World Cup Qualifying, Asia: The divergent Middle Eastern fortunes of Australia, South Korea

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There are worse things than being a one-trick pony, particularly if you’re an absolute master at that trick. For Australia, that one trick is their dominance in the air, a trait that saw them take Asia by storm during the last World Cup qualifying cycle. The rest of the continent, seemingly unprepared for such aesthetics eschewing pragmatism, watched as the likes of Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill head Australia to the top of the region.

In the years that followed the Aussies’ fist AFC qualifying campaign, Asia seemed to adjust. Japan won the continental title in 2011, and the Australians went without a win in the first three matches of fourth (final) round World Cup Qualifying. Coming off a surprise loss in Jordan, the Socceroos’ Tuesday match with Iraq had a must win feel to it.

Despite that urgency, Australia fell behind in the 72nd minute, an Alaa Abdul-Zahra goal giving Iraq a 1-0 lead. That’s when Australia’s one trick came through. Tim Cahill pulled back Iraq’s lead with an 80th minute header, while Archie Thompson, experiencing an unlikely international revival, put home an 84th minute winner.

Often people try to defend Australia as been more than a team reliant on crosses and set pieces – as if being a one-trick pony is a bad think within world soccer. When you survey the array of soccer-playing nations, you see most don’t even have one trick to lean on. Enviably, Australia has a reliable tactic in reserve.

It was a crushing loss for Iraq, who sit bottom of Asia’s Group B with a 0-2-2 record that fails to reflect their quality. Banned by FIFA from playing matches at home, the Iraqis are left wondering if results like today’s would occur if their home matches weren’t relocated to Qatar. Had the Iraqis held on, they’d be sitting in Australia’s spot: Second place, five points behind Japan, holding the inside track on a place at Brazil 2014.

Swagger-less favorites

In Asia’s other group, South Korea still has one of those inside tracks, even if they’ll be disappointed with Tuesday’s performance in Tehran. Though their hosts gave the Koreans every chance to claim full points, Group A’s leaders left Iran empty-handed.

The Iranians played cautiously over the match’s first act before showing some ambition as halftime approached. Korea only threatened from dead balls but, thanks to the service of Ki Sung-Yeung, still looked looked more likely to score, heading against the crossbar twice before break.

When Iran went a man down early in the second (Masoud Shojaei seeing red in the 56th minute), the Koreans were put on track for three, though it was the Iranians’ set piece magic that ultimately gave Carlos Quieroz’s team full points. A 76th minute ball served from the right met with a lazy clearance, the resulting ball allowing captain Javad Nekonam to blast home the game’s only goal.

Jung Sung-Ryong’s reaction summed up South Korea’s day. The goalkeeper was given no chance to stop the 17-yard blast into the left of his net. As the Nekonam’s ball bent the net, Jung’s head swung from his goal, back to Nekonam, then into space as he took a moment to process what had happened. The Iranians ran toward the crowd, piling on their captain as he ran down the field’s encircling track, leaving the Koreans to think back on a match they never seized, even after they were awarded a numerical advantage.

At full time, Iran’s celebrations highlighted the opportunity South Korea had lost. As Quieroz came down from the stands (where he had been sent for being a general nuisance all night), his players formed a mob on the field, with one of the best crowds of the international break celebrating the upset of a regional power.

Korea never played like the favorite. They never took advantage of what could have been a psychological edge. Even after going up a man, they played the match on Iran’s terms.

The only hint the match gave of Korea’s stature was Iran’s opening tactics – a cautious approach that sought to pressure Korea, but only after they’d been baiting to moving down the flanks. Compact and patient, Iran waited out the match’s first half hour despite being the home side. Come the 30-minute mark, it was impossible to tell Korea was a perpetual World Cup qualifier visiting a team hoping to reestablish some international prestige.

AFC World Cup Qualifying – Standings

Group A

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
South Korea 4 2 1 1 9 4 +5 7
Iran 4 2 1 1 2 1 +1 7
Uzbekistan 4 1 2 1 4 4 0 5
Qatar 4 1 1 2 2 5 −3 4
Lebanon 4 1 1 2 2 5 −3 4

Tuesday results

Qatar 0, Uzbekistan 1
Iran 1, South Korea 0

Group B

Team Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
Japan 4 3 1 0 11 1 +10 10
Australia 4 1 2 1 4 4 0 5
Oman 4 1 2 1 3 5 −2 5
Jordan 4 1 1 2 4 10 −6 4
Iraq 4 0 2 2 3 5 −2 2

Tuesday results

Oman 2, Jordan 1
Iraq 1, Australia 2

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

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Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.