Graham Zusi keeps making it harder for Landon Donovan to get back into U.S. national team

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SANDY, Utah – The more Graham Zusi delivers performances like the one in Tuesday’s second half, when the Americans finally punched a hole in the Honduran defensive dam, the more Landon Donovan’s return to the national team scene disappears into doubt.

Donovan is on the provisional roster for the Gold Cup, and he will probably be called once the 23-man roster is handed into CONCACAF – and presumably made public that day – on June 27.

But there is a little bud of a theory developing around the U.S. camp that Donovan’s estrangement could become more or less permanent, that the team is doing fine without him – and it’s hard to argue the point at the moment. That could change when the opposition improves, but for now …

It’s certainly fair to debate whether Donovan’s presence next year in Brazil – We can all agree that the United States is going, right? – would be an asset. If he can add just a little more polish to his game with the Galaxy, folding in more consistency to the performances, Donovan would certainly be an upgrade over other attackers in the pool now appearing regularly on Jurgen Klinsmann’s depth chart.

(MORE: U.S. player ratings vs. Honduras)

Klinsmann clearly isn’t happy with the message Donovan delivered last year through some of the player’s choices regarding the national team. Donovan maintains that he did what he needed to do to prolong his career – and it’s hard to argue that point, too.

But if Klinsmann wants to cut ties in a bigger way … well, what better time to do so than now? Take the PR hit now before the relatively low-profile Gold Cup, get it over with and move on well ahead of next year’s World Cup, when Donovan’s roster omission would potentially become a talking point distraction.

Which brings us back to Zusi, who was nominal in presence through the first 45 against Honduras beyond those set piece dandies (something else he does expertly, helping to mitigate Donovan’s absence). Zusi isn’t quite as versatile as Donovan, unable to deliver crosses with either foot the way Donovan can. We saw it once Tuesday as the Sporting KC attacker got into position along the left but badly over-hit a centering ball.

(MORE: What we learned about the United States in Tuesday’s win)

Zusi also misses Donovan’s burst of speed and instincts near goal, too. But while the dropoff is noticeable in those areas, it certainly isn’t fierce. Plus, other elements of Zusi’s game, the tidy work in tight spots, the defensive tracking and the overall awareness, are roughly equal.

(Talking about awareness: How sweet was that dummy to help spring Fabian Johnson, which set up Jozy Altidore’s game winner?)

Zusi was a major influence on the U.S. attack throughout the second half; almost everything dangerous after the break went through him at some point, arranging balls for Clint Dempsey, aiming more of the dead-eye restarts toward Omar Gonzalez and finding more of the spaces against a tiring Honduran defense.

(Some of his slow first half was about Brad Evans, who was quite conservative along the right; a bigger push from the makeshift U.S. outside back would have forced Honduran defenders into choices, which would have pried open more room to roam for Zusi.)

Either way, here’s how the MLS All-Star explained the change from first half to second:

“It was a gritty game [early], very physical, not a whole lot going on,” Zusi said. “A lot of possession changes toward the middle of the field. I think our play in the first half wore them down a little bit and it allowed us, in the second half, to spread the field a little bit and get in behind them a little more often. So the second half we could be more dangerous in creating opportunities.”

Sampaoli defends Messi, blasts Argentina squad

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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

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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.