BRASILIA, BRAZIL - JUNE 23: Neymar of Brazil celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group A match between Cameroon and Brazil at Estadio Nacional on June 23, 2014 in Brasilia, Brazil.

Neymar, Rodríguez: South America’s future shines before the knockout round

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Neymar has been on soccer fans’ radars for so long, it’s strange to think of him as one for the future, but if the Brazilian star’s first year at Barcelona told us anything, it’s that the 22-year-old still has room to improve. A valuable part of a team that finished second in La Liga, the former Santos star failed to meet expectations inflated by his $74 million transfer fee. Though 15 goals across all competitions was good, it still left us wondering what can be.

Two weeks in Brazil have given us another glimpse of that future: three games; two braces; and one sign a transition year between Brazil and Spain need not define the Selecao’s biggest start. With four goals, Neymar sits on top of the 2014 World Cup’s scoring chart, outpacing names like Thomas Müller, Karim Benzema, Robin van Persie, and Arjen Robben, all with three goals.

That only tells part of the Neymar story. Scoring 35 time in 52 appearances during what’s sure to be a record-setting international career, Neymar’s always been able to produce goals, but now moved into the middle of the Selecao attack, the goal-scorer-turned-focal point is at the center of everything his team does. Oscar’s playmaking helps, but through the tournament’s first three games, Neymar has more touches than any non-defender in the squad – part of the reason why, as we approach the midway point of the tournament, he’s has put himself in contention for the Golden Ball.

After Tuesday’s action, James Rodríguez is in the same boat, something even the Colombian’s most ardent supporters would have been pressed to predict when the tournament started. With team’s loss of its own focal point, striker Radamel Falcao, it was unclear how Cafeteros head coach José Pékerman would adjust. Thanks to his own 22-year-old star, the Colombians haven’t missed a beat. With three goals and two assists, Rodríguez may by the World Cup’s most productive player.

source: AP
Colombia’s James Rodriguez celebrates after scoring during the match between Japan and Colombia. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

He may also be tournament’s best, period, a status only emboldened by his 45 minutes today against Japan. On what was supposed to be a day of rest for Ligue 1’s assist leader, Rodríguez came off the bench to redefine the match. Instead of Japan carrying over momentum from their late first half equalizer, James (pronounced in a Spanish style: HAHM ace) asserted control, producing a goal for Jackson Martínez within 10 minutes in his introduction. From there, the Colombian creator did his damage in transition, seemingly making every ball played out of the Colombian defense into a potentially back-breaking counter.

By match’s end, Rodríguez’s 45 minutes had produced a goal, two assists, a 4-1 win, and no memory of his team being completely outplayed before halftime. Whereas once the Colombians looked in danger of being handed their first blemish, the team rolled into the knockout round on the back of a three-goal win, leaving no hint that they’re missing their best player.

Or maybe, they’re not. While it’s too soon to say Rodríguez has eclipsed the influence of Falcao, Tuesday’s performance confirmed that day will eventually come. Every ounce of promise that took Rodríguez from Banfield to Porto and Porto to Monaco was funneled into 45 minutes of the best individual soccer we’ve seen at this tournament. For all the talk of Robben’s performances, Müller-ian opportunism, or the array of goals Benzema could have scored, nobody’s reached the heights Rodríguez did in today’s second half.

Combined, Rodríguez and Neymar have already scored seven times at this World Cup. They’ve showed why Barcelona and Monaco open their vaults to buy then. They’ve provided a glimpse of two talents who could define the next eight years of South American soccer.

And combined, they’re only slightly older than one of Rodriguez’s teammate. Faryd Mondragón became the World Cup’s oldest player today, but at 43 years old, he nearly matches the age of two of the tournament’s brightest stars.

Through three games at this year’s World Cup, their ages haven’t mattered, though for fans around the world, 22 should be a reassuring number. Even if they fall in the knockout round, Neymar and Rodríguez will be back in 2018. And 2022.

MLS Preview: Can anyone separate from the pack? Western leaders get big tests

COMMERCE CITY, COLORADO - APRIL 02:  Shkelzen Gashi #11 of Colorado Rapids controls the ball against the Toronto FC at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2016 in Commerce City, Colorado. The Rapids defeated Toronto FC 1-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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With last week’s draw-fest in the past and both conferences still jumbled, all eyes are on the top of the Western Conference with this week’s list of matchups.

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Three teams – Colorado, Real Salt Lake, and FC Dallas – are all tied atop the standings on 17 points. The first two respectively play each other. The final one crosses sides to play the 3rd place team in the East. Should this week go differently than last – meaning, fewer than the eight draws we were handed across Week 8 – some teams could find themselves with some valuable separation atop the standings.

So, who has the opportunity to make moves?

Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake — 9:00 p.m. ET Saturday

Each with 17 points at the top of the West, there’s plenty at stake at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Colorado is four games unbeaten, although it dropped points for the first time in a month last time out. The Rapids feasted upon underachieving teams during its three-game winning streak, but when faced with the leaders of the Eastern Conference last weekend, they needed a pair of comebacks to earn a point. Nonetheless, the Rapids have put their early-season struggles firmly behind them.

The Rapids have struggled against RSL in the recent past, losing the last time out in Salt Lake City, and sporting a 1-4-2 record against RSL in the last seven meetings at DSG Park. Shkëlzen Gashi continues to be the key for Colorado’s attack, having pumped 25 shots on target this season so far. For RSL, last week’s win put the demolition at the hands of Los Angeles firmly in the past, changing the narrative to five wins in their last six, a significant rise in form.

Toronto FC vs. FC Dallas  7:30 p.m. ET Saturday

FC Dallas also has a chance to go atop the West with a result on the road at BMO Field. Dallas’s grip on the West is gone thanks to a pair of flunks against two eighth-placed teams – a bad sign as the Jeckyll and Hyde season continues. They’re in a great place, but have also looked lost at times. All three heavy defeats have come on the road, and wouldn’t you know it, now they’re serving as Toronto’s May home opener.

The East has been a mire thus far, but for Toronto to sit third after three wins in an eight-game road trip, Sebastian Giovinco and company have put themselves in great position. Nonetheless, Greg Vanney said the club still needs to “prove itself” in front of its home fans, and those fans are sure to be up for it after the long wait.

D.C. United vs. New York City FC  7:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Two of the four teams stuck on 10 points in the middle of the Eastern Conference have a critical matchup at RFK Stadium Saturday. D.C. has gutted things out through the softer part of its schedule, but now a meeting with a team in the hunt will test D.C., who will be without the suspended Chris Rolfe after his dangerous challenge on Nick LaBrocca. If anything, the break could give Rolfe a chance to collect his thoughts after a slow start to the season.

They face a NYCFC team that picked up just its second win of the season last time out. Draw-happy early on, NY had lost three of four before the 3-2 win over Vancouver, a gritty win that took overcoming adversity after Vancouver went ahead, then came back to tie things up before Steven Mendoza tied things up with 17 minutes to go. This one’s a big one in the East mix, can anyone come out on top?

Elsewhere

Orlando City FC vs. New York Red Bulls — 7 p.m. ET Friday
Vancouver Whitecaps vs. Portland Timbers — 5 p.m. ET Saturday
Columbus Crew vs. Montreal Impact — 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Houston Dynamo vs. Sporting KC — 8:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Seattle Sounders vs. San Jose Earthquakes — 10 p.m. ET Saturday
L.A. Galaxy vs. New England Revolution — 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Men in Blazers podcast: Jurgen Klopp pod special

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog sits down with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp to give you a taste of his new documentary on the eccentric German boss.

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Klopp hails “unbelievable” player performance to send Liverpool to Europa League final

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 05:  Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool gives instructions to captain James Milner of Liverpool during the UEFA Europa League semi final second leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal CF at Anfield on May 5, 2016 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
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Jurgen Klopp didn’t want any of the credit after Liverpool defeated Villarreal 3-0 at Anfield to send the Reds to Basel with a spot in the Europa League final.

“Wonderful night – a brilliant game from my side,” Klopp said to BT Sport after the game. “What power, what a performance, what attitude with the readiness, motivation, emotion in the game – everything.”

Liverpool held 60% of the possession and out-shot Villarreal 25-6, including 12-2 among shots on target.

“We go to Basel. We take 50,000, 60k, 70k Liverpudlians with us – maybe 100k – not in the stadium, but in the city,” Klopp said of the upcoming final. “Everybody is invited. It is a nice city by the way, close to my home! Let’s go there, create an atmosphere and do our best again. It is well deserved and I am really, really pleased for all the boys.”

Klopp, who hails from Stuttgart, Germany which is under a three hour drive from Basel, made the call to start Daniel Sturridge and Emre Can.

Sturridge was on the bench for the first leg against Villarreal when Liverpool was held scoreless and played the full 90 minutes in their loss to Swansea over the weekend. This time, he forced the opening own-goal and scored the second. Can, meanwhile, hasn’t played in a month due to an ankle injury, but he was a force in front of the Reds back line.

“The only thing we said at half time was that the first half an hour was a big emotion,” Klopp said after the game. “It was great but then the last 15 minutes of the first half we lost patience. We didn’t move them over the pitch as much and tried to go down the middle, but there was no space so we lost balls. We defended well though so nothing happened. The second half plan was to keep going with the emotional football plus using your brain little a bit more and in the end it was brilliant – wonderful goals. The whole night was unbelievable.”

“We have to create atmospheres like this in each Premier League game too.”

Barcelona’s Neymar left out of Brazil’s Copa America squad

RECIFE, BRAZIL - MARCH 25:  Neymar of Brazil reacts  during a match between Brazil and Uruguay as part of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Qualifiers at Arena Pernanbuco on March 25, 2016 in Recife, Brazil.  (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Barcelona star Neymar has been left off Brazil’s squad for the Copa America, which will be played in the United States next month.

Brazil’s coach Dunga accepted the Catalan club’s request to use the striker either at the Copa America or at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August – and the Olympics won.

Dunga’s squad, named on Thursday, includes seven players under the age of 23 – all of whom will be eligible for the Rio games.

Dunga says “We are bringing a competitive team for an important tournament.”

Brazil is in Group B with Ecuador, Haiti and Peru and starts its campaign on June 4 against the Ecuador in Pasadena, California.

The competition, which is celebrating its centenary, will take place for the first time outside of South America.

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Squad:

Goalkeepers: Alisson (Internacional), Diego Alves (Valencia) and Ederson (Benfica).

Defenders: Daniel Alves (Barcelona), Fabinho (Monaco), Filipe Luis (Atletico Madrid), Douglas Santos (Atletico Mineiro), Miranda (Inter Milan), Gil (Shandong Luneng), Marquinhos (Paris Saint Germain), Rodrigo Caio (Sao Paulo).

Midfielders: Luiz Gustavo (Wolfsburg), Elias (Corinthians), Casemiro (Real Madrid), Rafinha (Barcelona), Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan), Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool), Lucas Lima (Santos) and Willian (Chelsea).

Forwards: Douglas Costa (Bayern Munich), Hulk (Zenit), Ricardo Oliveira (Santos) and Gabriel (Santos).