MLS: Atlanta buzzsaw rips LAFC; Chicago struggling; VAR (still) a mess

Photo credit: Atlanta United / @ATLUTD
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The sixth Saturday of the 2018 MLS season is in the books, and as always, we learned a few lessons from the afternoon and evening’s slate of games…

[ MORE: Other MLS Things — The Archive ]

Return of the ATL buzzsaw

Atlanta United were shut out — and blown out — on opening day just over a month ago, and the knee-jerk reactions were as predictable as they were flimsy: Are they really that good? Maybe they just had a lucky season last year? You can’t play like that in MLS and expect to win.

That narrative lasted, quite literally, all of 90 minutes before Tata Martino’s men dismantled D.C. United and Vancouver Whitecaps by a combined score of 7-2 in back-to-back weeks immediately thereafter and ground out a 1-0 win over Minnesota United while playing 52 minutes a man down last week. The Five Stripes’ resurgent run came to a head on Saturday, when they hammered Los Angeles FC, the expansion side upon which so much praise was heaped following wins in their first two games, to the tune of 5-0. Miguel Almiron scored two from the penalty spot, to go with single tallies from Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel and Romario Williams.

On Saturday, it was Gressel who stood head and shoulders above his peers, as the 24-year-old German import (via last year’s SuperDraft) bagged the game’s opening goal and delivered the seeing-eye cross to Martinez for the second which all but put the game to bed. At right, you’ll find the entirety of Gressel’s contributions for the afternoon, on both end of the field.

A few observations: 1) there’s not a single unsuccessful pass shorter than 10 or 15 yards in distance; 2) he’s extremely tidy when involved in short, combination play; 3) the location of his defensive actions, all of which are inside Atlanta’s defensive half of the field, placed alongside his passing map, paint a clear picture of just how active and involved he is over the course of 90 minutes.

Teammates like Martinez, Almiron, Ezequiel Barco, Hector Villalba and even Darlington Nagbe will get 95 percent of the headlines coming out of Atlanta this year — and rightly so, nothing should be taken away from them — but it’s someone like Gressel, who functions like the glue that hold all those entertaining, attacking parts together, while managing to contribute more than his fair share of danger, that has this buzzsaw ripping through opponents week in and week out.

[ MORE: Agent: Giuseppe Rossi could seek MLS move after two years ]

VAR is… struggling… still… still

Atlanta midfielder Chris McCann was sent off for a reckless tackle, which occurred 36 seconds into the game, that referee Ted Unkel deemed to have endangered the safety, in one way or another, of LAFC’s Benny Feilhaber. Unkel then consulted his handy-dandy video-assistant review system, and reversed the call, drastically changing the events and outcome of the ensuing 89 minutes.

If you watched the above clip, you’ll probably agree it’s something commonly referenced as an “orange-card” offense — just shy of a sending-off, but worse than your run-of-the-mill yellow card — which is just a clever way to say that it’s far from a “clear and obvious error” (yet again, that’s the language of MLS and the Professional Referee Organization), which is, of course, the threshold for a reviewable decision. No matter the initial call — red or yellow — it’s planted firmly in the gray area between yes and no, right and wrong.

If you watched that clip, you’ll find another extremely gray-area decision that initially went against Atlanta, only for Unkel to change his mind after a video review. I’m of the opinion it’s probably a foul — one that Almiron baits Walker Zimmerman into and undoubtedly embellishes — but it’s nowhere near definitive one way or another, which is the mandatory requirement to review the call on the field.

In the grand scheme of the game, it mattered very little, but if this is the willy-nilly process by which refs choose whether or not to review calls on the field, it’s going to rear its ugly head at a critical point in a game in the near future, and continue to do so until there’s a uniform process in place. The fact we’re left to wonder about the thought process of refs is, easily, the most frustrating part and does little to dispel the notion that MLS refs aren’t up to the standard of the league’s players and they too routinely impact the outcome of games.

[ MORE: CONCACAF issues punishments for TFC-America fracas in CCL ]

A win, but the same old problems for Chicago

Here’s the good news for Chicago Fire fans: after two losses and a draw to start the season, your team beat Columbus Crew SC and got its first win on Saturday.

Here’s the bad news: it was an identical offensive performance to those first three games, only with a Howler of the Year nominee from Crew SC goalkeeper Zack Steffen to bail out an attacking unit totally bereft of ideas and execution.

This is hardly a new development for Veljko Paunovic’s side, which lacked any semblance of a focal-point playmaker last season. Here’s some worse news, as something of an aside: it wasn’t addressed during the offseason, and the secondary transfer window might be too late in a deep Eastern Conference (the primary window is still open, but April and May are practical non-starters for transfer activity).

You can see, clear as day, where the gaping hole exists, as well as some pretty damning statistics. Paunovic’s plan ahead of Saturday’s win over Columbus was to pair a target man, Alan Gordon, with the defending Golden Boot Winner, Nemanja Nikolic, presumably to provide a bit of hold-up and knock-down play for Nikolic to swarm around and make runs off of. It… well, didn’t really work, as Nikolic touched the ball just once times inside Crew SC’s penalty area — his goal, which resulted from a wayward pass from the opposing goalkeeper.

USMNT projected starting lineup vs Saudi Arabia

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The USMNT face Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain in their final warm-up game before the 2022 World Cup kicks off in November and there are plenty of question marks around their best starting lineup.

Especially at center back and up front.

[ MORE: Player ratings | What we learned | Reaction ]

Following the shocking defeat to Japan (where a 2-0 scoreline in Japan’s favor heavily flattered the USMNT), Gregg Berhalter has plenty to think about as he juggles his roster around ahead of this final audition.

Yes, this final camp before the World Cup has seen the USMNT without six key players (Weah, Steffen, A. Robinson, Carter-Vickers, Richards and Musah) but the most concerning thing is that nobody took the opportunity given to them against Japan. Will anybody step up against Saudi Arabia and cement their spot in the roster, or even the starting lineup?

Below is our projected lineup, plus analysis on what Berhalter should do for the final 90 minutes he has with the team before they kick off their World Cup campaign against Wales on Nov. 21 in Qatar.


USMNT projected starting lineup vs Saudi Arabia (4-3-3)

—– Horvath —–

— Scally — Zimmerman — Palmer-Brown — Dest —

—- Adams —- McKennie —-

—- Reyna —-

— Aaronson — Pepi — Pulisic —


What should Berhalter do?

It’s clear that Gregg Berhalter will make plenty of changes as eight players (six outfield, two goalkeepers) didn’t have any minutes against Japan last time out. That said, he needs key players on this team to find some rhythm playing together less than two months before the World Cup kicks off. This starting lineup should be a mixture between giving players a final chance to impress and letting star players alongside each other as they look to build momentum ahead of the World Cup.

Goalkeepers

Matt Turner proved he’s the undisputed No. 1 as he excelled against Japan (perhaps the only player to leave that game with any credit) and although Zack Steffen is better with the ball at his feet, Turner appears to have the upper-hand. That leaves Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson to battle it out for the final goalkeeping spot on the roster. Expect them both to get a chance in this game.

Defenders

In defense, Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie should both get plenty of minutes to make their final claim for a spot on the roster but it may be a surprise to see them line up together. Perhaps they will have 45 minutes each alongside Zimmerman (a guaranteed starter at CB) to see who fares better as a duo?

At full back Joe Scally should get a run out at right back, while Sergino Dest will likely show off his versatility and play left back. The likes of Dest, and others, need the game time given they’re on the fringes of their starting lineup for their club teams. We now what DeAndre Yedlin can do and he is a leader on this team who is going to Qatar no matter what.

Midfielders

In midfield, I’d start Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie together again. They looked awful against Japan which was very surprising. This duo have to get some kind of partnership going and 60 minutes together here could see things click back into place for them. We know what Luca de la Torre and Kellyn Acosta offer, while Johnny Cardoso and Malik Tillman could both get another, longer, chance to push for a spot on the roster.

Forwards

Gio Reyna playing in a central role as a No. 10 should be something Berhalter prioritizes, while Christian Pulisic is fit and will start (according to Berhalter) so he should start on the left and Brenden Aaronson should start on the right. Getting Aaronson, Reyna and Pulisic used to playing together and interchanging is something that has to be done.

Up top, Berhalter has confirmed that Ricardo Pepi will get his chance to start and his physicality and speed should combine very well with the trio underneath him. Expect Josh Sargent to get a good chunk of minutes too, while Jesus Ferreira is the other option up top but maybe we could see Pulisic or Reyna playing up there as a false nine at some point of the game?

Ranking the 2022 World Cup kits

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With the 2022 World Cup fast approaching, plenty of World Cup kits are starting to be released and there are some intriguing looks.

[ MORE: How to watch Premier League in USA  

From Mexico’s snazzy away number to Germany going for a solid new look for their home kit and Puma rolling out a very specific and similar look for their national teams, just like they did for their club teams on their away kits, there is a lot to unpack here.

When November rolls around and the World Cup kicks off, which one of these jerseys will you be wearing with pride? And which one will you be wearing because it looks really cool?

Below is our rankings of the World Cup kits which have been released.


Ranking the 2022 World Cup kits

1. Mexico

This is a lovely away kit and will become a classic. Expect these beauties to fly off the shelves and be a jersey that neutrals love just as much as El Tri fans. The home kit is very decent too.


2. Portugal

Absolutely sensational work. The home kit is unique enough but still sticks to Portugal’s bold colors, while the away kit is a classic too.


3. Poland

Oh, wow. This is absolutely beautiful. The away shirt is majestic and the home shirt is classic but with some intriguing detail on the sleeves. Nicely done.


4. Japan

Well, this is another classic. Japan’s home kit is inspired by anime and the design is bold and recognizable. The away kit is fantastic too, especially the long-sleeved version.


5. France

The home and away kits are both lovely and the colors just work together. Well done.


6. Argentina

The home kit is classic. You can’t really mess up the blue and white stripes. Again, another lovely away kit. The purple is perfect and this just looks slick and silky. Much like Lionel Messi’s footwork.


7. Wales

These are beautiful. The right color red on the home shirt and just enough going on without overdoing it. The away shirt is also bold and the collar is lovely. Well done.


8. Brazil

Home kit looks like a classic and the away shirt is pretty decent too, but some people may not like the funky print on the shoulders.


9. England

The blue panels on the home kit are a bit meh but the away kit is a retro beauty.


10. Croatia

They kind of ruined a classic with the home kit. It’s still cool but only having the checkered design on part of the home shirt is weird. The away kit is majestic.


11. Saudi Arabia

Pretty nice designs here. They could have gone with the plain white for the home and plain green for the away, but the snazzy designs work. Especially for the away kit.


12. Netherlands

The home shirt looks kind of velvety? Not the usual bright orange, which will upset some. The blue away kit is sleek and the real winner here.


13. Senegal

This is the best of the Puma jerseys, as Senegal’s away kit is very distinctive and the green is lovely. This big panel on the middle of the kit is something we will get used to seeing a lot of during the World Cup.


14. Ghana

Again, another Puma away kit but this Ghana shirt has plenty of personality.


15. Germany

This is fine. Expect a bit better from Die Mannschaft and it feels like they should have an all white jersey for their home kit.


16. Qatar

The hosts have a simple, clean look. The away shirt has a nice golden pattern on it. Not bad.


17. USA

The home shirt has not been received well by fans, and some players, for being too boring. But the away shirt is pretty nice.


18. Morocco

A bit plain, but like the collar and sleeve trims and the circular pattern around the middle is very cool.


19. Spain

Eh, this could have been so much better. Spain’s home kit looks bland and the away kit is just too much with that pattern.


20. Australia

Not quite sure what to make of this. The same velvety style as the Netherlands home shirt on Australia’s home shirt. Just doesn’t work. The away kit is also just very bland.


21. Belgium

These home kits are just a little too plain and the flame pattern on the shoulder isn’t great and looks like a shirt I’d wear to my midweek bowling league. A missed opportunity. The same applies for the away kit. Belgium’s golden generation won’t look golden this World Cup.


22. Uruguay

Again, another Puma away kit which looks very similar. Uruguay’s iconic sky blue could have been used a lot better on this away shirt.


23. Serbia

Lovely gold in the design and makes the white away kit pop a little.


24. Switzerland

Just very bland. Not a lot going on and the panel in the middle is just a bit of an eyesore.

World Cup 2022 rankings: Who are the favorites?

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With less than two months to go until it all kicks off, it is time to update and release the latest 2022 World Cup rankings.

[ MORE: USMNT react to Japan defeat ]

There are a few clear favorites to win the trophy in Qatar but some of the giants have been handed tougher group stage draws than others which will obviously impact their chances of lifting the famous trophy.

Given that some of the favorites have also been struggling in recent Nations League games and friendlies with plenty of heavy defeats and strange results, there remains no real frontrunner to win the tournament. That is great news for neutrals.

[ MORE: Full schedule for World Cup ]

Keep an eye out on a few underdogs too, as there are some real opportunities which have opened up depending on what side of the bracket you’re on.

We will updates these rankings before and during the tournament in Qatar, which takes place from November 21 to December 18, 2022.

[ MORE: Betting odds for 2022 World Cup ]

Let us know what you think of the rankings below.


Schedule, start time, dates, how to watch live

When: November 20, 2022 to December 18, 2022
Group stage game kick off times: 5am, 8am, 11am, 2pm (all ET)
Location: Qatar
TV channel in EnglishFox
TV channel in Spanish: Telemundo, Universo, Peacock


World Cup Rankings – September 26, 2022

32. Tunisia – Down 1
31. Qatar – Down 4
30. Australia – Up 2
29. Ghana – Even
28. Cameroon – Down 3


27. Saudi Arabia – Up 1
26. Costa Rica – Up 4
25. Wales – Down 5
24. Iran – Even
23. Ecuador – Down 5


22. Morocco – Even
21. Canada – Up 2
20. USA – Down 4
19. Japan – Up 7
18. Poland – Up 3


17. Mexico – Up 2
16. South Korea – Down 1
15. Uruguay – Down 5
14. Serbia – Up 3
13. Senegal – Down 1


12. Switzerland – Up 1
11. Croatia – Up 3
10. Denmark – Up 1
9. England – Down 3
8. Germany – Down 3
7. Spain – Even


6. Netherlands – Up 3
5. Portugal – Up 3
4. France – Even
3. Belgium – Down 1
2. Argentina – Up 1
1. Brazil – Even


UEFA Nations League: Schedule, how to watch, stream, TV, standings

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UEFA Nations League champions France will not go back-to-back, and Portugal is behind Spain in its bid to return to the throne room, highlighting the odds that a new Nations League winner will be crowned at the end of third edition of the tournament.

England and Wales are also coming to terms with the concept of relegation to UEFA Nations League B after underwhelming campaigns. Hungary look set to reach the semifinal round, which is a huge surprise as they faced Germany, England and Italy in A3.

France lost to Denmark and just remained in League A as Austria were relegated, with Croatia pipping the Danes to a place in the semifinal round.

[ MORE: European Nations League hub — Scores, stats ]

Group A4 is the opposite sort of fight, Belgium and the Netherlands have both played very well but the Dutch triumphed down the stretch (thanks to a 1-0 win as Virgil van Dijk scored the lone goal in Amsterdam) to advance to the semifinal round.

UEFA Nations Leagues B, C, and D also have drama built into the final days as Ukraine and Scotland are jockeying for promotion in B1; Russia’s punishment has left B2 promotion open to Israel, Iceland, and Albania. B4 sees Erling Haaland, Martin Odegaard, and Norway fighting to join League A for the next cycle.

There’s also drama as Kazakhstan and Georgia currently lead their League C groups, with Latvia and Estonia in League D’s best spots.


UEFA Nations League live: How to watch, stream links

When: June 1, 2022 – March 26, 2024
How to watch: Fox Sports Live, Fubo TV


UEFA Nations League A, Group 1

Croatia– 4-1-1, 13 pts [ADVANCED]
Denmark — 4-0-2, 12 pts
France — 1-2-3, 5 pts
Austria — 1-1-4, 4 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
France 2-0 Austria
Croatia 2-1 Denmark

Sunday
Denmark 2-0 France
Austria 1-3 Croatia

UEFA Nations League A, Group 2

Portugal — 3-1-1, 10 pts
Spain — 2-2-0, 8 pts
Switzerland — 2-0-3, 6 pts
Czech Republic — 1-1-3, 4 pts

Next fixtures

Saturday
Czech Republic 0-4 Portugal
Spain 1-2 Switzerland

Tuesday
Portugal vs Spain
Switzerland vs Czech Republic

UEFA Nations League A, Group 3

Italy — 3-2-1, 11 pts
Hungary — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Germany — 1-4-1, 7 pts
England — 0-3-3, 3 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Friday
Italy 1-0 England
Germany 0-1 Hungary

Monday
England 3-3 Germany
Hungary 0-2 Italy

UEFA Nations League A, Group 4

Netherlands — 5-1-0, 16 pts [ADVANCED]
Belgium — 3-1-2, 10 pts
Poland — 2-1-3, 7 pts
Wales — 0-1-5, 1 pt [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Thursday
Poland 0-2 Netherlands
Belgium 2-1 Wales

Sunday
Netherlands 1-0 Belgium
Wales 0-1 Poland