World Cup team preview: Japan

Leave a comment

Getting to know…Japan: Owners of five consecutive World Cup berths, Japan is loaded with attacking talent but seems to come up short too many times when the bright lights are on.  They’ve never made it past the Round of 16, but have slowly progressed with each passing World Cup.

Since Japan began seriously competing on the international stage in 1988, they’ve won a record five Asian Cups and thusly made five appearances in the Confederations Cup.  Unfortunately, it seems that – again – the big stage is their nemesis.

The team most recently faltered in last year’s Confederations Cup, losing all three matches against Brazil, Italy, and Mexico – a scary harbinger of what could come of this World Cup if the team isn’t ready.  However, their group stage draw is favorable, and they remain Asia’s best hope for a good showing in Brazil.

Record in qualifying: Japan finished a disappointing second in their first group stage of Asian qualifying behind Uzbekistan, but it was enough to advance them to the final round, where they qualified automatically by topping their group ahead of Australia and Jordan. Over the course of qualifying, they picked up eight wins, three draws, and three losses.

A look at Group C: Japan has an uphill battle ahead, but advancement isn’t completely out of the question with the group they were given.  They just need to beat out Greece and Ivory Coast, both of which have clear weaknesses which could potentially lead to underperformances.

Colombia is the group favorite, but even they are prone to defensive mistakes, and Group C could be one of the more intriguing storylines to watch early in the World Cup for sure.  If the Japanese can come together as a unit and play to every player’s potential, it’s possible they could find themselves in the knockout round.

Game Schedule:

14 June, 21:00 ET, Recife: Ivory Coast vs. Japan
19 June, 18:00 ET, Natal: Japan vs. Greece
24 June, 16:00 ET, Cuiaba: Japan vs. Colombia

source: Getty Images
Keisuke Honda, paired with Shinji Kagawa up front, can help the Japanese attack carry the team.

Star player: Keisuke Honda

Sure, Shinji Kagawa plays for Manchester United, but without Keisuke Honda, Japan would be utterly doomed. A recent addition at AC Milan, the 27-year-old attacking midfielder has become the most important player for his national team.

His style is perfect for Serie A, and while he still needs time to settle in after his mid-season switch, he can now play his usual role for the national team, which is not only chance creator but chance finisher.

With 53 caps and 20 goals to his name for Japan, Honda is in his prime and ready to lead the way for the Japanese to a surprise finish.

Manager: Alberto Zaccheroni

The sixth foreign manager in Japan’s history, the Italian won Serie A with AC Milan in 1999 and is known for his propensity for a 3-4-3 formation.    However, it wouldn’t appear that we will see his trademark this summer, having left out the proper players for the system, including wing-back Tsukasa Shiotani.

After a troubling finish to his Milan tenure, plus very short stops at Juventus, Lazio, Torino, and Inter, Zaccheroni signed on for the Japanese squad in 2010, leading them to an Asian Cup win in 2011.  Japan then became the first nation to officially qualify for Brazil, back in June of 2013.

Zaccheroni is known as a tactical genius, but is often unwilling to modify his techniques to fit his players. It will be interesting to see how he lines the team up in the World Cup knowing his favorite formation is likely a no-show.

Secret Weapon: Passing and creativity

It’s not exactly a secret, but with Kagawa and Honda together in the midfield, and Yasuhito Endo there as well, the midfield is gushing with creativity. Unfortunately, that leads to a bit of a leakage at the back, with an inexperienced back line and little help from the midfielders.

But with that trio of talent leading the way, striker Yoshito Okubo and young attacker Yoichiro Kakitani should have plenty of chances on goal.  Kick TV’s preview video described Japan’s style as “cracked out tiki-taka” and their fast pace can often catch teams off guard. Just try not to cringe when things go wrong at the back.

Prediction: The key for Japan will be trying to outscore the opponent, and a lot hinges on their defense being not terrible.  If Southampton’s Maya Yoshido, Inter’s Yuto Nagatomo, and Schalke’s Atsudo Uchida can hold things together, Japan could surprise the Ivory Coast and Greece. However, it appears they may need some help as well, including a string of bad results for both of the aforementioned countries, other Japan may have too big of a challenge ahead.

Barcelona sign Neto in goalkeeper swap with Valencia

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Getty Images
1 Comment

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)

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.