Ahem, we need to talk about that awful call in U.S-Canada Olympic classic

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All credit to the United States for finding a way, for three determined rallies from a goal down, for reaching deep into the reserves at the 122nd extraordinary minute to locate that sensational game-winner – and for willing their way into Thursday’s Olympic gold medal match.

But I think we need to address one particular Canadian killer: the strange referee decision to whistle an indirect free kick at a critical juncture, not long after Canada had taken a 3-2 lead.

Jenna Pel will be back later with more thoughts and deeper analysis of Monday’s incredible evening in Manchester; she’s got the serious knowledge on all things U.S. women’s national team.

(MORE:  the brilliant Alex Morgan saves yet another day)

Meanwhile, I’ll address the less popular issue, this unpleasant little matter that I’m sure most U.S. soccer supporters would prefer not to mention:

What a horrible moment for Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen to make such a highly significant decision, to award an indirect free kick to the United States in the 78th minute, adjudging Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod of time-washing.

And make no mistake, an indirect free kick from 17 yards may not be a gift from the heavens (as a penalty kick might be), but it’s a wonderfully fortuitous turn of events for the attacking team – especially one that is a goal down with 12 minutes remaining.

I’ve watched more professional soccer matches than I can possible count.  (Best, ridiculously wild-ass guess: somewhere north of 2,000.) I have never – no exaggeration here, never – seen that called.

(MORE: A fresh look on Tuesday morning, regarding a fresh round of media excuse making here)

I went back and counted. McLeod (pictured above) had the ball in her hands for 11 or 12 seconds; some of that was on the ground, which referees typically wouldn’t count toward the six permitted seconds for distribution. Or that’s what I’d guess. Again, I’ve never seen this be a big issue.

Yes, her 11- or 12-second hold represents a clear, technical violation of the “six second rule,”  a law that is violated at least a dozen times in every professional match.

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The penalty kick that resulted from the U.S. free kick? I have no problem with that; it was the correct decision. The problem is that it never should have gotten there.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Here’s what my NBC colleague Kyle Martino said of the Canadian ‘keeper kerfuffle:

“My heart goes out to Canadian players, because it was such a tough moment,” Martino said. “To be playing so well, to bring your best game, against the best team in the world. And then to have the game flipped on its end because of a call like that? If I was playing in that game, it would have drove me nuts.”

It really was a heartbreaking moment; no matter your rooting interest, you hate to see something like that weight so heavily into a result.

(UPDATE: Some reports say McLeod may have been “warned.” We’ll keep alert for what she says, but know this: it’s irrelevant here. A violation would need to be egregious to make this kind of critical decision, and McLeod’s breach certainly was not.)

Report: Newcastle’s Clark knocked out on Spanish dance floor

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A wild story out of Spain says an Englishman knocked Newcastle United defender Ciaran Clark unconscious at a night club.

[ MORE: Sampaoli defends Messi ]

Clark was on vacation in Spain, where he was spending time at Crystal’s Bar in Punta Ballena, Magaluf very early Sunday morning.

Clark and a man “in his 30s” got into an argument that saw the Irish defender knocked out, according to the BBC.

Clark was left unconscious and taken to hospital after an argument between him and the suspect broke out on the dance floor.

The 28-year-old suffered cuts and bruises to his face.

Clark, 28, scored twice in 20 Premier League appearances this season, his second at St. James’ Park.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 9 — Iceland’s next step, Brazilian bounce back?

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Brazil is one of the favorites of the 2018 World Cup, while Iceland is the smallest nation to qualify for the world’s biggest tournament.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

On Friday, both enter their second match days feeling quite different after 1-1 draws.

They won’t face each other, of course, but the contrast is striking nevertheless.

Brazil opens the day’s action when it squares off with Costa Rica, who fell to Serbia in the opener. For Serbia, a dark horse of the tournament, it will be a meeting with Switzerland.

Then there’s Iceland’s bid to climb into the Group D driver’s seat by knocking off Nigeria. A win from Iceland would make Lionel Messi and Argentina’s task of qualifying for the knockout rounds extremely unlikely.

Below is Friday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group D
Nigeria vs. Iceland: Volgograd, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group E
Brazil vs. Costa Rica: Saint Petersburg, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Serbia vs. Switzerland: Kaliningrad, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina

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Jorge Sampaoli is lambasting his team after a 3-0 loss put Argentina on the edge of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup’s knockout rounds.

“The reality of the Argentina squad clouds Lionel Messi’s brilliance,” Sampaoli said. “The team doesn’t gel as well as it should.”

[ MORE: Modric urges humility ]

Sampaoli said his players could not find a way to get the ball to Messi, and that the introduction of Boca Juniors youngster Cristian Pavón was aimed at opening up the field a little bit.

And Sampaoli is not shying away from the long-discussed comparison between Messi and Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo. From the BBC:

“Cristiano is a great player and he has achieved a lot with club and country. Right now it is hard to compare these two players because of the ability in the Argentinian squad clouds the judgment. Leo is in a difficult position because the squad doesn’t gel with him. As coach I have to accept that. I don’t feel shame but I definitely feel pain. It has been a long time since I have gone through this experience as a coach and obviously it is more painful when I’m wearing the colours of my country.

“We have no alternative but to give it our all in the final match. We have not performed at the level the country expects. We were ambitious ahead of the game but now it is harder for us as a group. We did think this would be the match we can take off as a team, but it wasn’t in the end. I think this is an excellent squad but we didn’t gel or come together. We need to take advantage of the next match, when the pressure will be on, and hope to progress.”

Now, of course Sampaoli is going to defend Messi, but Argentina’s team is not chopped liver. The side certainly isn’t as deep or solid as Croatia, but 1-1 with Iceland preceded this one.

That said, Argentina’s performance once Croatia essentially decided to surround Messi was unacceptable. If favored Nigeria doesn’t handle its business against Iceland, the World Cup finalists won’t have a prayer of going back.

Modric urges humility after big win, stunning goal (video)

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There are few teams who’ve looked as strong as Croatia at the World Cup in Russia.

[ RECAP: Argentina 0-3 Croatia ]

Zlatko Dalic’s men now have a pair of shutout wins against decent competition, topping Nigeria 2-0 over the weekend before hammering Argentina 3-0 on Thursday.

The nature of those performances will have many, us included, debating just how far Croatia can run in this tournament. Veteran midfielder Luka Modric is hoping his team doesn’t do the same.

Let’s not be euphoric or get ahead of ourselves,” Modric said. “Of course this win will boost our confidence for the next game, and we have shown we can create opportunities, but let’s keep our feet firmly on the ground.”

Modric noted that Willy Caballero‘s howler “was a shot in the arm,” but added that they had played a “perfect game.”

That’s true. And while so much focus will be on Messi’s struggles, don’t sleep on the terrific performance of Vatreni. 

Modric also seemed to bristle when asked about shutting down Messi.

“I don’t want to talk about other players. We are happy with our own performance. We wanted to cut out Messi receiving the ball because he is the most dangerous player.”