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2014 World Cup team preview: Russia

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Getting to know…Russia: With manager Fabio Capello’s stamp firmly planted on the Russian squad, the country is looking for its first ever trip out of the group stage at a World Cup.  They’ve patched up things at the back, and had a strong, simplistic approach to matches, very typical of Capello’s style.  A first-place finish in their qualifying group (ahead of Portugal) signaled their intentions for Brazil, and with a roster almost entirely made up of domestic-based players, Russia hopes their attempts to build from within can help Capello prove he’s more than just a club manager.

Record in qualifying: With Russia finishing first in UEFA’s Group F, it showed they meant business.  They finished a point above Portugal, with the pair facing little competition from anyone else in the 6-team group.  By beating out Portugal at the top, Russia avoided a potential pitfall in the playoff round.  However, they’ve also set the bar for themselves high at Brazil, something that could potentially come back to haunt Capello should they fail to make it out of the group stage yet again.

A look at Group H: Things are going to be much tougher for Russia in the World Cup group stage than it was in the qualifying round. With Belgium and South Korea alongside Algeria, nothing is a given. It seems to be somewhat of a 2-horse race, but Russia’s been here before and flopped. In 2002, a 1-0 loss to Japan proved their group-stage demise, and Capello will be hoping to avoid the same against South Korea, lest the streets of Moscow again rise up in riots.  Anything below 2nd place in their group should be considered a serious disappointment.

Game schedule:

June 17, 18:00, Cuitabá: Russia vs. South Korea
June 22, 12:00, Rio de Janeiro: Belgium vs. Russia
June 26, 18:00, Curitiba: Algeria vs. Russia

Star Player: Alan Dzagoev, Igor Akinfeev

Many have jumped on the Dzagoev bandwagon before the World Cup, with Russia’s number-10 impressing plenty with his grace on the ball and flow off it.  However, it would be remiss to brush by his CSKA Moscow teammate and reigning Russian Premier League Player of the Year, goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev. With the two club teammates in charge of things at the front and back, Russia is in good hands.

At just 23 years old, Dzagoev is a rising star.  He’s tested under pressure, and led CSKA Moscow to the Russian Premier League title as the club won its final 10 games to beat out Zenit St. Petersburg by a single point.  He also finished joint-top goalscorer at Euro 2012, alongside these names: Mario Balotelli, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mario Mandzukic, Mario Gomez, and Fernando Torres. Quite the crowd.  But the beauty of Dzagoev is that as good as he is at finding the back of the net, he’s even better at creating chances for his teammates, and striker Alexander Kherzakov will benefit greatly.

With Dzagoev at the front, Akinfeev is the rock at the back. Capello’s defense-first mentality has put the 28-year-old into the spotlight, and many are claiming he’s the best Russian keeper since “The Black Spider” Lev Yashin.  The Akinfeev-led defense allowed a paltry five goals during their 10 UEFA qualification matches, and you can expect more of the same at the World Cup from the battle-tested netminder who’s been in goal for Russia since he was just 18 years old.

Manager: Fabio Capello

Known for a stifling defensive approach that still promotes attacking play, Capello saw plenty of success at the club level but is still trying to make his mark on the international game. However, he is also known for having disagreements with many important figures along the way, and isn’t afraid to back down from his position.  His defensive style earned the disdain of many during his reign at Real Madrid, but it’s become an important piece of Russia’s run to the World Cup. With his failures in South Africa at the helm of England still in the back of the minds of many, he would do himself a World of good if he can make it past the group stage with the Russians.

Secret Weapon: Attacking flow

With the team so focused on defense, it’s surprising how the team can still make its way forward with such continuity.  The country’s hard-working midfield is a key component, and getting the ball to Dzagoev will be important.  However, it’s not as difficult for them as some might think, and the Russians should score some entertaining goals in Group H play.

Prediction: With South Korea definitely posing a threat, Russia’s midfield pegs back a young Heung Son-Min and Capello gets the key victory in their first match, propelling them to a second-place finish in Group H and the country’s first foray into the knockout round.

NYCFC’s Vieira gets big praise from Houston counterpart

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 22:  Former professional football player and Western Union Pass Ambassador, Patrick Vieira, speaks with press at the Beyond Soccer Series Powered By streetfootballworld at Thomson Reuters Building on June 22, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Soccer Series)
Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Soccer Series
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How long we’ll continue to see Patrick Vieira in Major League Soccer is anyone’s guess, but it’s taken less than a year at his first managerial gig to impress a whole bunch of people.

One of those is Houston Dynamo coach Wade Barrett, who matches wits with Vieira when New York City FC hits BBVA Compass Stadium for a Friday night match.

[ MORE: JPW catches up with Vieira ]

After a glittering playing career at Arsenal and Inter Milan amongst other sides, Vieira ran Manchester City’s reserves between 2013-15. Now in the dugout leading a senior team for the first time, Vieira hasn’t skipped a beat, leading NYCFC to a playoff spot and a legit chance at a first round bye in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Barrett sees the genius in his 40-year-old opponent.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“You see teams that get stuck just doing one thing over and over again, I don’t want to say they get figured out, but sometimes they run out of options,” Barrett said. “You see a coach like him, he’s made adjustments in games, moved pieces around, and I think that’s really important in this league, is to be able to adjust.

“Patrick’s come in and he’s done very well. He’s got his group playing a very effective style.”

Barrett’s a first-year boss himself, guiding Houston to a 4W-4L-9T record since taking over for Owen Coyle in late May. That’s a significant improvement for the Dynamo, who are still destined to miss the playoffs.

“It’s very special” — Wisconsin defender set to take on USMNT, Mexico

Credit: UW Athletic Communications
UW Athletic Communications
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Macroeconomics. Soccer practice. Portuguese class. Match versus Rutgers.

All that, and then Sam Brotherton can get down to preparing for Giovani Dos Santos and Jozy Altidore.

The University of Wisconsin captain and New Zealand national teamer has one heck of a week ahead of him.

“It’s been pretty tough trying to balance at all, but I’ve had a lot of support from the university and thankfully my professors have been understanding,” the 6-foot-1 center back told ProSoccerTalk.

[ MORE: LA’s Dos Santos gets Mexico call-up ]

Following this weekend’s match between Wisconsin and Rutgers, Brotherton will hop on a plane to meet head coach Anthony Hudson and New Zealand in Nashville. The Kiwis are Stateside for an Oct. 8 match against Mexico in Nashville before heading to Washington for an Oct. 11 date with the USMNT at RFK Stadium.

Credit: UW Athletic Communications
Credit: UW Athletic Communications

This isn’t a bizarre story of a tiny national team finding a college kid with an ancestral tie and giving him a call; Brotherton is off to tangle with two of CONCACAF’s best in a match that will hopefully better prepare New Zealand for the 2017 Confederations Cup.

Brotherton will enter the trip on his 20th birthday, and on the path for caps Nos. 7 and 8. He’s the only amateur player on a team with West Ham defender Winston Reid, Leeds United striker Chris Wood, and Portland Timbers backstop Jake Gleeson.

It’s no secret that Brotherton has the skill set to be a professional player now, and his call-ups to the national team in the summer before his freshman year had pro clubs on alert. But Brotherton had signed to play for head coach John Trask at a very good school at Wisconsin, and that meant something to him.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

“It was a decision I had to make, and I felt that I had made a commitment to the school,” said Brotherton, whose father was educated at Oxford. “I’ve always been passionate about my education and wanted to get my degree so I felt I wanted to give college soccer a try, start off here at Wisconsin and see where it went.”

Brotherton is one of a bevy of young New Zealand players plying their trade in the NCAA Soccer game. Xavier’s Cory Brown was the Big East preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Saint Francis Red Flash senior defender Francis de Vries is an All-American, and Stuart Holthusen was First Team All-MAC at Akron in 2015.

The University at Buffalo has a Kiwi head coach and four players, including goalkeeper Cameron Hogg, who played with Brotherton on the U20 team.

“Sam has always been a leader in any side he stepped into,” Hogg said. “From Auckland to the national U20s, he’s always been a leading voice even if he wasn’t wearing the armband.”

Wisconsin is 4-2-1, the longtime MLS assistant Trask running the Badgers program to a solid start. Trask has started the sophomore in 24 matches, including a freshman season that saw Brotherton named to the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and had his teammates recognizing a leader.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“Sam is one of the few sophomores that I’ve named captain,” Trask told PST. “It’s rare in a team. Sam has just got it. His presence as a person and the quality of his play, every guy on the team said he should be our captain. I’ve got a ton of time for him.”

“Sam is an excellent center back and he’s incredible in the air,” said Adam Lauko, who graduated from Wisconsin in 2015. “On top of that he is mature beyond his years and a well-respected leader. He’s a great guy to be around as well.”

2015 was an insane ride for Brotherton, as the kid went from scoring at the U20 World Cup to his freshman year in Madison. Two days after that season ended, he earned his first full national team cap when he played in a 1-0 win over Oman.

“It was amazing,” Brotherton said. “It’s really quite hard to put into words. It’s very special. I was so fortunate that it happened so young in my career. It’s an honor, but it makes you want to work even harder.”

Being a center back means having the opportunity to learn from Reid, a man with 19 caps and 175 appearances for West Ham. All but 28 of those have come with the Irons in the Premier League, and Reid was chosen the Hammer of the Year in 2012-13 and the New Zealand Footballer of the Year for 2014.

[ MORE: Top 5 Premier League storylines ]

“Rugby is the main sport in New Zealand, but Winston has increased the awareness and popularity of football,” Brotherton said. “He’s a great player and a great guy. A lot of guys look up to him, and every time you get in camp with him it’s great to learn off someone like that.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 10: Chris Smalling of Manchester United looks dejected as Winston Reid of West Ham United celebrates as he scores their third goal during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Manchester United at the Boleyn Ground on May 10, 2016 in London, England. West Ham United are playing their last ever home match at the Boleyn Ground after their 112 year stay at the stadium. The Hammers will move to the Olympic Stadium for the 2016-17 season. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Fellow New Zealand defender Reid (center) celebrates scoring the match-winner in the final match at the Boleyn Ground (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

When New Zealand won the 2016 OFC Nations Cup, Brotherton started all five matches. He went 120 minutes in the final as the Kiwis won in penalty kicks, but still came back to school at Wisconsin.

“With all his international call-ups and how difficult our business school is, we’re still optimistic he’s going to be an Academic All-American in addition to a soccer All-American,” Trask said. “He knows I won’t stand in his way when the moment’s right. I still think he can learn at the collegiate level while also pushing his degree. It’s a very unique situation.”

Brotherton said he’s grateful to Trask, who he calls “a winner”, and Wisconsin for allowing him to pursue his international career. He praises Hudson’s preparation and tactical acumen, and admits that he’s open to playing professional in Europe, North America, or wherever the best opportunity lies.

[ MORE: Southampton draws in Israel ]

And if that’s home?

“I love going to the beach,” Brotherton said. “I spearfish a little bit, and I definitely miss being close to the sea.”

That’s all in the future, though. Brotherton has a busy week ahead of him, as Wisconsin looks to go 3-1 in Big Ten play with a home win over Rutgers before he goes to hopefully start in front of thousands of passionate Mexico and USMNT fans in two gigantic stadia.

“All players look forward to playing in big games in front of some good crowds,” Brotherton said. “It’s exciting and those opportunities don’t come around too often, so it brings the best out of you as a player.”

Premier League storylines: First vs second at WHL, Saints meet Foxes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Kelechi Iheanacho of Manchester City tackles Mousa Dembele of Tottenham Hotspur during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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My goodness, do these European weeks allow the Premier League to just reach out and smack you in the face or what?

The PL returns Friday with a match-up of two team on the precipice of the Top Four, and doesn’t stop until a thrilling Sunday leads us into an international break.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

Let’s dig into our Top Five storylines for the PL weekend.

First versus second at White Hart Lane

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Manchester City — 9:15 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Pep Guardiola has already presided over a Manchester City win across town at Old Trafford, and scooping three points at White Hart Lane would be yet another gorgeous feather in his new sky blue cap. Want more insight into this 1v2? Here’s JPW with a PST Extra.

Gunners look to keep firing in classic trap game

Burnley vs. Arsenal — 11:30 a.m. EDT Sunday (NBCSN)

Arsene Wenger has Theo Walcott and the Gooners humming, with three-straight clean sheets and just four goals allowed in their last eight contests. With an international break coming, Arsenal just has to do what’s expected of it and take a week to revel in its fine form.

That’s kinda the problem. In the past, Arsenal would make a trip like this much harder than it looks on paper. If the Gunners are truly on the path to something special, that doesn’t happen at Turf Moor.

Will Chelsea responds to furious Conte?

Hull City vs. Chelsea — 10 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As good as Chelsea has been at times this year, there are still lingering worries that the group that quit on Jose Mourinho is lacking the leadership necessary to make a title push (and yes, we know that group won the title one year previous).

Manager Antonio Conte was ticked off after the Blues were bounced all over the Emirates by Arsenal, and are supposed to making the most of this season without a congested European schedule. That should mean a win at Hull, right?

HULL, ENGLAND - MARCH 22: Gaston Ramirez of Hull City challenges Nemanja Matic of Chelsea during the Barclays Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KC Stadium on March 22, 2015 in Hull, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Pretender alert, pretender alert

Leicester City vs. Southampton — 9 a.m. EDT Sunday (CNBC)

Here’s a tale of four teams in one two-team game. Leicester and Southampton have been solid, if not terrific, in Europe, and look threats to advance into the knockout rounds of both the Champions and Europa League.

Leicester and Southampton have also combined for a mere 15 points though 12 Premier League games, far off the pace for fans hoping both could become European fixtures. At least one, or two, maybe four of these teams will feel better come 11 a.m. Sunday. Not three, though. Definitely not three.

Last stop for Guidolin?

Swansea City vs. Liverpool — 7:30 a.m. EDT Saturday (NBCSN)

As the rumor vultures circle above Francesco Guidolin crowing, “Bob Bradley, Bob Bradley“, the Swansea boss looks to engineer a home win over Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool that could save his job. That won’t worry Klopp too much, who is hoping to lead his Reds into the international break as high as second in the PL table.

Second coach in England loses job after newspaper sting

BARNSLEY, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  Tommy Wright assistant head coach of Barnsley during the pre-season friendly match between Barnsley and Everton at Oakwell Stadium on July 23, 2016 in Barnsley, England. (Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)"n
Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images
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BARNSLEY, England (AP) A British newspaper investigation led to a second soccer coach getting fired in England on Thursday.

Two days after Sam Allardyce lost his job as England manager following an undercover operation by the Daily Telegraph, second-tier club Barnsley fired assistant coach Tommy Wright.

Wright was filmed apparently accepting an envelope which the Telegraph said contained 5,000 pounds ($6,500) from a fake Asian firm to help place players at the northern club. Video footage was released by the newspaper late Wednesday and Wright was immediately suspended by Barnsley.

[ MORE: Man Utd-Zorya recap | Zlatan reacts ]

“After considering Mr. Wright’s response to allegations in today’s Daily Telegraph about breaching (Football Association) rules over player transfers, Mr. Wright was dismissed,” the club said after a meeting with the coach on Thursday.

Barnsley said it was “unaware of such matters or involved in any wrongdoing.”

The English Football Association decided to terminate Allardyce’s contract on Tuesday after video showed him appearing to offer advice to fictitious businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice and also negotiating a 400,000 pound ($519,000) public-speaking contract to top up an annual England salary of 3 million pounds ($4 million).

English soccer is reeling after three days of accusations by the newspaper following its months-long investigation into alleged wrongdoing in the game.

Second-tier Queens Park Rangers is investigating footage that appeared to show its coach, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, seeking a fee of 55,000 pounds ($71,600) to work for a fake Far Eastern firm that had suggested selling players to the second-tier London club.

[ MORE: JPW hangs with USMNT prospect Gooch ]

Hasselbaink denied any wrongdoing, saying he was only offered a fee to make a speech in Singapore and did not ask QPR to sign players said to have been represented by the fake firm. QPR said it had “every confidence” in Hasselbaink, and its chief executive and director of football spoke to Hasselbaink on Thursday to get his version of events.

QPR said it wanted to view an unedited version of the video footage and a full transcript.

Hasselbaink, a former Chelsea and Leeds striker, will prepare the QPR team for the league match against Fulham on Saturday.

The Daily Telegraph also filmed an agent accusing 10 managers, which it did not name, of taking bribes linked to player transfers.