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).

MLS: Rookie Ebobisse stars as Timbers win in Vancouver

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The game in 100 words (or less): The Portland Timbers, thanks to a standout performance in rookie striker Jeremy Ebobisse’s first MLS start, put to bed a six-game winless skid with a 2-1 win away to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday. The run of poor form stretched back to early June, and saw Caleb Porter’s side slip from contention for the Western Conference’s top spot, into the jumbled mess surrounding the playoff cut line (four teams separated by one point, either side of sixth place, coming into Sunday). Ebobisse scored the opening goal less than a quarter-hour into the game, and delivered the beautiful backheel assist to Sebastian Blanco to restore the Timbers’ lead four minutes into the second half, after watching it disappear just before halftime. The victory sees Portland leapfrog Vancouver to move into fourth place in the West, just four points off the top spot once again.

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

Three moments that mattered

14′ — Ebobisse touches home his first MLS goal — Sometimes you don’t really have to do much beyond simply existing in the right place. Ebobisse existed in the right place.

45′ — Jacobson heads home before halftime — Update: Portland still have issues defending set pieces.

49′ — Blanco slots past Ousted for 2-1 — No one really stepped up to deny Blanco’s marathon dribble, and Ebobisse did so much more than simply existing on this one.

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

Man of the match: Jeremy Ebobisse

Goalscorers: Ebobisse (14′), Jacobson (45′), Blanco (49′)

FOLLOW LIVE: Mexico vs. Jamaica — who’ll face USMNT in final?

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It’s Mexico versus Jamaica in the second semifinal of the 2017 Gold Cup on Sunday, facing off for the right to play the U.S. national team in Wednesday’s final.

When: 9 p.m. ET
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California

[ LIVE: Gold Cup scoreboard ]

It’s the second time these sides have met this summer, having already played to a scoreless draw in the second game of Group C play, en route to Mexico finish top of the group, besting Jamaica by two points on the final day of the group stage.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s Gold Cup coverage ]

Hit the link above, or click here, to follow along with Sunday’s semifinal action.

Gonzalez follows heart in switch from Mexico to USMNT

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Jesse Gonzalez started in the 2015 Under-20 World Cup for Mexico, his parents’ homeland. Then last month, the 22-year-old FC Dallas goalkeeper switched his affiliation to join the United States, his home country.

Gonzalez just felt more comfortable in the red, white and blue.

“The U.S. has given me a lot. I’m grateful for what they have given me and the opportunity they have given me,” he said after joining the U.S. roster for the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

[ RECAP: Super-sub Dempsey propels USMNT past Costa Rica ]

Tim Howard, now 38, remains the top U.S. goalkeeper as the Americans try to qualify for next year’s World Cup. Brad Guzan, who will be 33 in September, is entrenched as the No. 2.

After that, no keepers have emerged at the top level in the next generation. Gonzalez, and fellow 20-somethings Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid, Cody Cropper and Ethan Horvath all figure to compete with Guzan for the starting job in the 2019-22 World Cup cycle.

“I don’t have any doubt that he will be one of the best keepers in America,” Dallas coach Oscar Pareja said of Gonzalez after discovering the teen prospect when he was playing in a youth tournament.

Gonzalez’s parents emigrated from Mexico, and he was born in Edenton, North Carolina.

“My parents didn’t really find anything around North Carolina,” Gonzalez said. “They thought it was a lonely state, so they got out of there.”

His family moved to Houston and then on to Dallas when Gonzalez was a child. After spotting Gonzalez on a recreational team, Pareja persuaded the family to switch the keeper to the FC Dallas youth academy. He played there alongside midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who has broken into the U.S. starting lineup this year.

“They taught me how to be more responsible,” Gonzalez said. “It was almost like a job at the time, just waking up early and being on time to training.”

[ USA 2-0 CRC: Player ratings | Three things we learned ]

Pareja, a Colombian national team midfielder in the early 1990s, said the 6-foot-4 Gonzalez’s long arms and quick reflexes immediately reminded him of late Colombian keeper Miguel Calero. Gonzalez debuted for Dallas’ under-16 team in September 2010 and was signed to a professional homegrown player contract in March 2013. Just more than two years later, he became the youngest keeper to start in team history: at 20 years, 89 days.

By then, Mexican team scouts had noticed Gonzalez at a showcase in Sarasota, Florida, and asked whether he had interest in playing for El Tri.

“Richard Sanchez, one of my old teammates, he was there. He talked very well about them,” Gonzalez recalled.

Gonzalez started Mexico’s first four matches at the 2015 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, then had a pair of saves during penalty kicks to lift Mexico over Panama in the final. At the Under-20 World Cup in New Zealand, he played in Mexico’s second and third games,

The following January, Gonzalez turned down an invitation from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann to attend a national team training camp in Carson, California. Instead, Gonzalez went to a Mexican Under-23 team camp ahead of the Olympics, but he was not picked for El Tri’s Rio de Janeiro roster.

Gonzalez spent a long time before deciding this spring to apply to FIFA for a change of affiliation. Because he had not played a competitive match for Mexico’s senior national team, he was allowed a one-time switch.

“Whatever you decide, you’re going to be right, because that’s going to be your heart,” Pareja recalled telling him.

“Any time a soccer player is making a choice, whether it’s club or country, it’s important that they analyze the options carefully, they seek input from people they trust, and that they come to a decision that they’re happy with,” said Gonzalez’s agent, Richard Motzkin. “That’s the process Jesse took in making his decision and, rest assured, it wasn’t done lightly or without a lot of forethought. Ultimately, Jesse was fortunate in that he had two very good choices.”

After the switch was announced, Gonzalez received text messages from surprised friends.

“They were funny,” he said without going into detail.

[ MORE: Mexico blocking out drama during deep run at Gold Cup ]

Howard is the U.S. starter as the Americans head into Wednesday’s Gold Cup championship against Mexico or Jamaica, and Hamid is the backup while Guzan settles in with Atlanta. For now, Gonzalez’s role is limited to training and pushing others on the practice field.

“We just want to see what he’s about,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.

Gonzalez is with the national team to learn. A full international debut might take a while.

“He’s not much of talker, which is good. I think young guys talk too much nowadays,” Howard said. “You’re naive in a good way and you think you know it all, and really it’s the opposite. You have it all to learn. At this age they’re using their athletic ability and their raw talent to keep their head above water, and through that process you learn. It is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation. It’s got to be everything to you. You’ve got to make a lot of sacrifices to get there.”

Gonzalez is willing to wait. He just hopes his absence from Dallas doesn’t cost him playing time in Major League Soccer.

“My backup could come in and have great games. He could stay there,” he said. “It’s difficult for me. I want to be over there, but I want to be here because this is an amazing opportunity for me.”

Pique with the scoop? Neymar “staying” at Barcelona

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While the entire world waits for official word — any word, really — on the possible world record-shattering transfer of Neymar from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, Gerard Pique just became the world’s most appreciated breaker of transfer news.

[ MORE: Sunday’s transfer rumor roundup | Saturday | Friday ]

Pique, Neymar’s teammate for four seasons at Barca, tweeted (and posted to Instagram) a photo of himself and Neymar, captioned, “Se queda,” or, “He stays.”

[ MOURINHO: United not signing Bale | De Gea not going anywhere ]

Whether he stays or goes this summer, Neymar is about to get paid, and deservedly so. An unquestionable top-five (or -three?) player in the world, he doesn’t turn 26 for another seven months. There has to be someone awaiting the passing of the torch from Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez, both four years Neymar’s senior, some day soon(-ish), so it should come as no surprise that Barca appear to have moved heaven and earth to retain their Brazilian superstar.