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2018 World Cup should bring hope for USA

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Watching the 2018 World Cup in the United States of America this summer promised to be a torturous thing.

It has been anything but.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ]  

With the U.S. not qualifying for a World Cup for the first time since 1986, many wondered if the general public, or even general sports fans, would take much notice. Would bars even open early? How exactly would a soccer lover get their fix?

How wrong they could have been.

Over the past few weeks I’ve traveled across the USA and the Caribbean, watching games in bars in New York City, sports books in huge casinos and airport lounges as small taverns in rural America opened early to air the games at the behest of gangs of middle-aged men and their kids and despite the initial reluctance of an ageing barman.

“Hey, are you showing the game?” was heard time and time again in cities all over the USA.

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Good news for the sport in the USA: the excitement and passion for the World Cup is still there, even if reports state that Fox’s viewing figures are down compared to 2014. With the time zone in Russia compared to Brazil far from favorable with early morning kick offs and, of course, the U.S. not being in the tournament, the numbers aren’t that bad. Plus, our Spanish language partners at Telemundo have had roaring success when it comes to viewers of their broadcasts and streams as it became the “biggest livestream sports event in Spanish-language history.”

But back to the actual scene on the ground in the USA and what it felt like to watch games with ordinary Americans who had no real affiliation to a particular nation, despite constant car commercials telling them to root for Germany because of the “frankfurter” or for Iceland to “help with the clap” or Switzerland because of a Swiss army knife.

Actually, scratch that, we all know that U.S. citizens have some loose affiliation to their ancestry roots because that’s just how it is. Germany. Mexico. England. Colombia. Peru. But it was about more than that. Plenty of those nations had huge numbers of fans cheering them on in watch parties such as the one organized by New York City FC of Major League Soccer at the Rockefeller Center in NYC. Not to mention at home or at the office.

Bars were often packed in plenty of the major U.S. cities come lunchtime as fans gathered to watch Mexico stun Germany, England squeeze past Colombia on penalty kicks or Belgium’s stunning comeback over Japan.

The 2018 World Cup delivered dramatic moments which were aired on local news and the fact it only had to contend with the relatively young MLB season meant plenty of the focus was on it. Drinks specials in bars ranged from a pint of Carling for England, Carlsberg for Denmark, Bitburger for Germany or a Kronenbourg for France, while flags were out, jerseys of teams were visible and in places like NYC, as expected, you could watch the games with fans of any nation playing to enhance your experience.

Whole U.S. cities didn’t come to a standstill this summer and they didn’t in 2014 either. But the World Cup was a huge part of summer life for millions of Americans. There’s no getting around that.

There’s also no getting around the fact that not having the U.S. at this World Cup was a missed opportunity to bring in new fans to the sport. That’s something the United States of America still desperately needs despite MLS expanding and TV audiences for European leagues growing year-on-year. Building a bigger fanbase off the back of extreme patriotism is something which has no doubt helped the stature of the game in the U.S. on a four-yearly basis in the past.

The “soccer growth” aspect has been the dark cloud swirling around the USMNT’s failure to qualify for this World Cup. I’ve spoken to the likes of USMNT stars Christian Pulisic and Danny Williams and others about what it meant that the U.S. wouldn’t be at the big dance.

“When I was just a kid watching the U.S. at the World Cup, that gave me so much inspiration, seeing my country and seeing people playing with the U.S. crest,” Pulisic said. “Seeing them compete at a World Cup inspired me so much. Missing out on that is going to be a big thing but that doesn’t mean it’s over for U.S. Soccer. We are still growing a lot and we will do everything we can to be at the next one.”

And even if they don’t qualify for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, kids are still being inspired. The average American still screamed in wonderment when Nacer Chadli score Belgium’s last-gasp winner against Japan or Cristiano Ronaldo spanked home that free kick against Spain or Harry Kane headed home a stoppage time winner against Tunisia.

The soccer culture in the U.S. has got to a place where you can walk into sports bars and fans will have taken the morning off work to go and watch a meaningless England v Belgium group game and tell you about the club team they play on or their son will talk through his college season while wearing a Chivas jersey and a pair of Manchester United shorts. The soccer IQ of American fans can no longer be questioned.

People cared deeply about the World Cup this summer on American soil despite the U.S. not being there. I saw it with my own eyes. Day after day. In several different cities.

Bars were packed in Pittsburgh for Croatia v England. Airports in the Caribbean were full of Americans applauding when Mexico went 2-0 up vs. South Korea. People went to the sports book and put money on teams like Serbia and Senegal just to get in on the fun. Germany and Colombia fans packed bars every time they played.

To me, this summer brought great hope for the future of the game in this country. It is still not even close to reaching its potential. We all know that hosting the 2026 World Cup will be the true benchmark as to whether or not soccer is going to surge past mainstream American sports league such as the NHL, MLB and NFL.

There is a lot of work to do in the next eight years to even get close to that happening but it’s a possibility as 80 games will be played across the U.S., Mexico and Canada with 60 in the United States as the biggest World Cup tournament in history comes to American soil.

For me, this small tale from my summer spent in the U.S. sums up one of the many reasons why watching the World Cup Stateside filled me with great hope.

I was sat at lunch with over 25 members of my extended family just outside of Rochester, New York last week. A 10-year-old cousin shouted excitedly as the World Cup was casually discussed: “I can’t wait for the 2026 World Cup when the games come here and I can see it!” He will be 17 when that happens with games to be played nearby in New York City and Toronto. He is already inspired after watching the games this summer. He is already looking forward to the next two World Cups.

This World Cup wasn’t a complete failure for the sport in the USA. If anything it underlined just how much the game is growing. Seeing it up close, there is still plenty of momentum behind the game despite the scaremongering about the harm a World Cup without the U.S. would cause.

Even better news for U.S. fans: the World Cup is almost over. Let the road to 2022, and more importantly 2026, begin.

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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