Confederations Cup preview: Your quick guide to each teams’ standouts

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We’ve gone through the teams, and we’ve walked you through the schedule, but for some fans, the big draw to this summer’s Confederations Cup will be stars they don’t otherwise ee in their favorite leagues. In a tournament too young, infrequent and exclusive to carry much competitive prestige, the names on the back may be as alluring as the names on the front.

This year, neither Argentina (with Lionel Messi) nor Portugal (Cristiano Ronaldo) qualified for the quadrennial event, but between Brazil, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and Uruguay, a number of the world’s top talents will still be on display over the next three weeks.

Here’s a small selection of whom to look for – two players per team that may make your Confederations Cup viewing worthwhile.

Group A

Brazil

source: Getty ImagesNeymar (right) – The former Santos star has been the next big thing for so long, it’s hard to believe the time to put up has finally come. With his recent transfer to Spanish titans Barcelona, the 21-year-old attacker will be leaving South America for the first time, set to begin next season with Spain’s reigning champions. With enough skill on the ball to beat anybody one-on-one, Neymar has 20 goals in 33 appearances for Brazil, even if many are still waiting for that goal rate to translate into success against the world’s most prestigious nations.

Thiago Silva – One of the best defenders in the world, Silva will wear the armband for coach Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side, playing between Barcelona right back Daniel Alves and Chelsea left-central defender David Luiz. Expect those teammates, as brilliant as they can be, to give the athletic center half plenty of chances to exhibit has talents. Given what the PSG man has shown during his time in Italy and France, there’s little doubt the 28-year-old can handle the burden.

Japan

source: Getty ImagesKeisuke Honda (right) – Rumors that the dynamic CSKA Moscow attacker will leave Russia this summer make June’s tournament a showcase for the 27-year-old. Capable of playing across the width of the pitch at the level just behind a striker, Honda can be as adept creating as he is finishing chances. In 42 appearances for the Samurai Blue, the attacking midfielder has 14 goals.

Shinji Kagawa – Even though the Manchester United attacker’s already 24 years old, he’s still one of the younger players in Alberto Zaccheroni team, but with a style of play very similar to Honda’s, it hasn’t always proved easy to assimilate the former Borussia Dortmund star into the squad. Like Honda, he can play anywhere across the width of the pitch, and like Honda, he often seems as adept at score goals as setting them up.

Mexico

source: ReutersJavier Hernandez (right) – Your philosophical view about goal scoring likely defines how you feel about ‘Chicharito’, who usually is the frosting, not the cake. When his teams are generating goals, the 25-year-old is usually finishing them. But when teams need him to find goals on his own, Hernández still seems to need another dimension, one that prevents him from being considered among the world’s elite. With 32 goals in 47 appearances, Hernández’s production more than justifies his acclaim, but as Mexico’s waned, so has Chicharito.

Giovani dos Santos – Another mercurial performer, dos Santos may be the most talented player in CONCACAF, form he showed while leading El Tri to the 2011 Gold Cup. While he continues to show that talent at club level, scoring six league goals this past season in Spain for Mallorca, the former Barcelona and Tottenham Hotspur attacker has been unable to replicate that production recently for his national team. Quick, highly skilled, with a great natural instinct on the ball, dos Santos is still an elite talent. It’s just a matter of putting him in the right spots.

Italy

source: APGianluigi Buffon (right) – At 35 years old, Buffon’s amassed 128 caps, yet despite his age, the Juventus icon is still among the best goalkeepers in the world. Since the retirement of defender Fabio Cannavaro, he’s also served as the Azzurris captain, leading the team to the final of last year’s European Championships. While prone to the rare inexplicable lapse, Buffon’s reflexes remain strong, as does his ability to read the game as it approaches goal. His decisions on crosses may reflect some age, but as with all aspects of Buffon’s game, it’s a relative concern.

Andrea Pirlo – Pirlo’s move from AC Milan to Juventus two years ago seems to have revitalized his career, an effect that was on display at last summer’s European Championships, where he was the tournament’s best player (in our estimation). Sitting deep in Cesare Prandelli’s midfield, Pirlo will be provided the protection he needs to be his playmaking best, with others doing the manual labor while he sprays the ball to young attackers like Mario Balotelli and Stephan El Shaarawy.

Group B

Spain

source: APXavi Hernández (right) – One hypothesis for Barcelona’s mild slip in this year’s Champions League: Teams have increasingly focused on Lionel Messi as Xavi has proved less effective at picking apart a defense. The Confederations Cup should prove a good test. Spain is as dependent on Xavi as Barcelona, with no heir apparent for their aging midfield orchestrator. If the Barcelona playmaker’s really transitioning into his career’s final act, his national team should also struggle. Else, Spain will be as formidable as ever.

Iker Casillas – Benched midseason in a political battle with his club manager, Spain’s captain gets back to regular duty in goal on the international level. Along with that comes a chance to show José Mourinho that he’s still the same Saint Iker who has led Spain to two-straight major titles. Perhaps an inflated reputation that cast him atop the world’s goalkeeper rankings has forever been tarnished, but Casillas is still more than capable of being a reliable No. 1.

Uruguay

source: Getty ImagesLuis Suárez (right) – The temperamental forward is coming off a suspension for punching an opponent in World Cup qualifying. His team rallied to win 1-0 in Venezuela on Tuesday, but in the preceding game, Suárez reminded La Celeste how important he was, coming off the bench to score in Uruguay’s 1-0 win over France. Combined with Edinson Cavani, Uruguay rivals Argentina for the top attacking tandem in the world, provided Suárez can keep himself on the field.

Edinson Cavani – If Suárez is the volatile one, Cavani is Mr. Dependable. Tall, skilled, relentless, and versatile, the Napoli man has become one of the best target men in the world, doing the leg work that frees up Suárez to exploit opposing defenses. With his partner absent on Tuesday, it was Cavani that found the goal that gave Uruguay its crucial win in Venezuela. Coming off three straight prolific seasons in Naples, the former Palemo man is drawing attention from Manchester City and Chelsea. A strong tournament could his suitors insatiable.

Tahiti

source: Getty ImagesSteevy Chong Hue – The 23-year-old AS Dragon striker is responsible for Tahiti’s place in Brazil, scoring the goal that won the nation the 2012 OFC Nations Cup – a win that secured the team’s first international title. The only player in the squad born away from Tahiti’s main island, Chong Hue briefly spent time playing low-level Belgian soccer before returning home to play for Dragon. At 23, he has 11 international goals.

Marama Varihua – Varihua, a striker, is the only player on Eddy Etaeta’s roster who plays outside of Tahiti. He’s spent his entire career in France, twice winning the Coupe de France during a six-year spell at Nantes. Born in Tahiti but appearing at U-levels for France, Varihua has also played at Nice, Lorient and Nancy, where he’s under contract today. Capable of playing wide as well as in support of Chong Hue, the uncapped 32-year-old’s contributions could prove key to Tahiti’s chance to earn a point in Brazil.

Nigeria

John Obi Mikel – Only 26, Mikel is one of the young Nigerians’ veterans, with Stephen Keshi naming only four players who are older than the Chelsea midfielder. Normally a holder at club level, Mikel has typically provided more of a box-to-box presence for his country, who he helped lead to this year’s Cup of Nations title. In a group with Spain and Uruguay, his defense may prove more valuable if the Super Eagles are to pull a small upset and advance to the knockout round.

source: APKenneth Omeruo (right) – Another Chelsea talent, Omeruo has yet to make an impact for his club, though for the national team, the 19-year-old started as the Nigerians claimed a surprise confederation title. Only 19 years old, Omeuro just finished an 18-month loan at ADO Den Haag, where he played both on the right and in the middle. While he awaits a decision about where his immediate club future lies, the former Standard Liege prospect will spend his summer in Brazil, starting in the middle of Stephen Keshi’s defense and potentially attracting the attention of a team who can give him playing time next season.

MLS Week 4 Preview: Portland flying, RSL depleted

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We’re just starting to see things take shape in Major League Soccer. The dangerous teams are clear, the middle of the pack is forming, and the struggling teams know it’s not too late to get a things going.

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Week 4 is stretched out over this weekend and next thanks to the international break, so there are only three matches to get to on Saturday. Here’s the outlook:

New England Revolution vs. Minnesota United – 2:00 p.m. ET

There is just one point combined for these two teams through the first three match weeks. They are both bottom of their conference. A basement spot awaits the loser, and a revival awaits the winner. If there is one.

A lot is on the line with these two clubs as they meet in Foxboro. It’s early enough in the season where three points can vault a team halfway up the table, completely alleviating any fears of impending doom. However, it’s at the point where should a team lose this match, the alarm bells begin to go off for fans.

Minnesota, already struggling to begin the season, has been ravaged by the international break and will be without Rasmus Schuller, Kevin Molino, Johan Venegas, and Francisco Calvo. That said, if there’s any time to have a number of players missing, it is nice to have it come against a struggling team like New England who has yet to score a goal from open play yet through two matches. Will New England strike against the lack of opposition depth to spark their goalscoring efforts?

New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake – 4:00 p.m. ET

RSL has to get things going, and they need to do it fast. Unfortunately, they visit an Eastern Conference might as New York welcomes the cross-country travelers with six points already in hand to Salt Lake’s one. To make matters worse for the visiting side, they’re ravaged up and down the roster. Nick Rimando and Albert Rusnák are on international duty, Kyle Beckerman is suspended for his silly red card, and Joao Plata is injured along with Jordan Allen. Tack on the questionable tags for Justen Glad, Aaron Maund, and David Horst, and the outlook is bleak for RSL. Oh, and they just fired their coach too.

That leaves interim coach Daryl Shore little to work with, and they’ll take on a strong New York team that presses hard. Sacha Kljestan struggled in last week’s loss to Seattle, but this team is known for its ability to bounce back. Bradley Wright-Phillips could have a field day if he gets the service, or even if he doesn’t.

Columbus Crew vs. Portland Timbers – 7:30 p.m. ET

For me, this is the best game of the three. Portland is considered by some to own the best attack in the league, and they’ve shown it through three games, scoring 10 goals against a relatively soft opening schedule. Columbus, meanwhile, picked up three points from a two-game road trip and is back home looking to prove that last year’s struggles are a thing of the past. We still don’t know exactly what to expect from the Crew, but we sure do know what’s coming to town, and that’s the Timbers’ red-hot attack duo of Diego Valeri and Fanendo Adi.

22-year-old rookie Alex Crognale made his debut for Columbus last week and contributed heavily to the Crew’s clean sheet. He will be tested heavily should he earn himself a second start. Jonathan Mensah is back from his red card suspension and will add to the defensive abilities. Still, it will be a tough test for Columbus, one which would provide an enormous boost should earn all three points.

MLS Power Rankings — Week 3: Gap developing at the top

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We’re just three weeks in, and while there’s still obviously gobs of time for teams to right the ship, we are also seeing who’s for real at the top of the table, and while the table doesn’t always show it, we’re starting to learn more and more about each team that picks up the points.

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Atlanta continues to win, still yet to lose in MLS play three matches into its inaugural season, and Portland bounced back to prove they’re still in control. At about the 7-8 mark there looks to be a clear gap developing. Can anyone buck the trend moving forward? Your updated power rankings:


TEAM RANKING (Last Wk)

 

22 (19)

21 (22)

20 (21)

DC United: Six goals conceded, none scored in their last two. Not much else needs to be said.

Minnesota United: Their very first MLS point was an important one, holding on down a man. Still a very long way to go.

New England Revolution: More of the same for New England who admittedly had a tall task against FC Dallas but couldn’t hold on.

19 (20) Columbus Crew: Could this week be the one that starts the climb? Six shots on target out of seven total, that’s efficient. Still need a result against a better team to back it up.
18 (18) Real Salt Lake: No Glad, No Plata, down a man, still almost pulled it out. Still, the defending was poor at times a man down and Beckerman knows better. Need to start picking up points.
17 (16) Philadelphia Union: 14 shots, just two on target. That’s the type of day it was in Orlando. Just 2 points from three is worrying, but they have a shot for their first win against DC before taking on Portland and NYCFC.
16 (12) Chicago Fire: Ouch. It’s hard to take much of anything from a big loss to a smoking hot team playing 79 minutes with 10 men. Still…that one will hurt.
15 (17) Montreal Impact: They held firm against a good NYCFC attack, and actually did the coming back for once.
14 (14) Vancouver Whitecaps: In a vacuum, no shame in losing to Tigres or Toronto, but now they’ve got a bit of poor form with the Galaxy coming to town and then the CCL second leg. Will want to avoid a string of bad results.
13 (15) LA Galaxy: All road wins are good wins. That said, beating a weakened RSL by a goal after playing a man down the entire second half is not exactly convincing. They were second best until Beckerman went off and managed just 4 shots on target.
12 (13)
Sporting Kansas City: Have conceded just one goal. They have a plan, and it’s working so far. Just need to figure it out on the other end.
11 (5) Colorado Rapids: Give the Loons credit, but a draw against 10-man Minnesota is not a good look. The defending has been poor.
10 (7) San Jose Earthquakes: Bit tough to figure out this San Jose team early on, but with Godoy held in check, they were outshot 15-5 by KC.
9 (6) Houston Dynamo: Caught Portland at a bad time. This is still a good team, but maybe with some soul-searching to do after a big loss.
8 (10)
Orlando City: An extra week of rest helped Orlando and Cyle Larin did Cyle Larin things. Six possible points, six taken. Still need to prove themselves on the road after last season.
7 (9) Seattle Sounders: Just like Portland, Seattle got back to what it does best, and that involved Dempsey and Morris scoring. The attack looked dangerous
6 (4) New York City FC: Montreal hacked NYCFC to death and it worked. They’re still a good team, but will have to figure out how to win ugly too.
5 (8) Toronto FC: A very solid bounce-back win without Giovinco, who will be back after the break. The rough start appears to be more of a blip.
4 (3) New York Red Bulls: The ugly wins finally came back to haunt them. Hard to take much from a cross-country road trip, but they fell short in a tough test.
3 (11) Atlanta United: You betcha. This team’s for real. Well, they certainly appear to be with Josef Martinez on fire, but he’s just been injured. Now what?
2 (2) FC Dallas: A win over New England continued FC Dallas’s hot start. It’s mind-boggling how little attention Max Urruti gets.
1 (1) Portland Timbers: That’s more like it. The scary Portland attack bounced back by putting four goals past 2-0-0 Houston.

Atlanta United’s Josef Martinez injured on international duty

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Atlanta United is sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings three weeks into its inaugural Major League Soccer season, and the bite appears to be every bit as fearsome as the bark for the newcomers.

Now, the club must contend with its first bit of truly scary news.

In-form striker Josef Martinez was injured on international duty with Venezuela and is heading back to the United States for evaluation. The report says he tweaked his left thigh, and after the match head coach Rafael Dudamel said he would release Martinez back to Atlanta, saying, “I do not think it’s good for Josef to travel. This muscle tightness can take 10 days of recovery.”

Martinez was subbed off of Venezuela’s match with Peru in the 59th minute, replaced by Yangel Herrera and walking off under his own power. Venezuela drew the match 2-2, blowing a 2-goal halftime lead and leaving them bottom of the table, 14 points back of the intercontinental playoff spot.

Obviously that 10-day recovery is more ideal than any other long-term prognosis, but it would still see him miss a road visit to Seattle next Friday. The 23-year-old has a whopping five goals in his first three MLS games with Atlanta and has been a force. Brandon Vazquez and Bryan Rochez are the two options currently on Atlanta’s roster to replace the Venezuelan in the lineup.

Martinez was signed on loan from Serie A side Torino, but the move was made permanent last week.

Kevin de Bruyne questionable for injury-laden Belgium

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Belgium, already without superstar Eden Hazard for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Greece, will now be without playmaker Kevin De Bruyne, who picked up an injury in training on Friday and will miss both the match against Greece and the subsequent friendly against Russia three days later…maybe.

The Belgian National Team official Twitter account sent out a quote from manager Roberto Martinez that confirmed De Bruyne would miss the pair of matches, but the tweet was quickly deleted.

Instead, this one was pushed out in its place, correcting his availability and also updating the type of injury:

Should De Bruyne miss out, it means Belgium would likely rely heavily on Dries Mertens and Kevin Mirallas for the playmaking duties, with midfielder Radja Nainggolan potentially taking on a more attacking role as well.

Belgium and Martinez also confirmed that right-back Thomas Meunier will miss out after failing to recover from an ankle injury, while Marouane Fellaini‘s status is unknown after he was held out of Thursday’s training session.

The injury also leaves De Bruyne’s status for Manchester City up in the air, with a pair of massive games in London in quick succession after the injury break. City visits Arsenal next Sunday, followed by a hop over to Stanford Bridge on Wednesday.