RECIFE, BRAZIL - JUNE 14: Head coach Alberto Zaccheroni of Japan looks on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group C match between the Ivory Coast and Japan at Arena Pernambuco on June 14, 2014 in Recife, Brazil.

Zaccheroni’s dare, wondering about Group C: Talking points after the Ivory Coast defeated Japan

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After an hour of struggling to create chances in Recife, the Ivory Coast took a huge step toward its first appearance in a World Cup knockout road. With second half goals from Wilfried Bony and Gervinho, les Elephants claimed a 2-1 over Asian champion Japan, a result that leaves them even with Colombia at the top of Group C after onet match at the 2014 World Cup.

Along the way, we learned a little more about the two teams that are expect to compete for a place along side the Colombians for a spot in the second round. Here are three takeaways from the Saturday’s final match:

1. The Ivorians responded to Zaccheroni’s dare – Japan has the quality to hold the ball and protect its suspect defense, but Alberto Zaccheroni went the other direction. Japan laid off the Ivorians, chose organization over control, and implicitly dared les Elephants to beat them. Take the ball. Try. We don’t think you can beat us. Japan’s defense was that passive in their approach.

For an hour, it worked, arguably to perfection. The Ivory Coast went 35 minutes before registering a shot on target, and although they built momentum going into intermission, a spell of carelessness at the back in the second half’s opening moments only vindicated Zaccheroni’s approach. As long as Japan stayed organized, the Ivorians weren’t going to beat them.

There was, however, one caveat – two questions that nestled in everybody’s mind when the lineups came out: When would Didier Drogba come on, and what would happen when he did?

In the 62nd minute, Drogba’s inclusion turned the match, but it wasn’t because of anything he did with the ball. Switching from a one-front to a two-striker formation, the Ivorians also adjusted how they played, electing to take more chances from wide rather than pass through Japan’s defense.

At least, that’s how it probably would have played out. Given Japan gave up two goals in 100 seconds, it’s difficult to draw any broad conclusions. though was can put the result in more tactical terms.

For the first time in the game, the Ivory Coast went after Japan’s biggest weakness – their central defense. Be it Wilfried Bony winning an individual battle in the 64th minute or Gervinho sitting unmarked outside the six-yard box in two minutes later, the Japanese defense collapsed quickly once its central defense was forced to step to step up. Whether that was personnel, formation, or approach, who knows, but there was a correction between all three and Saturday’s sudden turn.

Ultimately, it result goes back to Zaccheroni’s dare. Whether he was dubious of the Ivorians’ ability to execute or merely trying to protect his suspect defense, the Japan head coach gave his opponents every opportunity to take this match. Ultimately, they did.

2. In one area, Japan was as expected, unfortunately – And that area leads to a more philosophical question about how to deal with a poor defense. Suffice to say, Japan’s didn’t hold up. The goals the Ivorians scored were litmus tests that decent defenses pass. Unable to defend Serge Aurier’s crosses, Japan’s did not.

So what did Zaccheroni do wrong? From where we’re sitting, it’s presumptuous to even assume we have the information to answer that question, but it’s worth considering what the team could have done had they employed a different approach. Instead of regressing into such a deep, passive posture, what if Japan had put more pressure on the Ivorians’ own questionable defenders? What if the technical, fitness, and speed advantages Japan had were put to use?

Zaccheroni knows more about his team that we do, so it’s hard to make a completely persuasive argument. And had the Samurai Blue gone after the Ivorians, that suspect defense could have been beaten earlier and more often, albeit in a different way.

Given how the game played out, however, it’s hard to shake the feeling Japan let the Ivory Coast definite the match. Zaccheroni’s approach didn’t allow his team to put their best foot forward.

3. Group C looks weak – Greece and Japan offered so little, it’d be premature to get too excited about Colombia or the Ivory Coast, though with les Elephants, it’s worth noting the difficulties they had putting something together over the match’s first hour. Whereas the Cafeteros’ attack lived up to expectations, we’re still in wait-and-see mode with the Ivorians.

Contrast that with Group D, where Costa Rica’s impressive performance has helped create a true quartet. Croatia and Mexico both proved capable behind Brazil in Group A, while Group B saw the world champion Spain fall to a Dutch side that may be unexpectedly strong.

By definition, there has to be a weak group at each World Cup. Through three days, it looks like Group C might be it. Though the Ivorians could build on tonight, find their stride in attack, and become the packet’s second knockout round-quality side, we could also see the holes in Colombia’s defense surface when they’re finally tested on Wednesday.

Sydney FC return to winning ways in A-League

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 24:  Goalkeeper Danny Vukovic of Sydney FC makes a save as Bruno Fornaroli of City competes for the ball during the round 21 A-League match between Melbourne City and Sydney FC at AAMI Park on February 24, 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)
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SYDNEY (AP) Bobo scored twice as Sydney FC rebounded from its first loss in the A-League to beat Melbourne City 3-1 and continue atop the table.

[ MORE: Schmeichel speaks about Ranieri sacking, state of Leicester ]

Sydney’s ambitious attempt to become the first team to end the regular season unbeaten came unstuck last week when it was beaten by Western Sydney Wanderers in a fractious local derby, repercussions of which continued through the week. Wanderers were fined $20,000 by Football Federation Australia after its fans unfurled an obscene banner targeting Sydney coach Graham Arnold.

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Sydney raised itself above that controversy on Friday with a comprehensive win over Melbourne City which briefly took it 11 points clear in first place.

Melbourne Victory restored the gap to eight points when it beat defending champion Adelaide United 2-1, and Perth leapfrogged Melbourne City into third place when it dumped the Wanderers 2-0.

Bobo opened Sydney’s scoring with a penalty, but City canceled that out only a minute later.

Sydney went in front again after the break, and Bobo sealed the win, set up by a superb through ball by Milos Ninkovic which highlighted their developing combination.

Midfielder Brandon O’Neil said Sydney was determined to leave behind the contention of their derby loss.

“When it all came out, the FFA and Western Sydney had to deal with it and it did,” O’Neil said. “It brought us together and we spoke about a few things, and nothing changed for us. We want to be premier (champions).”

Melbourne Victory’s win over Adelaide kept it in touch with Sydney with seven regular season rounds remaining.

Wellington kept its faint playoff hopes alive, staying in seventh place with a 2-1 win over Brisbane.

Whitecaps acquire U.S. defender Brek Shea in deal with Orlando City

Toronto FC v Orlando City SC
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With almost a week to go until the Major League Soccer season kicks off, the Vancouver Whitecaps and Orlando City may have pulled off one of the biggest trades of offseason.

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The clubs announced on Saturday that the Whitecaps have acquired U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder/defender Brek Shea in exchange for forward Giles Barnes, who is headed to Orlando City.

“We are excited to welcome Brek to our club and city,” said Whitecaps FC manager Carl Robinson. “Brek is a tall, physical, skilled player and will bring a different dimension to our attack. Brek will join the group in coming days and we anticipate he will be available for selection as early as this Thursday’s Champions League match against New York.”

Shea, 26, began his career in MLS with FC Dallas before heading to England for a brief stint with Stoke City. The U.S. defender made his way back to MLS ahead of Orlando City’s inaugural season in 2015 and started 39 matches in that span.

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Meanwhile, Barnes has scored 33 goals since joining MLS in 2012. The 28-year-old forward played with the Houston Dynamo before spending last season with the Whitecaps.

Report: MLS negotiating to bring Chicharito to U.S. in 2018

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Bayer Leverkusen & Mexico
AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
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Major League Soccer has attracted some of the world’s biggest stars over recent years and now one of the Mexican national team’s top talents could be heading stateside very soon.

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According to ESPN FC, MLS is currently in negotiations with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen in an attempt to lure Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez to the U.S. in the summer of 2018.

Expansion side Los Angeles FC has been heavily linked with Hernandez, with the club making its entrance into MLS in 2018. Additionally, the Los Angeles Galaxy have also been said to have strong ties with Chicharito.

Hernandez, 28, is currently under contract until next summer, and MLS is reportedly seeking a move in 2018 to avoid paying a transfer fee for the El Tri forward.

ESPN FC is also reporting that Chicharito could make around $9 million annually if he does in fact join MLS.

In 2015, Orlando City and the Chicago Fire were both linked with acquiring Hernandez but the Leverkusen forward was insistent upon the fact that he play Champions League football.

PL Sunday: Spurs look to regain second against Stoke

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Although there’s only one match on Sunday’s Premier League docket, the fixture bears great weight for both clubs.

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Tottenham vs. Stoke City — 8:30 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and NBCSports.com

Spurs have the chance to move back into second place at White Hart Lane as Mauricio Pochettino‘s side are firmly in a battle to finish runners’ up to Chelsea this season. Tottenham currently sit 13 points out of the top spot, however, five clubs are within four points of another in the battle for second. Danny Rose and Erik Lamela remain sidelined due to injuries but Spurs will remain the favorites in the fixture after having won their previous two league meetings.

Stoke enters Sunday having gone unbeaten in five of its last six PL matches and the Potters can enter the top 10 with a victory. Mark Hughes‘ side could be given a big lift with the potential return of Xherdan Shaqiri while Saido Berahino could be in line to earn his first start since joining Stoke. Both players could present massive upside for the Potters, who have struggled to find goals as of late. In their last four matches, Stoke have managed just three finishes, one of which came from an own goal.