Dive, poor officiating get 2014 World Cup off to a bad start

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Soccer’s too big to be hurt by one dive, but if there’s one thing the sport’s marquee event didn’t need on day one, it was simulation deciding a match. Perhaps worse: The decision of the game’s referee showed how far the sport is from getting a handle on the problem.

Yet that’s where we are after Day 1 of the 2014 World Cup — having to reconcile why a Brazilian attacker electing to flop on his back was able to sway the tournament’s opening match. Thanks to Fred’s antics, a 1-1 match eventually became a 3-1 win over Croatia, with great performances by Neymar and Oscar overshadowed by their teammate’s theatrics.

It’s part of my job to make sure Neymar and Oscar aren’t forgotten. Neymar scored twice in his World Cup debut, and Oscar, after it appeared as if he’d be marginalized on the flank, was one of the match’s two most influential players. As a team, Brazil may have failed to meet its own standards, but the flashes of brilliance for the team’s two most creative players bodes well for the team’s improvement.

Another part of my job is to try to depict the reality of the situation, and no matter how much we want to focus on the stars, it’d be disingenuous to overlook the influence the day’s two villains had on the result. If Fred’s malice hadn’t met Yuishi Nishimura’s mistake, we’d be talking about a Brazil draw.

[ MORE: Two Neymar goals, moment of controversy see Brazil start with 3-1 win over Croatia ]
[ MORE: Nerves, Nishimura, Pletikosa: Talking points after Brazil’s victory over Croatia ]

The moment came in the 69th minute, when a movement down Brazil’s right gave Oscar a chance to find Fred near the spot. As the Selecao striker turned with Croatian defender Dejan Lovran on his back, Fred sensed his opportunity. Unfortunately for too many in this game, that meant trying to deceive the referee, and in this instance, that deception was rewarded. The ensuing penalty kick proved to be Brazil’s winning goal.

As terrible as that sounds, it’d be unfair to put too much blame on Fred’s shoulders. It’s easy to say he should be bound to a higher ethic, but unless a player’s safety is involved, the only ethic athletes ascribe to is a competitive one. Until there’s some disincentive to diving — something in the way the game is governed that makes it more viable for Fred to try to create a chance than take his luck with the official’s perspective — there’s only so much we can blame the player.

That leaves us with two culprits: Nishimura and the game itself, both of which deserve blame. Yet whereas one party’s mistake was a fault of commission, the other’s is a product of neglect.

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Referee Yuichi Nishimura gives a penalty kick against Croatia during the opening game of the World Cup. Croatia, even at 1-1 when the call was made, went on to lose to Brazil, 3-1. (AP Photo/Fabrizio Bensch, Pool)

Nishimura surely thought he saw a foul. The question is why. There’s no angle of that play that even comes close to depicting a Lovren foul. In real-time, at full speed, or in slow motion, what was happening was so transparent as to be predictable.

We knew Fred would dive. We’ve seen that play so many times, we know to look for it. Again, the question is why — why didn’t Nishimura look for it, too?

With 63 games left in the tournament, FIFA has a chance to correct the problem. Nishimura’s World Cup may be done. And for Croatia, while they may have been robbed of a point today, the team has two more games to make up for the slight. If they don’t make the knockout round, they’ll have themselves to blame, too.

The more important problems come in the bigger picture. As much as we talk about diving, there is no real movement to get it out of the game. In fact, as globalization’s exposed us to more styles, more often, there’s a tendency to see diving from a different perspective. Augmenting the puritanical and impractical view we hear from England, we’re now exposed to more pragmatic justifications of diving. For some, it’s just part of the game.

But do we want to leave it as part of the game? If so, let’s stop talking about controversial calls and teams being wronged. Instead, let’s just accept this world of competitive chaos and embrace a liberal view. Unless something’s clearly in conflict with one of the game’s laws, let’s applaud a player’s ingenuity. Let’s embrace the limits.

[ MORE: Soccerly cover the World Cup ]

If, however, people don’t want more calls like today’s, Fred needs a disincentive. There needs to be a bigger crackdown on simulation. There need to be stiffer penalties and more reviews, perhaps in real-time. The game has to start taking the issue seriously.

That it didn’t before today’s match in Sao Paulo left a lot of fans to wonder how one player, one official, and a lack of urgency were allowed to turn game one. And unfortunately, this won’t be the last time we have this conversation.

Lukaku coy on Everton future, says “decision has already been made”

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Romelu Lukaku has made it no secret that he hopes to play Champions League football, and reality may be setting in that the opportunity to do so won’t come at Everton.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break during Ireland match ]

While the Belgium international hasn’t dealt his hand in regards to his future at Goodison Park, it seems as though the Toffees could be losing out on keeping their star striker.

[ MORE: UEFA qualifying roundup — Wales in trouble, Buffon hits 1000 ]

Last month, agent Mino Raiola claimed that Lukaku’s deal with the English side was 99.9 percent complete, however, the 23-year-old has still yet to ink a new contract.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s UEFA World Cup qualifier against Greece, Lukaku says that his future plans are already made up.

“The decision has already been made so I can’t talk about that,” Lukaku said of his future at Everton.

The former Anderlecht standout has had nothing but success since joining Everton, first on loan and then making a permanent transfer from Chelsea in 2014. Over the combined stints, Lukaku has bagged 83 goals in all competitions for the Toffees, but the young attacker says there’s nothing wrong with having “ambition.”

“There is nothing wrong with ambition. You have to embrace it and where you are as a footballer,” Lukaku said. “I’ve made a long way until now but the road is still long and I know I have to improve and get better. I want to help Everton as much as I can, as well as the national team. I think a lot of stuff can be achieved.

“Sometimes people will mistake things that I say but it’s just ambition that I have; I want to win titles and trophies and I don’t think people should take that as arrogance — people should embrace it.

“This is what footballers need to achieve if they want to become the best, and I think young kids need to learn that too.”

Making sense out of USMNT’s emphatic win over Honduras

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In the lead up to Friday night’s clash at Avaya Stadium, the U.S. Men’s National Team was faced with a must-win scenario. What came next though was a bit more shocking than most U.S. Soccer supporters could have possibly imagined.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s win over Honduras ]

An emphatic 6-0 scoreline was how it finished in San Jose, California as the USMNT took down Honduras to lift itself out of the cellar of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but it’s how Bruce Arena’s side picked up the result that was so impressive.

After an extended layoff that began in the final months of the 2016 Major League Soccer season, Clint Dempsey has returned to both club and country with a vengeance following Friday’s performance. The artist formerly known as “Deuce” recorded a hat-trick in a span of 22 minutes to solidify an already convincing American lead, leaving Dempsey just two goals shy of Landon Donovan’s all-time USMNT scoring record (57).

Dempsey wasn’t the only bright spot though, as Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore and most notably, Christian Pulisic, turned in stellar performances that really left Honduras with no chance to find its rhythm in the match.

The 18-year-old Pulisic continues to be the talk of the town when it comes to the USMNT, and rightfully so given his club situation. There’s never been a U.S. talent succeeding at a club as big as Borussia Dortmund at such a young age, and Pulisic’s effort against Los Catrachos proved further that the young attacker could be the playmaker the Yanks have been looking for since Donovan’s retirement.

Meanwhile, another player that turned in a great performance was Jozy Altidore, and probably not for the reasons you’d normally think. The Toronto FC striker didn’t get on the scoresheet, however, it was Altidore’s hold-up play and vision that helped the U.S. dominate Honduras.

Altidore has long been a staple of the American attack, and an important one at that with his 37 international goals, which ranks third all-time for the U.S.. If the 27-year-old is able to replicate more performances like Friday night though, that makes the Stars and Stripes significantly more dangerous because of Altidore’s duel-threat ability.

The lone area the U.S. will look to clean up heading into Tuesday’s important qualifying match against Panama will be some of the team’s defensive letdowns. Jorge Villafana turned in a strong performance in his WCQ debut at left back, while veteran Omar Gonzalez had several moments of weakness in the heart of the American backline.

The Pachuca defender was caught out of position on several occasions and gave the ball away at times as well, but fortunately for the U.S., Honduras was unable to capitalize on those errors.

Overall though, the U.S. did exactly what it needed… and then some. The three points was all Arena’s group could have hoped for from the start after lackluster performances against Mexico and Costa Rica back in November, but adding six goals could certainly help down the road as well if goal differential becomes a key factor in the Hexagonal.

It’s difficult to say the U.S. is back because that’s a relative phrase that can be interpreted in numerous ways. The USMNT put in a stellar performance, albeit without key players like Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin defensively, while Bobby Wood and Jermaine Jones are two others that didn’t feature.

[ MORE: Three takeaways from USMNT’s emphatic win on Friday night ]

Only time will tell when it comes to how this team gels over an extended period of time, but it was certainly a dream start for the Americans as Arena Part Deux continues.

Up next, Panama.

Chastain, MacMillan inducted into US Soccer Hall of Fame

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Brandi Chastain looked at the assembled crowd in a tent under the rain and addressed former coach Tony DiCicco, who had just introduced her at the induction ceremony for the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.

[ MORE: USMNT smashes six past Honduras in CONCACAF WCQ ]

“Thank you, not just for today but for every day that you gave me the chance to play for the women’s national team, and for having the confidence in me and the guts to tell me I wasn’t going to be a forward,” she said.

Chastain, a forward on the 1991 World Cup champions and a left back whose penalty kick won a shootout for the 1999 title, was inducted Friday night along with midfielder Shannon MacMillan, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion three years later.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s win over Honduras ]

The ceremony was held before the U.S. men played Honduras in a World Cup qualifier.

Remembered most for pulling off her shirt after her World Cup-winning goal and celebrating in a sports bra, Chastain grew up in San Jose and talked about her early days playing youth soccer in the area, starting with the Quakettes. After winning her first World Cup title, she was left off the 1995 roster. She revived her career as a defender.

“Change is good. Though, scary, it’s good. And I think we would all benefit from seeing change as an opportunity for growth and development, and for a new adventure,” she said.

Now 38, Chastain scored 30 goals in 192 international appearances and also won a pair of Olympic gold medals. MacMillan, 42, had 60 in 176 international games.

“It was always such a massive honor that gave me chills every time I walked in that locker room, whether it was my first cap, my 100th cap or my last cap,” MacMillan said. “It was something that I never took for granted.”

Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy was given the Colin Jose Media Award.

The Hall’s building in Oneonta, New York, closed in 2010 and a new Hall is being built in Frisco, Texas.

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.