In regional World Cup qualifying, don’t overlook Panama

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So much of the coverage over the next two days around here will focus on the United States’ contest in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, as the final drive for Brazil 2014 begins.

But there are two other matches in the region that deserve our attention.  One is in Panama, where the new kids on the regional qualifier block have a massive opportunity in hosting Costa Rica.

Panama is the one team among six in final stage CONCACAF qualifying that has never been to a World Cup. Even little Honduras (a vastly improved program now doing big things internationally) went to the last World Cup, three years in South Africa.

The Panamanians have tough road ahead – but not an impossible one. The United States and Mexico will be heavily favored to grab two of the three spots available for automatic qualification.

Presumptive as it is, that leaves Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama battling for the final automatic berth. The fourth-place team faces Oceania’s first-place side in a final spot for Brazil 2014.

I like Honduras to grab the third spot, but not by much. (More on why I like Honduras later.) Could Panama sneak in, or perhaps grab that fourth-place spot? Absolutely.

This is the side that crashed into Bob Bradley’s Gold Cup effort two summers back, upsetting the United States in Florida in a match that helped push U.S. Soccer to make a change. Panama has a group that plays within itself, that understands roles and usually doesn’t try to work beyond them. I remember being impressed two years ago by how far the country’s soccer efforts had come, and by how hard the Panamanians worked for each other.

Show me a team with unity, structure, a tough defensive mindset and one motivated, quality striker (Blas Perez, pictured), I’ll show you a team that can be dangerous. More on Panama is here in this piece from Tropigol, including some words from Perez, who gets right to the heard of it:

We work hard, very hard. There’s a union, a harmony in this Panama team. We don’t fight with each other, we’re not greedy, and when we enter the pitch, we do it as one. Our solidarity is our strength.”

Klopp: “Nobody thinks about” $100m Van Dijk fee anymore

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Virgil Van Dijk needed fewer than 12 months to justify the $100-million transfer fee Liverpool paid to secure his services in January, at least in the mind of manager Jurgen Klopp.

[ MORE: Pogba’s agent hits back at critics, dares Man United to sell Pogba ]

Van Dijk, whose price tag remains the world record for a defender, quickly settled in at Anfield and helped the Reds reach the Champions League final inside his first five months at the club. Now, after beginning what will be his first full season at Liverpool, the 27-year-old is drawing praise of the highest order from Klopp.

Following Monday’s 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace, Klopp not only opined that Van Dijk has proven a worthy investment already, but went so far as to joke that perhaps “he was too cheap.” While the gaudy fee grabbed all the headlines back in January, Klopp says, “Nobody thinks about it now” — quotes from ESPN.com:

“Quality costs a specific price. With cars, it’s the case, and with players, too. Nobody thinks about it now.

“He’s a player in this market who is worth it, and maybe now people think he was too cheap. He loves playing with these boys, and that’s the most important thing.”

The Reds are scoring goals for fun once again this season, leaving the defense as the only relative unknown this season. Through two games of the 2018-19 season, they are the only side in the Premier League to not have conceded a single goal.

Usain Bolt hopeful of contract after first session in Australia

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GOSFORD, Australia (AP) — Star sprinter Usain Bolt says he passed up the chance to trial with clubs in Europe before accepting an offer to trial for a professional contract with the Central Coast Mariners in Australian football’s A-League.

[ MORE: Pogba’s agent hits back at critics, dares Man United to sell Pogba ]

Bolt trained with the Mariners for the first time on his 32nd birthday Tuesday, taking part in light passing drills and agility tests in front of a gallery of almost 100 reporters and photographers.

He has pledged to stay with the club for an “indefinite” trial period in the hope of achieving his long-held ambition to play professional football, a year after his retirement from the track.

The eight-time Olympic champion has trialed unsuccessfully with clubs in Germany, South Africa and Norway but is optimistic of breaking through with the Mariners, who finished last in the most-recent A-League season.

[ MORE: Woodward to appoint director of football at Manchester United ]

Mariners head coach Mike Mulvey said he is happy for Bolt stay with the team for a year if that is what he needs to fulfill his ambition.

Bolt said he had specifically targeted the A-League.

“We got offers from teams in Spain, France and stuff like that,” Bolt told reporters. “But for me it’d be harder because you have to learn a new language. It wasn’t in the top division.

[ MORE: Klopp: Let’s not worry about sending statements to Man City ]

“Australia is somewhere I enjoy coming. This is a start and I’m really appreciative of everything the Mariners have done.”

Asked in what position he hoped to play, Bolt said he is “good at center forward but open to playing anywhere on the park.”

“I look forward to scoring as many goals as possible and bringing home the trophy,” he said. “But I’m just trying to get over the first hurdle now, that’s to get a contract.”

Pogba’s agent hits back at critics, dares Man United to sell Pogba

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Mino Railoa, the agent of Paul Pogba, has emptied a can of gas onto the already-raging inferno that is Manchester United, daring the club to sell his superstar client if anyone around the club is unhappy with his performances.

[ MORE: Woodward to appoint director of football at Manchester United ]

Raiola’s comments came Tuesday morning, in the wake of harsh — but fair — criticism over Pogba’s performance in Man United’s 3-2 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday. United legend Paul Scholes merely echoed much of what the 25-year-old Red Devils captain said of himself and his teammates during post-game interviews.

“There’s a lack of leaders in the team. We thought Paul Pogba might be the ideal candidate to be that leader, but he wasn’t there today. He had another really poor game. He’s so inconsistent.

“Pogba’s playing the ball out of play, he’s overhitting passes, he’s hitting passes short, he’s getting caught in possession.

Still, it didn’t sit well with Raiola, thus he launched a Twitter attack early Tuesday morning, facetiously advising Scholes to “become United’s sports director and advise [chief executive Ed] Woodward to sell Pogba.”

The reality is, of course, that every time Pogba completes a transfer, Raiola pockets a massive windfall of cash. It was reported that he received a $29-million agent’s fee following the Frenchman’s move from Juventus to United in the summer of 2016.

[ MORE: Klopp: Let’s not worry about sending statements to Man City ]

Gary Neville and Mike Phelan, Scholes’ former teammate and assistant manager, respectively, wasted little time in hitting back at Raiola. Jose Mourinho, who spent the latter part of the summer criticizing Pogba — and plenty of his teammates — has not yet weighed in on Raiola’s comments, but his response will undoubtedly arrive in short order.

The five-alarm fire burns brighter and hotter than ever before.

Reports: Spurs’ USMNT back Carter-Vickers moving toward loan

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American defender Cameron Carter-Vickers may be set for another loan from Tottenham Hotspur to the English second tier.

CCV, 20, played 17 times each during loans to Sheffield United and Ipswich Town last season, scoring a goal with two assists for the Blades.

[ MORE: Klopp on beating Palace ]

He’s made four Cup appearances for Spurs, all in 2016-17 and all 90-minute performances at center back.

Carter-Vickers also has four USMNT caps, and is likely to get a call-up for next month’s friendlies.

Reports have linked the center back with defense-starved Swansea City, a return to Ipswich Town, or a move to Sheffield Wednesday. All have hopes of promotion to the Premier League, though the latter two have started poorly.

CCV is behind Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sanchez, Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier, and probably Juan Foyth on the Spurs depth chart.