The World Cup qualifying effort is back on track

11 Comments

Was it all a bunch of wasted worry? Was all the teeth gnashing, nervous tummy tumbling and nail biting all so unnecessary after all?

The United States’ World Cup qualifying effort, looking unsteady and unbalanced for a few days, is back on solid ground following a 1-0 win over Jamaica in Columbus.

Jurgen Klinsmann’s men were dominant for 65 minutes. In fact, dominant doesn’t tell the story as the United States completed a stunning 91 percent of its first half passes against a Jamaican team that sat in a surprisingly passive and defensive crouch. An otherworldly combo of post- and crossbar-rattlers (three of them in the first 45) and spectacular stuff from Reggae Boyz goaltender Dwayne Miller kept the United States out of goal before the break.

(MORE: Highlights from last night’s match)

Finally, Herculez Gomez scored unquestionably his biggest goal in a U.S. shirt – and probably the biggest U.S. goal since Landon Donovan’s late strike against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. That was the breakthrough – and the United States is now tied atop the group once again, along with Guatemala and Jamaica.

(MORE: U.S. Man of the Match, Herculez Gomez)

The job isn’t done, but Klinsmann’s kids do have two winnable matches remaining, at Antigua and Barbuda and then back at home against Guatemala. Both games are in October.

More on those later. For now, here are 10 talking points on Tuesday’s massive win.

1.  – If U.S. fans feel a bit conflicted about this one, it’s about those final 20 minutes, when the United States lost initiative, backing off following the breakthrough goal. Some was down to Jamaica pressing higher, but the response just wasn’t as convincing as it needed to be.

2.  – Clearly not satisfied with his things from last Friday, Klinsmann made five changes in the lineup, introducing Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Danny Williams, Graham Zusi and Jose Torres.

3.  – Check marks on the U.S. side for Geoff Cameron, Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson, Williams, Zusi and Herculez Gomez. All had convincing nights. Cameron’s work was particularly unimpeachable, and Cherundolo was near-perfect against Luton Shelton, a man much faster that the U.S. right back.

4.  – Torres, a polarizing figure among U.S. fans, did nothing like the night he needed. The U.S. left-sided midfielder wasn’t bad – but it simply wasn’t enough in a night of U.S. dominance. And isn’t this (“not enough”) always the story with Torres? Klinsmann even said as much last week. For all the U.S. possession, Torres just never manufactured the big moment in the final third. Zusi, playing Torres’ equal on the opposite side in the U.S. 4-4-2, managed to make things happen in ways Torres never did. Plus, the ball often slows down when it reaches Torres (and Jermaine Jones, too, for that matter.) Torres was removed after 65 minutes. If he was running out of chances before, where does leave him now?

5.  – Jones? What does Klinsmann see in him? Please submit answers to ProSoccerTalk HQ.

6.  – Even before Gomez’s crucial goal, his free kicks were impressive, creating threatening U.S. chances. His first-half ball into Jones (Jones!) was deadeye perfect; The U.S. midfielder whiffed on the header from top of the six-yard box when he had perfect inside position on his man. (Seriously, Jones is still more liability than asset. The only way the United States was ever going to lose was for Jones to do something stupid and red-card worthy. I said on Twitter in the first half that exact thing – and put the chances at 27 percent.)

7.  – The Cherundolo-Zusi combo was flat out devastating in the first 45. They looked like they had been playing together since YMCA soccer in grade school. Zusi had the first U.S. chance, banging one off the cross bar in the 6th minute. Meanwhile, Cherundolo was adding so much more push up the right side that just wasn’t there on Friday.

8.  – Williams was the primary holding man in a 4-4-2 and had his best night in the U.S. shirt by a long way. That shouldn’t be so surprising since that’s his position in Germany; Klinsmann, with a wealth of central midfielders has usually played Williams out wide. I think we just saw that change. If so, one of the usual central midfielders is odd man out, either Jones, Maurice Edu or Kyle Beckerman.

9.  – Not so sharp? Clint Dempsey did what he could, but his touch and timing are clearly not Dempsey-esque. You really have to wonder about the choice to play him all 90 minutes Tuesday, especially after he went all 90 tough minutes on Friday. That man was wiped out by the 60th minute in Columbus by the look of it.

9a.  – Bocanegra was similarly stale. Not bad, just not World Cup qualifier sharp, with a bad choice here and there while bringing the ball out of the back. And he got dragged out of position once, stranding Cameron behind him as Jamaica buzzed in dangerously.

10.  – In the last 20 minutes the United States looked nervous as schoolboys at the junior high dance. Credit for the three points, which was always the bottom line. Still, you’d like to see the American manage things better late, more convincingly nursing home the 1-goal margins. Maybe that’s a nitpick, but it’s not much of one.

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

Scott Heavey/PA via AP
Leave a comment

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?

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
1 Comment

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)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
Leave a comment

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.”