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UEFA Nations League reaches exciting climax

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It has plunged Germany into renewed crisis, provoked scenes of jubilation in Kosovo and Gibraltar, and set up what could be an exciting week of international soccer in a summer usually bereft of competition for European countries.

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The UEFA Nations League might not have been welcomed by some clubs across the continent – Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp called it “the most senseless competition in the world of football” – but it has generated plenty of intriguing story lines to pique interest in its inaugural year.

The competition has reached its final set of qualifying matches, and results over the next week will determine which teams will feature in a Final Four mini-tournament in June – when the first Nations League champion will be crowned. Currently, France, Belgium, Portugal and Spain are favorites to be the finalists.

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The upcoming matches will also establish which of the lower-ranked teams qualify for the Nations League playoffs, from which one place at the 2020 European Championship will be awarded.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake:

GROUP A1

France, the world champion, has won two of its first three group games and will advance to the Final Four with a win over the Netherlands in Rotterdam on Friday. A victory for the Dutch means they can then qualify by beating – or potentially even drawing with – Germany in the group closer in Gelsenkirchen on Monday.

France has seen four players, including Paul Pogba, withdraw from the squad through injury on Monday.

Germany is last in the group, having collected one point from three games, and is on the brink of relegation to League B featuring Europe’s second-tier nations. Coming after a World Cup where the team failed to get out of the group stage, coach Germany coach Joachim Loew’s decision to stay on in the role is under as much scrutiny as the team’s mettle.

GROUP A2

Iceland has already been relegated after losing its first three games, leaving Belgium and Switzerland – tied on points – to battle for first place. The Belgians have played a game less, so a home win over Iceland on Thursday will leave them three points clear heading into the group decider in Switzerland on Monday.

Belgium is the world’s top-ranked team and will look for revenge for its semifinal loss to France at the World Cup if it does reach the Final Four.

GROUP A3

There is an added emphasis on which of Portugal or Italy advances, considering the team that qualifies from this group will host the Final Four in June. Portugal is the favorite after winning its first two games, without needing Cristiano Ronaldo, and needs only a point away to Italy on Saturday to guarantee first place.

If Italy wins, Portugal can still finish top with a home win on Tuesday over Poland, which has already been relegated after picking up just one point from its first three games.

GROUP A4

Spain looked on course to qualify comfortably from a group also containing England and World Cup runner-up Croatia after beating both teams in its first two games. Losing to England 3-2 in Sevilla last month, in arguably the standout match of the entire group stage so far, has kept things alive.

If Spain loses to Croatia in Zagreb on Thursday, England can finish first with a win over the Croats at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

Spain coach Luis Enrique has called up Barcelona left back Jordi Alba for the first time since taking charge of the team after the World Cup.

LEAGUE B

Ukraine became the first country to secure promotion to Group A for the second Nations League, in 2020. Bosnia and Russia are well clear in their groups and need one point from their final matches, against Austria and Sweden respectively, to also ensure promotion.

In the other group in League B, Wales and Denmark are fighting for first place. They meet in Cardiff on Friday, when a Welsh win would guarantee them top spot.

The Nations League also offers a second chance to qualify for the European Championship in 2020. The 16 group winners in Leagues A, B, C and D – or the next best-placed teams who have not already qualified via the European qualifiers starting in March – will progress to the playoffs to compete for the last four qualifying places.

It means the so-called minnows of Europe have something tangible to play for.

LEAGUE C

No teams have won their group so far, though Finland is close after winning its first four games in Group C2 and needs one point from its last two.

In Group C1, Israel and Scotland are batting for first place; in Group C3, Norway and Bulgaria are tied on points with two games left; and in Group C4, there is a three-way fight between Serbia, Montenegro and Romania.

LEAGUE D

In the league containing Europe’s weakest countries, Gibraltar and Kosovo – two of the newest members of UEFA – have claimed their first ever competitive international wins.

Kosovo is top of Group D3, two points clear of Azerbaijan with two games left. Gibraltar is second behind Macedonia in Group D4. Georgia has won Group D1, and Luxembourg and Belarus appear to be fighting for first place in Group D2.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Douglas is at http://www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Euro 2020 Roundup: France thrashes Moldova, Portugal fails to score

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France showed on Friday that it hasn’t lost its mojo, as it tore apart Moldova on the road, 4-1, in its Euro 2020 qualifying opener.

Antoine Griezmann, Raphael Varane, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappe all scored in the win for France, which jumps well ahead in the Group H standings. For Giroud, it tied him for third in all-time scoring for Les Bleus.

Elsewhere, Portugal suffered a surprising result in a scoreless draw with Ukraine. The defending European champions failed to score, despite starting Bernardo Silva and Cristiano Ronaldo up top. It’s the third straight time that Portugal has started off a qualification campaign without a win.

Here’s a look at the other scores around Euro 2020 qualifying on Friday:

Bulgaria 1-1 Montenegro

Albania 0-2 Turkey

Andorra 0-2 Iceland

Luxembourg 2-1 Lithuania

Indicted UCLA men’s soccer coach, former USMNT defender resigns

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LOS ANGELES (AP) UCLA men’s soccer coach Jorge Salcedo has resigned in the wake of his indictment in the college admissions scandal.

School spokeswoman Liza David said Friday that Salcedo quit after being on leave since the charges became public last week.

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Salcedo appeared in court last week after he was accused of taking payments totaling $200,000 in exchange for helping one male and one female applicant gain admission to UCLA under the false pretense that they were soccer recruits when they didn’t play competitive soccer.

He was one of nearly 50 people charged in the scandal that involved prestigious schools like Yale, Stanford, Southern California and Georgetown.

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement Friday that the school is conducting an internal review of the student-athlete admissions process.

“I understand and share the outrage that this news has sparked,” Guerrero said. “The behavior described in the allegations is disturbing and unacceptable.”

Salcedo, a former UCLA All-American and national champion, was the second-longest tenured head coach in program history. During his 15 years, the Bruins made two appearances in the national championship game. Prior to his coaching career, Salcedo played professionally in Mexico and the U.S. He played in the LA Galaxy’s inaugural season, also featuring for the Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire and Tampa Bay Mutiny. He went on to record three caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

Assistants Matt Taylor and Phil Marfuggi have taken over the men’s team.

Salcedo is scheduled to appear in federal court Monday in Boston, where the charges originated.

Atlanta’s Martinez scores as Venezuela shocks Argentina

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It was supposed to be Lionel Messi’s big night in his return to the Argentine National Team after a nine month break. Instead, it may have reminded him why he left in the first place.

Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez scored a second-half penalty, Newcastle United’s Salomon Robson opened the scoring and the Vinotino of Venezuela shocked Argentina, 3-1 in a friendly match played at the Wanda Metropolitana in Madrid. For all the starpower of both sides, MLS was represented, as Martinez’s club teammate Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez started for Argentina alongside Messi.

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The result was another blow to coach Lionel Scaloni as he tries to rebuild an aging Albiceleste side with a frail defense. Meanwhile it is a huge boost for Venezuela ahead of this summer’s Copa America in Brazil.

It only took six minutes for Rondon to put Venezuela on the board. Tottenham’s Juan Foyth was unable to deal with the Newcastle striker as a terrific direct pass from leftback Roberto Rosales found its way to Rondon, who provided a calm finish.

Just before halftime, Jhon Murillo curled home a delightful strike to put Venezuela up 2-0. Pity Martínez was substituted at halftime and while Lautaro Martinez pulled a goal back for Argentina, it was not to be Argentina’s night. Foyth again was to blame as he took down Darwin Machis in the box, setting up Josef Martinez to put the final nail in the coffin.

England kicks off Euro 2020 qualification in style

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It’s been nine months since the 2018 World Cup, but England looked as if it picked up where it left off in Russia.

The Three Lions opened their Euro 2020 qualification on the right foot with a 5-0 win over the Czech Republic on Friday at Wembley Stadium. Raheem Sterling carried his terrific form in front of goal into the international game, finishing with a hat trick. Meanwhile, Harry Kane scored once and picked up a hockey assist on England’s opener as he set the play in motion.

[READ: USMNT ratings vs. Ecuador]

It was the kind of performance England fans have longed to see against Europe’s weaker sides, though in the past England had been unable to break those opponents down. On Friday, just about everything went to plan.

In the opening minutes, England set the tone with their attacking 4-3-3 approach, especially with fullbacks Kyle Walker and Ben Chillwell getting up into the attack. Kane unlocked the Czech Republic defense in the 24th minute with a terrific pass to find Jadon Sancho in space in the box, which you can see in the graphic below. Sancho quickly slid a ball across the face of goal that Sterling slid home to put England up 1-0.

Just before halftime, Sterling was involved again as he was bundled down in the penalty box, leading to a penalty kick. Kane stepped up and cooly dispatches the ball in for England’s second.

In the second half, as the Czech Republic tried to push forward, that left space open in behind. Dele Alli slid a ball into the box for Sterling, who’s initial attempt was blocked. However, the ball popped out to his left and Sterling curled a strike home with terrrific poise. Sterling put a bow on his terrific performance with a strike that took a heavy deflection off Ondrej Celustka and found the net.

Less than two years after winning the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, Callum Hudson-Odoi made his England debut replacing Sterling. The debut is significant, as Hudson-Odom hasn’t started a league match yet.

In the 84th minute, a Chelsea connection led to England’s fifth goal. Sancho dribbled through the middle of the field diagonally before finding Hudson-Odoi out left. The youngster cut inside and fired a strike on goal that was saved by Czech goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka. But the rebound off Pavlenka’s save was somehow put into his own goal by Czech defender and former Chelsea signing Tomas Kalas.