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2014 World Cup Team Preview: United States

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Getting to know… United States

The U.S.’s appearance in the semifinals of the first World Cup (1930) was a high point, but at the time, it wasn’t necessarily an isolated success. Counting the Olympics, a tournament that was considered a world championship at the time, the U.S. qualified for all five major competitions from 1924 to 1936. It wasn’t until the 1938 World Cup, when the U.S. withdrew from qualifying for financial reasons, that the Americans finally missed out on a big tournament.

Unfortunately, that absence became a pattern. Though the U.S. qualified when the World Cup resumed in 1950 (famously defeating England in Brazil), the team would miss the next nine tournaments. It wasn’t until Paul Caligiuri’s Shot Heard Round the World found the net at Port of Spain in 1989 that the U.S. returned to the international stage:

Starting with Italy 1990, the U.S. has taken part in six straight World Cups.

Brazil represents number seven, with the team finishing first in CONCACAF qualifying to get there. Over the past 24 years, the team has gone 4-13-5 at finals, advanced to three knockout rounds, and scored 20 times (while conceding 35).

Record in qualifying

With a 7-2-1 record in CONCACAF’s final round, the U.S. established itself as the clear leaders in its region, doubling the points of rival Mexico. Defeating El Tri 2-0 in Columbus on Sept. 10, 2013, the team booked its place in Brazil with two games to spare.

The U.S.’s final point total in “The Hex” (22) was the second-highest for any team since CONCACAF started using its six-term, round robin format in 1998. It was also two points more than the U.S. accumulated in 2010.

What group are they in? 

The Group of Death moniker has become an empty cliché, but that doesn’t make the U.S.’s task any easier. The team should be considered slight favorites to beat Ghana, but it will be underdogs against both Portugal (FIFA’s third-ranked team) and Germany (ranked number two). If there is an early pecking order in Group G, the U.S. is number three.

Game schedule:

16 June, 18:00, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

22 June, 17:00, Manaus – United States vs. Portugal

26 June, 12:00, Recife – United States vs. Germany

Star player: Michael Bradley

Five years ago, as a still emerging midfielder playing under his father, fans used to see the current Toronto FC star as the beneficiary of nepotism. Seriously. As ridiculous as that sounds now – as ridiculous as that sounded at the time, to those around the team – fans wondered if the then-Borussia Möchengladbach player was an attacking talent being wedged into a defensive role. And the only possible explanation for that? Father Bob was intent on putting his son in the team.

One year later, Bradley was the U.S.’s best player at the 2010 World Cup. Now the central midfielder, who has settled into a box-to-box presence for both club and country, is unquestionably the team’s most important player. With a midfield built around Bradley’s high tempo, all-around talents, the U.S. will lean on the one-time object of derision in Brazil. On the few occasions the U.S. has had to play without him, the team looks like hollow.

Manager: Jurgen Klinsmann

A world champion as a player, Klinsmann became a hot commodity as a coach when he reshaped Germany ahead of the Nationalmannschaft’s 2006 semifinal appearance. The benefits of the youth movement he accelerated are still being felt in one of 2014’s favorites.

A brief spell at Bayern Munich dimmed that star, yet after the U.S. was beaten decisively by Mexico at the 2011 Gold Cup, federation president Sunil Gulati brought in Klinsmann to rebuild the national team. Dramatically expanding the player pool and changing the team’s style amid his long-term project, the 49-year-old Californian takes his rebuilding team into Brazil as reigning Gold Cup champions and decisive winners of CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament.

Secret weapon: Fabian Johnson

If fitness, speed, strength are going to be decisive in Brazil, then the U.S.’s versatile Gladbach wideman could be one of its most valuable weapons. Able to play midfield or defense, on the left or right, Johnson’s speed leaves him capable of patrolling goal-line to goal-line, something that will liberate the likes of Graham Zusi to pinch in and augment the U.S.’s two-man midfield. Expected to start at right back, his strength and fitness will be tested against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Marco Reus, giving the U.S. a high-level European talent to matchup with their opponent’s high-level European stars.

Prediction: Third place is the fair pick, but the U.S. could finish anywhere from second to fourth in Group G. The key will be an opening match win over Ghana – a team that’s beaten the U.S. at the last two World Cups. With three points against the Black Stars, the U.S. creates a near win-and-in opportunity against Portugal.

VIDEO: Jeison Murillo’s incredible bicycle from a corner kick

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 17:  (R-L) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goal with Geoffrey Kondogbia during the TIM Cup match between FC Internazionale and Bologna FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 17, 2017 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Look away now, Andy Carroll. Take a bow, Jeison Murillo.

[ VIDEOS: All in a week’s work — Messi free kick no. 1 | Messi free kick no. 2 ]

Just three days after Carroll scored the bicycle-kick goal of the year (so we thought), here comes Murillo, Inter Milan’s 24-year-old Colombian striker, to steal his thunder (below video). The fact he did it directly from a corner kick, with the ball traveling nearly 50 yards before flinging his body into the air and striking the ball so cleanly, (somehow) trumps Carroll’s accomplishment from Saturday.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

Sensational goals come in twos now, apparently, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud scored stunning scorpion-kick goals (WATCH HERE and HERE) just days apart earlier in the season.

FA Cup roundup: Burnley, Crystal Palace advance to 4th round

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17: Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace (L) during the Emirates FA Cup third round replay between Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers at Selhurst Park on January 17, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in FA Cup third-round replays…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Burnley 2-0 Sunderland

Sam Vokes and Andre Gray grabbed goals for Burnley, who opted for a largely first-choice lineup in Tuesday’s replay. Sunderland, meanwhile, went with a mix-and-match bunch and slumped to six games without a win (all competitions), meaning they can focus solely on Premier League survival from here on out. Burnley will host Championship side Bristol City in the fourth round next Saturday, Jan. 28.

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

Crystal Palace 2-1 Bolton Wanderers

Sam Allardyce picked up his first win as Palace boss, courtesy of a Christian Benteke brace scored nine minutes apart in the second half, as the Eagles came from behind to beat League One side Bolton at Selhurst Park. James Henry put the visitors three minutes into the second half, but Benteke hit back in the 68th and 77th minutes to improve Allardyce’s record to one win, two draws and three losses (all competitions). Palace will host Manchester City in the fourth round next Saturday.

Tuesday’s FA Cup scoreboard

AFC Wimbledon 1-3 Sutton United
Barnsley 1-2 (AET) Blackpool
Fleetwood Town 0-1 Bristol City
Lincoln City 1-0 Ipswich Town

AFCON: Ayew propels Ghana to victory; Egypt struggle vs. Mali

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 21:  Andre Ayew of Ghana celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Ghana at Castelao on June 21, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ghana 1-0 Uganda

PORT-GENTIL, Gabon (AP) Andre Ayew scored a penalty as Ghana beat Uganda 1-0 on Tuesday in a lackluster opening to the four-time champions’ bid for a first African Cup of Nations title in 35 years.

Ghana took control of Group D after seven-time champion Egypt struggled in a 0-0 draw with Mali in the other group match.

Ghana has three points, Egypt and Mali one each and Uganda zero.

Ayew, a West Ham winger, netted in the 32nd minute after Asamoah Gyan was held back by Isaac Isinde in the penalty area in Port-Gentil.

Avram Grant, a former Chelsea manager, is looking to lead Ghana to a second successive final but go better than 2015 when his team lost to Ivory Coast.

Uganda has also finished runner-up in the continental championship but the trip to the final in 1978 was the last time it qualified until making the Gabon event.

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

Mali 0-0 Egypt

Later, 44-year-old Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary became the oldest player in tournament history when he came on for injured Ahmed El Shenawy midway through the first half.

El Hadary, who celebrated his birthday two days ago, is participating in his seventh African Cup, having picked up winners’ medals in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Egypt’s standout forward Mohamed Salah struggled and was replaced midway through the second half.

Mali, looking to improve on its third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, produced many more chances.

Egypt failed to qualify for the last three editions of the tournament.

Wednesday’s AFCON schedule

Gabon vs. Burkina-Faso — 11 a.m. ET
Cameroon vs. Guinea-Bissau — 2 p.m. ET

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur receives treatment from the medical team during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.