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US World Cup absence could have wide-ranging effects

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The 2018 World Cup will be a unique test of soccer’s appeal in the United States.

Will Americans still watch if their national team isn’t there? Fox is certainly hoping so.

The U.S. failed to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia when it lost at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday night, and the effects of that defeat may be felt for quite some time. The team, and indeed the whole U.S. Soccer Federation, faces a period of soul searching – but broadcasters, sponsors and tournament organizers could also be impacted by the Americans’ absence.

Fox, which broadcasts next year’s World Cup, offered only a statement Wednesday – which did provide some insight as to how the network will likely promote a World Cup without the U.S.

“Last night’s World Cup qualifying results do not change FOX Sports’ passion for the world’s biggest sporting event,” the statement said. “While the U.S. was eliminated, the biggest stars in the world from Lionel Messi to Cristiano Ronaldo stamped their tickets to Russia on the same day, and will battle teams ranging from Mexico to England that have massive fan bases in America.”

Fans in the U.S. are familiar with stars like Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar. Top European club teams now have American followings, which suggests that soccer in the U.S. can withstand a short-term slump for the national team.

An estimated 26.5 million people in the U.S. watched Germany’s victory over Argentina in the 2014 World Cup final in Brazil, and the 2018 final figures to be a major draw as well. But a U.S.-Portugal match in the group stage of the 2014 tournament had 24.7 million viewers – and that’s the type of interest that might be absent from earlier games in 2018.

“It’s going to hurt a little bit,” said Austin Karp, an assistant managing editor of SportsBusiness Daily. “You’re not going to have any buildup there toward the summer, with the U.S. team playing either friendlies – or talk about how the U.S. team is going to do, promotion of the U.S. team on Fox properties like baseball or other spring stuff they might have. … The U.S. matches were some of the strongest audiences for ESPN-ABC the last couple of iterations of the tournament. The final will still be OK.”

Fox broadcast the Women’s World Cup in 2015, but next year will be its first time carrying the men’s tournament since winning U.S. English-language World Cup rights back in 2011. Now Fox’s 2018 tournament won’t have the Americans, and ratings for the 2022 event in Qatar could be affected by the fact that it is set to be held in November and December, instead of its usual calendar spot midway through the year.

The U.S. team’s failure to qualify for 2018 dented shares of Twenty-First Century Fox on Wednesday. The stock fell 66 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $26.11. But concerns over Fox’s outlook may be overblown, according to a report from Pivotal Research Group. According to the group’s study, the U.S. team accounted for about 20 percent of ESPN’s total viewing for the 2014 tournament – a significant figure but not an overwhelming one. Fox will certainly miss having the Americans in 2018, but the U.S. played only four games in Brazil last time.

“While it might make a difference for the lay viewer who is only going to watch the U.S. games, that’s just a small subset of the total viewing,” said Brian Wieser, a senior research analyst for Pivotal Research Group.

So the show must go on for broadcasters – and sponsors are trying to make the best of the situation as well.

“Like all American soccer fans we are disappointed the team will not be participating in the World Cup, but still recognize the huge growth opportunity for soccer in the U.S.,” said Ricardo Marques, a vice president of marketing for Budweiser. “As the official beer of the World Cup and a longtime FIFA partner, Budweiser will continue to tap into our fans’ passion for soccer here and globally.”

Over in Russia, meanwhile, the reaction to the U.S. ouster was muted. American fans have attended the World Cup in droves recently – over 200,000 tickets for games in Brazil were purchased by U.S. residents. FIFA said Tuesday that the U.S. was among the top 10 countries for ticket applications so far for 2018, along with other non-qualifiers like China and Israel. Some applications by U.S. residents are likely to have been made by supporters of other teams, such as Mexico.

Still, many in Russia focused instead on the failure to qualify of neighboring Ukraine, which had occasionally threatened to boycott the tournament over Russia’s backing for separatist groups in eastern Ukraine. Vyacheslav Koloskov, the Russian Football Union honorary president, said the United States’ absence was a missed opportunity to improve Russia-U.S. relations.

“The non-participation of the U.S. reduces the chances of players, and indirectly of American fans, to see the transformations taking place in our country,” he told Russian agency R-Sport.

Koloskov added that the U.S. team was “nothing special” and so its absence “won’t have any effect on our World Cup in a sporting sense.”

Follow Noah Trister at http://www.Twitter.com/noahtrister

Sky Blue’s Sam Kerr named NWSL league MVP for 2017

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CHICAGO (AP) Sky Blue FC forward Sam Kerr has been named the National Women’s Soccer League’s Most Valuable Player for this season.

Kerr, a standout on the Australian national team, had a league-record 17 goals and became the league’s fifth Golden Boot winner to also be named MVP.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

She became the first NWSL player to score four goals in a game on Aug. 19 against the Seattle Reign. Kerr rallied Sky Blue from a 3-goal deficit to beat the Reign 5-4.

Kerr’s award was announced Friday. The league had earlier announced the season’s other award winners: North Carolina’s Abby Dahlkemper was named Defender of the Year, teammate Ashley Hatch was named Rookie of the Year, Portland’s Adrianna Franch was named Goalkeeper of the Year and the Thorns’ Mark Parsons was named Coach of the Year.

The Mendy Effect: Pep praises injured back

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Full back Benjamin Mendy cost Pep Guardiola and Manchester City $68 million, but perhaps he’ll be just as valuable as a very expensive sports psychologist.

The “Shark Team” member was amusing on social media even before his ACL injury sent him to the sidelines until at least April, but he’s become a must-follow Twitter fixture with his in-game messages (See some of his work below).

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

City faces Burnley at 10 a.m. ET Saturday (Watch live on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com).

It’s fairly clear his act has translated in private, too, as apparently Mendy is just as good in group messages (Let us in, Pep. We won’t tell anyone). From ManCity.com:

“Usually, players who are out for a long time with injury are sad. They sometimes train apart and feel isolated.

“Mendy decided to be present. He is communicating on social media, WhatsApp and he calls his teammates and messages me. He is going to be so important outside the pitch because people like him make the atmosphere much better.”

It’s not surprising for anyone who’s been following the former Le Havre, Marseille and Monaco man.

Keep in mind, these Tweets below are from the last few days alone!

Ozil to Manchester United?!? Wenger reacts to gossip

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Sometimes, even the biggest Arsene Wenger detractors have to feel for the guy.

Coming off a thrilling late win in Serbia, one that saw Olivier Giroud cap off a team goal straight out of the creative Wenger playbook, the manager should’ve been discussing how to stretch those good vibes into this weekend’s visit to Goodison Park.

[ MORE: MLS Decision Day preview ]

Yet no. Instead of talking about how the Gunners would respect the struggling Toffees, Wenger had to address speculation from several outlets claiming Mesut Ozil would move to Manchester United, perhaps as soon as January.

Feeling it? No, no Wenger was not feeling it. From Arsenal.com:

“We have to deal with all kinds of speculation when the players are at the end of their contracts. On the other hand, to be professional is to give 100 per cent as long as you are somewhere. For the rest, we came out many times and said that’s the situation. It [the media] can come out tomorrow and say that he extends his contract here. It will be exactly the same, it will not change anything. When you play the next game, commit 100 per cent. … When a player plays for Arsenal Football Club, his commitment cannot be linked with the length of his contract, it has just to be linked with the responsibility and the ambition he has to win the football game.”
Of course most big clubs have to deal with such drama on a year-to-year basis and, yes, having Ozil and Alexis Sanchez still in town was completely avoidable. But the idea that Ozil could leave, for free, to Manchester United? We’re sure Gooners the world over will be thrilled with the gossip.

MLS Decision Day preview: Much at stake

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Four teams can claim a Western Conference second round berth, while four more can earn a valuable first-round bye in the East.

Yep, there’s plenty to play for beyond the West’s final playoff spot Sunday during Major League Soccer’s Decision Day, when every team will take the pitch for 4 p.m. ET kickoffs.

[ MORE: Conte feels pressure ]

Here’s what we do know regarding the playoffs:

  1. Supporters’ Shield winning Toronto FC gets a first round bye, while No. 6 seed New York Red Bulls are headed to the road for a first round playoff
  2. New England, Montreal, Philadelphia, Orlando, DC, Minnesota, Colorado, and LA will not make the playoffs
  3. Full stop.

So, yes, this will be fun.

First, let’s look at the Eastern Conference Standings ahead of Sunday’s extravaganza:

Eastern Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Toronto FC 33 20 8 5 72 35 37 13-3-1 7-5-4 68
x – New York City FC 33 16 8 9 54 41 13 10-4-2 6-4-7 56
x – Chicago 33 16 7 10 61 44 17 12-3-2 4-4-8 55
x – Atlanta 33 15 9 9 68 38 30 11-2-3 4-7-6 54
x – Columbus 33 16 5 12 51 47 4 12-2-3 4-3-9 53
x – New York 33 13 8 12 51 46 5 9-6-2 4-2-10 47

— New York City FC controls its bye destiny, though Columbus could join them on 56 points and would pass them on tiebreakers (wins).

— If that happens, Chicago could claim the second bye with a win or draw in Houston (The Fire owns the goal differential tiebreaker).

— If New York City and Chicago lose or draw, Atlanta could finish second with a home win over TFC.

— Columbus can finish second with a win and non-wins for Chicago and Atlanta.

Western Conference
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
x – Vancouver 33 15 7 11 49 47 2 9-5-3 6-2-8 52
x – Portland 33 14 8 11 58 49 9 10-4-2 4-4-9 50
x – Seattle 33 13 11 9 49 39 10 10-5-1 3-6-8 50
x – Sporting KC 33 12 13 8 39 27 12 10-6-1 2-7-7 49
x – Houston 33 12 11 10 54 45 9 11-4-1 1-7-9 47
San Jose 33 12 7 14 36 58 -22 9-5-2 3-2-12 43
FC Dallas 33 10 13 10 43 47 -4 7-7-2 3-6-8 43
Real Salt Lake 33 12 6 15 47 54 -7 8-4-4 4-2-11 42

Byes

— Vancouver finishes first with a win or draw at Portland. The ‘Caps could finish as low as third with a loss to Portland and a Seattle win versus Colorado.

— Portland finishes first — and wins the Cascadia Cup — with a win over visiting Vancouver.

— Seattle can claim a first round bye with a win over visiting Colorado and a Vancouver win over Portland.

— Sporting KC can finish second with a win at Real Salt Lake and non-wins for Portland and Seattle.

Final playoff spot

— San Jose claims the sixth seed with a home win over Minnesota. They can also finish sixth with a draw joined by non-wins for FC Dallas at home to LA and Real Salt Lake at home versus SKC.

— FC Dallas claims the sixth seed with a win over LA and a San Jose draw or loss versus Minnesota. FCD gets sixth with a draw, and a San Jose loss coupled with a RSL loss or draw versus SKC.

—  Real Salt Lake gets sixth with a win over SKC, and non-wins from San Jose and Dallas. RSL could also get sixth with a draw and losses for San Jose and Dallas.

(Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images)

Schedule
FC Dallas vs. LA Galaxy
DC United vs. New York Red Bulls
San Jose vs. Minnesota United
Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC
Houston vs. Chicago
Seattle vs. Colorado
Philadelphia vs. Orlando City
Portland vs. Vancouver
Montreal vs. New England
New York City vs. Columbus
Atlanta vs. Toronto

Predictions

— NYCFC hangs on for a draw against Columbus, earning a bye, leaving Chicago to host New York Red Bulls and Atlanta off to Columbus for the first round of the playoffs (We have Toronto beating Atlanta on Sunday).

— Vancouver and Portland draw, while Seattle beats Colorado. The ‘Caps and Sounders get byes, while Seattle takes back the Cascadia Cup.

— San Jose beats Minnesota, gaining the West’s sixth seed. The Quakes head to Portland for the first round, while SKC hosts Houston.