1.FC Cologne's Jajalo challenges VfB Stuttgart's Okazaki during their German soccer cup (DFB Pokal) match in Stuttgart

Wednesday international preview: For the degenerate soccer-watcher in all of us


Let’s say you don’t have to go to work tomorrow. What would you do with your day? Get all those errands done? Finally clean up the house? Maybe this will be the year you get your taxes gone before April 15?

Probably not. Call it a hunch, but I’m since you’re the type of person that comes to ProSoccerTalk, you’re much more likely to sit around all day and watch soccer. Cup of Nations, World Cup Qualifying, or just run of the mill friendlies – it doesn’t matter. Since national teams don’t get together that often, hardcore soccer addicts are going to try to cram in as match possible.

So let’s entertain that. Let’s assume you’ve got a couple of displays in front of you and can access any game you want. Let’s also assume that your better half, little ones, and pets completely leave you alone. Which matches would you watch? Which matches should you watch?

Starting very early in Asia, here are PST’s recommendations.

All times Eastern. Please consult your physician before trying to watch all these games.

5:20 a.m. – Japan vs. Latvia (Kobe)

If you’re going to make Wednesday into a marathon, skip that highly anticipated 4:30 a.m. Nepal-Pakistan kickoff, sleep an extra hour, and see Asia’s best team host one of Europe’s worst. At 102nd in the world (for whatever FIFA rankings are worth), Latvia’s not going to be much of a challenge for the Samurai Blue, but for a chance to see what Asia’s best is building for the next World Cup, this might be worth an extra cup of coffee. Alberto Zaccheroni has his team eight points up on the competition in Asia. Only one point short of qualifying, this team is already starting to look toward Brazil 2014.

Players to watch: Japan: Shinji Okazaki (right, F, Stuttgart), Shinji Kagawa (M/F, Manchester United, Keisuke Honda (M/F, CSKA Moscow)

9:00 a.m. – South Korea vs. Croatia (London)

For what could be one of the best-played games of the day, the key for both coaches is to see their teams taking the match seriously. Croatia head coach Igor Stimac, new to the position, saw his team stumble at home to Switzerland in their last friendly. Korea’s Choi Kang-hee will be using the match to evaluate how to approach the final four matches of the team’s qualifying cycle.

Players to watch: Croatia – Luka Modric (M, Real Madrid), Dejan Lovren (D, Lyon), Darijo Srna (RB, Shakhtar); South Korea – Ki Sung-yeung (M, Swansea City), Son Heung-min (F, Hamburg), Park Chu-Young (F, Celta de Vigo)

source: Getty Images10:00 a.m. – Mali vs. Nigeria (Durban)

The day’s first Cup of Nations semifinal should be the round’s best match, the two teams’ skill-plus-style combination likely to produce a fluid, entertaining affair. Nigeria’s semifinal spot came at the expense of tournament favorites Cote d’Ivoire while the Malians reached the final four after a penalty kicks victory over the hosts.

Players to watch: Mali – Seydou Keita (right, M, Dalian Aerbin), Modibo Maiga (F, West Ham United), Mohamed Sissoko (M, Paris Saint-Germain); Nigeria – John Obi Mikel (M, Chelsea), Victor Moses (W, Chelsea), Emmanuel Emenike (F, Spartak Moscow)

12:00 p.m. – Chile vs. Egypt (Madrid)
The coaches are the focus for this one. For as much admiration Bob Bradley’s garnered during a turbulent time in Egyptian soccer, he is starting to see more criticism of the team’s on-field performances. In recent matches against Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the Pharaohs lost by a combined 7-2. For Chile, former Universidad de Chile head coach Jorge Sampaoli is set for his third match in charge, with La Roja set to resume World Cup Qualifying in March.

Players to watch: Chile – Alexis Sanchez (F, Barcelona), Humberto Suazo (F, Monterrey), Arturo Vidal (M, Juventus); Egypt – Mohamed Aboutrika (M, Bani Yas), Gedo (F, Hull City), Mohammed El-Nenny (Basel)

1:00 p.m. – Spain vs. Uruguay (Doha)

The match means nothing (except €4 million the Spanish federation banks for playing it in Qatar), but each team’s brought up almost all of their big names. Xavi, Xabi, and Iker are out, but the rest of the Spanish stars are here, giving players like David Villa, Alvaro Negredo and Pedro Rodriguez a chance to nail down Spain’s striker spot. Expect an entertaining though not particularly intense match. It’s being played in Doha, after all.

Players to watch: Spain – Andres Iniesta (M, Barcelona), Sergio Busquets (M, Barcelona, Sergio Ramos (D, Real Madrid); Uruguay – Luis Suarez (F, Liverpool), Edinson Cavani (F, Napoli), Diego Godin (D, Atletico Madrid)

1:30 p.m. – Burkina Faso vs. Ghana (Nelspruit)

One of Africa’s legendary sides faces a team making their first semifinal appearance, with Burkina Faso’s Stallions hoping to slide on their glass slippers on Wednesday against the Black Stars. Ghana is the new tournament favorite (with the elimination of Cote d’Ivoire), but having reverted to type slightly in the quarterfinals, it remains to be seen whether the Ghanaians allow themselves to be draw into a coin flip they could lose.

Players to watch: Burkina Faso – Alain Traore (F, Lorient), Jonathan Pitroipa (W, Rennes), Bakary Kone (D, Lyon); Ghana – Asamoah Gyan (F, Al Ain), Kwadwo Asamoah (M, Juventus), Wakaso Mubarak (W, Espanyol)

source: Getty Images2:30 p.m. – England vs. Brazil (London)

It’s England. It’s Brazil. So it’s a big deal, right? Given the other games on the Wednesday’s schedule, I’m having trouble justifying too much excitement for this one, even if it’s going to be Ashley Cole’s 100th cap. Slowly, he’s catching up to Beckham’s 115. We’ll see if he can hold Leighton Baines off long enough.

Players to watch: Brazil – Neymar (right, F, Santos), Ronaldinho (M, Atletico Mineiro), David Luiz (D, Chelsea); England – Wayne Rooney (F, Manchester United), Steven Gerrard (M, Liverpool), Joe Hart (G, Manchester City)

2:30 p.m. – Netherlands vs. Italy (Amsterdam)

Louis van Gaal’s continued Oranje makeover will be reflected in his lineup on Wednesday. The omission of a player like Wesley Sneijder isn’t surprising, but players like John Heitenga and Nigel de Jong are also finding it difficult to re-establish their place in this team. The likes of Adam Maher, Stefan de Vrii and Bruno Martins Indi are likely to see time against a talent-rich Italian attack.

Players to watch: Netherlands – Robin van Persie (F, Manchester United), Kevin Strootman (M, PSV), Ron Vlaar (D, Aston Villa); Italy – Mario Balotelli (F, Milan), Andrea Pirlo (M, Juventus), Gianluigi Buffon (G, Juventus)

3:00 p.m. – France vs. Germany (Paris)

This is a great test for both sides. While Joachim Löw may take this chance to look at some players who don’t normally make his starting XI (perhaps giving Rene Adler a start in goal for Manuel Neuer), Germany has still reached a level where they should expect to go on the road and perform well even against the France’s world (and even in a friendly). France have gotten results from Spain and Italy in their last two matches. Another strong performance will further consolidate the team behind Didier Deschamps.

Players to watch: Germany – Mesut Ozil (M, Real Madrid), Philipp Lahm (D, Bayern Munich), Thömas Müller (F/M, Bayern Munich); France – Karim Benzema (F, Real Madrid), Franck Ribery (W, Bayern Munich), Hugo Lloris (G, Tottenham)

4:00 p.m. – Honduras vs. United States (San Pedro Sula)

Steve’s got you covered on this one:

source: Reuters9:00 p.m. – Panama vs. Costa Rica (Panama City)

Panama’s the newcomer to this level of the tournament (the one team in the final round that didn’t qualify for 2009’s Hex), but as they showed at the 2011 Gold Cup, they’ve got the players to qualify for Brazil. One of the keys will be getting three points at home instead of settling for draws. Against an experienced Ticos team, Julio Valdés will need to make his team rises to the occasion. By the opening whistle, Panama’s players need to realize the stakes. Slipping in round one could come back to haunt them in November.

Players to watch: Panama – Blas Perez (right, F, FC Dallas), Gabriel Gomez (M, Junior), Felipe Baloy (D, Santos Laguna); Costa Rica – Bryan Ruiz (F, Fulham), Alvaro Saborio (F, Real Salt Lake), Michael Umaña (D, Saprissa)

9:30 p.m. – Mexico vs. Jamaica (Mexico City)

This could get ugly. Jamaica would have a hard time matching up with El Tri under normal circumstances, but this is the Hex opener, on the road, against a Mexico team that has gone beyond winning. This team is starting to push itself for results. They not only want three points from these games, they want to perform in a way that puts them in a conversation with the world’s best. Unless something fluke-y happens early, this should be a multi-goal victory for the tournament favorites.

Players to watch: – Giovani dos Santos (F, Mallorca), Javier Hernandez (F, Manchester United), Hector Moreno (D, Espanyol); Jamaica – Rodolph Austin (M, Leeds United), Nyron Noseworthy (D, Watford), Jason Morrison (M, Aelesunds)

‘Ravens’ challenge soccer orthodoxy in Belarus

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MINSK, Belarus (AP) Less than three years ago, Alexander Skshinetsky’s soccer career seemed over.

The former under-21 international found himself unemployed after his career stalled, and was working on construction sites when an offer came. Would he consider joining an amateur team that had been playing seven-a-side soccer but now wanted to go pro, founded by a small group of fans staking thousands of dollars of their own money to build a club from scratch?

Two seasons and two promotions later, the 26-year-old midfielder is a key player in one of European soccer’s most unlikely success stories. In only its third professional season, Krumkachy Minsk is playing top-flight soccer, beating established names and challenging the economic orthodoxy in one of Europe’s most closed-off countries.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Krumkachy – “Ravens” in Belarusian – has soared into the country’s top league with a shoestring budget but an enthusiastic and growing fan base of hipsters, families and others turned off by the stagnation of soccer in the ex-Soviet nation. Before a recent run of losses, it was even challenging for Europa League qualification.

The secret has been finding talented players on the verge of leaving the game, or even those who have already quit, “people who have been underestimated and put down,” in the words of co-founder Denis Shunto, who set up Krumkachy with friends in 2011. “We get those guys and we can really make them into a team.”

After starting out in recreational competitions, Shunto and his friends decided to aim higher. Belarusian soccer has a three-tier league system packed with clubs backed by various government agencies and state-run factories in the country’s Soviet-style economy, a set-up which prefers predictability over ambition and can give rise to conflicts of interest. With a spot open in the third tier, but without a state patron, Krumkachy scraped together a few thousand dollars to apply. Each subsequent step up the pyramid brought predictions of imminent financial collapse.

“Everyone said we wouldn’t have the money, we couldn’t take part,” said Skshinetsky, the midfielder. “We played for free in the second division, and in the first division it wasn’t much. Maybe $100 for a win in the first division and salaries maybe $150 (a month).”

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

On a freezing Friday night in Minsk, the crowd was small and the game scrappy. Goalkeeping errors helped to hand Krumkachy a 2-1 win which all but ensured the club’s top-flight survival for 2017 in the Belarusian league’s calendar-year system. Financial survival is always a trickier question.

“We’ve got the smallest budget (in the league) and we’re still putting money in ourselves,” said Shunto, who wonders if the approach of going without government funding may be “too romantic.”

At Friday’s game, commercial tie-ups were prominent and Krumkachy’s shirts were covered in a myriad of small logos from various businesses which have chipped in as sponsors, while opposition Granit Mikashevichi bore only the logo of its backer, a state-run quarry. Consumerism may be the norm in most European leagues, but in Belarus’ state-dominated economy, it’s the mark of the plucky underdog.

After ending a nine-game wait for victory, the players came over to celebrate with the sparse crowd. An hour later, the reserve players were still sharing the field with fans and their children having a kickabout.

“It’s an atmosphere like home, very warm. It’s been helping the guys not to give up,” said Vasily Khomutovsky, one of Krumkachy’s two co-coaches.

At a recent away game, “a woman with two children who went there, with two small kids 7 and 10 years old, she made each player a little souvenir by hand and signed it, something different for each player,” Khomutovsky said.

There’s a family atmosphere within the club, too, with Shunto’s brother serving as a backup goalkeeper and Skshinetsky’s wife in charge of fitness training.

[ MORE: Power rankings — Going to the playoffs edition ]

Vladimir Harlach, one of the team’s supporters, said Krumkachy reminds him of AFC Wimbledon, the English club founded by fans after owners relocated its previous incarnation to another town, and which has since shot up several divisions.

“That’s a bit different, there was history,” Harlach said. “Here, it’s from scratch. History is being written in front of our eyes. You could compare it to other countries 100 years ago, when (soccer) was all being created.”

Krumkachy’s average home attendance of about 1,500 is tiny by European standards, but enough to put it comfortably above all but the biggest clubs in Belarus, as well as higher than that of FC Minsk, the city government-run club whose stadium Krumkachy is using.

Some at the club wonder whether European qualification might be possible next year, another improbable step up, but the top spot in Belarus appears far out of reach. Able to outspend rivals with cash from occasional Champions League appearances, BATE Borisov has just sewn up its 11th straight title.

Khomutovsky welcomes the comparison to Leicester, a team which was promoted to top division in England, survived one season, then won a wildly unlikely title the following year.

“I hope next year,” Khomutovsky said, “we do what we can to become the Belarusian Leicester.”

MLS Cup Playoffs Weds. preview: Toronto, LA host openers

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco, right, celebrates after scoring his team's second goal against the New England Revolution during first-half MLS soccer game action in Toronto, Saturday, Aug. 6, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
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Here we go, sports fans.

Major League Soccer starts its playoffs with a pair of knockout round games on Wednesday and another two on Thursday.

[ MORE: MLS Cup predictions ]

Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET

The Union are back in the playoffs for just the second time in playoff history, the same amount as Toronto. The difference is that Toronto has made the postseason in back-to-back season and isn’t entering the second season on a brutal cold streak.

Philly has lost three-straight and five of seven, making the playoffs on goal differential and — as Brotherly Game points out — has the lowest points-per-game of a playoff team since 2006.

That’s probably not going to fly at the new, loud BMO Field, where TFC’s supporters will finally get a home playoff match. Sebastian Giovinco is close to full fitness, Jozy Altidore has been on fire, and Michael Bradley isn’t exactly a player who shirks the big game spot light.

But it’s going to be players like Drew Moor and Clint Irwin who keep TFC calm under the bright lights. They’ve been here before. In fact, Moor has actually been at BMO in the playoffs, when Colorado trumped FC Dallas for a 2-1 win at MLS Cup 2010.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Real Salt Lake at LA Galaxy –10:30 p.m. ET

Before the season began, LA looked like it had an embarrassment of riches that could challenge for one of the best records in MLS history. Between Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Ashley Cole, Nigel de Jong, Steven Gerrard, and Gyasi Zardes — let alone the rest of the crew — the Galaxy were terrifying.

CARSON, CA - SEPTEMBER 11: Robbie Keane #7 of Los Angeles Galaxy celebrates his goal with Giovani dos Santos #10 to take a 4-1 lead over the Orlando City FC at StubHub Center on September 11, 2016 in Carson, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dos Santos and Keane (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

About 700 miles northeast was a team expected to do, well, not much. Real Salt Lake had its mainstays in Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, but had the club done enough to make up a 10-point playoff deficit from 2015?

Injuries and defections stopped the Galaxy from reaching its potential, while RSL rode a hot start into the playoffs. Both teams finished their seasons in cold fashion; In Real’s case, ice cold.

The Galaxy only lost one game at the StubHub Center this season, and it’s realistic to think that trend will continue on Wednesday. But there’s something about RSL and the playoffs — and the potential absences of not just Zardes but Keane and Gerrard — that lead us to believe something strange could be coming by the time Thursday morning hits the East Coast.

USMNT’s Zardes nearing return for LA… but not this week

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 09:  Gyasi Zardes #11 of Los Angeles Galaxy attemps to break away from Leiton Jimenez #30 of Club Tijuana at StubHub Center on February 9, 2016 in Carson, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images
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Gyasi Zardes waits on X-rays, and it’s not just a matter for LA Galaxy concern.

Yes, the MLS side is chasing its sixth Cup and has as many as two playoff matches coming in the next five days.

But Jurgen Klinsmann has regularly called upon the 25-year-old attacker for the United States men’s national team who, in case you haven’t heard, have two of the toughest World Cup qualifiers on their slate in the next few weeks.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

There’s good news and bad news. First, the good, from MLSSoccer.com:

Gyasi Zardes, returning from a broken foot this past August, happily took to the field with his teammates in a sign of a potential return in time for the postseason. The offensive favorite spent a little under an hour with the team, not quite completing a full training session, but definitely close to returning to his usual fitness.

Now the less good: Zardes cannot return until his next scheduled X-ray on the aforementioned broken foot.

That X-ray comes next Thursday – well after Wednesday’s game and any weekend matches.

Will a fit Zardes instantly reclaim a spot in Klinsmann’s 23? Wingers have had strong performances in his stead, and the coach’s take on that position is a bit unknown as we anticipate the United States and Mexico in Columbus on Nov. 11.

Juventus CEO: agent to earn $30 million for Pogba transfer

VERONA, ITALY - JANUARY 31:  Paul Pogba of Juventus celebrates the victory after the Serie A match between AC Chievo Verona and Juventus FC at Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi on January 31, 2016 in Verona, Italy.  (Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images)
Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images
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TURIN, Italy (AP) Juventus CEO Giuseppe Marotta has revealed that Paul Pogba‘s agent will be paid 27 million euros ($30 million) for the player’s record transfer to Manchester United.

Pogba returned to United in August for a world-record fee of $116 million.

Marotta was quoted by Italian media as telling Juventus’ shareholders meeting Tuesday as saying “27 million (euros) will be paid to (Pogba’s) agent Mino Raiola. So the total net gain for Pogba was 72 million ($78 million)” after other fees are taken into account.

[ MORE: Nyarko says DC can aim high in MLS Playoffs ]

Marotta says that Pogba joined Juve from United in 2012 for a bargain price of 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million).

Marotta adds that Juan Cuadrado‘s two-year loan from Chelsea costs 5 million euros ($5.4 million) per season and if Juventus wins Serie A this season it will be obliged to buy Cuadrado’s full rights for an additional 20 million ($22 million).