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2017/18 grades for each Premier League club

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With the 2017/18 Premier League season now over after a hectic Championship Sunday, it is time to take stock of how each team did over the course of the gruelling nine-month campaign.

Below we dish out a grade to all 20 teams based on how they performed this season and if they overachieved or underachieved.

It’s safe to say we have a real mixed bag…


Manchester City: A+
Basically perfect. Record points (100), wins (32) and goals (106) in a single PL season says it all. Pep Guardiola‘s side were imperious and with just two defeats throughout the season (at Liverpool and a shocking loss at home to Man United after leading 2-0) they never looked in doubt of securing the title, especially after their 18-game winning run which shattered another PL record. Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva ran the show, while Ederson and Kyle Walker were huge upgrades in defense. Yes, they lost to Liverpool in the Champions League quarterfinals, but Guardiola has built something special and this City team has the stench of a dynasty. Leroy Sane, Raheem Sterling and and Nicolas Otamendi have all improved drastically too, as Pep’s plan is in full-flow.

Burnley: A
A truly superb season from the Clarets as Sean Dyche led Burnley to a seventh-place finish and a first spot in Europe since 1967. A solid defensive setup with Nick Pope stepping in admirably for the injured Tom Heaton in goal was complimented by Ashley Barnes and Chris Wood up top. Dyche is working miracles on a shoestring budget at Burnley and the fact that several “bigger” clubs are sniffing around him makes perfect sense. The model PL club in just their second season back in the league and now they have a Europa League campaign to look forward to. Thursday nights under the lights at Turf Moor will be a wonderful spectacle for Burnley’s fans.

Huddersfield Town: A
In their first-ever season in the Premier League, the Terriers saw a fast start fade badly but two draws at Man City and Chelsea in the final week of action secured their PL status. David Wagner has the Huddersfield fans, players and staff all pulling in the right direction and despite a lack of quality in some areas they’ve survived with an incredible fighting spirit. Aaron Mooy and Jonas Lossl have been two of the standout players for the Terriers but it has been all about the team first mentality which has seen them survive. It will now be intriguing to see if they can follow in the footsteps of Bournemouth in establishing themselves as a PL club. The fairytale continues in West Yorkshire…

Tottenham Hotspur: B+
Yes, there will be plenty of talk about Spurs not mounting a proper challenge for the Premier League title as they did in the past few seasons but Mauricio Pochettino‘s side navigated a season at Wembley in impressive fashion to finish third. Just two defeats at home (to Chelsea and Man City) and another fine season from Harry Kane (30 goals) led Spurs to a top four finish and they came oh so close to making the UEFA Champions League last eight but came unstuck against Juventus despite dominating over two legs. Having the best record of any club in the UCL group stage means a lot and now moving back into their new stadium at White Hart Lane, Spurs can kick on. Dele Alli had an up and down campaign, while Christian Eriksen kicked on and Pochettino’s biggest problem over the summer will be signing players to new deals to stop Europe’s elite from trying to buy them. Daniel Levy runs a tight ship as chairman and you get the sense this Spurs team will stay together for at least one more season in their new stadium. Next season the talk about them not winning silverware will intensify if they start off slow but the latter rarely happens under Poch.

Newcastle United: B+
Rafael Benitez masterminded Newcastle’s survival with a strong defensive core as the Magpies were tough to break down and had some impressive wins, especially at home. With the cloud of Mike Ashley trying to sell the club hanging over the team for most of the season, Benitez focussed the group expertly in the second half of the campaign as they pulled away from the relegation zone. A top 10 finish has to be aim next season and a new owner could turn the Magpies into a top six club if money is available to spend on new players, especially in attack. Benitez has enhanced his reputation massively with the job he has done at St James’ Park and the big win against Chelsea on the final day underlines how much progress they’ve made.

Liverpool: B+
Could be an A if they win the Champions League final against Real Madrid in a few weeks, but Jurgen Klopp should be applauded for the way he has progressed this Liverpool side. Mohamed Salah is the undoubted star as the Premier League’s top goalscorer (32 goals sets a new record for a 38-game season) and the Egyptian is surely leading the discussion of the best players on the planet not named Messi or Ronaldo. Alongside Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, Salah has ripped PL defenses apart all season long as Klopp’s “heavy metal” soccer has been sensational when it clicks. Salah’s brilliance totalled overshadowed Philippe Coutinho‘s departure to Barcelona in January for almost $200 million. Virgil Van Dijk‘s $100 million arrival strengthened Liverpool’s defense (even if there were still some shocking mistakes along the way), while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Andrew Robertson have been great pick ups in the transfer market. The Reds look the most likely to seriously challenge Man City for the title next season given their defeats of Guardiola’s side in the league and UCL.

Brighton & Hove Albion: B+
Chris Hughton has to be one of the most underrated managers around. Much like Benitez at Newcastle, the newly-promoted Seagulls relied on a solid defensive unit led by Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk and had the likes of Pascal Gross, Jose Izquierdo and Glenn Murray to deliver goals and assists in attack. A wonderfully well-run club who could become a top 10 team in the next few years. Brighton have quietly gone about their business this season and have had big wins at home against Arsenal and Man United in the second half of the campaign to help seal their top-flight status for another season.

Manchester United: B

Solid season for Jose Mourinho as his team progressed from a sixth-place finish last season (remember: they basically binned the league to focus on the Europa League last season, so it’s a little skewed) to second place, but they’re still so far behind neighbors Man City. Plenty of unanswered questions remain for Mourinho to sort out this summer surrounding the futures of Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and others. The fact that David De Gea is their clear Player of the Season (that’s now four POTY awards in his last five seasons) says it all. Romelu Lukaku has delivered 27 goals in all competitions but losing to Sevilla in the Round of 16 in the Champions League was a big blow. That said, Mourinho can still deliver the FA Cup and finish in second place which isn’t a bad season, all things considered. You feel as though plenty of deadwood will be cut this summer and given the new long-term contract he signed in January, Mourinho will get to spend big, especially defensively, to try and close the gap to City.

Crystal Palace: B
The Eagles had the worst start in PL history ever, losing their opening eight games without scoring a goal. Frank De Boer‘s appointment as boss just didn’t work out as Palace tried to change their brand of soccer but without a squad able to possess the ball and dominate the tempo of games. They reverted to type with Roy Hodgson coming in during September and a solid defensive base restored. Wilfried Zaha‘s return to fitness coincided with a huge upturn in results in the second half of the season as Hodgson led a massive turnaround with the Eagles finishing in 11th. They can be a top 10 team next season, easily, as long as Zaha sticks around. With ambitious plans kicking on to improve their stadium, the fanatical supporters at Selhurst should have plenty to be excited about over the summer.

Chelsea: C+

What a weird season for Chelsea. The reigning champions have seemed to be in a slump almost since the moment they won the title back in May 2017, as Antonio Conte‘s rhetoric has been constantly negative. The Italian coach calling out the Chelsea hierarchy (especially around Nemanja Matic‘s departure) was never going to go well but they came close to doing well in the Champions League but were edged out by Barcelona and Lionel Messi’s brilliance in the Round of 16. Alvaro Morata’s arrival for big money hasn’t gone as planned and Eden Hazard has had an up and down season with Conte falling out with David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Diego Costa leading to awkward situations. They’ve made the FA Cup final against Man United as Conte could sign-off with a trophy in what is expected to be his final game in charge despite having another year on his deal. Plenty of change on the horizon with a new manager expected and perhaps the likes of Hazard and Thibaut Courtois leaving the Bridge.

Leicester City: C+
Pretty peculiar season for the Foxes but overall, has to be a success given the start they had. Craig Shakespeare lost his job following a run of just one win in their first eight games and Claude Puel not only steadied the ship but has pushed them into the top half of the table with runs to the last eight of both the League Cup and FA Cup. That said, Puel is under pressure and may well lose his job as the Leicester fans are unhappy with the slow, possession-based style he prefers. That cost Puel his job at Southampton too but you can’t argue with two top 10 finishes on his resume in his two seasons as a boss in the PL. Jamie Vardy has had a fine season with another 20 goals scored, while Harry Maguire has proved to be an inspired defensive signing and Riyad Mahrez recovered well from the disappointment of not getting his big move to Man City during the January window.

Arsenal: C+
The big story around Arsenal’s season is Arsene Wenger stepping down after almost 22 years in charge of the Gunners. This moment was coming but after a second-straight season finishing outside of the top four, now is a good time for Arsenal to move on. Wenger is a legend and his three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups and incredible consistency in securing top four finishes will see his legacy remain intact (just about) despite a slight regression in recent years. The Europa League almost handed Wenger a chance for a fairytale ending to win a European trophy and qualify for the Champions League via the back door but Atletico Madrid ousted the Gunners in the semifinals. Whoever takes charge after Wenger will have a hugely talented but top heavy squad to work with as Mesut Ozil, Pierre-Emerick Auabmeyang and Alexander Lacazette are capable of scoring plenty of goals but Arsenal’s defensive deficiencies must be eradicated if they’re going to make up ground and finish in the top four. Intriguing times ahead.

Bournemouth: C+
Four-straight seasons in the Premier League should not be scoffed at but the Cherries spent big last summer and although they picked up some big results in the second half of the season to pull away from the relegation zone, Eddie Howe acknowledged they’ve slightly underachieved after a ninth-place finish in 2016-17. Josh King had a down year, so too did Jermaine Defoe after arriving on big money, while Asmir Begovic had some shaky displays in goal. That said, big wins against Arsenal and Chelsea showed what Bournemouth are capable of and the emergence of Nathan Ake and Lewis Cook proves they have a bright future and Howe’s philosophy of playing attractive, attacking soccer is well and truly intact. Howe may feel like next season may be his last at Bournemouth with some big jobs potentially coming up.

Watford: C
The Hornets were flying early on (just one defeat in their opening eight games had them in the top four) but Marco Silva‘s head was turned by an approach from Everton and that cost the Portuguese coach his job following a massive mid-season slump. New boss Javi Gracia did very well to steady the ship but a season that promised so much has petered out. Keeping hold of Richarlison and Abdoulaye Doucoure will be the main aim for Watford over the summer. A string of defeats late in the season suggests that Gracia could be on thin ice if Watford start next season sluggishly.

Southampton: D
After an almighty scare the Saints survived but this is a huge wake-up call for the South Coast club who had finished in the top eight in each of the past four seasons. Mauricio Pellegrino just didn’t work as manager as his defensive tactics frustrated fans and players alike and amid Virgil van Dijk’s midseason departure Saints went on a run of just one win in 21 PL games and sunk into the relegation zone. Mark Hughes replaced Pellegrino with eight games to go and saved Saints with a fine end of season run which included wins against Bournemouth and Swansea. The talent level of their squad means this shouldn’t happen again (they drew more games than any other team during the season) but if Hughes is given the job full-time he needs to make quite a few changes to his playing squad, especially in central defense. Reaching the FA Cup semifinal was a bonus but staying up was a massive relief for fans. Saints’ new Chinese owners must spend big and redefine the direction of the club after years of selling their best players and letting managers such as Pochettino and Ronald Koeman leave.

Everton: D
Yes, the Toffees finished in the top 10 but this was a season which started with talk of pushing for the top four but soon turned sour with Koeman sacked in October. After huge sums of money were spent on the likes of Wayne Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Davy Klaassen, the balance of the squad just wasn’t right. Sam Allardyce came in to steady the ship and Everton were never really in a relegation battle from December onwards. That said, there is plenty of fan unrest as Big Sam’s direct style of play isn’t to the liking of Everton’s fans who have routinely booed him. Allardyce has another season on his contract and wants to stay, while Rooney could be off and there are plenty of question marks around the Toffees despite a top 10 finish. With a new stadium move on the horizon, Everton’s fans are hopeful they can get the right manager in but new owner Farhad Moshiri seems to be slowing down any progress by delaying a long-term plan. A season to forget for Everton.

West Ham United: D-
A season of struggle on and off the pitch for the Hammers has ended with Premier League safety but there are so many issues to resolve. Slaven Bilic was sacked after a poor start to the campaign and with fans protesting against owners David Sullivan, David Gold and Karen Brady (which culminated with the ugly pitch invasions at the London Stadium against Burnley) there is a nasty vibe brewing in East London. The move to their new London Stadium home has never worked for the Hammers faithful and despite David Moyes coming in and doing what was asked to keep them in the PL, there hasn’t been much to get excited about. Marko Arnautovic‘s arrival has been key with the Austrian striker superb in the second half of the season with bags of goals and assists. An uncertain future lies ahead.

Swansea City: F
Relegation from the Premier League has been coming for the Swans and it was confirmed after a seven-year stay. Paul Clement couldn’t build on the great escape he masterminded late in the 2016-17 campaign and selling both Sigurdsson and Fernando Llorente last summer was a huge sign of what was to come. The Swans looked dead and buried around the turn of the year when Carlos Carvalhal was surprisingly hired but the Portuguese coach had a great impact, at least initially, as they surged up the table. That impact soon wore off as they dropped back into the bottom three and their fate was all but sealed after a crushing 1-0 defeat at home to Southampton in the final week of the season. With Cardiff promoted back to the top-flight for next season Swansea are no longer the top dogs in Wales.

West Bromwich Albion: F
Well, where on earth do we start here? West Brom won their opening two games of the season, then didn’t win for another 21 games. Tony Pulis was fired amid fan unrest over the playing style and Alan Pardew was hired in a disastrous run which saw the Baggies win lose eight games on the spin amid the now infamous “Taxi Gate” taking center stage. Darren Moore took interim charge late in the season and West Brom almost saved themselves with stunning wins against Man United and Tottenham, but there was too much work to do and they were relegated. A squad of players who were solid under Pulis were asked to do something different and West Brom are a case of a club who tried to push the boundaries of what they were too quickly. They should be the favorites to be promoted back to the PL next season, especially if Salomon Rondon and Jay Rodriguez stick around. Boing, boing indeed.

Stoke City: F
Similar to West Brom, Stoke tried to reinvent their style of play but it was an awful campaign for the Potters who were relegated after a 10-year stay in the Premier League. Mark Hughes was fired in January and although Jack Butland (his tears after relegation was secured will be the enduring image of the season) did his best in goal, Stoke shed goals by the bucket load and had the worst defensive record in the Premier League. Xherdan Shaqiri did his best but Paul Lambert just didn’t inspire any confidence in his team, especially going forward, as they coughed up plenty of leads late on to seal their fate. Stoke’s fans are incredibly unhappy and given the poor recruitment decisions from the club (Saido Berahino, Jese and others) you can understand why. It may well be a long, hard struggle for Stoke to get back into the top-flight over the next few seasons.

 

Most to gain (or lose) from decisive USMNT matches

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The United States men’s national team will not be changing coaches regardless of the scores against Canada and Cuba this month, giving added incentive to 23 men called into the team to get the job done.

Long- and short-term injuries continue to open the door to players well past Gregg Berhalter’s top 23, even deeper considering the concurrent U-23 camp and the coach’s apparent disinterest in some other players still performing well in Europe.

Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen, and Michael Bradley picked up injuries that won’t allow them to join the team, while Timothy Weah and Tyler Adams have just restarted training with their clubs after long injury absences. Miles Robinson is still absent after being injured at the last camp and missing Atlanta’s playoff run

Throw in Berhalter’s decision not to call up Matt Miazga, Duane Holmes, and Julian Green to go with Jozy Altidore‘s lack of fitness, and you’ve got another month for some players to surprise (We haven’t even mentioned Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Richie Ledezma are at a loaded U-23 camp).

Edit note: Maybe we need to write up a Top 50 USMNT depth chart this evening or soon…

Chase Gasper and Corey Baird were sent home from camp ahead of the European arrivals, so here are the players whose fortunes could hinge on delivering for a coach who needs it. Make no mistake about it: Earnie Stewart’s vote of confidence means the coach is going nowhere, but anyone who helps Berhalter score a berth in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals will take a place near his heart.

Who’s gotta carpe sabbati? Read on…

Sebastian Lletget ,Jackson Yueill, Cristian Roldan (in that order) — We probably wrote something similar to this last month, but future camps without Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, and Weston McKennie are only going to happen if all are (again) injured or there is absolutely nothing on the line against Jamaica’s B Team.

Include Bradley’s absence and you’ll get an even deeper understanding of why who is chosen alongside McKennie and (probably) Alfredo Morales for this big match against Canada is a big deal. Lletget is 27 and Berhalter hasn’t shown a lot of love for him despite bringing a unique skill set and decent performances when he’s been given time on the USMNT pitch. Roldan might be the best non-prospect American player in MLS. Yueill is just 22, but again there are a lot of absent players ahead of him. We’re not included Wil Trapp in this discussion because he’s clearly a Berhalter favorite.

Out-fight Scott Arfield and out-fox Jonathan Osorio, and give Berhalter a reason to keep calling you into the fold.

The goalkeepers — There’s no reason to expect Zack Steffen to lose his first XI spot through injury, especially given his status as a Bundesliga starter on loan from a Champions League outfit — Oh, and he was Berhalter’s club No. 1, too! — but at some point these goalkeeper call-ups and their performances will determine who will be Nos. 2 and 3 for qualifying and for, probably, the 2022 World Cup.

Jonathan Klinsmann, Ethan Horvath, and Brady Scott aren’t here, and boy did Leicester City’s Chituru Odunze open some eyes during the U.S. flame-out at the U-17 World Cup.

So here’s Brad Guzan, the presumptive No. 1 in a post-Tim Howard world who proved presumptions aren’t foolproof.

Only two of Sean Johnson‘s eight caps were not friendlies, and both were Gold Cup clean sheets (six years apart). Might he get a chance in Orlando?

And Matt Turner is new here after an outstanding 2019 season in MLS. You can bet Berhalter rang up a respected Bruce Arena to get plenty of info before calling in the New England Revolution’s No. 1.

Aaron Long — This isn’t about gaining a spot on the squad, as the 27-year-old Long looks like a mainstay for Berhalter, rather a steady place in the XI. Miazga not being here could’ve been heard as a clarion call to the center backs who were called up.

Long has struggled in his past few months wearing the national team shirt, and a healthy John Brooks is an automatic starter. That leaves one spot, a pivotal one given Berhalter’s preferential formation, and Walker Zimmerman is a better passer than Long. This is a big camp for proving whether the Red Bulls man is a starter or security blanket.

Report: Galaxy leading way in Zlatan pursuit

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A report out of Italy hints at a win for the LA Galaxy when it comes to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

Football-Italia says the best offer sent the way of the big Swede, 38, is from the Galaxy, at about $15 million over two years.

MLS can pop its collar that the report says Ibrahimovic doesn’t believe Bologna is a big enough club to tempt him into a move away from LA, where he was MLS Best XI in consecutive seasons.

[ MORE: Stewart says Berhalter is safe ]

The report also notes that Napoli interest has cooled, while AC Milan (more on them later) and Manchester United have not made serious offers for the man with 456 career club goals and 173 assists between the Galaxy, Ajax, Man United, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona, and Paris Saint-Germain.

Knowing the math, and that Zlatan has scored 53 times in 58 matches for United, you wonder whether he’s not hunting 500 club goals. He’s also a known trophy hunter. Both of those paths are markedly easier with the Galaxy than Bologna, and Ibrahimovic is already comfortable and locked in a fierce rivalry with Carlos Vela and LAFC.

Zlatan also had 116 caps with 62 goals for Sweden and is one of the biggest names to grace Major League Soccer’s pitches. Of course there’s a chance at his age that he could break down, or his form could drop off a cliff, but for now another run as both villain and hero in a major MLS market would be a win for the league (even if he regularly touts himself as bigger than the league).

While we have not seen Ibrahimovic in a top league since he was injured for Man United, there’s little doubt he could still do a job over there. He’s only 2.5 seasons removed from a 28-goal, 10-assist season in all comps for Man United.

Don’t sleep on the idea that AC Milan could make a call to Ibrahimovic’s people, having scored just three goals in their past four games including high-profile 1-goal losses to Roma, Juventus, and Lazio. Milan has just 11 goals in 12 league outings, and was supposed to be a Serie A threat without the schedule congestion of Europe.

Top teams in good shape as EURO 2020 qualifying reaches climax

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With the Netherlands missing out on Euro 2016 and Italy absent from the World Cup in 2018, some of Europe’s traditional soccer powers have surprisingly failed to advance to recent major international tournaments.

Don’t expect any big shocks when qualification for next year’s European Championship wraps up over the coming days.

Six teams – Belgium, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia and Ukraine – have already booked their places in the tournament and the remaining 14 automatic qualifiers will be determined after the final group games.

World champion France, European champion Portugal, and heavyweights such as Germany, England and the Netherlands are in good shape to finish in the top two in their respective groups, ensuring spots in the Europe-wide finals taking place in June and July.

There are big opportunities for Europe’s so-called lesser soccer nations, too. Finland, for example, needs only to beat Liechtenstein to qualify for its first major tournament.

France, the World Cup winner last year, is tied on points with Turkey in Group H and will secure a top-two finish by beating Moldova on Thursday. In case of an upset in that game in Paris, the French have another shot at qualification at Albania on Sunday.

Portugal, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, is guaranteed to advance in the defense of its title with wins over Lithuania at home and Luxembourg away – the bottom two teams in Group B.

England needs one win from its final two games – at home to Montenegro on Thursday and away to Kosovo on Sunday – to top Group A.

Editor’s note: Need tickets for the England game? Click here

And in Group C, Germany and the Netherlands are tied on points and need a maximum of four points from their final two qualifiers. Both have to play Northern Ireland, which is three points behind in third place.

The last four qualifying spots for the 24-team Euros will be decided in the playoffs in March.

RONALDO’S CHALLENGE

Could Cristiano Ronaldo fail to qualify for a major tournament?

UEFA would hate to see the Portugal star miss out, but his team has lacked a spark in qualifying and is eight points off Group B leader Ukraine.

Portugal is favored to beat Lithuania on Thursday and Luxembourg on Sunday to secure second place.

Still, there’s little margin for error. Dropped points could allow Serbia to overtake, forcing Portugal into the playoffs.

ENGLAND LANDMARK

England will be playing its 1,000th men’s international in the match against Montenegro and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways, including recognizing the notable contributions of former players and managers. Players will wear individual “legacy numbers” on their jerseys.

England manager Gareth Southgate is hoping a line can be drawn following scenes last month when his players were racially abused by some Bulgaria fans during England’s 6-0 win in Sofia. The game was stopped on two occasions by the referee. England’s match away to Montenegro in March was also marred by racist chanting toward England’s black players, notably Raheem Sterling.

“The players will want to move on, really,” Southgate said. “I think, for all of them, they dealt with it brilliantly and it would be wrong not to discuss it at all but I know that they want to get on with the football.”

Kosovo, which was accepted as a member of UEFA and FIFA only in 2016, is third in the group and could secure automatic qualification with a win at the Czech Republic on Thursday and a draw against England.

FINALLY FINLAND?

Finland is the only Nordic team never to have qualified for a World Cup or a European Championship. That could all change this week.

The Finns are second in Group J, five points clear of both Armenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and will join Italy in advancing to the finals with a win at home against last-placed Liechtenstein on Friday or if Bosnia fails to beat the Italians. Finland’s second chance, if needed, comes against Greece on Monday.

Finland is coached by a primary school teacher, Markku Kanerva, who led the country to a first ever European Under-21 Championship in 2009 and is impressing with the senior team a decade on.

Teemu Pukki has seven goals in qualifying as the team looks to go further than it ever did with past greats such as Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen.

CROATIA AT RISK

Croatia is finding European qualifying harder than last year’s World Cup.

The Croatians lead the evenly matched Group E but if they lose to Slovakia on Saturday the World Cup finalists could end up relying on other results to go their way.

Another team in a fight to qualify is Switzerland, which is third in Group D behind Ireland and Denmark, but is a big favorite against Gibraltar.

PLAYOFF SHOOTOUT

The playoffs offer a last chance for unsuccessful teams, but it’s a complex process.

Sixteen teams who didn’t qualify automatically will be ranked according to their divisions from the 2018 Nations League and put into four single-elimination brackets.

At the bottom end, there’s the League D playoff, which is guaranteed to hand one team its debut at a major championship. Georgia and Belarus have secured a place in that playoff mini-tournament and will likely be joined by Kosovo and North Macedonia.

The highest division almost certainly won’t have enough unqualified teams to make a four-team bracket, so will recruit extras from lower tiers. That could hand League A’s Iceland a fortunate draw with League C teams such as Bulgaria and Israel.

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

AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Dusseldorf, Germany, contributed to this story

USMNT boss Berhalter won’t be fired; USA confident of making World Cup

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USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter is under pressure, but he will not be fired if they lose against Canada or Cuba in the coming days.

Or anytime soon, for that matter.

That is the resounding message of support from USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart, who spoke to reporters via a conference call on Tuesday and had to answer plenty of questions about the U.S. losing 2-0 at 69th ranked Canada last month.

Stewart batted away speculation about Berhalter’s future, as the USMNT need to win their remaining two CONCACAF Nations League Group A games against Canada in Orlando on Friday and then against Cuba, plus overturn a three-goal deficit on Canada, to reach the finals of the inaugural tournament.

“We’re looking at the future. So when I evaluate Gregg and the staff, what I’ve seen today, I’m a pleased man. An individual result is not going to change that,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen that progress, and when you look at these individual results of the Canada away game, no, we weren’t happy. We weren’t happy at all. We have now a moment to rectify that as well. This Friday is about that. We need to perform.”

Stewart then doubled down in his support of Berhalter and this group of players, led by the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and now Sergino Dest, saying he is incredibly confident of reaching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“I have no fear at all that we are not going to qualify for the World Cup. I am very, very confident of that,” Stewart added.

The former USMNT player then revealed he’s felt personally attacked by the USMNT fanbase accusing the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) of nepotism as Jay Berhalter, Gregg’s brother, is high up in USSF and running to becoming the new CEO.

“I am the one making the decisions. All the conspiracy theories out there are very disrespectful to me and to the individuals: to Jay Berhalter, to Gregg Berhalter, myself,” Stewart said. “When people insinuate these things … I’ve worked a little bit too hard to be in the position where I’m in today to actually have people think that.”

Berhalter’s reign has seen mixed results so far, as the USMNT reached the 2019 Gold Cup final but were beaten by Mexico’s B team in the summer.

They were smashed 3-0 by Mexico’s A team in a friendly in September and the lackluster displays have infuriated the USMNT fanbase who have been hurting for over two years since the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Aside from the results, the major issues have been the possession-based style of play not seeming to suit the USMNT player pool, with so many talented youngsters struggling to adapt to what Berhalter wants, plus some player seemingly picked regardless of their performances.

So, Berhalter will stay, for now. But when is the next major flashpoint?

2022 World Cup qualifying starts next summer and if the USMNT get off to a bad start, it will be intriguing to see how Stewart and USSF react.

No matter what Stewart says this is a federation, and coach, under pressure. Let’s see if his team respond.