Seattle keeps digging holes, keeps climbing out

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Seattle has given up the opening goal five times this year. Each time, it’s come within the first 17 minutes. Each time it’s come from a preventable mistake. For most teams, this would be a major concern.

But the Sounders aren’t most teams. As of right now, they’re the best team in Major League Soccer, their 2-1, come from behind win over Dallas on Wednesday night reinforcing their case. Though an early penalty conceded by Brad Evans allowed their guests to take a 16th minute lead, Seattle would go on to outshoot the Toros 19-8 (9-2, on target) and hold 56 percent of the ball, ultimately taking full points after second half goals from Lamar Neagle and Kenny Cooper.

It was the same formula Seattle used this weekend against Philadelphia, where an Evans own goal gave the Union a 13th minute lead. At Chivas USA, Osvaldo Alonso took down Leandro Barrera in the fifth minute, allowing Erick Torres to score from the spot. At Dallas, Stefan Frei misjudged a bouncing ball. For whatever reason — lack of focus, bad luck, pure chance — the Sounders keep conceding these early goals, but just like tonight at CenturyLink, they find a way to come back.

Highlights of the game are above, but the more important question going forward is what this says about the current state of the Sounders. Four things:

1. You have to be very good to keep overcoming these deficits …: The more often Seattle can overcome these deficits, the more it indicates the opening goals aren’t a big deal. For most teams, given such a low scoring sport, giving up goal number one is huge. If the Sounders can consistently count on two goals a game, it’s not.

What’s more, if the Sounders attack is so much better than opposing defenses that they can “turn it on” at will, how many goals they’re capable of scoring ceases to be issue. At some point, Seattle’s just responding to its surroundings.

2. … but at some point, you’re going to run into somebody else who’s very good: This weekend we marveled at Sporting Kansas City’s ability to protect one-goal leads. Granted, Seattle has a late goal against them this year (opening day), but it was against a half-strength Sporting team. At some point, the Sounders are going to come up against a team like Sporting, one that won’t prove as forgiving as the Dallases and Chivases of the world.

Then again, maybe the Sounders already have. The good version of Toronto (not the team we see right now) fits the profile. Not only did the Reds score first and early when they visited Seattle, but they doubled their lead before halftime. Seattle eventually scored, but the early goals still came back to hurt.

That’s the other danger of giving up an early goal: What if — by lack of focus, bad luck, or pure chance — you give up a second? Or what if you give up a second against one of the league’s better teams?

It all comes back to the obvious: Giving up goals is bad. You can never just brush it off. No team takes the field being okay with conceding goals. If you’re giving up goals, you’re failing in at least one small respect.

3. It’s still early, and there’s reason to think the defense will improve: There’s a new goalkeeper. Chad Marshall’s never played with these guys before. Osvaldo Alonso may still be getting used to listening to Marshall’s directions. There’s reason to think the defense will get better, which will lead to fewer goals.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but there’s an argument to be made that it will.

4. This isn’t that long-awaiting Goonies sequel: If this keeps up, people are going to start comparing Seattle to the 2012 Earthquakes, but the teams couldn’t be more different. Whereas the Earthquakes style (and, Frank Yallop’s adjustments) fed on teams as they became more conservative with leads, Seattle’s using their normal approach. There’s no point where they become particularly desperate or significantly change their approach or personnel. They just become more determined.

Two years later, it still isn’t clear how San Jose was so successful late in matches, but with Seattle, it couldn’t be more evident. They’re just good. Really good. The more they need a goal, the more likely they are to get it. Even a part-time panda could figure it out.

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.