World Cup qualifying

DUBLIN, IRELAND - NOVEMBER 18:  Anthony Stokes (R) of Ireland takes on Fabian Johnson (L) of USA during the International Friendly match between the Republic of Ireland and USA at the Aviva Stadium on November 18, 2014 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

The merits of a 48-team World Cup (and sample draw)

4 Comments

There are fans in certain confederations disappointed at the expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026.

A vocal group of Europeans already think it should essentially be a Europe-heavy tournament, and expect the expansion will lead to many blowouts.

Some American and CONCACAF fans worry it will dilute World Cup qualifying, snaring drama from so many fun nights across North and Central America.

[ MORE: World Cup expansion confirmed ]

There’s something in those arguments, but the gains will outweigh the losses across the world. In other words, we have to be careful that we aren’t living in an echo chamber that the political world would even find a bit goofy.

Consider New Zealand, by far the strongest team in its region, has not be assured a spot in the tournament unless it can win a playoff tie. Or great stories like Bob Bradley‘s Egypt, who was at the mercy of a home-and-home battle for a World Cup group despite going 6-0 in group play.

Look it’s easy to be selfish in these instances, but we are not likely to be dealing with the oft-cited “Tahiti in the 2013 Confederations Cup” scenario.

In fact, let’s consider how it would look. Let’s assume that the 16 groups of three teams still feature one seeded team and confederations remain separated.

[ MORE: Explaining the format ]

UEFA will get 16 teams, and have one team per group. CONMEBOL goes up to six teams, with CONCACAF going to 6.5. Africa goes up to nine, while Asia moves to 8.5. Oceania gets one, presumably, with the hosts snaring an extra.


Using ELOratings.net and the FIFA ratings, here is who would be headed for the World Cup:

Seeded: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, Colombia, France, Portugal, Uruguay, Spain, Switzerland, Wales, England, Croatia, Poland, HOSTS.

Remaining UEFA (5): Italy, Netherlands, Republic of Ireland, Turkey, Ukraine.

Brazil Soccer WCup Colombia Ivory CoastRemaining CONMEBOL (1): Ecuador.

CAF (9): Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt, Nigeria, Algeria, Cameroon, South Africa, Tunisia, Ghana.

Asia (9): South Korea, Iran, Japan, Australia, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Syria.

CONCACAF (7): Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Panama, Honduras, Canada, Jamaica.

Oceania (1): New Zealand

[ MORE: Schneiderlin off to Everton ]



Now a sample draw, where two teams would advance from each group.

GROUP A:
Argentina
Italy
Senegal

GROUP B:
Brazil
Netherlands
Egypt

GROUP C:
Germany
Ivory Coast
Mexico

GROUP D:
Chile
Republic of Ireland
Nigeria

GROUP E:
Belgium
Syria
Algeria

GROUP F:
Colombia
Turkey
Cameroon

GROUP G:
France
Qatar
South Africa

GROUP H:
Portugal
UAE
Tunisia

GROUP I:
Uruguay
Ukraine
Ghana

GROUP J:
Spain
Saudi Arabia
Costa Rica

GROUP K:
Switzerland
Uzbekistan
United States

GROUP L:
Wales
Australia
Panama

GROUP M:
England
Japan
New Zealand

GROUP N:
Croatia
Iran
Honduras

GROUP O:
Poland
Ecuador
Canada

GROUP P:
HOSTS (Let’s cater to UEFA and say, uh, Greece)
South Korea
Jamaica

[ MORE: Odegaard leaving Real Madrid on loan ]


RECIFE, BRAZIL - JUNE 29: Giorgos Samaras of Greece controls the ball against Oscar Duarte of Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Costa Rica and Greece at Arena Pernambuco on June 29, 2014 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
RECIFE, BRAZIL – JUNE 29: Giorgos Samaras of Greece and Oscar Duarte of Costa Rica  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

So, you’re getting more games and more meaningful games, each in their own individual television window. Even groups that seem clean cut — like Spain, Saudi Arabia, and Costa Rica — could be flipped on their ear by the end of the first match.

For what it’s worth, I would not end every match with penalty kicks and keep draws. I’d rather see extra time than an impetus for Greece to pack it inside its own 18 for 90 minutes.

But I believe we’d see something better from a 48-team tournament, and it would mostly end the days of, “Man I wish this list of stars was at the World Cup” (or at least make the list much smaller).

As for the “dud teams” involved, those countries get one less guaranteed game by the move to 3-team groups. And while in some ways qualifying would certainly suffer, consider the following scenarios. With CONMEBOL having 1.5 more spots, you’d see teams 9 and 10 alive longer in qualifying. That’s why it’s arguably an improvement for South America, who should’ve gone to a Hex-style format long ago.

What do you think? Are you bummed about the 48-team World Cup? Or is a lot of the furor rooted in a preference to dislike FIFA moves from the hop?

Follow @NicholasMendola

USMNT World Cup qualifiers moved up slightly

PASADENA, CA - OCTOBER 10:  Jermaine Jones #13 of the United States protects the ball against Hector Herrera #16 of Mexico during the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup Qualifier at Rose Bowl on October 10, 2015 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)
Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images
Leave a comment

CHICAGO (AP) The United States’ World Cup qualifiers in June have been moved up slightly because of Mexico’s participation in the Confederations Cup.

The U.S. Soccer Federation said Tuesday that the Americans’ home game against Trinidad and Tobago will be played June 8, a day earlier than first scheduled. The Americans’ match at Mexico will be played June 11, two days ahead of the original date.

Mexico plays its Confederations Cup opener against Portugal on June 18 in Kazan, Russia.

[ EXCLUSIVE: PST chats with Keegan Rosenberry ]

After the U.S. lost its opening two games in the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region, coach Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena, the U.S. coach from 1998-2006.

The Americans resume qualifying at home against Honduras on March 24, then play four days later at Panama.

USMNT: Arena hopeful Dempsey ready for World Cup qualifiers

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 21:  Nicolas Otamendi #17 of Argentina and Clint Dempsey #8 of United States battle for the ball in the second half during a 2016 Copa America Centenario Semifinal match at NRG Stadium on June 21, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images
1 Comment

USMNT coach Bruce Arena plans to call up Clint Dempsey, saying he’s “hopeful” the Seattle Sounders striker will be prepared to play in March’s World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Honduras.

Dempsey has been out of action since August, having undergone a pair of operations to correct heart problems.

[ PL: Top Six face December challenges ]

Goal.com’s Seth Vertelney has a quote from Arena:

“I spoke to Clint yesterday, he is making good progress,” Arena said. “Obviously his health is a priority. And we are hoping we can bring him into camp in January, just casually get back into the swing of things. Perhaps not even considering him playing, and then have him ready to go as Seattle starts their preseason (in February).”

The 33-year-old was part of the locker room celebrations on Saturday in Toronto following the Sounders’ triumph over TFC in penalty kicks.

Dempsey has scored 52 goals in 130 caps, with three of those goals coming in a star turn for the U.S. at the Copa America Centenario.

Follow @NicholasMendola

Arena: USMNT ‘behind the eight ball’ in World Cup qualifying

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 19:  Bruce Arena the coach of the Los Angeles Galaxy looks on during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 match between Liverpool FC and Besiktas JK at Anfield on February 19, 2015 in Liverpool, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
3 Comments

NEW YORK (AP) Bruce Arena opened a binder to a page with 48 names, his depth chart for the U.S. soccer team.

Back in charge for the first time in a decade, he views the Americans’ state as urgent following losses in the first two games of the final round of World Cup qualifying and already has plans.

“We’re fighting for our lives starting March 24. We’re behind the eight ball,” he said. “We’ve got to close the gap, and we get six points in the next two games, the gap is closed.”

[ MORE: PST’s 2016 MLS Coach of the Year ]

During an hourlong session with reporters Tuesday, Arena said comments he made in 2013 about foreign-born players on the national team were aimed at the U.S. player development system, not a criticism of German-Americans who made up almost a quarter of the 2014 World Cup roster under Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I was told today, somebody, they referenced me in Spain as the Donald Trump of soccer,” Arena said. “I think that I’m at fault obviously for those statements, but I would like to clear that up. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It’s no way in the way I think.”

“I think the phrase foreign nationals is a very poor term, whoever uses it, and I will not use it. I will not use dual citizens. They’re national team players,” he explained. “The comment regarding foreign-born players, at the time I believe was referencing player development. And I was simply saying that if our senior national team program consists of a large minority of players, large majority of players that were born elsewhere, where are we going with our development? It has nothing to do with who should be playing on the national team, who should not.”

Now 65 and a member of the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame, Arena coached the U.S. from 1998-2006 and is the winningest coach in team history. He led the Americans to the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, their best finish since the first tournament in 1930, then was fired after a first-round elimination in 2006. He took over from Klinsmann last week following a 2-1 home loss to Mexico and a 4-0 rout at Costa Rica.

“Mexico certainly came out and took control of the game early, and I don’t think that should happen at home,” Arena said. “I think the game in Costa Rica was not good from start to finish. In general, I think the theme in both games: Our back line played poorly, and I don’t think they’re poor players. I think they can play better, so we’ve got to get them organized, get the right players in the right spots and get them playing better as a unit.”

[ MORE: Clubs petition to relegation-proof Chapecoense ]

Arena plans to open training camp in Carson, California, around Jan. 8 and follow with a pair of exhibitions with a roster mostly from Major League Soccer. Qualifying resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras, followed four days later by a match at Panama.

Feilhaber (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Arena says goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan need competition from the rest of the player pool, 31-year-old midfielder Benny Feilhaber likely will get an opportunity to return after playing just three games under Klinsmann and 35-year-old midfielder Jermaine Jones “certainly still has something to offer.”

He views captain Michael Bradley as a defensive midfielder rather than a playmaker, a role Klinsmann encouraged Bradley to assume.

“He plays an important position and at his best he’s a key figure, and we’ve got to get him at his best,” Arena said.

Settling on the center of the field is one of Arena’s keys.

“We need a better passer in the midfield than we have. We need to have a player in the attacking half of the field that can deliver the right ball at the right time,” he said. “Who that is remains to be seen. There’s a couple of domestic players that are very good at that that we’ll look at in camp in January, and that to me is an area that we’ve got to identify. And that will help establish how we play. Do we play with one striker, two strikers? Do we play with three? How do we define our midfield shape based on that.”

Arena’s office at the StubHub Center moves only about 30 feet from his previous job as coach of the LA Galaxy, and his parking spot remains the same. As he takes over, he wants to change the Americans’ mentality and consistency.

“Too many peaks and valleys,” he said, moving his hands up and down. “We’ve got to get them to level out their performance a little bit more.”

[ MORE: Chapecoense — Fairytale to Tragedy ]

A former German star player and coach, Klinsmann criticized the level of play in Major League Soccer. Arena said it has come a long way.

“MLS isn’t on the level of the EPL or the Bundesliga or La Liga, Serie A. We know that,” he said. “But right after that, we’re in that area below that, and it will get better.”

Arena doesn’t tweet and isn’t that interested in statistics.

“I’m not a person that digs deep into analytics because I don’t think the sport of soccer is an analytic sport,” he said. “I think baseball clearly is. I think football can be, obviously, basketball a little bit more. I think soccer is a hard one.”

Brazil’s new coach: Bring on Germany, Italy and Spain

Brazil coach Tite gives directions to his players, during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match against Peru, in Lima, Peru, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)
AP Photo/Martin Mejia
1 Comment

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Brazil’s new coach is tearing up South American World Cup qualifying. In six matches in charge, Adenor Leonardo Bacchi – known universally as Tite (pronounced Chi-Chi) – has won all six.

Now he’s offering to challenge Europe’s best, including defending champion Germany, as the five-time World Cup winners prepare for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where they are likely to be among the favorites.

“Let’s play against Italy away,” Tite said Monday in a 35-minute interview with The Associated Press. “Spain, Germany, Portugal away.”

[ MORE: Pulisic to LFC for $31 mil-plus? ]

Tite also mentioned playing England at Wembley, which he called “the temple of football.”

Tite, speaking in his modest office surrounded by TVs, a blackboard, and books, said he didn’t expect his team’s quick success. But now that it’s come and with Brazil not playing in next year’s Confederations Cup – the World Cup warmup – he must look elsewhere.

“Since we won’t play in the Confederations Cup to feel the heat, the adrenaline, we will try another way.” He said Brazil needs “to play away so we feel that weight. So we have a solid performance in different venues.”

Tite is certainly interested in Germany, which humiliated Brazil 7-1 in the World Cup semifinals 2 + years ago in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte.

“The first step is to play a friendly against them, wherever they want in Germany,” he said.

The European schedule could become a reality quickly. Brazil, which leads South American qualifying, could officially qualify for Russia in its next two qualifiers in March against Uruguay and Paraguay.

Brazil defeated Argentina 3-0 and Peru 2-0 in its last two qualifiers in November, and moved to No. 2 in the world rankings behind Argentina.

[ MORE: American winger debuts for Fiorentina ]

Brazil has become less dependent on Barcelona star Neymar in the last few matches since Tite took over after Dunga was fired.

In the meantime, he has discovered several rising stars that have made Brazil a team – not a one-player show.

“If Brazil depends only on Neymar there will be a problem with Brazil, not with Neymar,” Tite explained. “Brazil needs the individual creativity of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Douglas Costa. But it needs the collective creativity that sometimes people don’t pay attention to.”

Tite also said that Neymar’s clash with Spanish tax authorities was “personal” though he added that there’s not much he can do about it.

Tite is counting on improvement from his No. 9, 19-year-old Gabriel Jesus, who is moving to Manchester City in January from Brazil club Palmeiras. He expects him to be as good in Europe as he’s been in Brazil.

“His level of performance will be very similar, with some tactical adjustments, of course,” Tite said.

Asked about investigations into CBF President Marco Polo del Nero, who has been indicted by U.S. authorities for corruption, Tite said “those responsible are the ones that have to pay.”

He declined to say more, but last year he signed a petition asking for Del Nero to resign.

[ MORE: Cleated, sick Morris shines for Seattle ]

Tite will be on the road in the next few days. On Thursday he is off to Spain to see Barcelona play Real Madrid. A big believer in scouting his players, he also expects to watch Brazilian players at Paris Saint-Germain.

The former coach of Sao Paulo club Corinthians, Tite is also a student of the game. He is reading former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, and the copy already is full of footnotes and notations.

But his main inspiration is Bayern Munich’s coach Carlo Ancelotti, who allowed him to be an observer in 2014 at Real Madrid.

“Ancelotti’s teams are more balanced,” Tite said. “It’s a more Italian defense and creativity from the midfield forward. I admire his work and also his discreet profile. I am also like that.”

When he is not working, Tite clings to his family in Rio. His son Matheus is one of his key scouts. And his wife Rose keeps him down to earth during their early morning walks.

He’s also thinking beyond the 2018 World Cup. But he suggested nothing will be as exciting as the next 19 months.

“I am honestly making a dream come true,” he said. “Anything that comes after Brazil will not be bigger than this.”

Mauricio Savarese on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MSavarese . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/mauricio-savarese

Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP .His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/stephen-wade