Romania, Hungary set to revive volatile rivalry on Friday

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Romania hosts Hungary on Friday (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com) with both nations’ World Cup qualification chances resting on three points. Anything less than a win would put them even further behind pace in UEFA qualifying’s Group D.

Hungary currently holds the second-place spot with 11 points, and Romania is right behind with 10. Only the top team in each group receives automatic qualification — the Netherlands has all but locked that up, with 18 points — with the second-place finishers advancing to a playoff round.

They tied their first meeting in this edition of qualifying, 2-2 on March 22 in Budapest, playing behind closed doors in an empty Ferenc Puskás Stadium (pictured, right) after anti-Semitic chants at an Aug. 15 friendly against Israel forced UEFA to hand down the punishment to the Hungarian federation.

Romania has not qualified for a World Cup since France 1998, while Hungary’s drought dates back to Mexico 1986. Both nations are generations removed from their heydays, when Gheorghe Hagi’s left foot graced Romania’s squad and Puskás’ goal-scoring ability carried Hungary to the 1954 World Cup final.

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Translation: “The Hungarian federation reacted firmly and fined four clubs in the first two divisions for anti-Romanian scandals in the stands last weekend. ‘It can also be civilized!’ This should be the mindset of Romanian fans at the game tomorrow.”

Off the field, the countries have a volatile coexistence stemming from Romania’s annexation of Transylvania after World War I. Both countries see the territory, from the Hungarian-Romanian border to the Carpathian Mountains, as rightfully theirs, and nationalist political parties in Budapest have sought to regain the territory in post-communist years by enacting policy giving ethnic Hungarians worldwide, regardless of actual nationality, a right to vote and carry a Hungarian passport.

Hungarians are the largest minority in Romania, and a large number of Romanians speak Hungarian, especially in Transylvania. Hungarian influence in the area, where multiple towns and villages speak Hungarian as their primary language, is inescapable. (Note of disclosure: the reporter of this story, Liviu Bird, has family ties to Cluj-Napoca, the capital of the region, and his mother was born there.)

On the weekend prior to Friday’s match, the Hungarian federation fined four clubs in the top two divisions for anti-Romanian chants, but officials in Bucharest still hope for a “civilized” showing from both sets of fans (see image above).

However, Hungarian fans seem to be of a different mindset. With right-wing fans at an apparent an all-time high, crowd trouble feels almost inevitable at Arena Națională in Bucharest. Hungarian ultras gathered on Thursday night to begin the long, arduous journey from Budapest to Bucharest, singing the national anthem in Keleti station before boarding their train:

And lighting flares and chanting loudly as the train left the station:

Friday’s match will be wrought with tension. Both teams desperately need a win, as both have difficult matches in the coming months to close out qualifying. But the story in the stands could overshadow it all.

Peru’s World Cup foes lobby to overturn Guerrero’s ban

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Following last week’s decision handed down by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, Peru captain and talisman Paolo Guerrero has been banned from the 2018 World Cup — at the age of 34, almost certainly his last opportunity to star on the world’s biggest stage.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT hosts Bolivia in shadows of World Cup hype ]

However, in the days since that decision, a number of Guerrero’s fellow professionals and World Cup stars — France and Denmark captains Hugo Lloris and Simon Kjaer, and Australia’s Mile Jedinak — have written to FIFA, on behalf of FIFPro, the world player union, in hopes of rendering Guerrero eligible to pay at next month’s tournament in Russia.

“We respectfully ask the Fifa Council to show compassion,” the trio wrote. “In our view it would be plainly wrong to exclude him from what should be a pinnacle of his career.”

[ MORE: Ronaldo hints at Real Madrid exit | Bale does the same ]

That Lloris, Kjaer and Jedinak are the players lobbying in favor of Guerrero is particularly notable given the fact that Peru will face France, Denmark and Australia in Group C.

Guerrero tested positive for cocaine late last year, after a tea he drank was tainted and triggered a fail drug test.

SKC, Crew SC play to 0-0 draw; VAR steals the show (again)

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KANSAS CITY, KAN. — The game in 100 words (or less): Nothing ruins a good game of soccer more than controversies involving the referee — and now that VAR is active within MLS, yet another failure of the video-review system to correct the most “clear and obvious” of wrong decisions. There is no longer any rhyme or reason in deciding whether or not to utilize what could be a very helpful tool. Check the third video further down this page to comprehend the absurdity of VAR in Sporting Kansas City’s 0-0 draw with Columbus Crew SC on Sunday. As for the actual soccer which was played, Tim Melia made one save to deny Gyasi Zardes with a point-blank header early in the first half, and a second to deny Zardes rom the penalty spot just before halftime. Despite being a back-and-forth affair between the league’s second- and third-place teams with a chance to take the lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, there were just six shots on target in total and genuine scoring chances were few and far between.

[ PREVIEW: USMNT hosts Bolivia in shadows of World Cup hype ]

Three moments that mattered

43′ — Zardes wins a PK, but Melia makes the save — Melia was responsible for giving away the penalty kick, and he more than made up for it by denying Zardes moments later.

45+6′ — Higuain puts studs into Espinoza, sees red — Originally not called a foul, changed to a red card following video review. On the softer side of red cards (just an opinion).

59′ — Martinez takes a swing at Sinovic, but no video review — At this point, it’s just time to disband the entire VAR experiment. It’s turned MLS into a clown show and an embarrassment. Signed, someone who was initially in favor of VAR, assuming MLS would utilize it properly.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Tim Melia

Goalscorers: None

Rayo Vallecano win promotion back to La Liga

Photo credit: Rayo Vallecano / @RayoVallecano
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MADRID (AP) Rayo Vallecano earned promotion to Spain’s top division after beating Lugo 1-0 in a second-tier league game on Sunday.

Alex Moreno’s goal for the hosts in the 40th minute sealed Rayo’s return to La Liga after two seasons away.

Huesca had already secured promotion last weekend with a 2-0 victory at Lugo.

The third team to move up will be the winner of a two-round playoff between the four teams that finish the season from third to sixth.

Malaga, Las Palmas and Deportivo La Coruna were all relegated from the top flight this season.

FOLLOW LIVE: West leaders SKC host East’s 2nd-best Crew SC

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KANSAS CITY, KAN. — Western Conference leaders Sporting Kansas City host Columbus Crew SC, the Eastern Conference’s second-place side, at Children’s Mercy Park on Sunday with both sides capable of overtaking Atlanta United for top spot in the Supporters’ Shield race.

[ FOLLOW: SKC vs. Crew SC in top-of-the-table clash ]

Sporting KC, who are unbeaten in three straight and have lost just once since opening day (11 games), lead expansion side Los Angeles FC in the West. Meanwhile, Crew SC enter Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash unbeaten in their last six games (four wins) and trail the league leaders from Atlanta by a single point.

Hit the link above to follow along throughout the afternoon, and check back with PST for coverage after the final whistle.