European Championship in focus: Spotlighting Russia

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Privyet (привет), and welcome to glorious picture of Russian soccer future. Were this 2004, we would say in Soviet Russia, preview predicts you, but since internet meme died quicker than Russian democratic party, we say post is picture of motherland’s future greatness. Poka!

Man that matters:

Igor Afkineev: Two years ago, the CSKA Moscow goalkeeper transcended “nerd favorite” to “recognizable name” thanks to his Champions League performances against Manchester United. Since, he’s spurned approaches from Europe’s big boys, tore up his knee in a Moscow derby against Spartak, and returned in time to bolster a Russian defense that will be missing one of its key contributors (Vasili Berezutskiy out with a thigh injury).

For an elite goalkeeper, Akinfeev is on the smallish side (6’1″), and while he can competently command his area, he’s not going to dominate balls in the air. But what he lacks in physicality Akinfeev makes up for in reflexes and recognition.

He’s a younger, less appreciated Iker Casillas, part of the reason he’s now being linked with Chelsea.

First-round games:

June 8: vs. Czech Republic (Warsaw, Poland)
June 12: vs. Poland (Warsaw, Poland)
June 16: vs. Greece (Warsaw, Poland)

Foursome of knowledge:

  • After ousting the Netherlands in the 2008 championships, Russia served a brief period as Europe’s darlings, with Andrei Arshavin becoming the tournament’s breakout star. Russia would make the semifinals, their best finish since the Soviet Union broke up (the USSR did won inaugural tournament in 1960).
  • The last go around, Russia was led by head coach Guus Hiddink. Hiddink, as he’s genetically predisposed to do, moved on (after failing to qualify Russia for the 2010 World Cup), and as is ordained in every contract Hiddink signs, he must be succeeded by Dick Advocaat. But rather than lull in his trailblazer’s wake, Advocaat has restored some of Russia’s bite. Another semifinal appearances is possible, though they’ll need to spring one upset to make it that far.
  • Even in the absence of Berezutskiy, Russia is in the enviable position of having a back four highly acquainted with each other. (From right to left) Alexsandr Anyukov, Sergei Ignashevich, Alexsei Berezutskiy (Vasili’s twin brother), and Yuri Zhirkov are all between 28 and 32 and have each accumulated between 46 and 73 caps. All except Anyukov have had long spells at CSKA, something which helps Akinfeev’s organization.
  • But just like 2008, Russia’s status as upstarts may depend on Andrei Arshavin. While most people have come to know him as the guy who seems a ill-fit for Arsenal’s left wing, Arshavin has resumed his centrally deployed, playmaking self thanks to a loan stint with Zenit St. Petersburg. In 11 games with the Russian champions, Arshavin scored three and set up four, filling in after Zenit’s best player (Portuguese playmaker Danny) tore up his knee. Perhaps Arshavin won’t be as good as he was in 2008, but he’ll be ready.

Where they are going:

Russia should win Group A, but it won’t be easy. All of the Czech Republic, Greece and Poland have capable sides, and given some of the disappointments Russia has had in recent history (losing their two-legged playoff with Slovenia for a spot at the 2010 World Cup), the team’s shown themselves capable of shrinking from the occasion. In Poland, memories of Slovenia will serve the team well, pushing them to a strong group performance.


Goalkeepers: Igor Akinfeev (CSKA Moscow), Anton Shunin (Dynamo Moscow), Vyacheslav Malafeev (Zenit St. Petersburg)

Defenders: Aleksandr Anyukov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Aleksei Berezutskiy (CSKA Moscow), Sergei Ignashevich (CSKA Moscow), Yuri Zhirkov (CSKA Moscow), Roman Sharonov (Rubin Kazan), Vladimir Granat (Dynamo Moscow), Dmitri Kombarov (Spartak Moscow), Kirlll Nabakin (CSKA Moscow)

Midfielders: Roman Shirokov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Igor Denisov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Konstantin Zyryanov (Zenit St. Petersburg), Marat Izamailov (Sporting CP), Igor Shemshov (Dynamo Moscow), Denis Glushakov (Lokomotiv Moscow), Alan Dzagoev (CSKA Moscow)

Forwards: Pavel Pogrebnyak (Fulham), Andrei Arshavin (Arsenal), Aleksandr Kokorin (Dynamo Moscow), Roman Pavlyuchenko (Lokomotiv Moscow), Aleksandr Kerzhakov (Zenit St. Petersburg)

ProSoccerTalk is doing its best to keep you up to date on what’s going on in Poland and Ukraine. Check out the site’s Euro 2012 page and look at the site’s previews, predictions, and coverage of all the events defining UEFA’s championship.

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.

Puksas Award finalists: Somehow absent is USWNT’s Carli Lloyd

Carli Lloyd, USWNT

FIFA announced on Monday its three-man list of finalists for the 2015 Puskas Award, handed out each year to the player who scored the “most beautiful” goal of the past calendar year.

[ MORE: 2015 Ballon d’Or finalists ]

The three men up for this year’s honor are Alessandro Florenzi (WATCH HERE), Lionel Messi (WATCH HERE) and Wendell Lira (WATCH HERE) — all scorers of fantastically beautiful goals this year.

That means Carli Lloyd, who made the original list of nominees before being whittled down to just three, is shockingly tragically scandalously criminally not a finalist for this year’s award. Reminder: This is the goal we’re talking about.

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

So, here’s the case for Lloyd:

  • She scored from midfield
  • She scored the winner from midfield in a World Cup final
  • She scored the winner from midfield in a World Cup final to complete a hat trick
  • She scored the winner from midfield in a World Cup final to complete a hat trick in the 16th minute

How in the world is Carli Lloyd’s midfield goal to complete a 16-minute hat trick and win a World Cup final not a top-three goal of the year? You got some (more) explaining to do, FIFA.