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!

Heynckes squashes Lewandowski rumors after Premier League rumors

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The English media – mainly the tabloids – has had a field day over the last 24 hours with rumors of a Robert Lewandowski move to the Premier League claiming, but the Bayern Munich manager is having none of it.

Jupp Heynckes told the German press during his pre-match press conference on Friday ahead of the club’s Saturday match against Hertha Berlin, “I can’t imagine there is a chance [the club executives] will sell Lewandowski.”

“Bayern is not a selling club,” Heynckes went on to proclaim. “They want to, and always will want to, keep their top players.”

The reports stated that Lewandowski was “flirting” with a move to the Premier League, and that while Manchester City and Chelsea were the more logical destination, Liverpool was actually the preferred landing spot as the Polish international was open to a reunification with former boss Jurgen Klopp, whom he worked with at Borussia Dortmund before his switch to Allianz Arena. Lewandowski’s contract at Bayern Munich currently runs through 2021, leaving the player with little say over his future.

While the rumors seem like a long shot, what does make sense is that, at 29 years old, Lewandowski doesn’t a ton of time left to convince a Premier League club he’s worth a heavy investment for the next couple of years. Many top teams – most notably Arsenal – are hesitant to sign players over 30 years old, and would be even less inclined to pay a hefty transfer fee for a player without a long future ahead of them. Manchester United just paid a cut-rate price for Alexis Sanchez, and while that was largely due to Arsenal’s position of weakness regarding the expiry of Sanchez’s contract, Sanchez’s age also partially contributed to that knocked down transfer rate.

Nonetheless, Bayern’s sale history is minimal, having only offloaded surplus players, such as defender Medhi Benatia this past summer, Mario Gotze back to Borussia Dortmund the summer before, and Xherdan Shaqiri to Stoke City in 2015.

Recently retired Ryan Mason receives standing ovation at Hull match

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Midfielder Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after suffering a fractured skull over a year ago, received a warm ovation at KCOM Stadium before Hull City’s match on Friday against Sheffield United.

Mason, just 26 years old, announced his retirement last week on the advice of medical professionals after over a year of rehabilitation from his injury in an attempt to return to playing. The Tottenham youth product was injured in an aerial clash with Chelsea defender Gary Cahill in January of 2017, and did not return to action.

“Ryan has sought the guidance of numerous world-renowned neurologists and neuro surgeons who have all advised that a return to competitive football is not advised,” Hull City said in a release after Mason’s retirement was announced. “Ryan would like to put on record his thanks to all at the club who have aided his recovery to this point and he his is indebted to them for their support and compassion over the past 12 months.”

Before Hull City’s match against Sheffield, an important one with Hull battling relegation, Mason was brought out on the pitch and received a warm reception from the patchy crowd.

As the club did after his injury, they put a message on the screen with the Twitter hashtag #OneRyanMason.

Mason picked up his first job since retirement over the weekend, commentating on Sky Sports in studio for a Championship match between Aston Villa and Preston North End, which ended in a 1-1 draw. “It’s been a bit of a whirlwind – it’s been crazy. I’ve had a lot of messages and it’s been a lot to take in,” Mason said on the broadcast. “I’ve been quite positive throughout and I’m looking to the next chapter now.”It’s difficult [to accept]. For the last year I’ve been working as hard as I can to get back on a football pitch. But when you’re long-term health comes into it then it’s a lot easier. There is more to life than football.

Wigan boss defends fans after pitch-storming

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Wigan Athletic boss Paul Cook is defending his supporters following a memorable upset of Manchester City in the FA Cup.

[ MORE: Europa League draw ]

Latics fans stormed the pitch at the DW Stadium, a celebratory but dangerous scene which included “disturbances” between supporters of both clubs and a confronration between fans and Sergio Aguero.

But it takes just a look at the above photo to see both sides of the issues, as the photographer at right catches fans and players celebrating together… while Aguero rages behind him.

From Sky Sports:

“You’ve got to remember the pure emotions of the night for Wigan fans,” he said.

“They didn’t really turn up to see us win – that’s the truth of it. I’ve got a picture of my son in the directors’ box – he’s only 12 – with his head in his hands looking at the floor because he couldn’t watch.

“We certainly don’t want to see fans engaging with players. The players’ protection is absolutely paramount. But also the supporters enjoying that moment is a good thing for me.”

There is, also, this photo to show the other side of the scenario. Ultimately in our era, this type should sadly be prevented to defy the potential for the latter. That’s sad, but it’s a litigious world.

Dan Burn of Wigan Athletic celebrates. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Premier League Preview: Watford vs. Everton

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  • Watford has two wins in last 14 PL matches
  • Toffees won 3-2 at Goodison on Nov. 5
  • Watford leads all-time 19W-3D-3L

Two top half hopefuls meet at Vicarage Road in a reprise of an early season thriller when Watford hosts Everton on Saturday (Watch live at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC and online via NBCSports.com).

Everton is in a battle for seventh with Burnley and Leicester City, and could finish the weekend there with a win and help.

Watford has to chance to finish in the top half. It’d be there already had it not coughed up a 2-0 lead to then-caretaker manager David Unsworth‘s Everton in a 3-2 loss on Nov. 5.

What they’re saying

Watford’s Jose Holebas on the match“We have to do something in this game. When we played there, we were 2-0 up and gave the game away in that way – it is unacceptable for me. I was a little bit emotional because I know that this season we have lost some points [from winning positions].”

Everton’s Sam Allardyce on his style critics“The type of football we’ve produced isn’t rubbish, we’ve produced proper football in terms of what we’ve tried to achieve. The past reputation is not the reality if you ask the players, so you look at the football we’ve played since I’ve been here.”

Prediction