2014 World Cup Team Preview: Spain

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Getting to know… Spain
If you don’t know Spain, the 2014 World Cup is likely your first – and you’re probably new to international soccer on the whole. La furia roja took top honors in the 2010 tournament in South Africa, then followed it up by beating Italy to become champions of Euro 2012. They also won Euro 2008, making them seem practically invincible.

It may surprise you to know, however, that Spain haven’t always been such high achievers. Prior to 2008, Spain’s last real success came in 1964, when they won the European Championship. It then took twenty years for them to reach the final, while in the World Cup, their greatest success before 2010 was making it to the Round of 16.

Record in qualifying
The World Cup holders were handed a fairly easy group for UEFA qualifying. Group I, the only group to feature just five teams, included Belarus, Finland and Georgia. France were really the only team to give Spain much trouble, hanging on until the death in their tie in Madrid. Persistence paid off, Olivier Giroud scored deep in extra time, and France came away with a point.

Spain’s only real shock in qualifying came last March, when Finland, against the run of play, equalized when ten minutes left to play. That left la roja two points behind France. But Spain went on to win their final four matches, including the reverse fixture against les bleus, and finish top of the group.

A look at Group B

Obviously the number 1-ranked team is going to be seeded, so you’d think that Spain would end up being able to take it easy in the group stages, easily clinching a place in the next round. Not so. Alongside Spain in Group B we have Holland, Chile and Australia. This group could very well be one of the most intriguing to watch.

Netherlands will be determined to extract a little revenge, seeing as Spain beat them in the final four years ago (and the oranje were so impotent in Euro 2012 that the two didn’t even meet). Chile is a solid side with some attacking flair – if they can get the ball, they can likely cause trouble for Spain’s defense. As for Australia, no one expects them to progress, but they could still make life difficult for la roja.

Game schedule

Friday, June 13 at 3 p.m. ET: Spain vs. Netherlands (Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador)

Wednesday, June 18 at 3 p.m. ET: Spain vs. Chile (Estadio do Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro)

Monday, June 23 at 12 noon ET: Australia vs. Spain (Arena da Baixada, Curitiba)

Star player
Naming the star on Spain’s squad is nigh near impossible. The majority play for Barcelona and Real Madrid, with a scattered few at Chelsea and both Manchester clubs. The least-known player is Ander Iturraspe, yet to be capped for his country, who plays for Champions League-bound Athletico Bilbao.

For Spain, it’s more about leaving the egos in the dressing room in order to come together on the pitch. The team needs to be in tune to play their tiki-taka, possessing, passing, pressing forward. The names of the men that get this done are almost instantly recognizable: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, David Silva.

And, of course, they’re still hoping that Atlético Madrid star Diego Costa will be fit enough to make the trip – for all Spain have going for them, they still lack a little shine up front.

(READ MORE: SPAIN ANNOUNCE 23-MAN WORLD CUP ROSTER)

Manager
Vicente del Bosque was at the helm when Spain lifted the Cup in South Africa, he was there when they took top honors in Euro 2012, and he’s still there, ready to make the last-minute adjustments necessary to ensuring his side make a deep run in Brazil. Del Bosque’s respectful of his players, adored by the Spanish public and, yes, won the World Cup already. There’s not much to find fault with.

Secret weapon
The dazzling brilliance of their goalkeeping kit. Iker Casillas may have played zero La Liga matches this season, and Victor Valdes may be out with injury, but Spain should have no worries about the men between the sticks. They’ll be wearing a glowing light blue shirt, which will be further highlighted by the outfield players’ uniforms: for the first time, Spain will be wearing all red, rather than the traditional red-shirts-with-blue-tops ensemble.

Prediction
When filling out my bracket, I had Spain beating Belgium in the semi-finals…only to end up facing Brazil at the Maracanã. Sorry, la roja, I just don’t think you’ll lift two consecutive cups.

Of course, if Spain stumble and finish second in their group, they’ll meet Brazil right away, which means they could very well be set for an early exit.

Agree? Disagree?

Barcelona sign Neto in goalkeeper swap with Valencia

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says Brazilian goalkeeper Neto will sign a four-year contract with the Spanish champions.

The transfer completes a swap a day after Barcelona sold Jasper Cillessen to Valencia.

Barcelona says it is paying 26 million euros ($29.5 million) plus possibly another 9 million euros ($10.2 million) in variables for Neto. Valencia paid Barcelona 35 million euros ($40 million) for Cillessen.

Neto will replace Cillessen, who played as a backup for Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Champions League and the Spanish league and only regularly started in the Copa del Rey.

The 29-year-old Neto helped Valencia qualify for the Champions League with a fourth-place finish for the past two seasons in Spain. He also played in Italy at Juventus as a backup to Gianluigi Buffon and at Fiorentina after starting at Brazilian club Paranaense.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

USMNT v. Panama: Three things we learned

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It wasn’t always pretty, but the U.S. Men’s National Team eked out a 1-0 win over Panama in Kansas City, Kan. on Wednesday night to win its group. Jozy Altidore scored the game’s only goal in stunning fashion, finishing an overhead kick to put Panama away and set up a quarterfinal bout with Curacao on Sunday evening.

Here are three of the biggest takeaways from Wednesday’s win:

[READ: All the latest USMNT news here]


Jozy Altidore is still the best we’ve got

Many U.S. Men’s National Team fans have called for the forced retirements of Altidore and Michael Bradley, among many others, after the debacle that was the last World Cup cycle.

Until tonight, Altidore wasn’t in the USMNT picture, in part due to Dave Sarachan using younger players and Altidore continuing to suffer a series of muscle injuries since October 2017. And yet, if tonight’s game showed anything in Altidore’s 83 minutes on the pitch, it’s that he’s still the best option for the USMNT up top. While Gregg Berhalter clearly prefers Gyasi Zardes right now based on their previous work history together in Columbus, Zardes doesn’t have the strength or skill that Altidore does. It’s hard to imagine Zardes executing an overhead kick and it going in as sweetly as Altidore did.

What does this mean going forward? Regardless of if Zardes starts the rest of the way, Berhalter knows that he has Altidore always around who can give the U.S. a goal, especially on home soil and when fit. But it also lays the marker down for Zardes, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent and the other up and coming strikers that this is the level they need to meet, and beat, if they want to break into the starting lineup under Berhalter.

There’s speed to burn on the wings

It may not have had a huge impact on Wednesday, but in bringing Tyler Boyd and Christian Pulisic off the bench, Berhalter showed exactly why he’s brought so many speedy skill players along the wings.

While Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis couldn’t figure out the final pass or final touch in the box to score a goal, just their presence for 65-70 minutes tired out the backline, and the introductions of Pulisic and Boyd could have really unlocked the Panama defense. While it didn’t totally work on Wednesday, it could in the later stages of the tournament, especially in a potential rematch with either Panama or Jamaica in the semifinals and Mexico in the finals.

With Lewis and Morris likely available off the bench, that adds a new piece opponents have to worry about, both in terms of speed and dribbling ability.

Few impressed in a chance to earn a starting spot

It’s been nearly two years since the debacle in Trinidad and Tobago, and yet aside from maybe Matt Miazga or Nick Lima, there have been very few players who have done much to impress and prove they’re better than the previous cycle’s players. That continued on Wednesday with an MLS-heavy lineup. Wil Trapp, a midfielder with so much promise a few years ago, appears to have stalled. He had multiple turnovers and certainly didn’t look as sharp as Michael Bradley.

While Lewis and Morris have plenty of pace, their final pass was woeful and they didn’t do themselves any favors. Djordje Mihailovic was never going to push Pulisic out of the starting lineup, but Mihailovic didn’t exactly do enough to say that he should be the first man off the bench either, or to push Pulisic into a wing role with Mihailovic in the middle.

Aside from Matt Miazga and Omar Gonzalez in the middle, along with Altidore up top, no one in the lineup really did enough through the first 65 minutes to warrant another start in the tournament. It’s yet another disappointment as young players get chance after chance to prove they belong as starters, only to waste the opportunity, enabling the veterans to keep their role. More players need to keep pushing for those spots, whether through club form or national team performances. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the same situation as before.

 

USMNT remains perfect, tops Panama to win group (video)

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In his first start since the U.S. Men’s National Team’s infamous defeat to Trinidad and Tobago, Jozy Altidore showcased his strength, speed and technical ability to help lead the U.S. to victory.

Altidore’s outstanding bicycle kick goal proved to be the difference in a sometimes dour game as the USMNT topped Panama, 1-0, Wednesday evening at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kan. The win kept the U.S. perfect through the Gold Cup group stage with no goals allowed, and it has somewhat erased the memory of the USMNT’s horrible run-up to the tournament, with defeats to Jamaica and Venezuela now firmly in the rear-view mirror.

[MUST-SEE GOAL: Jozy Altidore]

With the win, both teams head to Philadelphia for the quarterfinals this Sunday. Panama plays the undercard matchup against Jamaica while the USMNT faces Curacao.

Coming off two wins to open the Gold Cup, Berhalter decided to use a completely changed starting lineup, featuring ten players from MLS teams along with Chelsea loanee Matt Miazga. Although there was some familiarity of the players on the field, it was at times a very poor match, with the USMNT struggling badly in the final third and even turning the ball over at midfield or leading the attack.

Despite winning the possession battle, 62-38, the USMNT didn’t do much with it. Jordan Morris and Jonathan Lewis, both of whom were subbed out, struggled on their crosses after beating a defender. The pair provided energy and hard running defensively but it didn’t lead to many chances. Altidore had the best of the first half when he was played into the box, but his strike from the right just went wide of the net.

In the 65th minute, Berhalter tried to inject some life in the game with the introduction of Christian Pulisic. It turned out a goal could come just after, but without the intervention of Pulisic.

Djordje Mihailovic drilled the corner kick to the far post where it was met by the head of Matt Miazga who sent it back towards goal. A missed clearance from Panama popped the ball up in the air above the back post, allowing Altidore the time he needed to lift off the ground and bicycle kick it in for the game’s only goal.

Berhalter later brought on both Tyler Boyd and Gyasi Zardes off the bench to try and score an insurance goal, but Panama’s defense held strong and the U.S. failed to threaten the rest of the way. However, the U.S. backline kept a third-consecutive clean sheet and key players such as Michael Bradley got the entire game off to rest before likely returning to the lineup this weekend.

 

 

Must-See Goal: Jozy Altidore puts USMNT in front with Bicycle Kick

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Jozy Altidore put his stamp on the game and gave U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter more to speak about with one fell swing.

Altidore finished off a corner kick in spectacular fashion, executing a perfect bicycle kick to put the USMNT up 1-0 in the 66th minute. The goal came one minute after the entrance of Christian Pulisic, which perhaps was on the mind of the Panama defense.

It was Altidore’s second-straight game vs. Panama with a goal. His last two were in October 2017, when the U.S. pummeled Panama, 4-0. Of course, a few days later, a tired USMNT failed to win at Trinidad and Tobago.