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PST’s 2018 World Cup Roundtable

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1) The World Cup is here and the United States men’s national team is guaranteed to go unbeaten. Jokes aside, how do you feel about the tournament now that it is here and absent the USMNT?

Joe Prince-Wright: It still just doesn’t feel quite right. Sure, big teams have missed out over the years but the USA have been at every World Cup since I’ve been alive. It’s tough to fathom what kind of impact this will have on soccer in the USA overall but I feel my overall mood is a begrudging acceptance that the USMNT simply weren’t good enough to be there. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Nicholas Mendola: In longish form, here. But here’s a point I didn’t hit in the piece. I largely feel sympathy for a lot of the players who I believe were put in a poor spot — and continue to be — by Bruce Arena. That’s not to excuse Jurgen Klinsmann, who put different players in similar binds, but Arena had a “We’re too big to fail” element about him that pervades into his book tour (which isn’t doing anyone favors). It occurred to me while interviewing Omar Gonzalez last week that these questions aren’t going away. Even if the USMNT were to win the 2022 World Cup, most of the 2018 qualifying bunch would face questions about how it feels to be redeemed by others.

Kyle Bonn: I’m very excited. Not only have I purged myself of the stink of T&T and am ready to move forward with a promising group of young kids in the USMNT system, but I am actually excited for a tournament without a rooting interest. This is going to be a really fun month that I can’t wait to be a part of.

Matt Reed: I’d feel better if Bruce Arena didn’t keep on opening his mouth and scorching everything in his path, but I said it throughout qualifying that I wasn’t convinced this team would qualify for Russia, and they didn’t. I’ve come to cope with the simple fact that the team out on the field in those CONCACAF WCQ matches simply wasn’t good enough. Could better, younger rosters have been put out? Sure. However, you cannot turn back time, and this is a learning experience that U.S. Soccer needed very badly if it was to ever make drastic changes to its organization.

Dan Karell: It feels weird. I feel like there is less buzz for the World Cup this year. This is the first World Cup in my lifetime that the U.S. won’t be involved in, so it’s been different, for sure.

2) So, who wins the thing?

JPW: Brazil. Looking at the players they’ll have on the bench, let alone the ones they left out of their squad, that tells you all you need to know. Plus, any team that breezes through the ridiculously tough South American World Cup qualifying like they did have to be the favorites. Also, defensively they look solid with Alisson and Ederson as goalkeepers and Fernandinho shielding the defense. The fact that Neymar is back to full fitness and looks totally refreshed after a few months off is also a huge reason why they’ll get it done.

NM: Germany. I admit that my prediction has a lot to do with wanting to be four years’ worth of correct when it comes to the Germans, though leaving Leroy Sane behind didn’t reinforce my feel. Brazil and France both have chances to challenge for the crown.

KB:  I’ve gone back and forth a bunch with this, mainly because the top teams haven’t exactly looked convincing in the run-up to the tournament, but then again, nothing matters less than Spring Training, right? Can’t look past Germany and Brazil, I just can’t. What an epic final that would be! It’s very realistic, with the winners of groups E and F on opposite sides of the bracket. I like Germany to win that one and repeat.

MR: Spain. Between it likely being Andres Iniesta’s last hurrah and the simple fact that they are really, really deep in the midfield and attack, I think La Furia Roja can take home their second World Cup in eight years.

DK: I have Brazil over Germany, in a massive revenge-fueled win in the final. 1-0. I just think Brazil is the deepest team and they have players all over the park who can create goal-scoring opportunities as well as defend them. Tite has the balance right and his team are humming along very well.

(Photo by Pedro Vilela/Getty Images)

3) How many CONCACAF teams make the knockout rounds? And who goes the furthest?

JPW: None. All three CONCACAF teams got a rough draw in the group stages and all three have been less than impressive in the warm-up games. I think Mexico will come close but expect Sweden and Germany to advance from their group. Panama will finish rock bottom in Group G. Costa Rica won’t get past Brazil, Serbia and Switzerland. A tough time for CONCACAF is coming up.

NM: All three will struggle to stay out of fourth in their respective groups. Mexico has the talent to get out of Group F, but the schedule is a nightmare. Opening with Germany could and should make the second match against South Korea a must-win. Otherwise, the third and final match against Sweden could be moot for both sides. I think Mexico finds a way, but the schedule gives me great pause.

KB: Costa Rica got a brutal draw, with Brazil, Switzerland, and Serbia. That’s a royally challenging group, and one of the most intriguing in the entire tournament. I think they get edged by Switzerland in that stacked collection. Mexico will make it out of an easier than expected Group F, but a 2nd placed finish behind Germany sees them likely matched up with Brazil, which would be a one-and-done in the knockout stage. Finally, Panama got a miserable draw as well and won’t get past England and Belgium. It will be a quick exit for the CONCACAF sides.

MR: I don’t like the way Mexico has played over the last year, but they’ll find a way out of the group stage. Costa Rica will join them, although they have been far from convincing as well. I’ll say they both get knocked out in the Round of 16.

DK: Two. I think both Mexico and Costa Rica can and will make it out of their groups.

4) Who wins the Golden Boot?

JPW: Diego Costa. Spain will put chances on a plate for him.

NM: Romelu Lukaku, as Belgium is going to feast on its group stage mates and then is unlikely to face a good defense in the Round of 16. No other strong team has as much of a goal focal point.

KB: Neymar.

MR: This past season was one of ups and downs for Romelu Lukaku, but he’s been tremendous in Belgium’s tune-up matches. The Red Devils will go as far as he takes them, and I honestly believe he could end up with over five goals this tournament.

DK: Julian Green! Kidding. I think it’s got to be Neymar. As long as he’s healthy, he definitely plays and thinks the game faster than his opponents. This should lead to at least five goals in the tournament.

5) Who will win the Golden Ball?

JPW: Neymar as Brazil power to the title.

NM: It may be hard for voters to resist Neymar, with Brazil capable of capturing the imagination of the soccer world and likely to reach the semifinals at the very least.

KB: Lionel Messi

MR: Spain is loaded with talent, but there’s something about Isco that is very special. Every time he touches the ball he’s a legitimate threat on the pass or shot, and he’s one of the reasons why I’m so confident in Spain making a run at another title.

DK:  If not Neymar, then perhaps another player on Brazil, such as Paulinho, or Germany’s Toni Kroos.

6) How about the Golden Glove?

JPW: David De Gea’s phenomenal form for Man United will carry over to the World Cup.

NM: I believe it’ll be Manuel Neuer when Germany wins it all, but I’ll go outside the box for the sake of variety and say Thibaut Courtois has a nice run for Belgium.

KB: Manuel Neuer because it often goes to the goalkeeper of the winning team even if he wasn’t truly the best.

MR: I love the way Alisson has played this season at Roma, and the fact that he can start ahead of Ederson speaks volumes about the type of player he is. Brazil should be involved in the latter stages of the tournament, so I’ll take the Brazil keeper.

DK: Keylor Navas carries his Champions League-winning form to help Costa Rica to the quarterfinals, saving a myriad of shots along the way.

7) How about the Best Young Player (21 and younger)?

JPW:  I’m going for Ismaila Sarr from Senegal. Watch out for him.

NM: Again, going for variety here because Kylian Mbappe seems an appropriate call, so I’ll swing for the fences with Uruguay and Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Betancur. Mids who rarely score don’t get plaudits, but Uruguay really could make some noise and he’ll be a big part of it in a Toni Kroos-like breakout performance. Amire Harit of Morocco could also land some attention if Morocco advances to the knockout rounds, and I also like the idea of Ndidi (Nigeria/Leicester City).

KB: It’s cruel that Josh Kimmich’s age just didn’t work out properly for this award, because he’s the best youth product in the world and has been for at least 2 years. I love Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, but simply on the basis that Serbia won’t make it out of the group stage, he will be overlooked. The easy pick is Kylian Mbappe, and I like him over countryman Ousmane Dembele or Brazil’s Gabriel Jesus. However…the winner here will be the fabulous Trent Alexander-Arnold, who will migrate his CL form to Russia and show the world what an amazing talent he is as England makes a run.

MR: Gabriel Jesus can really take his game to the next level with a strong performance in Russia.

DK: It’s gotta be Kylian Mbappe, right?

(AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

8) Tricky question: Who will have the best individual World Cup between Liverpool’s trident of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, or Mohamed Salah?

JPW:  I would’ve said Salah, hands down, but with his injury and Egypt probably heading out to Spain or Portugal in the last 16 if they make it out of their group, probably not. Roberto Firmino isn’t a guaranteed starter for Brazil so I’m going for Sadio Mane who had a fine finish to the 2017/18 season. Mane is the main man for Senegal and I’ll think they’ll have a deep run with the Liverpool speedster leading the way.

NM: Give me Mane, if only because I have concerns about Egypt making as long a run as Senegal.

KB: This is tough, because all their situations aren’t perfect. I’m going with Salah because, he’s carrying a team on his injured shoulders and by virtue of his weak group, will likely get a game in the knockouts to state his case (Russia stiiiiiinks). Firmino will struggle for big moments in a team full of superstars, while Mane isn’t likely to make it out of the group stage.

MR: Salah’s injury scares me a bit, even though I really want to pick him. Senegal is my biggest dark horse contender though, so I’ll ride with Sadio Mane. Their attack is going to be lethal, and he’ll be at the forefront of it. There’s a very good chance that Firmino won’t see the field much for Brazil as well, simply because of how stacked the Selecao’s attack is.

DK: Great question. I’m going to say Mane. I think, considering he’s healthy and a sure-fire starter heading into the tournament, he’s set to have the biggest impact. If Salah misses the first match, he won’t be able to play in as many games, unless Egypt goes deep in the tournament. and Firmino is second-choice behind Gabriel Jesus right now.

9) How about between Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, and — bonus — you get to combine the tournaments of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford?

JPW: Romelu Lukaku. He’s been a beast for Belgium and they’ll score plenty of goals in their group. Although, I do expect Rashford and Lingard to have big impacts for England too. Paul Pogba may be feeling the pressure as France’s warm-up for the tournament was far from ideal.

NM: Lukaku is my bet for the Golden Boot, but Paul Pogba is going to be unshackled on a glorious French side with N'Golo Kante among those behind him. Pogba.

KB: Romelu Lukaku is the go-to guy for Belgium, so I like the big man to have a good tournament even if Belgium disappoints again. Pogba and France are primed for a massive letdown.

MR: Give me Lukaku. When you have Hazard, De Bruyne and Mertens as viable options in the attack, that takes a great deal of pressure of your shoulders. Lukaku only had one goal in the 2014 World Cup. I think he could easily quadruple that total in Russia.

DK: Lukaku. If the big Belgian striker can overcome his woes in front of goal in high-pressure games, he should have a massive tournament.

10) Outside the box: Which Premier League team’s players will have the best World Cup combined?

JPW: Tottenham. Belgium and England players galore as both will make the latter stages.

NM: Spurs, if they don’t all crush each other in a mammoth group stage fight.

KB: Great question! Gotta go with Manchester City. John Stones and Raheem Sterling should have breakout showings for England (hard for me to get higher on the Three Lions than I am right now), Argentina needs Sergio Aguero desperately, Benjamin Mendy will start for France, Kevin De Bruyne is a key part of Belgium’s success (even if Roberto Martinez insists on playing him in the hole *puke*), and I already mentioned Jesus could be a young star. All this, mind you, with Ederson stuck behind Alisson and Leroy Sane cruelly left out.

MR: Chelsea. Kante is the center piece in the France midfield, and he’s just a force to be reckoned with. Hazard and Courtois will do their parts with Belgium. Willian could be the spark that Brazil needs opposite Neymar, while Gary Cahill leads England to the knockout phase, and dare I say the quarterfinals.

DK: Probably Manchester United. Lukaku, Pogba and even Rashford can all have huge impacts and potentially make the quarterfinals.

11) Will there be a match or moment which causes many people to wonder if someone’s done something to purposely favor Russia?

JPW: Nope. It’s the World Cup with the entire globe watching. Those shenanigans won’t happen.

NM: Yes, because many will be looking for it. Whether it’s intentional is another story. Check back with me in a week or two.

KB: No, because they’re so awful they won’t even give anyone the opportunity. Look for them to get triple-blanked.

DK: I doubt it. As Ken Bensinger wrote in his new book, Russia has already won, just by winning the right to host the World Cup. Everything else is gravy.

(Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

12) Whose stock will rise the most — coach or player — following the tournament?

JPW: Coach — Tite as Brazil win it. Player — Antoine Griezmann who leads France on a deep run.

NM: Coach — Mladen Krstajić of Serbia could well have a “Chris Coleman of Wales at EURO 2016” moment. The 44-year-old is in his first managerial post and has a really talented side with both experience and potential. As for player, I’ll stay with Serbia: Newcastle’s Aleksandar Mitrovic is a loose cannon and that cost him the top spot in Rafa Benitez‘s pecking order, but he’s capable of scoring a handful of goals in Russia.

KB: Great question, because there are so many possibilities here, but I’m going to go with Raheem Sterling. The ruthless English media will be left with nothing left to criticize him about after his performances.

MR:  It’s no guarantee that he’ll see a lot of the field, but Gonzalo Guedes is a star-in-the-making for Portugal. He’s represented the Portuguese at basically every level possible, and he’s only 21. Achraf Hakimi from Real Madrid is another one to watch. He’s only 19 years and could be a key piece for Morocco if the African side aims to take a spot away from Spain or Portugal in Group B.

DK: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic. He’s already one of the best midfielders in Serie A but the 6’3″ center midfielder has superb skills and could show them on display for Serbia in Russia.

13) Whose will fall?

JPW: Coach — Roberto Martinez as Belgium fail to realize their potential, again. Player — James Rodriguez as Colombia don’t make it out of the group.

NM: I worry for Gareth Southgate, who could face significant grief if his back line cannot handle the speed of Senegal or Colombia in the first round. Following that logic, I remain unsold on John Stones and think he could take a hit in Russia. If Southgate deploys Jordan Henderson, I fear the same for him. The pressure will be heavy on England from the Russian crowds, too, and the Three Lions may need to follow the Liverpool attack blueprint to win.

KB: Didier Deschamps. Good luck getting another top job once a talented but disjointed France team trips over itself yet again.

DK: Paul Pogba? He’s struggled for Man United at times this season, and it’s put him out of his rhythm. He’s going to be blamed, at least in part, if France have an early exit.

14) How far does England, a.k.a. the Fighting Joe Prince-Wrights, go?

JPW: First up, that’s a solid nickname. Secondly, the quarterfinals would be a great tournament for England. I’m wary to say they could go even further but reaching the last eight is what England should be aiming for and they can easily do that given their group stage/last 16 route.

NM: See above. I worry about their first match of the knockout rounds, and getting past that means a Germany that England just might be able to upset. I wouldn’t bet on England making it out of the Round of 16, but I also wouldn’t bet against them advancing to a final.

KB: THREE LIIIIIIIIONS!!! I would love to put them all the way to the semifinals, because I think they have that talent, but the bracket sets up cruelly for them to meet Brazil in the quarters, and they won’t get past the powerhouses. It will still be a tournament to remember for England.

MR: Round of 16 seems a pretty fair bet. I think they’ll go runners’ up to Belgium in the group, before falling to Colombia in the knockout phase.

DK: As far as Joe can lead them. Haha but in all seriousness, I think it depends on how much gas is left in the tank of the backline, and if they can feel comfortable playing in a 3-4-3. Harry Kane will score goals, but can England keep other teams off the board? I think the quarterfinals is certainly possible, but they could also find a way to collapse in the group stage.

(Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)

15) How big of a role will fan violence and racism play in the story lines of the tournament?

JPW: Hopefully not a big one, but I guess it all depends on how the host nation gets on.

NM: I’m worried about (hence I posed the question). The soccer world feels unstable right now, and Russia being set to disappoint at home could set the stage for the worst kind of fireworks. Then again, when a group’s character is challenged by the actions of few, that group usually rises up. I think Russia’s supporters will do that.

KB: I think there will be plenty of racist incidents, but it will be overlooked because every single tournament, the outside noise gets overshadowed by the play on the field, right or wrong. It happened in Brazil and it will happen in Russia.

MR: Hopefully not a lot, but that’s wishful thinking. Let’s just say there isn’t a good track record of fans being on their best behavior in Russia.

DK: Someone made a good point on a radio program recently that Russia’s security will certainly be beefed up for the tournament, but with Russia expected to be bounced in the group stage, it’s possible that Putin and the nation’s security apparatus loses interest in the knockout stage, which could lead to some issues down the road.

16) Will the tournament in Russia come off well for FIFA?

JPW: Yes. These tournaments always do better than expected. I’m worried about empty seats at some venues but overall I think it will be very good.

NM: It’ll be interesting to monitor, but ultimately I think the majority of people are going to be on their best behavior in the first post-Sepp Blatter World Cup.

KB: Does it ever come off poorly for FIFA? They make a killing, what else do they care about?

MR: They really better hope so, because the Qatar World Cup is already under enough scrutiny for a number of reasons.

DK: I guess, since the story will now be the play on the field (hopefully) and not any scandals off it.

17) Who has the best tournament: Messi, Ronaldo, or Neymar?

JPW: Neymar closely followed by Ronaldo, with Messi set to retire from international play as Argentina fall again.

NM: Neymar or Messi, but that’s not a knock against CR7; I have a sneaking suspicion Morocco surprises and keeps Portugal from the knockout rounds. Messi will get a bit more individual glory, but Neymar’s Brazil will advance further, so whichever of those qualifies as the best tournament in your mind.

KB: Neymar. Portugal isn’t good enough for Ronaldo to make it deep, and Argentina can never get it together in the Messi years. No reason for that to change this year. Neymar could very well win the whole thing.

DK: I think Neymar. Messi and Ronaldo could both see early exits thanks to creaky defenses, but Neymar has a real chance to lead his team to glory.

18) How far does Argentina need to go to save Messi wild grief? Better yet, what’s more important for him: individual success with Argentina stopping short of its goal, or making another final but statistically disappointing over the tournament?

JPW: They need to win it for him to not to get a bit of stick, which is crazy. Injuries haven’t been kind to Jorge Sampaoli’s team but defensively they have real concerns, as always. For Messi it’s all about trying to drag Argentina as far as he can.

NM: Seeing that people tend to forget he led them to the final in 2014, I guess he needs to win it all. That said, Argentina making a second final would be better for him than lighting up the scoresheet but losing 4-3 to a better team in the Round of 16 or quarters.

KB: They need to win it all. Bottom line, Messi needs a trophy on the shelf to quiet the noise. He’s failed too many times in finals, and it’s a massive, gaping hole in his otherwise glittering resume. He needs that trophy, and I would absolutely love for him to get it. Sadly, I don’t think he will.

MR: If you’re strictly asking me, Messi doesn’t need to prove himself to anybody. The man has accomplished nearly everything you possibly can at both club and international level. If you’re looking for something to drastically set him apart from Ronaldo though, it’s winning a World Cup. Four years ago has to still sting for him and his teammates, so I expect Messi to show up in a big way on a team that has a lot of questions heading into the tournament.

DK: It’s going to be heartbreaking either situation, knowing this is probably Messi’s last World Cup and he’ll leave without winning a title, despite coming oh so close.

19) Can you believe Bruce Arena left Landon Donovan behind in favor of Haji Wright?

JPW: Stop. It is beyond frustrating that the USA won’t be at the World Cup. And we’ve now gone full circle in this roundtable and I’m off to watch grainy video footage of the 2002 run to the World Cup quarterfinals and wonder what could’ve been. Damn. Paul Arriola could’ve been the new Clint Mathis.

NM: It was even worse that he made the players get Lee Greenwood tattoos.

KB: NICHOLAS, STOP IT

DK: Haha. I could see that happening somehow. The future of U.S. Soccer is bright!

It’s confirmed: Club Leon parts ways with Landon Donovan

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Landon Donovan’s four-month adventure in Mexico appears to be over.

Club Leon announced on Sunday that it had parted ways with Donovan, despite the 36-year-old having a contract through the end of the calendar year. Donovan made just eight appearances for Leon, with just one start, and failed to score or assist on a goal as Leon slumped to 13th place in the Clausura season.

[READ: England squad reconnects with fans]

“…both parties have decided not to (keep the contract) for the Clausura that united us,” Leon said in a statement. “The departure of Landon from our team has been exemplary in all aspects. The club loses a legendary professional from the world of sports that leaves an indelible institutional imprint.”

It’s unclear what’s next for Donovan, but he stated in an interview with PST’s Matt Reed that he intends to continue playing in Mexico.

Donovan recently drew the ire of U.S. Men’s National Team fans and Donovan’s former teammates when he revealed he was rooting for Mexico at the World Cup this summer as part of a Well’s Fargo campaign.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

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It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”