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Preview, Germany vs. Argentina: Messi to define, be defined by World Cup final

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One explanation that’s emerged in the wake of LeBron James’ return to the Cavaliers focuses on his former Heat teammates. Not that Cleveland offers much more, right now, but after Miami fell flat against San Antonio in last month’s NBA Finals, the question that defined James’ offseason became clear: If I have a choice between two flawed teams, why not pick the one closer to home?

Lionel Messi doesn’t get those choices, and the extent to which Argentina is flawed depends on your point of reference, but compare his Albiceleste to Germany, and the James comparison looks even more apt. On Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Messi — the best player in his sport — will try to raise the level of his supporting cast to that of Germany – the deepest, most talented team at the 2014 World Cup.

Win, and Messi not only produces his country’s third world title, but he also cements a legend that will justify a place beside Pelé and Diego Maradona. Having already dispelled the notion that he can’t perform in World Cups, the four-time world player of the year can start to address the more justifiable claim: That he’s yet to earn a place along side history’s big two. Winning a world title on Brazilian soil may end the discussion.

Title-minded
source: Getty ImagesA Germany win moves the nation within one of Brazil’s all-time record. With an Argentina victory, the country becomes the fourth to win at least three world titles:

Nation Titles
Brazil 5
Italy 4
Germany 3
Argentina 2
Uruguay 2
France 1
England 1
Spain 1

Lose, and Messi will be left in the same position as James: Reminded of an individual’s limits in a team sport. For the mastery he shows with every touch, the vision he showed while setting up Ángel Di María’s game-winning goal against Switzerland (as well as his near-goal against Belgium), Messi has been contained in the knockout rounds. Amid rumors of fatigue, his movement has waned. After scoring four goals in group stage, Messi saw three teams willing to sit behind the ball limit his influence, taking the chance his teammates could beat them.

The Messi conundrum

But how likely is Germany, with its wealth of attacking talent, to employ similar approach? At first blush, it seems ‘not very’, but German champions Bayern Munich, for all the skill and danger they offered going forward, were content to wait for their opportunities against Messi’s Barcelona two years ago. The route saw the German titans into the Champions League final, providing a performance Germany head coach Joachim Löw is sure to consider in the buildup to Sunday’s final. Whereas the frailties in that Barça defense left the Spanish giants weak in transition, a German team build on Bayern talent could find similar success against Argentina.

It’s all part of the Messi conundrum. For opponents, the dilemma’s about how much you alter your approach. For Messi’s team, the question is whether to commit more players forward, hoping to capitalize on opponents’ conservative approach. In doing so, however, poor defenders get less help in transition, leaving you apt to be exploited by your own pursuit.

To this point, Argentina’s been unwilling to do take up that chase. In the early rounds, it didn’t matter. No matter how defensive opponents played, they weren’t able to contain Messi for 90 minutes. In the second round, Switzerland’s late-match fatigue allowed the game to open up, while the quarterfinals saw an early goal allow the Albiceleste to keep the Belgians at arms length. Only in the semifinals, when Argentina was unwilling to take chances against the Netherlands, did Alejandro Sabella’s approach nearly cost them. Penalty kicks saw them through.

Path to the final: Argentina
source: APArgentina needed penalty kicks to reach the final. Before facing the Netherlands, however, it was smooth sailing for the Albiceleste:

Round Opponent Result
Group F Bosnia-Herzegovina W, 2-1
Group F Iran W, 1-0
Group F Nigeria W, 3-2
Round of 16 Switzerland W, 1-0 (aet)
Quarterfinals Belgium W, 1-0
Semifinals Netherlands D, 0-0 (pk: 4-2)

It’s a reminder of the limits of Messi’s control. You don’t have to go too far to hear somebody note that Pelé or Maradona would take over games, but there were plenty of others matches that were beyond those legends’ reach. Not every game is there for a superstar’s taking, and between the talent around him, the tactics, and the power at Germany’s disposal, there may be relatively little Messi can control. If Germany’s going to make it all about him, another Argentine will have to step up.

The person most likely to do that is Gonzalo Higuaín, who has averaged more than 20 goals per season over the last six years in Europe. Ezequiel Lavezzi, a skilled attacker capable of taking advantage of left back Benedickt Howedes or the space behind right back Philipp Lahm, gives Argentina another hope, while Manchester City star Sergio Agüero and Inter Milan attacker Rodrigo Palacio will allow Sabella to change his team’s look. As much as any team in the tournament, Argentina has the attacking depth to exploit an occasionally generous German defense.

A test of German faith

That threat gives Löw enough reason to stay the course. Rather than worry too much about Messi, employing a plan that would force his team to change approach, the Germans can rely on their best defense: Possession. Although Argentina have maintained 58.6 percent of the ball during the tournament, Germany’s had 59.4 percent, doing so against better competition. When you have a midfield of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira, and Toni Kroos, with Mesut Özil, Thömas Müller, and Lahm providing support, the best plan may be whatever keeps the ball at their feet.

Path to the final: Germany
source: AP
Scares against Ghana and Algeria have not stopped Germany from posting the most impressive record in the tournament, winning five of six games with a +13 goal difference:

Round Opponent Result
Group G Portugal W, 4-0
Group G Ghana D, 2-2
Group G United States W, 1-0
Round of 16 Algeria W, 2-1 (aet)
Quarterfinals France W, 1-0
Semifinals Brazil W, 7-1

If that happens, Müller is likely to build on his second straight five-goal World Cup. Miroslav Klose could add to his tournament record for career goals (16). Kroos can be as influential on Sunday as he was against Brazil, while Özil’s influence may finally translate to the scoresheet.

All of which brings us back to the Messi conundrum. If Löw maintains faith in his team’s approach, relies on his talents to replicate performances we saw against France and Brazil, Germany could be the great team so many have longed for throughout this tournament. They may also open themselves up to Messi’s defining performance.

And if they do adjust for Messi, playing more compact through the middle, aggressively marking him whenever they’re without the ball? They could improve on the Netherlands’ performance, using that talented midfield to create the counterattacks the Oranje could never launch. But they also give Higuaín, Lavezzi, and Agüero more time to take advantage of that approach.

No matter how you look at it, Messi’s likely to play a decisive role. Whether plays well. Whether his teammates step up. Whether Germany adjusts. When a player’s this great, everything’s defined by his threat.

And come Sunday night, regardless of how he plays, Messi will either ascend to the next level of soccer stardom or leave his critics one last area of recourse. Unlike other great athletes, he has no choice but to be defined by this challenge.

SKorean soccer club loses points over corruption scandal

JEONJU, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 24:  Besart Berisha action during the AFC Champions League Round Of 16 match between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Melbourne Victory at Jeonju World Cup Stadium on May 24, 2016 in Jeonju, South Korea.  (Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) The South Korean soccer league deducted nine points from league leader Jeonbuk Hyundai on Friday after one of the club’s employees was convicted of bribing referees in 2013.

The K-League also fined Jeonbuk 100 million won ($90,600). The club, which saw its 14-point lead over second-place FC Seoul reduced to a five-point margin, issued an apology and vowed to take measures to prevent it from happening again.

A court in Busan on Wednesday sentenced a Jeonbuk scout to a suspended prison term of two years for paying referees in exchange for favorable decisions in several league matches in 2013.

An official from Jeonbuk said the scout has been suspended by the team and it will soon make a decision whether to terminate his employment. He refused to be named, citing office rules.

The K-League had vowed reforms after being rocked by a massive match-fixing scandal in 2011, when 52 players were indicted for taking bribes in return for trying to manipulate the outcome of matches or betting their own money on the games.

Mangala replaces Mathieu in France squad

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 03:  Kolbeinn Sigthorsson of Iceland and Eliaquim Mangala of France compete for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter final match between France and Iceland at Stade de France on July 3, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) Barcelona defender Jeremy Mathieu has been removed from the France squad for upcoming World Cup qualifiers for an unspecified reason.

[ MORE: What’s Arsenal’s best XI in the Arsene Wenger era? ]

The French football federation gave no explanation for coach Didier Deschamps’s decision to replace Mathieu with Eliaquim Mangala, only saying he made the move “following a discussion” with the Barcelona player. Mangala is currently on a season-long loan at Valencia from Manchester City.

France takes on Bulgaria on Oct. 7 at the Stade de France before traveling to Amsterdam to play the Netherlands three days later in Group A.

EXCLUSIVE: Michael Bradley on Toronto FC’s long-awaited renaissance

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC heads over to take a corner kick during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Times have changed in Toronto for the local football club. The Reds are no longer, to put it bluntly, the bad club that failed to deliver results to a passionate fan base expecting so much more.

A club that missed the playoffs in each of its first eight seasons has clinched a postseason berth for a second-straight season. And this year, for the first time ever, TFC will finish this season with more wins than losses.

You read that right. For the first time ever. Yes, it was that bad.

[ MORE: JPW talks with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

It would overstate things to say Bradley showed up and fixed things for the Reds, turning them from a bad big club to a big, bad one overnight; For one thing, TFC missed the playoffs during his first season and Bradley only netted twice in a return to MLS which was expected to be dominant (though he was, per 90, one of the best possession players in the league that season).

Yet as time as gone on, in an organization that frankly had not seen much winning at all, Bradley has not just led the way as a battler emerged from BMO Field; The 29-year-old TFC and USMNT captain now leads a winner, one he’s quick to point out comes from an organization, not any single personality.

“I’ve tried every day since I got here to spill my heart and soul into it and to try to help in every way that I can,” Bradley told ProSoccerTalk.

“For a lot of people who have been here for the last years to see the way that things have continued to move forward and progress, there’s a big sense of pride. We’re by no means where we want to be. There are big goals around here in terms of continuing to turn this into a team and a club that can compete and win on a regular basis.”

Yep, times have changed for the better. And at the center of it all, whether he admits it or not, is the steely reserve of an American in Canada.


[ MORE: Wisconsin sophomore set to face Mexico, USMNT ]


Michael Bradley is deliberate in his choice of words, and pauses several times to make sure his point is clearly made.

The train powers along once he finds the right track, however.

It’s fitting, because Greg Vanney’s defensive system with Bradley works in a similar way. Patiently wait for the right time to take the ball, then surge forward and take no prisoners. Find Sebastian Giovinco. Find Jozy Altidore. Find Jonathan Osorio, or another attacker… or just fire away.

“On our best days, we have a team that plays in a real good way,” Bradley says. “When we have our best group on the field, our football is good, the ball moves quickly, we’re a team that is able to put the game on our terms with the ball but not do it in a way that’s not just needless possession.

“We circulate the ball, but also do it with an eye toward playing forward and make sure we get it to our dangerous attacking players quickly and in good moments. Defensively we’re able to tighten things up and found a way to make it very hard on other teams to play against us.”

Heading into Saturday night’s home match with DC United, TFC has won seven of its last 12 MLS matches. That stretch has seen Toronto lose just once, and the Reds have weathered an injury to reigning MLS MVP Giovinco with a win and three draws.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10: Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC during an MLS soccer game against the Houston Dynamo at BMO Field on May 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Bradley’s deliberate expression of feeling comes into play again when he considers the challenges of TFC’s summer, injuries not withstanding. The captain is thrilled with how the Reds have found contributions from all over the field, but would love to see their best XI for a sustained stretch of action.

Finding chemistry with a team during the MLS season, where a club can lose its best players for weeks at a time thanks to the unorthodox calendar, is a massive challenge. Bradley knows it’s not just Toronto who’s troubled by it, but he also senses how good the team could be with a season’s worth of build-up.

The excitement ratchets higher and higher in his voice as he contemplates the complementary pieces in a healthy, non-international break hampered Greg Vanney lineup. TFC went 1-2 during the Copa America, losing to the Red Bulls and Orlando City. Those points loom with Toronto in a three-way battle for the top of the East.

“We feel like we’re on a very good team, and I mention the other stuff because it’s a shame that over the course of a 34-game season there are so many other things that go into it,” Bradley said. “Which means you are not able to play your best team on as consistent a basis as you’d like.”


[ MORE: LA’s Dos Santos gets Mexico call-up ]


The conversation turns, briefly, to the United States men’s national team.

The leader of the unit, Bradley has been through the highs and lows of wearing the stars and stripes since a very young age.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of an international friendly match between Bolivia and the United States on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

The captain has 121 caps and 15 goals, a journey that began when he was capped at age 18. He’s seen the improbable Confederations Cup comeback run, the thrills of the 2010 World Cup, and several Dos a Ceros. He’s also seen the 2015 Gold Cup failure, the disheartening loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, and more positional banter than any player in U.S. history.

Given his lofty status within the federation, and his early start, he’s the right person to ask about the USMNT’s teenage sensation Christian Pulisic. And he’s happy to talk about the kid, though not about the big picture, and mentorship. Yeah, he talks to the kid about soccer. No, that’s not for media consumption. So stop asking.

“Christian is a really good kid,” Bradley said. “He’s smart, he’s into it, he’s talented, motivated.

“(But) Everybody needs to stop asking what kind of advice to give him. The most important thing for him is, and I said this to somebody last week, is to continue to find the most joy every day in playing, in training, in improving, in stepping on the field on Saturday and competing and trying to be as good as possible. As long as he never loses the joy of what it means to step on the field and play football, then he’s going to continue to improve and take himself to great places.”

You get the sense that, consciously or not, Michael Bradley has ushered these thoughts from personal experience.


The captain of America loves his adopted hometown north of the border.

And Bradley isn’t exactly measuring Toronto against a one-light city in the sticks. After leaving New Jersey as a teenager in 2005, Bradley has lived amongst the abbey and villages of Monchengladbach, the Dutch windmills of Friesland, and the many wonders of the Eternal City, Rome.

But there’s something in the fourth biggest North American city that works for Bradley.

“It’s a city that is so incredibly diverse,” Bradley begins. “When you get around different parts of the city, the types of people you meet and see who come from all over the world, that part is special. Since the first day that my family and I got here, this has felt like home.

“Our daughter was born here. Our son goes to kindergarten here now and comes home; He’s an American, he was born in Rome, but goes to kindergarten in Toronto and comes home every day singing, “O Canada”, because at the beginning the day that’s what they do. It’s an amazing city, and a place we’re proud to call home.”

Bradley is signed through the end of 2019, and Toronto has turned down several overseas pleas for the midfielder.

Orlando City's Kaka, center, battles with Toronto FC's Michael Bradley, right, as Amando Cooper looks on during the first half of a soccer game, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

And TFC should be good for a long time. Only two rostered players are over 30: outstanding back Drew Moor and Benoit Cheyrou. This on a team that has won the joint-most road games in MLS, allowed the second-fewest goals, and ranks third in goal differential (plus-12).

“We’ve in some ways have such a high standard for ourselves that when you get home and you have a few games at home and you’re not able to find the winner, you’re not able to make that final play to win the games and take all three points, when you’re only able to come away with a tie, that people — and we include ourselves in this — are disappointed,” Bradley said.

“The feeling inside our group on certain days, lately even when we’ve tied a few of these games at home has been disappointment and frustration, and feeling like there was more there for us. That’s a positive thing. We’ve gotten ourselves to the point where we expect to step on the field every weekend and compete to win. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, and where we’re playing. That’s the mentality that we have.”


[ MORE: MLS Playoff picture — Who can clinch? ]


To sum it all up, a personal angle that might underscore the impressive turnaround in Canada’s largest city.

Living in Buffalo and loving the sport the way I do, my friends and I got in on TFC season tickets in 2008, Toronto’s second season. We’d make the 90-minute or 3-hour drive, depending on the city’s unholy, construction-driven traffic, and revel in the soccer paradise created by the Red Patch Boys.

Visits by River Plate, Pachuca, and Real Madrid sustained interest in the team, but in a way we became numb to names: Amado Guevera, Torsten Frings, and Danny Koevermans were trotted out and left without a playoff run. Taking a dozen or so day trips to watch losses that made the average at-best Maple Leafs look like 1980’s Oilers became too much to justify the cost.

Oddly enough, TFC went from hot new Toronto property to one that started to feel like just another entity. When Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar didn’t spur a playoff run, morale seemed at an all-time low. As a soccer writer now with no true allegiance, it was more with a sigh of “Wouldn’t it be cool if they were good?” when Altidore, Vanney, and Giovinco joined Bradley. When Clint Irwin, Will Johnson, and Drew Moor joined mainstays Justin Morrow and Jonathan Osorio, there was even more legitimate reason for hope.

But hope is different from getting the job done, and that’s something for which Bradley and Vanney deserve a ton of credit. There are more Toronto demons to overcome — there’s little doubt a sports teams’ playoff stench can linger over a town once the postseason hits (Again, I’m from Buffalo) — but for now it’s worth lauding a club which has found its forward-thinking despite the skeletons in their Ontarian closet.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Michael Bradley #4 and Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC celebrate a goal by teammate Tsubasa Endoh #9 during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Report: FA chief reveals Allardyce could be charged in scandal

TRNAVA, SLOVAKIA - SEPTEMBER 04:  Sam Allardyce manager of England looks on prior to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Group F qualifying match between Slovakia and England at City Arena on September 4, 2016 in Trnava, Slovakia.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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While England continues its search for the country’s next manager, Sam Allardyce‘s troubles with the FA roll on as well.

[ MORE: Redknapp was reportedly aware of former players betting ]

On Friday, FA chief executive Martin Glenn revealed that “it is realistic [Allardyce] could be charged” by the football governing body for his alleged role in an English corruption scandal.

Allardyce was relieved of his duties as England manager on Tuesday following a release of information from the Telegraph.

“The newspaper that made the revelations are releasing the full transcripts to the police, which is what has to happen,” said Glenn. “Once we get full access to them, we’ll pass them to our Integrity Unit. We’ve dealt with Sam as an employee. Sam’s role as a participant in the game will be part of this next process, if there is one.

“The decision will be based on the merits of the evidence. Bringing the game into disrepute might be a possible charge.

“A potential sanction could range from a fine to a ban. That’s what history shows. But that is for a tribunal to decide.”

Additionally, Glenn stated that interim England manager Gareth Southgate could be in consideration for the permanent job pending how he and the national team fare with its upcoming fixtures.

“I think Gareth is a genuine contender, but this isn’t an audition,” Glenn stated.