Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Column: Best-ever World Cup? It is shaping up nicely

Leave a comment

KAZAN, Russia (AP) Wow. What a start.

If you’re among those who suspect this World Cup has the makings of one of the best ever, the numbers from the just-completed group stage of the football showcase suggest you may be right. Aside from a few snoozers, the essential ingredient for engrossing sporting spectacle – uncertainty – triumphed.

[ MORE: Some of the biggest storylines ahead of the Round of 16 ]

Games were tighter than ever. Traditionally strong teams still dominate, with the obvious exception of now dethroned ex-world champion Germany , already licking its wounds back at home. But increasingly better drilled, prepared and ambitious so-called “smaller” nations are continuing to narrow the gap. World Cup debutant Panama was the only team to look seriously out of its depth.

The most common result in the 48 games was 1-0, which is how the score finished a record-equaling 13 times. That illustrates not only how close games were, but that teams, once ahead, are increasingly able to protect their leads. An example of that was Mexico 1, Germany 0. In the second half at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, Die Mannschaft took 17 shots, had six corner kicks and six shots blocked and still couldn’t cancel out Hirving Lozano’s first-half winner.

Since the World Cup expanded to 32 teams in 1998, only once before has it seen so many 1-0 games in the group stage. That was in South Africa in 2010, when teams struggled to score with the Jabulani ball. The 16 teams that advanced that year to the knockout round did so by scoring just 67 times, a record low. They did much better this year, scoring 83. That was down from 90 at the last edition in Brazil and the record-high 91 goals scored by group-stage qualifiers in 2002 but still illustrated the attacking intent shown by teams in Russia.

Some other numbers:

-Again illustrating the narrowing gap between winners and losers, 24 games were decided by just one goal. That is a record high. And 11 of those games saw both teams score. That reinforces the impression that this group stage offered good entertainment, with teams going at each other, aiming for goals, and often succeeding.

-Further proof that teams didn’t hold back: Just nine games ended in a draw. That equaled the record low set in Brazil four years ago. At the first 32-team World Cup in 1998, exactly one third of group-stage games finished in a draw, a record-high of 16 draws not seen since. And some of the draws this time were spectacular, none more so than Portugal 3, Spain 3, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s late free-kick curling past the Spanish wall to complete his hat-trick and level the score.

-Just once, at Denmark vs. France, did fans come away without seeing a goal from either team . Again, that record low of scoreless draws illustrates the ambitious mindset of teams and was a vast improvement over previous editions. There were five scoreless draws in Brazil and six – the record high in the 32-team format – in South Africa.

-The group stage again saw very lopsided wins (Russia 5, Saudi Arabia 0; England 6, Panama 1) but not as domineering as at previous tournaments (Portugal 7, North Korea 0 in 2010; Germany 8, Saudi Arabia 0 in 2002). Just eight of the games saw four or more goals scored. That equals the record low from South Africa and is sharply down from 2014, when there 16 four-goals-or-more matches in the group stage. Again, that reflects how smaller football nations frustrated star teams and players this time, notably the defensive master-class from Iceland that prevented Argentina’s Lionel Messi from scoring in a 1-1 draw at Moscow’s Spartak Stadium. But Messi redeemed himself with his strike against Nigeria, the tournament’s 100th goal and a contender for goal of the tournament, exquisitely controlling the ball with his left thigh and left foot in one fluid movement before scoring with his right.

The group stage wasn’t without blemishes, but was without major scandal. Uruguay’s Luis Suarez managed not to bite anyone, an improvement from 2014, and the French haven’t gone on strike as they did on their way to an early exit in 2010. The record 24 penalties awarded, of which 18 were scored, are an unfortunate, game-distorting side effect of video refereeing’s debut at the World Cup, which has caught officiating mistakes but is also messing with the rhythm of matches and seen some very debatable decisions. And using yellow cards as a tie-breaker to separate Senegal, sent home, and Japan, which stays, seems unfair, given that some referees are more trigger-happy with cards than others.

Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin has lucked out. Russia’s team that seemed unlikely to progress earned itself a marquee match-up with 2010 champions Spain and the football spectacle is competing for global attention, instead of novichok, Syria, flight MH17, Crimea, east Ukraine, election interference and other issues that have chilled relations between Russia and western capitals.

In a tournament as famous as the World Cup, picking the best will always be a subjective choice. But with this one: So far, so good.

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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

Top 25 players in the USMNT pool right now

USMNT news
Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The European season is back in full flow, Major League Soccer is hitting its stretch run, and we have USMNT calendar news.

Yet it’s the transfer market that’s inspired us to revisit our periodic ranking of the top 25 players in the USMNT player pool.

Sergino Dest looks destined for either Barcelona or Bayern Munich, while Weston McKennie is off to Juventus and is currently learning midfield next to Adrien Rabiot, behind Aaron Ramsey, over Arthur, and under the watchful eye of Andrea Pirlo.

[ MORE: How 7 Americans fared in Bundesliga Wk 1 ]

If you’re the swooning type, here’s where you swoon.

It’s been 10 months and 10 days since our first rankings hit ProSoccerTalk and there’s been a pandemic pause, restart of one season, and beginning of another since our second.

Where is the player pool now? As a reminder, here are some ground rules:

  • The ranking is meant to illustrate who would be most likely to positively affect a USMNT match, regardless of manager or teammates, right now.
  • Health doesn’t matter to our rankings if a current injury isn’t one that could drastically alter the player’s skill set moving forward.
  • Age/potential/experience doesn’t matter either, at least not much; It’s how likely you are to contribute to the team if put on the field right now. Obviously Konrad de la Fuente is a better long-term prospect than 30-year-old Jozy Altidore, but most would rather have the Toronto FC man in a big spot right now.

Obviously there’s been plenty of movement.

Top 25 USMNT players – September 2020 

1. Christian Pulisic, Chelsea (1)

2. Tyler Adams, RB Leizpig (4) — Just out here scoring UCL tie-deciding goals

3. Weston McKennie, Juventus (2) — Oh, hi there. This is cool.

4. John Brooks, Wolfsburg (3)

5. Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund (13) — This is 17 years old? Come on.

6. Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders (8)

7. Sergino Dest, Ajax (5) — Barcelona or Bayern Munich?

8. Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen (18) — Midfield?

9. Zack Steffen, Manchester City (9) — First Man City start probably comes Thursday.

10. Antonee Robinson, Fulham (10) — Come on, Scott Parker. Put him in there.

11. Timothy Weah, Lille (14) — Working back to fitness and form. Came off the bench in first three Ligue 1 games.

USMNT news
@LOSC_EN

12. Tyler Boyd, Besiktas (21) — Looking good in second full season with the Turkish giants

13. Julian Green, Greuther Furth (12)

14. Sebastian Lletget, LA Galaxy (25)

15. Alfredo Morales, Fortuna Dusseldorf (7)

16. Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew (NR) — If you’re yelling at this, I get it, but you’re not watching MLS. He’s been wonderful.

17. Matt Miazga, Chelsea (17) — Rumors of a Trabzonspor loan are interesting.

18. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Spurs (20) — Crushed it at Luton Town. Is Bournemouth next?

19. Darlington Nagbe, Columbus Crew (NR)

20. Reggie Cannon, Boavista (NR)

21. Brendan Aaronson, Philadelphia Union (NR) — Credit to Gregg Berhalter, who saw it before any of us.

22. Matt Turner, New England (NR) — Incredible season alert.

23. Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls (NR)

24. Tim Ream, Fulham (13)

25. Henry Wingo, Molde (NR) — Unsure where the Norwegian league rates in relation to MLS, but Wingo’s moved from non-regular with Seattle to starting right back on a team knocking on the door of the UEFA Champions League group stage. Plus I had like nine names I liked for spots 23, 24, and 25.

() last ranking

Notes

  • Columbus’ resurgence this season has seen Zardes and Nagbe shine. It’s difficult not to place them higher than we initially planned.
  • Judging the center back pool has become fraught. Chelsea’s Matt Miazga and Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers are on a loan recycling program and have done well but we haven’t really seen them outside of the Championship. MLS regulars Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson, and Aaron Long are good on inconsistent teams. After John Brooks, who knows?
  • Dropping out are DeAndre Yedlin, Jozy Altidore, Cristian Roldan, Ike Opara, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Miles Robinson, Paul Arriola, and Jackson Yueill.
  • Small sample size, but if you’re the top rated player on Besiktas then you’re Tyler Boyd and you’re getting a higher spot than we anticipated when we started the post.

Last five out: Chris Richards, Bayern Munich; Duane Holmes, Derby County; DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle United; Timothy Chandler, Eintracht Frankfurt; Frankie Amaya, FC Cincinnati.

Keep an eye on: Ulysses Llanez, Heerenveen (loan from Wolfsburg); Cole Bassett, Colorado Rapids; Julian Araujo, LA Galaxy; Chris Mueller, Orlando City; Konrad de la Fuente, Barcelona; Indiana Vassilev, Burton Albion (loan from Aston Villa); Paxton Pomykal, FC Dallas; Jozy Altidore, Toronto FC; Cristian Roldan, Seattle Sounders; Walker Zimmerman, Nashville SC.

MLS upcoming schedule, MLS Cup odds

MLS schedule
Xinhua/Zou Zheng via Getty Images
Leave a comment

MLS betting odds and upcoming schedule: Major League Soccer still has six weeks left of fixtures left in the regular season after its long-awaited return from the COVID-19 shutdown.

[ TRANSFER NEWS: Dest to Barcelona? ]

A full Wednesday slate of games will be highlighted by a meeting of Cascadia Cup rivals Portland and Seattle in Oregon with newer rivals NYCFC and Toronto matching wits and a 5 pm ET kickoff between Thierry Henry’s Montreal and Bruce Arena’s New England starting off the night.

The regular season is currently scheduled to end on Nov. 8, with the playoffs beginning that same week and culminating with MLS Cup on Dec. 12.

All of the games are available to watch on ESPN+.

Click here for MLS betting odds and different odds on soccer and beyond from our new official sports betting partner PointsBet, as there will be plenty of selections to make each week with game lines and more available via NBC Sports Bet.

[ MORE: Five-subs rule again voted down by Premier League clubs ]

This page will be updated following the completion of every round of games in 2020, to feature the upcoming set of fixtures and MLS betting odds.


This weekend’s MLS schedule and odds (via PointsBet)

Wednesday, Sept. 23

New England (-154) v Montreal ( +340) / Draw (+275) — 5 pm ET
Atlanta (+130) v FC Dallas (+175) / Draw (+230) — 7 pm ET
NYCFC (+130) v Toronto FC (+175) / Draw (+235) — 7 pm ET
Chicago Fire (-106) v Houston Dynamo (+225) / Draw (+255) — 7:30 pm ET
Cincinnati (+200) v Philadelphia (+125)/ Draw (+215) — 7:30 pm ET
Columbus (-150) v Minnesota (+320) / Draw (+275) — 7:30 pm ET
Sporting KC (-125) v Orlando City (+270) / Draw (+260) — 7:30 pm ET
Inter Miami (-115) v New York Red Bulls (+260) / Draw (+245) — 8 pm ET
Nashville (-150) v DC United (+350) / Draw (+260) — 8:30 pm ET
Colorado (-167) v San Jose (+340) / Draw (+300) — 9 pm ET
Real Salt Lake (+118) v LA Galaxy (+175) / Draw (+260) — 9:30 pm ET
Portland (+150) v Seattle (+135) / Draw (+260) — 10 pm ET
LAFC (-556) v Vancouver (+1000) / Draw (+525) — 10:30 pm ET

Saturday, Sept. 26 (Odds forthcoming)

Nashville ( ) v Houston ( ) / Draw ( ) — 3:30 pm ET
NYCFC ( ) v Cincinnati / Draw ( ) — 7:30 pm ET

Sunday, Sept. 27 (Odds forthcoming)

DC United ( ) v New England ( ) / Draw ( ) — 7 pm ET
New York Red Bulls ( ) v Montreal ( ) / Draw ( ) — 7 pm ET
Philadelphia ( ) v Inter Miami ( ) / Draw ( ) — 7:30 pm ET
Chicago ( ) v Atlanta ( ) / Draw ( ) — 7:30 pm ET
Toronto ( ) v Columbus ( ) / Draw ( ) — 7:30 pm ET
Minnesota ( ) v Real Salt Lake ( ) / Draw ( ) — 8 pm ET
FC Dallas ( ) v Orlando City ( ) / Draw ( ) — 8:30 pm ET
Colorado ( ) v Sporting KC ( ) / Draw ( ) — 9 pm ET
Vancouver ( ) v Portland ( ) / Draw ( ) — 10 pm ET
LAFC ( ) v San Jose () / Draw ( ) — 10:30 pm ET
LA Galaxy ( ) v Seattle () / Draw ( ) — 10:30 pm ET


MLS Cup winner odds

Los Angeles FC (+450)
Toronto FC (+450)
Seattle Sounders (+800)
Philadelphia Union (+1100)
Atlanta United (+1400)
Columbus Crew (+1400)
LA Galaxy (+1800)
New York City FC (+1800)
Sporting KC (+1800)
Portland Timbers (+2000)
Minnesota United (+2500)
New England Revolution (+2500)
Orlando City SC (+2500)
New York Red Bulls (+3000)
Montreal Impact (+4000)
FC Dallas (+5000)
Real Salt Lake (+5000)
San Jose Earthquakes (+6000)
Chicago Fire (+10000)
Colorado Rapids (+10000)
D.C. United (+10000)
Houston Dynamo (+10000)
Inter Miami (+12500)
FC Cincinnati (+25000)
Vancouver Whitecaps (+25000)
Nashville SC (+30000)

Europa League: The biggest underdogs, how to watch, start time

Shkendija - Tottenham
Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Tottenham Hotspur is hoping Macedonia is a bit kinder than Bulgaria.

A week after Spurs came back from a late deficit to beat 9-man Lokomotiv Plovdiv — a win in which many missed the key moments due to technical difficulties — Tottenham has to beat Shkendija in Tetovo to move within a win of the Europa League group stage.

Shkendija has become a regular participant in either the Champions League or Europa League but has been handled by most name opponents including AC Milan, Red Bull Salzburg, and Partizan Belgrade.

[ MORE: Europa League scoreboard ]

Ay, but here’s the rub: The home legs have all been close in those ties, all 1-0 losses, and this is a one-legged affair with the promise of a visit from either Rostov or Maccabi Haida on Oct. 1.

Mourinho branded Spurs’ schedule a ‘total joke’ but got some relief in a sense when Leyton Orient’s positive COVID-19 tests postponed Tuesday’s short trip across London.

It’s a 2pm ET kickoff on Thursday in Macedonia. Spurs are favored in a big way even away from home, with a Shkendija win paying off +1800 from some bookmakers.

Not bad considering Spurs have the second best odds to win the tournament behind (ducking) Arsenal.

A Shkendija win would not be the biggest upset of the day. Instead of talking about Sporting Lisbon versus Aberdeen or Galatasaray’s tough visit from Hajduk Split, let’s acknowledge the biggest underdogs of the penultimate round before the group stage.

NS Mura +1000 home to PSV Eindhoven

Underdog fun fact: The Slovenian hosts have technically only existed since 2013, having risen from the ashes of ND Mura 05, which itself began in 2005 by picking up the pieces of NK Mura. That club had been around since 1924.

Riga +1100 home to Celtic

Underdog fact: The young Latvian club was put together as a merger of two others and has already beaten CSKA Sofia, Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Copenhagen in single matches during its European life.

Desna Chernihiv +1500 away to Wolfsburg

Underdog fact: Ukrainian side Desna handed West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko his senior debut at the age of 17. Yarmolenko scored four goals in nine appearances before signing for national giants Dynamo Kiev.

Shkendija +1800 home to Tottenham

Underdog fact: Once managed by former German national team striker Thomas Brdaric.

B36 Torshavn +1900 away to CSKA Sofia

Underdog fun fact: The White Tigers of the Faroe Islands have played in 51 European matches, winning just seven. Three of those have come this season.

Locomotive Tbilisi +4400 away to Granada

Underdog fun fact: The Georgian side stunned Russian mainstays Dinamo Moscow to make it this far. Safe to say the bookies don’t see them repeating the feat against La Liga opposition.


How to watch Shkendija – Tottenham + Europa League playoff round streams, start times

When: Wednesday and Thursday
Online: Bleacher Report Live


Europa League playoff round ties

All times ET

Wednesday
Apollon Limassol v Lech Poznan — Noon

Thursday
Ararat-Armenia v Celje — 10 am
KuPS v Suduva Marijampole — 11:30 am
Viktoria Plzen v Sonderjyske — Noon
Fehervar v Stade de Reims — Noon
Rostov v Maccabi Haifa — 12:30 pm
Riga v Celtic — 1 pm
Besiktas v Rio Ave — 1 pm
NS Mura v PSV Eindhoven — 1 pm
Sporting Charleroi v Partizan — 1 pm
Malmo v Lokmotiva Zagreb — 1 pm
Djurgardens v CFR Cluj — 1 pm
Rosenborg v Alanyaspor — 1 pm
CSKA Sofia v B36 Toshavn — 1 pm
FCSB v Slovan Liberec — 1:30 pm
Hapoel Be’er Sheva v Motherwell — 1:30 pm
Shkendija v Tottenham Hotspur — 2 pm
Galatasaray v Hajduk Split — 2 pm
Copenhagen v Piast Gliwice — 2 pm
Granada v Lokomotiv Tbilisi — 2pm
Standard Liege v Vojvodina — 2 pm
APOEL Nicosia v Zrinjski Mostar — 2pm
Sheriff Tiraspol v Dundalk — 2 pm
Sarajevo v Buducnost Podgorica — 2 pm
Klaksvikar Itrottarfelag v Dinamo Tbilisi — 2 pm
Wolfsburg v Desna Chernihiv — 2:15 pm
AC Milan v Bodo/Glimt — 2:30 pm
Basel v Anorthosis Famagusta — 2:30 pm
St Gallen v AEK Athens — 2:30 pm
LASK v DAC Dunajska Streda — 2:30 pm
Legia Warsaw v Drita — 2:30 pm
Floriania v Flora Tallinn — 2:30 pm
HNK Rijeka v Kolos Kovalivka — 2:45 pm
Sporting Lisbon v Aberdeen — 3 pm
Willem II Tilburg v Rangers — 3 pm

Reports: Ajax, Barcelona reach agreement over USMNT’s Dest

Sergino Dest Barcelona
Photo by Roy Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ronald Koeman couldn’t convince Sergino Dest to represent the Netherlands over the United States, but the Barcelona boss has reportedly talked the Ajax back into choosing the Blaugranas over the Bavarians.

Dest, 19, has been widely linked with Bayern Munich in recent weeks, though Barcelona was also mentioned with the caveat that Koeman would have to sell players to bring others in due to the La Liga outfit’s salary problems.

[ MORE: Mendy to Chelsea analysis ]

Wolves’ pursuit of Nelson Semedo and Atletico Madrid’s move for Luis Suarez may have opened the door for Dest, and multiple reports say Ajax and Barcelona have reached an agreement on a $22 million transfer with another $6 million in incentives in the deal.

Dest was named Ajax Young Talent of the Year last season and is also a member of the 2020 Golden Boy shortlist. He has two goals and six assists in 37 senior appearances for the club after coming through its vaunted academy. He’s also been linked with moves to Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur.

Capped thrice by the United States after the Yanks won a recruitment battle with the Netherlands, Dest went 90 minutes in eight of Ajax’s last 10 Eredivisie matches and came off the bench in their opening two Eredivisie matches of the 2020-21 campaign. That’s likely due to transfer issues.

Dest would become the second American to represent Barcelona on a matchday 18, just missing out on the honor of being first. Barca academy product Konrad de la Fuente signed a contract with the club this summer, and was an unused sub when the Blaugranas beat Napoli in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg on Aug. 8.