Getty Images

World Cup picture takes shape on global day of drama

Leave a comment

GENEVA (AP) The World Cup is truly taking shape.

A dramatic day of qualifying matches ended with 23 of the 32-team lineup confirmed to play next year in Russia.

Lionel Messi will be there. Cristiano Ronaldo, too. The United States will not, for the first time since 1986.

The remaining nine spots will be decided next month, but the eight top-seeded nations for the Dec. 1 draw in Moscow are now known. There are still four European playoffs, two intercontinental playoffs and three African qualifying groups to be decided.

Here are some things we learned about the next World Cup:

STAR POWER

Before games kicked off Tuesday, Messi and Ronaldo were not sure of advancing.

It all worked out, to the relief of Argentina, Portugal, FIFA and social media users everywhere. World Cup sponsor Adidas and Nike – who provide the uniforms for Messi and Ronaldo, respectively, on international duty – should also be relieved.

Messi was a savior for Argentina, which likely had to win in the high altitude of Ecuador and trailed in the first minute. The only Argentina player to score in qualifying games this year, Messi’s hat trick led the way to a 3-1 win and a spot at the World Cup.

Ronaldo did not add to his 15 goals in qualifying, but Portugal’s 2-0 win over Switzerland extended the European champion’s winning streak and ensured first place in the group on goal difference.

Not all of the world’s best players will be in Russia: Wales forward Gareth Bale, Chile striker Alexis Sanchez and rising American star Christian Pulisic all were eliminated.

Also missing? At least 20 unfilled sponsor slots in FIFA’s planned commercial program.

TOP-SEEDED TEAMS

Portugal and Argentina went from the fringes to the top-seeded pot of teams as the Nos. 3 and 4 teams in the FIFA rankings.

The top seven-ranked teams – FIFA will confirm the list on Monday – join host Russia in Pot 1. They include top-ranked Germany, the defending champions, Brazil, Belgium, Poland and France.

Russia’s ranking, somewhere in the 60s, could be worst in the draw, but is because the host nation has not played high-value competitive qualifying games.

Spain won’t be one of the seeded teams, and should be the one to avoid from Pot 2.

FIFA picked a new draw format with seeding pots entirely decided by October’s rakings instead of geographical divide. No two teams from the same confederation can be drawn together, except for Europeans. With 14 UEFA members in the draw, FIFA allows a maximum of two in each of the eight groups.

If Serbia lands as an outlier in Pot 4, it could set up the toughest group with either Brazil or Argentina and another European team.

NEW BOYS

Iceland and Panama are the two World Cup newcomers so far.

Iceland is beloved worldwide after its run to the 2016 European Championship quarterfinals and will be the smallest nation by population – only 330,000 – ever to play at a World Cup. Expect the country’s trademark thunderclap salute between players and fans to be admired and copied across the tournament.

Panama’s unlikely 2-1 win Tuesday over already-qualified Costa Rica relied on a “goal” that never crossed the line, and an 88th-minute strike from Roman Torres.

Panama took the last direct qualifying place in CONCACAF region, and the United States fell away after a surprising 2-1 loss at Trinidad and Tobago.

VIBRANT VISITORS

Expect many of Iceland’s population to land in Russia, and most will be personal friends of the team.

Iceland’s blue and white hordes were a must-see experience at Euro 2016 even before their team eliminated England in the last 16.

For sheer euphoria, Egypt’s qualification this week to end a 28-year absence was hard to beat. Egypt already ranks in FIFA’s top 10 of nations whose residents have requested tickets to the 64 games in Russia.

Color and noisy good cheer would also be guaranteed if either or both of Ireland or Northern Ireland advance through the European playoffs next month.

POLITICS

The elimination of Ukraine this week removed a huge potential problem for FIFA.

Teams from Russia and Ukraine have been kept apart for security reasons in competition draws since 2014. It would have struck an awkward tone at the Dec. 1 draw at the State Kremlin Palace.

Syria’s exit against Australia on Tuesday also removes the chance of the team’s impressive run being used for propaganda by the regime of President Basher Assad, an ally of Russia.

Russian organizers say there will be no repeat of violent clashes involving its fans at the past two European Championships, including against Poland in Warsaw and England in Marseille.

Russia cannot be in a group with top-seeded Poland, but could draw England from Pot 2.

VIDEO REVIEW

On the field, FIFA still has issues to resolve in refereeing games.

It wasn’t up to FIFA to prevent Panama’s “ghost” goal, but the technology system will be used at all 12 Russian stadiums for the World Cup.

FIFA is on the clock to decide if referees should get help from video review, however.

Decision-making was slow and often confused at the eight-nation Confederations Cup in Russia this year. Reviews once predicted to last mere seconds stretched to three minutes, and still seemed to get things wrong.

Top-level German and Italian league games are using Video Assistant Referees this season and, again, have provoked anger from team officials.

FIFA’s rule-making panel is scheduled to make a decision in March, maybe based more on hope than expectation.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Vancouver adds versatile Juarez, formerly of Monterrey, Celtic

Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images
1 Comment

Efrain Juarez is bringing his game to Major League Soccer.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 39-times capped Mexico veteran has inked a deal with the Vancouver Whitecaps, joining a strengthened unit which came within a point of winning the West last season.

Juarez, 29, was unveiled as a midfielder by the ‘Caps, though he’s primarily played right back in his club career. He’s played at Celtic, Real Zaragoza, Club America, Monterrey, and Pumas.

Last capped by El Tri in 2012, Juarez has played every position except goal, center attacking mid, and center forward in his career (picture a ‘U’ on the pitch).

“I’m so happy and excited for this new stage in my career,” Juarez said. “It’s an opportunity for me to keep growing in a new league and to be a part of an amazing club in Vancouver. From the moment they showed interest me, Carl Robinson and the Whitecaps staff have made me feel very important. I promise to put all my effort into this club and do my best to help us achieve our goals.”

VIDEO: Asensio goal ends Real Madrid’s winless run

AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Leave a comment

Marco Asensio’s eighth goal of the season and second of this Copa del Rey put an end to an unlikely Real Madrid winless run in a 1-0 victory at Leganes.

[ MLS: 2018 Mock SuperDraft ]

The 21-year-old darted in front of a defender to volley home from in-tight, giving Real Madrid a first leg lead in the tournament quarterfinals.

More importantly, perhaps, it gives struggling Real a boost in morale after draws with Celta Vigo and Numancia, and a loss to Villarreal.

Real is home to Deportivo de la Coruna in La Liga before hosting Leganes in the second leg.

Hopeful Newcastle buyer Staveley: Offer still on the table

Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
2 Comments

Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley is probably happy that his for-sale club is away this weekend, even though his side’s up against Manchester City.

[ MORE: Top PL storylines — Week 24  ]

That’s because hopeful buyer Amanda Staveley has responded to claims that her hopeful takeover of the team won’t be happening any time soon.

Talks had stalled, said Tuesday reports, much to the chagrin of an #AshleyOut brigade that at times can make Arsenal’s #WengerOut brigade look like a yard full of happy puppies.

A “source” had said, “Attempts to reach a deal have proved to be exhaustive, frustrating and a complete waste of time,” but Staveley shot back on Thursday to reignite the fire. From the BBC, taken from The Times:

“Our bid remains on the table. This is an investment, but it has to be a long-term investment. Newcastle would be run as a business, but we want it to be a successful, thriving business that is an absolutely integral part of the city.”

She also said that popular manager Rafa Benitez is integral to her interest in the team, and that fact combined with her insistence that an offer remains on the table will have many Newcastle fans seething with current ownership (and there have been protests for years). It’s Ashley’s move now.

2018 MLS Mock Draft: LAFC, Galaxy hold the keys

@MLS
Leave a comment

Major League Soccer’s latest batch of hopeful rookies learn the next steps of their professional careers beginning Friday with the first two rounds of the MLS SuperDraft.

There are several intriguing prospects, including accomplished Stanford center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce and dangerous Michigan winger Francis Atuahene.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

An MLS mock draft is always tricky given the wildly varying opinions on players from the college game. This year, it’s even trickier as clubs without picks and some with multiple first round picks may be looking to move up and down even more than the norm.

Here’s how we think the draft could play out:

  1. LAFC – Tomas Hilliard-Arce, CB, Stanford
  2. LA Galaxy – Jon Bakero, FW, Wake Forest
  3. DC United – Francis Atuahene, FW, Michigan
  4. Montreal – Joao Moutinho, LB, Akron
  5. Minnesota – Wyatt Omsberg, CB, Dartmouth
  6. Orlando City – Ema Twumasi, FW, Wake Forest
  7. Montreal – Chris Mueller, FW, Wisconsin
  8. New England – Mo Adams, MF, Syracuse
  9. New England – Chris Lema, MF, Georgetown
  10. Real Salt Lake – Justin Fiddes, LB, Washington
  11. FC Dallas – Marcelo Acuna, FW, Virginia Tech
  12. San Jose – Brandon Bye, RB, Western Michigan
  13. Sporting KC – Ed Opoku, FW, Virginia
  14. Atlanta – Alex Roldan, MF, Seattle
  15. Chicago – Mason Toye, FW, Indiana
  16. New York Red Bulls – Alan Winn, MF, North Carolina
  17. Vancouver – Tristan Blackmon, RB, Pacific
  18. Sporting KC – Jon Gallagher, FW, Notre Dame
  19. New York City FC – Daniel Musovski, FW, UNLV
  20. Houston – Mo Thiaw, FW, Louisville
  21. Columbus – Brian White, FW, Duke
  22. Seattle – Tim Kubel, MF, Louisville
  23. Toronto FC – Oliver Shannon, MF, Clemson

There are a few players to keep an eye on for the later rounds that I won’t project for the first round due almost exclusively to first person bias (Some I’ve seen play in college, others at other levels). Afonso Pinheiro from Albany produced like crazy until this season, and Bowling Green defender Alexis Souahy has a skill set that could really transmit to the MLS level.

Mac Steeves (Providence) is a prototypical big body scorer, while Evansville’s heady Ian McGrath has a flair for the absurd and can play almost every position up the center of the pitch. Charleston’s Thomas Vancaeyezeele was a D-2 monster and is probably worth a shot earlier than people suspect.