2015 Gold Cup — Group C preview: Hobbled Mexico still favorites over Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba

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In 2013, the last time CONCACF held it’s biannual continental competition, the US national team was placed in the easiest of three groups, and capitalized on said fortune by lifting the Gold Cup trophy at the end of July. Fast forward four years, and it’s the USMNT’s biggest rival for CONCACAF dominance, Mexico, that look to be the beneficiaries of the 2015 Gold Cup’s weakest four-team group.

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Mexico look to be runaway favorites at the top of Group C, but it’s anyone’s guess who’ll come second and who’ll challenge for a place in the quarterfinals as one of two third-place finishers in the group stage. Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago are the favorites to finish two-three (in either order), while Cuba are once again the great unknown looking to upset the apple cart.

Mexico

“Injuries” is the (unfortunate) word of the week for Mexico, who in the last five days have lost their best defender, Hector Moreno, and assumed starting forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez for the rest of the summer. The pressure is now on Diego Reyes, Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar to step up at the back, and Andres Guardado, Giovani Dos Santos and Oribe Peralta to shoulder the scoring load. Even without Moreno and Hernandez, this is a team capable of advancing to the final in Philadelphia, but losses that significant levels the playing field for any potential showdown with the US national team.

Best Gold Cup finish: Winners (9 times) — 1965, 1971, 1977, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2009, 2001
Manager: Miguel Herrera — Up until his side’s current seven-game winless streak, El Tri‘s demonstrative leader has enjoyed a successful and drama-less two years as head coach of Mexico, which culminated with a near-quarterfinal berth at last summer’s World Cup. This is his first crack at the Gold Cup and a real chance to win some silverware.
Star man: Carlos Vela — The Real Sociedad winger is coming off of a somewhat disappointing club season (10 goals in 32 games, down from 21 in 52 the season before), but no matter his club form, Vela always seems to bring it for Mexico. With no more than a handful of national team caps since 2010 (various issues with the national federation and/or head coaches), this is his time to shine and stake claim to his place in the team for the rest of his career.

Guatemala

While a great deal of Guatemala’s talented roster plays its club ball in the relatively unknown Guatemalan league, we all know the names of Carlos Ruiz and Marco Pappa, and we’re quickly getting to know Real Salt Lake’s Elias Vasquez, as well. Nearly the entire midfield plays for the same team, Guatemalan giant Comunicaciones, so Ivan Sopegno’s side will lean heavily on that familiarity and continuity in a group where they’re 50-50 alongside Trinidad and Tobago to come second behind Mexico.

Best Gold Cup finish: Winners — 1967
Manager: Ivan Sopegno
Star man: Marco Pappa — Ruiz is 35 years old now, and while he’ll still have something to say of Guatemala’s chances this summer, it’s Pappa time to shine and lead La Furia Azul out of the group and into their third quarterfinal in eight years.

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Kenwyne Jones, Trinidad and Tobago’s talisman

Trinidad and Tobago

Interestingly enough, Stephen Hart’s roster contains not a single player over the age of 30 (four players are 30, two of which are goalkeepers), though there’s ample international experience within — CONCACAF experience, in particular. 23-year-old winger Joevin Jones (Chicago Fire) is 23 years old, but boasts of 40 senior caps already, while 24-year-old center back Daneil Cyrus has 41 appearances to his name. The Soca Warriors look set to be strong defensively, but could struggle for goals of their own, as only Kenwyne Jones (18) has more than six international goals to his name.

Best Gold Cup finish: Runners-up — 1973
Manager: Stephen Hart
Star man: Kenwyne Jones — The 30-year-old is still kicking around the upper tiers of England following moves from Cardiff City to Bournemouth upon leaving Stoke City. Jones bagged a pair of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup, where T&T bowed out to Mexico in the quarterfinals.

Cuba

Speaking of sides with a dearth of goalscoring prowess, last up we have Cuba. Raul Gonzalez Triana’s side is by far the most inexperienced and accomplished side in this year’s tournament. In 2013, we saw the Leones del Caribe advance out of the group stage by virtue of finishing third, before getting hammered by Panama in the quarters.

Best Gold Cup finish: 4th — 1971
Manager: Raul Gonzalez Triana
Star man: Ariel Martinez — 11 goals in 50 appearances for Cuba gives Martinez the best strike rate on the current roster, and the 29-year-old will need to replicate his hat-trick form of 2013 if Cuba have any hopes of advancing this time around.

Schedule

July 9: Trinidad and Tobago vs. Guatemala — Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
July 9: Mexico vs. Cuba — Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
July 12: Trinidad and Tobago vs. Cuba — University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ
July 12: Guatemala vs. Mexico — University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, AZ
July 15: Cuba vs. Guatemala — Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
July 15: Mexico vs. Trinidad and Tobago — Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC

Prediction

1st — Mexico
2nd — Guatemala
3rd — Trinidad and Tobago
4th — Cuba

FOLLOW LIVE: Fire v. Union, Galaxy v. Sounders on a busy MLS Saturday

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11 games in a matter of hours, now that’s a busy MLS Saturday you don’t want to miss.

[ FOLLOW: MLS scoreboard, for the next 7.5 hours ]

Things kickoff with the New York Red Bulls hosting the New England Revolution, and comes to a close with a vital Western Conference showdown between the Seattle Sounders and the LA Galaxy.

In between, the San Jose Earthquakes look to bounce back as they take on a struggling Sporting Kansas City, while Carlos Vela’s LAFC hope to widen the gap between them and the rest of the league.

Saturday’s full MLS schedule

New York Red Bulls v. New England Revolution — 7 p.m. ET
Montreal Impact v. FC Dallas — 7:30 p.m. ET
Columbus Crew v. Toronto FC — 7:30 p.m. ET
FC Cincinatti v. NYCFC — 7:30 p.m. ET
Minnesota United v. Orlando City — 8 p.m. ET
Chicago Fire v. Philadelphia Union — 8 p.m. ET
Sporting Kansas City v. San Jose Earthquakes— 8:30 p.m. ET
Houston Dynamo v. Colorado Rapids — 9 p.m. ET
LAFC v. Real Salt Lake— 10 p.m. ET
Vancouver Whitecaps v. D.C. United — 10 p.m. ET
LA Galaxy v. Seattle Sounders— 10 p.m. ET

PL Sunday preview: Sheffield United v. Palace; Chelsea host Leicester

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Chelsea will look to earn its first points under Frank Lampard as they host Leicester City, who started their season with a draw against Wolves. Elsewhere, the Premier League returns to Sheffield as Roy Hodgson‘s Crystal Palace visit the Blades.

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Sheffield United v. Crystal Palace — 9:00 a.m. ET, on NBCS and NBCSports.com

88th minute, Billy Sharp, and goal are words that are still fresh in the Blades’ minds.

Why wouldn’t they be? After all, they’re only a game into their dream return to the Premier League, one they hope can only keep projecting upwards. The task won’t be a walk in the park, however, as a visiting Palace will look to rely on their plethora of attacking weapons to open their scoring account, which they failed to do so against Everton.

One of the weapons Palace could lean on is Wilfried Zaha, who may depart the club in January according to Hodgson. Last week, the Ivorian international came off the bench and only played 25 minutes, but a start for the winger at Bramall Lane may certainly improve Palace’s chances.

If so, Chris Wilder and the Blades will need more than a late Sharp goal to secure points in the Premier League’s return to Sheffield.

Chelsea v. Leicester City  — 11:30 a.m. ET, on NBCS and NBCSports.com

It’s only Frank Lampard’s second league game at the helm but the pressure is certainly on.

With Arsenal and Liverpool already at six points a piece, the Blues will need three points against Leicester City. Having lost to Manchester United (4-0) and Liverpool (5-4 via penalties) in a four-day span doesn’t help the cause either. Luckily, Chelsea has the quality to give the team a completely different look with the snap of a finger – whether Lampard believes that Christian Pulisic, Olivier Giroud or N’Golo Kante can give him that is yet to be seen.

The Foxes, on the other hand, also have their work cut out in front of them. Against Wolves, Brendan Rodgers‘ side recorded a lone shot on target. Certainly, Chelsea is not the ideal opponent to try to correct that, but if they can get it done what an injection of confidence that’d be for Leicester City. All in all, three points will not come easy for Jamie Vardy and Co.

La Liga roundup: 10-man Real Madrid hold off Celta in season opener

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Spain’s top flight is back, and here’s a roundup of all of Saturday’s action.

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Celta Vigo 1-3 Real Madrid

If Real Madrid and Barcelona are, again, going to battle toe-to-toe for La Liga, consider the former team to have a head start.

Hours after Barca got the Aritz Aduriz treatment, Real Madrid – playing with 10 men for more than 40 minutes – took care of business, calmly beating Celta Vigo behind goals from Karim Benzema, Toni Kroos and Lucas Vasquez. Ballon d’Or winner Luka Modric was sent off for a straight red in the 54th minute, while Gareth Bale, who stole headlines this summer after being rumored to leave time and time again, started and played 75 minutes.

Despite not having control of possession, the quality from Zinedine Zidane’s men was too much for Ruben Blanco. For instance, just look at Kroos’ strike from distance:

Celta, on the other hand, had a goal disallowed by VAR right before halftime, but still managed to spoil Thibaut Courtois‘ clean  in the dying minutes when Iker Losada, 18, scored two minutes after taking the field.

Valencia 1-1 Real Sociedad

Four minutes into stoppage time, Kevin Gameiro had the picture-perfect opportunity to record a brace and seal three points for Valencia in their first showing of the new campaign.

In front of an anxious Mestalla, he missed.

And just six minutes later, in the final breathe of the match, Mikel Oyarzabal did what Gameiro failed to do: convert from the spot. The rumored Manchester City target was influential all match and, in the end, rewarded with a goal.

A tough pill to swallow, Valencia will now look to earn their first win against Celta Vigo, while Sociedad next stop in their three-game road trip to start the season is Mallorca.

Villareal 4-4 Granada 

It wasn’t the matchup the majority had circled on their calendars, but Villareal and Granda’s 4-4 draw proved to be the most entertaining game on Saturday. A pair of penalties and an own goal were a few of the goals that made up the eight-goal frenzy.

Santi Carzorla – looking healthier than ever before – opened things up from the spot 35 minutes in. In the 75th minute, another familiar face, Roberto Soldado, put Granada a goal away from the home side. Shortly after, in the 81st minute, Antonio Puertas bagged Granada’s fourth and the night’s final goal.

An eight-goal match in such fashion will be hard to top on Sunday, that’s for sure.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Leganes 0-1 Osasuna

RCD Mallorca 2-0 Eibar

What we learned from a crazy PL Saturday

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Breathe. Take a walk outside. Put your arms above your head and try to drink in what you’ve actually seen today.

It is only Matchweek 2, but few Premier League days will match this.

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Saturday’s games delivered high drama with VAR outrage, howlers, stunning goals and intense battles playing out.

Below is what we learned from a wild seven games across the league.


VAR DRAMA MARS MAN CITY, SPURS CLASH

Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur played out a gripping, enthralling 2-2 draw, but it was marred by VAR at the death. Gabriel Jesus‘ late winner for City was ruled out for a handball on Aymeric Laporte, which enraged Pep Guardiola and delighted Mauricio Pochettino. Man City dominated the game and Spurs had two shots on target and scored with both of them. City will have a bitter taste in their mouth, especially after the late VAR drama against Spurs in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal second leg last season. Pochettino said he is “in love with VAR” and Guardiola said it “needs to be fixed” as it is too subjective. The VAR debate will rumble on, as the ball clearly hit Laporte on the arm but many will have a bad taste in their mouths at the way it impacts the outcomes of games.


GUARDIOLA, AGUERO FALL OUT

Man City’s all-time leading goalscorer was not happy, at all, after being subbed out in the second half of their game against Spurs. He and Guardiola went at it, with words being said, fingers pointed and both had to be separated.

With tensions bubbling under the surface for years over Aguero’s playing style in a Pep side, this looked a lot more personal.

In the coming weeks we will find out just how damaging this public spat will be for both Guardiola and Aguero, as City may be starting to feel the pressure.


LIVERPOOL SHAKE OFF RUST

Liverpool edged by Southampton 2-1 at St Mary’s on Saturday and it was a really strange game. Saints started well and given Liverpool’s 120 minutes against Chelsea for the Super Cup final in Istanbul on Wednesday, it was expected that they’d start sluggishly. But when they kicked through the gears around half time they tore Saints apart with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino leading the charge. Adrian’s late howler gifted Saints a way back into the game and Danny Ings should have scored his and Saints’ second to snatch an unlikely draw. Liverpool held on and after the travel week they’ve had, Jurgen Klopp was a happy man at the final whistle. Two wins from two for the Reds, and they’ve been far from their best as their stars recover from busy summer tournaments.


PUKKI READY TO STAR FOR NORWICH

Teemu Pukki has four goals in his first two games as a Premier League player. Those questioning whether or not the Finnish striker could translate his form from the Championship to the PL are now having a long hard look at themselves in the mirror. Pukki scored a hat trick in Norwich’s 3-1 win against Newcastle and the first was a stunner. After his spells with Sevilla, Schalke and Celtic, Pukki has finally arrived in the big time and his clinical finishing will be a theme of the season. Norwich have been written off by plenty of teams and the way they hammered Newcastle suggests the Canaries will be well clear of the relegation scrap.


ARSENAL, CEBALLOS CLICKING THROUGH THE GEARS 

Arsenal’s attacking unit now has a deep playmaker as Dani Ceballos starred in their win over Burnley. Ceballos is the perfect replacement for Aaron Ramsey and he not only created chances but worked back defensively. He is the perfect player for Unai Emery to build his attack around. Of course, Aubameyang and Lacazette (who both scored) are stars who can finish, while Nicolas Pepe looked bright off the bench as Arsenal’s attacking options will feel their rivals with serious envy. At the back they had some issues dealing with Burnley’s direct style as David Luiz took a few unecessary risks and Bernd Leno flapped at a few crosses, but overall two wins from two is a very good start for the Gunners. Now come the real tests as they head to Liverpool and host Tottenham in their next two games. Lets see how good the Gunners really are.


Bonus: Harry Wilson and Douglas Luiz scored screamers in a 2-1 win for Bournemouth at Aston Villa. You need to see them.