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.

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake the Union's first MLS Best XI team member since 2010

Andre Blake continues to rack up the accolades.

A couple of weeks after being named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year, the rising Philadelphia Union star was named to the MLS Best XI team as one of the league’s top players in 2016.

The rest of the team included:

• Forwards Sebastian Giovinco (Toronto FC), David Villa (New York City FC) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (New York Red Bulls)
• Midfielders Ignacio Piatti (Montreal Impact), Sacha Kljestan (Red Bulls), Mauro Diaz (FC Dallas) and Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)
• Defenders Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Axel Sjoberg (Colorado Rapids) and Jelle Van Damme (Galaxy)

Blake’s inclusion on the Best XI is not a surprise considering he already took home top goalkeeper honors. Even though he didn’t have the best numbers in the league, he made the spectacular look ordinary in his first full season as an MLS starter.

But it is unique for the Union, who haven’t had a player make the Best XI since Sebastien Le Toux was included for his 14-goal, 11-assist effort in Philly's 2010 expansion season.

Union winger Chris Pontius, who recently won the 2016 MLS Breakout Player of the Year award, made Best XI while with D.C. United in 2012. Former Union players to be honored on the prestigious list were Bakary Soumare with Chicago in 2008 and Justin Mapp with Chicago in 2006.

Another big honor like this will likely only increase the chatter that Blake could be sold to a big team in Europe soon. But a couple of weeks ago, the Union goalkeeper insisted his only focus for 2017 is on Philadelphia.

“From a personal standpoint, I’m hoping to have an even better season than 2016,” he said at the time. “To be able to go in and be consistent and do everything I can for the Union — and maybe be the goalkeeper to get them their first [MLS] Cup.”

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

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The Associated Press

Bruce Arena rehired as U.S. soccer coach to replace Jurgen Klinsmann

NEW YORK -- Bruce Arena is returning to coach the U.S. national soccer team, a decade after he was fired.

The winningest coach in American national team history, Arena took over Tuesday, one day after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired. The 65-year-old Arena starts work Dec. 1.

With the U.S. 0-2 in the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time, the U.S. Soccer Federation wants to spark a turnaround when competition resumes March 24 with a home game against Honduras followed four days later with a match at Panama.

"We need to build the chemistry of this team and have a common goal and really work on a team concept," Arena said during a telephone news conference. "I really believe individually and positionally we have good players and we've just got to get them working together as a team.

"There are no real secrets on how you build good teams: It takes a lot of hard work, it takes communication, it takes discipline and it takes some talent, and I think we have enough talent to build a good team and end up in Russia 2018. It's going to take a little time, a little bit patience and a lot of hard work."

Arena first took over as national team coach after the 1998 World Cup and led the U.S. to a 71-30-29 record. His contract runs through the 2018 World Cup.

"I don't view it as Bruce 2, but sort of Bruce 2.0," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. "I think he's got far more experience than he did when he had the national team the first go-round. He's proven and reproven many times at all levels of the game in the United States that he's an extraordinarily capable and successful coach."

A wisecracking Brooklynite known for blunt talk and sarcasm, Arena coached the University of Virginia to five NCAA titles from 1978-95, then led D.C. United to titles in Major League Soccer's first two seasons before losing in the 1998 final. He guided the Americans to the team's best World Cup finish since 1930, a 1-0 loss to Germany in the 2002 quarterfinals.

Arena was let go after the team's first-round elimination by Ghana in 2006. He coached the New York Red Bulls of MLS from July 2006 to November 2007, then was hired the following August by the Galaxy. He led the team to MLS titles in 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Arena was inducted into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2010.

"I think 10 years later I'm better prepared for this job than I was in 1998 and 2002 and ultimately 2006, so I'm hopeful the experiences I had are going to benefit the program," he said. "One of the things you learn from experience is you see things a lot clearer and a lot quicker than you did previously, and the game has slowed down a bit, where I can see as a coach in my position how things are happening on the field.