PREVIEW: Everything you need to know about the World Cup in one beautiful post

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It’s here! Well, sort of. The 2014 World Cup begins play on Thursday when Brazil and Croatia tangle at 4pm ET.

So let’s say you’ve just found us, or that your WC knowledge isn’t quite where you feel it needs to be heading into the tournament. Here’s every single thing we’ve had to say leading up to Brazil, beginning with our staff’s roundtablepicks and predictions, the top 20 moments in the history of the World Cup …

… and continuing through everything we’ve gone on all eight groups. It’s all linked up, below.

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP A 

FROM THE PREVIEW

The host country’s record since a Feb. 6, 2013 loss to England at Wembley? A shiny 16W-4D-1L. The clear favorites to become the fourth hosts to win the thing, Brazil will trot out a loaded team that arguably boasts a dozen of the top 20 players in the group.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. The home team rules. Brazil is vying to win the World Cup on home soil, and has the added benefit of this fact: they’d be a favorite for the tournament regardless of continent. Thirteen of 19 champions have won on their home continent.

2. No Super Mario… to start. Croatia star striker Mario Mandzukic will miss the opener against Brazil with a suspension picked up at the tail end of qualifying. It’s a significant disadvantage for the visitors.

3. El Tri is inconsitent. Mexico looked dominant against New Zealand in the qualifying playoff, but that was after needing every bit of Graham Zusi- and Aron Johannsson-fueled luck to make the playoff. Are they the team that’s posted back-to-back 1-0 losses to Portugal and Bosnia & Herzegovina, or are they the team that’s skunked Israel, Ecuador and South Korea?

DATES AND TIMES

Thursday, June 12 , 5 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Brazil vs. Croatia
Friday, June 13, 1 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Mexico vs. Cameroon

Tuesday, June 17, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Brazil vs. Mexico
Wednesday, June 18, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Cameroon vs. Croatia

Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Cameroon vs. Brazil
Monday, June 23, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Croatia vs. Mexico

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Brazil
2. Croatia
3. Mexico
4. Cameroon

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP B

FROM THE PREVIEW

A loaded group with stars to burn — Arjen Robben doesn’t even make our Top Five players for the bunch — Group B should provide a bunch of terrific games. Australia is the afterthought of the four, but anything could happen and a Socceroos upset behind Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak would provide an even wilder card.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Spain is seeking out history, as they’ll look to pick up back-to-back World Cup titles with a European Championship sandwiched in the middle. We don’t always talk dynasties when it comes to international soccer, but this Spanish unit will be writing a new language if they come strong.

2. It’s getting Chile in here. South American nations are getting a lot of run leading up to the tournament, and Chile has loads of talent (especially if Arturo Vidal is ready to go). It wouldn’t be a shock to see them come out of the group and make a little noise.

3. What will the Dutch midfield do? Without the injured Kevin Strootman and Rafael van der Vaart, Netherlands will have to navigate a tough group with a depleted engine room. Names like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are still there, though.

DATES AND TIMES

Friday, June 13, 4 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Spain vs. Netherlands
Friday, June 13, 7 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Chile vs. Australia

Wednesday, June 18, 1 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – Australia vs. Netherlands
Wednesday, June 18, 2 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Spain vs. Chile

Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Australia vs. Spain
Monday, June 23, 12 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Netherlands vs. Chile

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Spain
2. Chile
3. Netherlands
4. Australia

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP C

FROM THE PREVIEW

The upshot is a competitive group that provides a wide range of potentials, styles, experience, and stars, and with three teams taking suspected back lines into the tournament, we’ll likely see goals. Combine that with a parity among the group’s bottom three and you have a prescription for drama.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Colombia’s biggest star is out, but the team’s still favored to win this group. Radamel Falcao — the AS Monaco striker that can claim to be one of Europe’s best — couldn’t recover from his knee injury in time to play. Even without him, a talented attack featuring James Rodríguez, Teófilo Gutíerrez, Jackson Martínez, Adrián Ramos, and Carlos Bacca should have enough firepower to carry José Pekerman’s team to the top of the group.

2. No defense means more goals. With the exception of Greece, each team has weak at the back. That means the star-studed Ivorians and a technically and tactically astute Japan could join Colombia in making this one of the tournament’s highest scoring groups.

3. And those Ivorians are certainly star-studded. Didier Drogba is the most famous African soccer player in the world, and he might not be the best forward on his team. That’s because Cote d’Ivoire also have Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, and Gervinho – players who combined for 41 goals in their European leagues this season. Add ingmidfielder Yaya Toure — the team’s best player — and you have less of a dark horse than the first page of a playbill.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14 , 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Colombia vs. Greece
Saturday, June 14, 9 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Cote d’Ivoire vs. Japan

Thursday, June 19, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Colombia vs. Cote d’Ivoire
Thursday, June 19, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Japan vs. Greece

Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Japan vs. Colombia
Tuesday, June 24, 4 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Greece vs. Cote d’Ivoire

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Colombia
2. Cote d’Ivoire
3. Japan
4. Greece

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP D

FROM THE PREVIEW

One of the most difficult packs to predict at the 2014 World Cup, Group D has three teams who could finish first or tumble to third. Between England, Italy, and Uruguay, Group D’s contenders have seven World Cups and 10 world titles, a collection of honors that ensures one impressive résumé will be cast aside with the 15 other teams that fail to make the knockout round.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. This is not your typical England, in the sense that many of the stylistic elements (which usually depict a stoic if physically-capable team) aren’t present in this year’s Three Lions. Yeah, you still have two big reliable-types in central defense (Chelsea’s Gary Cahill, Everton’s Phil Jagielka), but you also have the skill of Adam Lallana, Wayne Rooney, and Raheem Sterling in attack, with Daniel Sturridge’s speed giving Roy Hodgson a new type of threat up top. England’s not even playing 4-4-2 anymore!

2. Andrea Pirlo’s last hurrah will also feature a passing of the torch, with Paris Saint-Germain’s Pirlo-to-be Marco Verratti a likely starter in Cesare Prandelli’s 4-5-1. While Pirlo’s signed a new deal with Juventus which will take him up to the next Euros, this will almost certainly be the 35-year-old’s final World Cup. As his generation’s quintessential deep-lying distributor, Pirlo’s last World Cup will be a talking point for the next generation of registas.

3. Luis Suárez’s health is really, really important, particularly considering the depth of this group. With a healthy Suárez, playing in South America, you could make a case for the Uruguayans as favorites. Without him, it will come down to how well the 35-year-old Diego Forlán (as well as Gastón Ramirez) link a deep central midfield with the team’s healthy scoring threat: Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani.

DATES AND TIMES

Saturday, June 14, 3 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Uruguay vs. Costa Rica
Saturday, June 14, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – England vs. Italy

Thursday, June 19, 3 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – Uruguay vs. England
Friday, June 20, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Italy vs. Costa Rica

Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Costa Rica vs. England
Tuesday, June 24, 12 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Italy vs. Uruguay

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Italy
2. Uruguay
3. England
4. Costa Rica

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP E

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Ecuadorians last four friendlies were against World Cup competition (a loss to Mexico, defeat of Australia and draws against England and the Netherlands). Can this, and the South American climate, help them escape the group?

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Anyone can emerge from this group. Even though France and Switzerland will be expected to go through, Ecuador will hope being close to home helps while Honduras is capable of making anyone’s lives miserable with their borderline play.

2. French rebound. Their last World Cup was probably among the most embarrassing for any true power in history, as in-fighting and bizarre stories crushed their dreams of glory. A younger unit may be able to harness great skill and energy, even without Franck Ribery.

3. All eyes on June 20. Every World Cup game packs import, but Switzerland versus France will, in all likelihood, be the one that decides who wins the group.

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 1 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Switzerland vs. Ecuador
Sunday, June 15, 4 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – France vs. Honduras

Friday, June 20, 3 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Switzerland vs. France
Friday, June 20, 6 p.m. Eastern, Curitiba – Honduras vs. Ecuador

Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – Honduras vs. Switzerland
Wednesday, June 25, 4 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Ecuador vs. France

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. France
2. Switzerland
3. Ecuador
4. Honduras

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP F

FROM THE PREVIEW

The Super Eagles would provide a significant upset were they to climb ahead of either BNH or Argentina, while a Top Two place for Iran would be among the biggest moments in World Cup history.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Kinda predictable? Our staff laid out its predictions for the group, which looked, well, exactly the same. Argentina is expected to walk through the group with Bosnia and Herzegovina a close second.

2. Messy Messi? Despite the constant high-fives and plaudits for his work with Barcelona, superstar striker Lionel Messi has received plenty of guff from Argentine fans. Can he deliver loads of goals, assists and wonder this time around?

3. Nigeria could be a wild card. Stephen Keshi’s squad has truckloads of talent, but lacks consistency. Even if its defense falters, the Super Eagles are capable of sending plenty of balls on goal. Could we see some big scorelines?

DATES AND TIMES

Sunday, June 15 , 7 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Argentina vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina
Monday, June 16, 4 p.m. Eastern, Recife – Iran vs. Nigeria

Saturday, June 21, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Argentina vs. Iran
Saturday, June 21, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Nigeria vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina

Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Nigeria vs. Argentina
Wednesday, June 25, 12 p.m. Eastern, Fortaleza – Bosnia & Herzegovina vs. Iran

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Argentina
2. Bosnia and Herzegovina
3. Nigeria
4. Iran

-NM

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP G

FROM THE PREVIEW

The argument against this being the Group of Death: There’s a pretty big drop off after the quartet’s top two, a drop you don’t see in Groups B and D. Ultimately, if there are no upsets, two teams that may not be among the best 16 in the world won’t make it to the second round …

That’s not a Group of Death, but it is a group of depth – a packet that could provide drama, particularly if Portugal isn’t at full strength when they face Germany on June 16.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Germany is ridiculously talented and has history on its side, making the final eight in every World Cup they’ve entered. Even with Borussia Dortmund star Marco Reus out, the front six is so deep that Mesut Özil, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mario Götze didn’t start their team’s final pre-Cup friendly. Germany’s second XI team would have a good chance to make this tournament’s knockout round.

2. Cristiano Ronaldo isn’t healthy, and might not be for the entire tournament, thanks to tendinosis in his left knee. That’s not something that’s going to improve in the middle of a month-long competition. For a team that’s becoming increasingly, worryingly dependent on its star, Portugal may need more than a 75 percent Ronaldo to hold off the U.S. or Ghana.

3. After years of derision, the stereotypes could prove decisive for the U.S. in Brazil, just as the team’s fitness, speed, strength and physicality left it on the edge of the semifinals in 2002. For those deriding the U.S.’s technical qualities, those virtues are often cited euphemistically, yet they will be real factors as this tournament progresses. When the U.S. and Portugal descend on Manaus for game two, Jurgen Klinsmann’s emphasis on fitness could pay off.

DATES AND TIMES

Monday, June 16, 12 p.m. Eastern, Salvador – Germany vs. Portugal
Monday, June 16, 6 p.m. Eastern, Natal – Ghana vs. United States

Saturday, June 21, 3 p.m. Eastern,  Fortaleza – Germany vs. Ghana
Sunday, June 22, 6 p.m. Eastern, Manaus – United States vs. Portugal

Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Brasilia – Portugal vs. Ghana
Thursday, June 26, 12 p.m. Eastern, Recife – United States vs. Germany

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Germany
2. Portugal
3. United States
4. Ghana

-RF

MORE: United States player profiles … all of them

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H

GROUP H

FROM THE PREVIEW

In terms of talent, there is no group at this year’s World Cup that sees such a huge gap between its leaders and the pack … [Belgium] will arrive in Brazil as one of the most talented teams on the planet. Only a lack of experience and notable results keeps the Belgians from being more than a dark horse.

THREE THINGS YOU MUST KNOW

1. Russia and South Korea may be looking forward, with the Koreans’ young squad and Russia’s upcoming hosting gig making both teams more viable in 2018. Without its captain (the injured Roman Shirokov), Russia may have trouble getting Aleksandr Kerzakhov onto the scoresheet, while Korea’s quality in the midfield may not make up for mistakes at the back.

2. Algeria are anonymous, but still dangerous, far more so than four years ago. With Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli in midfield, the Desert Foxes have a player whose quality could produce the goal Algeria couldn’t find in the 2010 tournament. Their central defense can be beaten with speed, but neither Russia nor South Korea may have the quality to exploit that weakness. It will still take an upset, but an Algerian team that lacks name stars could produce its first World Cup victory since 1982.

3. Belgium really are as dangerous as advertised, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be as good as their seed implies. Frankly, we don’t know. Europe’s World Cup qualifying is so watered down, teams can go the entire tournament without facing a credible threat, and given Belgium didn’t qualify for Euro 2012, we have no real idea how good they are as a team. We can look at names like Thibaut Courtois, Vincent Kompany, and Romelu Lukaku had gawk at their potential, but you need only look to Eden Hazard’s international record to see reason for caution. The Chelsea attacker has 52 goals over the last three years at club-level, but he’s only scored six times in 45 appearances for his country.

DATES AND TIMES

Tuesday, June 17, 12 p.m. Eastern, Belo Horizonte – Belgium vs. Algeria
Tuesday, June 17, 6 p.m. Eastern, Cuiaba – Russia vs. South Korea

Sunday, June 22, 12 p.m. Eastern, Rio de Janeiro – Belgium vs. Russia
Sunday, June 22, 3 p.m. Eastern, Porto Alegre – South Korea vs. Algeria

Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Curitibia – Algeria vs. Russia
Thursday, June 26, 4 p.m. Eastern, Sao Paulo – South Korea vs. Belgium

SURVEY SAYS (OUR PST CONSENSUS PICKS)
(click for full team preview)

1. Belgium
2. Russia
3. South Korea
4. Algeria

-RF

Skip around: A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H


USMNT eyeing the table as it kicks off training camp

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COMMERCE CITY, Colo. (AP) Goalkeeper Tim Howard‘s uniform was filled with grass stains after the first day of training camp.

And this was considered a light workout.

“Just getting everybody back together, getting a sweat,” Howard said Monday after the U.S. squad went through a roughly 60-minute workout. “Day by day, we’re just trying to add on to the pile, put some concepts in and get some understanding between players.”

What awaits the squad in resumption of the final round of World Cup qualifying is certainly a gantlet. They have a game against Trinidad and Tobago on June 8 in Commerce City and then at Mexico three days later.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

There’s little margin for error, with the U.S. currently in fourth place in the six-team standings. They have three home and three away matches remaining. The top three teams qualify, with the fourth-place squad going to a playoff against Asia’s No. 5 nation.

“We need to keep climbing that table. We feel like this is a good opportunity to do it,” said Howard, now with the Colorado Rapids and who will feel right at home with the Trinidad game on his turf at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. “One game, that’s as far as you can look. You can’t look to next week or the week after or two months from now.”

For now, Howard will be coach Bruce Arena’s goalkeeper over Brad Guzan, Ethan Horvath and Nick Rimando, who all were invited to camp. But it’s an ongoing evaluation.

“We have good goalkeepers here. That’s the least of my worries, to be honest,” Arena said.

Given the short amount of time between games, Arena fully plans on using more players than usual. One particular competition to watch will be at right back between Timmy Chandler and DeAndre Yedlin.

“I have a close eye on everything,” Arena said. “We have a bunch of good players here. … We’re watching everybody and thinking about how we can best utilize everyone.”

[ MORE: Kroenke, Wenger meet; Decision looms ]

The roster features a solid blend of youth and experience. Leading the youngsters is Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder who last weekend became the youngest American to win a club medal in Europe.

On the veteran side are players such as Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley and Howard, all of whom have more than 30 World Cup qualifying appearances.

“We’re past the experimentation phase. These are all guys who the manager believes in whole-heartedly,” Howard said. “They’re not here for anything other than to play minutes, play important minutes.”

Arena couldn’t agree more.

“This is a nice group we have here. Hopefully, we can find the right balance in the team, putting them in the right position to complement them both individually and collectively,” Arena said. “If we can accomplish that, there’s no reason to believe we can’t be successful in these two games.”

Joining the camp in Colorado are a few players who weren’t with the squad in March. Guzan, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Bobby Wood and Yedlin are all on the field. Guzan didn’t participate because his wife was expecting their second child, while the others were dealing with injuries, illnesses and yellow-card suspension.

Now, it’s a matter of getting their timing down – and accustomed to the altitude.

“There’s no reason to make it an excuse,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “Just doing the best we can to acclimate to it.”

Arena’s squad will get things rolling in a friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

“That’s a good game for us,” Arena said. “It gives us a little bit of exercise at lower altitude, which isn’t perfect for what we need to do to get ready here and Mexico City, but it’s a start. Think it will be good to give a chance to 16 players and build from there – get us ready for Trinidad and Mexico.”

Stam after Reading playoff final loss: “Tough to take”

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Jaap Stam has won silverware in three different leagues for five different teams, and has a Champions League title from his time at Manchester United.

He’s used to winning, and that includes his first stop as a full-time manager. And that makes Reading’s loss in Monday’s playoff final sting a bit more.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

Reading lost in penalty kicks and it’s not like the Royals were thoroughly outclassed by Huddersfield Town. But it still burns. From Sky Sports:

“You don’t want to play football to be in the grey areas, you want to get the max out of your career, win trophies and play at the highest level.

“It’s tough to take, but it has to be difficult. It’s not good to lose a game like this, you need to feel it and experience it and then take that forward if you get into the same moment again. The good players do that.”

Reading loses a trio of loan players — Lewis Grabban, Reece Oxford, and Jordon Mutch — as well as American midfielder Danny Williams. It won’t be easy for Reading to get back into the playoffs without an injection of money, but Stam’s first rodeo as a manager was a good ride that came up just short.

Wenger, Kroenke meet; Board to learn decision Tues.

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Wenger watch is entering its final hours.

The BBC is reporting that Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke met with longtime manager Arsene Wenger on Monday to discuss the Frenchman’s future, and that the decision was going to be made together.

[ MORE: Wenger would pay Sanchez, Ozil ]

It seems almost certain that Wenger is going to come back to the Emirates Stadium. From the BBC:

The outcome is unclear but the decision rests solely with Wenger and Kroenke and will be relayed to directors at a Tuesday board meeting.

Fresh terms were agreed in principle some months ago, but nothing is signed.

There have been questions about whether Wenger would accept a sporting director being placed above him, and if Kroenke believes the repercussions of keeping the boss would negatively impact the business.

Barcelona to keep goalkeeper Ter Stegen until 2022

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says it has reached a deal to extend the contract of goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen until June 2022.

The club said the new agreement, which has a buyout clause of 180 million euros ($201 million), will be signed on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Yaya to stay at Man City ]

Ter Stegen has been with the club since 2014, helping it win nine titles in three seasons.

The German goalkeeper has played 93 matches with Barcelona, conceding 90 goals in 71 wins, 10 draws and 12 losses.

Barcelona has already renewed the contracts of Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Neymar, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic. It is still working on new deals for Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.