MLS Preview: Union look to put late collapses behind against struggling Houston

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The Philadelphia Union have let four points slip away in the dying embers of their previous two matches, causing coach John Hackworth to tell the media how much hair it’s causing him to lose.

Hint: it’s a lot. With those four points, they’d be top of the Eastern Conference.

Instead, they sit in third and remain embroiled in the smorgasbord that is the East.  Saturday they have an opportunity to distance themselves further from the Houston Dynamo, who remain just four points back despite having just picked up two points in their last seven fixtures.

The fact Houston remain in a playoff spot despite that awful record is a testament to the parity in the East.  Houston are winless since May 8 and goalless in their last 329 league minutes – 419 overall including their tumble out of the U.S. Open Cup.  You have to travel all the way back to April 28 to find their last home goal.

(MORE: Houston Dynamo – brace for impact)

And yet, they’ve created chances. Somehow, they just can’t finish.  Against New York on Sunday, the Dynamo produced 11 shots with 25 crosses.  Unfortunately, the quality was missing.  Just three of those 11 shots were on target.  That’s not exactly much of a test for the opposing goalkeeper.

That could possibly change Saturday.  Honduran playmaker Oscar Boniek Garcia is questionable, missing since the last round of World Cup qualifiers with a hamstring injury.  If able to play, the midfielder would add a fair bit of quality back to the squad. His arrivial last season turned things around in time to win an MLS Cup; could his addition do it again?

Even if the Honduran does return to the Houston lineup, don’t expect goals to fly out of this match.  With each team missing their young frontmen to Gold Cup duty, replacements will be needed.  Jack McInerney and Will Bruin are hoping to get their first shot at real international action, leaving their clubs that much thinner.

Also on duty with the USMNT are Houston’s Corey Ashe and Philadelphia’s Keon Daniel.  Although playing different positions, the two are cornerstones of their respective clubs, with their absences requiring a temporary fix.

For Houston, absences are becoming a normality.  Missing for the Dynamo in addition to Bruin, Hall, and Ashe will be right-back Kofie Sarkodie, leaving yet another hole in the back line.  Finally, Brad Davis is a “long shot” according to head coach Dominic Kinnear.  Look for defenders Warren Creavalle and Eric Brunner to continue their fill-in duties, with Mike Chabala possibly getting a shot as well.

With Philadelphia sitting much lower than they should after last-minute points let free, and Houston tabled higher than expected with a seven-match winless streak in play, it’s a match with much intrigue, and about as much table ramifications as you can get this early in the season.

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.”