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Marred by injuries, Dembele fails to meet expectations

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MADRID — More than 17,000 fans were at the Camp Nou when Ousmane Dembele was officially introduced by Barcelona in 2017.

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The expectations were high at the time. The then-20-year-old French forward had been touted as a possible replacement for Neymar, who had just left for Paris Saint-Germain in a record transfer.

Barcelona paid 105 million euros (then $125 million) to sign Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, with add-ons that could have reached 147 million euros ($175 million) and made him the second-highest transfer in soccer history at the time.

Two-and-a-half seasons later, though, Barcelona is still waiting for Dembele to meet all those expectations.

Dembele’s stint with Barcelona has been marked by his numerous injuries, not his goals. Wearing the No. 11 shirt that Neymar used to wear, Dembele has been injured nine different times since arriving, being sidelined for several months and missing more than 60 matches. In the nearly 70 matches Dembele did play, he scored 19 goals.

Dembele’s latest setback is a right-thigh hamstring tear that is likely to keep him out of action for the rest of the season. The injury came in training on Monday as he entered the final stages of his recovery from an injury that had already kept him sidelined since November.

He was almost certain to have a place in the starting lineup once he was back, as striker Luis Suarez is also out injured and is not expected to be fit again until later in the season. Young forward Carles Perez, who also competed for a spot in the attack, signed with Roma in last month’s transfer window. His main competition would have come from Ansu Fati, who is only 17 years old.

“I was confident that Dembele was going to be very helpful for us,” Barcelona coach Quique Setien said Wednesday. “It was unfortunate. It’s sad to see him like that. He is a great kid, I saw how he had been working hard.”

The 22-year-old Dembele had his first major injury shortly after he debuted with Barcelona. It was another hamstring injury, in the left leg, and it kept him out for four months.

Most of his injuries have been muscle problems, with a few ankle issues thrown in.

Dembele’s most recent injury will likely force Barcelona to try to sign another forward, though it will have to look for the player in the Spanish market as the international window ended last month. It would also need authorization from the Spanish soccer federation to add another player to its roster.

The club’s only signing in attack was young Portuguese forward Francisco Trincao, but he will only join the squad after the end of the season.

One of the forwards linked to a possible move to Barcelona is Angel Rodriguez, who has nine goals in 19 Spanish league games with third-place Getafe.

“We will see how it goes,” Setien said. “But if we can’t bring anyone else, it will be fine. We will keep working the same way as we did before.”

Barcelona is also mired in off-the-field problems. Lionel Messi this week publicly hit back at sports director Eric Abidal for criticizing his efforts under former coach Ernesto Valverde. Messi used his Instagram account to say Abidal and other club directors should take responsibility for their recent decisions. Abidal met with club president Josep Bartomeu on Wednesday and was expected to remain on the job.

Barcelona signs Trincao; Carrasco heads back to Atletico

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BARCELONA, Spain — Barcelona signed Portuguese forward Francisco Trincao for next season and Atletico Madrid announced the return of Yannick Carrasco on Friday, the final day of the transfer window in Spain.

Barcelona said it had agreed to pay Portuguese club Braga 31 million euros ($34 million) to acquire the 20-year-old Trincao after the season ends for five years.

Since debuting with Braga in December 2018, Trincao has scored three goals in 29 matches. He has played for Portugal’s youth teams and helped it win the under-19 European Championship in 2018 as its top scorer with five goals.

Barcelona described him as a “talented and quick player with a good left leg” who can play as a winger on either side of the attack.

Atletico will hope to boost its goal production immediately with the return of Carrasco, a Belgium forward who played for the Spanish club from 2015-18 before leaving for China.

He returns on a loan deal until the end of the season from Chinese club Dalian Professional.

Carrasco scored 23 goals, including one in the 2016 Champions League final that Atletico lost to Real Madrid, in 124 appearances in his first stint with Atletico.

Ranking which U.S. cities should host 2026 World Cup

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The 2026 World Cup is still a long way out but that doesn’t mean cities across the United States of America aren’t battling it out to host games.

Let the battle begin.

A report from Yahoo’s Doug McIntyre pointed out that host venues have been sent letters by U.S. Soccer as site visits will take place this year to the 17 cities vying to host games. The 10 U.S. venues which will host World Cup games will then be announced early in 2021, as three venues will be selected in both Canada (Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal) and Mexico (Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City) with 16 stadiums overall picked by FIFA, who have the final say.

The 2026 World Cup will be the largest in history with 80 games played overall, 60 of which will be in the USA and the entire tournament from the quarterfinal stage onwards will be in the U.S.

As far as the next step for potential host cities, according to the letter U.S. Soccer sent to officials from each host city, they are as follows via Yahoo:

  • Former U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, who retired from that role last year, has been charged with leading the process and will be the main point of contact for the bidding cities.
  • Each stadium site will be visited twice by the selection committee between March and November 2020. The cities will also participate in “workshops” with Dan Flynn’s team next month, then make final proposals for inclusion before the list is whittled down.
  • Specific details regarding the selection process, including “structure, timeline, delegation, methodology, etc.” will be presented during the workshops, the letter said.

This has got us thinking: How have things moved on for potential host cities since the announcement in 2018 that the U.S., Mexico and Canada would be hosting the expanded 48-team tournament?

With that in mind we rank the 17 venues vying for the 10 host stadium spots in the U.S. below, and share our thoughts on who we think deserves to have 2026 World Cup games.


Ranking potential 2026 World Cup venues

Host cities

1. New York/New Jersey
2. Los Angeles (Rose Bowl Stadium or new Inglewood NFL stadium)
3. Washington, D.C.
4. Miami
5. Seattle
6. Atlanta
7. San Francisco/Bay Area
8. Dallas
9. Boston
10. Denver

Missing out
11. Kansas City
12. Philadelphia
13. Houston
14. Nashville
15. Orlando
16. Baltimore
17. Cincinnati


Analysis

The first six cities on this list pick themselves. New York, LA, Washington D.C., Miami and Seattle are all cities entrenched with rich soccer culture and they are spread in all four corners of the U.S. But then it starts to get tricky, Atlanta has jumped to the top of the list due to the success of Atlanta United in MLS, while logistically it makes sense to have games in the Bay Area, Dallas and Denver to link up the west coast and midwest respectively, while Boston’s rich sporting heritage has to be factored in. The likes of Baltimore, Cincinnati and Nashville seem like outsiders and even Orlando can be put in that category as Miami will likely get the nod in Florida. So that leaves Houston, Philly and Kansas City as the three cities who could be interchangeable with Denver, Dallas and Boston, depending on how their site visits shake out. Remember: the location of venues as well as transport, hotels and other local infrastructure all plays a big part in picking host cities. Tens of thousands of extra fans will flock to the city where the game is being played without tickets just to be there.

It is so tough to whittle down this list to just 10 because we all know the U.S. is able to host the World Cup on its own and the fact that three cities are expected to host games from both Mexico and Canada makes the competition for stadiums in the USA even stronger. With neither Chicago (who pulled out of the bidding due to concerns over taxpayers after FIFA didn’t negotiate) or Vancouver currently in the running as host cities as they missed the initial deadline for host cities to bid, it is worth nothing that FIFA has the final say and they could demand either one of those cities is included in the bid. Either way, the site visits in 2020 will be very interesting as cities across the U.S. roll out the red carpet for U.S. Soccer as they try and get a slice of the action as the biggest party on the planet comes to the USA in 2026.

Madrid plays Atlético in Super Cup final in Saudi Arabia

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — The Spanish capital’s two soccer powerhouses will face off on Sunday thousands of kilometers from Madrid in the final of the new-look Spanish Super Cup.

Real Madrid plays Atletico Madrid in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to decide the winner of the first edition of a revamped tournament.

The Spanish federation expanded the competition to four teams – instead of two – and moved it from the start of the season to its midpoint. The federation was not deterred by human rights activists and European football’s governing body who criticized it for taking the mini-competition to Saudi Arabia on a three-year deal reportedly worth 120 million euros ($134 million).

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin had recommended for European soccer teams not to play in countries “where the basic rights of women are not respected.”

Spanish federation president Luis Rubiales has tried to deflect the criticism by highlighting that opening the games to women spectators was part of the deal to play in the country.

Coach Ernesto Valverde, whose Barcelona team was beaten by Atletico 3-2 in Thursday’s semifinal, has publicly said that the games are about making more money.

Amnesty International organized a small peaceful protest in front of the Saudi Arabia embassy in Madrid on Wednesday to call for the release of women activists who have been fighting for their rights in Saudi Arabia.

On the field, and despite the limited interest the games have drawn back in Spain, the semifinals offered some exciting contests. Madrid showed off the quality of its midfielders to overcome injuries to its forwards in a 3-1 win over Valencia on Wednesday, while Atletico stunned Barcelona with two late goals.

Traditionally the Super Cup was the league vs. cup winner. Barcelona won last season’s Liga, while Valencia claimed the Copa del Rey.

Madrid will still be without the injured Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard. Against Valencia, manager Zinedine Zidane successfully experimented with a line-up loaded with five midfielders, and three of them- Toni Kroos, Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and Luka Modric – found the net.

Zidane, however, was tight-lipped over whether he would repeat the formula against Atletico at the King Abdullah stadium.

“I am not going to tell you how we are going to play,” Zidane said Friday. “The important thing is that we play on the attack, not with a certain scheme. The important thing is to have a balanced side.”

This will be the third time the crosstown rivals have met since the end of last season. Atletico embarrassed Madrid 7-3 in a preseason game in the United States in July. They then drew 0-0 at Atletico’s stadium in a Spanish league match in September.

Atletico coach Diego Simeone said that his two most in-form players, goalkeeper Jan Oblak and forward Angel Correa, have recovered from knocks they received against Barcelona. Oblak made several saves to keep his team alive against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona until Alvaro Morata and Correa struck to flip the score.

“Madrid is a team that we know very well,” Simeone said. “They transmit the sensation that they have to win, and then they do so. We are both teams that are extremely motivated to win this cup and we will both use all our weapons to win this game.”

Zidane’s experiment pays off

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MADRID — Without some of his best forwards, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane trusted his midfielders to get the job done.

Zidane used five players in the midfield to make up for the absence of forwards Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard in the semifinals of the Spanish Super Cup against Valencia on Wednesday in Saudi Arabia, and it paid off handsomely.

Madrid had one of its best games of the season, cruising to a 3-1 victory and advancing to Sunday’s final against either Barcelona or Atletico Madrid.

Zidane used newly arrived Luka Jovic as the lone striker up front. Instead of adding forwards Lucas Vazquez, Rodrygo or Vinicius Junior on the flanks, he packed the midfield with Francisco “Isco” Alarcon, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde and Casemiro.

Kroos, Isco and Modric each scored to give Madrid the comfortable victory at King Abdullah Sports City.

“We always like to try new things,” Zidane said. “We could have used two forwards, but we decided to bring Isco and Modric toward the middle and give more space to the fullbacks. It’s an attacking-minded lineup. The important thing is that we pressured our opponent on its field. We wanted to make things difficult for them from the start.”

The tight midfield kept Madrid in control throughout the match, dominating Valencia by constantly threatening in attack while not conceding much ground defensively. Madrid ended with more than 60% of ball possession and exchanged a team season-high 798 passes.

“We were in control,” Casemiro said. “It was an experiment to play with five midfielders and we showed that it can be done.”

Zidane said the good performance against Valencia does not guarantee he will use the same formation again.

“It was the choice today, but we may change things again for the next match,” Zidane said. “We need to get some rest before we start preparing for the final.”

Benzema, Madrid’s leading scorer with 16 goals in all competitions, didn’t make the trip to Saudi Arabia because of a left hamstring injury, while Bale stayed home because of a throat infection. Hazard has been nursing an ankle injury since last year.

The Spanish Super Cup is being played in a “Final Four” format for the first time. Previously, only the Spanish league winner and the Copa del Rey champion participated. Madrid made it this year as the third-place finisher in the league after Spanish champion Barcelona lost to Valencia in the Copa del Rey final.

Madrid is seeking its eighth Spanish Super Cup title. Barcelona is the competition’s most successful club with 10.