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Russian hopes, fears tied up in Putin’s showcase World Cup

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MOSCOW (AP) Russian President Vladimir Putin claims soccer and politics have nothing to do with each other, yet the World Cup he kicked off Thursday is about much more than sports.

It’s about proving to the world that Russia is a global power broker and not an outcast, that it’s an open, confident and generous nation – and not an isolated, repressive place hobbled by sanctions.

And the beleaguered Russian team’s stunning 5-0 victory in the tournament opener Thursday against Saudi Arabia was just what Putin needed to make the point that Russia is ascendant again. He promptly called the much-criticized coach personally to congratulate him on the unexpected win.

Sidestepping deep divisions between his strongman worldview and that of many Western countries, Putin welcomed fans to his “hospitable” nation by inviting them to “make new friends with people who share the same values.”

But critics fear the World Cup will legitimize Putin’s autocratic policies at home and Russia’s actions abroad, from alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election to annexing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine and a suspected nerve agent attack in Britain. Moscow vehemently denies any interference in the American vote or involvement in the attack against a former Russian spy in Salisbury.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Portugal 3-3 Spain ]

Racism, homophobia, conflicts over Syria and Ukraine – “all these rebukes have no relation to the World Cup,” his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday. “Today the soccer dimension is the most important one.”

The monthlong World Cup is also about Putin proving to his compatriots that he’s both their best global envoy and a man of the people, who brought the world’s most-watched sporting event to ordinary soccer fans in 11 cities across Russia’s expanse.

That’s especially important for a country that prides itself on athletic prowess but whose last massive sporting event – the 2014 Sochi Olympics – was indelibly stained by revelations of doping so widespread that Russia was banned from this year’s Winter Games.

“It’s important for Russia to have this (tournament), we can show that we are a global football power,” said Moscow fan Dmitry Finapetov, his face streaked with white-blue-red paint, as he nearly spilled his beer in excitement at his team’s strong showing at Luzhniki Stadium.

“When I used to travel abroad I would think, `why can’t it be like this at home?”‘ he said. “But now I travel and I think things are better at home. … Now foreigners can see that too.”

Geopolitics were front and center for Thursday’s opener, with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as Putin’s star guest. The two leaders have forged an alliance that has pushed up the global oil price and reshaped the balance of power in the Middle East.

Putin welcomed a “friendly global family” of soccer fans to celebrate the World Cup, but the Kremlin’s guest list showed where Russia’s allegiances lie: the head of the North Korean upper house of parliament, Lebanon’s prime minister and the presidents of Rwanda, Paraguay, Bolivia, Panama and leaders of eight friendly former Soviet republics. Britain’s royal family and top politicians are among those who pointedly stayed away.

Electrical engineer Sergei Tabachnikov, who came to Moscow all the way from the Pacific island of Sakhalin for the opening match, welcomed the international scrutiny that comes with hosting an event of this scale and hoped Russia learns something from it.

“Criticism is necessary. It helps us improve,” he said.

Russian authorities walked a careful line Thursday between hard-line security measures and a veneer of tolerance.

A British gay rights activist was arrested for a protest action near Red Square, but quickly released. Later a Russian fan displayed a rainbow flag during Putin’s speech, despite a broadly enforced law that bans “propaganda” of homosexuality to children. Security forces shrugged it off.

Minutes before the opening match, riot police hauled an unauthorized flag vendor into a police van just outside Luzhniki Stadium as he shouted “Help me! Help me!” and fans filmed on their phones. An officer then turned to the crowd, speaking in English and saying in a calming voice, “Nothing to worry about, go enjoy the game.”

British pop singer Robbie Williams also played it safe in the opening concert. He revved up the crowd but diplomatically avoided singing his hit song “Party Like A Russian” – which is rife with stereotypes about Russian extravagance and includes a dig at an unnamed Russian leader who “alleviates” the population of its wealth.

“Football and love” was the theme of Thursday’s opening show, as a debate raged among Russian lawmakers about whether Russian women should hook up with visiting fans.

Mostly the mood was exuberant, with Saudi fans taking selfies with Russians in the stadium’s corridors despite their rivalry.

Alexander Klimov, who came from the southern Russian city of Stavropol, summed it up by blowing kisses and saying, “Thank you everybody for coming in our country. Welcome to Russia, we love you guys!”

Associated Press writer James Ellingworth contributed to this report.

More AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

USMNT Player Ratings from win over Ecuador

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Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team extended its clean sheet run to 180 minutes under the new coach with a 1-0 defeat of Ecuador in Orlando on Thursday.

[ RECAP: USMNT 1-0 Ecuador ]

The longtime Columbus Crew coach handed notable chances to several MLS mainstays who stood out in January camp, but also re-introduced Christian Pulisic to the fold.

The results were mixed, but the win was deserved as the U.S. did not allow much danger to reach Sean Johnson’s cage.

LINEUPS

Sean Johnson — 6.5 — Had to catch, what, one ball? Still, nice for him to get a clean sheet.

Tim Ream — 7 — A couple of dicey moments, sure, but the man with the captain’s band stood out at left back not just for his assist but his aggression in pressing high up the left flank.

John Brooks — 6.5 — Not much to do, but effective when needed with a win-saving stop. Here’s hope the thigh injury isn’t a notable one. Intelligent and accurate in his passing out of the back.

Aaron Long — 6 — His passing was a bit off early, and that will need to be better at the back of Berhalter’s defense, but overall he was composed and well-drilled.

Tyler Adams — 7.5 — Given he was playing an unusual position with immense responsibility (right), Adams deserves a lot of credit for keeping his motor high over 90 minutes. He only attempted two dribbles, staying in his shoes and venturing wide and forward on occasion. A very promising sign for an ambitious move by Berhalter. That’s a lot of green over there, and green is good —>

Wil Trapp (Off 59′) — 5.5 — He’s not supposed to be the guy who stands out in a game, and should be known for doing the little things, but he’s still not standing out from the pack as someone who should keep Michael Bradley or Tyler Adams from the center of the park.

Weston McKennie (Off 68′) — 5 — Potentially scary injury aside, he will have much better days for the U.S. than this and certainly didn’t show chemistry with Trapp. Second guessing is easy, but flipping McKennie and Adams might’ve been the play.

Paul Arriola (Off 77′) — 6 — An energetic, productive night on the wing takes a hit due to his inability to finish the match’s best scoring chance (even if the save was legit).

Christian Pulisic (Off 62′) — 7 — Not at his sharpest, but still quite lively in producing many American attacks. Had an memorable moment working over Antonio Valencia near the end line.

Jordan Morris (Off 68′) — 6 — Still learning how to be a winger, but a decent and industrious effort for the Seattle Sounders man.

Gyasi Zardes — 7 — It was the goal that did the trick for him over 90 minutes, and it was good to see the Columbus Crew man score a USMNT for the first time since 2016.

Subs

Michael Bradley (On 59′) — 6.5 — Quick decisions and possession-aiding passes with precious few mistakes (See Opta chalkboard from MLSSocccer.com at right).

Sebastian Lletget (On 62′) — 6 — Has to be a bit more careful in his own half, but we’d like to see him get a start against Chile.

Cristian Roldan (On 66′) — 5 — Sloppy with the ball in a short stint.

DeAndre Yedlin (On 66′) — 6 — Busy and ready to produce chances from the right side.

Jonathan Lewis (On 77′) — N/A —

Zardes goal pushes controlling USMNT past Ecuador

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  • Yanks have not allowed goal in 3 matches under Berhalter
  • Pulisic returns to USMNT set-up
  • MORE: McKennie stretched off
  • Zardes scores deflected winner off Ream feed
  • American control ball, but struggle in final third

Gyasi Zardes scored his seventh international goal and first since the Copa America Centenario as the USMNT handed Ecuador a 1-0 defeat at Orlando City Stadium on Thursday.’s

The win marks the third clean sheet victory in three tries for USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, who leads the Yanks against Chile on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

The U.S. came out of the gates flying, connecting passes with their wings and fullbacks sitting very wide to stretch the surface.

When Ecuador did collect the ball, the Yanks pressed very hard and won it back.

Industry and speed was the story of the USMNT game, with Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris leading the way in forcing the match on Ecuador.

Weston McKennie did some heavy lifting in nice combo play with Pulisic and Gyasi Zardes for a chance that was just missing the finishing touch from Paul Arriola (and got a nice save).

Pulisic was felled by a hard foul just inside the Ecuador half in the 55th minute, but carried on and Paul Arriola took a yellow for fouling Jefferson Orejuela in response.

Michael Bradley entered the match for Trapp in the 59th minute, and Pulisic exited for Sebastian Lletget three minutes later.

McKennie then suffered a painful ankle injury and eventually accepted stretcher help to get to the bench.

Zardes put the U.S. ahead when his powerful strike from atop the 18 took a huge deflection off the calf of Robert Arboleda and looped over the head of a flailing Alexander Dominguez.

The play began when Sebastian Lletget’s pressing pushed a poor Ecuadorian clearance to USMNT left back Tim Ream, who spotted Zardes in the middle of the Ecuador half.

USMNT, Schalke mid McKennie stretchered off with ankle injury

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Schalke and USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie limped off the pitch during the second half of a friendly against Ecuador on Thursday in Florida.

McKennie appeared to twist his ankle shortly after being called for a foul in the match, which stood 0-0 at the time.

[ MORE: Hazard, Real, and the back-up plan ]

He left the match with trainer help, and was eventually carted to the bench while seated on a stretcher.

A key piece of the program’s future, the 20-year-old midfielder has been a utility knife in the Bundesliga, playing everywhere from right back to left mid.

Only six players have played more league minutes for Schalke than McKennie, who earned his eighth cap on Thursday.

Making the case: Raheem Sterling as PL Player of the Year

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Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined someone making this case in a rational manner any time soon.

I especially didn’t think it would be me.

But as the Premier League takes a deep breath ahead of the stretch run, I’m going to have to say it.

[ MORE: JPW ranks the candidates ]

Raheem Sterling has been the best attacking player in the Premier League this season, and quite possibly the best player period.

Whether he earns the nod over defender Virgil Van Dijk is another story altogether, as it will probably comes down to wins and losses and one or two titles, but consider how deadly, consistent, and deadly consistent Sterling has been since the start of the season.

Of the four Premier League players who’ve accounted for some combination of 24 goals and assists, Sterling gets the least amount of positive publicity. Eden Hazard has largely been the Chelsea attack, Sergio Aguero has tied the PL hat trick record, and Mohamed Salah is riding his 2017-18 season through a remarkable cold snap of form.

But there’s Sterling, with 15 goals and nine assists in the second-fewest minutes of the bunch (Aguero).

How about these numbers — via WhoScored.com — in 2,149 league minutes?

Sterling is also averaging a tackle and .6 interceptions per match, the best of the bunch, while committed the fewest bad touches per game (most remarkable considering his second touch haunted him for several seasons).

A concession: For what it’s worth given the above stats, Hazard is easily in second of the bunch if not competing directly with Sterling. But Sterling hasn’t been a part of underachieving teams for three different managers, so we’ll abide.

There are two things going against Sterling, neither of which are his fault. The first is that Man City’s dominance of last season and run back into a title right this season has people imagining that the feast of talent at the Etihad Stadium makes numbers an afterthought; That is to say that Sterling, Aguero, and the Silvas (not to mention Leroy Sane) aren’t producing much more than their theoretical replacements.

And maybe there’s something to that, but here’s how important Sterling’s production has been to City.

In Premier League matches in which Sterling neither scored, assisted, nor drew a penalty, City has four wins, two draws, and four losses. When he has, that mark is 17-0 (He sat out wins over Huddersfield Town, Burnley, and Watford to complete Man City’s 24W-2D-4L record).

Aguero, for his part, racked up nine of his goals in three matches. I’m not here to hat trick shame, but Sterling feels a less replaceable part of Pep’s team.

The second thing going against Sterling is a bit more nefarious, linked to articles and conceptions about his gun tattoo or hairstyles. This part, hopefully, doesn’t require us to refute it.

Van Dijk has been phenomenal, and as a longtime defender admirer — those who can’t do it, love those who do it well — I’d be thrilled to see him join N'Golo Kante in non-scorers to claim such an honor.

But VVD was also on the scene for a moment that encapsulates what Sterling has become to City’s attack. He’s arguably been this season’s Leroy Sane, and coincidentally cues up the German with this incisive pass from well outside his office for the January winner against Liverpool.