Confederations Cup schedule: The matches you’ll want to watch

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Sixteen games, 16 days, and although the Confederations Cup is merely an opening act for next year’s World Cup, there are enough intriguing, rarely seen match-ups to justify setting your DVR. Among the games you’re guaranteed to see: Brazil vs. Italy, Spain vs. Uruguay … Tahiti vs. Nigeria?

Not every game will be a gem, but thanks to a stacked Group A, most of them will. Those following CONCACAF qualifying know Mexico’s struggling for goals and poinst, but when Chepo de la Torre’s team may be the worst side in a group, that a pretty stacked set.

The tournament starts this Saturday in Brasilia, when the host nation plays their first competitive match since the 2011 Copa America. Televised on ESPN, most of the games slide into that nice, mid-day, Champions League slot. Plan your lunch breaks accordingly.

Here’s the schedule, with our recommended views in bold.

Group A Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
 Brazil 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Japan 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Mexico 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Italy 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Group B Pld W D L GF GA GD Pts
 Spain 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Uruguay 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Tahiti 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
 Nigeria 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Group stage

June 15, Brazil vs. Japan (Group A), Brasilia, 3:00 p.m. ET: Brazil has more riding on this tournament than anybody, as it’s a proof of concept for a squad which won’t play another competitive match until the 2014 World Cup. Japan, however, may very well be a better team right now. The Selecao have the home field advantage, but the Samurai Blue have the form.

June 16, Mexico vs. Italy (Group A), Rio de Janeiro, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 16, Uruguay vs. Spain (Group B), Recife, 6:00 p.m. ET: This is the only major trophy at Spain’s disposal that they don’t hold. Opening against Uruguay, they get their toughest group test first. La Celeste have faded from a strong start in South American qualifying. If they can trouble Spain, it might be our first indication that South America’s qualifiers will have an advantage over their UEFA counterparts in Brazil.

June 17, Tahiti vs. Nigeria (Group B), Belo Horizonte, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 19, Brazil vs. Mexico (Group A), Fortaleza, 3:00 p.m. ET: Anytime Mexico faces Argentina or Brazil, it’s a major occasion, but just under one year after El Tri claimed gold at the Summer Olympics over the favored Brazilians, this match may have a minor rematch-like atmosphere to it. Brazil will not have forgotten their missed chance to claim the one honor that’s eluded them.

June 19, Italy vs. Japan (Group A), Recife, 6:00 p.m. ET

June 20, Spain vs. Tahiti (Group B), Rio de Janeiro, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 20, Nigeria vs. Uruguay (Group B), Salvador, 6:00 p.m. ET: Assuming Nigeria beats Tahiti, this will likely be the Super Eagles’ chance to claim a place in the semifinals. Stephen Keshi’s is a young team, but one that has the experience of a Cup of Nations run under their belts. If they can spring one upset, they’re through.

June 22, Italy vs. Brazil (Group A), Salvador, 3:00 p.m. ET: In a group out of which any team could advance (well, Mexico would have to wake up), this could be a must-win for both teams, if both sides can’t avoid upsets in their first two matches. Not a bad way to close group play: Two world titans in win-and-move-on scenario.

June 22, Japan vs. Mexico (Group A), Rio de Janeiro, 3:00 p.m. ET

June 23, Nigeria vs. Spain (Group B), Fortaleza, 3:00 p.m. ET: Nigeria needs to take care of business before getting to this point, because with Uruguay likely to defeat Tahiti, Keshi’s team doesn’t want to be in a position to need points from Spain. Nigeria need a win against Uruguay in Salvador with the hopes of making this match meaningless.

June 23, Tahini vs. Urugual (Group B), Recife, 3:00 ET

Knockout round

Semifinals

June 26, Group A winner vs. Group B runner-up, Belo Horizonte, 3:00 p.m. Eastern: This looks like any of Brazil, Italy or Japan against Uruguay, the likely Group B runner-up. If Brazil has any home field advantage, it will be the Selecao facing their South American counterparts.

June 27, Group B winner vs. Group A runner-up, Fortaleza, 3:00 p.m. Eastern: Which Group A team is opening round slip and been drawn against Spain (assuming the Spaniards can handle Uruguay). Regardless, the European Champions against any of Brazil, Italy or Japan will be an entertaining game.

Third Place Game

June 30, Semifinal losers, Salvador, Salvador, 3:00 p.m. Eastern: Don’t watch this game

Final

June 30, Semifinal winners, Rio de Janeiro, 9:00 p.m. Eastern: Four years ago, everybody assumed Spain and Brazil would meet in South Africa’s final. An upset by the United States in the semifinal round knocked the eventual world champions into the third place match. This year, we’ll see if another team will rise up and claim and unexpected spot in the finals.

Championship Focus: Bluebirds flying, Villa second-last

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The wild 46-game slate that is the Football League Championship is already howling, with all 24 teams three matches deep into their campaigns toward Premier League promotion (or avoiding relegation to League One).

The three clubs relegated from the Premier League last season all sit within the Top 8 after three match days. Sunderland is unbeaten with a win and two draws, while Hull City is 1-1-1.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

Middlesbrough has two wins from three matches, three points behind three sides who’ve started a perfect 3-0.

Wolves and Ipswich Town are two of the three, and Cardiff City leads the way. Owner Vincent Tan has seen his club score six goals without conceding once in defeats of Burton Albion, Aston Villa, and Sheffield United.

Burton is 0-3, while Steve Bruce‘s Villa is just one point better and sits 23rd.

As for individual superlatives, Bristol City’s Bobby Reid has four goals to lead the league while familiar names Lewis Grabban (Sunderland) and Abel Hernandez (Hull City) are among a quartet of players to score thrice.

Meanwhile, PL transfer target Jota of Brentford continues to impress with three assists through three matches. Will he remain in the second tier by the close of the transfer window?

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 3-0 Chicago Fire

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The game in 100 words (or less)Ignacio Piatti is very good at soccer, and Chicago backstop Matt Lampson is going to see him deep into his dreams. Piatti beat Lampson up close on a turnover and then, with Montreal ahead 2-0 off a PK, the Argentine curled a surprise shot from distance around the keeper. Game, set, match, and it wasn’t even halftime. The loss keeps Chicago from using its match-in-hand to catch second place New York City FC, while the three points move Montreal to within two points of the East’s final playoff position.

Three moments that mattered

6′ — Piatti starts the party — Gifted a chance with the keeper by a sloppy missed clearing attempt, the Argentine deftly pops the ball over Fire keeper Matt Lampson.

36′ — Lampson hurts his cause — Chicago’s backstop wasn’t at fault on the opening goal, but he was for the second. After chopping down Matteo Mancosu in the box, Lampson guessed wrong on the striker’s penalty kick and the Fire went down 2-0.

38′ — It’s not your night, Lamps — Pretty sure you can anyone named Lampson, Lamps. Anyway, this time it was one of MLS’ top newcomers who set up Piatti for a goal. “Nacho” has his 12th of the season thanks to Blerim Dzemaili, and my goodness did Piatti do well here.

Man of the Match: Piatti.

Forbes ranks the top supporters in Major League Soccer

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Forbes claims the shared honor will give two Cascadia Cup rivals one less thing to argue about, but we completely disagree.

The celebrated magazine says their metrics show the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders tied for the honor of who has the best fans in Major League Soccer.

The post says the determination was made through four factors: attendance, local TV ratings, merchandise sales, and social media followers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Attendance was weighted heaviest, which certainly gives Atlanta United hope to go charging up the rankings in the future. For now, the “Five Stripes” are not included in the list.

The Galaxy finish third in the rankings, while the sixth-place New York Red Bulls edge New York City FC by one spot.

For the report and full explanation, head here.

Europa League preview: Everton, Milan, Marseille take next steps

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The UEFA Europa League playoff round takes full flight Thursday, a day after Utrecht struck a blow for the Eredivisie with a 1-0 win over Zenit Saint-Petersburg in a Wednesday first leg.

Premier League participants Everton will be seeking a result at home against Hajduk Split, the third-place team from Croatia’s top flight.

Gylfi Sigurdsson passed his medical at Goodison Park but will not be available for Everton on Thursday.

[ MORE: Barcelona falls to Real… again ]

As for the match, manager Ronald Koeman knows the Thursday matchdays for the UEL will try his club’s endurance and depth. From EvertonFC.com:

“We know English teams have some problems. I think it is more mental than physical because if you play in the Champions League – so Wednesday and Saturday – you have the same amount of days to recover. I try to put out the strongest team to start the game. That will take into account the tactical aspects of each game. That will mean different players start and different options in terms of substitutions.”

Captained by Zoran Nizic and managed by Joan Carrillo, Hajduk has a young star in the making in the form of 19-year-old attacking midfielder Nikola Vlasic, but Everton is heavily favored at home with Hajduk given 12:1 odds by bookmakers.

[ MORE: Barca GM says Coutinho, Dembele “close” ]

Those numbers are a relative sure thing compared to AC Milan’s visitors. Macedonia club Shkendija are a 33:1 underdog for its trip to Italy.

Elsewhere, Slovenian side Domzale is a longshot at home to visiting Marseille.

Speaking of bookmakers, Arsenal won’t enter the competition until the group stage but is considered the favorite to win the UEL by a hair over Milan. Everton, Villarreal, and Athletic Bilbao are level with third-best odds.

UEFA Europa League playoff first legs
Utrecht 1-0 Zenit — Weds.
BATE Borisov vs. Oleksandriya — 1 p.m. ET Thursday
Apollon Limassol vs. Midtjylland — 1 p.m.
Krasnodar vs. Red Star Belgrade — 1 p.m.
Dinamo Zagreb vs. Skenderbeu — 1 p.m.
FH vs. Braga — 1:45 p.m. ET Thursday
PAOK vs. Ostersund — 2 p.m. ET Thursday
Vardar vs. Fenerbahce — 2 p.m.
Plzen vs. AEK Lamaca — 2:15 p.m. ET Thursday
Altach vs. Maccabi Tel-Aviv — 2:30 p.m. ET Thursday
Ludogorets Razgrad vs. Suduva — 2:30 p.m.
Panathinaikos vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:30 p.m.
Domzale vs. Marseille — 2:45 p.m. ET Thursday
Osijek vs. Austria Wien — 2:45 p.m.
Viitorul vs. Red Bull Salzburg — 2:45 p.m.
Ajax vs. Rosenborg — 2:45 p.m.
Legia Warsaw vs. Sheriff — 2:45 p.m.
AC Milan vs. Shkendija — 2:45 p.m.
Club Brugge vs. AEK — 2:45 p.m.
Partizan vs. Videoton — 3 p.m. ET Thursday
Everton vs. Hajduk Split — 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday
Maritimo vs. Dynamo Kyiv — 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday