The Youth Movement: 10 youngsters who could make an impact in Brazil

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When Julian Green made the United States final 23-man roster, presumably over US legend Landon Donovan, headlines were made and decisions were second-guessed.

But Green isn’t even close to the only youngster – or even the only teenager – who will be making the trip to this summer’s World Cup.

You probably know the big name youngsters – Germany’s Julian Draxler (20 years old), Belgium’s Adnan Januzaj (19), and France’s Paul Pogba (21),  just to name a few.  Those players have been around for a while and have made a name for themselves already, including possibly breaking into their country’s starting lineup.

Here, we will focus more on the young players who aren’t such household names, and could be players who not only get a chance to break onto the big stage, but could be fixtures for years to come in their country’s squad.

Let’s get a brief overview of some players who not only represent the future for their country, but could even have an impact this year.

1) Josip Drmic and Granit Xhaka – Switzerland, 21 years old

With Switzerland coming into Brazil with forward bunch bursting with youth, this Bundesliga pair could very well make a major impact.

source: AP
Switzerland’s young striker Josip Drmic has come on strong recently and is looking to help prove they’re worthy of Pot 1.

Drmic didn’t do much during Switzerland’s qualification, but has bagged three goals in their last two friendlies, and with Switzerland’s inexperienced forward group, the young striker could find himself with ample opportunities during Group E play and beyond.

Xhaka is actually the Swiss’s most-capped forward according to FIFA.com, with 22 appearances for his country, although he is actuality is more of an attacking midfielder, even finding himself located quite centrally under manager Ottmar Hitzfeld.

Dating back to the last match of European qualification against Slovenia, the pair have scored four of Switzerland’s last five goals, and will be a driving force going forward if the Swiss are going to live up to their Pot 1 designation.

Along with Xherdan Shaqiri, Fabian Schar, and Ricardo Rodriguez, Hitzfeld selected five players 22 years old or younger, so no matter what happens this year for Switzerland, the country is set up for the future.

2) Kenneth Omeruo – Nigeria, 20 years old

A young, Chelsea-owned center-back, Omeruo impressed on loan at ADO Den Haag two years ago before staying in the country and spending time at Middlesbrough this past season.  With the Championship side in the hunt for a promotion playoff spot, Omeruo logged valuable minutes in the center of the Boro’s defense next to England youngster Ben Gibson, leading the way to a number of quality results, including a 1-0 win over nearly-promoted Derby County and a 2-0 victory over playoff participants Brighton.

Omeruo has already made a spot for himself in the Nigerian squad, leading the way for his country’s African Cup of Nations victory in which the Super Eagles conceded just four goals in their six tournament matches, including a shutout of Burkina Faso in the finals.

With his sights set on impressing Jose Mourinho, this World Cup could be a springboard for bigger things from Omeruo.  He has a tall task in front of him at Stamford Bridge, considering the current center-back pair is one of the best in Europe, and fellow loanee Kurt Zouma is also looking to do the same, but Omeruo has something Zouma does not: a chance to play on the world’s biggest stage.

3) Stephan de Vrij – Netherlands, 22 years old

One of the fastest-rising stocks in the European game, the Dutch defender was mentored at Feyenoord by the vastly experienced Joris Mathijsen.  At 19 years old, de Vrij’s name was on the tip of every scout’s mouth.  He took a serious regression two years ago as Mathijsen declined due to old age and Feyenoord’s defense temporarily slumped, but the youngster is back to his old level and ready for a move to a top-tier team.

However, he has a chance to showcase his skills at the World Cup, and Feyenoord has recognized the opportunity he has to boost his stock farther by reportedly putting all transfer talks for the 22-year-old on hold until after the event.

Surrounded by Mathijsen at Feyenoord plus Ron Vlaar and Bruno Martins Indi on the international level, de Vrij has had a wealth of experience to draw from and develop.  He’s started the Netherland’s last three matches at CB, and it would appear that the struggles he faced towards the end of World Cup qualifying have passed and he is back into Louis van Gaal’s graces for good.

4) Sead Kolasinac – Bosnia & Herzegovina, 20 years old

Schalke’s third-place finish this Bundesliga season was thanks in part to the young left-back’s breakout year.  After making a name for himself down the stretch two seasons ago as a 19-year-old, he again found himself on the bench to start the year thanks to an injury.

source: Getty Images
“The Destroyer” Sead Kolasinac doesn’t back down from a challenge and can keep up with the best of wingers.

But once recovered, the kid returned to the starting lineup and logged a run of 17 matches where he missed just six total minutes (during that span, Schalke lost just three matches – and it would have been just 1 had they not dropped the final pair of the long run).

Now in the national team fold, Kolasinac has featured in multiple matches for Bosnia since his return from injury in October, and that’s unlikely to change this summer.

Luke Shaw has received constant headlines in England with his explosion onto the international stage and likely transfer to Manchester United.  But Kolasinac has been rumored to also have been recently pursued by the Red Devils, and with reports of Shaw’s potential deal coming to a screeching halt, you could hear this kid’s name crop up more in the coming weeks, especially if he performs at the World Cup. He’s not as skilled as Shaw going forward, but is solid at the back and an accurate defender, earning the nickname “Zerstörer” or “The Destroyer.”

One storyline to keep an eye on: Kolasinac was born in Germany and only turned down the German national team only last year despite time for the German U-20 team.  There’s a serious possibility that Bosnia & Herzegovina could match up with Germany in the quarterfinals if things play out, and there could be some harsh sentiments towards Kolasinac from his country of birth.

5) Marco Verratti – Italy, 21 years old

Riccardo Montolivo’s World Cup dreams shattered just about the same time his left leg did just eight minutes into their recent 0-0 draw with the Republic of Ireland.  A massive blow for Italy losing one of its most experienced players and emotional leaders, Cesare Prandelli must now reach deeper into the player pool to replace him.

In Prandelli’s squad over the likes of Giuseppe Rossi and Mattia Destro, Verratti looks primed to take Montolivo’s place in the midfield, and the Paris Saint-Germain youngster fully deserves it.  A masterful passer, his 91% pass accuracy in Ligue 1 play ranks second in the entire league of players who have at least 25 appearances, second only to his PSG and Italy teammate and central midfield partner Thiago Motta.

With Italy’s downfall often a disconnect between their defense and creative options, it would behoove Prandelli to take Verratti as someone who can take some of the creative weight off Andrea Pirlo’s shoulders and work on spreading around the ball.

6) Santiago Arias – Colombia, 22 years old

Manager Jose Pekerman has constantly been reminded how his back four are Colombia’s weak point.  Enter the 22-year-old PSV right-back, and things have eased up a bit for the man in charge.

Arias provides not just defensive solidity on the wing – his 60% tackle success rate at PSV this year is stellar considering the tough angles and isolation defenders face near the touchline – but also a burst of speed that enables Arias to take on defenders himself and create chances for his teammates. Arias’s 21 chances created ranks 16th among Eredivisie defenders, but he collected his in less minutes than all but one of those in the top 20.

With Pekerman clearly still tinkering with his defense throughout the recent friendlies, it’s hard to tell if Arias – or anyone, for that matter – will be a consistent starter in Brazil at the back for Colombia. One thing is for sure, if Arias can make the most of his minutes, he can use the World Cup as a springboard for later success at both club and country.

7) Diego Reyes – Mexico, 21 years old

It’s been a crazy year for Reyes, and one he won’t soon forget.  Having signed for European giants FC Porto last summer, he’s now going to his first World Cup under Miguel Herrera, and is hoping not just to go but to play.

source: Getty Images
Mexico’s Olympic star Diego Reyes, having battled with the likes of Didier Drogba in the past, is ready for serious minutes at the back.

Reyes is the cream of Mexico’s talented youth system, as he was the only member of the Olympic gold medal-winning team to start the country’s opening fourth-round CONCACAF qualification match against Jamaica.

Already standing 6-foot-4, Reyes is a beast in the air, but doesn’t lose any agility on his feet as tall defenders often do, using his large strides as part of his technical strength rather than a detriment to his game.

While the Mexican team isn’t light on defenders this summer, an injury of unknown severity to captain Rafa Marquez could give Reyes a chance to play serious time in Brazil.

8) Stefanos Kapino  – Greece, 20 years old

Panathinaikos goalkeeper Kapino isn’t the number one choice at the moment for Fernando Santos’s squad, but it’s not exactly a position of security for current favorite Orestis Karnezis, so it’s possible Kapino could make a late push for the spot. Karnezis was the man through Greece’s impressive qualification run, but he’s not even Granada’s first-choice keeper, making just six La Liga appearances last year.

If Karnezis – he of just 18 international caps – were to for whatever reason lose his place, it’s possible Kapino could beat out PAOK starter Panagiotis Glykos for the opening and make a play during his time at Brazil. But either way, Kapino appears to be a man for the future in Greece, and starting for a big club at just 20 years old could open the eyes of bigger fish, paving the way for a club upgrade as well.

9) Alireza Jahanbakhsh – Iran, 20 years old

Just a substitute off the bench for Eredivisie side N.E.C. this season, Jahanbakhsh hasn’t reached a breakout for his club just yet.  However, the World Cup would do nicely, and the big stage could do nicely as well.

Having earned Iran’s Young Footballer of the Year in 2012, Jahanbakhsh has developed a wonderful wing partnership with Fulham’s Ashkan Dejagah, and the two electrified the Asian qualifying tournament, scoring plenty of goals including Jahanbakhsh’s first-ever for the national team against Thailand.

Iran may not last long in Brazil, but they have some talents that could make noise on the European stage in the coming years, and Jahanbakhsh is at the head of that pack.

10) Pavel Mogilevets – Russia, 21 years old

Having just earned his first cap five days ago against Slovakia, the baby-faced midfielder from Zenit St. Petersburg is hoping to make an impression in Brazil this summer. He hasn’t made the squad yet, but is about as close as you can get.

Fabio Cappello has made some head-scratching decisions with his World Cup squad (such as dropping striker Pavel Pogrebnyak in favor of the injured Denis Cheryshev) but including Mogilevets could be a view into the future.  With the Italian’s squad down to 25 players, he has gone on record saying he already knows which players will be left out, but isn’t going to tell them until the June 2nd deadline.

The two eventually cut very well could be the pair of youngsters on the roster, Mogilevets and Andrey Semenov, but if he makes it to Brazil, he will have gone for a reason, and the kid who scored twice on loan to Rubin Kazan this past season could get a chance to see the pitch.

11) Julian Green – USA, 19 years old

It would be impossible to write a piece on youth at Brazil without mentioning the German-American teenager who was at the receiving end of Landon Donovan’s international demise.

Green has obvious talent, or he wouldn’t be in the Bayern Munich youth ranks.  However, he’s a pretty major unknown for the United States fan base, and to most of the soccer world as well.  He has barely been sighted in the senior squad at Bayern, mostly impressing at the U-21 level.

But Jurgen Klinsmann obviously loves what he sees, and Green is likely going to be a household name in America if he comes anywhere close to living up to the now-lofty expectations that come with taking a legend’s place.

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.