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World Cup Qualifiers: A Sinking Feeling, Twice

March 22nd, 2017 · No Comments · Fifa, Olympics, Russia 2018, soccer, The National, UAE, World Cup

I follow two national soccer teams, the United States and the UAE. Both play twice in the coming week in crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

I don’t feel good about either national team’s chances. For reasons that apply to both — key injuries, the pressure to produce results and competent opponents.

First, the U.S.

I am very, very happy that crabby but lovable Bruce Arena is in charge of the Yanks, rather than Jurgen Klinsmann. I believe it markedly improves the team’s chances of playing in an eighth successive World Cup.

But Arena, in his return to the national team, will be without some key players in the Concacaf match against Honduras in San Jose, California, on Friday.

Bobby Wood, the Hamburg forward, is at the top of the injury list. He has been on an upward trajectory for a couple of years but over the weekend he suffered a back injury and is unlikely to play on Friday or the following Tuesday, in Panama.

Wood had formed what appeared to be a comfortable and profitable partnership with veteran striker Jozy Altidore, but now that is off the table against a Honduras side certain to play with five across the back as they search for a draw, and 0-0 will do just fine.

Arena’s replacement options include Clint Dempsey, who missed six months with an irregular heartbeat and returned to action last month; Jordan Morris, who seems too green for this sort of challenge; and Chris Wondolowski, best known (here, anyway) for missing the point-blank goal chance against Belgium in the final 16 of the 2014 World Cup.

Or, Arena could junk his favored 4-4-2 formation and play with one forward — though that seems unlikely with the Yanks so keen to get a first victory (in their third match) of final-round Concacaf qualifying.

Another Germany-based player, Fabian Johnson, was going to play on the wing, Arena had indicated, but he has a hamstring injury and is unavailable; and so is right back DeAndre Yedlin (thigh) of Newcastle United. John Brooks, the Hertha Berlin central defender, also may be hurt and Jermaine Jones is serving a disciplinary suspension. (Imagine that.)

Thus, as many as five players Arena likely would have had in his first 11 are not available, which is not ideal going into an almost-must-win situation.

About that “last place on zero points” thing. That leaves the U.S. with eight matches to get something like 15 points to secure one of the three (from a group of six) automatic berths in Russia.

Arena’s team will certainly feel as if they need to produce, and right this minute — which can inject anxiety into a team. And, we must concede, this is the first time since 1990 that the idea that the U.S. could fail to qualify must be considered. That is scary.

Finally, Honduras is no pushover. Actually, the Hondurans are likely to do most of the pushing. They are a particularly scrappy (dirty?) group who also have some talent; they are aiming at qualifying for the World Cup for the third consecutive time.

As for the UAE …

To recap, my interest in these guys stems from my six-plus years working at The National, in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi, and having covered the “golden generation” of Emirati players — who long had aimed at 2018 as their last, best chance but whose situation is precarious.

They begin the second half of final-stage qualifying in fourth place in Group B, a point behind Saudi Arabia and Japan, behind on goal difference to Australia.

(Top two, from six in two groups, go to Russia and third place can advance through a playoff.)

The UAE begins the second half with matches against two of Asia’s heavyweights — Japan, home, in Al Ain tomorrow; away to Australia on Tuesday.

In theory, they could be most of the way to Russia 2018 if they win both matches. In reality, escaping with one point would be enough to keep them alive. If only just.

However, the UAE could be without as many as five important players, starting with 2015 Asia Player of the Year Ahmed Khalil, who scored both goals in a 2-1 shock victory in Japan last year and leads Asian qualifying with 15 goals. This is a team with really only two useful forwards (Ali Mabkhout is the other). If Khalil can’t play …

Midfield is something of a disaster area with crafty little Amer Abdulrahman and enforcer Majed Hassan out hurt, and Tariq Ahmed out with a suspension. Yes, reigning Asia Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman is healthy, but his supporting cast has been hit hard.

Also carrying an injury: Ismail Ahmed, the big central defender and finalist for the 2014 Asia POY award.

Bruce Arena’s options all over the pitch seem luxurious, compared to the choices UAE coach Mahdi Ali has to make. Mahdi Ali has only about 25 international-worthy players — the Emirati population is only about 1 million — and losing five of the top 15 or so really hurts.

The pressure to succeed is immense. The UAE hasn’t been in the World Cup since 1990 and this is by far the best chance.

(In recent years, such as the qualifying for 2014, which I covered, the Emiratis failed even to make the final round of qualifying, losing even to the likes of Lebanon.)

The core of the team has been together since they were teens, and have many accomplishments, including a first Olympic Games qualification, for London 2012. The guys older than these guys were not very good, and those coming up behind them don’t look like much, either. Every Emirati knows it.

That’s pressure.

And, of course, Japan is a strong opponent. The Japanese have won the Asian championship a record four times and have qualified for every World Cup since 1998. Their players come from some of the top clubs in the world — as opposed to the UAE, which does not have even one player with a club outside the country.

Thus, it is nervous time. For the U.S., for the UAE and for me, a fan of both sides.


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