Brazil 2014 or bust! Final World Cup push begins for United States national team

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Tension will be high Wednesday in Honduras, where the United States soccer team launches its final push toward World Cup 2014, as security concerns and the grave consequence of failure hang heavy over coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his U.S. 24-man assembly.

Should the United States be expected to qualify for next summer’s World Cup in Brazil? Absolutely.

Is it a slam dunk? Absolutely not.

The United States national team, under the direction of its enthusiastic, enigmatic German coach, meets an improving and confident Honduras as the “money round” of qualifying commences. Small though it is, Honduras advanced to its second World Cup finals in 2010 and qualified for the 2012 Olympics (when the United States did not).

Wednesday’s match in San Pedro Sula, the most violent city on the planet according to the U.S. State Department, is the first of 10 final-stage qualifying matches in the CONCACAF region (North and Central America and the Caribbean). Final round qualifying runs through October.

The Hondurans hope to maximize any edge against the more experienced Americans by kicking off at 4 p.m ET, when the heat and humidity could become problematic for the majority of U.S. men who make their living in Europe.

(MORE:  Weather for Wednesday in Honduras: a scorcher)

(MORE: Security concerns in San Pedro Sula)

The United States must finish top three in the six-team group (along with Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica and Panama) for automatic passage to Brazil ’14. The group’s fourth-place finisher gets one last chance, a home-and-away series in November against the Oceania winner (probably New Zealand) for the 32-team tournament’s final spot.

Mexico and the United States are favorites to advance, and qualification certainly has become habit here in domestic soccer’s modern era. The country last failed to qualify in 1986, so this would be U.S. Soccer’s seventh consecutive World Cup finals appearance.

While the odds favor a U.S. side blessed with Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey – not headliner “stars” in Europe, but easily in the next tier of talent, highly valued men for solid clubs in esteemed leagues of the Old World – nothing can be taken for granted. The tension here lies solidly in consequence of failure.

Such a thing would be viewed as catastrophe in U.S. Soccer, a crash in the ongoing ascent of the sport domestically.

Not all is perfect in the U.S. cause. Midfield creators are scarce and the back line still has questions as a new generation, led by center back Geoff Cameron and two young German-Americans, transitions in.

Landon Donovan, responsible for single-handedly rescuing a couple of the potentially wayward matches in the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle, can’t quite untangle his career mid-life crisis. Donovan, 30, remains on extended break and not with the U.S. team in Honduras.

(MORE: Landon Donovan’s career crisis)

Semifinal stage qualifying was bumpier than expected, beginning with a draw in Guatemala and then (egad!) a loss at Jamaica. Eventually, Klinsmann and Co. righted matters by taking good care of business at home and qualifying for the final round atop the group.

A recent 0-0 draw with Canada didn’t help assuage any concerns, never mind that Klinsmann’s “B” team was minus its top talent.

(MORE: Why the points are so important in Wednesday’s match)

Those semifinal road wobbles raised red flags of concern among media and supporters, especially as Klinsmann (pictured above, Tuesday in Honduras along with Michael Bradley) had been recruited – at almost five times the salary of his predecessor, Bob Bradley, whose base was less than $500,000 annually – to move the United States forward, off a plateau.

The United States made it to World Cup 2006 but looked immediately unsound and exited quickly. Only a dramatic, late Donovan goal in 2010 helped the United States slip into the second round. But a subsequent Round-of-16 loss left the bitter, incomplete taste of opportunity lost.

Now it’s on Klinsmann, who guided Germany to a third-place finish in 2006 but is going through his first qualifying campaign as a manager. (Germany was invited automatically in 2006 as hosts.)

(MORE: Wednesday a national soccer holiday in Honduras)

“There is no easy way, not for Mexico, not for the United States, not for anybody,” Klinsmann said via national teleconference Monday just before charter departure into Central America. “You have to get your points, you have to win your games and you have to get the job done. You have to go into every game with the expectation that it’s going to be difficult, that it will challenge you to the limits.

“That’s our approach: take it seriously every time you go out onto the field, very seriously, and be very awake and then we’ll see how it runs out through those 10 [final round] games. I told the players it’s all about alertness, commitment and determination. The way they train, the way they presented themselves already this morning, it looks like they are ready.”

(MORE: How many points will it take to get to Brazil)

(MORE:  U.S. history in Honduras? Successful – but surprisingly brief)

(MORE: Massive opportunity for U.S. defender Timmy Chandler)

(MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann addresses the Benny Feilhaber situation)

Durmaz condemns Sweden fans’ racist abuse after World Cup loss

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KRASNODAR, Russia (AP) — Sweden midfielder Jimmy Durmaz says the racist abuse aimed at him over social media following the 2-1 loss to Germany at the World Cup has been “completely unacceptable.”

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

After coming on as a substitute, Durmaz gave away the free kick that led to Toni Kroos curling in an injury-time winner in Saturday’s group game. Durmaz has since been subjected to online abuse, including threats to his family.

Before a training session on Sunday, Durmaz — standing in front of the rest of the Sweden squad and beside coach Janne Andersson — read out a statement to the media from a mobile phone.

“When you threaten me, when you call me ‘Arab devil,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘Taliban,’ then you have gone far beyond the limit,” Durmaz said in the statement, which was published on the Swedish Football Association’s website.

“And even worse, when you go after my family, my children, threaten them. Who does such a thing? It is completely unacceptable.”

Durmaz was born in Sweden to Assyrian parents who emigrated from Turkey.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

“I am Swedish and I am proud to play in the Swedish national team. That’s the biggest thing you can do as a football player,” he said in the statement. “I will never let any racists destroy that pride. We must all stand against all forms of racism.”

The Swedish FA has reported the abuse toward Durmaz to police.

“We do not tolerate a player being exposed to threats and violations,” said Hakan Sjostrand, secretary general of the Swedish FA. “It is unpleasant and very upsetting to see the treatment that Jimmy Durmaz has suffered. Completely unacceptable.”

The loss to Germany left Sweden tied on three points with its opponent. Both countries are three points behind Mexico with one game left. Sweden plays Mexico in Yekaterinburg on Wednesday, with Germany taking on South Korea at the same time.

Scenarios: Final round of 2018 World Cup group stage

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With just one round of group games left to be played at the 2018 World Cup, the time to begin scoreboard (and table… and tiebreaker) watching is now. 24 teams are still alive with a chance to making it into the knockout rounds and lifting the trophy in Moscow on July 15…

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Group A

Games remaining: Uruguay (2nd – 6 points) vs. Russia (1st – 6 points); Saudi Arabia (4th) vs. Egypt (3rd)

Who can finish 1st: Russia (advanced), Uruguay (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: Russia, Uruguay

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Russia (+7), Uruguay (+2)

Scenario(s): Uruguay or Russia will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; Russia will finish 1st if a draw


Group B

Games remaining: Iran (3rd – 3 points) vs. Portugal (2nd – 4 points); Spain (1st – 4 points) vs. Morocco (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Spain, Portugal, Iran
Who can finish 2nd: Spain, Portugal, Iran

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Spain (+1), Portugal (+1), Iran (0)
Goals scored: Spain (4), Portugal (4), Iran (1)

Scenario(s): Spain or Portugal will finish 1st with a win by more goals (or scoring more goals, if the same margin) than the other; Iran will finish 1st with a win and a Spain draw/loss


Group C

Games remaining: Denmark (2nd – 4 points) vs. France (1st – 6 points); Australia (3rd – 1 point) vs. Peru (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: France (advanced), Denmark
Who can finish 2nd: France, Denmark, Australia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: France (+2), Denmark (+1), Australia (-1)
Goals scored: France (3), Denmark (2), Australia (2)

Scenario(s): France will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Denmark; Denmark will finish 1st with a win; Australia will finish 2nd with a win and Denmark (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group D

Games remaining: Nigeria (2nd – 3 points) vs. Argentina (4th – 1 point); Iceland (3rd – 1 point) vs. Croatia (1st – 6 points)

Who can finish 1st: Croatia (advanced), Nigeria
Who can finish 2nd: Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland, Argentina

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Croatia (+5), Nigeria (0), Iceland(-2), Argentina (-3)
Goals scored: Croatia (5), Nigeria (2), Iceland (1), Argentina (1)

Scenario(s): Croatia will will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Iceland; Nigeria will finish 1st with a win over Argentina and a Croatia loss (if the two results combine to overturn their five-goal goal-differential deficit); Iceland will finish 2nd with a win and a Nigeria loss, or a Nigeria draw (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Argentina will finish 2nd with a win and an Iceland loss/draw, or an Iceland win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit)


Group E

Games remaining: Serbia (3rd – 3 points) vs. Brazil (1st – 4 points); Switzerland (2nd – 4 points) vs. Costa Rica (4th – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia
Who can finish 2nd: Brazil, Switzerland, Serbia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Brazil (+2), Switzerland (+1), Serbia(0)
Goals scored: Brazil (3), Switzerland (3), Serbia(2)

Scenario(s): Brazil will finish 1st with a win over Serbia and a Switzerland draw/loss, or a Switzerland win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their one-goal goal-differential advantage); Switzerland will finish 1st with a win over Costa Rica and a Brazil loss/draw, or a Brazil win (if the two results combine to overturn their one-goal goal-differential deficit); Serbia will finish 1st with a win and a Switzerland draw/loss


Group F

Games remaining: South Korea (4th – 0 points) vs. Germany (2nd – 3 points); Mexico (1st – 6 points) vs. Sweden (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Mexico, Germany, Sweden
Who can finish 2nd: Mexico, Germany, Sweden, South Korea

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Mexico (+2), Germany (0), Sweden (0), South Korea (-2)
Goals scored: Mexico (3), Germany (2), Sweden (2), South Korea (1)

Scenario(s): Mexico will finish 1st with a win/draw vs. Sweden, or a draw and a Germany draw/loss, or a one-goal loss and a Germany loss; Germany will finish 1st with a win over South Korea and a Mexico loss (if the two results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficit); Sweden will finish 1st with a win and Germany loss/draw, or a Germany win (if the two results combine to overturn their identical goal differentials); South Korea will finish 2nd with a win and a Sweden loss (if the three results combine to overturn their two-goal goal-differential deficits)


Group G

Games remaining: England (1st – 6 points) vs. Belgium (2nd – 6 points); Panama (4th – 0 points) vs. Tunisia (3rd – 0 points)

Who can finish 1st: England (advanced), Belgium (advanced)
Who can finish 2nd: England, Belgium

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: England (+6), Belgium (+6)
Goals scored: England (8), Belgium (8)
Fair-play points (yellow/red cards): England (-2), Belgium (-3)

Scenario(s): England or Belgium will finish 1st with a win over the other; the loser will finish 2nd; fair-play points will determine who finishes 1st if a draw


Group H

Games remaining: Japan (1st – 4 points) vs. Poland (4th – 0 points); Senegal (2nd – 4 points) vs. Colombia (3rd – 3 points)

Who can finish 1st: Japan, Senegal, Colombia
Who can finish 2nd: Japan, Senegal, Colombia

Tiebreaker(s)

Goal differential: Colombia (+2), Japan (+1), Senegal (+1)
Goals scored: Japan (4), Senegal (4), Colombia (4)
Fair-play points: Japan (-3), Senegal (-5)

Scenario(s): Japan will finish 1st with a win over Poland and a Senegal draw/loss, or a Senegal win (if the two results combine to NOT overturn their fair-play points advantage); Senegal will finish 1st with a win over Colombia and a Japan draw/loss, or a Japan win (if the two results combine to overturn their fair-play points deficit); Colombia will finish 1st with a win and a Japan draw/loss

Kane joins England greats, now chasing Golden Boot

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NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia (AP) — Harry Kane now has a permanent souvenir from the World Cup.

The England striker grabbed the game ball and kept it in his grasp after scoring a hat trick in his team’s 6-1 win over Panama on Sunday.

[ VIDEO: England hammer Panama ]

Those goals — two penalties and a lucky deflection — made Kane the third Englishman after Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker to score a hat trick in a World Cup match.

“One to be proud of,” Kane said. “Not many players get to score a hat trick in a World Cup.”

The third goal was “probably one of the luckiest ones of my career,” he said. It came when a shot from teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek deflected off his heel and wrong-footed Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.

The other two were penalties, but it didn’t matter that his goals weren’t vintage. It was enough to put England into the round of 16 with a match to spare.

Kane now has a tournament-leading five goals at the World Cup, one more than Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku.

[ MORE: Colombia thrash Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal ]

“You’ve got some of the best players in the world doing well, scoring goals, so it’s nice to be up there,” Kane said. “But for me it’s just about the wins. The most important thing is that my goals help my team win. I just hope to continue it.”

Kane took advantage of an overly-physical Panama team to score twice from the spot in the first half. The first penalty came when Jesse Lingard was fouled. Kane won the second himself.

He converted both penalties convincingly.

“You can dismiss penalties as being easy, but the length of time you have to wait before taking it, and the number of distractions to keep focused and start again, it tells you a bit about the mental toughness that he’s got,” England coach Gareth Southgate said. “He’s there. He’s up at the top. We wouldn’t swap him for anyone. We know when he gets opportunities he’s going to bury them.”

Hurst, who got his hat trick in England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, also had that ability. As did Lineker, who scored three against Poland at the 1986 tournament.

Like them, Kane was expected to lead England’s attack. But defender John Stones wasn’t.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The big center back contributed two goals with a pair of headers. That gives him more World Cup goals than he has in 122 games in the Premier League, where he has scored only once.

But, as Stones swiftly reminded everyone, he did score twice in a Champions League game last year.

He said his cellphone was “blowing up” with messages after his goals. But he’s more concerned with Kane’s tally and his chance to beat Ronaldo and others to the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top scorer.

“I’d love Harry to get it,” Stones said. “I know Harry would want us to win more than get the Golden Boot. That’s the most important thing. But, on a personal level, I’d love Harry to get it.”

Colombia thrash poor Poland, set up must-win vs. Senegal

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Colombia thrashed Poland, to the tune of 3-0, in the two sides’ must-win game in Group H play at the 2018 World Cup on Sunday, getting goals from Yerry Mina, Radamel Falcao and Juan Cuadrado to leave their destiny in their own hands ahead of Thursday’s decisive group finale against Senegal.

Poland have been eliminated with one group game still to play.

[ SCENARIOS: Who needs what, to finish where, in final round of group games ]

Colombia could have scored two or three goals in the first half, with Cuadrado and Juan Quintero causing constant problems for the left side of the Polish defense, but the necessary finishing touch was consistently lacking until Mina headed home a James Rodriguez cross in the 40th minute.

Poland offered very little, both before or after Mina’s opener, as Robert Lewandowski was effectively contained with the vast majority of his touches coming 30 yards from goal and further out. After disappointing in their tournament-opening loss to Senegal, manager Adam Nawalka made a handful of changes to his lineup — dropping the likes of Arkadiusz Milik, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Kamil Grosicki — to no avail.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Despite the scoreline remaining 1-0 for the first 25 minutes of the first half, Poland never looked threatening and were put to the sword by Falcao’s first career World Cup goal (missed the 2014 tournament due to a knee injury), courtesy of Quintero’s seeing-eye through ball.

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James played provider five minutes later, when he slotted what might just be the pass of the tournament across the field, across the Polish defense, and found a streaking Cuadrado with acres of space in front of him. From one end of the field to the other, in no time at all.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

When Colombia (3 points) meet Senegal (4 points) on Thursday, they’ll need a win to overtake them for second place, or for Poland (0 points) to beat Japan (4 points), who currently sit top of the group — but that seems highly unlikely at this point.