Left behind: the best players not heading to the World Cup

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Yes, there are a host of players who aren’t going to the World Cup. That’s because the soccer gods have come to the conclusion that there can only be 32 teams in the tournament, which means some talented souls have to watch from the comfort of their own living room.

And yes, there are some incredible men that won’t be going due to the fact that fate is cruel, and they picked up severe injuries that will leave them out of contention in Brazil. This list includes Christian Benteke, Theo Walcott and, most likely, Radamel Falcao.

But what of the ones whose countries qualified, yet still won’t be boarding the plane? In some cases, their national team coaches had reasons for keeping them out of the squad. In others, their lack of inclusion remains a true head-scratcher.

(Clicking the country’s link will take you to the full provisional World Cup roster)

Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Borussia Mönchengladbach and Germany)
Manuel Neuer will be in the net for Germany. We all know it. But why can’t ter Stegen be included as backup? Instead it’s Ron-Robert Zieler, who at least has a fun double-barrelled first name as well. Still, ter Stegen plays for a better club, made more saves, and is on his way to Barcelona to continue his career. Maybe he made fun of Jogi at some point.

Ashley Cole (Chelsea and England)
Cole must’ve thought his chances for England were good after fighting his way back into the Chelsea squad. But Roy Hodgson, slightly surprisingly, gave his England squad a more youthful feel, and it’s Luke Shaw that will take up the role of the understudy of Leighton Baines. It’s a bonus for England, having to choose between talented left-backs rather than taking along Stephen Warnock, but it’s gotta hurt for the 33-year-old to miss out on his last chance for his country. Cole retired from international football after getting the news that he wasn’t headed to Brazil.

Miranda (Atlético Madrid and Brazil)
Miranda edges out Filipe Luís only based on the fact that he managed two goals, but really, why would Luiz Felipe Scolari neglect to bring either? Perhaps Big Phil is a Barcelona fan, and doesn’t like the fact that Atleti could trump them to the title. In general, Scolari seems intent on bringing veterans, but with these two at 29 and 28 respectively, it’s not like they’re short on experience (which could be a reason for leaving out PSG’s talented Marquinhos). And when you add the fact Napoli’s Henrique is going…well, he did play under Scolari for three seasons at Palmeiras, but he only made the partenopei starting XI thanks to injury crisis. Brazil may very well regret not giving one of these two a look.

Samir Nasri (Manchester City and France)
Well, this one was confusing. Nasri impressed at title-winning Manchester City this season, where he had seven goals and seven assists. He was involved in France’s World Cup qualification, making four appearances. So why isn’t he part of les bleus? Turns out Didier Deschamps thinks Nasri has a bit of an attitude problem, and doesn’t appreciate being left on the bench. He likely also now thinks Nasri’s girlfriend has an attitude problem, after she lashed out on twitter when the French squad was announced.

Radja Nainggolan (Midfielder, AS Roma and Belgium)
Yes, Belgium are stuffed to the gills with midfielders, so it’s natural that some of them get left behind. But Nainggolan is a special sort of midfield man – one that could add some protection to the defense, which often looks shaky and uncertain. Just ask Cagliari, who certainly slipped in the standings after Nainggolan went off to Roma in the middle of the season. He adds strength and steel to the middle of the field, but he’s not just an enforcer. Nainggolan can pick out a crisp pass and, when given a chance, loves to put in a shot from distance.

José Callejón (Napoli and Spain)
Yes, we could go on and on about players left off the Spain roster. The defending champions are simply way too well-stocked, particularly in the center of the pitch. But “Ziggy” Callejón deserves a special shout out. He failed to establish himself as a regular at Real Madrid and wound up scoring just three goals in 15 starts last season. Now in Naples, Callejón has blossomed. He may not fit Vicente del Bosque’s system, but in Rafa Benítez’s 4-2-3-1, the wide man has scored 19 goals in all competitions for Napoli.

Francesco Totti (AS Roma and Italy)
Roma’s captain began his international career back in 2000, and was part of the azzurri side that lifted the 2006 World Cup. He retired from international duty after the triumph, but made it clear he was open to returning this season. However, Cesare Prandelli decided to put his faith in younger players, and left the 37-year-old off the roster – despite an impressive season in Serie A, helping Roma fly into second place and challenge for the title.
(Honoroable mention to Luca Toni, another veteran having an amazing season in Serie A. The 36-year-old scored 20 goals for Hellas Verona this season).

Carlos Vela (Forward, Real Sociedad and Mexico)
Again, everyone knew this was coming. Vela hasn’t played for El Tri since 2011, despite various coaches trying to entice him back to the side. After accepting the management gig, Miguel Herrera did his best to convince Vela as well, but the attacker didn’t feel himself mentally ready to return to international competition. That’s too bad for the struggling Mexico team. Vela’s done well for himself in Spain, putting in 41 goals in 104 appearances with Real Sociedad. There are even strong rumors that he just might make a return to Arsenal – assuming he’s mentally prepared for that, of course.

Max Kruse (Forward, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Germany)
Joachim Löw don’t need no strikers. Or at least, not strikers that can actually put the ball in the back of the net. Ok, ok, Lukas Podolski had eight goals for Arsenal this season. And Kevin Volland, of Hoffenheim, did score eleven. But Kruse has twelve to his name, along with nine assists. He’s paccy, he’s precise, and he can get the job done better than Miroslav Klose. The veteran managed just seven for Lazio this season, but sentiment wins out, and he’s the one boarding the plane to Brazil.

Carlos Tévez (Forward, Juventus and Argentina)
A falling out with Alejandro Sabella means Tévez hasn’t played for La Albiceleste since 2011. Of course, Argentina have plenty of firepower up top, what with Sergio Agüero, Gonzalo Higuaín and…what’s that guy’s name again? Oh right, Leo Messi. Still, 19 goals and 7 assists in 33 league games with Juventus is nothing to sniff at. Who knows, if Tévez scores four this weekend, he could even become Serie A’s top goalscorer this season. But no matter – he’s going to Disneyland instead.

Zlatan Ibrahimović (Paris Saint-Germain and Sweden)
So what if Sweden didn’t qualify? Someone high up at FIFA should’ve worked through a quick rule change that would’ve allowed Ibra to switch his nationality. Because what is a World Cup without Zlatan? Nothing. Just wait. You’ll see.

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?

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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.

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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.