Transfer News: Friday, April 19th 2019

As the club season winds down, it’s inevitable that the pace of transfer rumors starts to pick up. There are too many to cover, but I’d like to focus on several over the course of the next few months. Some are more circus and PR stunts, while others are simply good players seeking greener pastures.

First on that list is Eden Hazard. It’s been nearly three years since we first starting hearing rumors that his move to Real Madrid was just around the corner. Reports suggest that we’ve finally come to that moment. ESPN is reporting an announcement is forthcoming at any day now. The move is estimated to cost Real Madrid around €100 million. And rumors have it there will be a spending spree this summer, with a budge of up to five times the amount of Hazards’s fee. Luka Jovic, Paul Pogba, and Sadio Mane are all rumored to be on the wishlist. But that also means several players will have to leave. It remains to be seen who will be the odd players out this summer, though.

As I mentioned above, Luka Jovic seems to be at the top of the list for Real Madrid. He’s also been linked with FC Bayern, Chelsea, and Barcelona. I poo-pooed the link to Barcelona in Episode 8 of the Two Idiots Podcast. He simply doesn’t fit their style of play. But the other three—Real Madrid, FC Bayern, and Chelsea—all play with a strong, traditional number 9. A strong performance by the Serbian striker in the Europa League—where his current club, Eintracht Frankfurt, faces off against Chelsea in the semifinals—and his price tag would likely increase. Add to that Eintracht recently triggered their purchase option on their loan agreement with Benfica. This could cause some teams to walk away.

In order to absorb all the players they want to buy (some mentioned above), Real Madrid will have to offload some of its roster. Chief on this list would have to be James Rodriguez. The Colombian attacking midfielder has spent the last two seasons at FC Bayern and couldn’t quite live up to expectations—they may have been too high, but nonetheless he failed to leave the desired mark. Bayern could still end up with the former Monaco player, but a move to Italy may be more likely. Napoli or Juventus may fit his style of play much better.

It’s possible that Richarlison could move on to his fifth side in as many seasons. Not because he’s a bad boy or lacks discipline, one could argue he does though, rather it’s been his standout performances that have seen him transfer to bigger sides year on year. Rumor has it that Barcelona has come knocking and owing in part to the great relationship between Everton and Barcelona built over the transfers and loans of several key Everton players, the transfer fee may be lower than expected. But there’s an obstacle to any sort of transfer to the Catalan side. They’re already chock full of non-EU players.

Napoli defender Kalidou Koulibaly has impressed over the last few seasons. And this year’s performances in all competitions has seen scouts from all over vying for his signature. Manchester United has looked like favorites since they’re the most in need of shoring up at the back. But he’s also mentioned that he’d like to stay and win championships.

Barring any surprise exits from Merseyside, Liverpool may not need to make a huge splash signing in the off season. But that hasn’t stopped them from supposedly pursuing Wolves midfielder Rueben Neves. Manager Jurgen Klopp may want to strengthen his somewhat crowded midfield and bringing in a Premier League battle tested player like Neves wouldn’t be a bad idea compared to the want-away PSG midfielder Adrien Rabiot.

Over the last two transfer windows, Tottenham haven’t signed any new players. In large part, this was due to pushing funds toward building their new stadium. But the stadium’s complete, a place in the Champions League Semifinals is secured, and another top four spot looking more likely fans will want to an effort to bring in new players. Curiously enough, though, the only sure rumors I’ve seen have players leaving. Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld are both linked with a move away from the North London club. Inter Milan is rumored to be preparing an offer for Eriksen, while Alderweireld may leave for either Arsenal or Manchester United.

Transfer season is always interesting to watch. There’s high drama, last second bargaining, and ridiculous rumors. These are but a few of the players or teams who will play huge roles in transfer season. I’ll follow them through the summer and keep everyone up to date on how everything shakes out.

Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.

DCU Struggles to Find Early Season Form

Walking out of Audi Field after Tuesday’s match v Montreal Impact, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of frustration. DC United fans had been subjected to their fifth consecutive half of scoreless football. And after a fast start to the still relatively young season, the higher than normal expectations for the 2019 season have come crashing down.

There were only two positives after Wednesday’s match vs the Canadian side, who fielded a younger squad and came without their two star players Ignacio Piatti and Maximiliano Urruti. DC United did keep a clean sheet, their fourth of the season. And three players got some much needed time on the pitch—Zoltan Stieber, Quincy Amarikwa, and Jalen Robinson, made a late game appearance.

But that’s where it ended.

After a 4-0 trashing at the hands of arguably the best side in the league, LAFC, there were many questions that were hanging around the DCU twittersphere.

At the top of the list was, who would fill in for Wayne Rooney after his red card for his late tackle on LAFC’s hattrick hero, Diego Rossi? Conventional wisdom would tell us that late preseason signing Quincy Amarikwa would settle in up top. Instead, DCU coach, Ben Olsen went with Ulises Segura, traditionally a midfielder, who had played at striker a handful of times for his previous teams.

DCU fans know that Segura doesn’t leave us wanting when it comes to work rate, especially when deployed in the midfield. But this decision by Olsen to not use the player, Amarikwa, he brought in for this very reason was ultimately a failure. Amarikwa did come on and provide a spark up top, but it wasn’t enough. With Rooney questionable (flu like symptoms), but traveling, for the road match against Colorado, Amarikwa could get his first start for DC United.

It wasn’t just Rooney’s positional play that was missing, though. In fact, I would argue his leadership is far more important. His mere presence on the field opens up so much more space for the rest of the attacking players as defenses tend to focus on the former Manchester United striker. And having him on the field coaching and encouraging goes a long way to helping players settle in to a game that could be a bit tougher than expected.

Filling in for Rooney, leadership wise, is always going to be a tough ask for any player. Those shoes are too big. But that no one really tried made the team feel rudderless in his absence. As I said above, it took until Amarikwa came on before the team looked anything like threatening. Even then, they couldn’t register a shot on target for the game.

Compounding the glaring issue of no coverage for when Rooney is out injured or suspended are the mounting injuries across the already thin backline. Joseph Mora (broken jaw) was injured in the Orlando game and Oneil Fisher (knee) is recovering from a knee injury suffered at the end of last season. Chris McCann, former Burnley captain, was brought on in the off-season to provide some cover at both center back and on the outside. After Mora’s injury against Orlando he stepped in and it was immediately clear he was not as pacy as Mora. LAFC’s game plan, in part, looked to exploit that issue and did with good effect. McCann got the start again on Wednesday, but pulled up lame with what looks like a hamstring injury that will keep him out for several days to a couple of weeks. Lucas Rodriguez came was subbed on for him, which forced Paul Arriola to deputize at left wing back.

Then towards the end of the match, Leonardo Jara injured his shoulder and after trying to play through the pain, he went to ground making it clear he couldn’t go on much longer. Jalen Robinson made his first, albeit a short one, appearance of the season. Reports suggest that Jara could be back sooner rather than later, but let’s assume in this short week, he won’t be available.

Without Mora, McCann, and Jara, Olsen is left with a handful of options. Robinson is one and he has played on the wing on occasion, but not often. Also on the bench are Akeem Ward and Donavan Pines both in their first season with DC United. Ward was selected in January’s MLS Super Draft, while Pines comes to DCU as a homegrown player after three seasons with the University of Maryland.

Pines is more of a Center Back and likely won’t figure into Olsen’s plans unless Frederic Brillant or Steve Birnbaum pick up a knock. Ward could fill in at either wing back position, though and may get a nod from Olsen on Saturday.

If I’m being honest, I suspect that on the road Olsen will want to go with players who have a bit more experience. Which may mean Arriola will be forced to drop in at either of the wing back positions, something he may not like as it could hurt his place with the US National Team. In the past, he has performed well-enough there and it may actually be a better fit for Olsen’s game plan. And that would leave either Ward or Robinson playing out on the other wing with Hungarian Zoltan Stieber getting his second start in the midfield in as many games.

Regardless of the lineup or tactics, Olsen and Company need to find a way out of the poor run of form. Colorado seems like the best opponent to help break that streak, as they’ve failed to win all season and have let in multiple goals in the last three games.

But look for the Rapids to drop in and play a low block, much like Montreal. While Rooney will travel, he may not be 100 percent. And DCU will possibly have to find some other ways to provide an offensive spark to unlock the Colorado’s defense.

My best guess: DC wins 2-0, both goals coming late. Rooney digs deep with Arriola providing an extra spark from the wing back position.

Spurs Injuries Cause Problems for Poch

The situation looked grim for Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. In the 86th minute, with the score in Sunday’s match versus London rival Fulham knotted at 1-1, one Tottenham’s key playmakers, Deli Alli, went down holding his hamstring.

In real time, the player left no doubt about the injury, pulling up lame then gingerly using the ad boards as a crutch to ease himself to the ground.

Luckily, for the North London side, a stoppage-time winner meant walking away with three points.

For most top six sides in the Premier League, an injury to a key player isn’t the end of the world. But for the Pochettino coached side, it meant missing yet another star going into a tough run of games, especially mid-February to early March.

Harry Kane is with an ankle injury and unlikely to return until the second leg Round of 16 tie away at Dortmund. Although, there are reports he may be back sooner.

And Son Heung-Min is out at least until next week while on International Duty with South Korea. Luckily, barring any injury in UAE at the Asia Cup, Son will return for the match Leicester City in February--maybe even sooner.

The problem isn’t just missing star players, but it’s also not having players who can fill in and be a stop gap. Moussa Sissoko, Lucas Moura, and Victor Wanyama have all been nursing injuries, but have returned to training this week. And with both Fernando Llorente and Vincent Janssen woefully out of form, there’s no wonder that the North London side’s manager is feeling a little pressure.

Any decision Pochettino takes will carry risks, however. Playing Llorente up top in Kane’s role runs is a gamble. As we saw against Fulham, Spurs lacked any real creative effort up top and the Spanish striker looked out of sorts. Janssen hasn’t played since August 2017 and won’t figure into Poch’s plans anyway. Sissoko, Moura, and Wanyama may not be fully fit, but will nonetheless be called on to play, running the risk of reinjury.

It’ll be too late for Thursday’s Carabao Cup match against Chelsea, but Poch could look to the transfer window--something Spurs didn’t do in the summer. But who would they pick up? Gonzalo Higuain, the player most similar to injured striker Harry Kane, is already on his way to Chelsea. Regardless, he wouldn’t want to simply be a role player after Kane returns.

And any transfer could upset team chemistry, which has seemed to be going well at the moment.  

My guess is that the Argentine manager chooses to stick it out. Seeing as Troy Parrot, the young 16-year-old Irish striker, trained today it looks like that’s the direction he’s going.

It certainly is a gamble, but that’s life in the Premier League’s top 6. There are certain risks each team has to take. Of course, you want to minimize exposure, but often there’s not much a team can do.


Pogba Shines sans Jose

“It was Jose,” read the text from my friend, an only recently suffering Man United fan.

I wanted to copy, paste, then print out his message. He’d been reluctant to blame Jose Mourinho for a less than stellar start to the 2018-19 season. For what’s it worth, the writing was on the wall this time last year.

My friend’s revelation took well into the sixth game after Mourinho was sacked for him to accept, without provocation, that Jose was at fault. (I’d been working with him on how to say the uncomfortable phrase).

‘Say it with me, “It was Jose. It. Was. Jose.”’

To say that I’m proud is an understatement.

But I digress from the topic at hand…Paul Pogba’s resurrection as an attack minded central midfielder, one who can take a game by the scruff of its neck and dictate terms, especially in the attacking third.

Playing in a role that’s more defensive is something that Pogba can do. Just look at France’s World Cup victory last summer. But that was for seven games and players make sacrifices for the national teams all the time, especially in a tournament as big as the World Cup.

At Manchester United, however, the season is 38 games long, add in several cup games and that number sometimes reaches closer to 60. A few games out of position here and there aren’t a problem, but you need your best players in their best positions for most of the season.

Under Jose, Pogba’s offensive prowess, his surging runs from the midfield into prime attacking real estate were stifled. He was to play a role clogging lanes, something more akin to a holding midfield player. It was almost as if Jose had the former Juve star slated to play in the Makalele role--named after former Real Madrid and Chelsea star Claude Makalele who helped Jose to a premier league title in his first ever season as manager at Chelsea.

For an example of a modern-day Makalele, look no further than N’Golo Kante. On rare occasions, he ventures forward to exploit space in his teams attacking third. While he certainly may have better vision than Makalele (although that’s debatable), Kante’s main objective each game is slowing the other team’s attack and then cooly distributing to one of his other midfield partners. He doesn’t dribble, he doesn’t make incisive passes (often), he doesn’t take more than two or three touches.

That’s not the Paul Pogba any soccer fan has come to appreciate. He’s a taller Paul Scholes, a nicer Roy Keane, and definitely not a Nicky Butt or David Beckham (who sometimes deputized as a center mid for Sir Alex Ferguson). Rather, he’s more of a Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard hybrid with more speed and physicality. He can shoot from distance, pick apart defenses with incisive passes from any distance, beat defenders 1v1, and finish from anywhere inside 20 yards with any surface.

If the last five Premier League games under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer are any indication, Paul Pogba has finally lived up to expectations after three seasons at Old Trafford. In 14 appearances under Jose, Pogba only netted once, while this recent run of games has that tally at 4 with 4 assists. The bottom line is, Pogba is happy and excited to be in the squad.

Maybe this is the honeymoon phase though. What will happen during a spell of bad results, it may all come crashing down.

I doubt it.

Pogba unleashed should scare the rest of the league and embolden his teammates. As a Liverpool fan, I’m not excited to see a resurgent Manchester United led by Pogba ready to play spoiler. But a pure soccer enthusiast, I don’t mind it a single bit.


Turner Sports Takes Over Champions League Coverage

Last August, Turner Sports announced they would be taking over coverage of the UEFA Champions League from FOX Sports. They also have the rights to the Europa League. 

It was a surprising announcement to say the least. FOX had been the broadcasters since the 2009-10 season. And ESPN had the rights for at least 14 seasons prior to that.

For their coverage of the two European club competitions, Turner Sports is rolling out an 'over the top' (OTT) streaming service for the games not broadcast on one of their stations. Initially, there seemed to be some consideration for using TNT, TBS, and TruTV for the match days. Instead, it looks like TNT will air two games each day during the first round, while switching to one a day during the knock out phase. 

UEFA has decided to have two kickoff times for games on each match day--1pm and 3pm EST. Turner Sports will air one game from each start time on TNT. That means three games at each kick off time will not be covered on a normal cable channel. This is where the OTT streaming service will kick in. 

More than likely if you follow a big side like Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, you can go without having to access the stream service. It seems logical that barring some weird grouping situations or timing conflicts, those teams will always be selected for the normal cable service. 

Fans whose teams aren't getting coverage will be able to buy the streaming package for $2.99/game, $9.99/month, or $79.99 for the whole year. 

But, if your team is in the Europa League, like say Chelsea, well you should probably go ahead and invest in the full year package. Or at a minimum check think about how you're going to access the streaming option. Because, Turner Sports has decided to only offer the Europa League final on their cable station. All the other games will be on the OTT service. 

Turner has taken a page from NBC's book. Last season the Premier League broadcaster utilized a similar service for the games not being broadcast on their slate of cable channels. They, like Turner, felt there was value in offering up the option to watch under-represented sides via an OTT service. 

That said, there were significant complaints about strength and the actual value. For $50/season, the service was at best inconsistent and often completely shut down. Personally, I chose not to renew my subscription for this season. I'm also a Liverpool fan and feel like they're likely to be on the cable coverage anyway. 

The Atlanta based company has also sought to boost their soccer coverage credentials by signing some notable pundits. Kate Abdo will be the host for the pre-game, halftime, between-game, and post-game coverage (interestingly enough Turner has pitched this set up as four new shows, when really it's just the same sort of game coverage we've always had). Tim Howard and Steve Nash have signed on as analysts with Stuart Holden's name mentioned as another yet to be signed.

One step up from FOX's coverage will be that Turner will use the world broadcast instead of their own in studio commentators. Alexi Lalas haters can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they won't have to listen to his voice during a Champions League match. Plus, personally, it always sounds better to have the commentators inside the park giving us the play-by-play rather than sitting in a sound booth somewhere in Atlanta or LA. 

'Cord-cutters' should like this new option, too. It's one less thing to worry about, no more boxes or weird remotes. That said, if the streaming has half the problems of the NBC Gold, it won't be worth it. 

Turner Sports looks to be banking on a business theory called "the Long Tail." It was created by Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief at Wired Magazine. The idea is that while bigger market items will certainly make up a majority of your revenue, smaller market items if packaged correctly in non-traditional formats could eventually produce enough revenue to rival those of the bigger markets. In this case, Turner knows their money maker, right now at least, will be the coverage of the most popular teams on their main channel. But they're also banking on the longer term expansion of revenue from coverage of teams with the smaller fan bases. If those fans move towards the OTT service to watch their team's play, they could add to Turner's revenue. 

The other side of the coin, however, could be that those smaller fan groups switching to OTT would actually cause a noticeable decrease in viewership for the games on the regular cable coverage. That may lead to less advertising revenue for Turner.

It may not matter after all. The Champions League, and to an extent the Europa League, are fairly popular here in the US. I'm genuinely curious to see if this sort of service takes off or if it flounders. Will it lead to a weakening of the popularity of the Champions League in the US? Will the streaming service crash like NBC's did all too often last season? 

All I know is I'm ready for the season to start.

Pulisic Transfer Rumors Heat Up

Eddie Johnson recently described Christian Pulisic as the best American player ever. Big words for a 19 year old, but Johnson, a former US National Team player, would know. Pulisic spent a chunk of the off-season training with the former MLS frontman in Orlando, Florida.

Now that preseason training is in full swing and the transfer window drawing to a close, it seems the Hersey, PA native could be on the move. 

Contract talks have stalled with his club team, Borussia Dortmund. He has two years left, but without an extension Dortmund would have to settle for selling him at a discount next summer or letting him go for free. 

Pulisic has been on the radar of Liverpool, FC Bayern, and Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp, manager at Anfield, was in charge of Dortmund when the American winger first arrived in Germany. FC Bayern sees Pulisic as a natural replacement for their aging stars Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. And Real Madrid is interest because everyone else is too. 

Late Sunday evening, however, a new front runner has emerged, Chelsea. The London club hasn't made a big splash in the transfer market as of yet. But with Willian, Eden Hazard, and Thibaut Courtois likely on their way out, they'll have money to spend. 

The American youngster does have the potential to be great, but most likely won't be able to fill the shoes of Hazard if the Belgian leaves Stamford Bridge anytime soon. Pulisic didn't particularly shine last season for Dortmund. 

For the sake of improving his skill sets, he's better off staying for another year in Germany. There he'll play much more often than at any of the other teams in the running. Liverpool looks to have sorted out backups for their wingers, Pulisic won't start over Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah. At FC Bayern, he'd still have to share time with Ribéry and Robben. There'd be no playing time at Real Madrid, even in cup ties. At Chelsea, the team seems in such disarray that even if he were to play more often, it may not be worth the hassle. 

Interested teams, for their part, would be better off waiting until the 2019 Transfer Windows--either in January or in the summer. Dortmund would likely be forced to take much less than the £65 million ($85 million) on offer today. Or they could manage to swing a deal that lets Pulisic stay in Dortmund for one more season--letting him develop his skills--with his transfer being effective next summer. 

Nonetheless, I don't forsee any movement unless Chelsea can get their transfer situation sorted out. Without the money to pay for Pulisic, there's no way they can make a move. It's a better decision all around if he stays one more season in yellow and black. 

Özil's Retirement Fuels Integration Conversation

Mesut Özil will be 34 by the time Qatar hosts the first ever World Cup not held in the summer. It's very likely Russia would have been his last, anyway. 

But on Sunday, he released as statement announcing his retirement from the German team. He pointed, primarily, to the sorts of racial and ethnic abuse that critics have been throwing his way as the basis for his early exit. 

Blame was also shared by the German FA, who did little to support Gelsenkirchen-born midfielder during the controversy surrounding his decision to take a photo with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

For the Arsenal star, their lack of support was based solely on his ethnicity and faith. Özil is a practicing Muslim and can be seen praying before each game. 

Some German politicians have, ironically, pointed to the midfielder's statement as a case against integration. They feel this proves that both Turkish and Muslim citizens aren't able to assimilate. I use the term 'ironically,' because in 2016 he received a Bambi award for being an example of successful integration in Germany. 

There's lots to say here, I think. Both about Ozil's decision and this idea of integration/assimilation.

The Arsenal midfielder is third generation Turkish-German and was born and raised in Gelsenkirchen. Third generation can be ambiguous, but at a minimum it tells us that his family been in Germany for at least three generations. 

As an example of this ambiguity, I could either be first or second generation Iranian-American. As I was the the first generation to have been born here. Or if you count my father's naturalization, then I would be second generation. In short, if I have children, they could be described like Özil, third generation Iranian-American. 

But I digress. 

We live at a time when the idea of identity can be polarizing. Simply being hyphenated is political. Having dueling nationalities, competing identities is to some anathema to creating a unified national narrative. 

In a more globalized society, however, it is increasingly difficult to maintain an idea of a monolithic national identity. This is especially true in societies with strong linkages to countries through colonialism or economic trade. For Germany, the large Turkish population stems from the guest worker program that allowed Turkish workers to help fill the labor void in factories across Western Germany. Those workers ended up staying and building lives in Germany. The German authorities had to decide to either forcibly remove the guest workers or allow them to remain. After a lot of hand wringing, the Germans began recognizing the German born children of Turkish guest workers as citizens, which gave that community stronger legal status. 

But Özil isn't the only one complaining that despite their allegiance to their home country (in his case Germany), fans often speak of them in terms of not being fully accepted. For players like Karim Benzema or Romelu Lukaku, followers are willing to accept their French or Belgian status only when they're playing well, scoring goals. Fans strike another tune, however, when those players with dueling identities aren't playing well. Ozil, Benzama, and Lukaku's immigrant-origins are highlighted.

Michael Bradley or Olivier Giroud performing poorly will never have their nationality questioned. Their ethnic make up will never be a part of their team's fans. That's the privilege whiteness bestows on them. Or going further Mix Diskerud's performance will never elicit questions or comments highlighting his Norwegianness. 

On a personal level, I can identify with Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku. If I were to do something heroic, possibly by serving in the military, my Americanness would never be called into question. But, as often happens, when I'm critical of something this country has done, my Iranianness is highlighted. "Go back to you country" or "why don't you just leave, if you don't like it here" are all too familiar responses to my commentary on social issues. 

Like Özil, Benzema, and Lukaku, I'm a natural born citizen. We were born in the places we represent. But in the places we represent, our status, even if it is legal and somewhat protected, sits rather tenuously. And it is often determined solely by societies misaligned idea of how we should perform or behave. We're only counted when we do something they like. 

None of this is to say that Ozil's performance at the World Cup wasn't abysmal--it was. Or that his meeting with Erdogan wasn't misguided and the follow-up could have been handled differently. Push back on those fronts are warranted. But the critiques should be coated, not in racism or anti-Muslim sentiment, but in basic footballing terms. He looked lackluster, uninspired. His choice meet with Erdogan caused some locker room issues and his lack of response to the surrounding shitstorm made it worse. 

The fact of the matter is, even outside of sports, these conversations should be taking place. Sports could be the vehicle through which societies begin to realize that being hyphenated shouldn't be a problem.

It's instructive to know that neither side of the hyphen is sufficient enough to critique a person's character. But both sides are very real identities for those of us who are hyphenated. 

I think we can start there. 

 

 

 

Premier League Transfer Deadline Looms Large

We've all become used to the mad dash to wrap up transfers by August 31st.

Several games into a season, teams were still searching for a solution to glaring needs on the field. Maybe they haven't quite settled on terms with a long held transfer target. Or, possibly there's that lone trouble maker they're trying to off-load. 

But those late editions/subtractions can also be disruptive to team chemistry. 

That's precisely what Premier League clubs were seeking to avoid when they announced last season on a 14 to 5 vote (one abstention) that they'd move their transfer deadline back from August 31 to the Thursday before the first weekend of games. The new deadline falls on August 9th. 

FIFA, it must be noted, has mandated a 12-week transfer window. Which is why, if you recall, Premier League teams were finalizing transfers as early as mid-May. Fabinho to Liverpool from Monaco is a prime example.

It seems, though, teams in England haven't really caught on to the new transfer deadline. Yes, there have been some big signings--Liverpool picked up Xerdan Shaqiri from Stoke and Alisson from Roma. But overall there haven't been the series of splashes that a transfer window normally has. 

We should also take into account the four-week-long extravaganza in Russia, the World Cup usually slows the transfer market. Surely that puts a damper on activity as teams wait to see how targets perform and whether or not they have to increase their bids. 

But that doesn't account for the general hesitancy of teams to buy or sell. Normally a big transfer, like Ronaldo to Juventus, would act like a multiplier and set off a series of other transactions. That hasn't happened yet.

Some have said we should wait until the last ten days, which will begin July 31st. There's always a flurry of activity as the window starts to close.

Still others have pointed to the delayed transfer deadlines of other clubs. Italy has decided to enact the same policy as the Premier League, but their start date is a week later. Germany, Spain, and France haven't made those changes and will be free to sign players until August 31st--even  from sides in the UK.  

While it is certain to limit confusion and allow players to focus on the season, the new policy could lead to Premier League sides missing out on players as clubs in other leagues have a bit more time hammer out transfers. And if there's a want-away player on a side in England, a club with a longer transfer deadline would be able to make a lower bid, knowing there's a strong desire to get rid of the player. In short, the last three weeks of August will be a buyers market. 

The new transfer rules look to be reasonable, but the fact they aren't uniformly applied across Europe makes it all the more confusing and likely that English sides could get the short end of the stick. 

Obtaining consistency across Europe should be next on the agenda. 

 

Liverpool picks up a goalkeeper, Chelsea's new coach is tired of transfers

Liverpool may have found the solution to their problems in net. It's been over a decade since there's been a reliable net-minder at Anfield. Pepe Reina, as loved as he was, had his problems. Simon Mignolet, was, well, Simon Mignolet prone to errors on routine plays. And most recently, Loris Karius seemed to find ways to fumble in big games.

Barring some unforseen medical issue, Alisson, a 25 year old Brazilian, previously at Roma, will likely take over between the posts. He's been reliable for the Rome side, but also in the goal for Brazil. Both Chelsea and Real Madrid had expressed interest in signing the Brazilian. 

It will be interesting to see how the future shakes out for Karius and Mignolet. Who will stay and deputize for Alisson? My guess is that for the time being Mignolet will stick around, while it's clear that Karius doesn't really have a chance to suit up for another season at Liverpool. 

Hopes will be high for the former Roma keeper. Liverpool look to challenge for their first title in nearly 30 years. They'll need a strong showing from Alisson to do that. Can he live up to the pressure.

In other news, Chelsea's new manager indicated he was "bored by the transfer market." While he's keen on keeping Belgian stars Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, but he's not interested in talking about how they can keep them on. Real Madrid seems like the front runner for both players. 

Chelsea have signed former Napoli player Jorginho and have expressed interest in Russian standout Alexandr Golovin. 

The Croatian Dream Continues, as England Falters

Wednesday semifinal started auspiciously for the Three Lions. An early free kick goal from surprising standout Kieran Trippier with just five minutes gone gave the impression football might actually be coming home. 

For the next half hour and some change, the Croatians looked shell-shocked. But to be fair, they've been down early before--giving up a goal to Denmark in the first minute of their Round of 16 match. 

But on the stroke of halftime, it seemed the Croatians had settled. The tiny nation may just have had enough fight left to challenge England's youthful side. 

After not putting up much of a rebuttal in the first 45, the Luca Modric led side hammered England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with seven shots in the first 15 minutes of the second half. 

Just past the hour mark, Ivan Perišić took a late run into the box and got his boot, above a diving Kyle Walker, to Šime Vrsaljko's cross from the right side. Pickford was helpless to prevent the goal.

And facing a bit of shell-shock themselves, the England side almost conceded a second a few minutes later. Perišic's shot hit the inside of the post and Ante Rebic's rebound fell comfortably right into the hands of a panicked Pickford.

Ninety minutes wouldn't be enough, however. And for the third time in three games Croatia would have to play an extra 30 minutes. Curiously, both teams had most of their subs remaining--Croatia with all four and England three. Entering extra time, teams are allowed a fourth substitute.

The first 15 almost came and went without much fan fare. But, in the final minute of the first extra period, Mario Mandžukić latched on to a cross at the near post with pressure from Pickford forcing his shot wide.

The dagger came just three minutes into the second frame. A headed ball from the left by Perišic combined with a momentary switch off by England's defense, allowed Mandžukic to sneak in and finish first time past the diving keeper from Everton. 

England had to finish down a man as Kieren Trippier was helped off with a groin injury. But even if he had stayed on, able to finish, it seemed a bridge too far. The Croatians had outlasted an England side that had so inspired the country and even the rest of the globe. 

As the Croatians celebrated and the Three Lions players stood dejected, one thing was certain England will be back.

The core of this team will eventually bring football home. And the rest of Europe and the World should be very afraid. 

 

Belgians Run Out of Ideas, France Books Trip to Moscow

The only certainty, when the teams took the field on Tuesday, was that those of us watching would be in for a treat.

The French were led by teenage phenom, and potential Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo usurper, Kylian Mbappe. Combined a formidable duo controlling the midfield in Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante fireworks were all but certain.

Their opponents, who had essentially run riot through their group competition and previous knockout stage opponents, were living up to a new moniker, one that harkens back to bygone era of American baseball. The Big Red Machine. Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and Romelu Lukaku seemed finally destined to break Belgium's title drought. 

And for the first twenty-five minutes, the Red Devils certainly looked like forcing their will on the game. They possessed, they attacked, they prodded the French defense. Hazard launched attacks from the left, De Bruyne from the right while combining with Nacer Chadli who was playing in an unfamiliar outside right back position. 

But no matter how hard they tried, they simply couldn't manage to unlock the French defense. Their best chances came from Hazard in the 15th and 18th minutes. Those failed as the Chelsea midfielder rushed his first shot and had his second pushed over bar via deflection from an unwitting French defender, Raphaël Varane.

A few moments later Toby Alderweireld's quick shot off a poor clearance forced his club teammate, Hugo Lloris, into a reaction save. With a bit more pace, it just might have beaten the French goalkeeper. 

Then as if some random force shifted it's weight snuffing out the fire fueling the Belgian machine, the momentum shifted in favor of France. Olivier Giroud and Benjamin Pavard miss clear chances. The Stuttgart defender, after a brilliant through ball from Mbappe, having his effort blocked by Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' big right foot.

Halftime didn't temper the French ascendency, in fact they came back burning hotter than they had at the end of the first 45. 

The French earned a corner early in the second half. Antoine Greizmann's in-swinging cross was met by Samuel Umtiti, who's darting run to the near post left him free from his mark, Alderwield, rose to head the ball, beating out Maurane Fellani, and steered the ball past Curtios at the near post.

France was up 1-0. And it very likely should have been a two goal lead just a few mins later. Giroud couldn't finish after Mbappe provided yet another sublime distribution. The French center forward, who's had a miserable time finding the back of the net in Russia, should have buried his chance on the first touch. Instead, his attempt to control then finish gave Mousa Dembélé enough time to slide in and block his shot. 

The Big Red Machine was all out of ideas on how to crack the French defense. Hazard and De Bruyne, no matter how hard they worked, couldn't manage to combine with Lukaku. And at times seemed their own worst enemy by over complicating possession, finding themselves in self-imposed defensive cul-de-sacs. 

With the insertion of Dries Mertens, who started on the bench for the second game in a row, replacing Dembélé, who was, outside the sliding block on Giroud to prevent a second goal for France, essentially ineffectual all game, there seemed to be a brief moment of hope. Mertens was initially more effective on the right flank launching a few crosses that seemed to cause the French defense a few problems. Fellani got his head on one, narrowly missing the bottom right corner. But, Lloris looked to have it covered. 

There was a legitimate shout for a free kick after a tackle by Giroud on Hazard. The referee waved it off, unfortunately. It certainly would have been in a dangerous position, but there's no way to know if it would have resulted in a goal. 

Nonetheless, as the referee blew the final whistle, Belgian players, in what has been a tradition across sports for losing teams in these types of games, collapsed to ground in agony. Meanwhile, French players sprinted across the pitch in ecstasy. They're on their way to Moscow.

World Cup Semi-Finalists Reflect Team Spirit

First, I want to apologize. It's been more than a week since my last post. Admittedly, I had every intention of writing through vacation, but then I realized taking a step back would be wise and allow me to fully recharge. But now I'm back and ready to go full force into providing analysis and insights. 

When we take a look at all four semi-finalists (and one could argue some of the quarterfinalists as well), the one thing that emerges is that while each team has a star, none of the teams wait for the star to perform. In short, the success of the final four squads hasn't been balanced precariously on a single player. 

Sure Croatia's talisman, Luca Modric, scored a superb goal against Argentina--one that outshined Messi's performance, except maybe that amazing finish vs Nigeria. But he also missed a penalty kick against Denmark in the waning moments of extra time, one that could have sealed the game and avoided a shootout. His teammates, and really his goalkeeper, rallied behind him to prevail in the shootout. 

England relied heavily on Harry Kane in their first two games, he even scored in the Round of 16 match up against Colombia. But it was Harry Maguire and Deli Alli (and some would argue Raheem Sterling's work rate in the attacking third) that carried England into the semis.

For France, it's been more of a combination of Antoine Greizmann and Kylian Mbappe upfront along with solid efforts from N'golo Kante and the defensive backline. A sum of its parts rather than a singular focus on a super star.

And the Red Devils of Belgium have done it while employing multiple formations and multiple roles for its most special players. Having started the first two games and the Round of 16 match up as a central striker, Romelu Lukaku was forced out wide against Brazil in favor of a Kevin De Bruyne playing a false 9. De Bruyne himself had been forced to drop deeper in previous matches. Eden Hazard, too, was moved from a central position, one that was more raumdeuter than anything else, to a position out on the right flank.  

It's a little cliche to say, but teams win World Cups. Which is why Portugal, Argentina, and Brazil never stood a chance. All three teams relied heavily on a single player. Every possession, tactical adjustment, and even failure was centered around the performance of their star. Once could reasonably argue, they'd probably lose the debate, but it is still worth discussing, all those teams could have fared better without Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar. 

Portugal won a European Championship without Ronaldo on the pitch. And to be fair, they didn't perform well during that competition, narrowly escaping the group phase and their first two games in the knockout rounds. 

Argentina looked lost with Messi on the pitch. They probably would have looked lost with him off the pitch, too. But the clear deference at nearly every venture, every rough patch made the likes of Angel Di Maria, Javier Mascherano, and Sergio Aguero look shadows of their usually on form selves. 

And for the Brazilians, Neymar's desire to be the director of all things Seleção prevented other stars from shining brightly. Gabriel Jesus looked lost as he tried in vain to partner with the mercurial Brazilian talisman. Barcelona midfielder Philippe Coutinho had an impact early in the group stage, but seemed to be left out of forward movements as the tournament progressed. All things Brazil had to go through Neymar.

It's telling that the sides with arguably the three best players in the tournament never really threatened for a shot at the title. In a tournament as grueling as this, it's the team that matters. And even in the World Cups where single players dominated, they allowed their teammates to shine as well. Brazil had the talent to pursue a title,  and if Neymar's self-centered flare and infatuation with the limelight had allowed it, we might be talking about the possibilities of a sixth World Cup title. Portugal and Argentina, unfortunately, never seemed to have the quality required--even with their superstar.

Alas, it is the sides with the best team chemistry, the ones most willing to sacrifice for each other, that have made it to the final four. One of them will win and the glory will go to the team spirit embodied by every player on the roster. 

That should be the lesson from this World Cup.

 

Messi and Ronaldo Exit Stage Left

When the final whistle blew on June 26th, pundits, fans, and even the most casual of observers were drawn to the top half of the left side of the knockout bracket. Uruguay v Portugal and Argentina v France were intriguing, not because of the match-ups themselves, but because of what they could yield.

A Portugal v Argentina, ahem Ronaldo v Messi matchup would be a show stopper. It'd be the type of game every advertiser could only dream of--except maybe if it had been in the finals. 

Both players would have much to prove. Despite winning nearly every major trophy, neither have won the World Cup. Ronaldo, at least, won the European Championship two years ago in France--but some would be quick to point out, he wasn't on the pitch for the victory. Messi has managed to earn the ire of many Albiceleste fans, who claim the Barcelona star plays harder for his club than his nation. 

But the hopes for a dream World Cup quarterfinal match up were, for fans and marketing managers alike, all for naught. 

Argentina succumbed to France side that seemed finally willing to fire on all cylinders, even if it took well going down 2-1 to realize their potential. For Messi, it seemed more like a necessary exercise that capped off a miserable Russian adventure. His teammates, and really the Argentine manager, seemed far too willing to let their talisman take over answering nearly every question tactically. With a team chock full of super stars, it was confounding to see just how anemic they looked in attack. And how cynical they looked in defense, reckless tackle after reckless tackle made it surprising they ended with eleven players on the field. 

But why couldn't Jorge Sampaoli find a way to fit Sergio Aguero, Paulo Dybala, Ganzalo Higuain, in the lineup at the same time as Messi? Some argued it's because they all played similar styles. But wouldn't you want to have your best scoring and creative threats on the pitch simultaneously? It seemed, though, being content to let Messi carry the team was the overall strategy. Everyone else would fall in line. 

Messi, surely, is a game changer. That type of superstar coming once (or twice in this case) a generation. But even the most successful ones--Pele, Diego Maradona, Zidane, Ronaldo--had teammates who didn't just pull their own weight, but also stepped into the breech when their leader was having a bad day. Those role players turned on field leaders were in short supply and thus Messi and Company are headed home. 

For Portugal, a team that seemed far more adventurous and unified than Argentina, they fell victim to a surprisingly in-form Uruguay team. The South American side's strong central defense duo, who play together at the club level too, made one mistake during the Round of 16 match up. Portuguese defender Pepe made them pay. But it wasUruguay's dynamic due from Salto, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, who ran riot at the opposite end of the pitch with Cavani burying two wonderful goals--the first, possibly the best worked combination play of the tournament. 

It's not a stretch so say that Portugal's early exit isn't surprising. Maybe I'm wrong. But even when one takes into account their title in France two years ago, we'd all be remiss to think it was anything but a fluke. The Ronaldo led side couldn't win a match in the group phase and only progressed because of the expanded tournament field. They finished third to Hungary and Iceland. But it took them all the way to the semi-finals against Wales to win their one and only match during regulation time (they won the finals vs host France via a 109th minute goal by Eder). 

Unlike the Argentines, the Portuguese side played with a bit more tactical and strategic unity. They had skilled players outside of Ronaldo, but nothing of the firepower Sampaoli refused to utilize. Despite the lack of reserves, Portugal was far more entertaining and we were left knowing they put everything into each performance in Russia. Ronaldo was certainly impressive during the tournament, scoring a hat trick in his first group match versus Spain. But where Messi's teammates' ill-discipline left him hanging, Ronaldo could play knowing his teammates wouldn't let him down because of lack of concentration. Rather they'd simply be out classed. Nonetheless the European Champions are headed home early too. 

Some thought that a Ronaldo v Messi match up in the quarter finals would end the debate over who's better. I highly doubt that. If their multiple head to head match-ups when playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona haven't solve that riddle, one match at the World Cup wouldn't likely tip the balance. 

Both teams are home by now, leaving exactly when they should have. Although, Argentina didn't deserve to make out of their group. They were far too uninspiring to have been rewarded with an extra game.

Now we're left with a tournament bereft of a mega star, but plenty eagerly waiting to challenge Messi and Ronaldo for their shared throne. 

 

No Wayne, No Gain

It was the fall of 2002 and I was entering my third year of college. Unsurprisingly, at just 20 years old, I was far out of my depth. Just knowledgable about the subjects I was taking to mask my true ignorance about life. 

But on a grainy feed in my off-campus shit hole of a house I shared with several friends, I had the luxury of watching, most likely on replay and several days late, Wayne Rooney score his first Premier League goal against Arsenal. I knew then he was destined for greatness.

'What player, just a few games into his first full season in the Premier League, has the balls to hit a shot like that against a team that has a 30 game unbeaten streak,' I thought to myself. If I had said it out loud, none of my roommates would have understood. None of them grasped the madness of football. 

Rooney was on the brink of 17 years old, earning a mere £80 per week. He'd not been on the field long enough for anyone to actually think he would make an impact. But with less than 30 seconds to go, the new boy wonder controlled a speculative long ball, took a few touches toward goal, and as the Arsenal defenders decided to back off rather than close down he launched a curling shot from well outside the box. Just like Ronaldinho a few months earlier in Shizuoka Stadium, he surprised David Seaman, the England and Arsenal Goalkeeper, by tucking the ball into the upper left hand corner of the goal. 

To be sure, if Rooney's career had ended up a dud, we'd have all called it speculative. But 16 years later, looking back on one of the most storied careers for any English footballer, it was an introduction to precisely what we've come to expect. 

Yesterday, the former England captain signed with DC United, currently the worst team in Major League Soccer. For those who have watched Rooney's career, the decision to make the brand new Audi Field his new home certainly raises eyebrows.  But for the fans of the Black and Red (full disclosure, I'm a season ticket holder), his addition to a squad that's floundering not just in the offensive third, but also in the standings signifies a new hope and a chance to recapture the greatness that's been missing for more than a decade. 

Wazza's workmanlike style matched with the sort of cheeky initiative that drives defenders mad fits perfectly with the system DCU coach Ben Olsen has in mind. Given a backloaded season by MLS, so that Audi Field could host the majority of their home games this season, DCU needs all the breaks possible to reach the playoffs. Rooney just may be exactly what they need to slide into the post season. 

Injuries have plagued Rooney of late, however. And the MLS, despite the idea that it's a retirement league, isn't a push over. It will be physically grueling for the new signing. 

Nonetheless, he's already engendered himself to the city after making Wunder Garten, a beer garden in NOMA, one of his first stops in the city after arriving yesterday afternoon. 

Those of us who are DCU fans will certainly be looking forward to his efforts on the field. Maybe he'll be the first to score 15 goals since Dewayne DeRosario in 2011. Regardless, the excitement is building, hopefully he won't disappoint. 

Deutschland, Deutschland Not Über Alles

At some point, I was going to have to write a premature obituary of a favorite. At no point in the past few weeks did I ever presume it would be Die Mannschaft's.

To say the reigning World Champion (not for long) looked anything more than lackluster would be fake news. From the very first game, Germany's hopes to be the first team to repeat as World Cup Champions since Brazil 1958-1962 were always in doubt. 

Against Mexico the team looked uninspiring, apathetic even. Movements forward were more like walks in the park and less like the blitzkriegs we've become accustomed to over the last few tournaments. Whatever Germany had done to prevent the sorts of failures we saw in the late 90s and early naughts, the thought goes, had presumably inoculated the team from collapse. Unfortunately, Germany lost 1-0.

Even that loss against America's southern neighbor wasn't enough to spark a rejuvenated side. Jogi Löw was seen jogging near the team's resort hideaway and had time to pose for a posh photo. It was almost as if they saw nothing wrong with losing game one. After all the Spanish lost to Switzerland in 2010 and managed to lift the World Cup trophy. 

When they marched out against Sweden, the Germans still seemed lost in the Englischer Garten. Several counter attacks later and they were down 1-0 to a much less skillful side. Only a second have renaissance saved the four time champion. Even then, they had to wait until the last minute to reach salvation. They won 2-1

It was short lived, however, as somehow Die Mannschaft found their safe space in going through the motions even when their place in the Round of 16 was on the line. There was no point during the final match against South Korea where the casual viewer could walk away from watching thinking Germany actually wanted to be there. Maybe, just maybe, in the dying moments of second half stoppage after already being down 2-0 to South Korea, the German side could have been accused of caring. But, by then, it was too little, too late.

The Germans end the 2018 World Cup exactly where four of the last five World Cup Champions have--heading home early. To call their performance lackluster would be too kind. Regardless of what happens next, it's gut check time for the DFB (German Football's governing body). Maybe Jogi Löw has to go, maybe it's time for the veterans to retire (after all it was the younger crew who swept through last summer Confederations Cup). 

Die Mannschaft will be back and very likely they'll be on a mission to avenge the disaster in Russia. I, for one, am hoping they do. 

Messi Didn't Crash Out After All

Five days ago, I wrote about the possibility of Messi not making it to the knockout stage. The pressure was on the Albicelestes captain after leading Argentina to a measly one point in the first two games.

Fast forward to today's final game against a surging Nigeria side and there was a real chance Messi and Company could be headed home far too early. 

Would the Barcelona star find a way to rescue his teammates, just like he did against Ecuador on the last night of qualifying? Or would he further speculation that he just didn't care about playing for Argentina?

Less than a quarter of an hour in to the game and Messi told us exactly what his intentions were. Controlling a pin point driven ball from just inside Argentina's attacking half off the boot of Ever Banega, Messi's first touch with his left thigh beat his mark. And before the ball could even hit the ground his right foot nestled the ball perfectly out in front of his stride, setting up a perfect finish with his weaker right foot. Argentina 1, Nigeria 0.

Fifteen minutes later, Messi nearly struck again. His freekick from just outside the box on the left side of the D was tipped on to the post by the young Nigerian goalkeeper Francis Uzoho. 

The half ended 1-0 and Argentina looked likely to advance. But, five minutes into the 2nd act, Mascherano pulled down a Nigerian player in the box during a corner kick. The Turkish referee had no choice, but award a penalty kick. Victor Moses stepped up to bury it in the back of the net. 

Argentina was in panic mode for the next 35 minutes, even being saved by VAR of possible second penalty scare. But in the 86th minute, Marcos Rojo latched on to a cross from Gabriel Mercado and side footed the ball into the bottom right hand corner past a diving Uzoho. 

Messi and his merry band of underperforming teammates had salvaged their World Cup. Next up is a strong France side, who fielded a weakened team in their final match against Denmark earlier in the day. But there's a chance Messi and Ronaldo could meet in the Quarterfinals, if both of their teams win their first knockout game. 

Let's not hold our collective breaths, however. Both sides could end their Russian adventure on Saturday. 

Team Melli Unites a Divided Diaspora

After Iran's loss to Spain, I was asked to put together a piece on Iran's performance at the World Cup. I was hoping to delay it as long as possible, but unfortunately, despite a valiant display against Portugal the result in the Spain v Morocco match up left Iran no hope of making it to the knockout stage. 

Below is a link to that piece, it was posted this morning.

http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/iran-s-national-soccer-team-unites-an-otherwise-divided-nation

With Poland Out, Yet Another World Class Goal Scorer Leaves Too Early

Poland came into this summer's World Cup as the seeded team in Group H. Expectations were that they would find a way to make it into the knockout stage. 

Some observers, myself included, were less optimistic. Their group opponents, Colombia, Senegal, and Japan, were strong enough to challenge the Polish side and even prevent them from making it out of the group. 

Two games in and those naysayers were clearly on to something. Poland has already crashed out after being surprised by Senegal losing 2-1 in their first game and then being thrashed 3-0 by Colombia. 

There were high hopes for Polish striker Robert Lewandowski, the Bayern Munich goal scorer. Even if they failed to finish in the top two of their group, Lewandowski had enough quality and class to make things interesting. After all, he did score 16 goals in the qualifying campaign. 

But those expectations were left unfulfilled, as Lewangolski, the moniker used by FC Bayern fans, failed to find the net in his first two games. At times, it seemed the Poland captain wasn't even on the pitch, barely registering a call or shout from the commentators. You could argue the Polish offense was anemic, but a world class striker is a world class striker. He should find ways to inject himself into the game. See Ronaldo against Spain. 

It's a shame he won't play a bigger role this summer. I was hoping to see him work his magic, even if I didn't think they reach the next round. 

By being eliminated after the second match, he joins Mo Salah as another great goalscorer to exit with a whimper. At least Mo Salah could argue that his impact was muted, because he was left on the bench in the first game. And, after all, he does have a goal to his name, unlike Lewandowski. 

Germany Snatches Victory From the Jaws of Elimination

I almost had to write a third entry in a row about a favorite crashing out. There was certainly fear  of sounding like a broken record. Luckily, Tony Kroos's cheeky free kick right as time was expiring saved me from that fate.

He didn't just save me, though. Kroos, also, rescued Die Mannschaft from being the fourth of the last five defending champions to not make it out of the World Cup's group stage. It not only would have been embarrassing, but the performance would have generated critical opprobrium from their fans.  

After losing to Mexico, the game against Sweden was a must win. But just as first game went, so started their second. At almost the same exact minute as the game against Mexico, Jogi Löw's team gave up yet another goal off a counter attack. And, let's not forget, there was a legitimate shout for a Sweden penalty kick in the 12th minute. Marcus Berg was hauled down from behind by Jerome Boateng just inside the 18 yard box. 

After putting in a lackluster performance in the first 45, Germany went into the halftime looking for inspiration. They found it early in the second half. In a smash and grab moment, more reminiscent of their sides of the late 80's and early 90's, Marco Reus managed to wrong foot Swedish keeper Robin Olsen after getting the inside of his knee on a cross from Timo Werner.  

As the game went on, however, the German side returned to their pedestrian performance of the first half.  And in the 80th, Jerome Boateng received his second yellow card for a reckless challenge on Marcus Berg. He'll miss the important final group match up against South Korea. 

But only after going down a player, did the Germans start to perk up. Mario Gomez directed his header right to Olsen, who tipped it over the bar in the 87th. Five minutes later, Julian Brandt's thunderbolt managed to find the post, but not the back of the net. 

Finally, with about 20 seconds left in estimated stoppage time, Kroos stepped into the breach and saved Germany from elimination. It was do or die and the Real Madrid midfielder curled his effort into the back post from a wicked angle, fooling the goal keeper and breaking the hearts of Swedes in the stadium and watching at home. 

To be sure, they're not out of the woods yet. They still have to beat South Korea. And even then, to absolutely guarantee their ticket is punched to the knockout round, they have to win by two goals.

The craziness doesn't end there. Mexico, after storming out to two victories, could still be eliminated. All they need is a point to assure a place in the next round. But if they lose to Sweden, they could go home early. And that would be a shame.