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Euro 2016 Dark Horses: What teams, players will surprise?

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We all know about France, Germany, Spain, and the other heavyweights at the Euros this season. But what about those less talked about?

Here are some teams and players you may want to know about when the time comes for them to shine:

TEAMS

Just off the top: Poland

Any team with Robert Lewandowski is dangerous, but Poland is so much more than that. A hair off the elite group of teams in Europe, this team is as top to bottom as it comes. For starters, the goalkeeping talent on the Polish squad might be the deepest in Europe alongside Germany. Wojciech Szczesny was the third-best goalkeeper in Serie A last season, just a tick behind superstars Gianluigi Buffon and Samir Handanovic according to Squawka. He might not even start, with Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski and Bournemouth’s Artur Boruc nipping at his toes. Grzegorz Krychowiak’s growth at the holding midfield position has changed the team’s tactical philosophy entirely. Lukasz Piszczek is in top form, voted to the Bundesliga team of the season this campaign. This squad has it all, and should give Germany and others all kinds of trouble.

Christian Fuchs has 75 caps for Austria (Photo: Getty Images)
Christian Fuchs has 75 caps for Austria (Photo: Getty Images)
[ MORE: PST writers predict Euro 2016 ]

Under the radar: Austria

Portugal may seem like the Group F favorites, but that group is probably more up for grabs than most, and Austria has a serious chance to top it. Austria bombarded through European qualification, with just one draw on an otherwise unblemished record. Unfortunately, three losses in five friendlies since have dampened the mood, but don’t ever count Austria out. This team can defend with the best in Europe, with Leicester City rock Christian Fuchs on the left and Aleksandar Dragovic – already with 47 caps at age 25 – in the middle, plus the do-it-all David Alaba likely in front of the back four. Stoke City workhorse Marko Arnautovic is the creative force on the wing, while Zlatko Junuzovic does the dirty work in the middle, and Mark Janko finishes them off. Austria could do some serious damage if the squad plays to its potential.

[ EURO PREVIEWS: Group A | B | C | D | E | F ]

Out of nowhere: Albania

There’s nobody the casual fan has ever heard of on this squad, and with Albania in its first-ever major tournament, they’re largely being counted out of a Group A bunch with France, Switzerland, and Romania. If you think those three have an easy one on the cards, think again. A high-pressing bunch that relies on a host of top-flight experience at the back, Gianni De Biasi could surprise a few. Captain Lorik Cana – with 90 caps to his name – saw significant time at center-back for FC Nantes this season and has played for Marseille, Lazio, and PSG in the past. Alongside him will likely be Cologne defender Mergim Mavraj, and Ansi Agolli on the left, who will become the first Azerbaijani Premier League player to feature in the Euros. Albania’s high press, led by striker Sokol Çikalleshi, could put a few big names out of their element.

PLAYERS

The young gun: Renato Sanches

The 18-year-old has already beaten Cristiano Ronaldo at one thing, becoming the youngest Portuguese player to travel to a major tournament, and there’s surely more to come. A Marcus Rashford-esque type rise, Sanches just made his Benfica debut in November. Since then, he’s made a $40 million move to Bayern Munich and now he could see significant time in a European Championship. He’s so good, some officials have apparently questioned if he’s really only 18. With five caps to his name, all off the bench, the central midfielder could soon overtake Danilo or Joao Moutinho in the middle of the field for years to come.

[ MORE: Which PL stars are at EURO 2016?]

The midfield engine: Vladimír Darida

At 25 years old, the Czech midfielder runs and runs and runs, and then runs some more. Unfortunately, he plays alongside national legend Tomas Rosicky in the midfield, who seems to get all the credit. Darida is a workhorse, and at just 5′ 6″, he can often get lost in the shuffle. Nothing stands off Darida’s stat sheet, with an 82% pass completion rate and a poor tackling record at Hertha this season, but he created 35 chances and scored five goals in league play this season, and that was enough to generate rumors of a move to Real Madrid, which he brushed aside. The Czech Republic is in a very difficult group, and if Pavel Vrba’s squad is to advance past Croatia and Turkey, they will need Darida to play a starring role.

The experienced vet: Mehmet Topal

With 59 caps, it’s hard to buy into a “dark horse” label for the 30-year-old central defender. Yet, with Turkey another one in the Group D mix, they will need Topal and another grizzled vet in Hakan Kadir Balta to be playing their best at the back. Obviously Spain is the favorite of the bunch, but with an attacking-minded Turkish squad grouped with defensively sound

Kingsley Coman has just five caps for France, but was a key player for Bayern Munich this year (Photo by Daniel Kopatsch/Getty Images)
Kingsley Coman was a key player for Bayern Munich this year (Photo: Getty Images)
Czech and Croatian sides, Topal will need to win the war of attrition that will be a staple of Group D. This is a contract year for Topal as well, with his Fenerbahce deal coming to an end this summer. There have been rumors of a move to Tottenham, but he’ll need to earn a dotted line to sign in France.

Getting over the hump: Kingsley Coman

France is all about the next generation now. Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial have taken all the headlines, yet all 20-year-old Kingsley Coman has done is win. Still somewhat of a raw talent, Coman went on loan from Juventus to Bayern Munich (beat that loan move) and played a crucial role in their Champions League run, bagging two goals and six assists across eight Champions League games. Coman is an electric talent down the flanks and the perfect heir to Franck Ribery’s throne, but surrounded by flashier players at both club and country, he still hasn’t become a household name. Yet superstardom could be in his future if he feeds enough goal-starved mouths (see: Giroud, Olivier) during a European championship run in his home country.

U-20 World Cup preview: Ramos to make history

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The United States U-20 side is set to begin its 2019 World Cup campaign on Friday when it begins Group D play in Poland.

Tab Ramos will make history in the process, equalling the FIFA record of most championship tournaments participated as a player or coach. The 52-year-old will officially take part in his 11th FIFA championship event, matching the record held by Germany’s U-20 women head coach Maren Meinert.

United States

The United States side is one of the best ever on paper, with a mix of emerging domestic talent alongside youngsters from the best clubs in Europe. They will take on Ukraine, Nigeria, and Qatar in high-leverage group stage play. Riding on the result of group play is a place in the knockout phase, with a massive gulf in difference between finishing first and second in the group. The first-place finisher in Group D draws the strongest third-place side from Groups B, E, and F – possibilities include the likes of Mali, South Korea, Panama, or Italy. Meanwhile, the second-place finisher from Group D takes on the winner of Group E, which will almost definitely come in the form of championship hopeful France.

An exciting group of young American players with more well-known names including Timothy Weah and Paxton Pomykal mixes with supreme talents like Barcelona youth product Konrad de la Fuente in attack and Bayern Munich teen Chris Richards who will look to anchor the defense. While the U.S. isn’t exactly a favorite to win the tournament, they are a strong contender looking to reach at least the quarterfinals if not further.

US U-20 squad

GK: CJ Dos Santos (Benfica), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake), Brady Scott (Koln).
DEF: Sergino Dest (Ajax), Chris Gloster (Hannover 96), Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew/Richmond Kickers), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union), Matthew Real (Philadelphia Union), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich).
MID: Edwin Cerrillo (FC Dallas), Chris Durkin (D.C. United), Richard Ledezma (PSV Eindhoven), Alex Mendez (Freiburg), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Brandon Servania (FC Dallas).
FWD: Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), Konrad De La Fuente (Barcelona), Ulysses Llanez (Wolfsburg), Justin Rennicks (New England Revolution), Sebastian Soto (Hannover 96), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain/Celtic FC)

Potential breakout players

Aside from the United States squad, there is a host of young talent at the tournament in Poland. These are the players you should keep a close eye on.

Diego Lainez (winger, Mexico) – Mexico’s 18-year-old winger has been a fixture for the national team at every youth level, playing every minute for the U-17 side in the 2017 World Cup. He has since earned a quartet of senior side call-ups and looked electric in his time on the field.

Radoslaw Majecki (goalkeeper, Poland) – At just 19 years old, Majecki has been the starting goalkeeper for Champions League regulars Legia Warsaw since he won the job in November. While he has yet to make his CL debut (having earned the starting job after Legia Warsaw was eliminated from the competition in the qualifying stages), he is as experienced as they come for players in this competition and a huge asset for his country.

Jackson Porozo (defender, Ecuador) – The 18-year-old was an absolute monster in the South American U-20 championships back in late January and early February, helping Ecuador keep five clean sheets and finish the competition on a stunning 298-minute streak without conceding a single goal as they shocked the continent by winning the tournament. Porozo, who joined the Santos youth setup last summer, was a man among boys in the South American championships, and long with his goalkeeper Moises Ramirez – who also has high expectations for a solid future – this Ecuador side has a shot at making it out of an absolutely loaded Group B.

Interesting storylines

Group B – The most loaded group in the tournament sees Mexico, Italy, Ecuador, and Japan all come together for a brutal battle. While the top two teams are guaranteed to advance, it could also be a factor for one of the coveted third-place spots, of particular interest to the United States, who would take on a Group B third-place qualifier should they win Group D. Mexico won the CONCACAF U-20 championships, Ecuador stunningly reigned supreme in CONMEBOL over traditional superpowers Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, while both Italy and Japan performed quite well in their own tournaments, each reaching the semifinals. This is easily the most fun early storyline.

France as favorites – Portugal, Poland, Nigeria, and Argentina are all firmly in the mix, but France is considered the favorite according to most oddsmakers. Bernard Diomede will have a challenge as Lyon’s young star Amine Gouiri will be missing as he takes part in the U-21 UEFA championships this summer, but he does have Borussia Dortmund youngster Dan Axel-Zagadou leading the back line. While the French senior side is on top of the world, the youth team has plenty of talent coming down the pipeline.

Can Argentina bounce back? – The six-time champions slipped a bit at the CONMEBOL championships earlier this year, falling to both Ecuador and Brazil in the final stage while beating Uruguay and Colombia by just a goal. The traditionally dominant South American powerhouse has proven fallable over the last year or so, and while they most certainly have a squad capable of placing in this tournament, they will need more consistency. The squad sports Atlanta United winger Ezequiel Barco, who has four goals in eight MLS appearances this season and is in good form. Other big names include Atletico Madrid defender and youth team captain Nehuen Perez, Boca Juniors goalkeeper Manuel Roffo – who trained with the senior team earlier this year – and midfielder Santiago Sosa who has dabbled in the River Plate senior squad at just 19.

FIFA scraps 48-team expansion for 2022 World Cup

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FIFA has confirmed the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will remain a 32-team tournament, abandoning plans to expand the event to 48 teams.

The world football governing body made certain to cite that Qatar’s implausibility to host such an expanded tournament as the sole reason for the decision, essentially confirming that the 2026 World Cup – joint hosted throughout North America – will remain expanded as confirmed back in January of 2017.

FIFA and Qatar have jointly explored all possibilities to increase the number of participant teams from 32 to 48 teams by involving neighboring countries at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022,” FIFA said in a statement. “Following a thorough and comprehensive consultation process with the involvement of all the relevant stakeholders, it was concluded that under the current circumstances such a proposal could not be made now.”

Qatar has been criticized for its lack of infrastructure and relative inability to host a tournament of the World Cup’s magnitude, and the FIFA statement hinted that nearby options in the Persian Gulf were severely limited. Along with the country’s own limitations, there is political strife between Qatar and many of its immediate neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, making a joint expanded effort nearly impossible.

“A joint analysis, in this respect, concluded that due to the advanced stage of preparations and the need for a detailed assessment of the potential logistical impact on the host country, more time would be required and a decision could not be taken before the deadline of June,” FIFA said. “It was therefore decided not to further pursue this option. The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will therefore remain as originally planned with 32 teams and no proposal will be submitted at the next FIFA Congress on 5 June.”

FIFA clearly made certain to cite Qatar’s inability to handle such an expansion as the sole reason for the status quo, not a blanket desire to keep the tournament at 32 teams permanently. FIFA has come under fire after announcing the expansion of the 2026 games, with widespread critics claiming the move would water down not only the tournament itself but also qualification, lessening the amount of high-leverage games both at the event itself and between tournaments in qualifying. The governing body had looked to speed up expansion for 2022, but today’s news ended that idea.

16-year MLS veteran Chad Marshall retires

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Stalwart defender Chad Marshall, who spent his entire 16-year career in Major League Soccer, retired on Wednesday at 34 years old. The announcement confirmed that Marshall’s decision was made largely due to a knee injury that has kept him out of action for most of the last month.

Marshall split his career between just two MLS teams, drafted second overall out of Stanford by Columbus and playing 10 years for the Crew before being traded to Seattle in 2013. He spent five full seasons with Seattle and began the current campaign as a significant part of the squad, but made it just two months in before the injury took over.

“After more than 15 years of living my childhood dream, the time has come for me to hang up the boots,” Marshall said in the official team release. “I’d like to thank everyone that has played a part in my career. To my teammates, support staff and coaches: you’ve been my second family. The locker room is what I’ll miss the most.”

Marshall was named MLS Defender of the Year three times throughout his career, winning it in his first professional season, again in 2008 just one year removed from concussion problems, and most recently with Seattle in 2014. He won the Supporters’ Shield four times – three with Columbus – and also racked up two MLS Cups and one US Open Cup. Overall he made 458 professional club appearances, 272 of which came for the Crew.

“Thank you to the fans of Seattle and Columbus for supporting me throughout the years, as well as the Sounders FC and Columbus Crew SC organizations for giving me a chance to represent them on the field,” Marshall said. “Most importantly, I’d like to thank my family. I’m forever indebted to them for the sacrifices they’ve made in allowing me to pursue this dream. From heartbreaking losses to MLS Cup wins, own goals to cartwheels, it’s been a blast.”

While Marshall was a rock at the back of the Columbus and Seattle defensive units, he was also an imposing force in the air, scoring 26 goals in his career. Marshall also earned 12 caps for the U.S. Men’s National Team, debuting in 2005 with a goal against Colombia and playing in the 2009 Gold Cup, and he was called back into the squad for a 0-0 friendly draw with Serbia in 2017 after a seven-year absence.

Why Aston Villa deserve Premier League promotion

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With the Championship playoff final at Wembley Stadium on May 27, the richest game in soccer will see one of Aston Villa or Derby County promoted to the Premier League.

[ MORE: Latest Championship news ]

Which club deserves a spot in the English top-flight more? You can use metrics such as fanbase, stadiums, players, historical success and quality of coaches to try and sort this out, but the fact of the matter is, the playoffs are always a complete, and utterly brilliant, lottery.

The path Villa and Derby took to get to the final this season proves that.

Here’s a look at why Villa deserve to return to the PL after a three-year absence, while tomorrow we will focus on Derby…


Everything about Villa is a Premier League club.

Their incredible home at Villa Park is among the most historic and boisterous in England when it gets going and the Holte End is the jewel in its crown.

European champions in 1982, Villa are the biggest club from England’s second-city, Birmingham, and their fanbase is loyal, if not overly pessimistic as most Brummies are. The fact that there are no PL teams from Birmingham is astonishing. It is like having no top level sports teams in LA.

For three years they’ve now fought to get back into the top-flight after several seasons of struggle as former American owner Randy Lerner cut costs wherever he could. Under manager Dean Smith, a lifelong Villa fan, they now play wonderfully attractive soccer and have youngsters like Jack Grealish, Andre Green and Tammy Abraham leading the way.

Villa would be fun to watch if they were promoted to the Premier League. That much is sure. They’ll concede a lot of goals, but they would score a ton too.

There is also the potential for Villa to emulate Wolverhampton Wanderers. Seriously.

Their ownership group has strengthened in recent months with Chinese businessman Tony Xi selling 55 percent of his stake in the club to Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and American billionaire Wes Edens.

If Villa come up the financial fair play shackles which restricted them in the Championship in recent years will come off. The potential for them to spend big is there, but they have a team full of players on loan from PL clubs who have formed a bond and could likely be kept together and bought permanently this summer.

Quite simply, Villa are a top 10 team in the Premier League. They have suffered due to Lerner’s decision to pull out his investment but they have now rebuilt themselves with a strong core of young talent and have a manager in place who is progressive and ambitious both with his style of play and where Villa can get to in the PL.

Under Steve Bruce, Villa lost to Fulham in the playoff final last season at Wembley. But with local lad Grealish leading their charge there is a sense that failure last year was a blessing in disguise. This Villa side are young and hungry and they are exciting to watch.

That is why Villa deserve to be promoted to the Premier League for the 2019-20 season.