12/7/17 IU Hoosiers in College Cup Fri 8:30pm on ESPNU, MLS Cup Finals Toronto vs Seattle Sat 4 pm, ESPN Champions League Sweet 16 is Set, World Cup Brackets are Set, Manchester Derby Sun

IU Hoosiers in College Cup Fri 8:30pm on ESPNU, MLS Cup Finals Toronto vs Seattle Sat 4 pm, ESPN Champions League Sweet 16 is Set, World Cup Brackets are Set, Manchester Derby Sun

Ok Soccer Fans who don’t watch Major League Soccer  – because its not European teams, the US players aren’t featured or you just refuse to watch a US Soccer league (you know who you are) – well you have no excuse for not pulling up to the TV on Sat afternoon at 4 pm on ESPN and watch the MLS Cup.  It’s the 2 best teams – last year’s finalist Seattle – the defending champions with US stars Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris vs the team that finished 2nd year last season with the Best Record this season (Supporters Shield Winners) with US stars Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and the leagues’ best player Sebastian Giovincho.  This is superstars game with the 2 Best Teams in the MLS squaring off for a 2nd straight year for all the Marbles.  So if you are not an MLS Fan – give it a shot – tune in this Saturday and take in the best the MLS has to offer 4 PM on ESPN!

Who Says Champions League Group Stages aren’t Exciting?  I watched with baited breath as Juventus scored late to win and ensure their way into the Round of 16 behind Barcelona – sending Portugal’s young Sporting team back to the Europa league as a 3rd place finsher.  My Spanish favorites Athletico Madrid – the people’s team – tied Chelsea 1-1 sending them out as Roma won the group with Chelsea advancing second.  For Altheti – just 2 years removed from the UCL Final – it’s their earliest elimination in Champions League in years.  Atleti will fall to Europa league where Diego Simeon will try put things back together.  Congrats to Renaldo who both scored his leading 9th goal in the group stages and of course won the Player of the Year Trophy for the 5th year over Messi and Buffon.

Derby’s on hand this weekend as Juventus host Inter in Serie A on Sat at 2:45 pm on beIN Sport and then Sunday in the EPL Liverpool host Everton at 9:15 am on NBCSN followed by the legendary Manchester Derby –league Leading Man City vs 3rd place Man United at Old Trafford at 11:30 on NBCSN.

Finally good luck to the Indiana Hoosiers as they are at the College Soccer Cup this weekend in Philly for their record 19th time!!  They will play #3 Seed North Carolina (17-3-1) at 8:45 pm on ESPNU.   Win and they will face the winner of Stanford (17-2-2) vs Akron (18-3-2) on Sunday in the Championship Game.

IU vs UNC

IU Enjoying the Fun of the College Cup

IU Hosted the Play In Game

GAMES ON TV 

Fri Dec 8

8:45 pm ESPNU     #2 Indiana University vs #3 North Carolina (Men – Final 4 College Cup)

Sat, Dec 9

7:30 am NBCSN               West Ham vs Chelsea

10:15 am beIN sport   Real Madrid vs Sevilla

10 am NbCSN                    Tottenham vs Stoke City (Cameron)

12:30 pm Fox Sport 2                      B. M’gladbach (Johnson) vs Schalke (Mckinney)

12:30 pm NBCSN           New Castle United (yedlin) vs Leciester

2:45 pm beIN Sport     Juventus vs Inter

4 pm ESPN              MLS Cup – Toronto vs Seattle @ Toronto

Sun, Dec 10

7 am NBCSN                       Southhampton vs Arsenal

9:15 am NBCSN               Liverpool vs Everton – Derby

11:30 am NBCSN            Man United vs Man City – Manchester Darby

12:45 pm beIN Sport                       Villarreal vs Barcelona

1 pm ESPN2            Mens College Cup – Ind U/UNC winner vs Stanford/Akron winner

Tues, Dec 12

2:30 pm FS1                      Mainz vs Dortmund (Pulisic)

3 pm NBCSN                      Huddersfield Town (Johnson) vs Chelsea

Wed, Dec 13

12 noon Telemundo    Winner vs Real Madrid  FIFA WORLD CLUB CUP       ??

2:30 pm FS1                      Bayern Munich  vs Koln

3 pm NBCSN                      West Ham vs Arsenal

3 pm                                       Liverpool vs West Brom + 5 other games?

EPL 2017 Schedule  

Read All the stories online – at www.theoleballcoach.com

 MLS CUP – Sun 4 pm ESPN

Bradley, Altidore Chance to make History as US Stars in MLS – Graham Parker ESPNFC

History Not on Toronto’s Side in Rematch with Champs Seattle

Is Toronto’s dominance a sign of Shift to the East for MLS?

US Stars have a Chance to Set Names in History at MLS Cup

Toronto Redemption Tour – finishes at Home – Armchair Analysist – Mat Doyle – MLS.com

Seattles Return MLS Cup legitimizes 2016 Title

Rematch Seattle vs Toronto a Legacy Builder

Toronto’s Culture Change

 USA

Gulati Had to Go – Will not Run for US Soccer Prez – Jeff Carlisle

Kathy Carter Runs for US Soccer President

Pulisic on list of US Soccer P o Y Nominees

US to Face France in World Cup Tune-up?

 WORLD

Renaldo Wins 5th Balloon Dor – Worlds Best Player – Avi Creditor SI

ESPNFC Ranks Top 100 Players

Top 10 Takeaways from the World Cup Draw – Grant Wahl SI

World Cup Rankings by Country

Arsenal, Man U D Issues, PSG Stunned – Marcotti ESPNFC

 Champions League

Man United Finish Top of Group

Cuadrado Strikes as Juventus Wins to Advance

 No. 2 Hoosiers Face No. 3 North Carolina in College Cup National Semifinals

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The No. 2-seeded Indiana University men’s soccer team will face the No. 3 North Carolina Tar Heels in the College Cup national semifinals on Friday, Dec. 8 at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia, Pa.

Kickoff for the match is set for approximately 8:45 p.m. ET which will air live nationally on ESPNU. A live-stream of the match is available through WatchESPN, with live stats for the match at IUHoosiers.com.

A radio broadcast of the College Cup match between the Hoosiers and Tar Heels will be available for free at IUHoosiers.com.

SETTING THE SCENE
• The No. 2-seeded Hoosiers will face the No. 3-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels in the College Cup national semifinals on Friday night at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia.
• IU enters the College Cup as the only undefeated team in the nation with an overall record of 17-0-6 on the season.
• Indiana earned the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament after finishing the season undefeated with an overall record of 15-0-5.
• After not trailing at any point in the season, IU fell behind to the No. 7-seeded Michigan State Spartans last week in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals in the second minute of the match.
• IU stormed back to tie and then advance in PK’s in front of 5,450 fans at Armstrong Stadium.
• On the year, the Hoosiers have been tied or led for 2166:37 minutes of the team’s 2224:15 minutes played through 23 matches.
• The Hoosiers finished the regular season undefeated for the third time in program history, ending with a 13-0-4 mark. IU also finished regular season unblemished in 1976 (15-0-1) and 1997 (18-0).
• Freshman goalkeeper Trey Muse has been one of the best goalkeepers in the nation this season, posting a NCAA-best 17 shutouts and a goals-against average of 0.24.
• Fellow freshman Mason Toye leads the Hoosiers with 10 goals and 22 points on the season, while Cory Thomas has seven goals on the year for IU.
• Junior Trevor Swartz leads the team with seven assists on the season.

NEWS AND NOTES
• IU was seeded No. 2 overall in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, marking the 13th time in the last 15 years since the current seeding format began in 2003 that IU has earned a top-16 seed.
• The berth for the Hoosiers was the team’s 31st-straight bid to the NCAA Tournament and the 42nd overall in the program’s history.
• Indiana has now participated in a NCAA-record 19 College Cups. This will be the second College Cup appearance for the Hoosiers under head coach Todd Yeagley. IU won the NCAA title in 2012 in Yeagley’s second season at the helm of the program.
• Senior D Grant Lillard was named one of 10 semifinalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy Award.
• Lillard was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List for the second-straight season. Last year, Lillard earned Second-Team All-America honors from both College Soccer News and Top Drawer Soccer, as well as First-Team All-Big Ten and First-Team All-Region accolades.

SCOUTING THE TAR HEELS
• The No. 3-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels bring an overall record of 17-3-1 in to the team’s College Cup match-up against the Hoosiers on Friday.
• UNC earned the team’s sixth College Cup appearance in the last 10 years with a 2-1 win over Fordham last Saturday.
• North Carolina earned the No. 2 seed in the ACC Tournament this year, but fell to No. 7-seeded Notre Dame, 2-1, in the quarterfinals.
• In the NCAA Tournament this year, the Tar Heels have beaten UNCW (2-1), SMU (2-0) and Fordham (2-1) to earn their spot in the College Cup.
• The three losses on the season for UNC have come against UNCW, Wake Forest and Notre Dame, while the team’s draw came at Louisville.
• North Carolina also made the College Cup last season, only to see eventual champ Stanford advance, 10-9, in penalty kicks after 110 minutes of scoreless play.
• Six Tar Heels earned All-ACC honors, led by Cam Lindley, who was named ACC Midfielder of the Year and First-Team All-ACC. Forward Alan Winn was also named First-Team All-ACC.

SERIES HISTORY
• In the seven-match history between the two teams, North Carolina has a 4-3 lead in the overall series.
• The last five meetings between the two squads have come in the NCAA Tournament, with UNC holding a 3-2 record in those contests.
• The Hoosier beat the Tar Heels, 1-0, on Nov. 30, 2012 in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament en route to the team’s eighth NCAA title.
• The only other College Cup match-up between the two programs came in the 2001 NCAA Championship, with UNC winning 2-0.

IU ADVANCES TO NCAA RECORD 19TH COLLEGE CUP
• After advancing past No. 7 Michigan State last Saturday in penalty kicks, the Hoosiers earned a berth to the program’s NCAA-record 19th College Cup.
• The College Cup is the second for the Hoosiers under head coach Todd Yeagley, who guided the team to the program’s eighth NCAA title in 2012.
• The last three times IU played in a College Cup – 2012, 2004, 2003 – the Hoosiers won the NCAA Championship.
• IU is 14-4 all-time in College Cup national semifinal matches.

NCAA TOURNAMENT HISTORY
• The berth for the Hoosiers is the team’s 31st-straight bid to the NCAA
Tournament and the 42nd overall in the program’s history.
• Indiana has an NCAA-best .728 (87-31-5) winning percentage in the
tournament, while the 87 victories are also tops in the NCAA.
• IU has appeared in 19 College Cups, which leads all Division I teams, and won its eighth national title in 2012.

UNDEFEATED TEAMS IN THE COLLEGE CUP
• Indiana is the sixth team since 1990 to enter the College Cup undefeated and the 50th team to bring an unblemished record to the College Cup since 1959.
• There have been 13 undefeated champions in NCAA history, with the last coming in 1989 with Santa Clara.

HISTORICALLY STINGY DEFENSE
• Through the first 23 matches of the season, Indiana has allowed just six goals – the second-fewest allowed in school history.
• The Hoosiers are the only team in the nation to not allow two goals in any match this season.
• IU allowed just two goals through the first 15 matches this season, which was a school record.
• The school record for fewest goals allowed in a season is 4 by the 1979 Hoosier team.

INDIANA IN THE NATIONAL/B1G STATISTICAL RANKINGS
• Entering the weekend, IU is ranked in the top-15 in 13 categories in the NCAA statistical rankings.
• Indiana leads the nation in save percentage (0.909), shots on goal per game (7.91), shutout percentage (0.739), team goals against average (0.242) and win-loss-tied percentage (.870).
• Individually, freshman GK Trey Muse leads the nation in goals against average (0.242), save percentage (0.906), shutouts (17) and goalie minutes played (2227:15).
• Freshman Mason Toye, who leads the team with 10 scores, is ranked sixth in the nation with five game-winning goals.
• The Hoosiers are ranked second in corner kicks per game (7.52), second in shots per game (17.74), fifth in total goals (48), fifth in total points (47), sixth in total assists (47), 11th in points per game (6.22), 12th in scoring offense (2.09) and 14th in assists per game (2.04).
• IU leads the Big Ten in 14 categories – assists per game, corner kicks per game, fouls per game, points per game, save percentage, scoring offense, shots per game, shots on goal per game, shutout percentage, team goals against average, total assists, total goals, total points and win-loss-tied percentage.

LILLARD NAMED MAC HERMANN TROPHY SEMIFINALIST
• Indiana’s Grant Lillard was named one of 15 semifinalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy.
• The semifinalists were determined based on voting by NCAA DI soccer coaches.
• In the storied history of Indiana men’s soccer, an IU player has been named the national player of the year 11 times. Included on that list are both IU head coach Todd Yeagley and associate head coach Brian Maisonneuve.

 Cristiano Ronaldo Wins Record-Tying Fifth Ballon D’Or Award

Cristiano Ronaldo has won the Ballon d’Or for fifth time, tying Lionel Messi for the most in history. By AVI CREDITOR December 07, 2017

Cristiano Ronaldo has won the 2017 Ballon d’Or, taking home the award for the fourth time in the last five years and matching Lionel Messi’s record of winning the prestigious honor for a fifth time. The Ballon d’Or award, presented by France Football, is given to the world’s best soccer player, and either Messi or Ronaldo has won it every year dating back to 2007, when Kaka earned the honors. The 32-year-old Ronaldo has finished in first or second place in Ballon d’Or voting in each of the last seven years, and excluding 2010 has finished in the top two every year dating back to 2007. Even as he gets older, Ronaldo has continued to rack up the awards. In October, he was named FIFA’s Best Men’s Player. In August, he was named UEFA’s 2016-17 Best Player in Europe for a third time (the award was instituted in 2010-11). There’s still new ground for him to find, evidenced by his latest accomplishment on Wednesday, when he became the first player to score in each of the six group games in the UEFA Champions League. In 2016, Ronaldo was helped by exploits on both the club and country levels, leading Real Madrid to a Champions League title and helping Portugal to the Euro 2016 championship. In 2017, Ronaldo’s campaign was largely boost by his efforts with Real Madrid, as the club won La Liga’s title in May and then followed that up with a second straight Champions League title–and 11th overall. Ronaldo was a menace in the knockout stage of the competition, scoring 10 goals in four multi-goal games. He netted twice in the final triumph over Juventus and added hat tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. He also scored 25 goals in La Liga, helping Real Madrid to a record 33rd title, but its first since 2012. Ronaldo was still impactful for Portugal, helping the side qualify for the 2018 World Cup by scoring 15 goals in the qualifying round, second only to Poland and Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski, who scored 16.  Messi was 2nd, Buffon was third.

 

 

WORLD CUP 2018 The GROUPS

 

GROUP A: Russia, Uruguay, Egypt, Saudi Arabia

GROUP B: Portugal, Spain, Iran, Morocco

GROUP C: France, Peru, Denmark, Australia

GROUP D: Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

GROUP E: Brazil, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Serbia

GROUP F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

GROUP G: Belgium, England, Tunisia, Panama

GROUP H: Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan

Warshaw: Why 2017 MLS Cup is a big deal for three USMNT greats

December 6, 20178:04PM ESTBobby Warshaw

Most professional athletes fight everyday to make it to tomorrow. They can never look past the next practice or the next game. Every second is a battle to stay relevant. The second they retire they become nothing more than a data point on a blogger’s spreadsheet.Some athletes, however, get to think bigger.It’s not a question of whether they will be remembered, but it’s how they will be remembered.Clint DempseyJozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley have reached such rarified air. They enter Saturday’s MLS Cup final (4 pm ET on ESPN, UniMas, TSN, TVAS) competing for more than a single trophy. They’re fighting for their place in history.

What have you done for me lately?

When you talk about cementing a spot in perpetuity, that discussion usually carries a hopeful tone. But it’s more complicated with these three American stars. They have complex data points that have them teetering on the edge of history’s jagged fence.All three made big profile moves back to MLS. All three make more money than entire rosters of other teams in the league. All three have worn the armband for their country. All three, however, have yet to lead their respective MLS clubs to a league title.Well, Clint Dempsey did claim a league winner’s medal 12 months ago when the Seattle Sounders won 2016 MLS Cup, but he was on the sidelines due to a heart condition when the Sounders went on their memorable run. And in the eyes of many at the time, that championship stood as much as an indictment of Dempsey as it did an accomplishment.It’s a bit harsh, but he’d surely be the first to admit this much: Elite athletes don’t want anything given; they want to claw their way through every obstacle and be on center stage. What does it mean if Seattle lose on Saturday with Dempsey on the field?Altidore and Bradley, meanwhile, have a few domestic tournament titles (Canadian Championships and a Dutch Cup for Altidore), but they still don’t have a championship ring. They came up short in last year’s final, playing for the team with the highest budget in their home stadium in front of a capacity crowd.And then there’s the context of the USMNT’s recent failing in World Cup Qualifying. All three players participated in the decisive Hex stage. I don’t need to remind you what happened.Recency bias is part of sports and it sure feels like their career achievements of Dempsey, Bradley and Altidore have been overshadowed of late. When we do think back on their careers, what are those moments and memories that we will carry with us? What did they do in the big spots? In the elimination games?It’s not to say their total body of work doesn’t warrant acclaim, but the most recent or the most memorable events attached to them will likely be the ones that wind up carrying the most weight. It’s in no way a fair part of life, but legacies are often measured by it.

In search of that defining moment

It’s a strange conversation to debate someone’s legacy. To even discuss a player’s legacy is a statement in itself. Nobody is talking about Bobby Warshaw’s legacy as a player.Dempsey (34), Bradley (30) and Altidore (28) also likely have a couple more years to play, which means they still have time to shape the narrative and they could yet have more opportunities to leave a lasting impression. Seattle and Toronto will certainly continue to be contenders over the next few years. And despite the current alarmism in US Soccer circles, Bradley and Altidore will also likely be a part of the next World Cup cycle.So the lasting legacies of all three are not necessarily on the line at 2017 MLS Cup. Those will still have time to take shape as our memories and recollection of emotions crystalize. We would be victims of the moment to suggest otherwise.But that’s not to minimize the moment awaiting them on Saturday. Rather than convincing us, 2017 MLS Cup is about convincing themselves.Few elite players think of themselves as having anything other than a winning mentality. Even if a player realistically doesn’t, thinking you do is half the battle. In fact it’s the most important battle for any professional athlete: How you perceive yourself and fight the demons and doubt in your own mind.Every player has two faces: the one they wear out in public, and the one they assume in the quiet moments of their own lives. For whatever you think of Dempsey, Bradley, and Altidore, they have their own accounts of their lives and careers. The stories they tell about themselves are much more powerful than any that the public weaves. When athletes lose, it surely stings to read negative comments. But it’s nothing compared to the doubts they cast on themselves.How could I let that happen? Why couldn’t I get it done? Who am I that I allowed that to happen?

You can’t hide from results forever. There’s a constant scorecard in a player’s brain. They take a mental note if they’ve won, whether it’s during practice or an official match. And naturally the biggest matches carry the most weight. If you think of yourself as a winner, how many times can you suffer a devastating defeat before you start to question yourself?A single game clearly doesn’t define a player’s career. There’s always tomorrow to make a new statement. But a single game can impact the next game and the each subsequent game after that.Dempsey, Altidore, and Bradley are three players with more heartbreaking losses of late than momentous wins. Nobody knows that more than them, which raises Saturday’s stakes that much higher.

Bradley, Altidore’s historic success at Toronto more than just a U.S. subplot

Graham Parker

If there’s a certain inevitability about the fact that Toronto’s 2017 will be popularly understood in the context of a tough 2017 for its U.S. national team stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, there’s no appetite for that storyline within Toronto itself.The organization’s single-minded pursuit of a title has taken on the quality of a forced march at moments during these playoffs; the novelty of the team’s first exuberant playoff campaign in front of its own fans a year ago has been very different this time around. At moments, expectation has weighed heavily, character has been tested and there has been an air of grim concentration and focus to see off the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew that’s stood in contrast to the cavalier emotions that swept the team to the final last year.Yet despite being squarely on board with that mood of collective accountability, Bradley and Altidore have been unable to escape focus during this run as the USA’s World Cup failure continues to color the subsequent actions of everyone associated with it. From hurled beer in Atlanta on the last day of the regular season, to boos and abuse at Red Bull Arena, to Columbus fans taking a break from “Save The Crew” chants to single out Bradley every time he touched the ball, Bradley and Altidore have been the focus of U.S. fan resentment that ironically has been given focus by their success on the field.

Had Toronto already been eliminated from MLS Cup, the pair would be joining the likes of Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Besler and Alejandro Bedoya in long offseasons with plenty of opportunity for private introspection. Instead, they are front and center for their team as it stands a game away from a treble, and forced to try to juggle the duties of a tough postseason, with an added layer of symbolism and scrutiny that’s been loaded onto their every touch.On the surface of things, that sense of burden has been a more natural fit for Bradley, whose role in the engine room of the team has almost given him the perfect opportunity to throw himself into his work. Altidore, by contrast, has found himself drawn into a couple of distracting soap-opera storylines, with his reaction in Atlanta and then most infamously with his red card against New York. That kept him out for the first leg in Columbus. And at one point in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final, it looked as if that extended hiatus — with an international break in between — might have fatally compromised his fitness, only for the striker to switch the narrative by scoring the decisive goal in the series, even as his coach weighed up whether he could continue in the game at all.Bradley, for his part, held down the midfield against Columbus, despite being in thankless isolation during the first half due to Crew SC’s formation switch. Though then again, anyone wanting to boo him for the national team situation might want to remember that “thankless isolation” has been a fairly apt description of the position he’s ended up being asked to cover for much of this joyless World Cup cycle.Small wonder that club soccer has seemed like a respite for both men under the circumstances. Toronto’s roster building has been rightly celebrated for its studied attempt to balance the team well beyond its designated players, with its blend of youth and MLS experience. But there’s no doubting that this is a team built to exploit the strengths of its key men and to enable them to do their job.

The one-two that put Altidore in on goal against Columbus was played off Victor Vazquez — a decisive creative foil for Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco this season. And when Columbus threatened to wrest control of the series in the second game, Greg Vanney was able to throw on the underrated Marky Delgado alongside Bradley to stabilize the team and give the captain the support he needed to lock down the game rather than react in firefighting mode.Bradley and Altidore, and Giovinco for that matter, are paid handsomely to play a role for their team and it’s inevitable that some of that role has a symbolic significance in terms of how their performances represent end exemplify the success of the Toronto FC project as a whole, in good times and bad. But Toronto has worked hard to share the load — and the credit — during the long, slow haul from perennial MLS also-rans to stacked powerhouse sweeping all before it in 2017.This is not Danny Koevermans’ infamous “worst team in the world” of 2012, the “Giovinco-plus-10” team of 2015 or even the “BMO Field playoff phenomenon” of 2016. It’s perhaps the best ever MLS team, on the verge of history. And it certainly deserves to be far more than a U.S. subplot.

Armchair Analyst: For Toronto FC, redemption tour finishes at home

December 7, 20173:27PM ESTMatthew DoyleSenior Writer

It’s actually a stretch to call the 2017 season a “redemption tour” for Toronto FC, who came so damn close to winning MLS Cup last year and making good on the top-to-bottom promise of their roster. But the fact is that they failed to get the job done at home in the biggest game of the year, and while Saturday’s 2017 MLS Cup (4 pm ET | ESPN, UniMás; TSN, TVAS) isn’t strictly about redemption… I mean, at least a little bit of it is, right?That said: regardless of what happens in this MLS Cup rematch, this TFC team will and should be remembered for years to come. If they lose they’ll be in the mix with the 1998 Galaxy, the 2001 Miami Fusion, the 2005 and 2012 Quakes and 2014 Sounders as one of the greatest MLS teams of all-time, but one that failed at the final hurdle. It will still be a successful season, but – to paraphrase Reds GM Tim Bezbatchenko – it will no doubt feel incomplete.The good news for TFC fans? The window of contention is very much still open for the next couple of years. Nobody should be that surprised if I’m writing this column again 12 months from now.

How They Got Here

Over the last quarter of a season in 2016, Greg Vanney figured out his personnel would work best in the 3-5-2, and that formational switch was the catalyst for their late-season surge that propelled them all the way to the final game. And yes, they were utterly dominant in that final game before falling in PKs.So naturally they stayed with the 3-5-2 in 2017, but with one major adjustment: They put a pure playmaker, Spanish import Victor Vazquez, into the No. 10 role and had him pull the strings.TFC were very up front after last year’s MLS Cup, admitting they needed more pure creativity out of central midfield in order to break down bunkered-in defenses, and that’s what Vazquez has provided. He finished the year with 8 goals and 16 assists, and he makes it so that TFC don’t have to commit numbers forward in order to break teams down. They are completely content attacking with just three:When they need it to be, the 3-5-2 becomes a 5-3-2 because Vazquez, Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore can unlock most defenses on their own. That allows the Reds to keep numbers back in defense and keep off-the-ball penetration to a minimum, which is what we saw quite often against Columbus in the Eastern Conference Championship.That, however, was the exception. Mostly the Reds got here by being superb at every line, from goalkeeper all the way to the forwards. They scored the second-most goals per game in MLS history, had the second-best goal differential, became just the second team in league history to score twice as many as they conceded, were the first team since the 2005 Quakes to collect 2 points per game or better, tied the league record for wins… understand that I could keep going with this list.TFC were simply remarkable in 2017. They took the group that mostly blitzed the league in last year’s playoffs and added a Best XI-caliber playmaker. That’s good stuff.

Pressure’s On

Literally everyone. When you play like this team played from March through October, you invite an incredible amount of pressure because each win piles on new fan expectations, and each game invites forward a new opponent who’s going to give you his best shot and more, and each story comes at a potential (or potentially imaginary) problem from a new angle, and there is a collective sense of “nothing means anything until the big game.”Well, the big game is here. I’m a Supporters’ Shield truther – I think it’s the hardest and best trophy to win, but I am in the rank minority. Nearly everyone I speak with (players especially) see MLS Cup as the biggest prize, and it’s the one that’s eluded TFC thus far despite their league’s-biggest budget.I’m not saying they have to get it done. Like I said, this core group’s window of contention should stay open probably two or three more years.But if they win, they will have spiked the rest of MLS into the core of the earth for an entire calendar year, and will have put to rest the “who’s the best team in MLS history?” debate.If they lose, they’re halfway to being the Buffalo Bills.

One Thing To Be Concerned About

I mean, there’s more than one thing. TFC haven’t really played a good, complete game since the end of September, and Seattle have been damn near invincible when they have their first-choice defense, and Clint Dempsey‘s on a jag, and Altidore’s carrying a knock, and let’s not forget that Giovinco basically didn’t show up to last year’s final.But really, I think the biggest thing is “have we been scouted?” Vanney’s had to repeatedly move away from the 3-5-2 down the stretch and into the playoffs as teams have gotten more ruthless about trying to destroy the Reds’ ability to play – the best example being, of course, the way RBNY used Tyler Adams as an advanced destroyer tasked specifically with disrupting Michael Bradley‘s distribution.Bradley has been inarguably the best defensive midfielder in MLS this year, and it’s a crime that he was left off the Best XI. He’s one of the few guys in the league who plays as a true solo d-mid, which means he has more responsibility on both sides of the ball than anybody else in the league at that position. You see it in his usage rate, in the types of passes he hits, and in the fact that Zone 14 is an absolute dead spot against TFC. He has shut that area down for an entire year.Lately, however, teams have gone out of their way to limit his touches and to make him into more of a 1v1 defensive player rather than a pure organizer, and the Reds have struggled to cope with that. Their movements and distribution…

It’s been mechanical and predictable, and there really hasn’t been an obvious Plan B put into place (partially, at least, because Marky Delgado has been struggling).Brian Schmetzer’s not much of a tinkerer so it’s highly doubtful we see anything as unusual as the diamond midfield Jesse Marsch threw at TFC in the East semis, and Bradley was back to being his dominant self in the second leg against Columbus.But if Seattle want to turn the game on its ear, they could do this. Put Cristian Roldan in the Adams role, have Gustav Svensson at the back point of the diamond, and then put Nicolas Lodeiro on one side and Victor Rodriguez on the other, and you have a worthy facsimile of what the Red Bulls did in that 1-0 win at BMO last month.

World Cup qualifying failure meant Gulati had to go but his legacy is far-reaching

Jeff CarlisleSoccer  ESPNFC

It took a while, but Sunil Gulati finally arrived at the decision that many in the broader U.S. soccer community had hoped he would: He will not run for another term as U.S. Soccer Federation president.Gulati made the announcement on Monday and it’s the right move. Yes, he has overseen a period of unprecedented growth for the USSF in particular and the sport of soccer in general. He has also represented U.S. interests well in political circles due to his spot on the FIFA Council.But the Columbia economics teacher has been in charge of the USSF for nearly 12 years. That is a long time for anyone to run a single organization and, following the failure of the U.S. men’s national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the time has come for fresh ideas and a change in leadership.Gulati’s reasons for stepping aside and why it is a good idea aren’t exactly the same thing. For months, he has been sounding out the USSF’s voting membership to gauge his chances of winning re-election, while guarding his intentions.At the mid-year meeting of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association in October, Gulati refused to participate in a presidential candidates’ forum, opting instead to meet in small groups with various state associations. Some sources told ESPN FC that, if he declined to run, it was because he didn’t have the votes. Others believe he would have won if he had stood.Regardless, the reasons why Gulati is no longer the right man to lead the federation come down to several factors.

First, the challenges facing the USSF are different to when he took office in 2006. Back then, there was a need to increase the federation’s financial clout in terms of sponsorships, ticket sales and overall media profile. Gulati has done that and then some, with various reports putting the USSF’s financial surplus at around $130 million.

Now, with the pain of the World Cup qualifying debacle still fresh, the challenges are more specific to the sport itself; they include how to make the USSF’s coaching classes more accessible and affordable, as well as solving some of the thornier player development issues. Such issues don’t play to Gulati’s strengths, especially given that candidates more grounded in the playing side of the game are lining up to challenge for the presidency.There are also signs that Gulati’s leadership style — one in which many decisions were made by him with the Board of Directors acting as a rubber stamp — had begun to grate on the sport’s other stakeholders. Speaking to ESPN FC on condition of anonymity, one source connected to the USSF leadership structure bemoaned the fact that, in the case of national team coaching hires, Gulati would negotiate the deal himself and expect the board to go along with it.That approach has led to some hiring decisions — Jurgen Klinsmann on the men’s side and Tom Sermanni on the women’s — which later backfired; the time has come to get more soccer-savvy people involved in processes such as choosing who will lead national teams at the senior level.There have also been rumblings among rank and file members at the youth and adult soccer levels that the federation has forced issues down their throats, such as the implementation of the Development Academy. The question of what exactly the federation does for its members has become a talking point among various candidates, who would like to succeed Gulati.A backlash to his leadership style appears to be coming to a head and sources have told ESPN FC that one of the agenda items for a Dec. 10 meeting of the USSF Board of Directors will involve reining in the power of the presidency. The position would be more of a collaborative, chairman-of-the-board role, instead of one all-powerful individual driving the decision-making process.Above all else there is the issue of accountability. While it’s true that Gulati didn’t kick a ball during the disastrous qualifying effort for Russia 2018, his decisions in terms of coaching hires played a part in what happened and, as a result, made his position untenable.Without question, Gulati possesses valuable institutional knowledge; he has served in various soccer administration capacities for over three decades and that know-how should not be cast aside. He is well positioned to remain an asset and is chairman of the United Bid Committee that, along with Mexico and Canada, is looking to bring the 2026 World Cup to North America. Further, his spot on the FIFA Council remains secure.The issue of Gulati’s ultimate legacy remains complicated. The aforementioned growth he oversaw can’t be ignored. Neither can his close proximity to Chuck Blazer and the corruption that engulfed both CONCACAF and FIFA. And he will forever be associated with the recent World Cup qualifying failure. There is also the continuing lawsuit with the NASL and its uncertain future, and the ongoing tension with the women’s national team.Yet in terms of how Gulati will be remembered, there are additional chapters to be written. Losing out on hosting the 2022 World Cup to Qatar remains a significant blemish on his professional career and so the 2026 bid is an opportunity to ease the pain of past disappointment and once again help grow the sport in the United States.But that’s for the longer-term future. More immediately, the USSF has an opportunity to move forward and, come February, a new leader will be elected to oversee just that.

Christian Pulisic among U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year nominees

ESPN staff

  • FacebookJozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Christian Pulisic have been nominated for U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year, the federation announced on Tuesday.

The winner will be announced on ESPN later this month.Pulisic, who was named the Young Male Player of the Year a year ago, led the finalists with six goals for the national team in 2017, while also starring for Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga and Champions League.Dempsey had five U.S. goals — three in a hat trick against Hondruas in March — and was recently named MLS’s Comeback Player of the Year after recovering from a heart ailment.Altidore, last year’s winner, and Morris both scored four times for the U.S., with Morris netting a late winner to win the Gold Cup final against Jamaica in July.But after picking up a hamstring injury in August, Morris was absent as the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.Morris could return to start for Seattle in Saturday’s MLS Cup final, when he and Dempsey will face off against Altidore and Bradley on Toronto FC.Josh Sargent is a nominee for the Young Male Player of the Year alongside Tim Weah, Tyler Adams, Luca de la Torre, Jonathan Gonzalez and Erik Palmer-Brown.Sargent scored three goals at the Under-17 World Cup and four at the Under-20 World Cup, before earning a first call-up to the senior team camp last month.Weah also starred at the U17 event, while Adams, De la Torre and Palmer-Brown impressed at the U20. Gonzalez was nominated despite his international future remaining unclear, with Mexico continuing to pursue the teenager.Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Samantha Mewis, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe were nominated as the top women’s player.Carli Lloyd was left off despite being one of three finalists for FIFA’s top player in the world.The nominees for Young Female Player of the Year are Savannah McCaskill, Sophia Smith, Tierna Davidson, Jaelin Howell and Kate Wiesner.The Disabled Player of the Year nominees are Sean Boyle, Drew Bremer and Kevin Hensley of the Paralympic National Team and Michael Archer of the Power Soccer National Team.

SUM’s Kathy Carter announces candidacy for U.S. Soccer president

ESPN staff

Soccer United Marketing president Kathy Carter has confirmed she has entered the race to become U.S. Soccer Federation president.Carter, who helps to run the marketing arm of Major League Soccer, had told ESPN FC on Sunday that she was exploring the possibility of running for the election in February, saying she would use her experience to help achieve “excellence at every level.”On Tuesday, she confirmed on Twitter that she had decided to enter the race, writing: “I’m excited to announce my candidacy for President of @ussoccer.” She has taken leave of her post at SUM.The news comes a day after Sunil Gulati, the longtime president of U.S. Soccer, told ESPN he would not seek another term. A source told ESPN FC on Sunday that Carter would run at the urging of Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber as their preferred choice, but Gulati declined to endorse any candidate.In an open letter published on her website, Carter wrote: “The most crucial times are when the most capable leaders need to step up. Our federation is at one of those moments right now, and I am excited to announce my candidacy for president of the United States Soccer Federation. Soccer can, and should, become the leading sport in America, and I intend to make that vision a reality.”The game of soccer has been a consistent thread through every aspect of my life. I have spent more than 40 years as a player, executive, and fan of the beautiful game. The United States Soccer Federation needs new leadership that understands both business operations and the game. Our growth and advancement as a sport require excellence at every level — from our youth and adult programs to our professional leagues to our national teams.”rter is a defender of gender equity in the sport, believing the men’s and the women’s teams should be treated equally. She told The Associated Press: “There should be no delineation between our teams or our programs, for that matter.”Carter is the only woman in a crowded candidate field that includes former U.S. internationals Paul Caligiuri, Kyle Martino and Eric Wynalda; USSF vice president Carlos Cordeiro; attorneys Steve Gans and Mike Winograd; and entrepreneur Paul Lapointe. They will all need to have three nominations from current board members by Dec. 12.Carter has a long career on the business side of the game, having served as a vice president for Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the LA Galaxy. She has also worked in an executive capacity for Envision, as well as ISL United States, a subsidiary of the company that at one point did business with FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, and the International Association of Athletics Federations.ISL went bankrupt in 2001 amid hundreds of millions of dollars of debt, and was later found to have paid bribes to leading soccer figures, including former FIFA president Joao Havelange and then-FIFA Executive Committee member Ricardo Teixeira. Carter wasn’t implicated in any of the corrupt activity.Carter also worked on the organizing committee for the 1994 World Cup, and served as MLS’s vice president of corporate marketing, from the league’s inception until late 1999.

Carter also has experience on the playing side of the game, having played in college as a goalkeeper at William & Mary.”My 25 years of professional experience give me relationships and perspective from the corporate, media, and soccer industry, and I look forward to expanding this knowledge as I engage the many stakeholders that drive this game at the grassroots,” she wrote.”I am committed to embracing fresh perspectives on how to advance the game, and I will work tirelessly to deliver results for the federation’s members, players, and fans. It is also important to clearly articulate why I am running and what I think we can achieve together.”While Carter’s resume is extensive, she will run into resistance from some segments of the USSF’s voting membership that view her tenure at SUM as problematic. The failure of the U.S. men’s national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup has led many to call for a break from the leadership of Gulati, and Carter will be seen by some quarters as representing the status quo.The issue of the conflict of interest between MLS, SUM, and the USSF — which has a deep business relationship with SUM — will also draw fire from opponents. On Sunday, one source characterized her potential candidacy as a “Hail Mary” on the part of Gulati and Garber to have a preferred candidate in the field.

Top 10 Takeaways From the 2018 World Cup Draw

QUICKLY ■ The World Cup draw has given us plenty to stew on for the coming months, with storylines and marquee matchups galore in store this coming summer. Here are some of the biggest talking points following the fanfare in Moscow. By GRANT WAHL

December 01, 2017 The draw for World Cup 2018 took place on Friday, and there’s plenty to talk about. Here are my 10 thoughts on the event, starting with the shadow hanging over it all in these parts of the world, where it was yet another gut punch for USA fans given the painful reminder that their team won’t be participating. If the night of October 10 was the worst night for fans of the United States—that, after all, was the night the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986—then Friday was the second-worst feeling. Seeing all 32 World Cup teams learn their group opponents reminded everyone that the U.S. somehow couldn’t advance from one of the world’s easiest qualifying regions and somehow couldn’t advance from a group that provided an enormous margin for error. It’s still a surreal feeling that the U.S. won’t be in Russia next year, but as Friday showed, it’s very much real, indeed. As for the nations that will be participating:

THERE IS NO TRUE GROUP OF DEATH, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING

FIFA changed the rules for this World Cup draw and for the first time seeded all 32 teams (according to the FIFA rankings) instead of just the top eight. For the first time in recorded history, I find myself writing: Good idea, FIFA! Instead of using a format that produced wildly imbalanced groups over the years, this FIFA draw created much more balanced groups that are in the interest of sporting equality and good soccer. Yes, there are some difficult groups (like Group D with Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria), and there are some easier ones (like Group A with Russia, Uruguay, Egypt and Saudi Arabia), but nobody truly got screwed, and nobody got a truly gift draw. Except for …

WELL, YES, RUSSIA DID GET A GIFT DRAW

You can start up the conspiracy theory machine for FIFA and the Russian hosts, who boast the lowest-ranked team in the entire 32-nation field. Of the 24 teams that Russia could have drawn for its opening-game opponent, it just so happened to get Saudi Arabia—the next-to-lowest-ranked team in the 32-nation field. If Russia can bag three points in its first game with the whole world watching, its chances of advancing will increase dramatically. Nor is it inconceivable that the Russians could follow that up with another couple of points against Group A opponents Uruguay and Egypt. World Cups are always more fun when the host country does well, and the chances of the host country to survive group play increased dramatically on Friday.

MEXICO FACES A BIG CHALLENGE IN SEARCH OF THE ELUSIVE FIFTH GAME

El Tri has gone out in its fourth game of the last six World Cups, and so its quest for El Quinto Partido has taken on a mythical significance. Friday’s draw didn’t help, however. I think Mexico will advance from a group that includes Germany, Sweden and South Korea—although Sweden could improve dramatically if Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes out of international retirement—but the problem for Mexico is who stands in its way. It will be awfully hard to take first place in its group ahead of defending champion Germany, and if Mexico finishes second it will likely have to face Brazil in the round of 16. If Mexico fulfills its quest for the Fifth Game, it will have to earn it.

THE OPENING DAYS OF THE WORLD CUP HAVE SOME TERRIFIC GAMES

Forget the stinker on the very first day between Russia and Saudi Arabia. The three days after that each have some mouth-watering matchups. Day Two features Portugal against Spain, which will pit Cristiano Ronaldo’s European champions against my pick to win the tournament. Let’s just say there will be plenty of familiarity between the Spanish club-based players in this game. Day Three SOCCER PLANET FUTBOL 12/7/2017 2018 World Cup: 10 takeaways from the draw in Russia | SI.com https://www.si.com/soccer/2017/12/01/2018-world-cup-draw-takeaways-russia-mexico-belgium-africa 2/4 brings us Argentina-Iceland, which will have Lionel Messi (going after his elusive World Cup triumph) coming up against the tournament’s most popular underdog. Day Four gives us Germany-Mexico, an opportunity for El Tri to measure itself up against the defending champs.

AFRICAN TEAMS ARE SET UP FOR A RESURGENCE

Back in the 1990s, everyone said it wouldn’t be long before an African team won the World Cup. We’re still waiting for it, and in fact African teams have greatly underperformed in recent World Cups (and have yet to put a team in the semifinals). That could change this time around. I have Egypt, Nigeria and Senegal emerging from their groups, and I would be stunned if one or more of them doesn’t make the quarterfinals. (Morocco, which didn’t give up a goal in six final-round qualifying games, could also make a run.) In fact, this tournament could see Egypt’s Mohamed Salah break out into becoming a legit global superstar. The Egyptians should be one of the happiest teams from Friday’s draw after being put in a group with Russia, Uruguay and Saudi Arabia. Introducing

CAN BELGIUM BREAK ITS QUARTERFINAL CURSE?

Based on talent alone, this glorious Belgium team is one of the top four nations in the tournament. But will it become one of the top four teams by making the semifinals? Belgium went out in the quarterfinals of both World Cup 2014 (to Argentina) and Euro 2016 (to Wales), and if it fails to make a deep run this time around, there will be plenty of questions about whether this amazing generation has run out of chances. Perhaps the biggest problem in the last two major tournaments was coach Marc Wilmots, who was hopelessly out of his depth. Roberto Martínez is an upgrade. Belgium drew a relatively easy group (England, Tunisia, Panama), and even the second round shouldn’t be a killer, but a potential quarterfinal game against Brazil would be a real measuring stick of whether Belgium can win the World Cup.

A FEW GROUPS ARE REMARKABLY BALANCED

Consider Group H, with Poland, Colombia, Senegal and Japan. Nobody in the group will be seen as a real threat to win the tournament, but you could envision scenarios in which any of the four advance to the knockout rounds. It’s not a Group of Death, but rather a Group of Extreme Parity. That should make things fun for neutrals, who simply want to see as much entertaining soccer as possible. The same type of parity can be seen in Group D (Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria). The only team that most would think has a chance to win the World Cup is Argentina—and even that point is debatable—but all four are good teams. Why it took so long for FIFA to seed all 32 teams at the draw is beyond me, but I’m glad it finally

happened.

ONE CHALLENGE AT THIS WORLD CUP WILL BE FOR INTERNATIONAL SOCCER TO GET ITS MOJO BACK

With more balanced groups, one hopes that the international game will begin to have a resurgence in comparison to the club game. One unfortunate development in recent times has been the suffering in quality of international soccer, which has fallen significantly below that of club soccer. The measuring stick for quality these days is the UEFA Champions League, not the World Cup, and that’s a shame. We could use a World Cup that excites the masses around the world with the style of its play, but there’s certainly no guarantee that will happen.

ASIA IS THE NEW AFRICA

I don’t have a single team from Asia advancing from its group. The current editions of Australia, Japan and South Korea just aren’t as good as the predecessors from their countries, and Saudi Arabia’s goal should be simply not to be as awful as the 2002 Saudi World Cup team was. One potential ray of hope for Asia is Iran, which was dominant in World Cup qualifying and could 12/7/2017 2018 World Cup: 10 takeaways from the draw in Russia

World Cup Power Rankings: How the 2018 Field of 32 Nations Stacks Up

QUICKLY ■ Now that qualifying for the 2018 World Cup is over, it’s time to size up the eld. Here’s a rst look at how the contenders in Russia stack up ahead of the Dec. 1 draw in Moscow, when we’ll learn each team’s path to the trophy. By JONATHAN WILSON November 16, 2017 SI

With the field of the 32 nations who will compete at the World Cup in Russia next summer completed by Peru’s success in Lima Wednesday night, there’s little time to waste in ranking the sides headed to the showcase event by making an initial assessment of their form. Sure, there is plenty left to be decided. Which nations have managerial issues to resolve? Who knows what their starting lineup is likely to be? Who is praying for their key center forward to stay fit? Everything, of course, could change with the answers to those questions and the fallout from the group draw on Dec. 1, but, with all else being equal, who are the likely winners and who’s just glad to going to Russia? Here’s how we see the World Cup field stacking up:

  1. BRAZIL Six games into qualifying, Brazil had won only twice and looked in serious danger of failing to qualify. Going out of the Copa America Centenario in the group stage confirmed the moribund state of the Brazilian game. But then Tite replaced Dunga as manager, and the whole set-up changed. This Brazil plays modern, aggressive football, is far less reliant on Neymar and won 10 and drew two of its final 12 games to qualify, a full 10 points clear at the top of the CONMEBOL table. Best Finish: Champions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002)
  2. SPAIN

Eliminated in the group stage in the last World Cup and then beaten by Italy in the last 16 of Euro 2016, the curtain seemed to have come down on the golden age of Spanish football. But after replacing Vicente Del Bosque, Julen Lopetegui has rejuvenated the side. Its 3-0 win over Italy in qualifying offered a clear warning that Spain is back. Best Finish: Champions (2010)

  1. GERMANY

Germany disappointed at Euro 2016, never really hitting top form and being wellbeaten by France in the semifinal. Since then, though, it has qualified for the World Cup with a perfect 10-0-0 record and won the Confederations Cup with what was, in effect, a reserve side. Manager Jogi Low has used 36 players over the past two years, which for another manager might be a sign of chaos; for him it’s an indicator of strength. Best Finish: Champions (1954, 1974, 1990, 2014)

  1. FRANCE

This is a ridiculously gifted generation of French players who really should have won the Euros on home soil last summer. The sense, though, is that Didier Deschamps is not necessarily the man to get the best out if them, and the 4-4-2 he has adopted of late seems a weirdly blockish solution that leads to predictability. Best Finish: Champions (1998) 12/7/2017 World Cup Power Rankings:

  1. BELGIUM

Now that it has been relieved of the handicap of Marc Wilmots, can Belgium’s golden generation make good on its promise? Under Roberto Martinez, Belgium qualified with ease, dropping only two points. Kevin De Bruyne has thrived in a slightly deeper role, but the question, as ever with Martinez, is whether the side will be able to cope defensively against better opposition. De Bruyne has already questioned Martinez’s tactics. Best Finish: Fourth Place (1986)

  1. ARGENTINA

Qualification was traumatic, but with the dust settled, Argentina remains in a strong position. For all the doubts about players coming through, this remains a strong squad, overloaded with gifted forwards and, by appointing Jorge Sampaoli, it did, at the third attempt, get the right manager. Lionel Messi’s (probable) final chance at a World Cup may be the one he takes. Best Finish: Champions (1978, 1986)

  1. PORTUGAL

Portugal is the European champion and breezed through qualification by winning nine games in a row after losing the opener in Switzerland. Cristiano Ronaldo gives the goalscoring edge, but its real strength is in the solidity of the midfield. Best Finish: Third Place (1966)

  1. URUGUAY

The stereotype of Uruguay is of defensive resolve, stifling tactics and a pragmatism that can tip into cynicism. This side, though, had the second-best scoring record in South American World Cup qualifying and looks to take full advantage of the abilities of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Best Finish: Champions (1930, 1950)

  1. ENGLAND

A mood of persistent frustration hangs over England, so much so that the general reaction to its unbeaten qualification was a collective yawn about the way the Three Lions had trudged through a less-than-testing group. Harry Kane and a highly gifted emerging generation, though, offer some hope. Best Finish: Champions (1966)

  1. CROATIA

If football were just about players, Croatia would never have needed a playoff to qualify. It may lack a defensive midfielder but has a great wealth of creators. But with hardcore fans at war with the federation, which belatedly replaced their manager Ante Cacic, Croatia was underachieving desperately until Zlatko Dalic took over. He secured the win Croatia needed against Ukraine in the final qualifier, and the side then cruised through its playoff against Greece, winning 4-1. Best Finish: Third Place (1998)

  1. COLOMBIA James Rodriguez was the breakout star of the last World Cup, and there is a sense that he has perhaps stagnated thanks to the glut of talent at Real Madrid. If he can rediscover his form at Bayern Munich, though, and with Radamel Falcao enjoying a late-career renaissance, Jose Pekerman’s side could be a threat. Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)
  2. SWITZERLAND

The Swiss qualified thanks to a very dodgy penalty in the playoff against Northern Ireland, and struggled to impose themselves in that series, but Vladimir Petkovic’s wellbalanced side won all of its first nine qualifiers and has, in Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner, a pair of excellent attacking fullbacks. Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1934, 1938, 1954)

  1. POLAND

Poland is ranked sixth in the world, which is evidence of just how much impact the trick of not playing friendlies can be. This, after all, is a side that in September lost 4-0 to Denmark. But it is generally solid and has, in Robert Lewandowski, one of the best strikers in the world. Best Finish: Third Place (1974, 1982)

  1. RUSSIA Only one host nation has ever failed to make it through the group stage of a World Cup, but Russia could be the second. The gifted generation that reached the semifinal of Euro 2008 grew old together and Stanislav Cherchesov has struggled to rejuvenate a squad that is heavily reliant on Alan Dzagoev for creativity. Best Finish: Fourth Place (1966)
  2. MEXICO

Juan Carlos Osorio is a controversial figure, with many feeling he rotates too often and question his hard-pressing. His players, though, seem generally enthused, and Mexico finished top of CONCACAF qualifying as well as getting out of their group at the Confederations Cup. After eliminations at the round of 16 in the last six World Cups, Osorio’s first target must be set on reaching the quarterfinals. Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970, 1986)

  1. ICELAND After eliminating England to reach the quarterfinal of the Euros last summer, Iceland kicked on to become, by some distance, the smallest nation ever to qualify for a World Cup, finishing top of an awkward group that also included Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey. Gylfi Sigurdsson is the highest-profile player, but no side will have such a ferocious team spirit. Best Finish: N/A
  2. DENMARK

Denmark may have required a playoff to qualify, but that was because of results early in qualifying. More recently, the Danes put four past Poland and Montenegro and five past Ireland. Their Norwegian coach, Age Hareide, favors a direct approach and has made them defensively solid, but they also have the technical quality to unpick sides. Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1998)

  1. IRAN Carlos Queiroz has been in charge of Iran for six years now. His side qualified unbeaten, letting in just two goals in 10 games in the final group, and can be relied upon to play in the characteristic Quieroz way, full of neat, technical, risk-averse football.
  2. NIGERIA

Inconsistency and underachievement have characterized Nigerian football over the past decade. The Super Eagles have failed to qualify for three of the last four Africa Cup of Nations tournaments but won the one they did get to. Under Gernot Rohr, though, there is a sense of renewal, and they ended up topping a brutally tough qualifying group with relative comfort. A 4-2 friendly victory over a (Messi-less) Argentina this week was hugely impressive. Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994, 1998, 2014)

  1. SWEDEN

The Swedes dug deep and held firm to beat Italy over two legs and seem to have improved as a team since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Memories of their dismal Euro 2016 lurk in the background, and there is a lack of obvious creativity, but this is a side that also beat France in qualifying. Best Finish: Runner-up (1958)

  1. MOROCCO

Herve Renard’s record as an international coach is remarkable. He’s the only man to win the Cup of Nations with two different sides (Zambia, Ivory Coast) and he’s now taken Morocco to its first World Cup since 1998, coming out on top of a group that included Ivory Coast–without conceding a goal. Best Finish: Round of 16 (1986)

  1. JAPAN

There is an awkward sense about Japanese football that it has plateaued. The Samurai Blue finished top of their qualifying group and have an experienced coach in Vahid Halilhodzic, but, having been knocked out of the 2015 Asian Cup in the quarterfinals, there’s no reason to believe they’ll improve on their habit of alternating between group stage and last 16 exits. Best Finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)

  1. SERBIA

No side that finished top of its group in European qualifying collected fewer points than Serbia. This is a talented group, particularly in midfield, but the specter of past disintegrations at tournaments haunts them, and the chances of another potential collapse were only increased when Slavoljub Muslin was removed as coach after qualifying essentially because his football had been insufficiently exciting. Best Finish: Group Stage (2010)

  1. EGYPT

This is Egypt’s first World Cup since 1990, but it won a hat trick of Cups of Nations between 2006 and 2010. Having failed to make the following three Cups of Nations, the Pharaohs returned to the tournament this year and showed all the familiar defensive qualities, augmented by the pace of Mohamed Salah on the break, to reach the final. Best Finish: Group Stage (1934, 1990)

  1. SENEGAL

Senegal qualified unbeaten at the top of an awkward group that included Burkina Faso, Cape Verde and South Africa. The Lions of Teranga have pace and attacking flair on the flanks with Sadio Mane and Keita Balde and solidity in midfield with Idrissa Gueye. They disappointed at the Cup of Nations, though, eliminated in the quarterfinal by Cameroon. Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2002)

  1. SOUTH KOREA

South Korea struggled to second in its qualifying group, behind Iran, losing three of its 10 games. The squad should be better than that, though, as it features the likes of Son Heung-min (Tottenham), Lee Chung-yong (Crystal Palace) and Ji Dong-won (Augsburg). Best Finish: Fourth Place (2002)

  1. PERU

Peru is ranked 10th in the world, which is another lesson about the benefit of not playing friendlies. Ricardo Gareca’s side is well-organized and has impressed in recent tournaments, reaching the semifinal of the Copa America in 2015 and losing on penalties in the quarterfinal of the Copa America Centenario a year later. If Paolo Guerrero’s doping ban is confirmed and extended through the summer, though, it will be desperately short of firepower. Best Finish: Quarterfinals (1970)

  1. COSTA RICA

Reaching the last eight four years ago looks like being the summit for a generation. Costa Rica has regressed since then, as a number of key players have aged. The Ticos 12/7/2017 World Cup Power Rankings: How the field of 32 teams stacks up | SI.com https://www.si.com/soccer/2017/11/16/world-cup-power-rankings-russia-2018 10/13 finished second behind Mexico but managed just two wins away from home in the hexagonal. Best Finish: Quarterfinals (2014)

  1. TUNISIA A 2-1 win over DR Congo in September effectively sealed Tunisia’s place in Russia, but it will go there with limited ambition after a hugely disappointing Cup of Nations in which it was eliminated by Burkina Faso in the quarterfinal. That led–eventually–to the departure of manager Henryk Kasperczak and his replacement, Nabil Maaloul. Best Finish: Group Stage (1978, 1998, 2002, 2006)
  2. AUSTRALIA

Ange Postecoglu’s side eventually qualified via a playoff, beating Honduras 3-1 over two legs, but the big concern must be that the Socceroos haven’t won any of their last nine games outside of Australia. Best Finish: Round of 16 (2006)

  1. SAUDI ARABIA Saudi Arabia scraped to an automatic World Cup berth on goal difference ahead of Australia, but lost three of their five away games, beating only Thailand and Iraq on the road. The manager who guided the side through qualifying, Bert van Marwijk, failed to agree to a new contract and was replaced by former Argentina manager Edgardo Bauza. Best Finish: Round of 16 (1994)
  2. PANAMA Hernan Dario Gomez’s side qualified in third place in CONCACAF, but averaged less than a goal a game and won only one game away from home in the hexagonal. It’s a just reward for a veteran core.

 

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