AP Photo/Todd Kirkland

Three things: Atlanta go home, get back on track vs. DCU

1 Comment

Sunday provided everyone with example no. 143,395 of Why we shouldn’t draw any conclusions whatsoever from the first week — or two months, probably — of the MLS season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

From week to week, no other league in the world will see a team turn in such diametrically opposed performances…

[ MORE: MLS 2018 season previews ]

Tactical flexibility is a must-have in today’s MLS

Atlanta United were demolished and run off the field in their season-opening 4-0 loss to the Houston Dynamo last weekend, at which point the MLS masses were clearly a tad too quick to celebrate and dance on the Five Stripes’ grave.

Not only did the players respond during Sunday’s 3-1 thrashing of D.C. United at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so too did manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino during the week as he settled on a formational change and devised the perfect gameplan to cure precisely what ailed his high-powered attacking machine just eight short days ago. In that game, Atlanta were completely overrun in midfield with Darlington Nagbe and Chris McCann deployed as a double pivot in a 4-2-3-1 — it didn’t work because there was simply too much space — vertically, but especially horizontally — for the pair to cover, and they were torched out wide.

To offset the obvious shortcomings of a Nagbe-McCann central midfield, Martino swapped the 4-2-3-1 for an aggressive, high-pressing 5-3-2 which featured Greg Garza and second-year Swiss Army knife utilitarian Julian Gressel and left and right wing backs, respectively. The third central defender helped Nagbe and his new midfield partner, Jeff Larentowicz, vertically while Garza and Gressel were godsends to either side. Not only were they asked to do far less defensively, thanks to G&G harassing Yamil Asad and Paul Arriola out wide, but Nagbe in particular was able to have an immense impact on Atlanta’s possession game — something which was null and void just a week ago.

Tata’s also working out the Nagbe “problem”

Speaking of Nagbe, it’s only a small exaggeration to suggest he could lead the league in assists, on secondary assists alone, this season. Consider the embarrassment of attacking talent playing ahead of him: Miguel Almiron, Ezequiel Barco and Hector Villalba — who’d be the focal point for at least half the teams in MLS, but falls to third chair in his own midfield — playing behind Josef Martinez. There will be plenty of goals scored in the ATL, just like last season.

Take Atlanta’s first goal on Sunday as the most perfect example of how much easier the aforementioned stars have already begun to make Nagbe’s job. Sure, the first touch is great and bails out Villalba who’s in a tough trapped spot up against the sideline, but the ensuing through ball for Villalba is elementary stuff for a player of Nagbe’s skill:

The “problem” that Nagbe has presented his various coaches — both club and international — throughout his career is that he “should” be this type of player, or he “should” be that type of player. It’s pretty clear, after seven seasons and more than 200 appearances, he’s not a no. 10 and he’s not a winger. Let the man be the brilliant shuttler and link between defense/defensive midfield and a vibrant, downhill attacking quartet. (Caleb Porter stumbled onto this formula in 2015, and the Portland Timbers rode it all the way to MLS Cup.) Does it carry less weight and sound far less sexy? Sure, but to play the part as quickly and instinctually as Nagbe can do, might just be what separates Atlanta from being “fun” and “great.”

Plenty of reason to have hope for DCU

I said it before the season, and I’ll say it again now: by the time summer arrives, no team will have improved more from 2017 to 2018 than D.C. United. The roster was turned over last August (Arriola, Zoltan Stieber and Russell Canouse) and the overhaul continued this winter (Asad, Frederic Brilliant, Ulises Segura and Junior Moreno). For the first time in a long while, Ben Olsen has a genuinely talented MLS roster at his disposal.

For not-insignificant stretches of Sunday’s game — say, most of the second half — United were not quite in control of the run of play, but they were the more dangerous side with the score still 1-0. Darren Mattocks missed a couple decent chances (as he does) and the Black and Red were unable to capitalize and fatally conceded two goals in as many minutes.

Once Luciano Acosta reclaims his place in the starting lineup (he returned to the bench after being suspended for last week’s 1-1 draw with Orlando City SC), he should tie together United’s sturdy back half and an attacking unit made up of (largely) slightly above replacement-level MLS retreads.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 11 — England, Colombia back in action

Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Day 11 of the 2018 World Cup is up next, on Sunday, with England back in action and in need of three points — and a resounding win — to keep pace with Belgium in Group G.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Following Belgium’s 5-2 thrashing of Tunisia — the same side that England beat in stoppage time earlier in the week — on Saturday, the Red Devils have positioned themselves perfectly to win the group with a draw against the Three Lions on Thursday. England need a five-goal victory at 6-1 or higher to the finish top of the group following a draw on the final day.

Then, it’s a pair of Group H fixtures, kicked off with Japan (1st) versus Senegal (2nd) — both of whom won their first game — followed by Poland (3rd) versus Colombia (4th).

Below is Sunday’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 – Sunday, June 24

Group G
England vs. Panama: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group H
Japan vs. Senegal: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Poland vs. Colombia: Kazan, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

FIFA opens case against Xhaka, Shaqiri for celebrations

Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP
1 Comment

FIFA’s disciplinary committee opened disciplinary proceedings against Swiss players Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri for politically charged goal celebrations during their 2-1 World Cup win over Serbia in Kaliningrad.

[ MORE: The meaning behind Xhaka, Shaqiri’s eagle celebration ]

FIFA also said Saturday it has opened disciplinary proceedings against the Serbian Football Association for crowd disturbance and the display of political and offensive messages by Serbian fans. FIFA also is reviewing statements that Serbia coach Mladen Krstajic made after the match.

Xhaka and Shaqiri celebrated their goals by making a nationalist symbol of their ethnic Albanian heritage. Both of their families come from Kosovo, the former Serbian province that declared independence in 2008. Serbia doesn’t recognize Kosovo’s independence and relations between the two countries remain tense.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

The Polish Football Association was fined $10,100 and given a warning by FIFA’s disciplinary committee for a banner that the governing body deemed political and offensive. The banner was displayed during Senegal’s 2-1 win over Poland on Tuesday in Moscow.

The committee also opened disciplinary proceedings against the federations of Argentina and Croatia for crowd disturbances during Croatia’s 3-0 win Thursday at Nizhny Novgorod.

Low: Germany survived “a thriller full of emotion”

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Leave a comment

At 1-0 down, they were headed for elimination in the group stage (with a game still to play); once level at 1-1, they faced yet a steep hill to climb on the final day of the group stage; after Toni Kroos scored his stunning 94th-minute winner, Joachim Low could finally exhale and imagine himself managing the German national team for another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Sweden at the 2018 World Cup was, for most intents and purposes, a worrying performance for the defending world champions. Fortunately for Low and Co., the one place in which their comeback dramatic victory was a raging success is the only one that matters: the Group F table, where Die Mannschaft currently (somehow) sit second and control their own destiny — quotes from the BBC:

“This was a thriller, full of emotion, right up until the final whistle. Brandt hit the goal post just three minutes before the end too. We took out a defensive player and brought on an attacking player because we knew had to bring on everything we had to turn it round.

“We had a couple of great chances — Mario Gomez’s header being one of them. The last couple of minutes were full of drama but those matches exist in football. We’ve had these situations in other tournaments as well. For the viewers that’s part of the attractiveness of football.”

“Something I did appreciate today was that we didn’t lose our nerve, we didn’t panic after going a goal down. We kept a level head and said we needed to make quick passes and tire the Swedes out to open up spaces.

“We didn’t score a couple of good chances but we never lost hope we could win the match and I think the goal scored in stoppage time had a bit of luck involved but it did show the belief we had in ourselves.”

There’s still plenty of work to do for one of the most popular pre-tournament favorites — there’s a little matter of needing to beat, or at the very least, best Sweden’s result against Mexico — but that can wait until tomorrow, because Saturday unexpectedly became all about survival.

Germany snatches late win over Sweden to avoid elimination

AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis
3 Comments

Germany dodged a fatal bullet on Saturday, coming back from a goal down to Sweden to steal a 2-1 victory at the 2018 World Cup and keep their world title defense alive… barely.

For all of 16 minutes — plus halftime — the Germans were in line to be eliminated with one Group F game still to play, but ultimately, Ola Toivonen‘s unlikely opener was canceled out by Marco Reus in very short order after the restart, and Toni Kroos broke Swedish hearts in the 94th.

Put another way, Joachim Loew survives to manage another day.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Sweden felt massively aggrieved to have not been awarded a penalty kick in the 17th minute, when Jerome Boateng took out the legs of Marcus Berg as he bore down on an out-rushing Manuel Neuer. The combination of leg-to-leg contact and a strong push in the back appeared an obvious error for the video-assistant referee to right a wrong, but the call never came.

The opening goal was the direct result of a careless giveaway by Kroos near the center circle, and needed just three touches and two passes to cut through the German defense and spring Toivonen behind Antonio Rudiger. The finish, a perfectly weighted dink — perhaps aided by the slightest of deflections by Rudiger — left Neuer with no chance (WATCH HERE).

Then, with the final touch of the first half, Berg glanced a header from a free kick that was destined to his the inside netting at the far post, but Neuer redefined the phrase “at full stretch” to keep the scoreline 1-1.

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

That save proved invaluable for Joachim Loew’s side, as Marco Reus pulled the defending world champions level less than three minutes into the second half. Timo Werner dribbled to the endline and cut the ball back toward the penalty spot, and Reus got on the end of the deflected cross and struck it home with his knee. A semblance of order restored.

Bedlam ensued in the final 15 minutes, as Boateng was sent off for a second yellow card and Neuer lost his footing while scrambling across the face of goal to make a save, only narrowly preserving the 1-1 scoreline. Robin Olsen one-upped Neuer in the 88th minute, rising to his crossbar to punch Mario Gomez’s header just over.

In the fourth of five minutes of second-half stoppage time, Kroos became the hero. From a nearly impossible angle on the left side of the penalty area, Kroos rolled the ball forward to Reus on the restart, creating an ever so slightly wider angle from which to curl his shot toward the far post. It worked to perfection.

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

Germany (3 points) will finish group play against fourth-place South Korea (0 points) on Wednesday, while Sweden (3 points) will face Mexico (6 points), who had clinched their place in the knockout rounds until Germany’s late winner.