Friday, August 15, 2014

2014-15 Premier League Predictions

It's the night before the 2014-15 English Premier League campaign kicks off, so it is time to make some predictions. Check out my predictions and let me know where you think I will be proven wrong!

Teams listed in order of predicted finish with 2013-14 final standing in parentheses:

1. Chelsea (3) - Diego Costa will lead a revitalized attack to lead Jose Mourinho's club to the title.
2. Manchester City (1) - the defending champions should contend again, but will fall just short.
3. Manchester United (7) - Louis van Gaal's leadership will provide a spark, but defensive woes will continue to plague Man U and hold them back from true title contention.
4. Arsenal (4) - Arsene Wenger's cup-less streak is over, but a league title will remain elusive despite the addition of Alexis Sanchez to lead a talented attack.
5. Liverpool (2) - the loss of Luis Suarez will cost them dearly on offense, but the addition of Adam Lallana in the attacking midfield will avoid significant drop.
6. Everton (5) - signing of Romelu Lukaku was a big summer move, but the core of this squad is very young and needs another season of cohesion before Champions League is in range.
7. Tottenham (6) - Christian Eriksen will be among the most enjoyable players to watch in the EPL this season, but Spurs still lack quality on the back line.
8. Stoke City (9) - Youth star Bojan Krkic arrives from Barcelona to lead a Stoke attack that should combine with its always stout defense to make things interesting at Britannia.
9. Southampton (8) - a mass exodus has left the Saints faithful in disbelief as Southampton plans to move forward with a younger squad, but a still talented team should be able to remain in the top half.
10. Newcastle United (10) - another midtable finish for Newcastle, who likely will finally part with head man Alan Pardew sometime this campaign.
11. Swansea (12) - after Michu's departure, Swansea fans are hoping talented striker Wilfried Bony isn't next...if he is, I would move the Swans down another spot or two.
12. West Ham (13) - the enigma that is Andy Carroll continues, but if he can snap out of it he could lead the balanced Hammers to a top half finish.
13. Sunderland (14) - barely remained in the EPL after late season charge, but still lack firepower to make the top 10.
14. West Bromwich Albion (17) - no significant additions or subtractions for West Brom, but they always seem to avoid the drop.
15. Leicester (promoted) - won the Championship with a strong campaign and should definitely fight to stay out of relegation.
16. Aston Villa (15) - a very suspect group of men for this once-proud club that is in ownership uncertainty, likely meaning no significant signings are on the horizon.
17. Hull (16) - another survival job on hand for Steve Bruce as manager of the Tigers, but the acquisition of Tom Ince should provide a solid wing addition.
18. Crystal Palace (11) - Tony Pulis's abrupt departure as manager after winning last season's manager of the year award has left Palace with a gaping leadership hole that is likely to plague it all season.
19. Queens Park Rangers (promoted) - Harry Redknapp brings QPR back after just one season in the Championship, but this is a squad that finished fourth in that division last season and lacks sufficient firepower.
20. Burnley (promoted) - survival won't be possible with this squad as currently assembled.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

World Cup 2014 Status Update

Now that all 32 teams in the 2014 FIFA World Cup have played at least one match, I thought it would be helpful to give a progress report in each group. Let's see how things stack up...and evaluate how my picks are looking!

(World ranking in parentheses)

Group A
Brazil (3), Cameroon (56), Croatia (18), Mexico (20)
I had Brazil and Mexico advancing here. Brazil took care of Croatia after some touchy moments early, including giving up an own goal to start things off. Mexico dropped Cameroon, and then played the host Brazilians to a draw earlier today - so I feel good about picking Mexico to advance second out of the group. The Mexico-Croatia match will be crucial if Croatia defeats Cameroon as most expect to happen tomorrow.

Group B
Australia (62), Chile (14), Netherlands (15), Spain (1)
The shocker of the first week was Netherlands routing the defending champion Spain by a 5-1 count. I had both of those teams advancing, but Spain will need to beat Chile tomorrow to restore order and get back on track. Australia lost to Chile in the first match and will need to upset Netherlands to stay in contention.

Group C
Colombia (8), Greece (12), Ivory Coast (23), Japan (46)
As expected, Colombia and Ivory Coast were victorious over Greece and Japan, respectively. The winners and losers from the first matches play each other on Thursday - look for Colombia to win and advance, while Japan will beat Greece and stay alive. I am sticking with my prediction of Colombia and Ivory Coast to advance.

Group D
Costa Rica (28), England (10), Italy (9), Uruguay (7)
Costa Rica's win over Uruguay was the most stunning upset of the week, but look for them to crash back to reality against an Italian team that looked solid in a 2-1 victory over England. Uruguay should see the return of Luis Suarez for its crucial match with England on Friday. I still think Italy will win the group and Uruguay will rebound to finish second. Uruguay-England is probably the match I am most looking forward to in this next set of matches, except of course for Portugal-United States.

Group E
Ecuador (26), France (17), Honduras (33), Switzerland (6)
As I predicted, France and Switzerland were able to win - France convincingly over Honduras, and Switzerland in exciting fashion with a stoppage time winner over Ecuador. I think France will continue to be the class of Group E and defeat Switzerland on Friday, but those two should be able to fend off the others for advancement to the Round of 16.

Group F
Argentina (5), Bosnia and Herzegovina (21), Iran (43), Nigeria (44)
Argentina struggled with Bosnia more than most expected, but I see B&H as an upstart in its first World Cup as an independent nation and still think both will advance. Look for Argentina to blowout Iran on Saturday, while Bosnia will defeat Nigeria and be on course to play into July.

Group G
Germany (2), Ghana (37), Portugal (4), United States (13)
My two picks to advance out of the "Group of Death," Germany and the United States, were both able to win but in very different fashion. Germany routed Portugal by a 4-0 count, aided by a penalty kick and a red card. The US overcame an 82nd minute goal from Ghana to tally a game winner in the 86th minute and emerge victorious. Now, Germany faces Ghana in a match they should dominate, while the US gets Portugal in what should be a winner advances into the Round of 16 match. I still see the US earning a draw in this one, but a win for the US coupled with a Germany victory over Ghana would mean automatic advancement.

Group H
Algeria (22), Belgium (11), Russia (19), South Korea (57)
Belgium struggled with Algeria until the middle of the second half, when they rallied to win by a 2-1 count. Russia and South Korea played to a 1-1 draw. Next up in Group H on Sunday, Belgium takes on Russia in a match that should decide the group winner, while South Korea and Algeria will play in what I still think is a matchup that will do nothing more than decide who finishes third.

Overall, I still feel good about my picks. Of the 16 teams I had advancing, here's how things look after 1 match for each:

Winners - 12
Draws - 1
Losses - 3 (but two of them were to teams I also had advancing - Spain to Netherlands and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Argentina)
So the only "bad" loss of my Sweet 16 picks was Uruguay to Costa Rica. The draw was Russia to South Korea.

Let's see how things shake out after this week...

Friday, June 6, 2014

World Cup 2014 Predictions

We now are less than one week away from the 2014 FIFA World Cup. To get you ready, I have compiled my predictions for each group, as well as how I see the entire tournament shaking out. I hope you will comment with your predictions after you read through mine!

GROUP STAGE

*Countries are listed in alphabetical order with FIFA World Ranking as of June 5 in parentheses. Teams in bold are those which I predict will advance to the knockout Round of 16.

Group A
Brazil (3), Cameroon (56), Croatia (18), Mexico (20)
The host country, Brazil, should not have much trouble getting out of this group, riding the home crowd and momentum from last year's Confederations Cup championship. Mexico barely qualified for the tournament and will likely need to beat a tough Croatian squad to make it through, but I see El Tri getting the job done.


Group B
Australia (62), Chile (14), Netherlands (15), Spain (1)
The defending World Cup champion, Spain, did not get an easy draw, with a rematch of the 2010 final against Netherlands beginning a tough group. I see La Furia Roja making it through again, along with the Dutch after the Orange hold off a game Chilean club with a superior attack led by Arjen Robben.

Group C
Colombia (8), Greece (12), Ivory Coast (23), Japan (46)
An interesting group with no team looking invincible. Colombia will miss injured forward Radamel Falcao, but should have enough to advance. Ivory Coast will be led by a determined Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, who was one of the top players in the English Premier League this past season.

Group D
Costa Rica (28), England (10), Italy (9), Uruguay (7)
While Group G is considered the "Group of Death," Group D actually has the best group of four when you add up all the world rankings, as it is the only group with three of the top 10 teams in the world. This is one of the groups where I see an upset, as Italy will win the group on the shoulders of timeless goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, but Uruguay will squeak by England to get into the knockout round.

Group E
Ecuador (26), France (17), Honduras (33), Switzerland (6)
While Switzerland comes into this group on a tear and should advance, France should win this group with a strong core of superstars. The French will miss injured playmaker Franck Ribery, but Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema provide plenty of firepower for Les Bleus.

Group F
Argentina (5), Bosnia and Herzegovina (21), Iran (43), Nigeria (44)
Argentina will be a "love or hate" team in this World Cup, given that it features the best player in the world and will have a lot of supporters traveling to the tournament in its home continent, but is the biggest rival of the home country. Argentina should have no problem winning this group with Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, and Angel di Maria all better than any other player in the group. I see Bosnia and Herzegovina edging out Nigeria for the second spot, thanks to the heroics of Edin Dzeko and Miralem Pjanic.

Group G
Germany (2), Ghana (37), Portugal (4), United States (13)
Do you want storylines? How about the only group with two of the top four teams in the world? How about the US trying to avenge Ghana in the opener after the African nation knocked the Americans out of the last two World Cups? How about one of Germany's most prolific and popular players of all time, Jurgen Klinsmann - now managing the US - taking on his one-time head assistant coach, Joachim Low, who leads this stellar German team? This group has a lot of talent and a lot of drama. I am going with Germany to win the group after defeating Portugal in match one, and I see the United States exacting revenge on Ghana in match one, drawing Portugal in match two, and taking advantage of a German squad - which will have already qualified for the knockout round - in match three to earn a draw and advance as second in the group with five points.

Group H
Algeria (22), Belgium (11), Russia (19), South Korea (57)
Belgium is rising again as a soccer power, led by a youthful core of Eden Hazard, Kevin Mirallas, and Romelu Lukaku. They should have no problem advancing out of this group. Russia should also move on, taking advantage of two very suspect other squads with a conservative approach and an unsung talent in Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

KNOCKOUT ROUND OF 16

Brazil over Netherlands
Uruguay over Colombia
France over Bosnia and Herzegovina
Germany over Russia
Spain over Mexico
Italy over Ivory Coast
Argentina over Switzerland
Belgium over United States

QUARTERFINALS

Brazil over Uruguay
Germany over France
Spain over Italy
Argentina over Belgium

SEMIFINALS

Brazil over Germany
Argentina over Spain

THIRD PLACE GAME

Germany over Spain

FINAL

Brazil over Argentina







Monday, May 26, 2014

USMNT Gears Up For First Pre-World Cup Friendly

The United States Men's National Team has named its final 23-man roster for the World Cup, and some controversial decisions were made by Jurgen Klinsmann. Most notably, Landon Donovan was left off the roster. Donovan, the man with the most international and domestic goals in US Soccer history, was passed over in favor of four other forwards - Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Aron Johannsson, and Chris Wondolowski.

People have asked me what I think about Donovan being left off the roster...and I answer that I am very conflicted by it. I understand wanting to reward a player for his past production and contributions to the team and US Soccer as a whole. Donovan's goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup gave the USMNT its first EVER first-place finish in a World Cup and will go down as one of the greatest goals in our country's soccer history. However, Donovan's 2013 sabbatical from soccer rubbed many - myself included - the wrong way, and while he was off in Cambodia "recharging his batteries," Wondolowski was helping the US qualify for the World Cup with passion and goals. When its all said and done, I feel Donovan lost his spot because of a lack of commitment over the entirety of the qualifying season, and because Wondolowski was fully committed and produced when he was in the lineup.

The US will play three friendlies before the World Cup, starting with Tuesday night against Azerbaijan at 10 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2). The Starting XI I see Klinsmann fielding tomorrow - and the one I predict we will see against Ghana on June 16th barring injury - is as follows:

GK: Tim Howard
LB: DaMarcus Beasley
CB: Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron
RB: Fabian Johnson
DM: Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones
LW: Alejandro Bedoya
RW: Graham Zusi
F: Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey

My seven-man bench: Kyle Beckerman, Timothy Chandler, Mix Diskerud, Omar Gonzalez, Brad Guzan, Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski

Here is the full final 23-man roster, courtesy of ussoccer.com:


PLAYER POS. HT. WT. BIRTHDATE HOMETOWN CLUB/COLLEGE
Jozy Altidore F 6-1 175 11/6/89 Boca Raton, Fla. Sunderland (England)
DaMarcus Beasley D 5-8 145 5/24/82 Ft. Wayne, Ind. Puebla (Mexico)
Kyle Beckerman M 5-10 165 4/23/82 Crofton, Md. Real Salt Lake
Alejandro Bedoya M 5-10 160 4/29/87 Weston, Fla. Nantes (France)
Matt Besler D 6-0 170 2/11/87 Overland Park, Kan. Sporting Kansas City
Michael Bradley M 6-2 175 7/31/87 Manhattan Beach, Calif. Toronto FC
John Brooks D 6-4 170 1/28/93 Berlin, Germany Hertha Berlin (Germany)
Geoff Cameron D 6-3 185 7/11/85 Attleboro, Mass. Stoke City (England)
Timothy Chandler D 6-1 180 3/29/90 Frankfurt, Germany Nuremberg (Germany)
Brad Davis M 5-11 165 11/8/81 St. Charles, Mo. Houston Dynamo
Clint Dempsey F 6-1 170 3/9/83 Nacogdoches, Texas Seattle Sounders FC
Mix Diskerud M 6-0 150 10/2/90 Oslo, Norway Rosenborg (Norway)
Omar Gonzalez D 6-5 210 10/11/88 Dallas, Texas LA Galaxy
Julian Green M 5-7 140 6/6/95 Tampa, Fla. Bayern Munich (Germany)
Brad Guzan GK 6-4 210 9/9/84 Homer Glen, Ill. Aston Villa (England)
Tim Howard GK 6-3 210 3/6/79 North Brunswick, N.J. Everton (England)
Aron Johannsson F 6-0 165 11/10/90 Mobile, Ala. AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands)
Fabian Johnson D 6-0 155 12/11/87 Munich, Germany Borussia Moenchengladbach (Germany)
Jermaine Jones M 6-0 170 11/3/81 Chicago, Ill. Besiktas (Turkey)
Nick Rimando GK 5-11 180 6/17/79 Montclair, Calif. Real Salt Lake
Chris Wondolowski F 6-0 165 1/28/83 Danville, Calif. San Jose Earthquakes
DeAndre Yedlin D 5-8 150 7/9/93 Seattle, Wash. Seattle Sounders FC
Graham Zusi M 5-10 160 8/18/86 Longwood, Fla. Sporting Kansas City

Monday, May 12, 2014

USMNT Names 30-Man Preliminary Roster for World Cup

The USMNT named its 30-man preliminary roster for this summer's World Cup today. This group will convene in Palo Alto, California, later this week for a training camp that will trip the roster to the FIFA-mandated size of 23 players by the June 2 deadline.

All told, half of the 30 players currently play in Major League Soccer, as Jurgen Klinsmann's reliance on domestic-based players continues to increase. This includes six of my projected Starting XI for Brazil (see below).

Below is the breakdown of the 30 players selected today, listed by position with each player's club team in parentheses:

GOALKEEPERS (3) : Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

DEFENDERS (11) : DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (N├╝rnberg), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)

MIDFIELDERS (10) : Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Maurice Edu (Philadelphia Union), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

FORWARDS (6) : Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

My three surprises from today:

1. Eddie Johnson's absence - EJ scored some important goals for the US in qualifying, but his struggles to find good form for D.C. United this MLS campaign cost him.

2. Timmy Chandler's inclusion - Chandler continues to be an enigma for US soccer fans, as he is in and out of rosters. His inclusion speaks more to the weak outside back depth for the US than his own prowess.

3. Joe Corona's inclusion - Corona has shown flashes of promise, but he still seems raw. If he makes the 23-man roster, it will be a big surprise.

Roster predictions:

My projected Starting XI for the World Cup:
Howard; F. Johnson, Besler, Gonzalez, Cameron; Bradley, Jones; Zusi, Dempsey, Donovan; Altidore

My projected seven-man bench for the World Cup:
Guzan, Beasley, Goodson, Bedoya, Green, Johannsson, Wondolowski

My projected remainder of the 23-man roster:
Rimando, Parkhurst, Beckerman, Diskerud, Boyd
(meaning my seven cuts from the 30-man roster are Brooks, Chandler, Corona, Yedlin, Davis, Evans, Edu)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Major League Soccer 2014 Predictions

Today is Opening Day for Major League Soccer, or as they call it, "First Kick." The 19th season of MLS promises to be one of its best with Michael Bradley, Julio Cesar, Jermain Defoe, and Gaston Fernandez highlighting another significant influx of talent.

Here are my annual predictions for this coming season:

Rookie of the Year - Andre Blake, Goalkeeper, Philadelphia Union
Blake should be starting for the Union by midseason and with Philly's improved lineup he could be a key in the Union's chase for a playoff berth.

Defender of the Year - Matt Besler, Sporting Kansas City
The newly minted captain of the defending MLS champs has emerged as the best centerback in American soccer, and his 2014 MLS and World Cup campaigns should prove this without a shadow of a doubt.

Golden Boot - Jermain Defoe, Forward, Toronto FC
This will likely be a close race, with the likes of Chris Wondolowski, Robbie Keane, Mike Magee, Jack McInerney, and Marco Di Vaio all contending. But Defoe will be motivated in Toronto and should score 20+ goals if he can stay healthy.

Goalkeeper of the Year - Nick Rimando, Real Salt Lake
Those who have followed MLS in recent years already knew of his outstanding work, but he is getting more notoriety nationally with his impressive Gold Cup performance for the USMNT, leading them to the title.

Most Valuable Player - Michael Bradley, Midfielder, Toronto FC
Bradley should enjoy this coming year, emerging as the undisputed leader of the USMNT and up and coming Toronto FC. With all of Toronto's changes, Bradley will be called on to lead on the field and in the locker room, and he will pass these tests with flying colors.

Coach of the Year - Caleb Porter, Portland Timbers
Porter will have Portland contending for the Supporters Shield in his second season with the Timbers, after leading them to an impressive turnaround last year.

Playoff Teams
Eastern Conference - Sporting KC, New York Red Bulls, Toronto, Houston, Philadelphia
Western Conference - Portland, LA Galaxy, Seattle, Real Salt Lake, San Jose

MLS Cup - Sporting Kansas City over Portland Timbers

Sporting KC will have a lot of challenges just to repeat as Eastern Conference champions, let alone MLS Cup winners. But KC is the total package, and should be able to fend off a young and talented Timbers squad to win back-to-back titles. The Timbers are one year away.




Friday, January 31, 2014

USMNT 2014 Preview


The United States Men's National Team is less than 24 hours from kickoff of its 2014 campaign, a friendly against South Korea on Saturday. Here is an overview and some of my thoughts about the coming year for US Men Soccer:

The Group of Death Beckons in Brazil
Ever since the World Cup Draw in December, USMNT fans have been struggling to understand how the Stars and Stripes, the best team on paper in its pot of teams, got the absolute worst draw of the 32 team field. Not only did the US get placed in the "Group of Death," but our boys will also have to travel the most miles of any team in the field. The US, ranked 14th in the world according to the latest FIFA World Ranking, must play two of the top five in the world in its group.

World Cup Schedule
The USMNT's schedule for the Group Stage of the World Cup:

June 16 at 6:00 pm et vs Ghana (24th in the world)
June 22 at 6:00 pm et vs Portugal (5th in the world)
June 26 at 12:00 pm et vs Germany (2nd in the world)

Outlook
The challenge to advance out of Group G is not insurmountable. The top two teams in each four-team group advance to the Round of 16. A win against Ghana, which knocked the US out of the last two World Cups, would not only provide significant revenge, but would get the US in position to advance. A draw against Portugal might be enough to get the US through with four points, but it might take a win there as well. Any result against Germany would likely be considered one of the most impressive achievements in US soccer history.

One of the biggest storylines this year will be the match against Germany. US Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann was one of the stars of the 1990 World Cup Champion West German squad and managed the German National Team to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup. His successor, Joachim Low, was his assistant coach in 2006 and is still the head man for Germany. Emotions will be high.

Players to Watch
Over the next few months, we will have opportunities to watch players fight for spots on the 23-man roster going to Brazil. Tomorrow's lineup will mostly be made up of MLS players, meaning four of the likely Starting XI in Brazil - Jozy Altidore, Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard - will not be available because they are currently on English Premier League rosters. Another key figure for the USMNT, Michael Bradley, was in the middle of a transfer to Toronto FC of the MLS at the beginning of this training camp and will not be part of the lineup tomorrow.

This leaves an interesting mix of players competing against South Korea. Guys like Landon Donovan, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Eddie Johnson, and Graham Zusi should be securely penciled in on the Brazil roster and will probably start tomorrow. Then you have "bubble" guys in Kyle Beckerman, Mix Diskerud, Clarence Goodson, Michael Parkhurst, and Chris Wondolowski who would love to see the field and make their case to be on that plane heading south this summer. Finally, you have promising young talent like Luis Gil and DeAndre Yedlin who are unlikely to be part of the mix in Brazil, but are thirsty for an opportunity to make an impression.

Final Word
World Cup years are always exciting. We have become a bit spoiled here in the United States, with the Stars and Stripes earning a spot in seven consecutive World Cup final rounds, reaching the Round of 16 in two of the previous six and the Quarterfinals in one other. Soccer has never been more popular in this country and mainstream society is becoming more and more supportive of our national team. This World Cup will be tough for the USMNT in the Group of Death, but I don't think Ghana, Portugal, or Germany are all that enthused about having to play Klinsmann's boys either. If the US can advance out of the group stage in this World Cup, we may see a level of interest in American soccer that has never been seen before.

Enjoy the ride!