Soccer

A World Cup without Argentina? It could happen.

In this photo taken on March 23, 2017, Argentina's Lionel Messi argues with assistant referee Emerson Augusto de Carvalho during a World Cup qualifying match against Chile in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Messi was banned from Argentina's next four World Cup qualifiers following the match for "having directed insulting words at an assistant referee."
In this photo taken on March 23, 2017, Argentina's Lionel Messi argues with assistant referee Emerson Augusto de Carvalho during a World Cup qualifying match against Chile in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Messi was banned from Argentina's next four World Cup qualifiers following the match for "having directed insulting words at an assistant referee." AP

A South Florida promoter announced a few days ago that it had signed a contract to bring the Argentine national team with all its stars to the United States for two international friendlies in September 2018.

John P. Reynal, Onside Entertainment president, expressed his desire that one of them take place in Miami against Colombia. “We are evaluating host cities; we are looking to take the Argentine National Team where there is real thirst for soccer and fans dream of watching the best in the world.”

The exhibitions are being billed as Argentina’s first appearances “after the Russia World Cup.”

One little problem. Argentina is in danger of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. A World Cup without Argentina? Is that even legal? The “Albiceleste” have played in 16 World Cups, won two (1978, 1986) and were runner-up three times (1930, 1990, 2014).

But as of right now, with four games remaining in the CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying round, Argentina finds itself in fifth place after Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to Bolivia. Only the top four get automatic bids, and those four are currently Brazil (33 points), Colombia (24), Uruguay and Chile (23). Brazil clinched its spot with a 3-0 win against Paraguay.

Argentina has 22 points. The fifth-place team enters a playoff against a team from Oceania.

Things are so desperate that coach Edgardo Bauza is in the hot seat and could be fired any day now. Bauza replaced Tata Martino last August.

In eight World Cup qualifiers under Bauza, Argentina won three, tied two and lost two.

Making matters worse, superstar Lionel Messi is serving a four-game FIFA ban for insulting an assistant referee in last week’s 1-0 win over Chile. The team found out about the suspension just six hours before the Bolivia match.

Messi will also miss August qualifiers against Uruguay and Venezuela and an October qualifier against Peru. He would make his return later in October for the final match at Ecuador.

Question is: Will it be too late?

▪ U.S. back in hunt: Meanwhile, the U.S. team, in the first two games of Bruce Arena’s second stint as coach, picked up four points with a 6-0 home win against Honduras and a 1-1 tie at Panama. Mexico leads the CONCACAF hexagonal with 10 points, followed by Costa Rica (7), Panama (5), and the U.S. (4). Next up for Team USA — home vs. Trinidad and Tobago June 8 and at Mexico June 11.

▪ Teen phenom joins U.S. women’s team: Jill Ellis, the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, called in 16-year-old forward Sophia Smith for upcoming friendlies against Russia. Smith, a junior in high school, had been training with the Under-23 team.

Smith, who is from Windsor, Colorado, attends the same high school (Fossil Ridge) and plays for the same club (U.S. Soccer Girls’ Development Academy member Real Colorado) as 17-year-old Jaelin Howell, also called into this camp from the U.S. U-23s.

Howell and Smith were members of the U.S. team at the 2016 Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Jordan.

Between Feb. 15 and March 8, Smith was in Europe, first with the U.S. U-18 team in England, where she scored five goals in three games. Then she got a call-up to the U.S. U-20 and she traveled to Spain, where she scored another four goals in three matches.

It is believed to be the most goals scored over six consecutive international matches for any U.S. Youth Women’s National Team player (Ashley Sanchez scored 12 goals over 11 consecutive international matches for the U.S. U-17 WNT in 2015 and 2016).

Smith was invited to the U.S. U-23 team a few weeks ago, and on March 29 scored the game winning goal for that team in a 2-1 victory over the Portland Thorns.

Ellis will name 18-player rosters for games against Russia April 6 at Toyota Stadium (8:30 p.m. on FS1) and on April 9 in at BBVA Compass Stadium (2 p.m. on ESPN).

▪ Miami FC opens season: Miami FC opened the 2017 season on the road with a 1-1 tie and North Carolina FC. They play their home opener at FIU Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $15 for adults, $10 for kids. Some stadium upgrades will be announced on Monday, and the fan experience this season is expected to include a DJ, dance team and a mascot.

Who’s leading

English Premier League: Chelsea (69), Tottenham (59), Manchester City (57), Liverpool (56), Manchester United (52).

La Liga: Real Madrid (65), Barcelona (63), Sevilla (57), Atletico Madrid (55), Villarreal (48).

Serie A: Juventus (73), Roma (65), Napoli (63), Lazio (57), Inter (55).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (62), Leipzig (49), Dortmund (46), Hoffenheim (45), Hertha (40).

Ligue 1: Monaco (71), PSG (68)m Nice (64), Lyon (50), Marseilles (46).

MLS: East — Atlanta, Orlando, NYRB 6. West — Portland 9, Dallas 7, Houston and San Jose 6.

On TV

Sunday: Swansea City vs Middlesbrough (8:30 a.m., ESPN2); Real Madrid vs. Deportiva Alaves (10:15 a.m., BeINSport); Arsenal vs. Manchester City (11 a.m., NBCSN); Granada vs. Barcelona (2:45 p.m., BeINSport).

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