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Goal-fest possible in France-Belgium World Cup semifinal

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) Considering the attacking strength of France and Belgium, there’s potential for a goal-fest when the European neighbors meet in the World Cup semifinals.

There was less at stake the last time the teams last went head-to-head at the World Cup, a 4-2 victory for France in the third-place match in 1986. That was the last competitive match between the two countries but there have been eight international friendlies since.

Belgium won two of those, including the last one: an exhibition three years ago at Stade de France when the Belgians took a three-goal lead five minutes into the second half and held on to win 4-3.

With the second-youngest roster at the World Cup, France has shown no fear and advanced to its first World Cup semifinal since 2006 led by 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe and a pair of inexperienced attacking fullbacks in Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez.

“We’re not scared of anyone,” Pavard said. “We’ve been confident from the start and we’re not asking any questions of ourselves.”

Coach Didier Deschamps, who was captain when France won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship, has instilled a steely mentality.

“He motivates the troops with strong words,” Pavard said. “We’re ready to go to war with him.”

CONFIDENT COACHING

Deschamps made bold decisions to start Pavard on the right and Lucas Hernandez on the left. The pair, both 22, have only 20 international appearances between them but are playing with good composure.

In Belgium, there were doubts about Roberto Martinez’s ability to transfer the country’s individual talent into a collective force. Fans welcomed his arrival in August 2016 with lukewarm enthusiasm because he’d only recently been fired by Everton in the Premier League.

His tenure began with a 2-0 home loss to Spain, but since then Belgium is unbeaten in 23 games and has scored 78 goals – being held scoreless in only one of those games. With former France striker Thierry Henry as an assistant coach, Belgium leads the scoring in Russia with 14 goals in its five World Cup matches.

“He’s given the team the desire to attack,” French Football Federation president Noel Le Graet said of Henry’s influence on the Belgian team. “The forwards go to see him. He’s held in high esteem.”

Martinez’s tactics have stood out, too.

With Belgium trailing Japan 2-0 in the round of 16, Martinez replaced two wide players with two midfielders and they both scored.

LLORIS VS. COURTOIS

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and France No. 1 Hugo Lloris could be busy.

Lloris has been criticized during the past year after errors for France and Tottenham.

In France’s World Cup opener against Australia, he let a long shot go past him and watched in relief as it hit the crossbar. But Lloris appeared to be at his commanding best in the quarterfinal win over Uruguay, rushing off his line to push away a low cross and later making a superb low save.

Belgium has height and heading ability in defenders Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen and Marouane Fellaini.

Courtois entered the tournament as one of the top goalkeepers and has enhanced reputation with an outstanding quarterfinal performance against Brazil.

French striker Olivier Giroud thinks Lloris has the edge over Courtois, his club teammate at Chelsea.

“They’re both very good on their line, but Hugo is more explosive,” Giroud said. “The best is Hugo. Sorry, Thibaut.”

MEUNIER OUT

Belgium must cope without defender Thomas Meunier, whose runs down the flank are a key part of Belgium’s attack.

Meunier is suspended after tripping Brazil star Neymar and earning a second yellow card of the tournament. In Meunier’s absence, Martinez may scrap his 3-5-2 formation with wingbacks, and instead switch to a back four in a more compact defense.

HAZARD OUTLET

Star forward Eden Hazard is known for his attacking prowess, but he also is an outlet for Belgium’s defense. Hazard runs at pace and cuts inside. Because of his quick feet, change of direction and exquisite close control, he is difficult to tackle and this often draws a foul.

MBAPPE THREAT

While Giroud has yet to score at this World Cup, his ability to hold the ball up suits France’s system and allows Mbappe to make runs down the right flank. It also gives Antoine Griezmann space to roam.

“I try to create gaps for my teammates,” Giroud said. “It’s my unselfish side.”

He needs one goal to move ahead of France great Zinedine Zidane. They are tied on fourth overall with 31.

Griezmann has scored two penalty kicks and set up Raphael Varane’s headed goal against Uruguay. But he has not shown the form he did when he led France in scoring en route to the Euro 2016 final, when Les Bleus lost to Portugal.

Belgium struggled against Japan when defending quick and mobile players.

Follow Jerome Pugmire on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeromepugmire

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

LAFC cleared after Timbers withdraw U.S. Open Cup appeal

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U.S. Soccer has cleared Los Angeles FC of any wrongdoing in Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals win over the Portland Timbers, after the latter dropped their appeal against the expansion MLS franchise.

[ MORE: MLS preview — TFC, Sounders running out of time ]

The Timbers had lodged a claim following the 3-2 LAFC win regarding the number of international players to suit up for Bob Bradley‘s squad.

Under the laws of the Open Cup, teams are allowed up to five international players in an 18-man gameday roster — a total that LAFC exceeded due to misleading information provided by U.S. Soccer and MLS.

Mark-Anthony Kaye, a Canada international, was ruled eligible to play by the competition, despite not meeting the requirements set forth by the Open Cup of an American player.

Kaye does not currently hold a green card.

The 23-year-old appeared in the match, making him the sixth international to suit up for Bradley’s squad, and theoretically could have cost LAFC a spot in the next round if the Timbers had stuck with their protest.

Kaye was listed as a domestic player on the matchday roster for LAFC, though, after general manager John Thorrington consulted with the USSF regarding the player’s status.

The USSF released the following statement on Friday night, declaring that the Timbers “gracefully” withdrew their appeal despite miscommunication between LAFC, MLS and U.S. Soccer.

“After a thorough review of the Portland Timbers’ official protest, it has been determined that the inclusion of additional foreign players was a result of a good faith misunderstanding among the U.S. Soccer, Major League Soccer and Los Angeles Football Club. Each organization involved has agreed to determine an improved process to ensure this will not happen again. In recognition of this fact, the Timbers have gracefully withdrawn their protest.”

LAFC will now either take on the Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo or Philadelphia Union in the semifinal stage of the competition, with a draw expected to be held in the coming days.

MLS preview: TFC, Seattle running out of time; Rooney vs. ATL

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Week 21 of the 2018 MLS season features 10 games on Saturday (nine) and Sunday (one). Here’s a few key storylines to keep an eye on…

[ MORE: Miami City Commission sends Beckham stadium to Nov. ballot ]

Jozy’s back, but is it too late?

It’s been nearly three months since Jozy Altidore last appeared for Toronto FC, and not much has changed with regard to the Reds’ place in the standings: they at south of the playoff line then (after going all-in on the CONCACAF Champions League), and they remain there ahead of Saturday’s trip to Chicago. Greg Vanney’s defending champions currently sit 11 points back of sixth place with 15 games left to play.

As for Altidore, he was hugely important in TFC’s run to the CCL final, but it would be a massive oversimplification to say his absence has been the only — or main, even — cause for struggles this season. In fact, it’s been injuries up and down the entire squad (every center back on the roster, multiple midfielders and playmakers, as well as Altidore). Finally, after months of walking wounded, nearly everyone is back and available for selection. TFC’s charge up the stands begins, presumably, soon.

Rooney makes DCU better, but by how much?

As I opined following his D.C. United debut last weekend, Wayne Rooney was quite good during the opening 32 minutes of his MLS career. That was against the Vancouver Whitecaps, one of the slowest playing teams in the entire league, though. On Saturday, Rooney and Co., will come up against something not so dissimilar to European quality and competition in Atlanta United.

There’s the level on competition to consider as Rooney continues on in his MLS journey, but also this: against Vancouver, there was very little flash or attempt at end product from Rooney, which was fine considering he quickly and smartly facilitated play and opened the field up for others to make and score the goals. The questions are: for how long is he happy to be a simple cog in the machine, and are United getting their money’s worth if that’s Rooney’s regular contribution?

What about Seattle?

Just like Toronto, the Seattle Sounders currently find themselves 11 points back of sixth place (though they do have one more game still to play). Just like Toronto, injuries have completely ruined the Sounders’ 2018 season. Just like Toronto, they have been to back-to-back MLS Cups, and won one. Just like Toronto, they can’t really miss the playoffs, can they?

Now, though, Raul Ruidiaz has been added for some much-needed firepower up top (the Peruvian is a back-to-back Golden Boot winner in Liga MX), Gustav Svensson is back from the World Cup, and Nicolas Lodeiro has shown signs of coming out of his slumber in recent weeks. Just like Toronto, Brian Schmetzer’s men have no choice but to begin their playoff chase on Saturday, when Vancouver comes to town.

Full weekend schedule

Atlanta United vs. D.C. United — 3:30 p.m. ET
Seattle Sounders vs. Vancouver Whitecaps — 4 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire vs. Toronto FC — 7 p.m. ET
Philadelphia Union vs. LA Galaxy — 7 p.m. ET
New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew SC vs. Orlando City SC — 7:30 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo vs. FC Dallas — 9 p.m. ET
Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado Rapids — 10 p.m. ET
Portland Timbers vs. Montreal Impact — 11 p.m. ET
Minnesota United vs. Los Angeles FC — 7 p.m. ET (Sunday)

Leicester sign Ward from Liverpool; Boufal out on loan

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LONDON (AP) — Leicester signed Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward from Liverpool on a four-year contract on Friday.

Ward dropped in the pecking order at Anfield following the arrival of Brazil goalie Alisson.

Leicester’s fourth signing of the offseason will offer competition to Kasper Schmeichel and Eldin Jakupovic.

Ward will join the team on Monday for a training camp in Austria.

“I’ve come here to develop my allround game and hopefully help deliver some more success,” he said.


Southampton winger Sofiane Boufal was sent to Spanish club Celta Vigo on a season-long loan.

Boufal came to Southampton in 2016 from Lille, and made 59 appearances, scoring four times.

The Moroccan fell out of favor with manager Mark Hughes at the end of last season.

Neymar says he’s staying at PSG; rumors “invented by the press”

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Neymar insists he is going nowhere this summer, that he’ll spend (at least) one more season at Paris Saint-Germain, and he intends to bring another handful of trophies back to the French capital in doing so.

[ MORE: PSG in “advanced negotiations” for N’Golo Kante, but must sell first ]

Speaking during a press conference on Friday, his first media availability session since Brazil were eliminated in the 2018 World Cup quarterfinals, the 26-year-old superstar went so far as to say that reports linking him with a move to other European mega-clubs (most notably, Real Madrid) were “invented by the press” — quotes from ESPN:

“Yes, I will stay in Paris. I have a contract with PSG. The speculation? The majority of it is invented by the press.

“I have a contract and people know the objective, the reason why I went to PSG. I want to win with this club and I hope this season will be wonderful.”

While it seems a no-brainer that PSG would want Neymar to stay, there’s unquestionably a case to be made that selling him would give them the financial flexibility needed to address needs elsewhere in the squad. N'Golo Kante, for instance, is reportedly transfer target no. 1 at the Parc des Princes, but sales will have to be made before a fee of that size can be paid, due to financial regulations.

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