World Cup team preview: Ivory Coast

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Getting to know…Ivory Coast: Possibly Africa’s strongest contender this year, Les Elephants have a strong squad but surprisingly a weak history as a soccer nation as far as results go.

The Ivory Coast has never escaped from the group stage of the World Cup, with this year being just their third go at the competition.  In addition, they’ve been relative newcomers on the African stage, with just one previous win in the African Cup of Nations (1992) and only in the past four competitions have they put together a string of deep runs.

However, if there’s one knock on the Ivorian team, it’s that years of building from the ground up has seen it run with a core group of players for years now, and that core is aging. The Toure brothers Kolo and Yaya are 33 and 31 respectively, and while the younger of the two seems to just be peaking now, he too may not have many years left on the international stage.

But there is also relief coming.  Wilfried Bony looks poised to take 36-year-old Didier Drogba’s place once the ageless wonder finally calls it quits, with Lacina Traore there to add another young attacking threat as well.  While he’s often a red card waiting to happen, midfield enforcer Chieck Tiote is there to help Yaya Toure if his legs do indeed tire.

It’s a strong squad, both literally and figuratively, and the typically African style of play could take them to new heights in Brazil.

Record in qualifying: The Ivorians dominated its CAF qualification group of Morocco, Tanzania, and Gambia, going undefeated throughout group play with four wins and two draws.  In the knockout round they drew Senegal, and a 3-1 home victory in the first leg gave them room to work with, and they put Senegal down with a 1-1 draw in the second leg. Salomon Kalou finished the competition with five goals, one behind the leading tally of six.

A look at Group C: Ivory Coast could be Africa’s strongest squad, but they also have the best chance to advance for another reason: their group is, at first glance, soft.  It’s not “easy” as there are no easy groups once you get to the big show, but is doesn’t seem to be powerful.  Colombia is facing a defensive crisis, Greece possibly overperformed during UEFA qualification, and Japan has a few top talents but as a team isn’t exactly a contender.

The Elephants have their own issues to deal with, but they look poised for the knockout round should they capitalize on their less challenging group.

Game schedule:

14 June, 21:00 ET, Recife: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
19 June, 12:00 ET, Brasilia: Colombia vs. Ivory Coast
24 June, 16:00 ET, Fortaleza: Greece vs. Ivory Coast

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Yaya Toure may now be the Ivory Coast’s best player, but it’s impossible to forget about Didier Drogba and his storied career.

Star player: Yaya Toure

Fresh off winning the Premier League title, Manchester City’s Yaya Toure is looking now to lead his country to success as well.  With Didier Drogba likely on the final legs of his international career, the 36-year-old has shown his age this past year at Galatasaray, and it’s Toure’s time to assert his dominance in the midfield.

He’s known for his midfield presence, his incredible precision, and his free kicks, but there’s no doubt that Toure can score goals.  He has a cannon of a right foot, and with 20 goals for City last season, Toure will look to add to Drogba and Bony’s production up front.  With Toure giving defenders yet another body to think about, this attack is dangerous if it fulfills its potential.

Manager: Sabri Lamouchi

French-born and of Tunisian descent, the Ivory Coast position is Lamouchi’s first managerial job after a successful European career came to an end in 2009.  Lamouchi spent time as a player at Monaco, Inter, and Marseille before finishing up in the Qatari league.  He also earned 12 caps for the French national team.

The 42-year-old was appointed just a week before World Cup qualifying began in 2012, but assimilated well into the fold and kept his country from faltering as the continent’s number 1 seed. It was a curious appointment at the time, considering his predecessor Francois Zahoui had just led the Ivory Coast to the finals of the African Cup of Nations, losing to Zambia.  Discussions began to keep Zahoui, the first and only Ivorian to ever coach the team, at the helm but those negotiations broke down and Lamouchi was brought in.

Lamouchi has admitted the hardest part of his job at the moment is taking a squad of players all at completely different fitness levels after the club season and getting them to work together while also leveling out their fitness.  However, his

Secret Weapon: Experience

Experience is often used as a euphemism for “age” and in this case that’s not totally untrue, but it’s impossible to ignore the international careers of many in the squad.  Defenders Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora both have over 100 caps, as does Didier Drogba up front, but those aren’t the only experienced members.

Gervinho and Salomon Kalou both have over 50 caps and are both 27 and 28 respectively, and both are coming off positive club seasons – Gervinho in particular.  Cheik Tiote, Sol Bamba, and Seydou Doumbia all have World Cup experience and are under the age of 30.  This is a team that has been here before, and that should absolutely help them overcome a few weaknesses.

Prediction: Given the opportunity of a softer group, the Ivorians take advantage.  Signs point to a letdown from Greece, and that should allow Côte d’Ivoire to leapfrog and earn their first-ever knockout round berth.

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.