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World Cup dismay for Qatar as Ecuador wins opening game

Source image: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-sports-soccer-qatar-middle-east-11a629d964a0c052fd01faa50722a70e

AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — The large swathes of empty seats in the second half summed up the Qatar soccer team’s disappointing start to its first ever World Cup.

The night started with more than 67,000 mostly Qatari fans filling the cavernous Al Bayt Stadium, enjoying an opening ceremony that showcased the tiny Arab emirate to a global audience 12 years after winning the right to host soccer’s biggest event.

It ended with Qatar’s overmatched team trudging off the field, its unwanted place in soccer history secure and with many of its dismayed fans having long disappeared.

The controversy-laced tournament opened Sunday with the 2019 Asian Cup champions getting outplayed in a 2-0 loss to Ecuador, ensuring a host team lost its opening game for the first time at a World Cup.

“I would say we felt bad (for our supporters),” Qatar coach Felix Sanchez said. “I hope in the next game they will be prouder.”

Ecuador captain Enner Valencia scored both of his team’s goals in the first half of a one-sided game that wound up being a damage-limitation exercise for Qatar on one of the biggest nights in the nation’s history.

The match took place after a colorful 30-minute opening ceremony — fronted by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and attended by powerful dignitaries including Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — that promoted inclusivity and mankind living “under one tent.”

For many, that would jar with this World Cup being hosting by an emirate where homosexual acts are illegal, one that has come under strong criticism for how migrant workers have been treated building stadiums and tournament infrastructure since Qatar won the scandal-shrouded vote in 2010.

The yearslong scrutiny was never going to stop just because play on the field finally entered the narrative of a tournament dogged by human-rights controversies, yet a win for the host nation would have at least put a favorable light on Qatar, soccer-wise.

Instead, Qatar’s players, fresh from spending seven months together in a pre-tournament training camp under Sanchez, froze in front of an expectant crowd and a disciplined Ecuador team that might just pose a danger to more high-profile opponents over the next few weeks.

“This is just the start of the World Cup,” said the 33-year-old Valencia, who has now scored Ecuador’s last five goals at the World Cup, including three in 2014. “We have to keep dreaming.”

In what might go down as one of the worst displays by a host nation to open a tournament, Qatar had five shots in the match and none of them were on target. The team had only two touches inside the opposition penalty area.

Put simply, Ecuador was just too good for a team only playing at the World Cup because it is the host.

“I wouldn’t say we were naïve,” Sanchez said. “I would say this was about nervousness … maybe we had too many doubts.”

Valencia thought he had scored in the third minute when he headed in from close range following an acrobatic cross from Felix Torres. After a video review of about two minutes, Ecuadorian celebrations were cut short when the goal was ruled out for a marginal offside.

Ecuador did take the lead, however, in the 16th minute when Valencia — running onto a through-ball — was tripped by Saad Alsheeb after rounding the goalkeeper, who was booked for the challenge. Valencia was nonchalant as he trotted up and converted the spot kick into the bottom corner.

The 33-year-old striker then added his second in the 33rd by heading in a right-wing cross from Angelo Preciado.

With Qatar’s passes often going astray and its defensive raggedness repeatedly exposed, Ecuador had no problem holding onto its lead as Sanchez stood helpless in his technical area and the home fans fell quiet.

Many didn’t return for the second half. And heading into the final quarter of the game, thousands of seats were empty.

It marked a huge contrast to a few hours earlier.

In a party-like atmosphere, camels and Arabian horses lined the entrance to the stadium, a Bedouin tent-inspired venue located in the rather isolated surrounds of the rural town of Al Khor, north of Doha.

And the seven-act opening ceremony lived up to its billing, the highlight being when Freeman extended one yellow-gloved hand to a FIFA World Cup ambassador suffering from a rare spinal disorder in an image representing inclusion in a country facing international criticism over its human-rights record.

Looking on from the luxury seats were FIFA president Gianni Infantino alongside leaders from the Middle East and Africa. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, drew a thunderous applause in a short speech delivered in Arabic from the suite, with Infantino and the monarch’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, on either side of him.

“I welcome you and good luck to all,” the emir said in his only words spoken in English.

After this display, Qatar will need more than just luck to avoid joining South Africa as being the only host nation to fail to get out of the group stage at the World Cup.

“We have to forget about the pressure and be more competitive,” Sanchez said. “We can do it.”

BEER CHANT

The first half was winding down when a chant came from a large section of vocal, yellow-clad Ecuador fans: “We want beer.” It was a humorous intervention two days after Qatar decided to ban beer sales at the stadiums during the World Cup. It was a late change by the conservative Islamic nation where access to alcohol is strictly limited. Only alcohol-free Bud Zero was sold at the game.

VALENCIA INJURY

In a concern for Ecuador, Valencia — the national team’s top scorer — was substituted in the 77th minute and said after the game he had discomfort in his knee and ankle. “I hope I can be ready,” he said about the team’s next game, against the Netherlands on Friday. Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro was under no illusions, though, saying: “Enner, he will play.”

UP NEXT

Qatar will look to bounce back against Senegal, also on Friday.

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

Source: https://apnews.com/article/world-cup-sports-soccer-qatar-middle-east-11a629d964a0c052fd01faa50722a70e

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Report: NWSL to expand in Boston, Utah and California

The National Women’s Soccer League is close to expanding by three teams, which will be in Boston, Utah and the San Francisco area, according to a Friday report in the Wall Street Journal.

The women’s pro league previously indicated it would add at least two teams by 2024. The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, reported that the franchises in northern California and Utah are set to start play next year, with Boston to join at a later date.

The NWSL did not confirm the report in a statement Saturday to The Associated Press, saying: “We remain engaged in our expansion process and are excited about our prospects. When we have news to share, we will do so.”

The NWSL has 12 teams, after Angel City in Los Angeles and the San Diego Wave joined the league last year.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that the Boston and Bay Area groups will pay about $50 million in franchise fees. The Utah team will pay a reduced fee because of a previous agreement struck when the Utah Royals folded in the 2020 season.

Before the NWSL draft earlier this month, league commissioner Jessica Berman said it would be “somewhere between days and months, more like weeks, when we’ll be in a position to share information” about an expansion.

“What I can say is that I couldn’t be more excited about the opportunities we have in front of us,” she added.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Former MVP Candace Parker to sign with champion Aces

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Former two-time MVP Candace Parker announced on social media Saturday that she would sign with the defending champion Las Vegas Aces.

Parker spent the past two seasons playing for her hometown Sky, leading Chicago to the WNBA championship in 2021. She also won the 2016 title playing for the Los Angeles Sparks.

She posted on Instagram that Chicago would always be her home, but “my family’s home is on the west coast.

“To play for a championship close to home is the perfect situation for us. I’m looking forward to continuing the journey this summer in Las Vegas.”

The free-agent signing period begins Wednesday, and the Aces can’t comment until then.

Parker, a 6-foot-4 forward/center, adds to an already loaded lineup that includes reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, who also won the league’s top award in 2020. Wilson also was last season’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Chelsea Gray was MVP of the WNBA Finals and Kelsey Plum MVP of the All-Star Game. Wilson, Plum and Jackie Young were All-Star starters.

Parker and Gray were teammates on Los Angeles’ 2016 title team.

The Aces traded one of their key pieces, two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby, to the Sparks on Jan. 21, creating speculation Las Vegas was creating salary cap room to sign a big-name player.

Parker, the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year and the 2016 Finals MVP, certainly fits that bill. Even at 36 last season, she averaged 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists for the Sky.

“Candace has done so much for our franchise in her time here,” Chicago coach and general manager James Wade said in a statement. “I understand her reasons for wanting to be closer with her immediate family. We wish her nothing but the best. She will always be a part of the Sky family. We will celebrate her time here as she deserves.”

Losing her is a big blow to the Sky, who made the semifinals in last season’s playoffs before losing in five games to the Connecticut Sun. Kahleah Copper is the only starter under contract for next season, so the Sky could head into a rebuild.

“I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to win a championship in my hometown and parade down the same streets I watched the Bulls parade down as a young girl first falling in love with the game of basketball,” Parker posted.

Parker joins the Aces at a time the Women’s National Basketball Players Association said it wanted that organization investigated regarding allegations that Hamby made after being traded. She posted on Instagram she was “lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against” because she is pregnant with her second child.

The Aces still have not commented on Hamby’s allegations.

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Estrada, Hofstra end No. 18 Charleston’s 20-game win streak

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — This season, Hofstra has been a one-man show. This time, Aaron Estrada had some help as the Pride ended the nation’s longest winning streak.

Estrada scored 25 points, but just two in the second half, while Darlinestone Dubar added 18 as Hofstra had four players in double figures to knock off No. 18 College of Charleston 85-81 on Saturday — ending the Cougars’ 20-game win streak.

“That’s a really big for our program,” Hofstra coach Speedy Claxton said. “To beat a nationally ranked team on their home court when they’ve got it rolling like they do speaks volumes about our kids.”

Claxton saw a team effort to take down the hottest team in the country.

“It wasn’t just Aaron,” Claxton said. “He had a great first half, but we had other guys step up and make baskets or get rebounds when we really needed them.”

The loss ended Charleston’s spotless run that began after losing to then-top-ranked North Carolina on Nov. 11.

Hofstra, the CAA’s leader in field-goal shooting, used that to move past Charleston in the second half as it made 18 of 32 attempts. The Pride led 76-69 with 6:10 to play before the Cougars cut it to two points on Ryan Larson’s foul shots with 2:02 to play.

But Charleston managed just two free throws after that and missed all four 3-pointers they tried.

This is the second straight season the Pride have beaten a Top 25 team. A year ago, Hofstra defeated then No. 24 Arkansas 89-81. The Pride’s only other victory against a Top 25 team came against Southern Illinois in 1976.

Hofstra (15-8, 8-2 Colonial Athletic Association) beat the Cougars (21-2, 9-1) at their own game — 3-point shooting. The Pride were 11 of 22 from 3-point range and overall shot 56 percent from the floor in the second half.

Estrada, who had 23 points in the opening half, shredded the Cougars defense at will. Estrada was 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

“Estrada is a great player, hit a bunch of tough shots, especially in the first half,” Charleston coach Pat Kelsey said. “Hofstra is a very, very talented team. It’s not just Estrada. They were better than us tonight.”

Then Estrada took over. The CAA’s leading scorer at 21.1 points a game scored 16 of the next 24 points for the Pride, including four 3-pointers.

Ante Brzovic’s dunk at the buzzer gave the Cougars a 46-44 advantage at halftime.

Tyler Thomas had 17 points and eight rebounds for Hofstra.

Brzovic finished with 18 points to lead the Cougars.

BIG PICTURE

Hofstra: The Pride are on a roll in 2023. winning seven of their past eight games, including three in a row.

College of Charleston: The Cougars chances of receiving an NCAA Tournament at-large bid took a major blow with the loss to the Pride. Despite having the nation’s longest win streak for three months, Charleston will most likely have to win the CAA Tournament in March to advance to the NCAAs.

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

The Cougars’ 20-game win streak wasn’t the only streak to end on Saturday. College of Charleston played 14 of its first 23 games at TD Arena to start the season and were a perfect 13-0 at home before facing the Pride. Charleston’s 13-game home win streak included three wins in the Charleston Classic. The Cougars became the first mid-major program to win the ESPN event, beating Virginia Tech 77-75 in the championship game. Charleston will finish the season playing four of their final eight games on the road.

POLL POSITION

Charleston’s first loss in nearly three months might drop the Cougars from the national rankings. They have been part of the last four rankings, entering at No. 23 before reaching No. 18 this past week.

UP NEXT

Hofstra returns home to play Towson on Thursday night.

College of Charleston starts a two-game road trip at Drexel on Thursday night.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

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