World Cup Qualifying: a quick glance around the continents

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World Cup qualification resumes on Friday in Europe and the Americas, continuing through the weekend with Africa’s third and final round. While a few teams have already booked their spots in World Cup 2014, there are still quite a few battles to be fought, with UEFA, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL all playing out their penultimate rounds.

More in-depth previews of each confederation will follow, but for now, a rundown of what’s at stake, and a recommendation of one match to watch on each continent:

UEFA

When compared with qualifying systems in other large confederations, such as CONCACAF and CAF, the route Europe forces its teams to take to get to the World Cup is rather ridiculous. Rather than split qualification into stages, putting the lowest ranked countries into earlier rounds, UEFA places all 53 countries into one big qualification pool, dividing them into 9 groups of five or six. The first placed groups qualify directly for Brazil, while the second-placed teams enter a playoff round for the last three UEFA spots. Except, of course, for the second-placed team with the least amount of points — that team loses all chance of the World Cup.

Surprisingly, just two countries have qualified thus far: Italy and the Netherlands. Belgium and Germany are assured of a playoff spot at the very least, while Croatia, Bosnia, Greece, Spain and France will finish at least second in their group (although through some quirky twist of fate could still end up last of the second-placed finishers).

(MORE: an indepth look at Friday’s UEFA matches)

One game to watch

Croatia vs. Belgium
With so many spots still up for grabs in Europe, it’s tough to pick just one match. But this one has a lot riding on it. The visitors need just a point to book their ticket to Brazil, but after missing out on South Africa, Croatia are determined to get to this World Cup the easy way. They managed a draw with Belgium in the reverse fixture last September, but the Croats have slipped up recently, first losing to Scotland before allowing Serbia to come back into the game and get a draw. Belgium, on the other hand, have only dropped points in the draw to Croatia, and have won their last six straight.

CONCACAF

From North and Central America, the top three teams at the end of the Hex get bragging rights and a trip to Brazil, while team number four is forced to play the winner of Oceania. With just two games left to go, there’s a mad scramble on to avoid that trip to New Zealand. The United States and Costa Rica have already qualified, while Honduras sits third, three points above both Panama and Mexico. If the ticos decide they still care and beat Honduras, and if one of Mexico or Panama take all three points, the final round could be very interesting indeed.

(MORE: An indepth look at Friday’s CONCACAF matches)

One game to watch

Mexico vs. Panama (Friday, October 11 at 9:30 p.m. ET)
I know, I know, you want to watch the USMNT crush Jamaica. But when you’re done cheering on the USA, tune in to watch Mexico and Panama, both with eight points, trying desperately to fight their way into third place. By the time this match kicks off, the result of Honduras – Costa Rica will already be in, so the sides will know if they’ve still got a chance at direct qualification, or if they’ll be battling to see who plays against New Zealand. Either way, we likely won’t see much cautious football.

CONMEBOL

In South America, the top four teams qualify directly for Brazil, while the fifth-placed side faces Jordan, who placed fifth in AFC qualifying.

Argentina have already qualified, while Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay are eliminated. Colombia, sitting second, host Chile, sitting third, on Friday night, with both teams almost certain to make it to the World Cup. That match might not provide a lot of tension or suspense, but if you’re a fan of free flowing, attacking football, tune in to see some of the best on the international stage.

One game to watch

Ecuador vs. Uruguay (Friday, October 11 at 5 p.m. ET)
Uruguay, South Africa’s third-placed team and current Copa América champions, are struggling this time around. They’re even on points with Ecuador, but currently sit in fifth thanks to Ecuador’s better goal difference. The good news for Uruguay fans is that the team seem to have turned things around, having won their last three qualifiers, against Venezuela, Peru and, perhaps most impressively, Colombia. Ecuador, on the other hand, haven’t won since they beat Paraguay 4-1 back in March, and could only manage a 1-1 draw with Bolivia last time out.

CAF

In Africa, qualification starts off with the 24 lowest ranked countries meeting in two-legged ties, with the winners moving on to the second round. That round, which finished in September, splits forty countries into ten groups, with the winner of each group moving to the third round. That’s where we are now: Five matches, home and away ties, with the winners of each getting to buy their tickets to Brazil.

One game to watch

Ethiopia vs. Nigeria (Saturday, October 12 at 9 a.m. ET)
Ethiopia are kind of the Cinderella story of this year’s CAF qualifiying. They started off with a 0-0 draw against Somalia, then came back and won the second leg 5-0. They then finished top of Group A, despite having a 2-1 win over Botswana nullified after Ethiopia were found to have fielded an ineligible player. Now it’s time to face Nigeria, who Ethiopia last met in January during the Africa Cup of Nations. Ethiopia held them off until the final ten minutes, when Victor Moses scored a brace. The Super Eagles went on to lift the 2013 Cup. With their unbeaten record in the second round, it’s Nigeria that are the heavy favorites.

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.