By AARON CRANFORD
While MLS action continues to plow ahead with the regular season winding to a close, the September international break features many must-see matchups.
Aside from the U.S. Men’s National Team’s clashes with Peru on Friday and Brazil on Tuesday, there are a handful of games across the world that have huge tournament implications.
With UEFA Euro 2016 right around the corner, national teams will try to secure their place in Europe’s quadrennial competition, and some of the world’s best have yet to do so.
Meanwhile, qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is well underway in some parts of the world and the September international break will see some nations advance to the next stage of qualification.
The Asian Football Confederation and CONCACAF will have World Cup qualifying matches, while national teams in Africa will attempt to qualify for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations.
Here is a look at five matches to keep an eye on during this international window:
ICELAND VS. NETHERLANDS (2:45 p.m., Thursday, ESPN3)
With a new head coach and captain, Netherlands will try to save its Euro 2016 qualifying campaign against Iceland in Amsterdam.
Holland currently sits in third in Group A, and given other third-placed teams’ records to date, it would have to compete in a playoff match if qualification ended today. Iceland, on the other hand, leads Group A and is looking to qualify for its first-ever major tournament.
Danny Blind replaced Guus Hiddink as head coach of Netherlands in August, and he awarded the captain’s armband to Arjen Robben, who takes the place of Robin van Persie.
While Holland controlled a majority of the possession during the pair’s first matchup in October 2014 at Laugardalsvollur, Gylfi Sigurdsson bagged a first-half brace, including once from the penalty spot, and Iceland’s defensive line held firm for a 2-0 win.
GERMANY VS. POLAND (2:45 p.m., Friday, FOX Sports 1)
While the top two teams from each European qualifying group advances to Euro 2016, Poland will be playing for pride and a chance to finish ahead of Germany in Group D.
The German national team (DFB) currently sits one point behind Poland, but a loss for either side will make the final few matches nervy. That’s because Scotland sits just behind the pair with 11 points and will face both Germany and Poland again before its qualification campaign ends.
Friday’s match is vital for Poland because a win would arguably secure pole position in Group D, giving it a four-point cushion above Germany. The Poles hold a positive goal-differential of 17, all thanks to tournament top scorer Robert Lewandowski, who has seven thus far.
Borussia Dortmund midfielder Marco Reus was set to return to the DFB squad, but a toe injury will force him out of Friday’s affair. DFB lost the first matchup to Poland in October 2014 when Polish forward Arkadiusz Milik and attacking midfielder Sebastian Mila both tallied for a 2-0 win at Stadion Narodowy.
That result was Poland’s first-ever win against its neighboring country, but Germany and captain Bastian Schweinsteiger will look to keep Poland’s overall win total against them at one in Frankfurt. Germany has qualified for every European Championship since 1972.
ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA VS. GUATEMALA (8:05 p.m., Friday, beIN Sports Connect and 10 p.m., Tuesday)
Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala are no strangers in CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, but only one will advance to the Fourth Round of competition after this international break.
Guatemala and the Benna Boys were drawn into the same Third Round group during the qualification for the 2014 World Cup, and while both bowed out to the United States and Jamaica, Guatemala won each head-to-head with Antigua and Barbuda.
A 3-1 win at Estadio Mateo Flores at Guatemala City, thanks to Carlos Ruiz’s double, and a 1-0 win at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, thanks to a Ruiz single, will give Guatemala the edge heading into the teams’ two meetings.
Ruiz, former goalscorer for LA Galaxy, FC Dallas and Philadelphia Union, remains the captain and will look to add to his goal-scoring record, as he is the all-time leader for Guatemala with 58 goals.
Meanwhile Antigua and Barbuda will have to rely on their offense, particularly forward Josh Parker and attacking midfielder Tevaughn Harriette, to outscore its foe because its defense gave up four goals to minnow Saint Lucia and will have its hands even fuller against Ruiz & company.
The winner will meet the United States and Trinidad and Tobago in the next round of CONCACAF qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
RUSSIA VS. SWEDEN (12 p.m., Saturday, ESPN3)
In Group G, two teams expected to finish one and two before qualifying started are now fighting to finish with the last automatic advancement spot into Euro 2016.
Currently in the fifth position on the table of third-placed teams, Russia has some work to do if it wants to automatically qualify for Euro 2016. With only four matches left, a result against second place Sweden, who has 12 points, four more points than Russia, is vital.
Sweden tied Russia, 1-1, when it greeted the 2018 World Cup host at Friends Arena in October 2014. Aleksandr Kokorin scored an early goal for Russia, but Ola Toivonen netted the equalizer for Sweden in the beginning of the second half.
Russia did hold more of the possession throughout the game, averaging 57 percent, but Sweden forced more shots on goal and was without star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Now Ibrahimovic is available, and he will undoubtedly put more pressure on Russia’s backline. Russia has not won at home in Group G in its last two matches, however, Kim Kallstrom is suspended for Sweden, and Russia will have a full squad at Otkrytiye Arena.
ALBANIA VS. PORTUGAL (2:45 p.m., Monday, ESPN3)
Locked in a three-horse race, Group I’s qualifying teams may be decided by Monday.
Albania hosts group leader Portugal during the September international break, and a win at home could see it claim its second-ever win against the Portuguese.
While Portugal had 60 percent of the possession during the pair’s first match at Estádio Municipal in Aveiro, the Albanians held onto a 1-0 win, thanks to forward Bekim Balaj, 24, who thundered in a volley to silence the Portuguese crowd in the 52nd minute.
However, that result came in September 2014, and Portugal has dominated the group since then — winning its next four matches to currently top the group with 12 points.
Denmark sits in between Albania and first place, which is just two points away. With a matchup against the Danes Friday, Albania’s Euro 2016 fate will arguably be determined at the end of this international window.
Portugal will be without Joao Moutinho and William Carvalho due to injuries, though, and Albania does have one game in hand with four to play.
What do you think of these matchups? See Germany topping Group A and Poland? Who will meet the USMNT in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying? What games will you be watching this international break?
Share your thoughts below.