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After the qualifiers: If the 2018 World Cup started today

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Here’s a peek at where we stand with 20 months to go before the World Cup in Russia, as well as a fun and borderline crazy predictive exercise done solely in the name of entertainment.

What if the World Cup started today? Who would be qualify?

The only side guaranteed a spot right now is Russia, who will be drawn in Group A. Then the following seven qualifiers with the highest FIFA ranking would also earn Pot 1 status.

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

You know what? Let’s get nuts and play out the entire tournament to see who wins World Cup 2018.


QUALIFICATION

We’ll use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants

Asia (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Australia
PLAYOFF: Japan vs. South Korea

Projection: This is a tough one, as Japan and South Korea have a storied history. South Korea has won 40 of the 77 all-time meetings, but hasn’t claimed a win since May 2010 (five meetings, with two draws). So we’ll use Japan for the fifth bid, and a playoff bid against the fourth place team in CONCACAF.

Africa (1 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt

CONCACAF (No Hex games played, based on last round)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, United States
PLAYOFF: Trinidad and Tobago

South America (10 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Colombia
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (0 third round qualifiers played, based on last round)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand

Europe (3 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Montenegro, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Italy, Iceland, Greece, Sweden, Poland, Ireland, Azerbaijan, Portugal

PROJECTION: We’re using a random draw (honestly, we used Random.org)
Greece vs. Sweden — Greece wins
Italy vs. Ireland — Italy wins
Azerbaijan vs. Iceland — Iceland wins
Portugal vs. Poland — Portugal wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Japan vs. Trinidad and Tobago — Japan wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (host, 38)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Belgium (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Colombia (T-4)
  6. Brazil (T-4)
  7. Portugal (7)
  8. France (8)
  9. Uruguay (9)
  10. Spain (11)
  11. England (12)
  12. Italy (13)
  13. Croatia (14)
  14. Mexico (15)
  15. Switzerland (16)
  16. Costa Rica (18)
  17. Ecuador (19)
  18. USA (22)
  19. Iceland (27)
  20. Ivory Coast (34)
  21. Iran (37)
  22. Senegal (39)
  23. Australia (45)
  24. Greece (48)
  25. Uzbekistan (49)
  26. Serbia (50)
  27. DR Congo (51)
  28. Saudi Arabia (52)
  29. Egypt (53)
  30. Japan (56)
  31. Nigeria (64)
  32. Montenegro (105)

THE POTS

Like last cycle, the nine European qualifiers mean one will have to join Pot 2. Our random selection was… England. Wow.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Belgium, Germany, Colombia, Brazil, Portugal, France
Pot 2 (CAF & SA): England, DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt, Uruguay, Ecuador
Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Japan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Australia, USA, Mexico, Cosa Rica
Pot 4 (Europe): Italy, Greece, Iceland, Switzerland, Serbia, Montenegro, England, Spain, Croatia


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, Italy, Ivory Coast, Australia
Group B: Brazil, Greece, Ecuador, Uzbekistan
Group C: Colombia, Spain, Serbia, Saudi Arabia
Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Senegal, Japan
Group E: France, Switzerland, DR Congo, Mexico
Group F: Belgium, Montenegro, Uruguay, Iran
Group G: Germany, England, USA, Egypt
Group H: Portugal, Iceland, Nigeria, Costa Rica

Holy smoke! That is a next level group of death for the USMNT!

Should we go on? Okay. We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk. We’re also going to do this once, favor the Yanks, and not look back.

Great news! The U.S. escapes thanks to Harry Redknapp demanding to use 81-times capped Croatian midfielder Niko Kranjcar for England despite FIFA telling him he would forfeit the tournament. Egypt gets a case of the measles a la the Panthers in “The Mighty Ducks”, since we’re playing out a cinematic string here for our home country. USA advances!

Round of 16
Spain def. Japan
Italy def. Greece
Brazil def. Russia
Argentina def. Colombia
France def. Uruguay
Germany def. Nigeria
Mexico def. Belgium
USA def. Portugal*

Quarterfinals
Italy def. Spain
Brazil def. Argentina
Germany def. France
USA def. Mexico*

Semifinals
Brazil def. Italy
Germany def. USA

Final
Germany def. Brazil

*Allow us this daydream. Thanks.

More reports claim Francesco Totti headed to NASL’s New York Cosmos

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Oh my, NASL. Let’s do this.

The latest international star to take his talent to the United States’ second tier of soccer could be none other than 39-year-old one club talisman Francesco Totti.

[ MORE: All of PST’s NASL news ]

While it would be disappointing in a sense to see the striker resist the urge to play for only one club, the idea of having Totti in a New York Cosmos jersey is almost too much to pass up.

It does seem a bit of a stretch given reported other suitors. SBI reported that the report is unfounded, and the Cosmos’ called the player “fantastic” but denied the story last month.

Still, it persists.

From Sky Sports:

Claudio Ranieri had attempted to make contact with his compatriot last month by offering him a one-year deal at the King Power next season.

However, the 39-year-old is understood to be favouring a move to the States and has been in contact with the New York Cosmos, according to our colleagues at Sky Italia.

Totti has appeared more than 750 times for i Lupi in a 24-year career that’s also seen him capped 58 times with nine goals for Italy.

Limited to 8 matches this season, Totti did score on the weekend and hasn’t scored less than 8 goals in a Serie A season since the 1999-2000 campaign. The five-time Serie A Italian Footballer of the Year is the active leading goal scorer in Serie A and the all-time leading goal scorer in Roma history.

Real Madrid legend Raul retired from the Cosmos after last season, but the club still has deep pockets and stars like Niko Kranjcar and Juan Arango on the books. And let’s face it: “Totti” on the back of a Cosmos jersey has that 1970s feel all over it.

NASL roundup: Cosmos, RailHawks win again to stay perfect

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A roundup of all the action on Week 2 of the 2016 North American Soccer League season…

New York Cosmos 2-0 Jacksonville Armada

For the second week running, Jairo Arrieta and Adam Moffat each got their names on the scoresheet as the New York Cosmos remained perfect to begin the 2016 season. The former Premier League player who provided the assist for Moffat? None other than ex-Portsmouth, Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers attacker Niko Kranjcar. You never know who’s bound to pop up in the the NASL.

Rayo OKC 2-3 Carolina RailHawks

Keeping pace with the defending champion Cosmos are the Carolina RailHawks, who left it as late as they possibly could on Saturday. Austin da Luz opened the scoring in the 23rd minute, putting the visitors ahead, but former MLS striker Ryan Johnson equalized just 10 minutes later. Former FC Dallas midfielder Michel put the hosts a goal ahead on 52 minutes, but Aly Hassan equalized in the 74th. Da Luz scored the winner in the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time.

FC Edmonton 0-2 Minnesota United

Former Columbus Crew SC homegrown forward Ben Speas bagged his first two goals of the season (and his NASL career), giving Minnesota United, who hope to be competing in MLS this time next year, their first victory of the season.

Elsewhere in NASL

Miami FC 1-1 Tampa Bay Rowdies
Indy Eleven 1-1 Ottawa Fury

Next week’s NASL schedule

Jacksonville Armada vs. Miami FC (Friday, 7 p.m. ET)
Carolina RailHawks vs. Ottawa Fury (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Indy Eleven vs. New York Cosmos (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Edmonton Fury (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Minnesota United vs. Fort Lauderdale Strikers (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET)

Chatting with NASL commissioner Bill Peterson as league kicks off sixth season on Saturday

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The North American Soccer League begins its sixth season on Saturday with new teams, big-name imports and plenty of momentum.

The lone Division II league in the American Soccer Pyramid — USL Pro has applied for D-II status but is currently third — the NASL now boasts more than 55 players from 27 countries with appearances on the international stage, including Greece national team striker Georgios Samaras and Premier League veteran Niko Kranjcar of Croatia.

[ MORE: NASL announces San Francisco Deltas ]

With new teams starting play in Oklahoma City and Miami, and two more announced in Puerto Rico and San Francisco, PST caught up with NASL commissioner Bill Peterson to talk about what’s next in the league.

Rangers' Carlos Bocanegra challenges Celtic's Georgios Samaras during their Scottish Premier League 'Old Firm' derby soccer match
Samaras playing for Celtic in the Old Firm Derby. He will suit up for Rayo OKC this season in the NASL (Reuters)
You have three new teams starting play in 2016, and they’ve made some interesting roster moves. What’s your take on the new boys?
“What I’m most excited about is the approach on the field. Miami and Oklahoma City very quickly ramped up with their coaching and technical sides. They’ve gone after very high-caliber players. I believe that they are going to hit the ground and be pretty competitive. That’s a little bit different from what we saw with Ottawa and Jacksonville in their first years, I think because in general they were building their teams off the season they just watched instead of the changes that were made to existing teams rosters.

“Puerto Rico is not too far behind them. They’re on a little bit different calendar. They’ll have their own unique challenges in signing players and finding meaningful matches before they start. We expect them to be pretty competitive right out of the box.”

What’re the plans for expansion moving forward?
“The plan is to go to 20 teams and maintain the two seasons (The NASL plays Spring and Fall seasons with a break in between). It’ll look differently after we cross over 2016. We’re exploring some other things we may or may not be able to do it. With 20 we can keep the single table, get all the games in the weather window and keep an exciting competition.

“We’ll have announcements of at least one and maybe more teams over the next couple months. We just can’t talk about it because we’ve seen a million reasons for an ownership group to change their mind or to take longer than anyone expected. The real key is that everything is in place now. This is a much bigger league than a few years ago. There’s more at stake. We’re going to get to 20, and we’re going to continue to grow.”

A massive challenge for any nascent league is navigating the massiveness of our country and continent (The NASL has added San Francisco since PST spoke with Peterson). How does this affect your vision and business?
“It’s a very unique challenge and many times those who follow leagues in other parts of the world lose the fact that we’ve got some unique geographical challenges and they do keep you up at night. It takes longer to build a fan base when they can’t hop on us a bus and go see a team play a visiting site, or the media can’t afford to fly across the country to cover a team that’s playing a big match.

“Those are big obstacles and they aren’t going away. We have to continually overcome them, or at least reduce the impact on what we’re trying to do. In the early days it’s tougher than hopefully it will be later down the road. It’s hard enough to find the right ownership group in the right cities. It makes it even more difficult when you try to get a national footprint in a territory that’s so big.”

The New York Cosmos have beaten the Red Bulls in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup but last year was a tough year for the league in that important tournament. What’s your take on it?

New York Cosmos player Lucky Mkosana (R) greets teammate Spanish Raul Gonzalez (L) during a Cuba vs New York Cosmos friendly soccer match on June 2, 2015 at Pedro Marrero stadium in Havana. AFP PHOTO/YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
New York Cosmos player Lucky Mkosana (R) greets teammate Spanish Raul Gonzalez (YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
“It’s sort of organic how this comes about, but if you talk to our coaches and owners right now they’ll tell you that the Open Cup is a real priority for them. They understand the competition now, the history, they understand what it means to participate in that competition.

“Last year was a wake-up call. There was a little bit of mentality with some clubs that they maybe didn’t put the effort into it, rested some players and guess what? They lost. That was not a good feeling that day and all of them remember that. There have been discussions between ownerships and technical staff that it’s important to win Open Cup matches. You’ll see an all-out effort from our clubs this year because it’s just so fun to play. Those are cool opportunities for our players and our fans. It’s a great competition.”

It does seem like the league has grown in reputation fairly quickly. Obviously, the Cosmos help this, but why do you think its leapt in rep?
“We have an advantage in the fact that this is the NASL and it had this incredible history here in the late 60s and 70s. There are still people I meet every week whose father took them to an NASL match. Having those clubs come back has stirred up interest in those who were there the first time around. It’s disappointing that they’ve been left behind.

“We try to keep it as pure as possible. The players and the game on the field is the first priority in everything we do. The fans are second, and everything we do, any decisions we make throughout this league, it has to have a positive effect on those two groups or we don’t do it because it’s a waste of time and money. Our clubs have done a great job of promoting themselves.”

NASL Fast Facts

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@QPRFC
Teams in Spring 2016 season: Jacksonville Armada, Carolina Railhawks, FC Edmonton, Indy Eleven, Minnesota United FC, Ottawa Fury, New York Cosmos, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Rayo OKC, Miami FC

Coming in Fall 2016: Puerto Rico FC (owned by Carmelo Anthony)

Coming in 2017: San Francisco Deltas

Players you know:
Wilson Palacios and Dane Richards (Miami FC)
Samaras, Kosuke Kimura, Robbie Findley (Rayo OKC)
Juan Arango, Yasmani Duk, Kranjcar (NY Cosmos)
Jon Busch and Lovel Palmer (Indy Eleven)
Marcel de Jong and Julian de Guzman (Ottawa Fury)
Jeb Brovsky and Bernardo Anor (Minnesota United)
Darwin Espinal, Eric Avila and Freddy Adu (Tampa Bay)
Kleberson and Aurelio Saco Vertiz (Fort Lauderdale)
Nik Ledgerwood and Sainey Nyassi (FC Edmonton)

UEFA Champions League Tuesday preview: Arsenal, Roma in tough spot

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To say it’s do-or-die for some UEFA Champions League sides in the group stage of this 2015-16 tournament is a bit harsh, but only a bit.

[ MORE: Champions League clubs dominate Ballon d’Or shortlist ]

And for some, like Arsenal, it’s the absolute truth. A loss for the Gunners to Bayern Munich — hardly unexpected — would leave them 0-for-3 in group stage games with a visit to the Allianz Arena still to come.

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich

Aside from the home field advantage provided by the Emirates Stadium, things don’t bode well for the Gunners. The opponents have both faced Olympiakos and Dinamo Zagreb. Arsenal is 0-2, having allowed give goals. Bayern is 2-0, scoring eight and not conceding a single tally.

Dinamo Zagreb vs. Olympiakos

The winner of this battle will be alone in Group F’s second place, and both are dreaming of the knockout rounds after taking care of Arsenal earlier in group play.

Dynamo Kyiv vs. Chelsea

This is a brutal and tricky trip for the Blues, probably the most difficult to navigate fixture of Group G outside of the other three clubs’ trips to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea enters the match in third place, but will fancy its chances to take all three points from Andriy Yarmolenko, Niko Kranjcar and Dynamo.

Porto vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv

The Israeli side is another club on the brink after starting 0-2 and failing to score a goal. Going to Porto is no cakewalk for any club, and Maccabi could find the end of Tuesday with very little hope of advancing to the knockout rounds.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 26: Hulk and Artem Dzyuba of FC Zenit St. Petersburg celebrate after scoring a goal during the Russian Premier League match between FC Spartak Moscow and FC Zenit St. Petersburg at the Arena Otkritie Stadium on September 26, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)
Hulk and Artem Dzyuba of FC Zenit St. Petersburg (Photo by Epsilon/Getty Images)
Zenit Saint-Petersburg vs. Lyon

Don’t mess with Hulk and Danny (and Javi Garcia… and Axel Witsel). The Russian powers are off to a great start in Group H, and can essentially seal its fate in the knockout rounds with a win.

Valencia vs. Gent

Fancy Valencia’s chances here, though Gent has been valiant both its defeat at Zenit and home draw versus Lyon.

[ UCL: Bale out for Madrid | No Robben for Bayern ]

BATE Borisov vs Barcelona

Neymar has filled the void of Lionel Messi, inasmuch as filling the shoes of the best player in the world is possible. But Barca’s Belarusian opponents present a hostile place to play, having knocked off Roma this season and Athletic Bilbao last UCL season.

Bayer Leverkusen vs. AS Roma

The Serie A side had its chance to lick its UCL wounds, having fell at BATE and drawn at home against Barca. Now it needs a big road result against Bundesliga opposition, an enemy that plays quite well at home.