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Pressure is on USMNT ahead of critical World Cup qualifiers

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The next two U.S. national team games will be pivotal in deciding the direction of the program in the coming years. It’s that simple.

[ MORE: Pulisic responds to criticism ]

Next week the USMNT host Panama (Oct. 6) and then head to Trinidad & Tobago (Oct. 10) in two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers which they dare not lose as their four-year cycle comes down to two games.

If they lose either games the prospect is very real that they will not be at a World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.

[ MORE: Qualifying scenarios for USMNT

Of course, if they finish fourth in the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying then they will still have a chance but will face a home and away game against the winner of the Australia/Syria playoff for a spot in Russia.

The pressure is stacked on Bruce Arena’s men to hold their nerve and get at least four points from their final two CONCACAF qualifiers in the Hex which they will likely need to seal the third and final automatic berth to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fact that they are in this position in the first place is down to a multitude of factors but Arena’s arrival had sparked a unbeaten run of 14 games, a Gold Cup success and a promising draw at Mexico.

All of that good work came undone last month.

With plenty of injury concerns, players out of form, widespread criticism for the team and a mental barrier to overcome following the 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica and a battling, unimpressive 1-1 draw away at Honduras in early September during the last international window, Arena’s side are now in a lose-lose situation.

Qualify for the World Cup and U.S. fans and pundits will shrug their shoulders and sarcastically applaud. Fail to qualify and all hell will break loose. A poor start to the final round of qualifying cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job and initial optimism around Arena’s second-coming will end in tears.

Speaking to U.S. Soccer, the head coach is being realistic about the final hurdle standing in the USA’s way.

“As we enter these last two games, our view is that we have to get at least four points and likely six points in order to qualify as the third team in CONCACAF,” Arena said. “Panama and ourselves are fighting for the third and fourth position in the group. They’re a point ahead of us, so when we play them we anticipate they’re going to have a really defensive look to themselves and look to catch us on the break.”

When Panama roll up to Orlando next Friday, the majority of the 26,000-plus crowd will be expecting a home win which will see the USMNT have one foot in Russia. The fact of the matter is, next Friday is Panama’s World Cup final.

For Panama the equation is simple: win against the USA and they qualify for the World Cup for the first time in their history.

Panama also know that a draw will also be a hugely favorable result as they host Costa Rica in their final group game and Los Ticos will have almost certainly have already qualified automatically by that point, meaning Panama will face a weakened outfit with nothing to play for. The U.S. will then go to T&T at a smaller venue with the home players relaxed and nothing to play for just to add more difficulty to their situation.

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For the U.S. the scenarios are plentiful but the simplest way they can finish in third is by winning their final two games of qualifying.

Chatting to Pro Soccer Talk recently, the USMNT’s teenage sensation, Christian Pulisic, said these games against Panama and T&T have been in the back of his mind ever since the disappointing results to start off September.

“Obviously now I am focusing on [Borussia] Dortmund. We have big games coming up. But it’s there,” Pulisic admitted. “We have to do everything we can and I am going to do everything I can do to help us qualify.”

It is too early to talk up the “what next?” scenarios when it comes to Arena’s future and that of his team but quite simply if he fails to take the U.S. to the World Cup he will have to leave his role immediately as the sole reason for hiring him was to lead the USA to Russia in the short term. Arena is contracted through the end of the 2018 tournament but it’s not too drastic to start thinking about where the U.S. is heading post-Russia 2018, irrespective of whether or not they qualify.

Peter Vermes, Jason Kreis and Jesse Marsch would surely be the frontrunners from the former U.S. national team players currently coaching in Major League Soccer to replace Arena and nurture the talented group of youngsters Tab Ramos is developing at youth national team level.

Or would Sunil Gulati — if he’s even in charge after the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) hold their presidential election in February 2018 — plump for another big-name foreign coach a la Klinsmann to totally rebuild the USMNT’s reputation?

At this points its all ifs and buts but if the U.S. don’t qualify for the World Cup then Gulati’s position would come under serious threat as contenders line up to challenge his 11-year, previously unchallenged stint making all of the big calls for U.S. Soccer.

All of these issues will be multiplied and magnified if the U.S. doesn’t get through the next two qualifiers. Can you seriously imagine a World Cup without the USMNT in it? It is not a pretty picture for anyone concerned. The USSF. The players. Major League Soccer. Commercial partners. And, heck, even the future of the game in the country might take a hit given the huge rise in interest in the game every four years which almost certainly yields new fans of the game across the country.

Seemingly unfazed by the enormity of what lies ahead in the next two weeks, Arena is bullish about the USA’s chances of advancing. After all, he has to be.

Gulati and Arena must shudder to think about the impact the opposite outcome will have for everyone connected with U.S. Soccer.

“I like our chances. I know it looks like were in a difficult situation, but we’re a point out of third place and we’re playing the team that’s ahead of us at home, so that’s a real positive,” Arena said. “If we’re able to beat Panama, we head into the last game with a very good chance of finishing third in the group. I like our chances, and at the end of the day it’s up to us. We have to play well in games nine and 10 in the Hex in order to qualify.”

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

[ MORE: Leicester sacks Shakespeare ]

Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.

UEFA Champions League Weds. preview: Chelsea, Man Utd look to break out

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Only one of 16 teams was held off the score sheet on Tuesday. Could the same level of entertainment reach the UEFA Champions League a day later?

Two more Premier League teams take the pitch on Wednesday, with Manchester United facing its stiffest test of the group stage and Chelsea with a tricky visit from AS Roma.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

Manchester United has a significant challenge in Benfica, and may need a man familiar with the Estadio da Luz to help them out. Center back Eric Bailly remains out for United, which could bring Victor Lindelof into the fold to help stop Haris Seferovic, Gabriel Barbosa, Raul Jimenez, and especially Jonas.

Coming off a sleepy weekend draw versus Liverpool in an underwhelming derby, United will take on a desperate Benfica team which is traditionally strong but lost at home to CSKA Moscow and was crushed in Switzerland by Basel.

(AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Speaking of the need to rebound, Chelsea’s loss to Crystal Palace still has many scratching their heads. Fortunately, Roma is also in a mini-funk after a weekend loss to Napoli that ended a five-match winning streak.

There’s a reunion for Antonio Rudiger inside Stamford Bridge with Roma in town. I Lupi has been pretty one-dimensional in terms of offense, with ex-Man City man and reigning Serie A capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko. He’s scored eight times in nine matches for Roma this season.

Full Wednesday UCL schedule
All kickoffs at 2:45 p.m. ET except where indicated

Qarabag vs. Atletico Madrid — Noon ET
Anderlecht vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Benfica vs. Manchester United
Juventus vs. Sporting Lisbon
Barcelona vs. Olympiacos
Chelsea vs. Roma
Bayern Munich vs. Celtic
CSKA Moscow vs. Basel

U-17 World Cup wrap: England advances to meet USA

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The United States now knows it’ll have to take down England’s best to get to the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup in India.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

England, don’t laugh, won in penalty kicks after a scoreless match with Japan, advancing to meet the Baby Yanks.


England 0-0 (5-3, PKs) Japan

There wasn’t a single miss amongst the England shooters, as Rhian Brewster (Liverpool), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Phil Foden (Man City), Nya Kirby (Crystal Palace), and Curtis Anderson (Man City) converted from the spot to set up a date against the U.S.

Mali 5-1 Iraq

Lassana Ndiaye scored twice to join France’s Amine Gouiri atop the goal scoring list for the tournament as Mali advances to face the winner of Ghana vs. Niger.

France 1-2 Spain

Barcelona prospects Juan Miranda and Abel Ruiz get the better of France to set up a date with high-flying Iran.

 

Iran 2-1 Mexico

Iran conceded for just the second time in the tournament, but not before Mohammad Sharifi and Allahyar Sayyad (both of Iranian club Saifa) made it 2-0 by the 11th minute.

UEFA Champions League wrap: Tables turned on wild day

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One clean sheet in eight Tuesday matches certainly helped the entertainment value of the UEFA Champions League, and the group ramifications follow suit.

Borussia Dortmund whiffed on a chance to take advantage of Real Madrid’s home draw versus Spurs, while Sevilla was waxed in Russia, and Besiktas continues to strut in UCL play.

Real Madrid 1-1 Tottenham HotspurRECAP, VIDEO

Raphael Varane’s plans to mark Harry Kane were subverted by the French defender’s unwitting legs, but Serge Aurier chopped down Toni Kroos in the 42nd minute for a yellow card and penalty that Cristiano Ronaldo sent beyond the reach of Spurs backstop Hugo Lloris.

It was Lloris’ outstanding day, along with a couple timely Keylor Navas saves, that kept the score line 1-1 after 90 minutes. The backstops will likely match wits again come Nov. 1 at Wembley Stadium.

Manchester City 2-1 NapoliRECAP

Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored in the ninth and 13th minutes as City has been an unwelcoming host for the Neapolitan side. Ederson stopped a Dries Mertens penalty, adding insult to Napoli’s twin concessions, but Napoli would get a second penalty kick and pulled back a goal courtesy of Amadou Diawara.

Monaco 1-2 Besiktas

Reported Newcastle United and Crystal Palace target Cenk Tosun scored a pair of goals as group-leading Besiktas came back to beat Monaco after Radamel Falcao made it 1-0 to the hosts.

Feyenoord 1-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

Similar story in the Netherlands, where Ex-Watford man Steven Berghuis gave the Eredivisie hosts a lead only to see a Bernard brace lead Shakhtar at De Kuip.

Spartak Moscow 5-1 Sevilla

Liverpool’s score line was a bit surprising, but this one raised eyebrows even given Sevilla’s long road (or flight path) to Russia. Quincy Promes scored twice to make Sevilla consider its Europa roots (though plenty of time remains in the group stage).

Spartak’s Luiz Adriano scores past Sevilla’s Sergio Rico (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Maribor 0-7 LiverpoolRECAP

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are sent their finishing demons off a cliff. It was 3-0 after 20 minutes, 4-0 at half, and when all was said and done there were braces for Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah to go with single markers from Philippe Coutinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

APOEL Nicosia 1-1 Borussia Dortmund

A significant step backward for BVB, who would’ve done well to take advantage of Real and Spurs drawing at the Bernabeu. The Germans even trailed for five second-half minutes before Sokratis Papastathopoulos provided the equalizing goal.

RB Leipzig 3-2 Porto

Five first half goals felt like the start of something special, but the upstart Germans held on through a scoreless second half to claim their first UCL win.