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2014 World Cup Team Preview: Belgium

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Getting to know…Belgium
The mention of Belgium often doesn’t start the heart thumping and the fingers trembling. Usually, you’re more likely to start thinking about chocolate. Fries. Waffles. Mussels.

Ok, now I’m hungry.

But we’re talking about the World Cup here, and yes, teams should fear Belgium. Not based on their history: the furthest they’ve made it in a World Cup was fourth, back in 1986. In 2002, they were knocked out in the Round of 16, and celebrated by failing to qualify for the next two World Cups and three European Championships.

Don’t underestimate Belgium, though. The majority of their players may not have experience in the biggest games on the brightest stages, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have the ability to scare their opponents. The midfield is packed with talent: Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, and Kevin Mirallas are just a few of the names that could start. Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. And forward Romelu Lukaku may be just 21 years old, but he’s already had plenty of experience terrorizing defenses.

Record in qualifying
Undefeated in UEFA Group G. And that group wasn’t exactly a cakewalk, either. Both Croatia, who wound up finishing second, and Serbia, who finished third, felt they had a good shot at the World Cup finals. Wales and Scotland both put up more of a fight than many had expected.

Belgium clinched qualification in their penultimate game, beating Croatia 2-1 to send them into a playoff with Iceland. The victory allowed the Belgians to cruise a bit in their final match, drawing 1-1 with Wales.

A look at Group H
Belgium shouldn’t have much of a problem getting out of their group. Their recent performances meant they were seeded, and they’ve been drawn with Russia, South Korea and Algeria. South Korea could cause a few problems for Belgium’s attack, as they’re a strong unit who plays together very well. Russia, under Fabio Capello, will be able to adapt their strategy depending on their opponents, but they’re unlikely to move past the group stages. Algeria are the weak link in the group – a solid enough side, but one that hasn’t run up against much top-class competition.

Game schedule

Thursday, June 17 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Algeria (Estádio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Sunday, June 220 at 12 noon ET: Belgium vs. Russia (Estádio do Maracaña, Rio de Janeiro)

Thursday, June 26 at 4 p.m. ET: South Korea vs. Belgium (Arena Corinthians, São Paulol)

Star player
Eden Hazard. Sure, he got into a little spat with manager José Mourinho that left to Hazard being left on the bench for some (must-win) Chelsea games, but who hasn’t fought with Mou at one time or another? Hazard, the PFA Young Player of the Year, is the most talented of an immensely talented crop of young Belgian players. He’ll zip through the midfield, trickster his way around the defenders or simply execute a perfect pass that will have your jaw dropping.

Manager
Marc Wilmots, originally an assistant manager for the national team, took charge of Belgium in May 2012. He obviously guided this talented bunch of players through what could well have been a difficult qualifying process, but his biggest challenge lies ahead: how to make the right selections for the major games he’s facing. Without Christian Benteke, who ruptured his Achilles and is unavailable for the World Cup, Lukaku is a lock up top. But who plays behind? No matter which three attackers Wilmots chooses for his 4-2-3-1, some highly gifted players will remain on the bench – like Dries Mertens, who scored 11 goals for Napoli this season. If Belgium fail to go as far as many are predicting, Wilmots could find himself on the unemployment line.

Secret weapon
Is it fair to say Romelu Lukaku? After all, it’s hard to keep a 6’3″ striker seemingly made of pure muscle a secret. Especially since he made his first appearance in the Premier League nearly four years ago. The 21-year-old scored 16 goals on loan at Everton this last season, and has scored six in 28 appearances for Belgium.

Now, the pressure’s on for the young forward. While Belgium can certainly score from midfield, he’s still going to be the one looked to to knock in the goals. If he’s able to keep cool in Brazil, he’ll take his country far.

Prediction
Fourth place, losing to France in the match the runners-up are forced to play to determine who’s really the third best in the world. Not too shabby for a team that’s missed out on qualifying for five consecutive major international tournaments.

Pochettino “very happy” to stay; Spurs “ready to compete” in transfer market

Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur FC
AP Photo/Tim Ireland
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Mauricio Pochettino isn’t going anywhere (for one more season, at least) and will remain Tottenham Hotspur manager upon verbally agreeing a two-year contract extension, the 44-year-old Argentine announced earlier this week.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

According to Pochettino, the extension, which will keep him at White Hart Lane (and the club’s new stadium, set to open at the start of the 2018-19 season), is to serve as a proclamation of intent by the north London club. No longer (for a season, at least) will Spurs be forced to sell their best players, because UEFA Champions League football is coming back to the Lane next season.

Furthermore, Pochettino believes his successes and reputation as a world-class developer of young talent will see the club compete in the upper echelons of the transfer market this summer, if he can find an area to improve — quotes from Ham & High:

“I think it is important for the players and the potential players that will come that they don’t hear rumors about whether Pochettino will be here or not.

“We are ready to compete in the market and to try to add the players that can help us in the future — not that we need much because we have a good squad already.

“Of course we are responsible to show we believe in the club, and then we show we want to keep all the big, important players. They are important to our future.”

Asked what assurances he sought from Levy before agreeing his new contract, Pochettino said: “I don’t need assurances, I didn’t ask for anything.

“In the moment that the president wanted to extend my contract he showed his ambition. The players are very happy here. I want to be involved in the future of the club.

“I had a big respect for this club when Tottenham offered me the job, when I came from Southampton, and I feel the responsibility to stay here and try to help the club in this period – a very important period. To arrive to the new stadium with a very good team but to be competitive is a very good challenge in the next few seasons.

The attraction of Champions League football, coupled with Pochettino’s magnificent development of Spurs’ young English contingent — Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker, to name a few — will have plenty of current and future stars lining up to sign for Spurs this summer. Now that the club have their main man locked up, they’ll now begin to have their choice in the transfer market.

Klinsmann names USMNT preliminary roster for 2016 Copa America

United States Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann instructs his team against Guatemala during the first half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Columbus, Ohio. The United States beat Guatemala 4-0. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
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Youth is well served as Jurgen Klinsmann has named the U.S. national team’s 40-man preliminary roster ahead of next month’s 2016 Copa America Centenario.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage ]

Youngsters Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Miazga and Jordan Morris, along with 36 others, will take part in the USMNT’s pre-tournament training camp, beginning May 16 in Miami, Fla., as Klinsmann makes his final decisions in order to trim the squad from 40 to 23 before the May 20 roster deadline.

Along with the aforementioned newcomers (relative so) is most of the regular cast of characters from Klinsmann’s nearly six years in charge — Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Fabian Johnson, Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud, among others.

[ MORE: Dortmund’s Pulisic scores in second consecutive Bundesliga game ]

The USMNT will play three warm-up games ahead of their group-stage opener (June 3, vs. Colombia in Santa Clara, Calif.): at Puerto Rico (May 22), vs. Ecuador (May 25 in Frisco, Tex.) and vs. Bolivia (May 28 in Kansas City, Kan.).

The full preliminary roster is as follows…

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Ethan Horvath (Molde) Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Ventura Alvarado (Club America), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Michael Orozco (Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)

Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Perry Kitchen (Hearts), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew SC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund),Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)

MLS Snapshot: Portland Timbers 2-1 Toronto FC (video)

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri (8), celebrates his equalizer goal in extra time against Los Angeles Galaxy, Sunday May 11, 2014, at Providence Park in Portland, Oregon.  (AP Photo/The Oregonian, Thomas Boyd)  MAGS OUT; TV OUT; LOCAL TV OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; THE MERCURY OUT; WILLAMETTE WEEK OUT; PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP OUT
AP Photo/The Oregonian, Thomas Boyd
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The game in 100 words (or less): The defending champion Portland Timbers are slowly but surely hitting their stride after a less-than-ideal start to the season saw Caleb Porter’s side start their 2015 MLS Cup title defense with just one win in their first six games. With Sunday’s 2-1 victory over Toronto FC, the Timbers are now three games unbeaten (two wins), and quickly ascending the Western Conference standings (started the day in 9th, finished the day in 7th). Just a heads up: Diego Valeri is still the best (24 goals, 38 assists in 94 MLS appearances). Also, backup goalkeeper Jake Gleeson turned in one of the best goalkeeping performances in recent memory, with no fewer than three jaw-dropping saves in the second half alone. As for TFC, their eight-game road trip to start the season is, mercifully, finished. They’ll head back to BMO Field for next Saturday’s home opener with 11 points in the bag and a claim on the no. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Adi takes the feed from Valeri, makes it 1-0 — Diego Valeri to Fanendo Adi [insert any Timbers forward here] has been a thoroughly productive formula for the Timbers since his arrival in the Rose City four years ago. Big props to Darren Mattocks with the ball to put Valeri into all that space.

40′ — Johnson keeps it low, makes it 1-1 — Sebastian Giovinco attracted the attention of four Timbers defenders, none of which were quick to pounce on the loose ball after the Italian went down under a crunching challenge. Will Johnson was quickest to the ball, and equalized against his former club.

74′ — Valeri’s stunning free kick is a worthy winner — Enjoy!

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Man of the match: Diego Valeri

Goalscorers: Adi (17′), Johnson (40′), Valeri (71′)

Ronaldo back in training ahead of Champions League decider vs. Man City

Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo watches the math at the bench during the Champions League semifinal soccer match between Manchester City and Real Madrid, at the City of Manchester stadium in Manchester, England, Tuesday, April 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
AP Photo/Jon Super
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Cristiano Ronaldo is in a race against time in order to be fit for Real Madrid’s UEFA Champions League semifinal decider against Manchester City on Wednesday.

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With just 72 hours to kickoff of the two sides’ return leg (0-0 draw at the Etihad Stadium last week), Madrid’s superstar attacker is back in training with an eye toward taking the field on Wednesday after missing the last three games with a hamstring injury. Ronaldo has been unavailable for selection since last featuring on April 2.

He has since downplayed the severity of the injury, saying of last week’s first-leg clash, “If it were a final, I’d play.”

[ MORE: Man City, Real Madrid draw | Atleti top Bayern at home ]

Also on the mend for Madrid is Karim Benzema, who was forced off at halftime (hamstring injury) in the first leg. The Frenchman missed Saturday’s La Liga triumph over Real Sociedad, and his availability seems much more in doubt than that of Ronaldo.