World Cup Today: Sunday builds to mouth-watering finale

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WORLD CUP TODAY: SUNDAY, JUNE 15

Three matches grace our televisions today, and while they all have something to offer, none are as drool-inducing as the last one of the day, when we get to watch Lionel Messi begin his quest for a World Cup title.

All three games today have a clear favorite and a clear underdog, but if we’ve learned anything so far in this World Cup, it’s expect the unexpected.

Yesterday Costa Rica went out and shocked Uruguay, as CONCACAF continues to perform well in Brazil.  Ivory Coast also came back from a 1-0 deficit against Japan after looking lackluster for much of the first half.

The moral of the story is there are no pushovers in the World Cup, something we should have expected coming in, but still our minds tend to offer us doses of expectations such as “team x should run over team y.”

That is hardly the case, unless of course you’re the defending champions, whose besting by the Netherlands on Friday still resonates in the back of our minds.

Yesterday did its best to write its own story, as the busiest slate of the month-long journey also gave us Italian solidity with a convincing 2-1 win over England that featured a winner from none other than Super Mario.

One game that was never in doubt was yesterday’s opener, when Colombia made a statement by thoroughly dominating a defensively solid Greece side 3-0.

source: AP
Xherdan Shaqiri remains the most recognizable name in a very young Switzerland squad.

MATCH 9: SWITZERLAND vs ECUADOR
Location: Estadio Nacional, Brasilia
Time: 12:00pm ET
SOCCERLY PREVIEW | SOCCERLY MATCHCENTER

Cheater’s guide:
Group E begins with an intriguing matchup between two relative unknowns. Switzerland won its European qualifying group, but the group was nothing to boast about, consisting of such powerhouses as Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania, and Cyprus. This Swiss team has changed much since then, and the world still doesn’t know what to make of their young squad. However, they have done what top teams do against inferior competition, and that’s amounted to just one loss in their last 18 matches over the past two years. Ecuador knows that they don’t have to face group favorites France until the final round, meaning a pair of wins here and against Honduras could send them through before even facing its toughest test.

What they’re saying:

“We began the revolution in 2011 when we brought in younger players,” Said Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said at the stadium yesterday. “We have a very strong younger generation and we also have young, yet experienced, players. In that sense we have a better mix and in human terms the team is better suited to each other. We are a bit more creative going forward and in defence we are still well organized.”

They’re really, really young.

History:
This is the first time the two sides will meet.

Premier League players:
Switzerland – Philippe Senderos (Aston Villa)
Ecuador – Antonio Valencia (Manchester United)

MLS players:
Switzerland – None
Ecuador – Oswaldo Minda (Chivas USA)

RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly

 

source: AP
Karim Benzema (left) will lead France without Franck Ribery, who was replaced by Real Sociedad’s Antoine Grizemann (right).

MATCH 10: FRANCE vs. HONDURAS
Location: Estadio Beira-Rio, Porto Alegre
Time: 3:00pm ET
SOCCERLY PREVIEW | SOCCERLY MATCHCENTER

Cheater’s guide:
The Group E matchup of the day with a more expected outcome, we get our first look at France sans Franck Ribery.  Keep an eye on Antoine Griezmann, who has replaced Ribery in the starting lineup. The highly coveted 23-year old winger has  burst onto the scene since Ribery’s exclusion, making the most of his opportunity in the pre-Cup friendlies for France. For Honduras, the 33rd team in FIFA’s rankings, they’re just looking to make noise.  The hope of advancement may not be entirely there, but crazier things have happened, and in essentially a throwaway game to start, they could look to leave it all on the table with nothing to lose.

What they’re saying:
Hondurans felt incredibly disrespected by a TV program played in France called “The Miserables of Honduras.” Honduran journalist Copan Alvarez:

“It is true that this story was very badly received in the country. Not for the content, as it is told is a good reflection of the reality of our football and our society, but for the title. The word “miserable” insulted some.”

History:
None.

Premier League players:
France – Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle), Bacary Sagna (Manchester City), Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool), Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Moussa Sissokho (Newcastle), Morgan Schneiderlin (Southampton), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Loic Remy (QPR).
Honduras – Maynor Figueroa (Hull City), Wilson Palacios (Stoke City)

MLS players:
France – none
Honduras – Victor Bernardez (San Jose), Boenik Garcia (Houston), Marvin Chavez (Chivas USA), Jerry Bengtson (New England).

 

source: Getty Images
Manchester City teammates Edin Dzeko (left) and Sergio Aguero will be on opposite sides at the Maracana.

MATCH 11: ARGENTINA vs BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA
Location: Estadio Maracana, Rio de Janeiro
Time: 6:00pm ET
SOCCERLY PREVIEW | SOCCERLY MATCHCENTER

Cheater’s guide:
Looking at the power of the Bosnian side, it’s easy to forget the country is making its World Cup debut this summer. As a reward? They’re handed Argentina in its opener, one of the most storied countries in this event. But even they have plenty of question marks, and many of them surround Lionel Messi. Will Messi, in the prime of his career, finally produce the form he has so often displayed at Barcelona for his country? Can he get over the hump? Will he cement his place alongside Diego Maradona as an Argentinian legend, or will he simply be that guy who was really good in Spain? The journey of Messi, Sergio Aguero, and the star-studded squad begins with about as tough a test as they could have asked for, a Bosnian squad boasting its own set of stars in its first-ever World Cup.

What they’re saying:
“It is hard not to feel honoured when important people compare you with Maradona – he’s the best there’s ever been,” said Lionel Messi. “My message, though, is please don’t compare me with him yet. He won a World Cup for our nation, and until I’ve managed to do the same the comparisons are not something I welcome or accept. I know I have a responsibility, especially as captain, to the people of Argentina but I try not to let that pressure get to me. I approach every game – it doesn’t matter if it is a Champions League final or a World Cup game – as I did as a child … and that is to have fun.”

He’s saying all the right things, now can he perform on the field?

History:
They’ve met twice, with Argentina winning both matchups.

Premier League players:
Argentina – Pablo Zabaleta (Manchester City), Martin Demichelis (Manchester City), Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Bosnia-Herzegovina – Asmir Begovic (Stoke City), Edin Dzeko (Manchester City)

Dest decision to stay with the U.S. significant for future

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With the shrill of the referee’s whistle on Friday night, with Sergino Dest expected to be on the field, his decision to play for the U.S. Men’s National Team will be final.

There have been plenty of dual-nationals before him and there will continue to be dual-nationals after him. But Dest’s decision to stay with the U.S. is a significant one for multiple reasons.

First, there’s the whirlwind past six months he’s had. Before the summer began, Dest was a solid member of the Jong Ajax team, which is effectively the reserve side, though it plays in the Dutch Second Division. For the U.S., he started in four of the five games for the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team as it advanced to the FIFA U-20 World Cup quarterfinals this past May and June, beating France U-20s along the way.

After a strong preseason, suddenly Dest found himself promoted to the Ajax first team. Then, suddenly this then-18-year-old kid was starting for Ajax, first in the Eredivisie and then in the UEFA Champions League, and he was impressing. After not noticing him or not bothering to call him in to national team camps in the past, suddenly Ronald Koeman was interested, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag was pushing the Oranje on Dest.

While the U.S. has recruited players from Germany, England, and Mexico among other countries in recent years, it’s rare that the player hasn’t been coveted as well by the bigger – or local national team compared to the USMNT. So it says something that the USMNT is such a welcoming place that Dest felt comfortable enough when making his decision to stick with what he knew.

Also, while the Tyler Boyd decision to play for the USMNT wasn’t seen as a huge recruiting coup – he had played in friendly matches for New Zealand in the past – Dest’s decision, considering that he plays at Ajax and gets minutes in the Champions League – is on the level of the Jonathan Gonzalez deal. Gonzalez of course decided to go with Mexico, but due to a loss of form and injuries, that decision hasn’t fully panned out over the past 12 months. Dest, meanwhile, has the opportunity to cement himself as the right or left back of the future for the U.S.

A player this young is usually not put in this position where they have to choose, but Dest – with official FIFA matches coming up – basically had to make his decision this month or risk being out of the USMNT and the Netherlands for multiple training camps.

Ultimately, while Dest’s decision is a great sign for the USMNT, it’s only the start. There’s plenty of American-born players that the USMNT is losing out on, especially to Mexico. Players like Efrain Alvarez, and Gonzalez are two players who could make a difference for the U.S. moving forward, but have chosen – Alvarez for now – to play for Mexico. Other current USMNT youngsters such as Richie Ledezma, Sebastian Soto, Alex Mendez, and Julian Araujo could all potentially play for another country as well, leaving the U.S. vulnerable should they leave.

And another caveat. Dest is only 19-years old, and it’s truly impossible to predict whether he’ll be the next Steve Cherundolo for the USMNT – owned the right back slot for more than a decade – or a short-term fix before an injury or loss of form keeps him away from the team.

So U.S. Soccer is on the right track with the commitment from Dest, but it still has an awful lot to do to keep growing the USMNT player pool.

 

Berhalter: No “like-for-like” replacement for Pulisic

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U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter may not be feeling any more pressure after the USMNT’s disappointing 2-0 defeat at Canada last month. But his task to beat Canada in the return match on Friday in Orlando became even more difficult with the loss of Christian Pulisic to injury.

Speaking at a pre-match press conference, Berhalter noted that there’s no one on the current USMNT team that could replace exactly what Pulisic brings – excellent dribbling, high soccer IQ, dynamic runs into the box – but they’ll need to compensate for his absence in other ways.

[READ: How will the USMNT line up v. Canada]

“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.,” Berhalter said. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”

Even with Pulisic on the field for around an hour, the U.S. still seemed second-best, but it didn’t help when the USMNT’s best player was taken off. In the current squad, Berhalter will need to look for creativity and darting runs diagonally from players like Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris on the wings, where they can potentially have an advantage over Canada’s outside backs.

Berhalter noted at the press conference that this week in training they’ve been focusing on bringing the intensity demanded for international soccer, as well as how to better succeed in the attacking third of the field.

“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So, we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”

In some of the USMNT’s worst games in recent years, including the loss in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago and the loss in Toronto, Canada, it’s been the lack of creativity in the final third, or a lack of even setting up one-v-one opportunities in the final third that’s cost the U.S. That task becomes more difficult without Pulisic, but perhaps the USMNT can take advantage of Morris’ recent fine form, and use his speed down the left to get in behind Canada’s defense.

Sterling backs Gomez after boos were heard at Wembley

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Raheem Sterling came out in support of his teammate Joe Gomez, just a couple of days after Sterling lost his temper in practice and got into a scuffle with the Liverpool defender.

Multiple reporters at England’s 7-0 thrashing of Montenegro heard a smattering of fans boo Joe Gomez when he came on the field as a substitute. While not defensible, the boos were likely as a result of the dust-up and subsequent one-match suspension for Sterling. Unable to speak to the media after the match, Sterling took to Twitter to stand up for his international teammate.

[READ: England smash Montenegro, qualify for Euro 2020]

This is the latest example of Sterling taking the high road to deal with a tough situation. Whether it’s the boos he endures from Liverpool fans over his exit from the club, racism he’s experienced at home or abroad, and the media coverage he’s felt, Sterling has almost always offered a measured, intelligent response.

In this instance, it shows that Gareth Southgate has full control of his team and that there’s an accepting atmosphere in the squad. Sterling was obviously wrong to not let the Man City defeat to Liverpool go and to take it out on Gomez warranted the suspension. To back Gomez after he took some jeers from the crowd says a lot about Sterling’s character.

You can almost bet that the two will be on the field together as England faces Kosovo on the road this Sunday.

Euro 2020 Roundup: Ronaldo scores hat-trick, France, Turkey qualify

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The final two rounds of Euro 2020 qualification got underway on Thursday with plenty of great goals on display. Four nations qualified directly into the tournament as well, as we get closer to the final list of 24 teams.


Portugal rout Lithuania

While the result wasn’t a surprise, it was still an impressive performance from the defending European champions.

Portugal, behind a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick, thrashed Lithuania, 6-0, at the Estadio Algarve. That included this terrific strike into the corner from outside the box, bringing the crowd to their feet.

It was Ronaldo’s ninth hat-trick for Portugal, which takes him to 98 goals overall along with 12 goals for Portugal in this calendar year, an incredible strike rate. Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva all scored as well. With a win at Luxembourg in three days, Portugal can assure qualification back to the European Championships, where it can defend its crown.


France comes back to beat Moldova

It’s safe to say that Les Bleus fans would gladly have taken a 2-1 result over Moldova in Euro 2020 qualifying, but the journey to get there was definitely out of the ordinary.

Moldova’s Vadim Rata put the visitors up 1-0 in the 9th minute with a goal-mouth scramble after a failed clearance from by Clement Lenglet, putting France under even more pressure. France brought wave and wave of attack towards the Moldova goal, but it was a controversial goal, credited to Raphael Varane, which brought France level.

In the 41st minute, as Olivier Giroud went for a ball, it appeared Giroud motioned to control the ball with his arm, only to move it out of his way at the last second, enabling Varane to head home. Giroud made amends for missing many chances throughout the match with a penalty kick goal in the 79th minute, earned by left back Lucas Digne.

With the win, France qualified for the 2020 Euros. Also qualifying on Thursday was Turkey, England, and the Czech Republic.

Here’s a look at the rest of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualification results.

Qualification Group A

England 7-0 Montenegro
Czech Republic 2-1 Kosovo

Qualification Group B

Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Serbia 3-2 Luxembourg

Qualification Group H

Turkey 0-0 Iceland
Albania 2-2 Andorra
France 2-1 Moldova