Previously on International Breakdown: Christian Pulisic continued to dominate the US Team narrative, Francisco Calvo won the intra-Loons international contest, Liberia’s FA and manager were feuding, and Scandanavia was stoic as ever. What will come this weekend?
Undefeated in 2017, the USMNT has moved up into one of the three automatic qualifying spots for next summer’s World Cup. However, points at home remain extremely valuable. They get even more valuable when they’re offered against a fellow top competitor.
Los Ticos have not had the same energy and complete structure to their game in recent months, as a lackluster 2-0 defeat to the US in the Gold Cup suggested. The USA’s success in that match hinged on a resurgent midfield led by national team and MLS veterans. The same core will likely suit up on Friday, with the added bonus of the talisman-ic Christian Pulisic.
The strategy of positioning Pulisic amid experienced and eager veterans has served Bruce Arena well to this point. Costa Rica’s defense (including Minnesota United captain Francisco Calvo) has been capable. However, it might take something more than “capable” to limit Pulisic. What’s more, with Los Ticos offense struggling to find a consistent path through, the US is well positioned to make good on the hashtag and “#Get3.”
While home points are vital, the US Men’s squad should continue to seek out opportunities to get results on the road. After subjecting “La H” to a 6-0 thrashing in March, many will have confidence about a potential road victory.
One under-reported factor to consider is that the US will be sent back into the “nightmare” of Estadio Olímpico Metropoilitano in San Pedro Sula. After offensive chants and unsafe conditions, FIFA blocked Honduras from hosting qualifying matches there. Due to scheduling issues, Honduras hasn’t been in its top choice stadium since last December. Rowdies and ravers take note, matches against the Yanquis tend to bring out the bedlam. The first match at EOM in six months, against the Yanquis? Gird your loins folks. Gird them.
After Francisco Calvo’s successful Gold Cup campaign, he may have effectively pushed into regular playing time. And despite seeing less of the field at club level, Johan Venegas remains a favorite with national team coach Óscar Ramírez. (New MNUFC loanee José Leitón did not make the roster.)
Though the match in New York may prove a bit daunting for Costa Ricans, anything is better than the Snowclasico during the last qualifying cycle. New York should have a sizable Costa Rican contingent to buoy players with support. But things don’t get any easier for Calvo, Venegas and co. after New York. They’ll return home to face Mexico, a team they haven’t beaten since 2001.
Fans who fear that Loons midfielder Kevin Molino gets a little too immersed in “hero ball” will be sorry to note that the load will not get lighter on international duty. First choice striker Kenwyne Jones is still out with knee inflammation and has only done some light running since. Dennis Lawrence will trot out a number of untested players. Entrenched at the bottom of the Hex, this is a good long-term decision. Short term for Minnesota fans, it’s a little more burden for Molino to carry against Honduras on Friday and Panama on Tuesday.
Center back Jermaine Taylor is on the Reggae Boyz squad for a Saturday friendly against Canada. Taylor’s strong showing for the Gold Cup runners-up has boosted his profile with the club. Hopefully, another strong showing internationally prepares him for the stretch run in MLS.
Defender Michael Boxall will suit up for two of the most consequential matches of the break. New Zealand will play the Solomon Islands at home on Friday and in Honaria on Tuesday to complete Oceania qualifiers.
The All Whites are in strong position to remain the undisputed champions of the confederation. Thanks in part to Boxall (and in part to Oceania’s minimal offense), the Kiwis haven’t yielded a goal to local rivals since May 2016. The Solomons gave up four to also-rans Papua New Guinea. So, most would expect continued success for Boxall and company. Despite a few injuries, New Zealand is the odds on favorite to reach the last hurdle of qualification.
Gambia will be idle and therefore leave Ismaila Jome at home. Other foreign born players (Jérôme Thiesson, Sam Nicholson, Ibson, and Vadim Demidov) did not make their national team squads. Rasmus Schüller (currently on loan back in Finland) also missed out on the Finnish national team. However, since the Finns select an entirely European-based squad, this may be to his advantage. Also to his advantage, the already-eliminated Finns have no reason not to try out new players in the last World Cup cycle come October.
Other than a few scattered friendlies, most of the continent will be focused on the middle of World Cup qualifiers. The largest African emigrant populations in Minnesota will not be in action. One news story of note comes from the BBC World Football podcast. Head coach James Debbah doesn’t speak about the awkward call-up conflagration that ensnared Minneapolis City SC’s Martin Browne. But he does talk about why he has stayed in a job that hasn’t paid him in months.
While Iran has become the third nation to book a spot in Russia 2018 (behind Brazil and the hosts) there’s still a lot to play for. Nine teams still have a shot at qualification (including Syria). However, for local Thai fans, the War Elephants are simply playing out the string. They have their best chance for a win at home against Iraq, Thursday. Then they’ll fly off to Australia for a predicted thumping on Tuesday.
On top of the more popular European sides, here’s a quick spin around the Scandinavian sides so popular in Minnesota. Sweden started with a trip to the desperate Bulgarians. A surprising defeat knocked the Swedes out of the top spot in the group and into the thick of a battle for second (with Bulgaria and Holland). A trip to Belarus on Monday beckons and has begun to feel like a must win for a team so close to icing qualification just 24 hours ago.
Meanwhile, Norway will desperately hope for a result at home Friday (against Azerbaijan) to keep themselves alive in the race for a playoff spot. The Azerbaijan match becomes all the more dire given that they’ll be visiting title holders Germany on Monday.
Denmark has some work to do to stay level with the surprising newcomers from Montenegro. While its rivals for a playoff spot face Kazakhstan and Romania, the Danes will host Robert Lewandowski and Poland before an Armenian team that lost just 1-0 in Copenhagen.
Ecuador’s chances of reaching the World’s biggest stage will largely depend on this coming weekend. In October, the team will face Chile and Argentina back-to-back to close their campaign. As a result, they need every point they can get.
A trip to Brazil Thursday night isn’t ideal. But La Selecao has already qualified, and head coach Tite’s trio of goalkeepers (Alisson, Cássio, and Ederson) have just 17 caps between them. A shock victory would be delightful and valuable.
More important is the match against Peru in Quito on Tuesday evening.The once impervious Atahualpa has been undercut by ugly defeats to both Brazil and Colombia, as well as a baffling draw with Paraguay. With Peru just four points off the pace for a qualifying spot (and two points behind Ecuador), they’ll be bringing everything to bear on this match.
Most gallons of ink in this weekend’s soccer press will be devoted to World Cup Qualifiers. However, there are other qualifiers worth similar notice in Minnesota. The Asian Cup Qualification battle between Vietnam and Cambodia kicks off at about 6:30 a.m. CDT on Tuesday. Cambodia currently holds a one point edge over their Southeast Asian rivals for an automatic berth at the 2019 Cup in the Emirates.
With Vietnam’s Golden Star struggling to translate youth level triumph’s to full points at the senior team level, every match can be a proving ground. The Kouprey Blue’s disastrous 7-0 defeat in Jordan may be a distant memory, but can it maintain the momentum of its recent victory against another up-and-coming squad? Eyes will be fixed on the possible rising stars clash of Vietnam’s Lương Xuân Trường and Cambodia’s Ronaldo: Chan Vathanaka.
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