2014 World Cup Team Preview: Colombia

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Getting to know… Colombia
Colombia are one of the sides tapped to be a dark horse in this year’s World Cup. In fact, they’ve been tipped by so many to make a splash that the term “dark horse” likely no longer applies. Perhaps it’s better to view Colombia as a white knight, riding in to rescue a tournament which might, without them, simply be way too boring.

But the Colombia team hasn’t always been so swift, so intimidating, so…fun. In fact, it’s been more than fifteen years since we’ve seen them at a World Cup. Their last appearance was in France, when they failed to make it past the group stages. In their four appearances in the tournament, their most successful was in Italia ’90, when they made it to the Round of 16.

Los cafeteros have never won more than one game at the World Cup. This could be the year that all changes. They go to Brazil armed with plenty of attacking talent, with (hopefully fit) Radamel Falcao, James Rodríguez and Jackson Martínez just a few of the names that are available to terrorize defenses. But their defense is strong as well, making Colombia a truly formidable opponent.

Record in qualifying
CONMEBOL qualifiers require all South American teams (except with the exception of hosts Brazil this time around) to play each other twice, home and away. So Colombia can’t be accused of having an easy group, or a simpler route to qualifying than the rest of the continent’s sides.

Yet they still managed to reach second in CONMEBOL qualifying, two points behind heavyweights Brazil, and five points ahead of Uruguay, who were so successful in South Africa. Colombia scored 27 goals in 16 matches while conceding just 13, the lowest total on the continent.

A look at Group C 
Will winning the group be a breeze for Colombia? It certainly doesn’t look challenging. First up is Greece, who are known for their defensive style of play. But when up against quality opponents in UEFA qualifying, Greece caved and conceded. It should be no problem for Colombia to get goals.

Then comes Ivory Coast, a rather aging squad. They’ll need to worry about Yaya Touré and the seemingly never-ending threat of Didier Drogba, but again, Colombia should come out on top. Japan may worry the cafeteros defense, but their own back line isn’t the most solid, so the closing match should at least provide plenty of attacking thrills.

Game schedule

Saturday, June 14 at 12 noon ET: Colombia vs. Greece (Estadio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Thursday, June 19 at 12 noon ET: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast (Nacional, Brasilia)

Tuesday, June 24 at 4 p.m. ET: Japan vs. Colombia (Arena Pantanal, Cuiabá)

Star player
For better or for worse, Colombia’s star is Radamel Falcao. He hasn’t played since his injury and subsequent operation in January, but he’s still set to be included when José Pékerman names his final squad. The forward scored nine goals in thirteen qualifying matches, and his partnership with Monaco teammate James Rodríguez should not be understated. The midfielder is a key creator for Colombia, but it’s Falcao that applies the finish. If Falcao suffers another injury setback, Jackson Martínez will step in, but will he and James click the same?

Manager
José Pékerman lead Argentina to the quarterfinals of the 2006 World Cup, then spent time managing in Mexico. He accepted the position of Colombia head coach in January 2012, becoming the third manager of los cafeteros during the 2014 qualifying stages. He came in after the side lost to Argentina, and that’s when the Colombian revolution began.

It’s Pékerman that has exploited Colombia’s wealth of attacking talent. His 4-2-2-2 system not only takes advantage of the likes of Falcao, but also makes use of Colombia’s talented wide players, like Napoli’s Camilo Zúñiga and Fiorentina’s Juan Cuadrado.

Secret weapon
Coffee!

No, not really. I have no idea if the Colombia national team sips a lot of coffee. But it’s appropriate that their nickname is los cafeterosor the coffee-growers. Although Colombia has left much of its violent past behind, the country’s name still conjures up armed guerrillas and drug cartels. About the only previous positive association most people could make with Colombia was its delicious coffee.

Now, Colombia could very well be associated with free-flowing, attack-minded football as well.

Prediction

I have Colombia emerging top of Group C and going on to face Italy in the Round of 16. After Italy’s performance against Ireland, I’m tipping Colombia to move on to the quarter-finals, where they’ll be knocked out by Brazil.

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.