World Cup team preview: Japan

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Getting to know…Japan: Owners of five consecutive World Cup berths, Japan is loaded with attacking talent but seems to come up short too many times when the bright lights are on.  They’ve never made it past the Round of 16, but have slowly progressed with each passing World Cup.

Since Japan began seriously competing on the international stage in 1988, they’ve won a record five Asian Cups and thusly made five appearances in the Confederations Cup.  Unfortunately, it seems that – again – the big stage is their nemesis.

The team most recently faltered in last year’s Confederations Cup, losing all three matches against Brazil, Italy, and Mexico – a scary harbinger of what could come of this World Cup if the team isn’t ready.  However, their group stage draw is favorable, and they remain Asia’s best hope for a good showing in Brazil.

Record in qualifying: Japan finished a disappointing second in their first group stage of Asian qualifying behind Uzbekistan, but it was enough to advance them to the final round, where they qualified automatically by topping their group ahead of Australia and Jordan. Over the course of qualifying, they picked up eight wins, three draws, and three losses.

A look at Group C: Japan has an uphill battle ahead, but advancement isn’t completely out of the question with the group they were given.  They just need to beat out Greece and Ivory Coast, both of which have clear weaknesses which could potentially lead to underperformances.

Colombia is the group favorite, but even they are prone to defensive mistakes, and Group C could be one of the more intriguing storylines to watch early in the World Cup for sure.  If the Japanese can come together as a unit and play to every player’s potential, it’s possible they could find themselves in the knockout round.

Game Schedule:

14 June, 21:00 ET, Recife: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
19 June, 18:00 ET, Natal: Japan vs. Greece
24 June, 16:00 ET, Cuiaba: Japan vs. Colombia

source: Getty Images
Keisuke Honda, paired with Shinji Kagawa up front, can help the Japanese attack carry the team.

Star player: Keisuke Honda

Sure, Shinji Kagawa plays for Manchester United, but without Keisuke Honda, Japan would be utterly doomed. A recent addition at AC Milan, the 27-year-old attacking midfielder has become the most important player for his national team.

His style is perfect for Serie A, and while he still needs time to settle in after his mid-season switch, he can now play his usual role for the national team, which is not only chance creator but chance finisher.

With 53 caps and 20 goals to his name for Japan, Honda is in his prime and ready to lead the way for the Japanese to a surprise finish.

Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni

The sixth foreign manager in Japan’s history, the Italian won Serie A with AC Milan in 1999 and is known for his propensity for a 3-4-3 formation.    However, it wouldn’t appear that we will see his trademark this summer, having left out the proper players for the system, including wing-back Tsukasa Shiotani.

After a troubling finish to his Milan tenure, plus very short stops at Juventus, Lazio, Torino, and Inter, Zaccheroni signed on for the Japanese squad in 2010, leading them to an Asian Cup win in 2011.  Japan then became the first nation to officially qualify for Brazil, back in June of 2013.

Zaccheroni is known as a tactical genius, but is often unwilling to modify his techniques to fit his players. It will be interesting to see how he lines the team up in the World Cup knowing his favorite formation is likely a no-show.

Secret Weapon: Passing and creativity

It’s not exactly a secret, but with Kagawa and Honda together in the midfield, and Yasuhito Endo there as well, the midfield is gushing with creativity. Unfortunately, that leads to a bit of a leakage at the back, with an inexperienced back line and little help from the midfielders.

But with that trio of talent leading the way, striker Yoshito Okubo and young attacker Yoichiro Kakitani should have plenty of chances on goal.  Kick TV’s preview video described Japan’s style as “cracked out tiki-taka” and their fast pace can often catch teams off guard. Just try not to cringe when things go wrong at the back.

Prediction: The key for Japan will be trying to outscore the opponent, and a lot hinges on their defense being not terrible.  If Southampton’s Maya Yoshido, Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo, and Schalke’s Atsudo Uchida can hold things together, Japan could surprise the Ivory Coast and Greece. However, it appears they may need some help as well, including a string of bad results for both of the aforementioned countries, other Japan may have too big of a challenge ahead.

Extremely early, Gold Cup glee-driven thoughts on a USMNT World Cup roster

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The United States men’s national team won its sixth Gold Cup title on Wednesday, topping Jamaica 2-1 on a late winner from Jordan Morris.

It’s the sort of goal that moves a 22-year-old forward’s name from pencil to pen on a World Cup roster, one the Yanks will hopefully be planning following qualifying under Bruce Arena.

Morris is one of several players who took hold of their chances to march into Russia via fine performances as part of the USMNT’s “B Team” in the Gold Cup, along with Darlington Nagbe, Matt Besler, and maybe Paul Arriola (This assumes you hadn’t already counted Omar Gonzalez).

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

It seems to us there are six spots in play right now. The forward batch of four is set and Ethan Horvath will probably join Tim Howard and Brad Guzan in the goalkeeper corps.

Five defenders look set and the same amount of midfielders (Besler, Brooks, Cameron, Gonzalez, Yedlin, Bedoya, Bradley, Johnson, Nagbe, Pulisic), leaving three defender and three midfielder spots. It looks set to come down to Kenny Saief or Kelyn Rowe in the midfield, and Tim Ream or Graham Zusi at the back.

So what’s the United States’ 23-man roster look like for Russia right now? Here’s our best guess (and we’re thinking as Arena, not us):

Goalkeepers (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath

Defenders (8): Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Jorge Villafana, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi.

Midfielders (8): Kellyn Acosta, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Kelyn Rowe.

Forwards (4):  Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood.

Bonus seven-man waiting list: Joe Corona, Dom Dwyer, Dax McCarty, Tim Ream, Kenny Saief, Danny Williams, Gyasi Zardes.

Morris’ 88th minute missile gives USMNT Gold Cup

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Jordan Morris missed a chance to put the U.S. ahead with three minutes to play, then belted the Americans to a title with moments to spare in regulation, giving the USMNT its sixth Gold Cup title with a 2-1 win over Jamaica at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on Wednesday.

Altidore also scored his 39th career goal and is now 16 goals behind joint-USMNT all-time leaders Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan.

Je-Vaughn Watson equalized for Jamaica within five second half minutes.

[ MORE: Three things | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s the winner:

The early stages were more about fouls than chances, as Jamaica took several chances to plow into the favored U.S.

Je-Vaughn Watson could’ve seen red for a cleating of Jordan Morris, and Jorge Villafana was felled by a vicious bit of work from Romario Williams.

The first threat on goal came from Jozy Altidore and friends, as the Toronto FC man tore into a 25-yard shot that Andre Blake saved before being injured denying Kellyn Acosta’s rebound chance.

Blake was taken from the game with an ugly-looking hand injury, and Dwayne Miller took his place between the sticks.

Though the U.S. controlled the game, there were dicey moments, to be sure, as Graham Zusi was cooked by Darren Mattocks and the U.S. conceded a corner kick it was able to send clear of danger.

Continued U.S. pressure led to a dangerous free kick, dead center, 30 yards from goal. Enter Altidore.

The lead didn’t last long, as Watson cooked Jordan Morris at the back post to lash a free kick past Tim Howard. It was poor marking from the youngster, and the final was tied at 1.

Miller made a stop on an Arriola in the 63rd minute, as the U.S. looked to rally after inserting Clint Dempsey for Kellyn Acosta.

Omar Gonzalez headed a Michael Bradley corner off the netting outside of the near post in the 71st minute, as the Yanks and Reggae Boyz edged toward extra time.

Miller then flipped a Morris rip over the bar for a U.S. corner that turned into a Jamaican counter when Gonzalez was sucked into the Reggae Boyz’ 18.

Dempsey then headed a cross that Miller pushed off the post in the 75th minute in a moment that would’ve been doubly historic.

The Seattle man then mishit a free kick that nearly gave Jordan Morris the match-winner, but the fellow Sounders attacker somehow opted against passing it on goal with his left-foot and flubbed the chance.

Given a chance with his right foot, though, it was all good. A Zardes cross was partially cleared to the penalty spot, and Morris made no doubt with a blast past Miller. 2-1, 90.

USMNT player ratings from the Gold Cup Final win

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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Recap | Altidore’s free kick | 3 things ]

How did the individual champs fare? Read on…

Starting XI

Tim Howard — 6 — He’s not going to do much better on the goal, short of Landon Donovan’s suggestion to keep a man on the back post. The Yanks’ clear No. 1.

Jorge Villafana — 5 — A rough night, but all-in-all may be Arena’s best option provided Fabian Johnson doesn’t move back to LB for ‘Gladbach season.

Omar Gonzalez — 7 — See below.

Matt Besler — 7 — Didn’t have to do too much, but etched his name as the third or fourth CB for Russia 2018.

Graham Zusi — 6 — Maybe his best game of his oft-maligned tournament, even if the game is much different with Darren Mattocks doing something better after cooking Zusi early on the flank. He’s a midfielder for me, maybe a RWB in a 3-5-2.

Michael Bradley — 7 — He was given the Golden Ball in one of those rare moments that prove voters watch players who aren’t goal scorers, and he deserved it. Bradley seems to have come out of his NT dark period, and was mostly very good in the tournament.

Kellyn Acosta (Off 55′) — 5 — Passing was off, and seemed a little too eager to jump passes and betray his position.

Paul Arriola (Off 76′) — 6 — Ran his shorts off, but still missing the right bit of service needed from a man out wide. Improved World Cup stock, but had a chance to do even more.

Darlington Nagbe (Off 90+1′) — 8 — Every time I blow off a player due to early struggles to adapt to the NT set-up, remind me how wonderful Nagbe looked in this tournament.

Jordan Morris — 7 — There’s something to be said for any player coming back from a missed opportunity and a lost mark on the Jamaica equalizer. His match winner coming moments after he bungled a chance to pass home with his left foot says a lot for the future of Standord’s industrious striker.

Jozy Altidore — 8 — He’s a CONCACAF killer, and somehow when he drops deep into the midfield we’re okay with it. Yes, Andre Blake stops his free kick. But Andre Blake wasn’t there, was he?

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Subs

Clint Dempsey (On 55′) — 7 — Clint Dempsey = super sub. It makes us super happy to say/read, and we’re hoping he’s a rich man’s Carlos Ruiz.

Gyasi Zardes (On 76′) — 5 — I championed his inclusion into the NT for a while, but how he has a place other than a status as a longtime Arena player is baffling. His cross which led to the winner didn’t look to be anything more than a Hail Mary.

Dax McCarty (On 90+1′) — N/A

Three things from the USMNT’s sixth Gold Cup

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The United States men’s national team is now one Gold Cup title behind Mexico after claiming its sixth trophy with a 2-1 win over Jamaica on Thursday in California.

[ MORE: Match recap | Altidore’s free kick ]

Here’s what we learned from a fun win over the Reggae Boyz.

A moment for U.S. Soccer history

It doesn’t matter whether the Americans were heavy favorites or underdogs (they were heavy favorites), a title-winning match is going to make memories for an entire program.

That it was Stanford product Jordan Morris who scored the match winner in the 88th minute only makes it better.

Morris is a symbol of the many paths Americans can take to the national team, and his industrious efforts and “100 mph at all-times” motor received a deserved exclamation point.

“It’s unbelievable. Every time I step on this field it’s an honor to represent this country. This game was amazing. Jamaica made it really tough and I was nervous cause it was my guy who scored on the goal so I was trying to make up for it any way I could.”

It wasn’t Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, or Jozy Altidore who etched their names in U.S. Soccer history, and that’s a good note for this side as it builds toward, hopefully, the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That picture above says a lot.

Bruce gets it right (mostly)

While being careful not to give the legendary U.S. boss too much credit for choosing 10 of his best 11 and trotting out the same lineup from a solid win over Costa Rica, Arena had five games to find a team that would win a final on home soil and he successfully pulled that off.

He was right to know he could navigate the group stage with an experimental bunch, even if those games showed that the American depth isn’t near what many of us hoped it might be at this point in the program’s development.

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

What it means for a World Cup or even the rest of CONCACAF qualifying is another thing, but the quality of Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and Tim Howard is too much for all of CONCACAF but Mexico (and Costa Rica on its best day).

Lauding Arena for plugging Dempsey into the match as his first sub is like lauding a pizzeria owner for ordering mozzarella for his pies, so let’s move to sub No. 2. It was a risk to plug ice-cold Gyasi Zardes into the match, and the LA Galaxy man did not look good for most of the match. But his cross on the winner got the job done, and you can’t take that away from the team.

The future feels bright

Michael Bradley was given the Golden Ball as the best player in the tournament, and the fact that the Yanks clearly arrived in the tournament with their captain’s return to the fold following the group stage is no coincidence.

Yet it is a pleasant and mild surprise. Bradley had not starred for the U.S. for some time, though he is clearly their best option in the middle of the park. For him to arrive and put in a calm, collected, and dominant batch of shifts is a good sign heading into some tough World Cup qualifiers.

Tim Howard proved again that there was never any need to consider anyone else as a No. 1 — even though Brad Guzan had some great moments in the group stage — while Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey both shined in spots.

Considering that Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, and Bobby Wood were (probably) just hanging out in Europe during the tournament shows that the Americans can feel good about life. That’s a marked change from life under Jurgen Klinsmann, and U.S. Soccer has been proven right time and again by that move. The jury’s still out on Arena, but that same jury has good vibes right now.