Looking back at Real Salt Lake’s top moment, the 2009 MLS Cup triumph:

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The great thing for Real Salt Lake fans who look back on the 2009 MLS Cup win is that the core of that team will line up Saturday at Sporting Park – the bulk of it, anyway.

It was Nick Rimando in goal; Nat Borchers on patrol in the back; Kyle Beckerman at the bottom of RSL’s midfield diamond, and; Javier Morales making the plays and controlling possession from the top of the diamond.

Plus, Ned Grabavoy played a big role in the 2009 triumph, something a few folks may forget. What else happened that cold day in Seattle? Let’s take a look back at a few of the key happenings that day:

  • Real Salt Lake claimed the day in a penalty kick shootout over the starry LA Galaxy. What I wrote that day for ESPN.com: “The overachievers from one of the league’s smallest markets overcame ample hardship thanks to superior fitness and, even more, to a goalkeeper [Nick Rimando] who specializes in turning away spot shots. The Utah side also had just enough shooters able to remain calm under pressure, as a blue-collar club with no real front-line international stars claimed a 5-4 edge in a tiebreaker that went seven shooters deep.”
  • The game was deadlocked at 1-1 after 90 minutes, and after extra time as well.  Mike Magee had scored in the 41st minutes for the Galaxy; Robbie Findley supplied RSL’s 64th-minute equalizer. (Hmmm … Magee and Findley scoring in the post-season? Sound familiar?)
  • A lot of people forget that Javier Morales left the game early (22nd minute) injured. What a blow. His replacement: Clint Mathis! Honestly, I had forgotten about Mathis’ role in this one. Plus, Will Johnson was limited by a bout with food poisoning. Ned Grabavoy replaced him, and quite effectively so.
  • Landon Donovan was the Galaxy’s fourth tiebreaker shooter. Historically, the guy has proven as sure a PK taker as you’ll ever see … but not on this night. His shot flew well high, yet another failure in a bit of a burgeoning litany of them against Rimando.
  • The Jason Kreis story was just beginning. He was already the youngest MLS coach to date when he first took to the suit and the sidelines in 2007. Two years later, on that chilly, wet Seattle night, Kreis became the youngest manager to win MLS Cup, still a month from his 37th birthday.
  • A big narrative that developed out of MLS Cup 2009 was this idea that Designated Players may gin up an MLS club’s exposure, but the DP dandies do not necessarily win titles. This was the third championship decided after MLS instituted its innovative DP rules. And for the third year, a team without one of these recognized stars claimed the title. This was the best example yet, Real Salt Lake (small of market, balanced of salary) vs. the DP-loving Galaxy, with Landon Donovan and David Beckham on the roster.
  • Finally, Seattle as MLS Cup hosts? Two words: Awe. Some.

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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.