ProSoccerTalk’s preseason predictions for: Conference champs, MLS Cup winner

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ProSoccerTalk’s Noah Davis says …

As for conference champions, I like D.C. United and the LA Galaxy. Ben Olsen can work magic, except it’s not really magic, it’s just hard work. Perry Kitchen will continue to develop into a leader and Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius will lead the attack (barring injury of course, a big if with those two). As for the Galaxy, it’s a boring pick, but it’s the right one. The squad is too good, too skilled, too well-coached to suffer through another early-season slump.

On MLS Cup: Seattle Sounders. I don’t know; I just have a feeling. The playoffs are such a crapshoot, and it’s about time, you know?

ProSoccerTalk’s Richard Farley says …

As conference champions, I like D.C. United and the LA Galaxy.

Confession: I was the main push behind putting San Jose number one on our list two weeks ago, but now knowing a bit more about the Earthquakes and Galaxy, I’m flipping the script. I think San Jose is in survival mode to start the season, given their injuries. I also get the feeling they’re taking the long view of the season and might be willing to sacrifice points in April and May to get their guys ready for September and October. I think LA’s defense and Robbie Keane will keep them decent through the third act of the Donovan saga, and given how tight the West could be, I think that’s enough to switch the order.

In the East, I like D.C.’s team to continue improving. I’m not sold on the changes Sporting’s had to incur, and I think Ben Olsen and team will take a lot of pride in not only competing for the conference but potentially taking the Supporters’ Shield. This is D.C., after all.

For MLS Cup, I’ll take the Houston Dynamo.

Why now when they couldn’t win in 2011 or 2012? Because come December, I think Houston’s going to have the best team in the league. I’m not sure Dominic Kinnear is going to ride them so hard that they take the East, but come playoff time, I expect them to make their now-typical run. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third-straight LA-Houston final, and nine months out, I like the Dynamo to take that one.

ProSoccerTalk’s Steve Davis says …

I’d like to be bold and pick Seattle to make the big breakthrough in the West – but I just cannot quite get there. The LA Galaxy back line is just too much better, and Robbie Keane will get 14-16 goals easily if he can carry all that momentum from the back half of 2012 into this year.

In the East – Here’s where I rescue this post from the rather boring prospect of all three of us picking the same doggone teams! – I’ll take the New York Red Bulls to slip past a D.C. United team that I do like a lot. (Man, the East is just stacked and packed this year, eh?) RBNY is just a shade under-strength on the outside midfield spots, but powerful everywhere else. Plus, if the look under Mike Petke most closely resembles a 4-2-3-1, they don’t really have flank midfield spots. Speaking of Petke, the players seem to be taking to him, and that added element of chemistry will go far. So, yes, I’m going there. I am picking the Red Bulls, ignoring the flashing red lights of history!

MLS Cup champion? I’m going back to the LA Galaxy. Reason: By summer, Landon Donovan will be dashing about at Full Donovan, and I can only assume a Frank Lampard or a Kaka will be bouncing around and getting the job done at the Home Depot Center. Three-peat! I’m calling it.

(MORE: full roster of PST preseason predictions and previews)

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

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.”

Croatia smashes disheveled Argentina

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
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Ante Rebic, Luka Modric, and Ivan Rakitic have Croatia in the knockout rounds and Argentina on the verge of World Cup disaster.

Croatia scored a trio of second half goals, one aided by a Willy Caballero howler, in a 3-0 win in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday.

Argentina will enter its final match against Nigeria on the outskirts of the knockout rounds regardless of how Nigeria-Iceland ends on Friday.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Ivan Perisic forced a big save out of Wily Caballero for an early Croatia corner kick that came to nothing.

Messi had a chance stopped inside of 10 minutes, then started a play that Dejan Lovren blocked for a corner in the 13th.

Enzo Perez missed an open goal off a poor Croatia giveaway in the 30th minute.

There were a pair of fouls not out of place on a red card lowlight reel, one for each team, but neither resulting in a sending off.

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Croatia took the lead through Caballero’s gaffe and Rebic’s smash in the 54th.

Argentina nearly answered moments later. After a mazy Messi dribble, Argentina regained possession in the 64th minute, spearheaded by a Gonzalo Higuain run that led to a corner.

Croatia came close to making it 2-0, as Mario Mandzukic couldn’t turn a flick on frame and instead saw it glide into the outside of the goal.

Then Modric put the match to bed as the clock hit 80, an absolute beauty. Another huge defensive mistake allowed Mateo Kovacic to cue up Rakitic for the third.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

WATCH: Caballero blunder punished as Rebic rip puts Argentina on ropes

AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin
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Willy Caballero has made one of the bigger blunders in recent World Cup history.

His Argentina side needs at least a point from Thursday’s match-up with Croatia, and the match remained scoreless into halftime.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

But 10 minutes after the break, Caballero flubbed a clearance in a big way.

The Argentina goalkeeper then could only watch as Ante Rebic kept his composure to blast a side volley into the goal.

It was a fine finish, to be sure, but not possible without such a terrible gaffe.