Watch Live: D.C. United vs. Chicago Fire (Lineups and Discuss)

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United States international Eddie Johnson and his new team, D.C. United, get their best chance of the season to crack into the win column when 2013 MVP Mike Magee and the Chicago Fire visit RFK Stadium this afternoon. NBCSN’s coverage from the national’s capital starts at 4:00 p.m. Eastern, with the game also available via NBC Sports Live Extra.

United showed improvement last week at BMO Field in Toronto, where a Jermain Defoe goal was all that separated Ben Olsen’s team from its first point of the season. Over 180 minutes, however, the numbers are less flattering. Coming off an opening day, 3-0 loss to Columbus, D.C.’s second defeat of the season left the team 0-2-0, having yet to score a goal.

That puts Johnson, the team’s big offseason acquisition, in the spotlight, but getting the ball to its new striker has been one of D.C.’s problems. To improve on that, Johnson must get help from the players behind him. A midfield of Nick DeLeon and Lewis Neal (in for Davy Arnaud) anchored by Perry Kitchen needs to have a greater impact than it’s had over the season’s first two games, allowing attacking midfielder Luis Silva and supporting striker Fabian Espindola to generate opportunities for Johnson.

In the face of those options, Chicago will rely on the triangle at the middle of its defense to maintain the strength its showed over the last two games. After opening the season with three goals allowed at Chivas USA, the Fire have limited both Portland and New York to one each, with strong play from midfield linchpin Jeff Larentowicz making life easier for central defenders Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Bakary Soumaré. Last week, the Red Bulls’ only goal came from some penalty box chaos after a corner kick.

Up top, the Fire will be looking to get Magee back to his 2013 self. Coming off a career high 21 goals, Magee has yet to get on the scoresheet this season, something he’ll be looking to change against Bobby Boswell and Jeff Parke. Imported from Houston and Philadelphia (respectively) this offseason, D.C.’s central defense tandem has been unable to prevent United from conceding four times through two games.

Improve today, and D.C. should claim its first points of the season. Continue to struggle, and Frank Yallop’s team could leave RFK with its first victory of 2014.

LINEUPS

D.C. United: Hamid; Franklin, Boswell, Parke, Fernandez; DeLeon, Kitchen, Neal; Silva; Espindola, Johnson

Subs: Dykstra, Attakora, Kemp, Arnaud, Jeffrey, Caskey, Doyle

Chicago Fire: Johnson; Watson, Hurtado, Soumaré, Cochrane; Shipp, Larentowicz, Alex, Joya; Magee, Amarikwa

Subs: Reynish, Ianni, Pause, Nyarko, Rolfe, Anangono, Gentile

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.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.

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.