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With a year to go, Russia’s World Cup faces challenges

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MOSCOW (AP) After years of controversy, Russian officials think their World Cup has weathered the storm.

Stadiums are either finished or nearing completion, and the Confederations Cup is going smoothly.

“The project is very big and there are some delays or operational questions, minor questions, but nothing critical,” Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko, who oversees World Cup preparations, said Saturday.

But with a year to go, some serious concerns remain around Russia’s 643.5-billion-ruble ($10.8 billion) World Cup dream.

Workers’ deaths and alleged rights abuses taint the new stadiums. Teams will live in far-flung, hard-to-secure locations. Many of the stadiums risk becoming white elephants.

Here is a look at some of the key issues:

STADIUMS

Russia is desperate to avoid what Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko calls “the Brazilian scenario” – the construction delays and organizational disarray which marred the start of the last World Cup in 2014.

That looks assured, with most of the 12 stadiums either complete or close to completion, though some have gone over budget.

But did Russia cut corners on workers’ rights to get them ready? A report this month by Human Rights Watch accused Russia of numerous abuses on pay and conditions, and notes at least 17 deaths during construction.

Evidence that North Korean workers – who are employed around the world in conditions often likened to slavery – worked on the St. Petersburg stadium has brought concern from FIFA.

LEGACY

Many of Russia’s 12 stadiums look certain to be rarely – if ever – full again after the World Cup.

Just five of the 11 host cities have top-flight football clubs. The Russian Premier League attracts average crowds of 11,500 – among the lowest for major European leagues – and it seems new stadiums may be a temporary attraction that don’t solve fan apathy in the long-term.

Premier League side Rubin Kazan got an initial attendance bump after moving into a 45,000-seat World Cup ground in 2014, but crowds have dropped almost 30 percent over the last two seasons to 9,750. One home game against FC Krasnodar in April attracted barely 3,000 fans.

Meanwhile, Mordovia Saransk averaged 2,400 fans at games this season as it was relegated to the third tier, but will inherit a 45,000-seat World Cup ground next year. Sochi won’t have a professional club at all in 2017-18.

In Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg, legacy concerns led Russian organizers to slash the capacity of World Cup stadiums from the original 45,000 to 25,000, with 10,000 more temporary seats.

Only the St. Petersburg stadium – home to games at the 2020 European Championship – and Moscow’s two grounds seem likely to be regularly in demand.

TEAM BASES

It’s not just about the host cities. The 32 teams taking part will be scattered across the country in newly built training bases as the Russian government tries to give other regions a taste of World Cup legacy – and lavish state spending.

Some locations in less glamorous areas of Russia are a hard sell for foreign teams, even if the accommodation is luxurious.

There’s Dzherzhinsk, an industrial city plagued by pollution from chemical plants, or Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, which was ravaged by war in the 1990s and early 2000s. Any team there will live with heavily armed guards. Many bases are in remote locations requiring air travel to even the nearest host city.

Small wonder that teams are expected to prioritize locations near the resort city of Sochi. Moscow’s heavy traffic is also a concern.

Still, team training bases may prove more useful for long-term legacy than the stadiums, since many include renovations of municipal football grounds.

FAN EXPERIENCE

Foreign fans at the Confederations Cup have largely seemed happy with Russian hospitality.

Tournament volunteers, police and paramedics have all had English classes to help foreigners in need, and free travel between host cities is on offer for ticket-holders.

Still, the real test is yet to come. The World Cup will bring many more foreign fans, posing a challenge for provincial transport links unused to such crowds.

Russia fans have little to be excited about, too, after their team exited the Confederations Cup in the group stage.

SECURITY

Russian authorities take the threat of terrorism at the World Cup seriously, especially after a bombing on the St. Petersburg subway in April.

At the Confederations Cup, thousands of police have operated tight airport-style security around stadiums, with more on key transport links.

The World Cup is even tougher to secure, with stadiums and team bases scattered across Russia. In the last five years, the host city of Volgograd has been hit by bombings, while Pyatigorsk, Grozny and Astrakhan, home to training bases, have seen attacks on security forces.

There are also fears about football hooliganism after Russians fans fought English supporters in France at last year’s European Championship. The Russian hooligans had martial arts training and left several England fans badly hurt, including one in a coma.

Russian authorities have blacklisted 191 fans with criminal records, and hours before the Confederations Cup began, dozens more, including members of radical groups, were refused permission to attend the tournament.

FIFA READINESS

Soccer’s world governing body also has work to do.

FIFA has pioneered video reviews of key moments like penalty calls during the Confederations Cup, but faced criticism that players and fans inside stadiums aren’t kept in the loop.

During Chile’s game against Cameroon last week, players milled about in confusion during one key review, and some headed toward the changing rooms, apparently thinking the referee had signaled for half-time.

FIFA also needs to hammer out a TV broadcast deal in Russia. Mutko has accused FIFA of charging so much that Russian networks would make a loss, and of trying to force the government to chip in.

A deal for the Confederations Cup was only reached six days before the tournament kicked off, avoiding the embarrassment of the host nation’s fans not being able to watch their team play.

AP Sports Writer Tales Azzoni in Kazan, Russia, contributed to this report.

Europa League: Wolves through to Round of 16, Portuguese sides stunned

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Arsenal and Manchester United are still set to take the field, but there was an early round of Europa League matches that saw nearly half the Round of 16 field set.

Wolverhampton Wanderers knew it had room to breathe, and they made use of that, advancing cooly to the Round of 16 despite a 3-2 loss at Espanyol that saw them advance 6-3 on aggregate. The 4-0 first-leg win set Wolves up nicely, and they held firm behind equalizers from red-hot winger Adama Traore and Matthew Doherty.

 

Jonathan Calleri picked up a hat-trick for the hosts, including the winner in the 91st minute, but it wasn’t nearly enough to see the Spanish side truly challenge the massive deficit.

Elsewhere, Justin Kluivert gave Roma a spot in the Round of 16 with his 29th minute goal that saw the Italian side through via a 2-1 aggregate win over KAA Gent. The 20-year-old got a sumptuous through ball from Henrikh Mkhitaryan who laid it on a platter for Kluivert’s calm finish. The goal answered Jonathan David’s opener four minutes prior and set Roma up for a 1-1 draw that followed their 1-0 home win in the first leg.

USMNT veteran John Brooks started and played the whole 90 minutes as Wolfsburg rode a 3-0 second leg win to a 5-1 aggregate victory over Norwegian side Malmo. 21-year-old Croatian youth international Josip Brekalo was the lone goalscorer in the second leg, finding the net just minutes before halftime to seal advancement to the next round. Yannick Gerhardt and Joao Victor added second-half cherries on top with his 65th minute to put Wolfsburg into the next stage.

Bayer Leverkusen passed a tough test with a 3-1 aggregate victory over Champions League dropouts FC Porto. After a 2-1 home win in the first leg, the German side got an early 10th minute goal from Argentine international Lucas Alario, initially flagged for offside but corrected by VAR. Porto was awful, managing just one shot through the entire first half and conceding twice more after halftime to Kai Havertz and Kerem Demirbay. Mali international Moussa Marega got 65th minute goal for Porto but it was little more than a consolation.

The other Portuguese club in the competition, Sporting CP, suffered an equally disappointing result as they coughed up a 3-1 first-leg lead and to Istanbul Basaksehir in Turkey, falling 4-1 in extra time to complete a 5-4 aggregate defeat. After the hosts brought the aggregate back level, it seemed Luciano Vietto had saved Sporting’s lives, but Edin Visca scored in the 92nd minute to send the match to extra time on a 4-4 aggregate draw. Visca then played hero as he blasted a wonderful penalty in the 119th minute to win the matchup.

Former Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel scored the opener just after the half-hour mark via a corner, nutmegging the goalkeeper with a header on the doorstep. Danijel Aleksic bagged Basaksehir’s second just before halftime with an absolutely incredible free-kick from miles away to put the hosts 2-0 up and level the aggregate at 3-3, with Basaksehir holding the away goal advantage from the first leg. Sporting CP was saved, however, by Vietto who scored with 22 minutes remaining 

Dutch side AZ Alkmaar slumped out of the competition to LASK, losing 2-0 in Austria which sealed a 3-1 aggregate defeat. 21-year-old Austrian youth international Marko Raguz hit for a quickfire double just before halftime, including one from the penalty spot, to send LASK through to the Round of 16.

Full Europa League results (bolded team advances)

Espanyol 3-2 Wolverhampton Wanderers
FC Porto 1-3 Bayer Leverkusen
KAA Gent 1-1 AS Roma
Malmo FF 0-3 Wolfsburg
LASK 2-0 AZ Alkmaar
Istanbul Basaksehir 4-1 Sporting CP (AET)
FC Basel 1-0 Apoel Nicosia

2020 MLS Power Rankings, Vol. 1

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With the 2020 Major League Soccer season kicking off this weekend, here’s a (surely brilliant) predictive edition of the Power Rankings, which will be updated at the start of every month here on PST…

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann’s parting shots cause anger at Hertha Berlin ]

MLS Cup favorites
Los Angeles FC and New York City FC

We all remember what LAFC did last year, and the fact they didn’t win MLS Cup despite settling most every relevant league record will only serve as further fuel for Bob Bradley to demand even more from (inarguably) the most talented team in the league. One potential pitfall: after trading Walker Zimmerman (for a record amount of allocation money), it’s unclear who’ll start at center back, and if you think it’s clear it’s a less than ideal situation. As for NYCFC, they managed to fly under the radar last year despite finishing top of the Eastern Conference by six points. While they don’t have the household names of an LAFC or Atlanta United, Domenec Torrent’s side (now that of Ronny Deila) played every bit the attractive, fluid attacking soccer of the league’s darlings. In a week East, NYCFC could wind up Supporters’ Shield winners.


MLS Cup contenders
Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC

These teams will be in the playoffs, 100 percent guarantee. (fingers are now crossed) With satisfactory answers to certain questions, they could make the leap from contenders to favorites with ease. Those questions are… Seattle: does the completely rebuilt backline come together, and how long does it take? Atlanta: will head coach Frank De Boer find the right balance between his preferred defensive slant and the roster’s natural tendency to attack at all costs? Galaxy: is the defense, which has been horrific for five or six years now, any better? Toronto: wait, why aren’t they on the “favorites” line? Ah, yes, because only one team per conference is allowed.


See you in the playoffs
Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Philadelphia Union and D.C. United

Here’s the thing about this group: the two teams from the East should finish fourth or fifth in the junior circuit (some ways back of the clear-cut top-three), but they probably wouldn’t make the playoffs in the West. By default, Philadelphia and D.C. get a bump in the tiers for the fact they’ll walk into the playoffs in the East. That is not — repeat not — to say they are as good as RSL or Dallas, who would actually push Atlanta and Toronto for second and third.


In the hunt
Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Montreal Impact

That’s a long list of teams. As stated above, the teams from the East will be in playoff contention due to not having seven standout sides. Basically, any combination of these teams could wind up in the playoffs. Looking to the West, Portland, Sporting KC and Minnesota have the potential to climb a tier (or two) if all goes right for them, but each of those sides has a glaring, and potentially fatal, flaw. The temptation to say Colorado will actually be quite good and also a playoff team is very strong, but it goes against all human instincts when you think back to how they opened the 2019 season, before firing Anthony Hudson and hiring Robin Fraser and almost making the playoffs anyway.


Fulfilling obligations
FC Cincinnati, Orlando City SC and Vancouver Whitecaps

Barely a month into their first season (last season), Cincinnati was very clearly the worst team in the league. Somehow, the offseason has gone even worse for them. They (probably) managed to improve enough so as to not claim back-to-back Wooden Spoons, but enough to contend for a playoff place? Highly unlikely. Orlando City has never — not once in their five-year MLS history — given me, or anyone, reason to believe they are a competent organization. Until they do so for a period of six (6) months or more, they just exist for existence’s sake. Speaking of merely existing, the Vancouver Whitecaps.


Expansion teams, TBD
Inter Miami and Nashville SC

Here’s the thing about expansion teams: they aren’t to be trusted, either way. What looks good on paper can sometimes look terrible on the field, and what looks terrible on paper can sometimes look great on the field. We’ll give Miami and Nashville their first assessments after a month of games.

LIVE, Europa League: Man United, Arsenal, Wolves go for last-16

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It’s time to settle 14 more ties in the Europa League round of 23, including three involving Premier League sides.

Ahead of Thursday’s seconds legs, Arsenal lead Greek side Olympiacos 1-0, Manchester United are level with Portuguese side Club Brugge at 1-1, and Wolverhampton Wanderers are the comfortable ones of the bunch with their 4-0 advantage of Spanish side Espanyol.

[ LIVE: Europa League scores  ]

All three PL sides are expected to go through to the round of 16, where they are once again eligible to face one another.

Meanwhile, some of the competition’s other remaining heavy hitters are also in action: Inter Milan lead Ludogorets Razgrad 2-0; Roma lead Gent 1-0; Sevilla are level with Cluj at 1-1; and Ajax trail Getafe 2-0.

Full Europa League schedule

12:55 p.m. ET
Espanyol v. Wolverhampton Wanderers
Basaksehir v. Sporting CP
Porto v. Bayer Leverkusen
Gent v. Roma
Malmo v. Wolfsburg
LASK v. AZ Alkmaar
Basel v. APOEL Nicosia

3 p.m. ET
Arsenal
v. Olympiacos
Manchester United v. Club Brugge
Inter Milan v. Ludogorets Razgrad
Ajax v. Getafe
Sevilla v. Cluj
Benfica v. Shakhtar Donetsk
Celtic v. Copenhagen

Colossal Juve-Inter clash could be played in empty stadium

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MILAN (AP) Inter Milan coach Antonio Conte probably won’t have to sit through a torrent of boos when he returns to Turin for the first time to face former club Juventus.

That’s because there could be no fans there to see it.

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann’s parting shots cause anger at Hertha Berlin ]

The Derby d’Italia, one of the season’s biggest matches, may be played in an empty stadium on Sunday because of the virus outbreak in northern Italy. The epicenter of the outbreak is in the Lombardy region, and Milan is its capital.

“I hope that from today there will be a regression in the diffusion of the virus so that I, too, can go see Juventus-Inter,” said Attilio Fontana, the governor of the Lombardy region. “We’re monitoring the situation. I’m very calm. We need to see what the situation is. It’s the same as for the schools. We’ll do a check Saturday and then we’ll see.”

Four Serie A matches scheduled for last weekend were postponed, including Inter’s match against Sampdoria. Italy has the most cases of the virus in Europe.

Serie A president Paolo Dal Pinto sent a letter to the government on Monday asking that games no longer be postponed in the affected areas but played without fans in attendance, something which Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said they were in agreement with.

[ MORE: Man City makes statement, comes back in Madrid ]

However, no official decree has been made by the Turin council and Serie A’s governing body has also yet to release a statement, giving rise to the hope fans could be allowed in.

Italy had 447 virus cases as of Wednesday. Twelve people have died, all of them elderly or suffering from other ailments, or both.

Italy has closed schools, museums and theaters in the two hardest hit regions and troops are enforcing quarantines around 10 towns in Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.

Inter’s Europa League match against Ludogorets was scheduled to go ahead in an empty stadium on Thursday.

On Sunday, Conte will return to Juventus as opposition coach for the first time since he left the club in 2014. Conte led Juventus to the first three of its eight straight league titles and also spent most of his playing career with the Bianconeri.

[ MORE: Alan Pardew confronted by frustrated Den Haag fans on training field ]

“Soccer needs the crowd, to hear the atmosphere around it,” Conte said. “That’s the best thing about the game, the atmosphere around the soccer being played. These decisions have been taken with public health in mind but I hope that everything returns to normal as soon as possible.”

Inter trails the Serie A leaders by six points, although it has played a match less. Juventus, meanwhile, will have to bounce back from Wednesday’s surprise 1-0 loss at Lyon in the Champions League.

“We didn’t play the match we wanted. We have a lot of work to do,” Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey said. “Let’s focus on ourselves and do better than we did today, starting on Sunday with Inter.”