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2018 World Cup preview: Storylines, MLS involvement and more

Everything you need to know about the biggest sports tournament in the world.

Two years ago, when we were preparing for the Copa America Centenario, I wrote this to preview that tournament. We’re doing something similar for the World Cup, accompanying my team-by-team preview published on FanSided. More detail on pretty much everything is there.

Here, in brief, is what will go down in Russia, plus a full breakdown of who from MLS is going:

The Basics

Group A

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Uruguay

The favorites: Uruguay, even without Sounders No. 10 Nicolas Lodeiro. Luis Suarez is the second best striker in the world.

The underdogs: Saudi Arabia, who are bringing a squad almost entirely filled with domestic players. By consensus, they are the weakest team in Russia.

Group B

Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Iran

The favorites: Spain. This is their best team since their 2008-2012 reign over world soccer ended.

The underdogs: Morocco, who will enter their first World Cup since 1998. (As an aside, the triumvirate of Morocco, Spain and Portugal has to be geographically closer than any other trio in this tournament, right?)

Group C

France, Denmark, Australia, Peru

The favorites: France, clearly. Their loss in the 2016 Euro finals looms large for this generation of French players.

The underdogs: Australia, who bizarrely saw their manager resign within a week of their securing qualification. Bert van Marwijk is the interim coach.

Group D

Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, Nigeria

The favorites: Argentina. This tournament means more to them than any other team; this is their last chance to win a World Cup with Lionel Messi in his prime.

The underdogs: Nigeria and their amazing uniforms, mostly by default. This is an intriguing group without a clear longshot.

Group E

Brazil, Costa Rica, Serbia, Switzerland

The favorites: Brazil, obviously. They swept through CONMEBOL qualifying without trouble and have the third-best player on the planet.

The underdogs: Costa Rica, who are the oldest team in the tournament by average age. Their 5-4-1 can frustrate superior teams, though.

Group F

Germany, Mexico, Sweden, South Korea

The favorites: Germany, the defending champs. They’re as good or better than 2014’s winning team, which is scary.

The underdogs: South Korea. Son Heung-Min all the way!

Group G

Belgium, Tunisia, Panama, England

The favorites: Belgium, who are in the midst of a golden generation.

The underdogs: Panama. They are, unfortunately, weak.

Group H

Poland, Senegal, Colombia, Japan

The favorites: Colombia, four years after James Rodriguez’s Golden Boot.

The underdogs: Senegal, who are one of two teams (alongside Sweden) that did not call in a single player from their domestic league.

Players to watch

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

Let’s start with the obvious. Ronaldo is coming off the winningest four-year stretch in his career — Real Madrid have won three of four Champions League titles (which is extremely difficult) and Portugal won the 2016 Euros, nabbing an international trophy most never expected Ronaldo to get. He isn’t scoring quite as much as he did earlier in his career, but he’s finding never-before-seen team success.

The second-best player in the world — the Kevin Durant to Messi’s LeBron, one could say — wants significant World Cup progress. Thanks to the United States, Portugal failed to advance out of the group stage four years ago, and since their semifinal run in 2006, Ronaldo hasn’t been past the round of 16.

Portugal will likely play a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo next to Andre Silva up top. Questions surround their aging defensive core and their non-Cristiano playmaking — who’s going create stuff? Renato Sanches, still just 20, is not nearly as good as many thought he would be by this point.

Breel Embolo (Switzerland)

The 21-year-old attacker Embolo is the most expensive Swiss player ever, per The Guardian, after his big-money 2016 transfer from Basel to Schalke. On a team built around collectiveness, Embolo is a burst of electricity — this will be Switzerland’s first major opportunity to make the most of their wunderkid.

With Brazil, Costa Rica and Serbia joining them in Group E, Switzerland face a difficult test advancing to the knockout stage. They’re a solid team, but in such a tournament with such finite margins, individual talent is often the difference maker. Embolo could provide just enough.

Gylfi Sigurdsson (Iceland)

Sigurdsson is the best attacker for the world’s favorite underdog team. His health, and whether he can get himself to full fitness in time for the World Cup, looms large for Iceland.

If he’s good to go, he’ll play in the middle of Iceland’s 4-2-3-1, as the nominative No. 10. He has free reign behind striker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, poking himself in holes across the attack and making late runs into the box, particularly on the counter attack. Against the high-pressing 2-3-3-2 of Argentina, that counter attack will come into use.

MLS: Who’s going and who isn’t?

19 MLS players will go to Russia, 20 if you include Belgium standby center back Laurent Ciman (who will go if Vincent Kompany stays injured — a good historical bet). Without the boost of United States players, that is a very good number.

Six nations have MLS representation: Costa Rica (six players), Panama (six), Mexico (three), Peru (two), Egypt and Sweden. Five more made preliminary rosters but did not make the final cut.

Here’s a look at everyone going and those that missed out:

Panama

  • For Panama, Houston’s Adolfo Machado will join Seattle’s Roman Torres, San Jose’s Harold Cummings, and the Red Bulls’ Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar on the backline. Anibal Godoy, from San Jose, will likely start in deep midfield.
  • Armando Cooper, who spent last year in Toronto will also be there for Panama. Other former MLSers on the rosters: Colorado flame-out Gabriel Torres, longtime Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo, Concacaf pro Blas Perez, and one time RSL forward Luis Tejada. Recent Quakes failed signing Alberto Quintero would have gone if not for an injury.
  • Columbus’s Cristian Martinez, 21, was called to the preliminary roster but did not make the final one. Tony Taylor, a former NYCFC David Villa backup and current Ottawa Fury forward, was not in the mix.

Costa Rica

  • Costa Rica’s six MLS players were as follows: Kendall Waston, Rodney Wallace, David Guzman, Ronald Matarrita, Marco Urena and Francisco Calvo. Only Urena has a starting spot secured. Waston scored crucial goals in qualifying, but has fallen out of favor of late. Calvo has been in terrible form for Minnesota, so don’t expect too many minutes in Russia for him.
  • D.C. United’s Ulisses Segura missed the cut despite a March call-up to a friendly against Tunisia. Jose Leiton, who was on loan in Minnesota for a split second until being waived in March, also missed out.
  • Johan Venegas, who is currently on loan in Costa Rica from the Loons, will contend for minutes. Cristian Bolanos, a 34-year-old who played in Vancouver in 2016 and 2017, made the squad as well. Former Columbus defender Giancarlo Gonzalez could start.
  • Waylon Francis, currently a Sounders backup full back, missed the cut despite getting called in for the 2014 tournament at 23. Portland defenders Roy Miller and Julio Cascante, along with the Fire’s Diego Campos, were not in serious contention.

Egypt

  • LAFC’s Omar Gaber made the final roster after being signed by former Egypt coach Bob Bradley in the offseason. Orlando’s Amro Tarek made the preliminary squad but not the final one. Aly Ghazal, of Vancouver, missed the cut.

Sweden

  • Gustav Svensson, who came on as a first half injury sub in Sweden’s dramatic clincher against Italy in November, made it. Zlatan Ibrahimovic chose not to go.
  • Surprisingly, none of Samuel Armenteros, Johan Blomberg, Anton Tinnerholm or Magnus Eriksson made the roster. Blomberg isn’t that shocking, considering his lack of caps and place in Rapids purgatory. But one would have expected at least one of those players to join Svensson.

Mexico

  • The dos Santos brothers will both go and possibly start. Carlos Vela will star.
  • No Cubo Torres on this team, if you were holding out hope.
  • The other Mexico-eligible players in MLS are either super young or Tony Alfaro, which is to say, not much hope.

Peru

  • Andy Polo of the Portland Timbers and Yoshi Yotun of Orlando City were called in. Yordy Reyna is a notable snub, while Alexander Callens, who has been great at center back for NYCFC, hasn’t been around the team recently.

South America

  • Surprise, Argentina and Brazil did not call up any MLS players. Diego Valeri or Mauro Diaz could have been useful, but I digress.
  • Atlanta’s Ezequiel Barco was apparently a candidate to replace injured attacker Manuel Lanzini, but the 18-year-old was passed over.
  • Kaku would have been especially useful in a must-win, one-off game in which you need a goal.
  • Carlos Gruezo and Joao Plata might have gone with Ecuador had they qualified, Miguel Almiron would be starring for Paraguay, and a number of Venezuelan players (including the now-injured Yangel Herrera and Josef Martinez) would have gone as well.
  • Nicolas Lodeiro made the prelim squad but ultimately missed the cut for Uruguay. His numerous injuries this season likely played a big part, although he would have been healthy for the tournament. He’s fallen out of form in Seattle a bit, but this was the most notable snub from the Uruguay roster.
  • Luis Suarez, who is good friends with Lodeiro, got emotional talking about Lodeiro not making it in a recent press conference.
  • None of the large Colombian contingent in MLS, including Mauro Manotas and Juan David Cabezas, made their country’s roster. Not all that surprising. Portland d-mid Diego Chara, who might be MLS’s best No. 6 given Michael Bradley’s recent drop-off, was probably the most realistic.

Africa

  • Clement Diop, the third-string goalkeeper in Montreal and a brief starter for the Galaxy last year, did not make the Senegal roster. If he had, it would not have spoken well of Senegal’s goalkeeping ability.
  • If Ghana (18 MLS players) or Cameroon (seven) had made it, MLS would have had considerably more World Cup representation.
  • Fanendo Adi was the only one vaguely in contention for Nigeria’s squad. Given that he’s lost his spot in Portland, it’s no surprise he didn’t make it. Former Sounders forward and Super Eagles regular Obafemi Martins did not qualify either. He’s 33 and playing in Shanghai.

Asia/Oceania

  • If current Colorado coach Anthony Hudson had been able to lead New Zealand to qualification, they would have likely brought at least four MLSers.
  • Japan neglected Montreal young midfielder Ken Krolicki, which isn’t much of a shock considering Krolicki has been in the US since he was a high school freshman.
  • The only possibility in this region was Sounders’ center back Kim Kee-Hee, who failed to make the South Korea roster. He’s been injured a lot recently, so that’s not too much of a surprise either.

Europe

  • None of MLS’s 19 English players or 19 French players made their national team’s squads. No surprises there. You can’t convince me that Bradley Wright-Phillips wouldn’t be useful for the English national team, though. There is no team in the world that couldn’t use his ability to get himself in goal-scoring positions.
  • Bastian Schweinsteiger will not play for Germany this summer. He’s done everything for his country already.
  • Germany should have called Julian Gressel. I say that mostly tongue cheek. Mostly.
  • If Italy had qualified, maybe they would have taken Sebastian Giovinco. His free-kick ability makes him valuable for anyone.
  • There is a Joao Moutinho going with Portugal. Not the skinny rookie left back out of Akron we were looking for, but a Joao Moutinho.
  • No David Villa for Spain or Philippe Senderos for Switzerland. Both aging players who previously featured heavily for their countries. Villa was a lot more realistic.
  • Former Montreal attacker Blerim Dzemaili will go for Switzerland.