Matija Nastasic

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Germany looks to become first to repeat at World Cup in half-century

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MOSCOW (AP) After raising the World Cup eight miles from Copacabana Beach four years ago, Germany hopes to lift the trophy four miles from the Kremlin on July 15 and become the first repeat champion in more than a half-century.

[ MORE: PST’s 2018 FIFA World Cup roundtable ]

The soccer world gathers at 12 stadiums in 11 cities across the European portion of Russia starting Thursday for a 32-day, 64-match championship. Much has changed since Die Mannschaft humiliated the host Selecao 7-1 in the 2014 semifinals, then left Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium with a 1-0 extra-time win over Argentina on Mario Goetze’s 113th-minute goal.

The United States will be missing from soccer’s showcase after seven straight appearances. Four-time champion Italy will be watching from home for the first time since 1958, its streak of 14 consecutive appearances ended by a playoff loss to Sweden. The Netherlands, which lost the 2010 final to Spain, missed out after slumping to third in its qualifying group. And Chile failed to qualify after consecutive Copa America titles.

Iceland and Panama are World Cup debutantes, Peru is back for the first time since 1982, and Egypt ends an absence dating to 1990.

Germany and Brazil are the pretournament favorites, and France is fancied behind them with a young roster . England will try to end more than five decades of hurt since winning its only major title on home soil in 1966. Mexico will try to advance past the second round for the first time since 1986, but El Tri opens against Germany and its likely second-round opponent is Brazil.

There also has been a generational change within FIFA. Many of its leaders have moved from penthouses to prisons following indictments by the U.S. Department of Justice that detailed kickbacks to be as much a part of soccer as free kicks.

Expect controversy on a regular basis.

FIFA’s Congress votes June 13 on the host of the 2026 tournament, and a joint bid by the U.S., Mexico and Canada is competing against Morocco – where most of the infrastructure would have to be built – on a ballot that includes a none-of-the-above option.

Following the drug-testing scandal that engulfed the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, FIFA’s medical committee chairman said no Russians will be involved in collection of urine and blood samples, which will be flown to Lausanne, Switzerland, for analysis.

VAR will be the acronym of the moment: video assistant referees in soccer-speak, instant replay for most viewers at home.

And as soon as the final whistle of the tournament is blown at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, attention will shift to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, moved to Nov. 21 through Dec. 18 because of summer desert heat and compressed to 28 days because it is in the middle of the European club season. Gianni Infantino, who succeeded the disgraced Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in 2016, has discussed increasing the World Cup field from 32 to 48 in 2022, four years ahead of schedule.

Some of the top storylines likely to dominate play in Russia:

MESSI AND RONALDO

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have split the last 10 FIFA Player of the Year awards, and this is likely their last chance to win a World Cup. Messi turns 31 on June 24, two days before Argentina finishes the first round against Nigeria, and has lost four finals with the national team. Ronaldo, 33, helped Portugal win the 2016 European Championship for its first major title.

BREAKOUT STARS?

Brazil’s Neymar, England’s Harry Kane, Egypt’s Mohamed Salah, France’s Antoine Griezmann and Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne are stars who could lift themselves into Player of the Year contention with stellar World Cups.

BACK TO BACK

Italy in 1934 and `38, and Brazil in 1958 and `62 are the only teams to win consecutive World Cups. Germany was 10-0 in qualifying, the only European team with a perfect record, and outscored opponents 43-4.

PLAY IT AGAIN

Following the first use of goal-line technology at a World Cup in 2014, FIFA has expanded off-the-field decision-making. A video assistant ref can notify the referee by headset of the need to reverse a decision if there is a “clear error” involving goals and their buildups, penalty kicks, straight red cards, and mistaken identify for red and yellow cards.

ICE ICE BABY

Iceland at about 335,000 becomes the least-populous nation to appear in a World Cup, a mark that had been held since 2006 by Trinidad and Tobago at 1.3 million.

MISSING

Injured players missing the tournament include Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero and midfielder Manuel Lanzini; France defender Laurent Koscielny; Serbia defender Matija Nastasic; Brazil right back Dani Alves; and England midfielder Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain.

SPLIT SCREEN?

The World Cup final starts two hours after the beginning of the Wimbledon men’s singles final. If Spain and Rafa Nadal are playing for titles, and the tennis isn’t decided in straight sets, which event do fans watch?

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

Bundesliga wrap: Schalke win late to stave off chasing pack

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BERLIN (AP) Schalke needed a penalty save and a late own goal to scramble a 1-0 win at Wolfsburg and retain second place in the Bundesliga on Saturday.

Substitute Breel Embolo helped create the decider when his pass across the box was turned into his own net by Robin Knoche four minutes from time.

Schalke goalkeeper Ralf Faehrmann saved Paul Verhaegh’s penalty in the 76th minute after Matija Nastasic had fouled Riechedly Bazoer.

“This is the work of our entire goalkeeping team,” Faehrmann said of his stop. “I don’t want to boast about it on my own, we’re always meticulously prepared for such situations.”

Schalke’s fifth consecutive win opened a four-point advantage over third-place Borussia Dortmund, which hosts Hannover on Sunday.

Wolfsburg is 15th.

“We played well and then missed the penalty and conceded a goal,” Knoche said. “I’m sorry for the team.”

Runaway leader Bayern Munich is 17 points clear before visiting Leipzig on Sunday.

Eintracht Frankfurt kept in the hunt for a top-four finish, and a Champions League berth, by beating Mainz 3-0.

Kevin-Prince Boateng put Eintracht in front after six minutes. Ante Rebic set up Luka Jovic for the second goal and Rebic finished off a counterattack before halftime.

Eintracht is fourth ahead of fifth-place Bayer Leverkusen’s trip to Cologne on Sunday.

Matthias Ginter netted in the 89th minute as Borussia Monchengladbach came from behind three times to draw 3-3 at home to seventh-place Hoffenheim.

Benjamin Hubner scored with a header before substitute Josip Drmic replied for Gladbach in the first half.

Andrej Kramaric converted a penalty after Jonas Hofmann had fouled Serge Gnabry to put Hoffenheim back in front. Lars Stindl then leveled before Florian Grillitsch quickly restored the visitors’ advantage.

Ninth-place Gladbach was staring at defeat until Ginter turned in Raffael’s cross at the far post to snatch a point that kept his team in the hunt for a Europa League berth.

Werder Bremen continued to climb away from danger after Algerian forward Ishak Belfodil grabbed two goals in a 3-1 win at Augsburg.

Belfodil was twice on target before halftime. Rani Khedira pulled one back for Augsburg before Max Kruse secured the points.

Werder is 12th after a fourth victory in six matches.

Hertha Berlin rallied for a 2-1 victory at relegation-haunted Hamburg.

Douglas Santos put Hamburg ahead before halftime, only for Valentino Lazaro and Salomon Kalou to turn the match around in the 56th and 63rd minutes.

Hamburg, the only club never to be relegated from the Bundesliga, is seven points from safety after 14 matches without a victory.

America’s latest Bundesliga teenager eyes the future

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As recently as Wednesday, Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie joined his American teammate Nick Taitague and fellow Yank teenager Christian Pulisic for an afternoon of FIFA at Pulisic’s place in Gelsenkirchen.

How long those sort of friendly meetings will endure is up for discussion, because one of the world’s best rivalries has two young American friends on either side.

McKennie is a whopping 21 days older than Borussia Dortmund’s Pulisic, and will turn 19 on August 28. He’s also following in the footsteps of Pulisic as a teenage member of the Revierderby.

[ MORE: JPW’s Premier League picks ]

“When we hang out it doesn’t come up, but we know in the back of our heads that when that game comes around we’ll have to hit pause on our friendship,” McKennie told ProSoccerTalk. “After that game we’ll see how it goes, but I’m sure it’ll be the same.”

The friendship of McKennie, Pulisic, Taitague, and Haji Wright — Wright has left Schalke for a loan stint at Sandhausen in 2.Bundesliga — has otherwise been a boon to the American quartet, and it isn’t wild to consider the unit’s formative days in Germany as a harbinger of what’s to come for the United States men’s national team.

McKennie, 18, could be a massive part of American soccer in the future. Rated the 13th best U-20 prospect in the Bundesliga, the Texas-born midfielder has drawn glowing reviews from new manager Domenico Tedesco, who lauded the player’s “super pressing game” in a senior debut earlier this week, and veterans Benedikt Howedes and Matija Nastasic only had good things to say in conversations with PST this week.

“In the defensive midfield he already operates very mature,” said Howedes, the longtime Schalke man who won the 2014 World Cup with Germany. “He works hard all the time and showed in pre-season that he can help us. If he develops like he has done until now, the team will be pleased with him. Also, he is clever in his head and a really funny guy.”

Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, is very pleased with McKennie’s two-way game.

[ MORE: Thursday’s transfer rumor roundup | Wednesday | Tuesday ]

“He’s very very good player in the middle because he can go up front and finish actions but also in defense he’s very good,” Nastasic said. “For me, he’s a box-to-box player who can run and is strong. He can be very very good.”

And here’s Nabil Bentaleb, just 22:

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Both players stressed patience with McKennie and a Schalke squad that has youthful talent in bunches. In addition to the American teenager, there’s Swiss sensation Breel Embolo, Algerian midfielder Nabil Bentaleb, and German trio Max Meyer, Leon Goretzka, and Fabian Reese.

In Meyer and Goretzka, McKennie has teammates who boast more than 210 league appearances despite a combined age of 43. Both won silver medals at the 2016 Olympics and Goretkza won the Silver Boot and Bronze Ball as Germany won the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia.

The fact that these players surround McKennie, Schalke’s youngest First Teamer, and have done so much at their ages is not lost on the American midfielder.

“Being around guys who’ve accomplished so much at a young age, even with Christian being younger than me and achieving so much and setting the way over here, you’re surrounding yourself with people who are only going to make you better,” McKennie said.

“Knowing ‘This kid’s only one year older than me. This kid’s only two years older than me,’ and seeing the way they carry themselves and the amount of experience they’ve had, it rubs off on you.”

And it’s not just the young guys bringing the energy as Schalke prepares for its Bundesliga opener on Saturday against Red Bull Leipzig.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Brooks out 3 months for Wolfsburg ]

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are. The older guys like Naldo and Coke still joke around with young guys. Me being the youngest I get a little bit more than everyone else.”

As for his American hopes, McKennie has spoken of his hopes to get into Bruce Arena’s USMNT fold. He’s hopeful for a call into a friendly camp in the next year, and harbors long shot hopes for a spot on a potential World Cup roster.

Playing an important position in one of the world’s top leagues at age 18 won’t hurt that, though minutes will certainly be difficult to come by this season given Schalke has a rare campaign outside of both the UEFA Champions League and Europa League.

And it may not surprise then when asked to target his role as a potential international, he hopes to grow into a player who’d be described as a mix of two of the United States’ all-time best at that position (one who’s starred at Schalke).

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“I’d kinda say Jermaine Jones if you had to choose a national team player, for the stuff that he does and maybe Michael Bradley, one of those players who is calm on the ball and can play that long ball, the one that is there at the right moments.” McKennie said, though at his age he obviously hasn’t seen a wide variety of USMNT center mids.

“Jermaine in my eyes is one of those guys who gets stuck in no matter what. He goes with all he has, and does the dirty work. That’s kinda how I picture myself.”

All of that isn’t to put the cart before the horse. McKennie is very clear in answering any questions about his future with measured responses. He has a lot of work to do to continue his rise into Schalke’s set-up.

[ MORE: Costa — “I must return to Atletico Madrid” ]

For now, he’ll keep doing what he’s doing, working as hard as possible to maintain a spot in Tedesco’s mix and growing alongside Taitague and Wright, and across the pitch from Pulisic, even as his BVB buddy makes it a bit harder to go out on the town.

“In his area and even in Gelsenkirchen because we’re rivals, he’s noticeable, but he’s not a player who tries to be noticed,” McKennie said. “There are players who try to be noticed, but he’s not. He’s not gonna say no to taking a photo, but even if he’s having a bad day he finds a way to put on a smile. He’s younger than me and I can still look up to him.”

That is until they hopefully hit the same grass for one of the game’s best matches.