Takeaways from the U.S.’s win in Antigua: States find their hero

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Not even the most ardent Eddie Johnson fan would have predicted the striker, making his first appearance in two years for the national team, would be the man that pulled the U.S. back from its World Cup qualifying ledge, yet that’s exactly what happened Friday night in St. John’s. Taking his comeback to a level nobody could have predicted, Johnson scored both goals in the States’ 2-1 victory over Antigua and Barbuda, his 91st header salvaging an otherwise worrisome performance from the United States Men’s National Team.

The U.S. had led for only six minutes – the time between Johnson’s opener and Dexter Blackstock’s 26th minute response. From then on, it was the same, attack-challenged U.S. we’ve come to know under Jurgen Klinsmann.

There was possession but no urgency; intent but no execution; talent but no production.

Had Johnson not redirected home Alan Gordon’s late cross, the U.S. would be in crisis mode. That Klinsmann’s two surprise recalls created the winner is their boss’s only saving grace. His team was lacked urgency, was curiously deployed, and showed no progress from their last disappointing road trip to Kingston.

Few teams in CONCACAF would have lost to the U.S. tonight. Klinsmann is lucky his team was facing one of them.

Here are some quick takeaways:

1. Where was the urgency? – This wasn’t a true must win, but as the coach said mid-week, the team was treating it as such. But if this team was treating this as a all-or-nothing scenario, the U.S. is going to have difficulty making it through The Hex (the next round of CONCACAF qualifying).

With the exception of some fire from Michael Bradley when he was taken down from behind late (a play that should have given the U.S. a penalty kick), the team approached this one with the same business-like approach we’ve seen throughout the tournament. They could have used a lot more passion tonight.

MORE: Did the conditions matter on Friday?

2. U.S. is still not executing in the final third …

3. … and Jurgen Klinsmann bears much of the blame.

It will be interesting to hear Klinsmann’s explanations as to why Johnson spent most of this match wide left. The States generated three good chances for him on crosses, but all too often the Sounders’ No. 9 was seen deep in midfield, tracking back like a traditional midfielder, even if he played like a forward most of the time.

Beyond Johnson’s deployment, the U.S. still doesn’t seem to know what to do with all their possession. We’re seeing very few balls played behind the defense, and those that are tend to be poorly weighted into marginally dangerous spots. We’re not seeing effective runs in the box. We’re not seeing the type of movement and interchanging that opens up space. Aside from a few nice layoffs from Clint Dempsey, we’re not seeing the type of one-touch passing that can navigate compact defenses.

Some of that is personnel. Some of that is performance. Some of that is training, and some of it is tactical.

There are a number of places where solutions could lie, but after another performance where the play far outstretched the goals, the team needs answers.

MORE: Friday a good night for Jozy Altidore? 

4. The central defense remains a work in progress – Both Geoff Cameron and Clarence Goodson were beaten for Antigua and Barbuda’s goal. Cameron allowed his man, Peter Byers, to blow by him, while Goodson slipped getting across the six to mark Blackstock. Twice late, players were able to turn on shots inside the U.S. penalty area, leaving Tim Howard lunging to protect his far post. As Antigua and Barbuda were breaking out into counters late in the match, you couldn’t help but wonder what a World Cup-caliber team would have done to this defense.

Perhaps things would have been different if Fabian Johnson were healthy, allowing Carlos Bocanegra to play in the middle. We should find out on Tuesday.

5. Heroic Eddie Johnson – As the seconds ticked away on a game that looked destined to end in a draw, the U.S. desperately needed a hero. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, perhaps Carlos Bocanegra? One of the core needed to assert himself.

Instead, it was Johnson. Controversial callup, having seen you in two years, “you’re not Jozy” Eddie Johnson.

MORE: PST Man of the Match – Eddie Johnson 2.0

Pealing off his man in the 91st minute into space toward the far post, Johnson subtly volunteered to be that hero. Just as he’d done on the opener, he hammered his header down and across goal, giving goalkeeper Molvin James little chance to preserve a historic result.

One year ago, Johnson was a non-factor for the U.S. After failing to land a place with a club in Mexico, it wasn’t even clear he had a professional future. When he landed in Seattle, he had to start over: New team; new city; no prestige. Everything that got Eddie Johnson to this point has happen in the last seven months.

Now (and all of a sudden), he’s the team’s best goal scoring threat, the man who represents the U.S.’s potential to be a truly dangerous team …

And the one good thing to come out of the States’ trip to Antigua.

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

Scott Heavey/PA via AP
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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.”