Three 2014 World Cup dark horses across three continents

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There aren’t too many labels that can cause debate more than “dark horse.” In fact, an earlier post calling Bosnia & Herzegovina a World Cup dark hose was derided by several of you in our comments section.

After all, it’s difficult to pluck a squad from a major tournament that features the best of the best and not meet resistance (save labeling Iran or Australia a favorite for Brazil 2014). Still, let’s take a look at some nations with opportunities to surprise the world.

Japan – The Japanese have challenged themselves with immense competition over the past year and while it hasn’t been all sunshine, Samurai Blue will not be frightened by any opposition. That includes a Group C with the Ivory Coast, Greece and Colombia.

Over the past year Japan has beaten Belgium and drew the Netherlands in Belgium, while defeating Ghana and Australia in Asia. Their Confederations Cup performance — aside from a 3-0 loss to hosts Brazil — proved they can score against anyone, with a 4-3 loss to Italy and a 2-1 defeat versus Mexico, games backed up by a 4-2 loss to Uruguay.

The players who get the lion’s shares of pub are Shinji Kagawa (Manchester United) and Keisuke Honda  (CKSA Moscow), but Japan national teamers have found a foothold  in the Bundesliga; Nine Samurai Blue players are active in Germany’s top flight.

Certainly they’re a dark horse at best, but Alberto Zaccheroni has a 28-11-11 record as manager of the Japan side after plenty of time in Serie A with Milan, Inter and a brief spell at Juventus.

Japan is 2-1 all-time against the Ivory Coast, though the last matchup was a 2-0 loss. They won their only matchup against Greece in the 2005 Confederations Cup and are 0-1-1 against Colombia.

Ghana –  Yes, the Black Stars face what’s widely perceived as the Group of Death, but pressure hasn’t crippled them in previous competitions. Ghana showed up to its first World Cup in 2006 and promptly finished 13th before improving to 7th in 2010.

American fans are well aware that Ghana has beaten the Yanks in successive World Cups heading into their Group G opener in Brazil, but how many know the Black Stars have a 4-0 record all-time against the U.S. with a goal differential of 10-2.

German captain Per Mertesacker has hailed Ghanian star Kevin Prince-Boateng, who will have a family rivalry with half-brother Jerome Boateng. Germany has handled Ghana in both past meetings, 7-1. Portugal and Ghana have never met.

There are questions in net for Ghana — could Richard Kingson be back? — but there’s no lack of international class in attacking, as the team has options from the Premier League to the Bundesliga and beyond.

Anyone who watched the Black Stars simply throttle Egypt 7-3 on aggregate knows they play with flair and swagger, plus surviving Group G can net a nice path to the quarters as we’ve previously detailed. Are you betting against Ghana?

Bosnia and Herzegovina – Let’s finish with the aforementioned Golden Lillies, who sit at No. 21 in the FIFA rankings four months after reaching its peak at No. 13. Until 2010, the nation had never been higher than 44 in the world and were well below that number in years prior.

First, the negative: Competing in a group with Argentina, Iran and Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina has little history with its competition and most of it isn’t good. They lost to Argentina 2-0 in a friendly on American soul on Nov. 18. Sergio Aguero scored both goals though most accounts say the Western Hemisphere powers were put to the test.

They’ve never squared off with Nigeria and haven’t faced Iran since 2009, but the Middle Eastern country boasts a nearly pristine 4-1-0 mark versus Bosnia.

On to the positive: it’s a veteran unit that features the four-most capped players in national history, including its two-highest goal scorers in Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimović. There’s good depth in the back and up top for Bosnia, who should reverse its Iranian struggles and cause loads of problems for Nigeria’s defense. They’ve got a stud goalkeeper is Asmer Begovic. That’s for certain.

If Bosnia and Herzegovina were to come out of Group F, they face a promising matchup with Group E (Switzerland, Ecuador, France, Honduras).

USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.