World Cup 2014: Who’s your dark horse of the tournament?

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According to Wikipedia, a “dark horse” is “a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.” In the context of the World Cup, it’s the countries that are unlikely to really lift the trophy, but still could give the big-shots a decent scare. 

In other words, the phrase “dark horse” doesn’t apply to the likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany or Argentina. It’s not usually used to describe England, who’ve got a solid history but rarely come close to the Cup, or to talk about France, who also have history but are in a bit of a rebuilding phase.

And it’s probably a bit of a stretch to talk about, say, Honduras as a “dark horse”, as they’re highly unlikely to suddenly “emerge to prominence.”

Finally, Belgium? Colombia? Please. These teams no longer fit the distinction of “little-known,” with their names being bandied about since before they even clinched a trip to Brazil.

So with that criteria set out, let’s talk about four teams that really could cause a few upsets in the 2014 World Cup:

Switzerland
Could the world’s most neutral country really produce a team that wins such a prestigious tournament? It’s possible. First, Switzerland are drawn into the “Group of Life,” with Ecuador, Honduras, and a France side that could very well repeat its disastrous performances of 2010.  Group E’s winner goes on to face the runner-up in Group F, likely to be Bosnia or Nigeria. Right there, you’ve got the possibility of the Swiss advancing further than they have since 1954, when they went out in the quarter-finals.

Then, take a look at their side. If you’re not a fan of German or Italian football, a quick glance might not impress you. But Switzerland have some fantastically talented individuals: Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus in defense, with Napoli’s midfield trio of Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami available to break up play in front of the back line. Gladbach’s Granit Xhaka can link up play, while Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri joins in the attack. Up front could well be young Josip Drmić, third top-scorer in the Bundesliga this season – 17 from a club that scored just 37.

Chile
Ouch. Chile got drawn into Group B, together with Spain and the Netherlands: the two sides that played in the 2010 World Cup final. But there’s a vital piece of information to remember, here: Holland’s performance in Euro 2012. The team was a shambles, and while much of the defense has been given a shake-up, Louis van Gaal is still relying on some rather tired players.

Unlike Chile, whose squad has remained rather consistent. For the most part, they’re not a flashy side, but they do love a good attack. That’s led by La Roja‘s biggest name, Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona. Eduardo Vargas is one to watch as well – the attacker’s been on loan away from Napoli for the past two seasons, something that most fans of the Italian side don’t understand, as he’s an exciting talent who’s already scored 11 goals in 28 appearances for Chile. And, of course, they have Arturo Vidal, a lynch-pin in Juventus’s title-winning side, and one who can both create and destroy an attack.

Ivory Coast
Any squad with Yaya Touré included must be up for discussion. Sure, soccer’s a team sport, but the midfielder almost seems to create a team around him. It seems as though Ivory Coast has been mentioned has having an outside shot ever since Didier Drogba came into prominence, qualifying for the first time in 2006.

But they’ve never made it past the group stage – is this their year? Their back line looks rather weak, but their attack could more than make up for it. In addition to  Touré, they’ve got Gervinho, who’s been an absolute beast for Roma this season, starting 30 games, scoring nine goals, wracking up ten assists and just generally terrorizing defenses. There’s also something to be said for Drogba’s remaining magic. At 36 years old, it’s difficult to believe he can still create a splash, but you just get the feeling that he’ll inevitably score some crazy goal in Brazil.

Croatia
It’s hard to imagine that a side that could barely make it past Iceland in their UEFA playoff match could emerge as a true challenger in the World Cup. But those were Niko Kovač’s first games in charge, and there’s a feeling that under the new manager, Croatia might really flourish. He’s got a plan and he’s sticking to it, and with that clear guidance comes confidence amongst his team.

And then there’s the pint-sized pot of magic known as Luka Modrić. The Real Madrid midfielder doesn’t get much of the spotlight, but it’s clear he’s one of the anchors of los merengues. So too with his national team. Playing alongside Ivan Rakitić, the two build up Croatia’s play, and if Inter’s Mateo Kovačić is added to the midfield, things could really get fun. And up front, there’s the man everyone is hoping to sign this summer, Bayern’s Mario Mandžukić.

Toronto FC beats Crew 5-0 to extend unbeaten streak to 8

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TORONTO (AP) Victor Vazquez scored twice and Toronto FC routed the Columbus Crew 5-0 on Friday night to extend its unbeaten streak to a franchise record-matching eight games.

[ MORE: Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape ]

Toronto (8-1-5) is 7-0-1 since its lone league loss of the season, a 2-1 decision in Columbus on April 15. Columbus (6-7-1) has lost five of seven since topping Toronto.

Justin Morrow and substitutes Jonathan Osorio and Jordan Hamilton also scored for MLS-leading Toronto. The Canadian team also was unbeaten in eight games (4-0-4) from May 8 to July 10, 2010.

Toronto was reduced to 10 men in the 81st minute when midfielder Marky Delgado was red-carded for a studs-up tackle on Columbus captain Wil Trapp. Osorio and Hamilton then scored to pad the lead for Toronto in its sixth shutout of the season.

Toronto played without the starting forward tandem of Sebastian Giovinco (injured) and Jozy Altidore (suspended for yellow card accumulation). Defender Nick Hagglund also is injured.

Agent: Barcelona offered more than Real for Vinicius Junior

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If Vinicius Junior can become half the player at Real Madrid that Neymar has lived up to be at Barcelona, Los Blancos will be pretty pleased.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on Monaco’s Silva ]

Real closed the deal for the 16-year-old Brazilian this week, but there were several other lucrative offers on the table, according to the player’s agent, Frederico Pena.

[ MORE: Totti leaves future uncertain heading into final Roma match ]

That includes bitter Spanish rivals Barcelona.

The agent stated that the Blaugrana did in fact offer a higher deal to acquire the Brazilian, however, he felt it would have complicated matters further to seek a greater offer from Real.

“There is practically unanimous view of the deal as a success,” Pena said. “If anybody gets criticised it is Real Madrid, for the risk they have taken, but they are sure that it will work. There were other clubs interested, and one offered to pay more money … Barca’s remuneration package offer for the player was higher than Real Madrid.

“But as we had reached an agreement with Real, we did not want to make this last push for them to match it. That could have embittered the relationship. Many people think it is crazy what Madrid are doing, but they were not alone in this craziness. They were not the only ones willing to pay this much for Vinicius.”

Pena also clarified as to why Vinicius chose Real over Barcelona, citing the player’s excitement about the development of Los Blancos during recent seasons under manager Zinedine Zidane and prior.

“Because Vinicius liked Madrid’s project better. There is always the feeling that players choose based on financial reasons, but that is not true. I assure you of that. Real Madrid’s negotiating posture was better.”

Real is on the verge of winning its third UEFA Champions League trophy in the last four seasons as the club prepares to face Juventus in the upcoming final.

Zidane’s men also won La Liga during the 2016/17 campaign.

Pulisic pleased with U.S. Soccer’s improved landscape

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U.S. Soccer has come a long way over the years, and one of the nation’s most promising young players recognizes the progress the United States has made.

[ MORE: Man City acquire Monaco’s Silva after passing medical ]

Christian Pulisic, who plays for Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, is one of several young talents that U.S. hopes to finally bring the American men a moment of glory on the biggest of stages — the World Cup.

The 18-year-old has done just about everything a player of his age could do. He’s played in one of the top leagues in the world, appeared in various UEFA Champions League matches and now he’s likely on pace to appear in the 2018 World Cup, assuming the USMNT advances out of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The U.S., who have reached the World Cup during seven straight cycles, have come a long way in a short period of time, and Pulisic is happy with the improving U.S. Soccer landscape.

“It’s been big flaw of ours in the soccer department that a lot of our best athletes go and play other sports,” Pulisic told The Guardian. “But I think young players have seen me, and others, go over to Europe and play in some of the best leagues — and MLS is improving so much too.

“There’s so much potential and I think it’s changing: we’ve had some bigger athletes in the past but I don’t think that defines us anymore.

“We’re going to keep moving forward, developing young players and we’re going to have a really good shot in the next few years.”

During this past Bundesliga season, Pulisic recorded three goals and added six assists for a club that has become well known for its high-powered offensive attack.

Report: Kyle Walker a top target for Manchester City

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Manchester City could be looking to bolster its backline further this summer, and the Citizens could turn to Tottenham for help.

[ MORE: Man City closing in on acquiring Monaco’s Silva ]

According to ESPN FC, Pep Guardiola‘s side is growing more and more enamored with Spurs defender Kyle Walker and believes City can acquire the experienced outside back prior to the 2017/18 Premier League season.

With City already losing Pablo Zabaleta and Bacary Sagna since the end of the PL season, Guardiola will have to address the club’s lack of depth at outside back.

Several other big clubs have been considered in the running for Walker’s services, including Chelsea, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

The 26-year-old has been at White Hart Lane since joining Spurs in 2009 from Sheffield United and has made 222 appearances for the club in that span.