Andres Iniesta

Confederations Cup semifinals preview: Spain, Brazil favorites in Cinderella-free final four

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It’s get a bit strange when an American writer tries too hard to force an U.S. angle into an international story, but this year’s Confederations Cup knockout rounds sure seem to be missing that U.S.-factor. They also missing that South Africa-factor, but few people remember the Bafana Bafana were the other underdog in 2009’s final four. It was the U.S.’s shock win over Spain that gave the tournament its Cinderella story, albeit one that was squashed in the final.

This year, Brazil and Spain are back (shocking, I know), though 2009’s Rudys have replaced by two relative titans. Though think of Uruguay as a top shelf option, a résumé that includes two World Cups, a pair of fully open Olympic titles, and 15 South American championships casts La Celeste as more than plucky underdogs. And Italy? The fourth semifinalists? Less than two cycles removed from a world title, nobody’s going to buy them as a South Africa or U.S.

So in lieu of contrast, we’ll have to lean on quality, something that’s been in no short supply during this year’s tournament. Whereas we came into the Confederations Cup with continued questions about a competition that’s seen as a pre-World Cup dress rehearsal, Italy’s trio of matches (especially their 4-3 win over Japan) reminded us world-class talents always justify soccer for soccer’s sake. Spain’s opened showed their unprecedented dominance will always be worth two hours of our time, while Brazil’s surprisingly strong performances give the home crowd reason to discard pessimism and embrace hopes for 2014.

Along with Uruguay, those three create a quartet to rival 2005’s as tournament’s strongest semifinal field. That year, Germany and Argentina came out of one group, facing Mexico and Brazil from the other. The two South American teams navigated close semifinals before the Selecao blitzed their rivals in a 4-1 final.

How long ago was that? Adriano, on his way to a career as the Michelin man’s Brazilian stunt double, won both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball. That so few people remember (or care) about that may be a testament to this tournament’s historical insignificance, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect a few more amazing performances.

source: Getty ImagesBrazil vs. Uruguay, Wednesday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte

Context: Uruguay won the 2011 Copa America to qualify for this tournament, a campaign that saw them avoid the Selecao. And unless you count the Olympics (a weird U-23 hybrid tournament), it’s also the last time Brazil played a competitive match before this tournament.

With the re-hiring of Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazil seem to have moved on from that strange, ineffectual side that lacked an identity under Mano Menezes. Though you could apply the same description to Scolari’s team before this tournament, group stage hinted his team has turned the corner. Brazil’s three games, three wins, and a +7 goal difference in what was expected to be a tough group? No one should have expected such a convincing run.

Uruguay hasn’t been as convincing, but there’s reason to think they’re improved over the team that’s struggled though World Cup Qualifying. With Diego Forlán re-emerging, Óscar Tabarez could go back to using the broken formation that served them so well in South Africa, a setup that can look like a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3 (depending on how high Maxi Pereira’s played on the right).

Matchup: With that approach, expect Uruguay to willingly cede possession to Brazil, using three midfielders deep with the hopes they can hold their hosts at arm’s length while trying to hit them on the counter. It will be up to Oscar to create, Fred to find space, and Paulinho (if healthy) to surge forward, all with the hope they’ll either create a threat to complement Neymar, who has scored in every game.

For Tabarez’s team, it will be up to that midfield three — Árvaro Gonzalez, Arévalo Rios, and Christian Rodriguez — to hit those forwards. Forlán will do most of the connecting, but if needed, Edinson Cavani can win a ball anywhere across the width of the pitch. All of which, when working, should lead to chances for Luis Suárez, one of the world’s most dangerous goal scorers.

Outlook: A Brazil loss would be considered a mild upset, yet had you predicted the same result before the tournament started, you wouldn’t have gotten any crazy looks. If Uruguay can justify those picks, they’ll merely show Brazil, for all the potential they’ve shown in group stage, has a couple of important steps remaining before next year’s World Cup.

source:  Spain vs. Italy, Thursday, 3:00 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza

Context: Spain continues to be the world’s best team. If anything, this tournament’s only enhanced that stature. Their dominance of Uruguay in match one (attempting nearly 1,000 passes) reminded us of their potential. They galloped to a 10-0 win over Tahiti. While a strong performance from the Nigerians provided an unexpected test, there was never a sense Spain were going to be upset. It may not have been the toughest route, but in its hard to imagine another team cutting through Group B with the same ease as Spain.

In contrast, Italy’s run to the knockout round was more entertaining than assured, their eight goals shredding defenses at the same rate the Azzurri were conceding at their own end. After giving up only a penalty kick goal in their opener against Mexico, Italy’s allowed seven in their last two games, including four in their final 46 minutes against Brazil.

The quartet allowed to the hosts was only the second time in Gianluigi Buffon’s career the Juventus icon’s been beaten four times. The other came last year, when Spain routed Italy in Ukraine to claim La Furia Roja’s second consecutive European title. Unfortunately, while Italian fans will hope that embarrassment was a one-off, little appears to have chanced since last year’s agony.

Matchup: Under Cesare Prandelli, Italy’s often eschewed the stereotype of possession-shunning opportunists, yet against teams whose on-the-ball skills match the Azzurri’s, even Prandelli’s teams have played to type. While Italy may now be more willing to retain the ball, shunning quick, dramatic movements for sustained-if-direct attacks, they’re not afraid to sit back, allow their opponents to dictate the game, and wait for cracks to emerge.

Part of that shift against better opponents is due to the personnel at Prandelli’s disposal. Italy are an older side, and with few exceptions, their team lacks speed. Asking them to pursue younger, quicker challengers would see them to play to their weaknesses. Against the world’s best, Italy has to recognize their limitations.

Unfortunately for them, those limitations play right into Spain’s hands. Their midfield and defense lacks the speed to keep up with a Spanish game that offers unparalleled quickness and movement. Players like Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, and Sergio Busquets move the ball too quickly and too often, their experience picking apart defenses sure to create opportunities for Roberto Soldado and Pedro Rodríguez.

When Italy do win the ball, they’re ill-equipped to possess it against Spain’s maniacal pressure, their squad lacking quickness from the players between deep midfielder Andrea Pirlo and striker Mario Balotelli. Those players who do have the foot speed lack the quality to best the Spaniards.

As with most teams, Italy will left hoping their individual talents can do something to transcend the vortex Spain’s talent and style create for each opponent.

Outlook: It’s not difficult to see why Italy lost 4-0 last summer, but even by Spain’s standards, that’s an aberrational result. The Italians should hope that patient, stalwart defending will keep them close enough for a couple of moments of brilliance to matter. But make no mistake about it: It’s going to take something special for the Italians to redeem last summer’s result.

MLS Snapshot: Houston Dynamo 0-2 New York City FC (video)

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: David Villa #7 of New York City FC celebrates his first half goal with teamate Andrea Pirlo #21 againd the Toronto FC at Yankee Stadium on March 13, 2016 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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The game in 100 words (or less): With one goal already accomplished for New York City FC this season, Patrick Vieira’s group made positive strides in capturing another on Friday night in Houston. David Villa’s 20th and 21st tallies of the season gave the visitors the lead after halftime and NYCFC managed to hold onto the points from there. With just two matches remaining following the win over the Dynamo, NYCFC currently sits atop the Eastern Conference on 51 points. Meanwhile, the Dynamo remain nine points out of the final spot in the West with four matches to play.

[ MORE: NYCFC’s Vieira gets big praise from Dynamo counterpart ]

Three moments that mattered

27′ — Harrison tests Willis from distance — Chances were at a minimum in the opening stanza, but Joe Willis had to get down quickly here to deny Jack Harrison on this blast.

52′ — Villa hits his 20th on the season — The Dynamo defense won’t be pleased when they watch this one again, but in his typical fashion, David Villa found his way in on goal.

73′ — Saunders watches as Rodriguez hits post — It can be a game of inches at times and the Dynamo were certainly on the wrong end of this one as Raul Rodriguez’s effort struck the post and stayed out.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: David Villa (52′, 90′)

SKorean soccer club loses points over corruption scandal

JEONJU, SOUTH KOREA - MAY 24:  Besart Berisha action during the AFC Champions League Round Of 16 match between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Melbourne Victory at Jeonju World Cup Stadium on May 24, 2016 in Jeonju, South Korea.  (Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Getty Images)
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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) The South Korean soccer league deducted nine points from league leader Jeonbuk Hyundai on Friday after one of the club’s employees was convicted of bribing referees in 2013.

The K-League also fined Jeonbuk 100 million won ($90,600). The club, which saw its 14-point lead over second-place FC Seoul reduced to a five-point margin, issued an apology and vowed to take measures to prevent it from happening again.

A court in Busan on Wednesday sentenced a Jeonbuk scout to a suspended prison term of two years for paying referees in exchange for favorable decisions in several league matches in 2013.

An official from Jeonbuk said the scout has been suspended by the team and it will soon make a decision whether to terminate his employment. He refused to be named, citing office rules.

The K-League had vowed reforms after being rocked by a massive match-fixing scandal in 2011, when 52 players were indicted for taking bribes in return for trying to manipulate the outcome of matches or betting their own money on the games.

Mangala replaces Mathieu in France squad

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 03:  Kolbeinn Sigthorsson of Iceland and Eliaquim Mangala of France compete for the ball during the UEFA EURO 2016 quarter final match between France and Iceland at Stade de France on July 3, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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PARIS (AP) Barcelona defender Jeremy Mathieu has been removed from the France squad for upcoming World Cup qualifiers for an unspecified reason.

[ MORE: What’s Arsenal’s best XI in the Arsene Wenger era? ]

The French football federation gave no explanation for coach Didier Deschamps’s decision to replace Mathieu with Eliaquim Mangala, only saying he made the move “following a discussion” with the Barcelona player. Mangala is currently on a season-long loan at Valencia from Manchester City.

France takes on Bulgaria on Oct. 7 at the Stade de France before traveling to Amsterdam to play the Netherlands three days later in Group A.

EXCLUSIVE: Michael Bradley on Toronto FC’s long-awaited renaissance

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07:  Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC heads over to take a corner kick during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Times have changed in Toronto for the local football club. The Reds are no longer, to put it bluntly, the bad club that failed to deliver results to a passionate fan base expecting so much more.

A club that missed the playoffs in each of its first eight seasons has clinched a postseason berth for a second-straight season. And this year, for the first time ever, TFC will finish this season with more wins than losses.

You read that right. For the first time ever. Yes, it was that bad.

[ MORE: JPW talks with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

It would overstate things to say Bradley showed up and fixed things for the Reds, turning them from a bad big club to a big, bad one overnight; For one thing, TFC missed the playoffs during his first season and Bradley only netted twice in a return to MLS which was expected to be dominant (though he was, per 90, one of the best possession players in the league that season).

Yet as time as gone on, in an organization that frankly had not seen much winning at all, Bradley has not just led the way as a battler emerged from BMO Field; The 29-year-old TFC and USMNT captain now leads a winner, one he’s quick to point out comes from an organization, not any single personality.

“I’ve tried every day since I got here to spill my heart and soul into it and to try to help in every way that I can,” Bradley told ProSoccerTalk.

“For a lot of people who have been here for the last years to see the way that things have continued to move forward and progress, there’s a big sense of pride. We’re by no means where we want to be. There are big goals around here in terms of continuing to turn this into a team and a club that can compete and win on a regular basis.”

Yep, times have changed for the better. And at the center of it all, whether he admits it or not, is the steely reserve of an American in Canada.


[ MORE: Wisconsin sophomore set to face Mexico, USMNT ]


Michael Bradley is deliberate in his choice of words, and pauses several times to make sure his point is clearly made.

The train powers along once he finds the right track, however.

It’s fitting, because Greg Vanney’s defensive system with Bradley works in a similar way. Patiently wait for the right time to take the ball, then surge forward and take no prisoners. Find Sebastian Giovinco. Find Jozy Altidore. Find Jonathan Osorio, or another attacker… or just fire away.

“On our best days, we have a team that plays in a real good way,” Bradley says. “When we have our best group on the field, our football is good, the ball moves quickly, we’re a team that is able to put the game on our terms with the ball but not do it in a way that’s not just needless possession.

“We circulate the ball, but also do it with an eye toward playing forward and make sure we get it to our dangerous attacking players quickly and in good moments. Defensively we’re able to tighten things up and found a way to make it very hard on other teams to play against us.”

Heading into Saturday night’s home match with DC United, TFC has won seven of its last 12 MLS matches. That stretch has seen Toronto lose just once, and the Reds have weathered an injury to reigning MLS MVP Giovinco with a win and three draws.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 10: Michael Bradley #4 of Toronto FC during an MLS soccer game against the Houston Dynamo at BMO Field on May 10, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Bradley’s deliberate expression of feeling comes into play again when he considers the challenges of TFC’s summer, injuries not withstanding. The captain is thrilled with how the Reds have found contributions from all over the field, but would love to see their best XI for a sustained stretch of action.

Finding chemistry with a team during the MLS season, where a club can lose its best players for weeks at a time thanks to the unorthodox calendar, is a massive challenge. Bradley knows it’s not just Toronto who’s troubled by it, but he also senses how good the team could be with a season’s worth of build-up.

The excitement ratchets higher and higher in his voice as he contemplates the complementary pieces in a healthy, non-international break hampered Greg Vanney lineup. TFC went 1-2 during the Copa America, losing to the Red Bulls and Orlando City. Those points loom with Toronto in a three-way battle for the top of the East.

“We feel like we’re on a very good team, and I mention the other stuff because it’s a shame that over the course of a 34-game season there are so many other things that go into it,” Bradley said. “Which means you are not able to play your best team on as consistent a basis as you’d like.”


[ MORE: LA’s Dos Santos gets Mexico call-up ]


The conversation turns, briefly, to the United States men’s national team.

The leader of the unit, Bradley has been through the highs and lows of wearing the stars and stripes since a very young age.

KANSAS CITY, KS - MAY 28: Michael Bradley #4 of USA directs a header away from the Bolivia forwards in the first half of an international friendly match between Bolivia and the United States on May 28, 2016 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

The captain has 121 caps and 15 goals, a journey that began when he was capped at age 18. He’s seen the improbable Confederations Cup comeback run, the thrills of the 2010 World Cup, and several Dos a Ceros. He’s also seen the 2015 Gold Cup failure, the disheartening loss to Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup, and more positional banter than any player in U.S. history.

Given his lofty status within the federation, and his early start, he’s the right person to ask about the USMNT’s teenage sensation Christian Pulisic. And he’s happy to talk about the kid, though not about the big picture, and mentorship. Yeah, he talks to the kid about soccer. No, that’s not for media consumption. So stop asking.

“Christian is a really good kid,” Bradley said. “He’s smart, he’s into it, he’s talented, motivated.

“(But) Everybody needs to stop asking what kind of advice to give him. The most important thing for him is, and I said this to somebody last week, is to continue to find the most joy every day in playing, in training, in improving, in stepping on the field on Saturday and competing and trying to be as good as possible. As long as he never loses the joy of what it means to step on the field and play football, then he’s going to continue to improve and take himself to great places.”

You get the sense that, consciously or not, Michael Bradley has ushered these thoughts from personal experience.


The captain of America loves his adopted hometown north of the border.

And Bradley isn’t exactly measuring Toronto against a one-light city in the sticks. After leaving New Jersey as a teenager in 2005, Bradley has lived amongst the abbey and villages of Monchengladbach, the Dutch windmills of Friesland, and the many wonders of the Eternal City, Rome.

But there’s something in the fourth biggest North American city that works for Bradley.

“It’s a city that is so incredibly diverse,” Bradley begins. “When you get around different parts of the city, the types of people you meet and see who come from all over the world, that part is special. Since the first day that my family and I got here, this has felt like home.

“Our daughter was born here. Our son goes to kindergarten here now and comes home; He’s an American, he was born in Rome, but goes to kindergarten in Toronto and comes home every day singing, “O Canada”, because at the beginning the day that’s what they do. It’s an amazing city, and a place we’re proud to call home.”

Bradley is signed through the end of 2019, and Toronto has turned down several overseas pleas for the midfielder.

Orlando City's Kaka, center, battles with Toronto FC's Michael Bradley, right, as Amando Cooper looks on during the first half of a soccer game, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 in Toronto. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
(Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

And TFC should be good for a long time. Only two rostered players are over 30: outstanding back Drew Moor and Benoit Cheyrou. This on a team that has won the joint-most road games in MLS, allowed the second-fewest goals, and ranks third in goal differential (plus-12).

“We’ve in some ways have such a high standard for ourselves that when you get home and you have a few games at home and you’re not able to find the winner, you’re not able to make that final play to win the games and take all three points, when you’re only able to come away with a tie, that people — and we include ourselves in this — are disappointed,” Bradley said.

“The feeling inside our group on certain days, lately even when we’ve tied a few of these games at home has been disappointment and frustration, and feeling like there was more there for us. That’s a positive thing. We’ve gotten ourselves to the point where we expect to step on the field every weekend and compete to win. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing against, and where we’re playing. That’s the mentality that we have.”


[ MORE: MLS Playoff picture — Who can clinch? ]


To sum it all up, a personal angle that might underscore the impressive turnaround in Canada’s largest city.

Living in Buffalo and loving the sport the way I do, my friends and I got in on TFC season tickets in 2008, Toronto’s second season. We’d make the 90-minute or 3-hour drive, depending on the city’s unholy, construction-driven traffic, and revel in the soccer paradise created by the Red Patch Boys.

Visits by River Plate, Pachuca, and Real Madrid sustained interest in the team, but in a way we became numb to names: Amado Guevera, Torsten Frings, and Danny Koevermans were trotted out and left without a playoff run. Taking a dozen or so day trips to watch losses that made the average at-best Maple Leafs look like 1980’s Oilers became too much to justify the cost.

Oddly enough, TFC went from hot new Toronto property to one that started to feel like just another entity. When Jermain Defoe and Julio Cesar didn’t spur a playoff run, morale seemed at an all-time low. As a soccer writer now with no true allegiance, it was more with a sigh of “Wouldn’t it be cool if they were good?” when Altidore, Vanney, and Giovinco joined Bradley. When Clint Irwin, Will Johnson, and Drew Moor joined mainstays Justin Morrow and Jonathan Osorio, there was even more legitimate reason for hope.

But hope is different from getting the job done, and that’s something for which Bradley and Vanney deserve a ton of credit. There are more Toronto demons to overcome — there’s little doubt a sports teams’ playoff stench can linger over a town once the postseason hits (Again, I’m from Buffalo) — but for now it’s worth lauding a club which has found its forward-thinking despite the skeletons in their Ontarian closet.

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Michael Bradley #4 and Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC celebrate a goal by teammate Tsubasa Endoh #9 during the first half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)