ProSoccerTalk’s World Cup Roundtable

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The World Cup is TWO days away and counting!

*Jump around, jump around, jump around*

ProSoccerTalk’s writers did a roundtable-style Q & A where we grabbed a few big narratives coming to us from Brazil and gave our takes.

From South American powerhouses to the USMNT’s position, from specific to open-ended, here’s what we think are some major talking points just before kickoff.

1. What are you most looking forward to this World Cup?

Joe Prince-Wright: I am looking forward to a very open World Cup where at least 6-8 teams enter the tournament with realistic ambitions of winning it all. This is, by far, the most competitive World Cup I have witnessed in my lifetime. Usually there are some teams you know are going to get hammered in every single game, that’s not the case this time around. Also, the fact it is being played in Brazil, the five-time World Champions and the spiritual home of the game, makes it a little bit more special.
Mike Prindiville: Going to Manaus to see the US take on Portugal in the Amazon. The moment that fixture was announced there was just something mystical about it — playing against Cristiano Ronaldo and 4th ranked team in the world, who the US memorably upset in the 2002 World Cup, in the middle of the jungle?! Too weird and too awesome to miss.
Nicholas Mendola: Seeing how the European teams fare in the Western hemisphere, and how the CONCACAF teams perform at an absolutely crucial time for the confederation.
Kyle Bonn:
With so many players injured, the star power of this World Cup has taken a hit for sure. However, with a number of big name players on the sidelines, there is more time to focus on the hidden gems of the world, and those will be on full display in Brazil.  Much of this tournament will be about building new stars, and that’s just as fun.

2. Do you think the USA has a chance to make it out of their group? Is so, what will be the key?

Joe Prince-Wright: The first game is so important. If the U.S. beats Ghana in the opener you get the feeling that Klinsmann’s side will grow in confidence and give Portugal a run for their money, especially given Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury problems. If the USA can bag four points from their opening two games, it may mean Germany will ease up in the final group game and would much rather see the U.S. advance to the last 16 rather than Portugal. The key factor is that the USA beat their bogey team: Ghana.
Mike Prindiville: Of course. Taking three points off either Ghana or Portugal before going into the final match against Germany will be key and for that to happen our attack must capitalize on their opportunities.
Nicholas Mendola: Yes. Beating Ghana and Portugal feeling pressure from a Game One loss to Germany.
Kyle Bonn: Do they have a chance? Sure, especially with news of Cristiano Ronaldo’s injury potentially affecting that assuredly fateful match in Manaus. The key to the United States moving on is their manager Jurgen Klinsmann.  With so many surprises on the roster, he better see something much of the country does not, or else the US is doomed. Team chemistry will be essential. Beating Ghana is a MUST.

source: Getty Images
Will Jurgen Klinsmann still be all smiles if the USMNT flops in the Group of Death?

3. Will Jurgen Klinsmann be under pressure if the U.S. don’t perform in Brazil?

Joe Prince-Wright: Not so much under pressure, but questions will be raised about how much the U.S. have really improved under his stewardship since 2011. Bob Bradley took the USA to the last 16 in the 2010 World Cup and was a whisker away from getting into the last eight. We all know Klinsmann’s men have been drawn into the “Group of Death” this time around, however, there must be a good showing from his players and some of the younger guys really need to step up as Klinsmann seems to be preparing for the 2018 tournament. If the USA lose all three group games, many will say that is what was expected… But it is the manner in which the USA plays that will determine how people assess Klinsmann’s managerial prowess. Pressure will arrive but, so far, Klinsmann has negotiated every hurdle thrown in his way.
Mike Prindiville: Depends on what is meant by ‘don’t perform.’ Assuming the absolute worst and the US lose all three games conceding over 12 goals in the process, possibly. Assuming a slightly less painful scenario and the US lose all three matches by a tight margin, I don’t think so. Klinsmann has raised the profile of the USMNT, brought in a number of game-changing players and plus, the decision-makers at US Soccer are positively enamored with him.
Nicholas Mendola: Define perform. The US really need to beat Ghana but if they draw Ghana and look adequate and competitive against the other two teams, he’s fine.
Kyle Bonn: Absolutely. Klinsmann’s bold, potentially reckless decisions with the roster have made this all about him. If he had selected the 23 players many expected and the United States had failed, there would be much less blame heaped on the coach. But with this roster made up of “his” guys, all fingers will be pointed at the guy in charge if the team is axed early.

4. Which group games are you most looking forward to and why?

Joe Prince-Wright: U.S. vs. Portugal, England vs. Uruguay and Spain vs. Netherlands. I am so intrigued to watch Ronaldo, the best player in the world, go up against the USMNT’s defense and see how they handle him. As for England vs. Uruguay, there are so many storylines swirling around that one… mostly involving Luis Suarez. It will be a real clash of styles and will showcase why European nations are so different to their South American counterparts. Different flavors of soccer from around the world, that’s what the World Cup is all about. Spain vs. Netherlands is a rematch of the 2010 World Cup final and it will be interesting to see how both teams have improved/digressed since they met in South Africa four years ago.
Mike Prindiville: US v. Portugal (see #1), England v. Italy is a classic matchup and Spain v. Netherlands because it’s a rematch of the 2010 final.
Nicholas Mendola: Italy/England, USA/Ghana and Spain/Chile. For the first, because of history and it’s a Soccernomics nightmare. The second, because yep. And the third because I think Chile can surprise teams.
Kyle Bonn: United States vs. Ghana will be a brilliant way to kick off the US slate, and will be a critical match in that group. Another early one will be Spain/Netherlands, and all of Group D (England, Italy, Uruguay, Costa Rica) will be a ton of fun.

source: Getty Images
Mike Prindiville is ready for Bosnia’s Miralem Pjanic to break out in Brazil.

5. If you had to pick one player to shine this summer, who would it be and why?

Joe Prince-Wright: Adam Lallana. Watching him closely all season long in the Premier League, Lallana has got better as the season went on. Form counts for a lot and he is on top of the world right now. His shirt is the # 1 seller in England, fans love to watch him play and Southampton’s captain is being courted by some of the biggest clubs in the world. If England do well this summer, Lallana will likely be at the center of it.
Mike Prindiville: Tough one. I’ll go with Bosnia & Herzegovina attacking midfielder Miralem Pjanic. It seems the world is always a bit late in recognizing the star status of Eastern European players and this guy is a full-blown stud. So technical. So gifted. He’s the ultimate playmaker and one that I foresee bringing his country on a deep run in this tournament.
Nicholas Mendola: Thiago Silva. Playing in France doesn’t get him the shine he deserves, and I think he can take his reputation to another level… and that he knows that.
Kyle Bonn: There’s the possibility France flops hard and this pick flames out early, but I feel that Paul Pogba is due for a breakout moment on the world’s biggest stage. If anyone is in for an upstaging of Neymar (which will be hard to do) Pogba could be the one.

6. Your dark horses for the tournament?

Joe Prince-Wright: I’m not sure if they are dark horses, but the Ivory Coast are certainly stacked with some top class talent. Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure, Chieck Tiote, Gervinho, Wilfried Bony and Salomon Kalou stick out as players who possess a vast amount of experience but have yet to grace the World Cup in glorious fashion. In the last two World Cups Cote D’Ivoire have gone out in the knockout stages, now they should advance from Group C and go deep in the tournament. Allez les Elephants!
Mike Prindiville: Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Chile – any of these sides could make the semi-final. Even bolder, I think France could win the whole thing.
Nicholas Mendola: Chile. The doubts over Arturo Vidal’s fitness have people talking about them even less, as if that were possible. Since March 2013, Chile has only lost to Germany and Brazil.
Kyle Bonn: I was going to say France until the Ribery injury came through, but they could still make noise. Everyone’s chic pick of Belgium is bogus since they’re group favorites and therefore don’t qualify as a “dark horse” to me. A true dark horse to me would be Russia, who have been reborn under Fabio Capello. They allowed just five goals in UEFA qualification and beat Portugal to the top spot in their group. They’re dangerous.

source: Getty Images
Can you see any way the European stars have a shot at overtaking Neymar, Lionel Messi, or the rest of the host continent?

7. Can you see past the South American powerhouses for the title?

Joe Prince-Wright: Nope. I mean, Spain and Germany are going to be threats and hanging in there right until the end. However, with home support Brazil will be very tough to beat and Argentina’s star players are due success on the world’s biggest stage. This is Lionel Messi’s time to shine.
Mike Prindiville: Absolutely. The weather argument is a tired one, for me. Last time I checked it’s 2014 and the best players know how to play in all conditions and are aided by stunning technological innovations. Spain and Germany are close favorites for a reason.
Nicholas Mendola: I think Germany wins the entire thing, so yes. The rest of my final bracket is pretty South American though… and never rule out the Italians!
Kyle Bonn: Not really. Spain and Germany both have legitimate shots, but both also have weaknesses. This tournament is Brazil’s for the taking, and if the European giants are to do top them, they’ll have to be near-perfect.

8. Sum up the World Cup in three words…

Joe Prince-Wright: Soccer’s spiritual home.
Mike Prindiville: Decreased work productivity.
Nicholas Mendola: Best month quadrennially
Kyle Bonn: Who steps up?

Do you agree or disagree with our writers? Have any answers of your own we didn’t mention here, like your “dark horse” or a player to shine? Are you able to see this one past the continental hosts? Chime in to our roundtable below!

Gold Cup Final preview: USMNT needs a trophy vs. Jamaica

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The major selling point of Bruce Arena’s hire, aside from his being the anti-Jurgen Klinsmann, was that the United States men’s national team would not be out-foxed tactically (or at least not be caught without a game plan).

Thirteen games into the tenure, the jury is out on whether the American boss’ second stint is on the path to World Cup success — those assumed goal posts will likely be moved depending on the group draw in Russia — but he has brought stability to the team and engineered a positive change in mentality.

[ MORE: How will USMNT line up? ] 

I have a great deal of respect for Joe Prince-Wright’s view of the national team, and ProSoccerTalk’s editor wrote today that U.S. Soccer would be proven right in its hiring of Arena if the Yanks won the Gold Cup with a Wednesday win over Jamaica.

But it doesn’t take a devil’s advocate to ask if it is quite that simple?

As much as I’m sure the removal of Klinsmann became necessary due to the morale of the USMNT and its players’ opinions of the German manager, I’m far from certain we’ve learned much about the hiring of Arena. Frankly, I can’t imagine any of the results being much worse under Peter Vermes, or Caleb Porter, or Ben Olsen.

The best win of Arena’s second tenure so far was probably the semifinal defeat of Costa Rica this weekend, and the best moment was the 1-1 draw at Azteca against Mexico. There’s no denying he’s righted the World Cup ship —  and that’s paramount — but it’s hard to imagine just qualifying for Russia should give Arena some sort of status, 0-2 hole or not. Any coach needs to be judged by his tournament, and Arena knows this. He’s helped author the best World Cup performance in modern U.S. men’s history, and he’s also presided over a train wreck (Imagine pulling that performance with that roster into the 2018 supporters’ climate. I’m shuddering on behalf of social media).

Which brings us to the import of Wednesday in Santa Clara. The United States lineup is experienced in big games and superior to Jamaica, which is coming off one day less rest. Yes, Jamaica’s squad features an incredible goalkeeper in Andre Blake and a half-dozen MLS players, but the rest are largely players who ply their trade in the U.S. second tier or Jamaica’s top flight.

Again, against Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, et cetera, et cetera.

The bookmakers say a Jamaica win would pay off 8:1. Just getting to penalty kicks would pay 3:1.

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The U.S. should win the 9:30 p.m. ET start, and put one foot in the 2021 Confederations Cup in Qatar. If it doesn’t, it’ll be because the side couldn’t sort out its wobbly back line or find its way past Blake. The latter would be more forgivable than the former, but really only in a “Tim Howard vs. Belgium but unblemished” fashion.

And it could be wrong to call Arena’s tournament a failure if the Yanks lose, depending on how it happens, but this is a man who helped a much lesser U.S. side to a 1-0 home friendly win over Jamaica just a few months ago (a Jamaica side who’s only missing player of consequence was Darren Mattocks). Arena trotted out Luis Robles, Graham Zusi, Steve Birnbaum, Walker Zimmerman, Jorge Villafana, Dax McCarty, Chris Pontius, Benny Feilhaber, Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, and Juan Agudelo. The team he’ll start on Wednesday will be miles better.

Mattocks and his Reggae Boyz are true to their country’s national reputation of electrifying speed, and it’s imperative that Arena sets his backs to handle that. That means true outside backs — sorry, Graham Zusi — and center backs who won’t be forced to foul too often. That is, after all, the only way Jamaica found its way past Mexico via a free kick from a dangerous spot.

Mexico attempted 200 more passes, converting 150 more than Jamaica in the semifinal. It’ll be on Arena’s enterprising attackers to find a way past a stacked defense without opening up the midfield too much to counter attacks. Jamaica also played a borderline perfect game when it did have the ball, missing on just 16 of 143 passes and, again, scoring on a free kick.

Frankly, if the U.S. loses to Jamaica in the same way as Mexico did, it probably wouldn’t be proper to lay it on Arena. It would mean another batch of American players had failed to find a way to goal. But what we’re counting on is a better organized team than the baffled bunch that fell 2-1 to Jamaica under Klinsmann in the 2015 Gold Cup.

In that way, yeah, we can count on Arena being a relative success. But winning this tournament, especially given who Mexico called up, needs to be treated the same way you’d view it under any other manager: expectation. Anything less wouldn’t make Arena a failure, but would certainly qualify as a failure for the U.S. program.

PSG, Barca quizzed on Neymar rumors; Pique blasts Ligue 1

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We don’t have a ton of sympathy for them, but credit to Barcelona stars Javier Mascherano and Gerard Pique for giving actual answers when put in the awkward position of hearing the media’s Neymar-to-PSG questions on Tuesday night.

PSG boss Unai Emery was far less interested in doing that.

Emery has refused to comment on speculation linking Neymar to big move to the Parc des Princes.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s International Champions Cup match against Juventus, Emery had nothing of substance to say to the idea of Brazil’s captain heading to his stable.

“Our focus is to talk about the game tomorrow and a season to get ready for. I prefer to focus on the present moment and the preparation with the team.”

As for Edinson Cavani?

On the Barca side of things, Mascherano said he thinks Neymar will stay because he’s very important to the team, while Pique backed off a little after causing a stir by posting a photo of the defender with Neymar captioned, “He stays.”

“The post was nothing official, it was a gut thing, it doesn’t depend on me. Only (Neymar) can say what will happen, but I hope he stays. I tried to explain to Neymar, as a team-mate and a friend, the situation he’s in. I would say don’t go to a league which, with all due respect, is not as good.”

Boom, roasted (Though there’s some pot-kettle-black here, as there’s a fairly precipitous drop-off further down La Liga’s table, too).

Spanish report claims Coutinho (not Liverpool) agrees deal with Barca

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According to Sky Sports’ transfer centre, Spanish radio station RAC1 reports that Barcelona has agreed a deal with Liverpool midfielder Philippe Coutinho.

The report comes on the heels of the half-hour delay of Barca’s nightly press conference, though that could be coincidental.

It also states that the agreement is between Barcelona and Coutinho, and that no fee has been agreed between Liverpool and the La Liga giants. That’s a huge obstacle, with Liverpool maintaining that no offer will work this summer, so the idea of a transfer being imminent could be beyond the pale.

[ MORE: Van Dijk to Liverpool after all? ]

A sale like this risks overturning Jurgen Klopp‘s apple cart, as the Reds boss was quoted this week as saying, “The very important message is that we are not a selling club and that’s how it is.”

Mohamed Salah is good, but he’s no Coutinho. Meanwhile, Coutinho has the potential to be as close to a like-for-like replacement for Neymar — one of the Top Five players in the world — as there is on the market.

The two clubs have done business before, and in more trying circumstances; Barcelona bought Luis Suarez from Liverpool within a month of the Uruguayan striker being banned for a biting incident at the 2014 World Cup.

A spectacular deal, Liverpool would have to make such a move this early in the summer when it can invest what would have to be a wild amount of money given the fees splashed about this transfer window.

Source close to Van Dijk expects Liverpool move within window

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It wasn’t too long ago that Liverpool apologized for its pursuit of Southampton center back Virgil Van Dijk, ending its quest for the big Dutchman.

Is it apology accepted and then some at St. Mary’s? Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol says not much has changed since the big sorry toward Anfield, but that a source close to Van Dijk expects Van Dijk will be a Red “by the end of the window.”

[ MORE: JPW’s take on the Van Dijk saga ]

That said, Sky’s report makes it unclear what’s changed to lead to such a proclamation.

There is no suggestion that Liverpool have done anything wrong since they apologised and ended their interest. Southampton’s position remains that Van Dijk is not for sale but Chelsea and Manchester City are also interested.

So… it’s happening then? Money does talk, and a massive fee from Liverpool could make Southampton’s life easier in explaining the sale to its fans. It would also mean Saints sold Van Dijk and Jose Fonte within a year. For more on the possible transfer, here’s JPW’s take.

Van Dijk averaged 1.9 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 6.8 clearances, and 4.7 aerials won per Premier League matches last season, his second since a Summer 2015 move from Celtic.

[ MORE: Milan talk to Costa, Falcao agent ]