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PST’s 2018 World Cup draw roundtable

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With the draw for the group stage of the 2018 World Cup taking place in Moscow on Friday, there’s plenty of excitement building.

[ STREAM: Draw live, 10 a.m. ET ]

Below our panel of writers discuss the key topics heading into the draw including the lack of the U.S. men’s national team, “Group of Death” scenarios and the dark horses.

[ MORE: Pots for 2018 World Cup draw ]

Here we go.


Here it is, World Cup fever has begun. As journalists who watch the U.S. team closely, has it sunk in yet that the USMNT won’t be at the World Cup for the first time since 1986? What feelings did you have this time four years ago before Brazil 2014?

Joe Prince-Wright: It hasn’t really sunk in yet, to be honest. Tomorrow will be one of the key moments when we sit there and realize ‘damn, the USMNT won’t be at the World Cup.’ It will be a major part of the acceptance stage of this U.S. debacle. Four years ago I was full of excitement to see who the U.S. would get and trying to work out their multiple “Group of Death” scenarios. Now, there’s still plenty of excitement about all of the big players and teams and who they will face, but still a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right. I’m more intrigued to see what watching a World Cup in the USA, without the U.S. participating, will be like this summer.

Nick Mendola: It has sunk in, mostly, but that doesn’t change the anger and distrust toward the team and federation. There are just so many reminders, not the least of which was seeing the U.S. B-Team stick with Portugal’s B-Team in last month’s friendly. Yeah, it’s an odd metric of sorts, but the USMNT finished one point from the World Cup and lost to Trinidad’s B-Team with Geoff Cameron on the bench and both Fabian Johnson and Weston McKennie at home on the couch. Any chance to feel even a tiny bit better about the team was bungled by post-elimination hierarchy press conferences and then Bruce Arena’s decision to go on TV during the Portugal game. Wow. There’s still a lot of anger there. Does that mean it hasn’t sunk in?

Kyle Bonn: The World Cup is the World Cup, and the excitement will always be there, but I can’t lie, it’s slightly mitigated this time around with the US out of the field. There’s always a passion to watch your country play and without that something definitely seems to be missing in the buildup.

Dan Karell: Ugh. Another gut-punch. It’s going to be sad not seeing the words “United States” on a little piece of paper picked out of a pot (Pot 3, probably?) on Friday. Around this time four years ago, I was definitely just looking at all the probabilities and I think like most people, hoping to avoid a group of death. The U.S. showed though that it didn’t matter, and finished ahead of Portugal and Ghana instead of last place where many predicted.

Matt Reed: The more I’ve thought about everything, the more clearly it has begun that there are glaring issues within the U.S. Soccer community that need addressing. Yes, it was and still is a shock that the USMNT did not qualify for Russia, but at the same time, the team’s shortcomings open the door for changes to occur over the next four years and beyond. As we saw in the USMNT’s recent friendly against Portugal, there are some solid young pieces working their way up through the pipeline, including Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, which is a promising stepping stone for the Americans, who already have one of the world’s best young players in Christian Pulisic.

Heading into Brazil in 2014, I was cautiously optimistic about how the U.S. would perform given the sides they were paired with in group play and the talent within the squad. Considering how the USMNT showed in 2010, I thought there was a chance they could build off of their Round of 16 appearance and possibly progress a step further, however, Belgium had a big say in preventing that from happening.


Looking at the four pots of teams, pick out your ULTIMATE “Group of Death” scenario

JPW: There are quite a few here. I’m going with: Germany, Spain, Egypt, Australia. But the following four teams would also be an absolute blockbuster of a group: France, England, Costa Rica, Nigeria. Simply put, the World Cup is stacked, as it should be.

NM: Brazil, Spain, Senegal, Serbia.

KB: Any “Group of Death” starts and ends with Spain being in Pot 2. England too probably counts, but Spain’s presence there spells doom for any Pot 3 and 4 team who finds itself in that bunch. Only 2 European countries can be drawn into the same group, which mitigates things a bit, but here are a few options:

Germany, Spain, Costa Rica, Nigeria
Argentina, Spain, Iceland, Japan
Brazil, Spain, Sweden, Australia

DK: Germany, Spain, Denmark, and Nigeria. All four of those teams are strong and Nigeria could be a dark horse in the knockout round with the likes of Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho launching themselves on the world stage. Germany and Spain are juggernauts as always and we saw what Denmark and Christian Eriksen did to the Republic of Ireland.

MR: Brazil, Spain, Denmark, Nigeria


Which team will you want to avoid in Pot 4?

JPW: Serbia. Nobody has taken them too seriously but they have talented players 1-11, many of whom play at big clubs in Europe. Underestimate Nemanja Matic, Dusan Tadic and Branislav Ivanovic at your peril.

NM: Serbia. I’ve been so impressed with them, with Matic, Tadic, Kolarov, Milivojevic, Nastasic, Llajic, Ivanovic, and Mitrovic. I believe they can sit in and defend when needed, but also can spring some incredible attacks if they get the final ball from Tadic, Mitrovic or someone else.

KB: Pot 4 is relatively weak this time around, but Japan is quite skilled, Nigeria is always. A threat, and Australia plays with a fire that can cause problems.

DK: I’ll keep it with Nigeria. They were underwhelming at the last World Cup but still made it into the Round of 16, and with a new crop of youngsters, they could be a tough out in Russia.

MR: A number of Premier League talents up front and an experienced midfield give Nigeria an edge over the rest of the Pot 4 nations. The Super Eagles have qualified for six of the last seven World Cups, and advanced to the Round of 16 in three of those appearances. I believe John Obi Mikel and Co. will surprise a few people, although they certainly put themselves on the map in 2014. For those unfamiliar with the side, go back and watch their match against Germany in the knockout round.


What would be the easiest group scenario for hosts Russia?

JPW: Mexico, Iran, Panama would be the easiest group for the hosts. It always helps a tournament if the hosts do well but with Russia the lowest-ranked team (65th) in the competition, they’ll do extremely well to get out of any group.

NM: Russia would love to see Peru, Iran or Costa Rica, and Saudi Arabia. Playing a host city is always tricky, but the politics and patriotism of this tournament make it especially difficult. I think Russia escapes its group at a minimum.

KB: Russia is going to seriously struggle no matter who they draw, but the easiest path to the knockout would likely be something like: Russia, Croatia, Iran, Panama

DK: Well, if Russia hosts England they’ll be just fine…..kidding! Peru somehow is seeded in pot two but they clearly aren’t of the quality to be there, it’s just thanks to the FIFA rankings. Same for Poland/Portugal in Pot 1.

MR: Peru, Senegal, Saudi Arabia.


If you had to pick now (and you do), who contests the World Cup final and who wins it?

JPW: Germany and Brazil. And Brazil wins 2-1. This is a better defensive Brazilian side with revenge on their mind and Neymar is ready to lead the Selecao to glory.

NM: I’m torn between who wins it, but it’ll be Germany and Brazil assuming their paths don’t cross on the bracket en route to the final. Germany is the deepest team and reigning champions with enough returning players to build off that record. Brazil is the best team in the world right now and navigated the toughest qualifying route in the world with style.

KB: Until I am proven wrong, I am sticking with Germany as the best team in the world. Brazil has come a long way since Germany embarrassed them on their home turf, and I would love a Germany vs Brazil rematch, this time in the final.

DK: It’s so hard to tell who will be tired and who will still have gas left in the tank, but I’ll say Brazil vs. France. Brazil under Tite is playing the best soccer in the world and historically they are very serious about their physical preparation and making sure all their players were fit. No one pulled out of Brazil’s last squad for the November friendlies and even the players carrying injuries were treated by the Brazilian staff. I like France because of their talented young players that I think learned good lessons in qualifying and Euro 2016 and could take that into a final run next summer.

MR: Germany takes on France. Les Bleus win in extra time.


There’s always a “dark horse” at every tournament. So, who will surprise everyone at Russia 2018?

JPW: As an Englishman I’m tempted to go with England who are definitely being overlooked, but having low expectations hasn’t worked out well in the last few major tournaments. I do think they could get to the quarterfinals, which would be a very acceptable tournament. As for other dark horses, Serbia, as mentioned previously, plus Egypt and Nigeria could all impress, plus Sadio Mane‘s Senegal have shown their penchant for upsets in the past. So, England, Serbia, Egypt, Nigeria, Senegal are the five teams to look out for.

NM: I detailed my belief in Serbia above, but I’ll proffer a second opinion: This tournament in particular seems to be highlighting European and South American teams, and I think an African team has a chance to really do some damage with a Liverpool flavor. Senegal (Sadio Mane) and Egypt (Mohamed Salah) both could do something special. Additional love for Japan and South Korea, and I’m especially excited to see Heung-Min Son on display without Harry Kane and Dele Alli righteously demanding the spotlight.

KB: Dark horse has to be England. That is a much improved team with so many bright young stars, and while everyone makes jokes about how England always flops in big tournaments, they’ll sneak up on everyone. Raheem Sterling is coming up big for Man City of late, and he’ll do so for his country in the World Cup too.

DK: Engla-Nah…they’ll underwhelm like always. Sorry Joe, haha. My dark horse comes from Pot 2. Croatia has one of the world’s best midfields with Real Madrid pair Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic as well as Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic. Mario Mandzukic is one of the world’s best No. 9s and the team’s defending is hard as nails. I think they have the quality to make a deep run, especially with it likely being Modric and Mandzukic’s last World Cup.

MR: Take one look at Croatia’s midfield and tell me that’s not one of the best, if not the best, in the tournament. I’m not overly confident about the team’s front group of Mario Mandzukic and Nikola Kalinic, but this team is loaded with talent throughout the squad. Also, the Blazers consistently have best kit in international soccer, so there’s that.

Arsenal director Kroenke responds to supporter group letter

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A unified group of 16 supporter groups sent Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke a letter urging the head man to show “better leadership” in helping rebuild the squad and return the Gunners to the Champions League in what will be a third successive season outside Europe’s top competition.

His son Josh, currently serving as a member of the Arsenal board, responded to the letter by saying he “respects” the fans’ passion but also noting that it “hurts” to have his own called into question.

“As Arsenal fans, we have watched with frustration as the team’s football performances have declined over the past decade,” the letter from the fans read. “When Stan Kroenke began buying Arsenal shares, the club had just ­competed in a first Champions League final. Twelve years on, Arsenal are about to play in the Europa League for the third year running.”

The letter also hit out at the “soulless atmosphere” at the Emirates and attacked the “lack of strategy” when it came to player recruitment and investment into the squad, noting that money spent is not the issue, but instead the execution of the team build.

The younger Kroenke responded to the coordinated message, saying he takes his position with the club seriously because he can feel the emotion behind the decisions made.

“Is it hard to take? Absolutely,” Josh Kroenke said of the letter. “But I’m not in this business to make friends, I’m in it to win. If anyone is ever going to question anything about our ownership – which I view as a custodianship, the supporters trust us to be a custodian of the values — that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to win whilst also respecting the values and traditions of the club.”

“I was there in Baku [for the Europa League final] on behalf of KSE [Kroenke Sports & Entertainment], my father and family. I was down there on the sidelines, on the medal podium handing out second-place medals. I saw the look on our coach’s face, our players and all our staff. I felt and I saw what they felt. I felt the same way. The most important thing about being down on the pitch is understanding that there is a resolve there. There are some people who are also pretty pissed off that we had dropped that last match. That resolve should serve us well.”

Finally, Kroenke addressed the money available this summer, and highlighted the difficulties presented by the Europa League loss, which left Arsenal yet again on the outside looking in as Chelsea qualified for the Champions League. It wasn’t exactly an encouraging message for fans.

“If we’re going into the finer points I’d have to defer to these guys [managing director Vinai Venkatesham and head of football Raul Sanllehi]. I’ve always told them we need to be as aggressive as possible. It’s no secret that we have a Champions League wage bill on a Europa League budget right now. That’s a fact. And one that we’re figuring out how to face internally at the moment.”

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Haller nearing West Ham move, Lovren to AC Milan

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According to multiple reports across England, West Ham is close to its marquee Marko Arnautovic replacement as Sebastian Haller is nearly a Hammer.

Haller’s club Eintracht Frankfurt confirmed that the 25-year-old is on his way to London for a medical and will be a Hammer before long. His signature would represent a club-record fee of $55.9 million according to both the BBC and Sky Sports, far surpassing the $44.7 million paid for Felipe Anderson.

Haller is a goalscorer as well as a contributor, bagging 24 goals in 60 Bundesliga appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt in his two years with the club and also assisting 13 more. The analytics folks love the move.

With Lucas Perez, Arnautovic and Andy Carroll all having departed the club this summer, the addition of Haller is a much-needed boost to the West Ham attack that includes Felipe, Robert Snodgrass, and Javier Hernandez.


Divisive Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren, who infamously declared not so long ago that he is the best defender in the world, is rumored to be considering a move away from Anfield after last season’s Champions League winning campaign.

According to Nicolo Schira of Gazzetta dello Sport, Lovren is a target for AC Milan, although he would likely be asked to take a serious pay cut from his current Anfield salary. The report says that Liverpool wants at least $22 million for Lovren’s services, and that AC Milan would offer him a contract of $13.6 million over four years. That’s a significant drop from the $5.6 million a year he makes currently.

Still, if a deal can be struck, it may be enticing for Lovren considering his playing time at Liverpool has dipped in the past year. Now 30 years old, Lovren appeared in just 13 games for Liverpool last season, partially due to a pair of injuries but also having lost his place to Joel Matip. He was on the bench behind Matip for the final three matches of the Champions League run after starting the final next to Virgil Van Dijk the year before.


According to French publication L’Equipe, Southampton is in talks with OGC Nice to offload winger Sofiane Boufal. The Moroccan international joined Saints in 2016 from Lille but spent last season on loan with Spanish club Celta Vigo where hee scored just three goals in 35 league appearances.

With those struggles, his value has reportedly dropped to just $11.2 million, having been purchased for $21 million three years ago. L’Equipe says that while fellow French clubs Marseille and Bordeaux were interested, neither wanted to commit to a permanent transfer, with both wishing for a loan with an option to buy, whereas Nice has gone the extra mile.

Boufal was with the Moroccan squad in the Africa Cup of Nations this summer, appearing in three of their four matches, with all three appearances off the bench. He did not score or assist a goal.


Over the past few days there have been reports that should Leicester City cash in on Harry Maguire to Manchester United, they could pounce for Brighton defender Lewis Dunk as his replacement for about half the reported fee they would receive from the Red Devils. Now, with more time to think, that price may have spooked the Foxes.

According to Rob Dorsett of Sky Sports, Leicester City may decide to stick with internal replacements instead of spend big on a defender they don’t believe to be of accurate value in the market. Dorsett mentions 23-year-old Caglar Soyuncu and 22-year-old Filip Benkovic as possible options to receive more playing time.

Benkovic, a Dinamo Zagreb youth product who arrived at Leicester City last summer, received his Croatian international debut this summer as a reward for a solid loan spell at Celtic last season. Aside from an ankle injury that sidelined him for all of February, Benkovic was a regular in the Celtic lineup and helped them post a glittering defensive record en route to the Scottish Premiership title, conceding just 20 goals in 38 matches. Celtic also lost every Europa League match that Benkovic missed, while they won three and lost one of the four he played.

Soyuncu joined Leicester last summer as well, coming over from German side Freiburg, but only saw the field for six Premier League matches, starting four. Of the four matches he started, the club conceded just one goal in every game, and he also started the EFL Cup loss to Manchester City that saw the league champions score just once in regulation before losing on penalties.


Kieran Trippier is reportedly receiving interest from major European clubs and could be considering an exit from Tottenham this summer, despite the season drawing closer. According to Daily Telegraph reporter Matt Law, Trippier has particularly interested Atletico Madrid, who could be in for a $25 million move.

Given Trippier’s growth at Tottenham and importance to Mauricio Pochettino‘s setup, selling a player of Trippier’s quality for that low a price seems a poor decision for Spurs, but if the player has his head turned after a run to the Champions League final there may not be much the club can do.

A right-back by trade, Trippier was recently deployed by Pochettino as part of a three-center-back system that saw the England international transform into one of the most versatile defenders in the Premier League, maintaining a strong defensive stance but also swinging out wide to perform wing-back duties at times and becoming one of the Premier League’s best free-kick takers.

Trippier’s name has cropped up a few times this summer, but nothing remotely concrete has taken hold and it would at this point be surprising if Daniel Levy allows an England international in his prime with three years left on his contract to depart so cheaply.

Some of the best new 2019/20 kit releases so far

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One of the most enjoyable parts of the run-up to the new season is following clubs slowly trickle out their new home and away kits for the upcoming campaign.

Kit releases are becoming a bigger and bigger deal as kit makers pour more and more money into lucrative contracts. As we slowly make our way towards the new 2019/20 season, here are a few of the best releases across Europe so far. Obviously, these are extremely subjective, so if you feel one has been left out or strongly dislike one on the list, let us know what you think!

Arsenal away kit

The Gunners have produced some iconic kits in the past, and also some horrific ones, preferring on many previous occasions to be bold and risk it all, to mixed results. This season, Arsenal’s away kit is yellow, and unlike a number of swings & misses with yellow in the past, this one is fresh. The club brought in NBA star James Harden to model the new away kit, and it rules. The yellow isn’t too bright and the background V pattern keeps it interesting but not eye-popping which can be the trouble with yellow at times.

AS Roma away kit

Speaking of bold, Roma did risk it all this season with their away kit, and we’re glad they did. The Italian club unveiled a white kit with a lightning bolt splashed in the club’s maroon, yellow, and orange colors. It’s an outstanding choice done well, and proves one of this season’s most intriguing looks.

FC Barcelona away kit

While the Spanish giants’ home kit is a checkerboard pattern that doesn’t necessarily jump off the page, the away kit is another successful use of yellow. Like Arsenal’s, the yellow isn’t a staggeringly bright shade, instead allowing the diagonal sash to smartly take center stage. Check out new signing Frenkie de Jong unveiling the kit.

Bayern Munich home & away kits

Bayern Munich produced a fresh double this season, with a new-age home kit that looks fantastic plus a clean white away kit that jumps off the page. The home kit, as you can see on Benjamin Pavard below, is the typical Bayern Munich red with a subtle background that helps the kit pop, while the away kit is plain white that just looks outstanding, with the bottom of the shirt sporting a small dot pattern that gives it some form of uniqueness, as David Alaba shows off.

Celtic home kit

Hoops and collars are both often a feast or famine type of design, and while plenty of hoop kits have failed miserably in the past, Celtic nails both this season. As you can see below, they stopped the hoops above the shoulder, and that helps the green collar jump off the design. Along with the plain white shorts and green socks, this kit is a standout product.

Chelsea home kit

Like Bayern Munich, Chelsea went for the background pattern behind the club’s well-known main color, but the Blues went for a much bolder pattern, choosing to sport a randomized criss-cross that really pops behind the dark blue hue. As you can see youth product Mason Mount show off while announcing his new contract, the various sized lines are interesting but also not distracting.

Inter home kit

I audibly gasped when I saw this kit for the first time. Inter, always a leader in the kit department with the famed Pirelli logo, has produced a fabulous home kit for the upcoming campaign. Unlike last season which was just straight vertical stripes, this year’s kit has the stripes that break behind the sponsor logo and return to normal underneath, and it looks amazing, as does that particular shade of blue.

Marseille home kit

Puma knocked it out of the park for the French side, scaling back the blue to a white kit with blue pinstripes and the blue logo. It’s an outstanding look, as you can see on midfielder Morgan Sanson below. Coincidentally, they have some absolutely fire training gear to go along with it as well.

Nottingham Forest away kit

How about a Championship club to add to the mix? Nottingham Forest released a smart looking away kit that splits the two sides of the shirt into dark blue and black, and it works to perfection. Working with an already clean-looking sponsor logo and the white outline of the club crest without the red, the two-sided look is a great one. A cool touch to include the ladies squad in the kit release as well.

Wolverhampton Wanderers home & away kit

Wolves has quietly been one of the consistently best English kit producers, and they got it right again this year on both counts. The home kit is a simple yellow-orange with a subtle lined pattern in the background that looks great with the three adidas lines under the arm, while the away kit is black with diagonal yellow pinstripes that jump. Well done.

Ajax

As a bonus for making it this far down the list, here’s a bold choice that flat out doesn’t work. Ajax released its new 2019/20 away kit fresh off its run to the Champions League semifinal, and the combination of a weird forest green and an eye-burning traffic cone orange makes for a face-melting combination. Sorry, Daley Blind, but this is a hard pass.

Tottenham signs Mauricio Pochettino’s son to contract extension

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Mauricio Pochettino put his arm around the player as he always does when a Tottenham member signs a new contract. This one was different.

A proud dad smiled for the camera as son Maurizio put pen to paper on a new deal seeing him move up to the U-23 side. The 18-year-old has been with Spurs youth side since following his father from Southampton to the English capital four years ago.

The boy impressed in 21 appearances for the U-18 squad last season, deployed on the wing where he scored four goals and assisted another. He was part of the squad that took on his old club Southampton in the very first event held in the club’s new stadium, essentially a trial run before the true opening match for the senior side.

Unlike his father, who is Argentinian and played for the Argentina national team, Maurizio was born in Barcelona and therefore could choose to represent Spain if he so desires, or his father’s native Argentina – given, of course, he reaches those heights. First, it will be the Checkatrade Trophy he takes part in, with the Spurs U-23 squad set to take on Gillingham, Colchester United, and Ipswich Town in Southern Section Group A.

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2019/20 underway… #COYS

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