the field, but he’s not just an enforcer. Nainggolan can pick out a crisp pass and, when given a chance, loves to put in a shot from distance.

José Callejón (Napoli and Spain)
Yes, we could go on and on about players left off the Spain roster. The defending champions are simply way too well-stocked, particularly in the center of the pitch. But “Ziggy” Callejón deserves a special shout out. He failed to establish himself as a regular at Real Madrid and wound up scoring just three goals in 15 starts last season. Now in Naples, Callejón has blossomed. He may not fit Vicente del Bosque’s system, but in Rafa Benítez’s 4-2-3-1, the wide man has scored 19 goals in all competitions for Napoli.

Francesco Totti (AS Roma and Italy)
Roma’s captain began his international career back in 2000, and was part of the azzurri side that lifted the 2006 World Cup. He retired from international duty after the triumph, but made it clear he was open to returning this season. However, Cesare Prandelli decided to put his faith in younger players, and left the 37-year-old off the roster – despite an impressive season in Serie A, helping Roma fly into second place and challenge for the title.
(Honoroable mention to Luca Toni, another veteran having an amazing season in Serie A. The 36-year-old scored 20 goals for Hellas Verona this season).

Carlos Vela (Forward, Real Sociedad and Mexico)
Again, everyone knew this was coming. Vela hasn’t played for El Tri since 2011, despite various coaches trying to entice him back to the side. After accepting the management gig, Miguel Herrera did his best to convince Vela as well, but the attacker didn’t feel himself mentally ready to return to international competition. That’s too bad for the struggling Mexico team. Vela’s done well for himself in Spain, putting in 41 goals in 104 appearances with Real Sociedad. There are even strong rumors that he just might make a return to Arsenal – assuming he’s mentally prepared for that, of course.

Max Kruse (Forward, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Germany)
Joachim Löw don’t need no strikers. Or at least, not strikers that can actually put the ball in the back of the net. Ok, ok, Lukas Podolski had eight goals for Arsenal this season. And Kevin Volland, of Hoffenheim, did score eleven. But Kruse has twelve to his name, along with nine assists. He’s paccy, he’s precise, and he can get the job done better than Miroslav Klose. The veteran managed just seven for Lazio this season, but sentiment wins out, and he’s the one boarding the plane to Brazil.

Carlos Tévez (Forward, Juventus and Argentina)
A falling out with Alejandro Sabella means Tévez hasn’t played for La Albiceleste since 2011. Of course, Argentina have plenty of firepower up top, what with Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and…what’s that guy’s name again? Oh right, Leo Messi. Still, 19 goals and 7 assists in 33 league games with Juventus is nothing to sniff at. Who knows, if Tévez scores four this weekend, he could even become Serie A’s top goalscorer this season. But no matter – he’s going to Disneyland instead.

Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden)
So what if Sweden didn’t qualify? Someone high up at FIFA should’ve worked through a quick rule change that would’ve allowed Ibra to switch his nationality. Because what is a World Cup without Zlatan? Nothing. Just wait. You’ll see.

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from MLSSoccer.com:

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).