Daniel Alves, David Luiz, Paulinho, Neymar,  Hulk

Confederations Cup preview: Spain, Italy, and Brazil all on display in high-powered World Cup warmup

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With the competitive World Cup tuneup starting this weekend, it’s time to take a look at who will be participating, where they came from, and how they may fare ahead of the Big One in Brazil next year.

The competition takes place every four years and features all the winners of each regional championship, plus the previous World Cup winners and the next World Cup’s host nation.

That makes eight total teams participating.  The teams are split into two groups of four, with the top two in each group advancing to the knockout semifinals and finals.

It takes place the year before the World Cup every year, and is hosted by the next World Cup host nation, thus it will be in Brazil.

The competition will feature goal-line technology this time around, provided by GoalControl GmbH, and it represents a major step in competitive soccer.  The technology was first used competitively by FIFA in the Club World Cup in 2012, and if this go-around is successful it will be used in next year’s World Cup.

The games in the Confederations Cup will be played out over six different cities in Brazil, with the finals at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro.

GROUP A:

Brazil:

The Brazilians are in the competition as the host nation for next year’s World Cup, and have taken this tournament extremely seriously.  With the host nation not needing to participate in their usual CONMEBOL qualification, they’ve spent plenty of time preparing for the Cup.  In fact, the Brazilian Football Confederation forced both Dante and Luiz Gustavo to leave Bayern Munich early for preparation, meaning they missed the final of the German League Cup and the chance to complete the treble with their club.

Neymar will be on full display, having recently made a move to Barcelona amid plenty of fanfare.  At just 21 years old, the youngster has 20 goals in 34 international appearances, but has failed to come through under the brightest lights for his country thus far.

Leandro Damiao is the only real injury issue for manager Felipe Scolari, as a thigh injury will keep him out of the competition.  He was replaced on the 23-man roster by fellow striker Jo of Atletico Miniero.

Expectations and pressure will both be at all-time highs, similar to the way it will be a year from now, and anything but victory will be seen as a failure for the hosts.

Mexico:

Mexico are into the competition having won the Gold Cup back in 2011.  Having failed miserably to get points in the most recent rounds of CONCACAF qualifying and sitting in a much more perilous position than they had hoped to be in at this stage, Mexico’s take on this tournament will be an interesting one.  There are many different routes they can travel in the Confederations Cup.  With both Brazil and Italy in their group, it will take a full effort to make it out of the group stage.

Manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre has got to figure out a way this team can score goals outside of Javier Hernandez.  With “Chicharito” struggling to carry the weight of the entire team on his back, the squad has gone three straight home qualifiers without scoring a goal.  By the end of their most recent 0-0 draw with Costa Rica, the crowd was calling for Chepo’s firing. If not for the fantastic form of goalkeeper Jose Corona, he may have already been without a job.

Up against another out-of-form team in Italy in the opening round, it will be interesting to see whether the Mexicans take this competition seriously and try to get back on form by throwing everything they have at top teams, or if the experimentation will begin as their manager possibly tinkers with his lineup.

Italy:

Italy qualifies for the Cup having finished second in Euro 2012.  Spain won the competition, but because they already qualified for the Confederations Cup as the World Cup winners, Italy are awarded the Euro spot.  The Azzuri are coming off two disappointing draws, although neither had any real impact on their chances to qualify for Brazil next year, and neither in the end meant a whole lot.

A draw with the Czech Republic in World Cup qualifying last week saw them fail to score but also retain their stranglehold on their group’s top spot.  They also drew with Haiti in a friendly, but manager Cesare Prandelli was tinkering with different formations and just about every star player at least began the match on the bench.

It will be interesting to see how Mario Balotelli recovers from another chapter in his tumultous career against the Czech Republic, where he received 2 yellow cards in 4 minutes.  He exploded on Twitter after the match, angrily rebuking critical fans by telling them anyone who doesn’t support him can root for another team at the Confederations Cup.  It will be quite interesting to see how Balotelli is received in Brazil.  The 22-year-old does have a goal against Brazil in a friendly back in 2011.

Japan:

The 2011 Asian Cup winners are an intriguing side.  Stuck in a pretty tough group and not expected to do much, the Japanese are certainly capable of putting together a surprise performance or two.

Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda out of CSKA Moscow are the two stars of the bunch, but both are distributors and neither are pure finishers. Striker is actually a position of real concern for the Blue Samurai, although Dutch-Japanese striker Mike Havenaar has emerged as a somewhat viable option up front recently.

Don’t expect Alberto Zaccheroni’s bunch to make a whole lot of noise, but their tournament-opener against Brazil will be a good litmus test to see if they can be competitive with the top of the heap.

GROUP B:

Spain:

The reigning World Cup and European champions are by far the favorites to win the competition.  It helps they were put in a group that offers little challenge, and they will be a shoo-in to make the semifinals.

It’s been 21 matches and 2-1/2 years since Spain has been beaten in any competition, a loss to England back in 2011.

Despite losing Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso to a groin injury, no worries for manager Vicente Del Bosque.  The squad ranked #1 in the world will replace him in the starting lineup with either Javi Martinez of Bayern Munich or Santi Cazorla out of Arsenal.  Quite a replacement selection I’d say.  Javi Garcia, having just moved to Manchester City, will also miss out on the tournament.

The only real question for Spain is how exactly Fernando Torres will be used, if at all.  The Chelsea frontman has seen an uptick in club form, but whether that will play into Del Bosque’s decisions remains to be seen. Don’t expect anything other than at least a finals appearance and possibly another piece of silverware for the current dominating power in international soccer.

Uruguay:

If you thought the tournament would be full with one fiery striker in Mario Balotelli, you’d be mistaken.  Luis Suarez puts his troubled times at Liverpool in the past temporarily to try and lead Uruguay to the semifinals.

As the winners of the 2011 Copa America, Uruguay get started against Spain in their first match, a tough test.  Manager Oscar Tabarez also has Diego Forlan of Brazil’s Internacional and highly-coveted Edinson Cavani of Napoli at his disposal in the high-powered side.

Tabarez is known to tweak and tinker often, and he will no doubt do his best to try and outwit the Spaniards in Group B’s first and best matchup.

Tahiti:

Ah, Tahiti.  Stuck at 5000/1 odds to win the tournament by betting website William Hill, the tiny Oceanic country and winners of the 2012 OFC Nations Cup are simply looking to get any points they can get their hands on.  It won’t be easy, if even possible.

With a population around 180,000 people, they are the only country making their first Confederations Cup appearance. It’s the first time anyone other than Australia or New Zealand have won the OFC Nations Cup and made it to the Confederations Cup, mainly because Australia moved from the Oceana region to Asia.

Managed by Eddy Etaeta, it will be the feel-good team for all of those not already decided on who to root for, but if they get any points at all in their group, it will come as a shock to all.  But hey, that’s what stories are made of.

Nigeria:

Qualifying through their victory in the 2013 African Cup of Nations, the Super Eagles are back in the Confederations Cup for the first time since 1995.

Nigeria are the wild card of Group B.  Spain and Uruguay are expected to go through, and Tahiti will most likely end up with a goose egg, but Nigeria will hope to challenge the Uruguayans for the second semifinal spot.  Those hopes were dealt a serious blow when Chelsea’s Victor Moses pulled out due to an undisclosed injury.  They will instead have to rely on midfielders John Obi Mikel and Sunday Mbia to lead the squad.

The African nation drew 2-2 with Mexico in a friendly at the end of May, so that provides them with a good barometer on where they stand against the other Confederations Cup countries. With the Spain/Uruguay matches obviously the top matchup in the group, Nigeria’s matches against those two teams will be intriguing, and their match against Uruguay in the second round of play could be a major decider.

SCHEDULE:

Group play will begin this Saturday with Brazil and Japan opening the competition.  Sunday features Round 1 matchups between Mexico and Italy as well as Spain and Uruguay, both incredibly enticing matches.

Round 2 games begin next Wednesday, June 19.  The most intriguing game in that round will be the Nigeria/Uruguay match I mentioned a bit earlier that could decide the second spot in Group B.

The final group round will start Saturday, June 22 and will see the high-powered matchup of Italy vs. Brazil, as well as Japan vs. Mexico that could mean a spot out of Group A if Italy falter.

The semifinals will play Tuesday and Wednesday, June 26 and 27.  The knockout games will absolutely mean marquee matchups.  If things fall as expected, we could be handed Spain vs. Italy and Brazil vs. Uruguay in the semifinals, both fantastic games.

The finals and third-place match will be on June 30.

Klopp played three positions in Liverpool staff team’s draw with Stanford

Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool FC (Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer)
Photo credit: @StanfordMSoccer
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From the Endearing Jurgen Klopp Tales file, the Liverpool manager reportedly starred in defense, midfield and attack for a squad full of Reds coaches against Stanford on Sunday.

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Liverpool, who have based themselves on the sunny, warm Stanford University campus as part of their preparations for the 2016-17 Premier League, took on the collegiate side and played the youngsters to a 1-1 draw.

Klopp failed to get his name on the scoresheet, though the former Mainz striker had one golden chance turned away by Stanford’s goalkeeper. The same couldn’t be said for physiotherapist Ruben Pons, who scored from beyond the halfway line on a mishit long ball over the top.

With all the goodwill Klopp has banked with Reds fans in his first nine months at the club, he’s now only a PL title away from securing his place as an eternal Liverpool legend.

Liverpool will take on Chelsea in each side’s first International Champions Cup fixture Wednesday night (11 p.m. ET) in Pasadena, Calif.

Former Fergie assistant Phelan wants Hull job — “I want to be a manager”

SCUNTHORPE, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Hull City interim manager Mike Phelan prior to kick off in the pre-season friendly between Scunthorpe United and Hull City at Glanford Park on July 23, 2016 in Scunthorpe, England.  (Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images)
Photo by Daniel Smith/Getty Images
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Following Steve Bruce’s sudden and unexpected resignation this week, Hull City find themselves without a first-team manager 20 days before the 2016-17 Premier League opener, which will pit the PL newcomers (again) against the reigning PL champions (not again) Leicester City on Aug. 13.

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The man presently in charge of the club, Mike Phelan, who served as Sir Alex Ferguson‘s no. 2 for a number of years at Manchester United, has essentially no first-team managerial experience, but he’s eager to cut his teeth and wants the job anyway — quotes from the Hull Daily Mail:

“I want to be a manager. I don’t really see why I shouldn’t want to be a manager. Time will tell. That decision doesn’t sometimes come down to you.

“I’ve had a small chat and I was asked if I would carry on being in charge for now. We have games, we have preparations, we’ve still got three weeks to go.

“My job is no different to what it has been except now I’m stood on the touchline in games doing my bit. We just have to do our job, there’s nothing else we can do until the powers that be make their decisions.”

Here’s why it’s (obviously) crazy for the club to delay a final decision any longer than absolutely necessary: with every passing day, important preparations for a PL season, a campaign in which the Tigers will almost certainly be fighting for their top-division status, are being undertaken by an interim boss who, based upon the daily whims of an outgoing owner, may or may not be the man to lead Hull into that 38-game battle.

Phelan previously served as interim manager for Norwich City in 2015, for a period totaling four days.

Int’l Champions Cup: Aurier scores twice as PSG throttle Inter Milan

Paris Saint-Germain's Serge Aurier, right, gets a shot past Inter Milan goalkeeper Samir Handanovic, left, in the first half of the International Champions Cup soccer match at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore., Sunday, July 24, 2016. (Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP)
Andy Nelson/The Register-Guard via AP
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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) Serge Aurier scored twice and Paris Saint-Germain beat Inter Milan 3-1 on Sunday at the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium.

Layvin Kurzawa also scored for PSG on a free kick in the 61st minute in the International Champions Cup match. Stevan Jovetic scored for Inter Milan on a penalty kick in stoppage time following the first half.

Autzen Stadium, the home football field of the Oregon Ducks, hosted the match, part of the International Champions Cup. Real grass was laid down on the artificial turf field, obscuring the yellow `O’ at midfield.

The International Champions Cup is an exhibition tournament involving 17 teams playing on four different continents. It serves a tuneup for the regular season.

Inter Milan was coming off a 2-1 victory over Real Salt Lake earlier in the week in Utah. Striker Mauro Icardi played in that match, and was given the day off against PSG.

Paris Saint-Germain, which beat West Bromwich Albion 2-1 its last time out on July 14 in Austria, is embarking on its first season under Unai Emery, who took over for Laurnet Blanc. In addition to the new manager, PSG will also need to adjust to the departure of enigmatic forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who signed with Manchester United earlier this month.

Ibrahimovic had 38 goals in 31 French league games last season, helping PSG to a fourth successive title. On Sunday midfielder Javier Pastore wore No. 10.

Angel Di Maria, Edinson Cavani and Thomas Meunier entered as subs for Paris Saint-Germain in the second half.

Di Maria had just returned to his club team earlier in the week after taking some time off following the Copa America tournament. He played for his native Argentina in the final, which Chile won on penalty kicks.

David Luiz apparently did not make the trip to Eugene from Los Angeles, where PSG was training.

Aurier, who played in the 2014 World Cup for his native Ivory Coast, left-footed the rebound of a free kick off goalkeeper Samir Handanovic into the bottom left corner.

Inter Milan evened it on Jovetic’s penalty kick into the top right corner in extra time following the first half. The penalty was awarded when Lucas Moura was called for a handball.

Aurier had a good chance in the 57th minute but his shot hit the crossbar. A few minutes later, Kurzawa struck a perfectly placed free kick that Handanovic couldn’t reach that put PSG in front.

Aurier’s second goal was a header off a cross from Alec Georgen in the 87th minute.

Is MLS MVP a three-horse race at the All-Star “break”?

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco laughs after being named Major League Soccer's 2015 Most Valuable Player in Toronto, Wednesday, Dec.  2, 2015. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP
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With the 2016 MLS All-Star Game set to be played Thursday night (versus Arsenal, at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif.), it got me thinking about the race for this year’s Most Valuable Player award. (If MLS is going to continue holding the All-Star Game every year — and they are — it should include an actual break, as is the case in all other America sports.)

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While the field is a small one at this point of the campaign, it’s also much closer than it was last year, when Sebastian Giovinco took home the honor in an absolute landslide of a vote.

Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

The reigning MVP is on pace for something of a come-down in his second season in MLS, but when you put up 22 goals and 16 assists in your debut campaign, can you really expect to replicate that kind of production from one year to the next? Still, 11 goals (on the most shots in the league – 124) and 7 assists through 20 games (Giovinco has played in 19) has him on pace for 18 goals and 12 assists. Of course, when you consider he snapped a skid of eight games without a goal with a hat trick Saturday night, and that he’s unlikely to endure such a slump through the final 14 games, 18 and 12 should be considered the proverbial floor.

TFC have scored just 25 goals this season, and Giovinco has scored or assisted 18 of them (72 percent).

As for TFC’s present standing and how that impacts Giovinco’s MVP candidacy, fifth place through 20 games is a disappointment considering this was to be “the year” where they were less of a collection of talent, and more a functional team. Of course, injuries (and national team call-ups) have robbed the Reds of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Will Johnson for lengthy periods already. That TFC find themselves presently a playoff team, and a measly six points back of the Eastern Conference’s top spot with two games in hand, should benefit Giovinco’s case more than hurt it.

David Villa, New York City FC

This one’s pretty simple: NYCFC weren’t supposed to be anywhere near the top spot of the East this season, yet that’s where they find themselves at the break, and Villa has spearheaded their unlikely run by scoring 13 goals (most in MLS – on 117 shots – 46 more than the next-closest player) and one assist through 22 games (Villa has played in 21). The question is this, though: will Patrick Vieira’s side still be there come the end of the season? So much of Villa’s claim to MVP is that he’s been the best player on one of the best (and certainly most surprising) teams in MLS this year.

If they’re to fall back into the pack (they’re just two points clear of the New York Red Bulls following Sunday’s 4-1 derby disaster, and only four points from fourth), Villa will quickly fall from MVP candidate to “the best best player on a subpar team.”

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
(AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)

Ignacio Piatti, Montreal Impact

The Impact have, for my money, the most complete roster in the Eastern Conference. Didier Drogba is arguably the most dominant goal-scoring force MLS has ever seen (8 goals in 12 appearances this season; 11 in 11 last year), and the depth in midfield and defense is unparalleled, yet Piatti has been the unrivaled star through the first 20 games of the season (he has played in 18). His 12 goals and 5 assists are rivaled only by Giovinco’s numbers, and he’s been a far more consistent contributor than the Italian (never more than three games without a goal, while playing as a non-forward, unlike Giovinco).

The knock on Piatti has always been his inability to stay healthy and approach a pace of 30 appearances in a single season. Finally consistently healthy in 2016, he’s taken his short-term production and replicated that same kind of output over 90 percent of his team’s games this season. If he can reach 30 games played this year, Piatti has the best chance of stopping Giovinco from becoming the first back-to-back MVP winner in league history.

Montreal Impact's Ignacio Piatti, left, of Argentina, scores a goal as Vancouver Whitecaps' Kendall Waston, of Costa Rica, defends during first half MLS soccer action, in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Sunday, March 6, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

On the fringe, with a chance to catch the leaders: Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls – 5 goals, 12 assists), Diego Valeri (Portland Timbers – 9 goals, 5 assists)