Asian WCQs: Japan slips, fails to clinch; Australia held to draw at home

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Even after looking at all this information, I still don’t think I understand that context of today’s upset in Amman. Jordan beat Japan 2-1 in Asian World Cup Qualifying, and because Japan is so far ahead in their five-team group (up six points with two rounds to play), part of my mind’s shutting off. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism, tuning out the utter shock that would otherwise be pulsing through my head.

Japan should have won this one and clinched their spot for Brazil 2014. Instead, they fell to a team they beat 6-0 last June in Saitama.

The Samurai Blue are clearly the best team in Asia right now, while Jordan was expected to have trouble in a group that also includes Australia, Iraq, and Oman (top two clinch Brazil, the next goes into a playoff … to play in a playoff for a spot in the World Cup). With a squad comprised of almost exclusively domestic-based players, Jordan had a -7 goal difference through five matches, though they had recently defeated a struggling Australia at home. Japan, with a squad split between their domestic league and Germany (with a few other players sprinkled throughout Europe), were 4-0-1 in the final round, had scored 13 times and only conceded twice.

They’d dominated. The reigning AFC champions should have become the second team to clinch a spot in Brazil.

Because they didn’t, the game turned into an admonition: Getting qualifying results on the road is hard. Maybe a lot less so in Europe, and there are always countries whose familiarities form habits, but when Japan is playing 5,600 miles away from Tokyo, the trip’s always going to seem a little foreign. Even when the Samurai Blue have been handing around the Middle East for a week (playing Canada in Doha on Thursday).

Only in the perverse world of FIFA confederations could the Pacific Rim and the Fertile Crescent be part of the same region, so when one team has to travel from one end of that blob to the other, you get results like a 6-0 in Saitama. And a 2-1 in Amman.

As with most upsets, the game had its fair share of luck, timing, and just deserts. The game looked destined to go into halftime scoreless before an injury time corner kick was converted by Khalil Bani Ateyah. Despite controlling the game, the visitors were sentinto the dressing rooms down a goal.

That dominance turned to urgency in the second half, but a great individual effort from Ahmad Ibrahim doubled Jordan’s lead on the hour. Shinji Kagawa (pictured) pulled one back, and veteran Yasuhito Endo looked set to draw Japan even with a late penalty kick, but when Amer Sabbah saved the try, Jordan had their second win of the group.

They may not have been picked to come out of Group B, but after six games, the Jordanians are in second place. Australia, sitting third, still have a game in hand, and Jordan will have to go to Melbourne for their next qualifier, but with time running out on Asia’s last round, Jordan looks a good bet to at least claim a playoff spot.

Australia plays in Japan on June 4, a game the Samurai Blue now care about, while Jordan closes qualifying on June 18 hosting Oman. The same day, the Socceroos host Iraq.

If the Socceroos lose in Japan, Jordan control their own fate. Get a result in Melbroune then win at home and the nation will qualify for their first ever World Cup.

Even if the Socceroos get something in Saitama, Jordan’s home game against Oman gives them an inside track on the playoff spot.

source: Getty ImagesAnother stumble for Australia

When Australia breezed through AFC qualifying four years ago, there was a sense that they’d caught their new confederation by surprised Their set piece prowess and reliance on Joshua Kennedy and Tim Cahill on the end of crosses made their first trip thorugh Asian qualifying an easy one. Not overly talented and or doing anything complicated, Australia were just winning individual battles and taking victories. The simplicity of it seemed to leave opponents asking “is that it” as the Socceroos moved on to South Africa.

Of course, that’s just a hypothesis, but it’s one that’s gathered supporting evidence this cycle, where the Australians have struggled to keep up with Asia’s other powers. Japan, who Australia lost to in the final of the last Asian Cup, has left them in Group B’s dust, while the Socceroos are stuck on one win. With Jordan’s surprise success, Australia’s a doubt for Brazil. At a minimum, their qualifying campaign’s become unexpectedly complicated.

With results like today’s 2-2 at home against Oman, the Australians have brought this on themselves. They can take solace in having found back from a two-goal deficit, scores by Tim Cahill (pictured) and Brett Holman pulling back the lead built by Abdulaziz Al-Muqbali and a Mile Jedinak own goal, but falling two down to Oman at home is indictment enough. In both form and standing, the Socceroos are in trouble.

“It was definitely not what we expected. We had different hopes going into that games but unfortunately the first half was not according to plan and we almost paid dearly for that,” he head coach Holger Osieck said after the match.

“We always passed backwards, we delayed our game, there was no penetration, there was no quick ball up into the centre. So we basically played to their cards. That’s the reason we didn’t do well in the first half.”

Next up is Japan, a team against whom they needed a 70th minute penalty conversion to draw last June. Thankfully, the Socceroos don’t need a result this time. With June home matches against Jordan and Iraq, Australia can hold serve at home and qualify for Brazil.

Uzbeks still on top of Group A

With their 1-0 home win over Lebanon, Uzbekistan — who have never qualified for a World Cup — still lead their group. South Korea’s 2-1 win over Qatar keep the Koreans one back with a game in hand, but the important number for the Uzbeks is four. That’s how many points they have on third place Iran (who also have a game in hand). Finish ahead of them and fourth place Qatar, and Uzbekistan’s going to Brazil.

Their result came from a bit of luck, but having already suffered their fair share of qualifying mishaps, the Uzbeks deserves a little evening of the scales. In the 66th minute, a shot from Server Djeparov took a heavy deflection before going in for the game’s only goal.

While fortune intervened to guide the ball past Abbas Hassan, the Uzbeks were the better side throughout, earning three points and their third consecutive 1-0 victory. Their June 11 trip to South Korea likely ends that run, but with a June 18 match at home against Qatar, Uzbekistan will likely be able to earn their spot in Brazil 2014.

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.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

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.