Drilling down on: Houston Dynamo 2, at Chicago Fire 1

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If you need one win on the road in Major League Soccer’s playoffs, you sure want Dominic Kinnear coaching your team.

For the second year in a row the Dynamo launched their post-season with a huge road win, this time as the No. 5 seed over No. 4 Chicago Fire at chilly Toyota Park.

Will Bruin had both goals, early on a corner kick and then straight-away after the break. Houston has to rest up quickly; up Sunday is a home match against Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City.

Man of the Match: Will Bruin struggled when Houston asked him to play as a lone striker in a 4-3-3, but he sure looks comfortable when the Dynamo reverts to its tried-and-true 4-4-2. The Dynamo’s “Dancing Bear” scored both of the visitors’ goals by doing what Chicago Fire players mostly could not: ruthlessly finishing his chances in those decisive moments.

Threesome of knowledge: Things We Learned

Hard to say what was more at fault, Chicago’s questionable tactics or Chicago’s curious absence of urgency. It’s the playoffs, fellows! (Maybe that weak crowd had the home town men bummed out.)

Patrick Nyarko on the right and Chris Rolfe up the middle looked up for the job for Chicago. Any others? Not so much. And the Fire’s 4-2-3-1 just didn’t provide enough support. Chicago’s defensive shape generally worked, but Fire manager Frank Klopas sacrificed a lot for the sake of it.  Specifically, holding midfielders Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause proved redundant elements, rarely straying far enough forward to link up with and provide an additional option for Rolfe.

The result was a muted attack. By the time Klopas brought on Brazilian midfielder Alex for Pause at halftime and rearranged the look, it was too late.

Kinnear also used two defensive-minded midfielders. The difference was in Ricardo Clark’s positioning; he played ahead of Adam Moffat in more of a diamond, although he dropped back into a “flat” midfield when Chicago controlled the ball. But getting Clark  forward in his positioning was the tactical checkmate. Well, having Corey Ashe rampaging up and down the left side helped a lot, too.

Don’t blame Fire veteran center back Arne Friedrich for anything that happened. He was everything you’d expect of a man with all that experience, always in the right spots and winning everything coming his way.

Friedrich even supplied the big pass out of the back that led to Chicago’s late goal.

Klopas will do himself a huge favor by convincing the German veteran to stay around for another season.

Neither team’s right back covered himself in glory out there. Chicago’s Jalil Anibaba will remember this one as a Halloween horror. It certainly wasn’t his fault that he slipped while marking Bruin on Houston’s opening goal. Whether that shook his confidence or whether this just wasn’t his night afterward, hard to say. But … ooof!

He struggled to deal with Houston’s left side, Brad Davis coming inside and Ashe overlapping along the outside. Chicago needed to provide more cover, either from Patrick Nyarko or from one of the defensive midfielders. When there wasn’t, Anibaba either had to foul or he struggled to prevent the crosses.

For Houston, young Kofi Sarkodi’s night was a similar orgy of the unfortunate, bad passes, poor-one-on-one defending and failure to step up with the line quickly enough. He did, at least, demonstrate the recovery speed a few times to get himself out of the ditch.

(MORE: Dominic Kinnear pushed the right buttons)

Packaged for take-away

  • Houston manager Dominic Kinnear is now 11-7-4 in the MLS playoffs.
  • Houston didn’t play a perfect game either, but the Chicago Fire’s finishing simply was not as brutally efficient.
  • Chicago’s Sean Johnson is one of the U.S. international up-and-comers, but he sure didn’t look like one early, flubbing an attempted punch and spilling a long-ranged shot into rebound-danger territory.
  • Meanwhile, Houston’s Tally Hall had six saves generally added credibility to the argument that he deserves the national team calls more than Johnson or D.C. United’s Bill Hamid. (Although Hall is a bit older at 27.)
  • We beat on referee Baldomero Toledo on this blog quite a bit. So, only fair to say that he got on top of things early Wednesday, mostly kept the cards in his pocket and managed the match pretty well. He did fall back into the old Toledo habit of not calling fouls late, but it was still one of his better matches.
  • That killer goal for Houston right after second half kickoff started on a Gonzalo Segares give-away.

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?

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images
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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

Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images
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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)

AP Photo / Ricardo Mazalan
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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.”