U-20 World Cup preview: The groups, the favorites, USA outlook and the game’s future stars

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Night owls, rejoice, for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, which is being played in New Zealand, kicks off late Thursday night or very, very early Friday morning (depending on what time zone you live in).

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The bi-annual tournament returns and brings with it yet another showcase of some of the world’s very best up and coming talent from all corners of the globe. Want to see the next great South American star from Brazil or Argentina? The U-20 World Cup is the place to do just that. Oh, and the Americans are back for a second straight cycle, carrying expectations as heavy as any wave of youngsters dawning the Stars and Stripes have in quite some time.

The groups

Group A — Myanmar, New Zealand (hosts), Ukraine, United States

Group B — Argentina, Austria, Ghana, Panama

Group C — Colombia, Portugal, Qatar, Senegal

Group D — Mali, Mexico, Serbia, Uruguay

Group E — Brazil, Hungary, Nigeria, North Korea

Group F — Fiji, Germany, Honduras, Uzbekistan

The favorites

Hey, guess what — Brazil, Argentina and Germany have lots more really good, young players coming through the pipeline, so expect them to be around for the latter stages.

Unlike the big World Cup, winning at the youth level isn’t so much about being the best team as it is having the best player, or collection of two or three players. Fortunately for the above mentioned sides, they’ve got both top-end talent and overall better, deeper squads than most.

But don’t be surprised when someone unexpected — think Uruguay, Nigeria or Mexico — has one of the tournament’s leading scorer or assist men, and rides that wave of production to a semifinal or finals appearance. It happens almost every youth tournament — Ghana and Iraq bowed out in the 2013 semifinals.

USA outlook

source: Getty Images
Emerson Hyndman, Fulham FC & USMNT

This time around, the draw was kind to Tab Ramos & Co. Remember that vicious 2013 draw — Spain, France and Ghana? Woof. It went about as poorly as was to be expected — one point and a minus-6 goal differential.

Ukraine, New Zealand and Myanmar is an infinitely better draw. In fact, failing to make it out of the group would be a massive failure. From there, the Baby Yanks could face any one of Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Portugal, Mexico, Uruguay, Serbia or Nigeria. Obviously winning the group becomes advantageous to avoid some of the heavyweights.

Qualification was pretty straightforward for Ramos’ squad after struggling in their first two group games (1-1 vs. Guatemala, 0-1 vs. Panama). The roster features a number of changes from qualification, but optimism surrounds a side with first-team regulars for their respective club teams — Emerson Hyndman (Fulham), Rubio Rubin (Utrecht), Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes), Matt Miazga (New York Red Bulls) and Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas) — making up much of the expected starting 11.

Stars of the future

Angel Correa, forward, Argentina & Atletico Madrid — 20 years old — Moved from San Lorenzo (Argentina) to Atletico Madrid last summer, but missed six months of his first season in Spain after a tumor was discovered on his heart. Scored 12 goals in 65 league games in Argentina’s first division, as a teenager.

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Kelechi Iheanacho, Manchester City & Nigeria

Kelechi Iheanacho, forward, Nigeria & Manchester City — 18 years old — Was the star (Golden Ball winner) of Nigeria’s U-17 World Cup-winning side back in 2013. Moved to Man City shortly thereafter, where he’s impressed for the Citizen’s reserve side.

Andreas Pereira, midfielder, Brazil & Manchester United — 19 years old — Made his Premier League debut this season, before signing a new three-year contract weeks later. Belgian-born, but a frequent standout for Brazil’s youth teams at all levels.

Giovanni Simeone, forward, Argentina & River Plate — 19 years old — The son of Atleti manager Diego, Giovanni made his first-team debut for River not long after his 18th birthday. Born in Madrid, could have played for Spain, but elected to play for the country of his father’s birth.

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Hirving Lozano (left), Pachuca & Mexico

Hirving Lozano, midfielder, Mexico & Pachuca — 19 years old — Nearly 50 appearances for Pachuca’s first team, including 29 this season (7 league goals); 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship (qualifying tournament) Golden Boot winner

Andrija Zivkovic, midfielder, Serbia & Partizan — 18 years old — 60 first-team appearances for Partizan; scored 5 league goals each of the last two seasons (12 total, all competitions); made 10 appearances in Champions League qualification playoffs and Europa League this season.

Diego Poyet, midfielder, Uruguay & West Ham United — 20 years old — Another son of a famous father — former Sunderland manager Gus — Diego made a handful of first-team appearances this year, his first season with the Hammers.

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Gedion Zelalem, Arsenal & USA

Gedion Zelalem, midfielder, United States & Arsenal — 18 years old — Crowned the next savior of American soccer long before his switch from German to American international was approved. Just a pair of first-team appearances for Arsenal, but rave reviews from Arsene Wenger have USMNT supporters crazed with hope and excitement.

Godfred Donsah, midfielder, Ghana & Cagliari — 18 years old — Made his Serie A debut at 17 years old; scored twice for a relegated Cagliari side this season after becoming a regular in the first team (20 starts).

Spurs’ Son happy South Korea “unscathed” in North Korea qualifier

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As expected, North Korea did not broadcast its World Cup second round qualifier against South Korea this week, making for an old school “wait and see” for fans back home in South Korea.

The match ended 0-0 in front of no fans in Pyongyang, with just police in the stands as Heung-Min Son and South Korea kept their group lead over the North Koreans on goal differential.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Son, the Tottenham Hotspur star, says it was an odd experience. From The Korea Herald:

“The opponents were pretty physical, and we exchanged some terse words,” Son told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul. “It might have been their strategy. They played it rough, and they took exception to our own physical play. …. Rather than focusing on the match, we started worrying about trying not to get hurt. It means a lot to have come out unscathed from a match like this.”

The few videos released by journalists show an eerie scene, and South Korea’s status as AFC powers probably played in North Korea’s lack of desire to broadcast a potential home loss. But you have to think that also lived in the home players heads a bit, too.

Atlanta heads into MLS playoffs looking to defend its Cup

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MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) It’s been a strange season for Atlanta United.

They’ve added more two more cups to their collection.

They’ve endured some rather baffling losses.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

After all that, the defending MLS Cup champions are heading into the postseason from essentially the same position as last season.

Atlanta, which was runner-up in the Eastern Conference, will host the New England Revolution on Saturday in the opening round of the playoffs, a rematch of their Oct. 6 game to close out the regular season.

“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent spot, as strange as the season has maybe been,” midfielder Julian Gressel said Wednesday after a training session. “We’ve already won two trophies, and now we have a chance for a third.”

In mid-August, United broke out the champagne after a 3-2 victory over Mexican powerhouse Club America to capture the Campeones Cup.

A couple of weeks later, they were celebrating again with a 2-1 victory over Minnesota United in the U.S. Open Cup final, guaranteeing a spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.

“I felt like we were always there and pretty much at our best in those games,” Gressel said. “That’s why I’m pretty confident we’ll be at our best when it really matters.”

But there are reasons to be concerned. Atlanta struggled badly in some league games – especially on the road – and rarely looked like the dynamic team that won the MLS Cup in just its second year under former coach Tata Martino.

With Frank De Boer now at the helm, United got off to a sluggish start and spent much of the season juggling lineups and switching up tactics in a desperate bid to find some consistency. Atlanta never put together an unbeaten streak longer than five games – it had three such stretches a year ago – and finished with 58 points, 58 goals and a plus-15 goal differential. All were short of the 69 points, 70 goals and plus-26 differential from the 2018 season.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings ]

Still, United’s second-place showing in the East behind New York City FC matches last year’s finish, guaranteeing the team at least one home game in the playoffs and another in the conference semifinals should it beat the Revolution.

That’s a crucial edge for a franchise that has essentially broken every MLS attendance record and again averaged more than 52,000 per game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, doubling up every team in the league except Seattle and Cincinnati. In 17 home games, Atlanta lost only twice.

While United closed out the season with a 3-1 victory over New England, the Revolution has been one of the league’s hottest teams over the second half of the season.

Atlanta will be further tested by the possible absence of its best defender, Miles Robinson, who is dealing with a strained left hamstring sustained during a workout with the U.S. national team last week.

If Robinson can’t go, United will have to change up their lineup once again and possibly adopt a more defensive approach to Saturday’s game.

“If I do push up, it’s more so getting back a little faster than I normally would, things like that,” said midfielder Darlington Nagbe, one of those who may be affected if Robinson can’t go. “Just feel the game out and see how it plays out.”

In the regular-season finale, Ezequiel Barco got the start over Pity Martinez, a lineup that de Boer might go with again in the playoffs.

Barco played only 15 league games this season because of injuries and a lengthy stint with Argentina at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, but he provided the sort of spark de Boer was looking for against New England. Martinez, who was the 2018 South American player of the year and Atlanta’s major acquisition during the last offseason, has struggled to find his nice in MLS with just five goals in 32 appearances.

“We have to see,” de Boer said. “The only thing that concerns me is to win the playoffs.”

MLS switched up the playoff format this season. Instead of the top two teams from both the East and the West receiving byes and two-legged rounds to determine the winner of conference semifinals and finals, only the first-place finisher gets the opening round off and every step of the playoffs is a single-game elimination.

There is no room for error.

“If you have an off day, you might be out,” Gressel said. “I feel like it’s a format that favors the underdog a bit more, or gives the underdog a bit more hope.”

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com

Zlatan paces MLS jersey sellers, offers fresh quip on Minnesota challenge

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Zlatan Ibrahimovic: He’s like a more charming, less anarchist version of Tom Hardy’s Bane.

The LA Galaxy man was revealed to again have the top-selling jersey in Major League Soccer on Wednesday, days before the club begins its 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs run with a match in Minnesota.

[ MORE: Monster deal for Mbappe? ]

Snow is in the forecast, but Zlatan is not bothered by such weather.

“I’m from Sweden I was born in the snow. When it snows, I’m a viking. When it’s warm, I’m a lion. We adjust for every condition there is.”

Back to the jerseys, the MLS MVP finalists are 1-2-3 in sales. Ibrahimovic is first, followed by Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, and LAFC’s Carlos Vela.

The top sellers amongst Americans are Seattle’s Jordan Morris (7) and Cristian Roldan (12). Chris Wondolowski of San Jose is 13th, while other domestic names on the Top 25 include Sebastian Lletget, Brad Guzan (!?!), Dom Dwyer, Jozy Altidore, and Graham Zusi.

Midweek El Clasico possible in December following political unrest

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Political unrest in Catalonia has both La Liga and the Spanish government looking to move the first El Clasico of the season.

Barcelona and Real Madrid are scheduled to meet at the Camp Nou on Oct. 26, but the jailing of nine Catalan separatists has caused uproar in-and-around Barca.

In fact, Barca as a club has denounced the imprisonment, so it plays more than a peripheral role in the controversy.

[ JPW: What now for Berhalter, USMNT? ] 

Players heading to and returning from international break have faced in challenges in getting to the club.

Instead, Marca says that we may see a midweek match played in Madrid on Wednesday, Dec. 18, with the reverse fixture in March moved from Madrid to Barcelona.

Dec. 18 would give both teams three matches in eight days before La Liga’s winter break. Barca would play Real Sociedad, Real Madrid, and Alaves, while Real would play Valencia and Real Betis in addition to the Clasico. Both difficult runs, but fairly even.