World Cup 2014: Who’s your dark horse of the tournament?

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According to Wikipedia, a “dark horse” is “a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence, especially in a competition of some sort.” In the context of the World Cup, it’s the countries that are unlikely to really lift the trophy, but still could give the big-shots a decent scare. 

In other words, the phrase “dark horse” doesn’t apply to the likes of Brazil, Spain, Germany or Argentina. It’s not usually used to describe England, who’ve got a solid history but rarely come close to the Cup, or to talk about France, who also have history but are in a bit of a rebuilding phase.

And it’s probably a bit of a stretch to talk about, say, Honduras as a “dark horse”, as they’re highly unlikely to suddenly “emerge to prominence.”

Finally, Belgium? Colombia? Please. These teams no longer fit the distinction of “little-known,” with their names being bandied about since before they even clinched a trip to Brazil.

So with that criteria set out, let’s talk about four teams that really could cause a few upsets in the 2014 World Cup:

Switzerland
Could the world’s most neutral country really produce a team that wins such a prestigious tournament? It’s possible. First, Switzerland are drawn into the “Group of Life,” with Ecuador, Honduras, and a France side that could very well repeat its disastrous performances of 2010.  Group E’s winner goes on to face the runner-up in Group F, likely to be Bosnia or Nigeria. Right there, you’ve got the possibility of the Swiss advancing further than they have since 1954, when they went out in the quarter-finals.

Then, take a look at their side. If you’re not a fan of German or Italian football, a quick glance might not impress you. But Switzerland have some fantastically talented individuals: Stephan Lichtsteiner of Juventus in defense, with Napoli’s midfield trio of Gokhan Inler, Blerim Dzemaili and Valon Behrami available to break up play in front of the back line. Gladbach’s Granit Xhaka can link up play, while Bayern Munich’s Xherdan Shaqiri joins in the attack. Up front could well be young Josip Drmić, third top-scorer in the Bundesliga this season – 17 from a club that scored just 37.

Chile
Ouch. Chile got drawn into Group B, together with Spain and the Netherlands: the two sides that played in the 2010 World Cup final. But there’s a vital piece of information to remember, here: Holland’s performance in Euro 2012. The team was a shambles, and while much of the defense has been given a shake-up, Louis van Gaal is still relying on some rather tired players.

Unlike Chile, whose squad has remained rather consistent. For the most part, they’re not a flashy side, but they do love a good attack. That’s led by La Roja‘s biggest name, Alexis Sánchez from Barcelona. Eduardo Vargas is one to watch as well – the attacker’s been on loan away from Napoli for the past two seasons, something that most fans of the Italian side don’t understand, as he’s an exciting talent who’s already scored 11 goals in 28 appearances for Chile. And, of course, they have Arturo Vidal, a lynch-pin in Juventus’s title-winning side, and one who can both create and destroy an attack.

Ivory Coast
Any squad with Yaya Touré included must be up for discussion. Sure, soccer’s a team sport, but the midfielder almost seems to create a team around him. It seems as though Ivory Coast has been mentioned has having an outside shot ever since Didier Drogba came into prominence, qualifying for the first time in 2006.

But they’ve never made it past the group stage – is this their year? Their back line looks rather weak, but their attack could more than make up for it. In addition to  Touré, they’ve got Gervinho, who’s been an absolute beast for Roma this season, starting 30 games, scoring nine goals, wracking up ten assists and just generally terrorizing defenses. There’s also something to be said for Drogba’s remaining magic. At 36 years old, it’s difficult to believe he can still create a splash, but you just get the feeling that he’ll inevitably score some crazy goal in Brazil.

Croatia
It’s hard to imagine that a side that could barely make it past Iceland in their UEFA playoff match could emerge as a true challenger in the World Cup. But those were Niko Kovač’s first games in charge, and there’s a feeling that under the new manager, Croatia might really flourish. He’s got a plan and he’s sticking to it, and with that clear guidance comes confidence amongst his team.

And then there’s the pint-sized pot of magic known as Luka Modrić. The Real Madrid midfielder doesn’t get much of the spotlight, but it’s clear he’s one of the anchors of los merengues. So too with his national team. Playing alongside Ivan Rakitić, the two build up Croatia’s play, and if Inter’s Mateo Kovačić is added to the midfield, things could really get fun. And up front, there’s the man everyone is hoping to sign this summer, Bayern’s Mario Mandžukić.

LIVE: Aston Villa, Fulham battle for Premier League promotion

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The task is quite simple for the two sides competing at Wembley Stadium on Saturday; win and you’re back in the Premier League.

Aston Villa and Fulham will battle it out for the third and final promotion spot into the PL (12 p.m. ET) after boasting tremendous 2017/18 campaigns.

LIVE UPDATES FOR THE PLAYOFF FINAL 

For both clubs, there is a significance about restoring their role as a PL club, with Fulham last competing in the top flight four seasons ago and Villa two seasons removed.


Aston Villa: Johnstone; Chester, Snodgrass, Grealish, Hourihane, Jedinak, Hutton, Terry, Elmohamady, Adomah, Grabban. Bench: Whelan, Hogan, Bree, Onomah, Bjarnason, Kodjia, Bunn.

Fulham: Bettenelli; Fredericks, Sessegnon, Odoi, McDonald, Johansen, Cairney, Ream, Targett, Mitrovic, Kamara. Bench: Button, Fonte, Ayite, Norwood, Piazon, Christie, Kalas.

Cream of the crop: Ranking all 23 current MLS managers

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When it comes to “who’s the best?” arguments, they usually encompass which team or player has earned the right to call themselves king.

[ MORE: Chicharito says Mexican team always feels welcome in U.S. ]

Recently though, conversations over social media had us thinking about Major League Soccer, and more specifically, the managerial side of the game.

Household names like Gerardo Martino and Bob Bradley are surely considered to be among the best of the best, and that got us here at Pro Soccer Talk listing the all the potential candidates.

We’re ranking all 23 current MLS managers, based on past performance (wins/losses), longevity at their club and ability to construct a high-caliber roster.


23. Ben Olsen — D.C. United

Olsen’s value to D.C. as both a player and manager cannot go unstated, but his struggles in the latter department have been mounting for years now. Outside of an Open Cup win in 2013, Olsen has been quite underwhelming given the team’s history.

22. Anthony Hudson — Colorado Rapids

It was a tough situation to come into, but some of the player moves that Hudson made in his first season were just mind-boggling.

21. Remi Garde — Montreal Impact

Wholesale changes could be coming at the Impact sooner rather than later, and Garde’s early difficulties make you wonder how long he’ll be around.

20. Mikael Stahre — San Jose Earthquakes 

The Earthquakes have made a conscious effort to get younger, so Stahre deserves some more time to get acquainted.

19. Adrian Heath — Minnesota United

It’s been a tough go in Minnesota for Heath, particularly in the injury department. However, his struggles seem to carry with him throughout MLS, whether it was previously in Orlando or currently with the Loons.

18. Jim Curtin — Philadelphia Union

The club’s unwillingness to spend has really crippled Curtin, who deserves to be higher on this list, but there are simply too many quality coaches in the league right now.

17. Veljko Paunovic — Chicago Fire

Since arriving in the U.S., Paunovic has gone heavy with high-profile moves, whether that be Nemanja Nikolic or trading for Dax McCarty. He’s had his shares of ups and downs, so we’ll have to monitor if he gets over some of the humps this season.

16. Brad Friedel — New England Revolution

Friedel’s first season in New England is probably going about as well as he would have hoped for. After getting situated with Lee Nguyen, Friedel has seemed to have brought a real presence that has allowed players like Diego Fagundez and Teal Bunbury to thrive.

15. Giovanni Savarese — Portland Timbers

In a small sample size, Savarese has essentially picked up where Caleb Porter left off with a talented Timbers squad. Time will tell how well he can sustain success in MLS.

14. Mike Petke — Real Salt Lake

RSL boasts one of the best, young squads in MLS with its academy continuing to be a driving force, but Petke has had his share of struggles handling some of the team’s well-known players.

13. Jason Kreis — Orlando City

He has an MLS Cup, so yes, there is a legitimate argument to have him higher. However, his time in New York was one of a nightmare, although not entirely unexpected for an expansion side. That carried over in Orlando until this season, so perhaps a sustained run in 2018 could boost his stock once again.

12. Sigi Schmid — LA Galaxy

Schmid has been stuck with a lot of the holdovers from the previous Galaxy regime, but he has to figure things out very soon because there is a clear gap between the top six and the rest of the Western Conference field at the moment.

11. Wilmer Cabrera — Houston Dynamo

Cabrera has erased a lot of the aftertaste from his time at Chivas USA, and 2018 has been even more impressive given the fact that he and his squad lost Erick “Cubo” Torres during the offseason.

10. Oscar Pareja — FC Dallas

Last season’s second half struggles were likely an anomaly for Pareja and Dallas. He continues to develop talented players through the academy pipeline, which is why Dallas will be in contention in the West once again this season.

9. Patrick Vieira — New York City FC

The Frenchman has brought stability to the Bronx since arriving in 2016, and despite the team’s lack of playoff success, NYCFC has built a strong roster that is honestly one of the most entertaining to watch when clicking on all cylinders.

8. Carl Robinson — Vancouver Whitecaps

His record is dead even across the board 70-49-70 since taking over the Whitecaps, but Robinson has helped his side make the playoffs in three of four seasons, while also hoisting a Canadian Championship.

7. Brian Schmetzer — Seattle Sounders

Consecutive trips to MLS Cup, including one title, is no small feat. Schmetzer may very well be the most-underrated coach in MLS.

6. Greg Vanney — Toronto FC

2018 hasn’t been ideal for Vanney and TFC, but he helped construct one of the best teams in league history, and when healthy, they are still capable of living up to that billing.

5. Gregg Berhalter — Columbus Crew

Despite some of the off-field turmoil surrounding the Crew, Berhalter has instilled a winning culture, and this season might be his best job yet as a manager.

4. Peter Vermes — Sporting KC

There’s a reason why Vermes is the longest-tenured manager in MLS. The club has qualified for the postseason in seven straight seasons under Vermes, including an MLS Cup win in 2013.

3. Bob Bradley — Los Angeles FC

Bradley’s journey back to MLS came with criticism based on his time outside the states, but it’s very clear he knows what he’s doing in the U.S.. LA FC is following in the footsteps of Atlanta from a season ago, which is a scary thought.

2. Gerardo “Tata” Martino — Atlanta United

Martino’s already-impressive reputation has only increased since arriving in Atlanta last year. All the credit cannot solely go to Martino, but much of the team’s success in less than two seasons can go to the Argentine.

1. Jesse Marsch — New York Red Bulls

It’s easy to argue for some of the names other than Marsch at number one, but his system with the Red Bulls has become iconic. The club doesn’t overspend on players, and Marsch manages to get the most out of his Homegrowns and other young squad members.

Workers to fix automation issues on Atlanta stadium’s roof

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ATLANTA (AP) Workers will begin the final construction phase of Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s tricky retractable roof on Tuesday, nine months after the facility opened.

The $1.5 billion stadium will be open in good weather for the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United games. Automation problems kept the roof closed for most of the stadium’s first year.

Beginning Tuesday, the roof will remain in a locked open position for 10 days, including June 2, when Atlanta United plays the Philadelphia Union.

The management group of Arthur Blank, who owns the Falcons and Atlanta United, says the final commissioning work to complete the automation will last several weeks.

When work is completed, the roof is expected to close or open in as few as 12 minutes.

“The complexity of the design and our heavy events schedule has made it take longer than we had hoped, but great things take time and we’re happy to see the finish line,” Steve Cannon, CEO of Blank’s management group, said in a statement.

The stadium will be host to the 2019 Super Bowl. The NFL prefers for the roof to be open for the Super Bowl, weather permitting.

The roof has been closed for most major events at the new stadium, including the Southeastern Conference championship game, Peach Bowl and College Football Playoff national championship game.

For the Falcons’ first season in their new home, the roof was open only for the first home regular-season game against Green Bay.

Falcons CEO Rich McKay said on Jan. 24 the plan was to have more games played with the roof “fully operational.”

“Fully operational means you will see us go to much more of an open configuration as we designed at the beginning,” McKay said. “When it’s ready to go, we’ll be open depending on weather.”

Ongoing work on the roof delayed the 2017 opening of the stadium by about a month. Atlanta United used Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium as its temporary home for the inaugural season in 2017 before moving to the new stadium.

The stadium will host the men’s NCAA Final Four in 2020.

For more NFL coverage: http://www.pro32.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

MLS roundup: Dynamo top NYCFC, Toronto suffers seventh defeat

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Three matches took over the slate of Major League Soccer’s Friday night fixture list, and it was a rough evening for two of the Eastern Conference’s best clubs.

Here’s a look back at the night’s matches.


Toronto FC 0-1 FC Dallas

Last season’s MLS Cup winners are in some real danger right now, with Greg Vanney’s side losing their seventh match of the year on Friday. To put that into context, TFC lost five regular season matches a season ago, en route to their first MLS title. Despite a dominating effort from the host, including nine shots on target (23 shots overall), Sebastian Giovinco and TFC simply couldn’t break past Dallas goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez.

In all, Gonzalez made nine saves on the night. Check out a few of them below.

Houston Dynamo 3-1 New York City FC

David Villa made the Dynamo pay for an early miscommunication in clearing from the back, but after that, the home side simply dominated. The NYCFC back line looked out of sorts on a number of occasions, including the first goal allowed on an Alejandro Fuenmayor header at the far post. The Dynamo are now unbeaten in their last four matches.

LA Galaxy 1-0 San Jose Earthquakes

In reality, this was probably an unfair result considering the way the two sides have been playing as of late. Neither side managed a shot on target until the 82nd minute, however, the Galaxy nicked a goal late through Romain Alessandrini.

The Quakes had reason to be furious though in the first half when Valeri Qazaishvili’s volley from inside the Galaxy penalty area hit the arm of Emrah Klimenta. No penalty decision was made though, and it was likely the only legitimate chance of the match.