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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.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group A: USA, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay

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USA

This will be the USA’s fourth Copa America appearance and they’ve struggled in this competition in the past with their best finish coming in 1995 when they finished fourth. Can the hosts finish in the top four this time?

Star player: Bobby Wood – I would’ve gone for Clint Dempsey but I think Wood will carry this team after a stunning season in Germany. He’s so sharp right now and is clinical.

Why USA will flop and pile more pressure on Klinsmann: The U.S. head coach has already stated their target as reaching the semifinals. That’s attainable but they’re in a very tough group to get out of. It is hard to see them getting out of this group, which will then pile more pressure on JK.

[ MORE: Full Copa America 2016 coverage ]

But this is how they’ll really battle through and make the semifinals: However, how many times have we written this U.S. team off? Plenty. And they always seem to have a surprise in them. They got out of the Group of Death in Brazil two years ago and it is all about getting a positive result in the opener against Colombia. Win that and the team, fans and the nation will believe. As the host nation, that’s a powerful thing.


Colombia 

James Rodriguez, Colombia
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They burst onto the scene as a reborn team at the 2014 World Cup but they’ve struggled to regain that form since. Colombia has won the Copa America once in its history, back in 2001 when Victor Aristizabal  ran the show for the host nation.

Star player: James Rodriguez – Real Madrid attacker will lead Colombia and thrives on being the main man. That’s what he will be this summer. Watch him go.

How Colombia can regain 2014 World Cup form: They’ve lost a spark in the last 12-18 months since the World Cup but there’s no doubt that Jose Pekerman’s men have the talent to succeed. The shackles will be off this summer and their fans travel well. Los Cafeteros will play in front of a sea of yellow wherever they go.

More than likely they’ll bow out in quarterfinals: Despite all of their attacking prowess, they’ll probably bow out at the quarterfinal stage just like they did at the last three major tournaments. That’s because defensively they’ve struggled to replace veterans such as Mario Yepes and some of their more experienced players in Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez won’t be in action this summer.


Costa Rica

Costa Rica and Mexico clash.
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This will be just the fifth time Costa Rica has participated in this tournament as a guest nation. They reached the quarterfinals in both 2001 and 2005.

Star player: Joel Campbell – He’s had an up and down season with Arsenal but his pace, power and clinical finishing mean he will be a real handful.

Los Ticos could surprise everyone and make a deep run: They did it in 2014, why not now? With Bryan Ruiz, Campbell , Keylor Navas and Celso Borges around, they have a real solid core of players who came within penalty kicks of a World Cup semifinal. They’ll surprise again.

However, they will likely just come up short due to defensive weakness: In defense they look a little week and you get the sense that if the balance of this team isn’t right, Navas will be a busy man.


Paraguay

Paraguay's forward Derlis Gonzalez celebrates after scoring against Brazil during their 2015 Copa America football championship quarter-final match, in Concepcion, Chile, on June 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ranked 7th out of the 10 CONMEBOL teams, it is always easy to underestimate Paraguay but they usually perform very well in this tournament. They reached the semifinals last summer in Chile and were runners up in Argentina in 2011.

Star player: Derlis Gonzalez – The Dynamo Kiev forward looked sharp last summer but without Roque Santa Cruz, there are no obvious stars on this team.

Why they will do better than anybody expects: It’s just what they always do. In the Copa America last summer they drew with Uruguay and Argentina in group play and knocked out Brazil on penalties in the quarterfinal. They will fight until the end.

Close, but no cigar: This time around you get the sense that this is a team in transition. Without Santa Cruz they will struggle for goals and fairytale is not in the stars this time.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group A, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Colombia, Costa Rica going through; USA and Paraguay going home

Marquee match: I’m going with USA vs. Colombia in the opener in Santa Clara at Levi Stadium on June 3. Amid much fanfare, expect a tense, exciting game. 

Top players to watch

1) James Rodriguez
2) Juan Cuadrado
3) Joel Campbell
4) Bobby Wood
5) Bryan Ruiz

Lionel Messi sets sights on Copa America glory in USA

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after his teammate Gabriel Mercado scored his side's second goal against Chile during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, March 24, 2016. (AP Photo/ Luis Hidalgo)
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Lionel Messi is fired up and ready to roll this summer.

The Barcelona and Argentina superstar, 28, will captain La Albiceleste at the 2016 Copa America Centenario being held across the United States of America this summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks

Argentina is in Group D alongside Chile, Panama and Bolivia and they are the favorites to win the competition this summer.

Messi has been named FIFA’s World Player of the Year five times. He’s won every major trophy with Barcelona.

Yet one thing eludes him: glory with Argentina.

He was part of the Argentine Olympic squad which won Gold at Beijing in 2008 but the mercurial playmaker has never won a major trophy such as a World Cup or Copa America with Argentina.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Speaking to Sports Illustrated in first person ahead of this summer, Messi spoke of his fondness for the U.S. after multiple trips to play friendlies with club and country in recent years nd how he aims to end Argentina’s 23-year trophy drought this summer, especially after losing in both the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America finals.

“Of course, outside of my family nothing would make me happier than to win my first World Cup with Argentina in 2018. The Copa America this summer is an important step along the way, a chance to show that we can raise a senior trophy for the first time in 23 years. And if we can do that, it will also mean spending nearly a month in the U.S. and learning more about this special country. If you Americans are looking forward to seeing me in person, trust me: The feeling is mutual.”

See you this summer, Lionel.

Argentina has not won the World Cup since 1986 and the Copa America since 1993. They’re long overdue a trophy and Messi seems hellbent on delivering it during his time as skipper. Gerardo Martino’s side are among the 10 teams from CONMEBOL who will link with six nations from CONCACAF in an expanded format of Copa America to celebrate the competitions 100-year anniversary.

ProSoccerTalk will have full coverage of the entire 16-team Copa America Centenario tournament, which you can find here.

Five things Jose Mourinho must do at Manchester United

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  Jose Mourinho manager of Chelsea looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on November 29, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho will reportedly take charge of Manchester United before the end of this week.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks

The Portuguese coach, 53, has been out of a job since he left Chelsea last December but now the job he’s been muttering about and mentioning for over a decade has arrived.

“The Special One” seems to be the chosen one, at least when it comes to United’s hierarchy who are ready to hand him the keys with Louis Van Gaal out as boss on Monday.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Mourinho has plenty of work to do to first restore United to the top of the PL and then to Europe.

Below is a quick checklist of what Mourinho must sort out first when he likely arrives at Old Trafford in the coming days.

He has a huge job on his hands but if anybody can do it, it’s Mourinho.


1 – Get a new, more powerful spine of the team

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 12: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Paris Saint-Germain beats Eliaquim Mangala (20) and Joe Hart of Manchester City to score, but his goal is disallowed during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg match between Manchester City FC and Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium on April 12, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

A lot has been said about the laborious rate of play under LVG the best two seasons but not much has been said about why it’s been like that. Of course, pace is a huge factor in that but as is winning the ball back in key areas and United haven’t done that enough in midfield and defense. Getting in two destructive players in central midfield and central defense is key for this team. With Nemanja Matic linked to United, that would work in midfield. John Stones and Raphael Varane in central defense would also work and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top, boom, there’s your new spine of the team. It’s more powerful and able to dominate teams.

2 – Convince David De Gea to stay

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 02: David De Gea of Manchester United celebrates the opening goal scored by Juan Mata (not pictured) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Watford at Old Trafford on March 2, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

This is a big one and has this storyline has somehow got lost in the shuffle a little in the past few months. Let’s not forget that De Gea missed United’s opening games of the season after he lost focus with his potential move to Real Madrid up in the air. He accepted it when it didn’t happen after an eleventh hour breakdown and the Spanish international was once again named the PL’s best goalkeeper. De Gea, 25, is key to this United team and to that strong spine we’re talking about. Without UEFA Champions League action to offer next season, Mourinho must convince him to stay at United as Real lurk in the background ready to activate his reported release clause.

3 – Play Wayne Rooney as a No. 10

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Swansea City at Old Trafford on January 2, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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I’ve seen enough of Rooney in midfield in recent weeks to believe this is where his future lies. United’s captain even seems to believe it now too. However, he should play in a slightly more attacking role than he has been. That is where he’s at his best. We’ve seen him struggle with some of the easier passes and given the ball away in key possessions as he takes too many risks on the ball as a holding or deeper central midfielder. Play him just in front of two defensive midfielders and let him roam free behind a target man like Zlatan or Marcus Rashford.

4 – Keep faith in the youngsters

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 20: Daniel Rashford of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Okay, so Jose has been terrible at doing this in the past. Wherever he has gone he’s had a short-term approach, a “win now, worry later” mentality which has left some of the teams in ruins after his departure. Yet, at United it can be argued that many of the youngsters giving their debuts this season by Van Gaal were the bright spots. Rashford is a special talent and Jesse Lingard is flourishing, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson showed promise. Then you have Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis. The latter could get a new lease of life under Mourinho and, all of a sudden, Mourinho could have a very young team. That said, he’ll likely go out and bring in some experience form his days at Real Madrid or Chelsea but he should not neglect this opportunity to thrust youngsters into the limelight like he has done so readily in the past.

5 – Prioritize the Premier League

Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC

He’s won plenty of FA Cups and League Cups with Chelsea in the past but it is time for Mourinho to fully focus on one thing when he arrives at United: finishing in the top four. United simply have to be in the UCL in 2017-18 and their failure to qualify for that tournament this season was the main reason LVG is out. Like Liverpool showed a few years ago and Leicester City showed us this season, when you only have one competition to focus on, then anything is possible. Play the kids in all of the Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup games and keep your star players hungry to succeed in the Premier League.

Ahead of Copa America, what is USMNT’s best XI?

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Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team has a big few weeks ahead of them.

[ MORE: What’s next for USMNT? ]

The USMNT have two more friendlies — Ecuador on Wednesday, then Bolivia on Saturday — before they face Colombia in the 2016 Copa America Centenario opener in Santa Clara, Calif. on June 3.

Klinsmann has already stated the USA’s goal is to reach the semifinals of the 16-team tournament as CONCACAF and CONMEBOL’s finest square off. Getting out of a tricky Group A will be a big achievement for the U.S. as Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay stand in their way.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks ]

With the Major League Soccer contingent of players just joining up with the squad, plus others leaving after taking part in the friendly win in Puerto Rico last Sunday, Klinsmann now has the majority of his final 23-man roster with him and available for selection.

Who should start against Colombia in 10 days time? Let’s take a look at the best XI Klinsmann can pick.


USMNT’s best XI

—– Guzan —–

— Yedlin — Cameron — Birnbaum — Johnson —

— Bradley — Jones —

— Bedoya — Dempsey — Zardes —

—– Wood —–

Thoughts

We know that Klinsmann has named Brad Guzan as his starter for the Copa America and given that he’s played more regularly than MLS-bound Tim Howard over the past six months, that’s understandable. Do I still think Howard is overall a better goalkeeper than Guzan? Yes.

The back four, for me, picks itself. DeAndre Yedlin has shown his development, especially defensively, as a solid right back at Sunderland this season. That loan move did him the world of good. Geoff Cameron is the clear leader in central defense (he has been struggling with a hamstring injury but should be good to go next Friday) and you have to select a center back who can compliment him best. I believe Steve Birnbaum is that man even though John Brooks may be the better overall player. Fabian Johnson should play at left back simply because the U.S. doesn’t have many options in that area. The Borussia Monchengladbach winger is incredibly useful going forward but needs must.

Central midfield should be locked down by Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, although Kyle Beckerman or Darlington Nagbe do have a chance of starting in that area to give Bradley the chance to play as the central attacking midfielder.

In an attacking midfield three I’ve gone for Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes as I think they have the perfect mixture of pace, trickery and industry and they will support the man who has risen to stardom: Bobby Wood.

The hopes of Klinsmann’s team rest on the shoulders of Hamburg’s Hawaiian striker but whispers out of training camp suggest Wood is up to the challenge of leading the line after Jozy Altidore went down with an injury. Also, watch out for Christian Pulisic who will likely be used off the bench to support Wood. The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund sensation can slot into any of the attacking midfield positions and is a real wildcard for Klinsmann to throw in when necessary.