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.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.