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New CONCACAF World Cup qualifying structure is downright outrageous

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On Wednesday, CONCACAF released its new model for qualification to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. While the number of qualifying teams stays the same – three-and-a-half – the new method is an utterly baffling concoction of wealth division and competitive nonsense that leaves teams at the bottom with almost no prayer of competing and those in the middle suddenly confused at where they fit in.

CONCACAF released a video combing through its new qualification method, stating that teams will be tiered by FIFA rankings, with those at the top gaining a significant, almost insurmountable advantage. While CONCACAF qualifying has always been segmented in the recent past, with teams like Bermuda, St. Kitts & Nevis, and Montserrat forced to slog through three rounds of preliminary qualifiers before reaching the meat and potatoes, the top teams like Mexico, the United States, and Costa Rica still had to play through a group stage before reaching the famous Hex.

Now, in the new format, the top six FIFA-ranked CONCACAF sides go straight through to the Hex, no group stage needed, with the top three earning CONCACAF’s three automatic qualifying bid. Meanwhile, the bottom 29 – twenty-nine teams! – are unable to earn an automatic bid at all, instead playing a Champions League-like group stage/knockout round combo for a spot in a playoff against the Hex’s fourth-place side for one half-bid, with the winner entering into the intercontinental playoff against a TBA federation. Breathe, you’re not the only one confused.

Right away, the North American federation has succumbed to an outrageous imbalance of power, with the infamously imperfect FIFA rankings dictating who is even eligible for a World Cup automatic bid and who is only good enough for a half-bid via a long and arduous trek through a series of lower-level matches before a playoff against the Hex’s fourth-place finisher?

CONCACAF will argue it is actually doing the lower-tiered teams a favor, giving one of them a better opportunity to reach a World Cup as they are separated from the top teams and able to compete against themselves for the chance at a spot, but in reality, the federation is creating a gargantuan rift that could see an exhausted an ill-equipped team set up for an intercontinental slaughter. While the federation wished to avoid having three-quarters of the teams eliminated two years out from the big dance – a legitimate problem – this new format hardly solves that issue, seeing the bottom-tier group stage concluding by the fall of 2020, with 21 teams eliminated at that point. The knockout stage will then eliminate another four teams in March 2021, and another two in June. For the top teams, they will play six fewer competitive games with the straight shot into the Hex, instead leaving them with just five international windows of Hexagonal games (September, October, and November of 2020 plus March and September of 2021) to savor.

The federation is also robbed of its more intriguing matchups, with the top teams now unable to play the likes of Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala, Haiti, or St. Vincent & the Grenadines, all who made the group stage last qualifying cycle and got a chance to pit themselves against the best. Trinidad & Tobago surprised and reached the Hex, while Guatemala and Canada came close in fun matchups that mattered.

In addition, the system creates a confusing dilemma for those teams on the cusp of the Hex. Is it better for a team on the edge like El Salvador, Panama, or Canada to be in the top-tier round robin with a shot at an automatic bid should they surprise over the course of 10 matches? Remember, the bottom two teams in the Hex are fully eliminated. Or is it better to be in the lower-tier creation against theoretically lesser opponents, only able to earn the half-bid but progressing as the favored side for much of the qualifying cycle? If they prefer the latter, would teams throw games between now and then to drop in the rankings and not risk a spot in the Hex?

While there are understandable problems the federation looked to solve with a new qualification format, their creation instead raises far more questions than it solves, and creating a significant power division using an imperfect ranking system spells disaster before the cycle even gets under way. While the old system had its drawbacks, this is unquestionably a step back for the federation that sees competitive balance further eroded instead of progress forward.

Exactly who is Newcastle’s new $50M striker?

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Newcastle United’s club record signing of Joelinton is raising plenty of eyebrows, as fans try to grasp what they have in the $50 million Brazilian.

Suffice it to say that there isn’t an easy comparison.

The soon-to-be 23-year-old scored seven goals with five assists in Bundesliga play for Hoffenheim last season, adding four and two from Champions League and German Cup play.

[ MORE: Man Utd chase Pepe, Fernandes ]

He’s a unit, to be sure, at 6-foot-1 with tremendous leaping ability and a powerful stride. Joelinton certainly has the ability to dominate in the air and hold the ball up like Newcastle’s loan star Salomon Rondon in 2018-19, but he brings better passing than most center forwards.

There’s a temptation to compare him to Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino, another Premier League import from Brazil via Hoffenheim, as Joe Prince-Wright wrote in his morning post about the impending deal.

Firmino was on another level in 2014-15, coming off a remarkably complete seasons for a center forward. He also shoots more often than Joelinton.

What Newcastle supporters will like from Joelinton, what makes him unique for his size, is that he’s a tremendous dribbler. He has trickery to go with his pace, not strictly a locomotive.

His season didn’t have the goals, the Toon will hope, because he was supplying wingers Andrej Kramaric (17 goals) and Ishak Belfodil (16). That could be music to the ears of Miguel Almiron and… whoever else Steve Bruce has to deploy (Yoshinori Muto? Jacob Murphy?).

Joelinton also played less than minutes than the following three comparables: West Ham import Sebastien Haller, Watford target Ismalia Sarr, and Wolves star Raul Jimenez.

Will he be worth the spend? The six-year deal promises profit potential — something Mike Ashley and chief scout Graham Carr are clearly targeting — if he explodes and earns the admiration of bigger sides. As for now, he should be able to provide what Rondon did in 2018-19.

Filipe Luis signs for Flamengo after leaving Atletico

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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Brazilian veteran left-back Filipe Luis has signed for boyhood club Flamengo after leaving Atletico Madrid on a free transfer.

The Rio de Janeiro club and the player confirmed the move Tuesday on social media.

Flamengo said the 33-year-old Luis has signed a deal until 2021.

Luis has played in Europe for 14 years but left Atletico on Sunday after his contract expired.

The left-back was a starter for Brazil during its recent run to the Copa America title.

With Atletico, Luis won the Copa del Rey in 2013, the Spanish league in 2014, and the Europa League in 2012 and 2018. He also had a brief spell with Chelsea in between, winning the Premier League in 2015.

Flamengo is third in the Brazilian championship after 11 matches, five points behind leader and defending champion Palmeiras.

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

MLS expansion side Austin FC name Wolff as first-ever head coach

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Former USMNT forward  Josh Wolff has become the first-ever head coach of Austin FC, as the MLS expansion franchise crack on with their expected entry into North America’s top-flight in 2021.

Wolff, 42, was the assistant coach for D.C. United before moving to the Columbus Crew were he worked as Gregg Berhalter’s assistant for the past five years. Wolff was then hired as Berhalter’s assistant when he took charge of the USMNT.

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage

Austin FC say that Wolff will start his new job after the international window in November as he will continue with his current job with U.S. Soccer until then.

“I know that Austin has a true love of soccer, and it is the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of the first ever major league team of any kind in the Capital of Texas,” Wolff said. “Our stated ambition is to establish ourselves quickly within MLS as a vibrant, attacking side and we want to reflect the diverse, competitive, and passionate makeup of our club’s home, both on and off the field.”

This move makes total sense as former Columbus Crew owner, Anthony Precourt, knows Wolff from their time together in Ohio. Precourt excercized his option to move his MLS franchise from Columbus to Austin which was confirmed in January 2019.

The Crew have since been kept in Columbus and Precourt is now the chairman and CEO of Two Oak Ventures, the entity which owns the rights to operate Austin FC and its stadium, while also holding the title of chairman and CEO of Austin FC. Austin FC’s new stadium at McKalla Place (the stadium and the complex around it looks pretty incredible) is privately funded and will hold 20,500 fans when it is completed.

Hiring a former MLS and USMNT star to lead the team makes a lot of sense and Wolff’s name has been mentioned plenty when MLS jobs have become available in recent years. He was on both the 2002 and 2006 USMNT World Cup squads and his experience across MLS and in Europe have given him a unique coaching style.

There is a lot of respect for Wolff among the American soccer community and his playing philosophy is very similar to Berhalter’s. Wolff becoming a head coach is good news for young domestic players.

Live, UCL: PSV v. Basel headlines second qualifying round

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The UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds continue to roll on, and there are some mouthwatering clashes across Europe on Tuesday.

[ LIVE: Champions League scores ]

That’s right, the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons pretty much rolled into one.

The pick of the second qualifying round first leg ties on Tuesday sees Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven host FC Basel in the Netherlands, with Mexican national team stars Hirving Lozano and Erick Guttierez hopeful of playing in the UCL group stage this season.

Welsh champions The New Saints host Danish champs FC Copenhagen, with TNS the heavy underdogs but their illustrious opponents will not relish their trip to Wales amid sweltering conditions in the UK.

Dinamo Zagreb will fancy their chances of advancing past Georgian minnows Saburtalo, while Olympiacos head to Czech giants Viktoria Plzen in another tasty encounter.

The third qualifying round sees the likes of Ajax, FC Porto and Dynamo Kiev enter the competition, so things will continue to get tougher for any minnows who sneak through this round.

Below is the full schedule for Tuesday’s games, with the second legs played next week. Click on the link to follow all of the action live.

UCL second qualifying round, first leg – Tuesday, July 23

Plzen v. Olympiacos – 1 p.m. ET
Saburtalo v. Dinamo Zagreb – 1:30 p.m. ET
The New Saints v. Copenhagen – 2 p.m. ET
PSV Eindhoven v. FC Basel – 2 p.m. ET
FK Sutjeska v. APOEL Nicosia – 2:15 p.m. ET