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Surprise teams to watch as World Cup qualifying kicks on

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As we see with CONMEBOL qualifying, it’s very difficult for so-called “upstarts” to bang their way into a World Cup; The way the field is structured, several confederations have little hope of barnstorming the world’s 32-team tournament.

With the aforementioned South American qualifying, the table is fairly predictable after 7 match days: Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador are 1-4, with Brazil, Paraguay, and Chile next.

[ MORE: Mkhitaryan a doubt for derby ]

When you consider that Chile has yet to play Bolivia and won at Venezuela and Peru (the other decidedly weaker sides), their status will likely be resolved. Brazil still gets Bolivia twice as well. Ecuador is fourth but has plenty of obstacles on the way. When all’s said and done we’re likely to see Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and Uruguay 1-5, with the fifth side winning its playoff with the top team in Oceania (Which is simply more bad luck for OFC dominant power New Zealand, who will be game but OFC deserves a slot despite unfortunate geography. Alas, you’d have to take one of Europe’s incredible 14 slots away).

The same can be said for CONMEBOL, should the U.S. advance to the Hex as expected. Mexico, the U.S., and Costa Rica will be expected to grab slots 1, 2, and 3, while the fourth place team hoping to outlast Asia’s fifth place side. Honduras has been in the Top Four since 2006, while T&T nicked fourth in 2002.

Europe, Africa, and Asia can bring surprises, though.

  • Take UEFA, where Groups D, E, H, and I have favorites but not clear-cut powers. And again, 14 teams is nearly half the field.
  • In Asia, you’d be hard-pressed to find true favorites for the four auto slots outside of South Korea, Australia, and Japan (who has already lost a poor road match).
  • Africa is the most wide-open of continents, due to a paltry number of slots, a deep field, and — frankly — unpredictable everything (from fields to referees and onward). With semi-regular World Cup sides Cameroon, Algeria, and Nigeria all in one group, it’s open for some new faces.

[ USMNT-SVG: Match recap | Three things ]

So here are some (somewhat) unusual names to keep an eye on:

Uzbekistan (AFC) —  The world’s 46th ranked team in ELO (55th in FIFA) is in a weaker group with Iran, South Korea, China, Syria, and Qatar. While opposition hasn’t been harsh on their slate, the White Wolves are 11W-2D-1L dating back to September 2015, and have only allowed multiple goals twice in that stretch. Their first World Cup is possible.

Norway (UEFA) — It’s  a stretch to think Norway can challenge Germany for an auto spot, but the national team is in a three-team mix for a playoff spot (Northern Ireland and Czech Republic). After a rough opener with Germany, Norway has two-straight matches in which six points will be expected, and could easily be second in the group leading into November. Momentum is nice (if significant). While second place in a group could mean Spain, Switzerland, Portugal or Italy, it could also mean Romania, Denmark, or Bosnia and Herzegovina.

NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA - JANUARY 30: Wahbi Khazri of Tunisia (L) and Floyd Ama Ayite of Togo during the 2013 Orange African Cup of Nations match between Togo and Tunisia at Mbombela Stadium on January 30, 2013 in Nelspruit, South Africa.(Photo by Manus van Dyk/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Wahbi Khazri of Tunisia (Photo by Manus van Dyk/Gallo Images/Getty Images).

Tunisia (CAF) — In a group with Libya (FIFA 93), DR Congo (FIFA 56), and Guinea (FIFA 66), Henryk Kasperczak’s side will love its chances of advancing to a first World Cup since 2006. Sunderland’s Wahbi Khazri is the name you know, and they play two of their first three qualifiers at home. With Group A’s best ELO (67) and FIFA ranking (45).

Bosnia and Herzegovina (UEFA) — You’ll remember the name and think “Dud World Cup 2014, failure to qualify for EURO 2016”, but it’s not really that dire for BNH. Their ELO is 25th, their FIFA rank is 29th, Miralem Pjanic is a wizard and perceived group No. 1 Belgium is in flux under Roberto Martinez. An auto spot isn’t out of the discussion, especially if Asmir Begovic is on his game between the sticks and strikers Edin Dzeko (30) and Vedad Ibisevic (32) get hot and hold off the hands of time.

Egypt (CAF) — Bob Bradley brought the Pharoahs to the brink of their first World Cup since 1990, an accomplishment would’ve been only their third ever (1934). The AFCON champs in 2006, 2008, and 2010 have been poised for a breakthrough for a bit, and have increasingly placed players in top leagues (Mohamed Elneny of Arsenal, Mohamed Salah at Roma). They’ll have to make their way past Ghana in Group E, which will be the major challenge.

Denmark (UEFA) —  Fell 4-3 to Sweden in a dramatic, derby-esque EURO 2016 playoff, and a one-cycle absence from the World Cup is not out of the question. In a group with Romania, Poland, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and Montenegro, the key will be consistency. There’s a lot of talent here: Christian Eriksen, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Lasse Schone, Jannik Vestergaard, Kasper Schmeichel. First is possible, but second to Poland and a playoff spot is not unreasonable at all.

Ex-England midfielder Gascoigne on trial for sexual assault

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LONDON (AP) — A prosecutor has alleged that former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne sexually assaulted a woman on a train by “forcibly and sloppily” planting an unwanted kiss on her lips.

Prosecutor William Mousley’s comments Monday came as Gascoigne, who has struggled with alcohol and mental-health problems, went on trial at Teesside Crown Court charged with sexual assault of the female passenger.

Mousley said the former England star “put his hands on her cheeks and kissed her forcibly and sloppily on the lips.”

The 52-year-old Gascoigne denies the charge.

The alleged victim has told the court that she froze when the man, who appeared drunk, kissed her in August 2018. She says she did not realize it was Gascoigne until after the alleged incident.

USMNT looks to build with Nations League visit to Canada

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The United States has faced much criticism since failing to miss out on the World Cup two years ago. If Gregg Berhalter is to silence the naysayers, he must use the Nations League as a building block for sustained success with a view towards 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Step 1 was completed Friday with a 7-0 demolition of lowly Cuba, and Step 2 comes Tuesday evening as the USMNT heads to Toronto to meet Canada at BMO Field, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

[ MORE: An in-depth look at Canada ]

The United States did the job at hand, soundly beating a far inferior opponent, allowing the squad to move forward quickly and emphatically. There is plenty more to prove, but the engine is revved and the gas pedal pressed. Still, Berhalter and company must remember this is a marathon not a sprint, and even the slightest slip in Nations League play will open the floodgates of criticism.

Seeing the bigger picture

The biggest thing for the USMNT to piece together in the Nations League is a sustained run of success that builds not just positive feelings but true momentum born by consistency. It will be fascinating to see the team chosen by Gregg Berhalter as he looks to put together consistent starting lineups that help build not just victories on the scoresheet but also chemistry between players who have a legitimate chance of seeing future lineups in more high leverage matches.

Against Cuba, positive performances can lend themselves to more opportunities down the line, but Berhalter must also be realistic about who has a chance to be contributors not just against the minnows of CONCACAF but also against teams the United States has aspirations of competing with. Against Cuba, Jordan Morris continued his revival as a winger, and he should be given more opportunities to build a relationship with Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic up front. Jackson Yueill is another player who can earn his way into long-term contention, but it remains true that Michael Bradley is still the team’s best option at holding midfielder and requires minutes with the other consistent starters (although it would be interesting to see if the two can play together coherently). Reggie Cannon played well at right-back but incumbent DeAndre Yedlin deserves the chance to prove he’s still the correct choice after returning from a long injury layoff.

A view towards the future must be in the back of Berhalter’s mind, not just looking to achieve results but also achieve results with the right players. Meshing the correct squad now will unquestionably pay dividends down the road as the United States hopes to turn around recent negative results against teams like Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Italy, and Colombia which fans aspire to be competitive against. With the start of World Cup qualification less than a calendar year away, the time is now to end the wild experimentation and begin dividing up the precious minutes between players who are considered legitimate possibilities for the potential 2022 squad.

18-year-old Alphonso Davies represents a youth movement with the Canadian national team that gives fans hope for the future (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Switching gears to Canada

Canada will no doubt present a tougher test than Cuba, but the United States will still be expected to emerge victorious, and anything less will represent yet another two steps back after one step forward.

The northern neighbors have high aspirations, hoping to challenge for World Cup qualification. Head coach John Herdman said in the run-up to Tuesday’s match that the United States may be a rival, but they’re also “standing in the way” of the ultimate goal, confident speech ahead of such a difficult test. LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye took it a step further, saying his play with the Canadian national team over the next few years “is going to help shape the foundation of how Canada is going to be in the next 10 years.”

Canada has a crop of young talent with Kaye joined by 18-year-old Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies and 19-year-old Gent youth product Jonathan David.

Still, they have not defeated the United States in their last 17 tries, dating back to 1985. Their last match was a measly 1-0 victory over the same Cuba squad that was obliterated by the US, forced to play 35 minutes a man down after Vancouver Whitecaps defender Doneil Henry was sent off. Canada still managed to hold a whopping 81% possession in that match, but worked just a single shot on target, which resulted in Davies’ 9th minute opener. They will need to be both more disciplined and more dangerous if they wish to pull off the upset in Toronto.

Projected lineup

— Steffan —

— Yedlin — Long — Ream — Lovitz —

— McKennie — Bradley — Roldan —

— Morris — Sargent — Pulisic —

Brad Guzan started the Cuba match in goal, but Zack Steffan is the true long-term option here and it would be natural to see him return to the lineup against the tougher opponent. Gregg Berhalter loves Aaron Long and his return could also be expected. As stated above, Bradley is a contentious selection among many fans but his presence calms the midfield, and he delivers a long ball forward like nobody else on the roster. The front three played exceptionally well against Cuba and it would be questionable to see anyone but those players start again with Jozy Altidore injured.

Prediction

The United States will no doubt face a tougher challenge, and the young attacking talent will test the in-flux back line. Yedlin at right-back will have the toughest test matching up with Davies defensively which could force him back more than Berhalter wants. It will be imperative for the midfield trio to establish control of the central areas and work forward from there. It can be expected that the United States will control the tempo, and if they stay calm, cool, and collected when Canada counters, they should come away with a nervy 2-1 victory.

Lyon hires Rudi Garcia as new manager

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Olympique Lyonnais has announced they have hired Rudi Garcia as manager, replacing the fired Sylvinho.

Lyon has struggled mightily to start the Ligue 1 season, winning just two of its first nine league games and sitting 14th in the table with nine points. Sylvinho, who was only hired at the end of May, was let go last week.

Garcia has formerly taken charge of Roma, Lille, and St. Etienne, and most recently managed Lyon rivals Marseille for three seasons before departing this summer. He left with Marseille having failed to claim a Champions League place amid the Ligue 1 top three.

“I chose Rudi Garcia because he is a fighter who, like us, has the ambition to win titles and succeed on the European stage,” said Lyon sporting director Juninho. The Brazilian had chosen his countrymate Sylvinho this summer, but made a change just nine matches into the season with the club winning its first two matches of the season and failing to win since. They have lost three of the last four, with all three defeats coming via a 1-0 scoreline. They have scored just five goals in the seven-match winless run, shutout on four different occasions.

The 55-year-old Frenchman will have plenty of proving to do to Lyon fans. Coming straight over from a direct rival, . Fans were outspoken about their cautious feelings, as the introductory tweet was ratio’d by those expressing a distaste for the hire.

“He is an experienced coach who has already won trophies,” added Juninho.“Wherever he has been, he has had above-average performances and has always managed to make the most of what he had at his disposal.”

Garcia’s first match in charge will be a home league match this weekend against Dijon, followed by a Europa League visit to Benfica.

Barcelona denounces Spanish court decision on Catalan independence

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Barcelona released a statement criticizing a recent Spanish Supreme Court decision that saw 12 political activists jailed for their role in the 2017 push for Catalan independence.

The statement said that “prison is not the solution” and called the decision “condemnatory.” Instead, the club said that “the resolution of the conflict in Catalonia must come exclusively from political dialogue.”

The political activists were punished for pushing through an October 2017 referendum in Catalonia that resulted in over 90% of the population voting for independence. The referendum was declared illegal by Spain and seen within the country’s political hierarchy as an act of treason.

As one of the biggest social institutions of Catalonia, Barcelona’s statement on the matter carries significant weight both within the region and across Spain. Barcelona games often feature flags and banners calling for Catalan independence. Catalonia has also made a recent push for an independent FIFA-recognized squad, unsuccessful to this point. However, they played their first match inside a FIFA-sanctioned international window this March against Venezuela.

As a result of the court decision, the Catalan Football Federation suspended all its matches for Monday in solidarity with the accused. This includes only clubs and leagues that fall under the federation, which does not include Barcelona, La Liga, or the Spanish national team.

“FC Barcelona also expresses all its support and solidarity to the families of those who are deprived of their freedom,” the club said in the statement. Gerard Pique re-tweeted the social media version of the statement, adding the caption “Proud to be part of this Club.” Pique is a Catalan native and has appeared for the Catalonia national team 10 times.