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With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.

Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.

“The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.

But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.

Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.

Here is a look at some of the key issues:

STADIUMS

Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls “the Brazilian scenario” – the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.

That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.

But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.

Evidence that North Korean workers – who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery – worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.

LEGACY

Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely – if ever – full again after the World Cup.

Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 – among the lowest for major European leagues – and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.

Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 percent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.

Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.

In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.

Only the St. Petersburg stadium – home to games at the 2020 European Championship – and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.

TEAM BASES

It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy – and lavish state spending.

Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.

There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.

Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.

Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.

FAN EXPERIENCE

Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.

Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.

Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.

Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.

SECURITY

Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.

At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.

The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.

There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.

Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.

FIFA READINESS

Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.

FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.

During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signaled for half-time.

FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.

A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

Cristiano Ronaldo captures Best Male Player at FIFA awards

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The yearly debate as to whom the best player in the world is won’t be settled in the minds of fans across the globe, but on Monday, FIFA gave its two cents.

Real Madrid attacker Cristiano Ronaldo took home Best Male Player honors at the FIFA Best awards, beating out Lionel Messi and Neymar for the title.

[ MORE: Mbappe wins Golden Boy award, beats out Pulisic, others ]

Meanwhile, all three superstars were named in the FIFA Best XI for the year, alongside the likes of Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon and Andres Iniesta.

Here’s a look at some of the other winners from Monday’s FIFA awards.

Best Male Player: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

FIFA World XI: Gianluigi Buffon; Dani Alves, Sergio Ramos, Leonardo Bonucci, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Andres Iniesta; Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar.

FIFA Men’s Coach of 2017: Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid)

Puskas Award for Best Goal: Olivier Giroud (Arsenal)

Best Female Player: Lieke Martens (Netherlands)

PST names Best XI for 2017 MLS season

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The 2017 MLS regular season saw some of the finest performances from players across the league.

New arrivals in Atlanta, such as Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron, garnered a great amount of attention, while Chicago Fire striker Nemanja Nikolic went on to capture the Golden Boot in his first season in MLS.

Stars like Sebastian Giovinco and David Villa continued to leave a lasting impression on the league, but with only 11 spots available for selection, some of game’s best had to be left off.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Budding U.S. Men’s National Team figures have emerged throughout the MLS scene, including from each of last season’s MLS Cup final squads.

Below is the PST built its Best XI for the 2017 MLS season.

MLS Best XI via Lineupbuilder

Players that just missed the cut

GK: Luis Robles, Bill Hamid

Defense: Roman Torres, Ike Opara, Andrew Farrell, Joevin Jones

Midfielders: Lee Nguyen, Sacha Kljestan, Alex Ring, Romain Alessandrini

Forwards: Miguel Almiron, Sebastian Giovinco, Justin Meram


Which players would you have included in your Best XI? Who was the best player in the league? Tell us below.

Justin Meram discusses Crew’s hot form, facing Atlanta and more

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The Eastern Conference has established itself within the ranks of Major League Soccer given the quality of the sides at the top.

While Atlanta United — in its first MLS season — and Toronto FC dominate headlines, alongside New York City FC, lost in the shuffle is Columbus Crew SC.

[ MORE: Impact fire Mauro Biello after team loses nine of last 10 matches ]

The Crew finished fifth in a congested East after settling for a 2-2 draw on Decision Day against NYCFC, however, Greg Berhalter’s squad has been among the best in MLS for the second half of the season.

Pro Soccer Talk caught up with Crew midfielder Justin Meram ahead of his side’s first-round matchup against Atlanta in the MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I wouldn’t say there’s less pressure on us,” Meram told PST. ” We might be written off in terms of the attention that they have had this season. Some networks have come out by saying that they [Atlanta] are the favorites, but nothing changes with this group.

“We let all that outside noise stay outside and we don’t let it affect us. Whether they have us winning a game, or whatever the case may be, we have a game plan and a style of play that we look to execute no matter where we go.”

Decision Day around MLS has created havoc — and a great narrative — but Sunday’s result against NYCFC proved to be the difference between potentially hosting a playoff game, or possibly having a bye, versus now having to travel to Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“Obviously that’s what makes Decision Day so much more exciting,” Meram said. “We didn’t control our own destiny, but the way things went with Atlanta and Chicago we could have jumped from fifth to second. It’s just one of those things that didn’t go our way.

“We didn’t play our best in the first half, but we also faced a really good team and I was pleased with how we bounced back. I think that showed our quality and our ability to claw back into games on the road, which is crucial during the playoffs.”

The Crew have been one of the league’s top home sides in 2017, winning 12 matches at MAPFRE Stadium — which ranks second in MLS behind only Toronto FC.

However, Meram and his side now face a stiff test against an Atlanta team that has lost just one of its eight matches since moving over from Bobby Dodd Stadium in mid-September.

“I need to be at my very best on Thursday,” Meram said. “We all need to be on top of our game because we need a collective effort in order to beat Atlanta.”

Scheduling has a funny way of factoring into the outcomes of matches at times, but given the fact that the Crew and Atlanta haven’t met since July 1 all bets are off in terms of which side is the  favorite to advance.

Atlanta won both matches earlier in the season as the two clubs met in home-and-home fixtures over a span of three weeks, but Meram remains confident that his side’s current form will help them prevail.

“Their attack is lethal,” Meram said when asked about facing an Atlanta side that scored 70 regular season goals. “One small little mistake allows them to pounce on chances. They punish you.

“We have to be clinical with our build up play and shape throughout the match. When we get our half-chances we need to bury them. When we played Atlanta the first time, we had a couple of breakaways that we didn’t put away and it hurt us.

“We have the quality, but playing at their home, with their fans, we need to focus on finishing our chances in order to advance.”

The topic of relocation has come as a shock not just in Columbus, but throughout MLS since last week’s announcement that owner Anthony Precourt would explore his options for the club moving forward.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Meram has insisted though that he and his Crew teammates remain focused on winning MLS Cup — which would be the club’s second in franchise history.

“Obviously we haven’t let it affect us,” Meram told PST. “We played a really good game on Sunday. We’re just staying with the same mindset that we’ve had the second half of the season, which doesn’t reflect the owner’s announcement.

“There’s not much I can say. I have a job to do. He [Precourt] has a job to do. The fans have their job to do. Right now, it’s about focusing on the playoffs and seeing what happens. There’s nothing definitive about staying or going, so I can’t speculate at this point.

“At the end of the day, I want a championship, and I believe that’s the feeling for all of our guys right now. That’s how it has to be from the player’s perspective because the second we shift our mindset we’re going to get punished by other sides.”

Montreal fires Biello after Impact loses nine of last 10

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Mauro Biello is out.

The Montreal Impact have parted ways with its entire coaching staff following a terrible end to a disappointing 2017 season which failed to see them build on an Eastern Conference Finals run.

[ MORE: Yaya Toure to NYCFC? ]

Montreal lost nine of its last 10 despite beating Toronto FC in Toronto, finishing with 39 points. That’s 11 points out of a playoff spot, which looked all but certain before their miserable finish to the campaign.

This despite an MVP caliber season from recently-extended Ignacio Piatti, who scored 17 goals with five assists. That the Impact failed was a bit baffling, especially following the midseason addition of Blerim Dzemaili, who chipped in seven goals and 10 assists in 22 matches.

There are some interesting pieces for the next boss, should 24-year-old Anthony Jackson-Hamel and 18-year-old Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla stick around.

The 45-year-old Biello finishes his first managerial gig following a playing career with the Impact (pre-MLS), Rochester Rhinos, and several indoor sides including the Impact, Toronto Thunderhawks, and Buffalo Blizzard.

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