Host Brazil beats Croatia in World Cup opener

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Host Brazil beats Croatia in World Cup opener

SAO PAULO -- Neymar showed why he is carrying Brazil's hopes at the World Cup, scoring twice on Thursday to help the underwhelming hosts escape a disappointing start to the tournament.

With Brazil struggling and down a goal against a spirited Croatian team, Neymar came through to lead his team to a 3-1 win in the opening match, scoring once in each half. The killer goal to make the score 2-1 was a hotly contested penalty awarded by Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura.

"Things weren't going well," he said. "The first match is always difficult, we were anxious, we were nervous. I'm glad I was able to get the goals we needed at the time we needed them."

"He is a special player and we know that," Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said. "And he needs to know that we know that."

Brazil got off to a slow start in its home tournament.

Defender Marcelo found his own net while trying to clear a low cross by Ivica Olic in the 11th minute, stunning the crowd of more than 62,100 packing the Itaquerao Stadium.

But Neymar equalized in the 29th, firing a perfectly placed low shot that went in off the post. He said he didn't hit the ball perfectly, "but it went in, it's all that matters."

"It's important to start these tournaments on the right foot, with a victory," said Neymar. "I'm happy that I got to score, but the entire team deserves credit. We maintained our calm and showed we could battle back."

The game turned on a controversial penalty awarded by Nishimura in the second half after striker Fred went down inside the area under minimal contact from defender Dejan Lovren.

Neymar scored from the spot in the 71st minute, getting his 33rd goal with Brazil. Croatia goalkeeper Stipe Pletikosa nearly saved Neymar's shot, but it was struck hard enough to deflect into the net.

The Croatians were furious.

"If that was a penalty, we should be playing basketball. Those kinds of fouls are penalized there," Croatia coach Niko Kovac said.

"That is shameful, this is not a World Cup referee. He had one kind of criteria for them and another for us. The rules were not the same," Kovac said.

As Croatia searched desperately for an equalizer, Oscar added to the lead in the first minute of injury time with a toe poke from just outside the penalty area.

A draw would have been a huge disappointment for Brazil, which had won its opening match the last eight times and is overwhelming favorite to win the competition.

"The team didn't give up," Brazil defender David Luiz said "We knew it would be hard but we played well and got that first goal and then the victory."

The tournament finally got underway as planned after months of talk about the preparation problems that plagued Brazil since it was picked as host seven years ago.

The troubled Itaquerao, which wasn't fully finished for the opener, held up without major setbacks to fans or the match itself, although part of the lights atop the pitch went out a few times for brief periods in the first half.

CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

CSN, TCN to air 25 of Union's 34 games in 2017

Twenty-five of the Union’s 34 games in 2017 will be featured on CSN and TCN, as Jim Curtin’s club vies for a second straight playoff berth.

Twenty matches will air on TCN, while five can be seen on CSN. The nine others will be appear across 6ABC, ESPN and FOX Sports 1.

The Union’s season opener on March 5 at the Vancouver Whitecaps will broadcast on TCN and the team’s home opener on March 11 against Toronto FC will air on CSN. The next three games — March 18 at Orlando City SC, April 1 at D.C. United and April 8 vs. the Portland Timbers — will be shown on TCN.

The Union are coming off an 11-14-9 season and their second-ever trip to the MLS playoffs in which they suffered a first-round exit to Toronto FC.

For the Union’s full 2017 schedule, click here.

Union Notes: With Yaro sidelined, 'Gooch' poised to be a starter

Union Notes: With Yaro sidelined, 'Gooch' poised to be a starter

It’s been roughly two years since Oguchi Onyewu last played a professional soccer game. But with Joshua Yaro out for at least the next three months after dislocating his shoulder, Onyewu will likely be the team’s opening day starter when the Union’s 2017 season begins in Vancouver on March 5. 

“Gooch has been really good in the preseason,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said after the team wrapped up a training session from inside the Penn Park Bubble on Monday. “Him and Richie (Marquez) have established themselves as the guys that, at least at this stage, we’ll go with going into this final phase between MLS games.”

Ken Tribbett, who started 19 games a rookie last season, is also “pushing for minutes,” Curtin acknowledged. And 18-year-old Auston Trusty is an intriguing option to perhaps make his MLS debut at some point this season.

But no matter what the Union plan to do, the injury to Yaro will certainly be a big blow. The second-year player, who battled injuries and concussion problems last season, was prepared to make a big leap in 2017 and show the kind of promise that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 draft.

“Josh is a starter,” Curtin said. “When he’s healthy, he’s established himself as such. It’s a big loss, a speed loss on the backline. It will call upon guys to step up in his absence. Hopefully, we get him back sooner rather than later.”

Calling the injury both “tricky” and “painful,” Curtin knows the recovery process can’t be rushed though. Yaro actually dislocated the same shoulder last May in a game vs. Orlando but the team decided at the time that surgery wasn’t necessary. This time, after Yaro dislocated his shoulder in a non-contact drill about a week-and-a-half ago, they decided to go the surgery route, which they hope will prevent any more issues.

“It’s tough because he plays so aggressive and physical,” Curtin said. “So to be out there a little wounded and already a little undersized is difficult. We thought it was best to get the surgery taken care of. He’s a really important piece we’ll miss but everyone else has to step up.”

For what it’s worth, Onyewu seems more than ready to fill the void. A former US national team star, the 34-year-old center back confidently stated when he was signed: “My ambition and my goal is to start every minute.”

“Looking at things in reality, I’m 34 years old, so I’m not gonna play for another 15 years,” Onyewu added at the time. “But if the question is, ‘Do I have more left in my tank?’ I definitely do. You’re gonna see that this season.”

From New York to Philly
It’s been an interesting last couple of months for Adam Najem, a star player at the University of Akron who bypassed this year’s MLS draft because his homegrown rights were owned by the New York Red Bulls … who then traded those rights to the Philadelphia Union … who then signed him last Wednesday.

But now that a little bit of the uncertainty has passed, he’s ready to make Philly his new home. 

“I grew up a Red Bull fan,” Najem told reporters Monday. “I played there since I was 12 years old. But my heart and everything else is with the Philly Union. I’m gonna give everything I can to the organization. That’s all I’m thinking about right now.” 

Perhaps the most interesting part of Najem’s move from New York to Philly is that his brother, David, is part of the Red Bulls' system.

Might the two siblings face off in a rivalry game down the road?

“We grew up playing against each other all the time — one-vs.-one battles in the backyard,” the Union midfielder said. “It will be fun to see him on the other side of the field.”

The Bosnian has arrived
It’s been nearly two weeks since Haris Medunjanin was signed but the Bosnian midfielder just arrived in Philly this week after working to attain his visa.

Medunjanin, who’s expected to be a major piece in the Union midfield, didn’t practice with the team at Penn on Monday but will fly out with them to Florida on Tuesday for the third and final phase of the preseason and should be available to play in the next three preseason games at the Suncoast Invitational.

In the meantime, he took a physical on Monday and enjoyed a tour of the Power Training Complex, which he told Curtin was better than many training centers he’s seen in Europe.

“He’s excited,” Curtin said. “He really wants to fit in well with the group, which we know he will.” 

Union look to add resident tattoo artist 
The Union’s roster may be just about complete as they prepare for their start of the 2017 season but they are still looking to fill at least one position … a chief tattoo officer.

Wait, what?

Yes, Union vice president of Marketing Doug Vosik announced on CSN’s Philly Sports Talk on Monday that the team would be the first professional sports organization to make such a hire with the person acting as a resident tattoo artist for players and staff.

All interested tattoo artists may apply for the position by emailing portfolio images to tattoos@philadelphiaunion.com.

“This is an exciting initiative for all of us here at Philadelphia Union as we look to provide a revolutionary service for our players and front office, particularly those new to the area,” said Vosik, who will be the first to get a Union tattoo. “Our hiring process begins immediately; we are looking for a partner with a wide variety of talents and skills, and someone who can offer a broad range including American traditional, as well as Japanese, realism, new school and more.”