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.

'Silly goals' have Union defense searching for answers after loss to Whitecaps

'Silly goals' have Union defense searching for answers after loss to Whitecaps

CHESTER, Pa. -- The Union have a defensive problem.

It’s clear, following the club’s 3-2 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday (see story), that Jim Curtin’s once defensively stout team has sprung a leak. The Union have allowed nine goals in their last three MLS games.

“It’s a lot [of goals against] and I’m pissed about that,” Curtin, whose club is 1-2-0 since the Copa America break ended, said. “Don’t get me wrong, we’ll get it fixed, but it’s a lot of silly goals.”

The goals allowed, while plentiful, have been preventable. Like on Saturday, when Union goalkeeper Andre Blake bobbled a corner that ended up in his net. That was followed by a turnover in the midfield by Tranquillo Barnetta that left rookie Josh Yaro out to dry on a fast break in the open field.

“It’s preventable for us, as opposed to teams picking us apart with 20 passes at a time and a good finish,” Union full back Keegan Rosenberry said. “This is completely different.”

So, what's the root cause of these preventable goals? Is it the loss of Vincent Nogueira, who left the team three games ago because of health reasons? Is it Barnetta’s move to a more defensive midfield role shaking up the on-field chemistry?

“I probably can’t pinpoint one thing,” Blake said. “I think that some bounces aren’t going our way and the times we blocked the ball before, now we’re blocking and it’s going in. I think it’s one of those phases where you don’t want to think too much about it.”

Whether the Union want to think about it or not, the goals are pouring in. They allowed just 16 in 14 games prior to the Copa America break and nine in three since returning — not a healthy sign for a team clinging to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

“There’s no way we’re happy giving up this many goals,” Blake said. “I think we’re going through a phase and we have to hang tight, stick together and ride out the storm.”

Union's home win streak snapped, fall to Whitecaps, 3-2

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Union's home win streak snapped, fall to Whitecaps, 3-2

CHESTER, Pa. — Roland Alberg continued his scoring run (see story), but it couldn’t cover up for defensive mistakes, as the frustrated Union fell to the Vancouver Whitecaps, 3-2, on Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

It’s not a feeling the group is used to or likes,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “The guys are disappointed, upset, frustrated.”

The loss, their second in three games, snaps a 10-game home unbeaten streak for the Union and sinks their record to 7-5-5 on the season and 6-1-2 at home. The Whitecaps move to 7-7-3.

“It’s difficult to lose at home here,” Curtin said. “But we had a good undefeated run and we’re going to start another one.”

Thing were looking up for the Union early. The hosts opened scoring in the 14th minute with an eye-opening display of skill from Tranquillo Barnetta, Ilsinho, Fabian Herbers and Alberg.

Barnetta began the play upfield off a turnover from Pedro Morales. And after ticky-tac passing at the top of the Whitecaps box, a one-touch delivery eventually found the feet of Herbers on the right side, giving the rookie space to fire off a right-footed volley that decked the upper left corner post.

That’s where Alberg pounced. The red-hot midfielder settled it off a Sebastien Le Toux deflection and easily placed it home for his fifth goal of the season — all of which came in the Union’s last three games.

“The feeling is great, but it’s a different feeling than Wednesday,” Alberg said, recalling his three-goal game against the Chicago Fire. “I’m disappointed about the result. I think we deserved more today, we played a great game. But in the end, no points and that’s a disappointment."

But the Whitecaps would counter just five-minutes later on one of many Union mistakes. A corner cross into the box slipped through the hands of Andre Blake and onto the head of Andrew Jacobson and in.

“I’m disappointed,” Blake said. “It’s a mistake, and as a professional player, there will be times when you make mistakes. Unfortunately, that mistake cost a goal. I can’t dwell on it, it’s the past and I have to move on.”

The Whitecaps made it 2-1 in the 42nd by catching the Union overcommitted as a result of a Barnetta turnover in the midfield. On the counter, Kekuta Manneh torched Union defender Josh Yaro, cut to the middle and fired off a low shot that cleanly beat Blake. In the 84th minute, Christian Bolanos added the insurance when his shot was deflected in by Keegan Rosenberry.

"It was judgment," Yaro said. "That's part of playing. You make mistakes that cause a goal like that. It's not great, but there's nothing I can do about it now. I just have to let it go and move on."

It was the eighth goal the Union allowed in their last three games.

You win or you learn,” Curtin said. “And we’re learning right now.”

The Union fought back in stoppage time, when a corner was headed by Walter Restrepo back into the crease where Chris Pontius was waiting to make the finish. However, the match ended seconds after, 3-2.

“It’s a big win for us and a very important win,” Whitecaps coach Carl Robinson said. “Today, we wanted to show a little character and I think we showed a lot of character. Credit to the guys, it’s not an easy place to come. We’ve never won here, but we have tonight.”

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Looking to make history at home

Union-Whitecaps 5 things: Looking to make history at home

Union vs. Whitecaps
7 p.m. on CSN (Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m.)

Fresh off a wild win over the Chicago Fire on Wednesday, the Roland Alberg-led Union (7-4-5) look to continue their winning run at home against the Western Conference Vancouver Whitecaps (6-7-3) Saturday night at Talen Energy Stadium.

Here are five things to know for the matchup:

1. Alberg’s explosion
For much of the 2016 season to date, Alberg appeared to be the odd man out in the Union’s lineup. While Alberg worked on his defensive posturing, Union manager Jim Curtin stuck the Dutch midfielder behind Tranquillo Barnetta and Chris Pontius on the offensive depth chart.

But since being let loose in the first game of the U.S. Open Cup, Alberg has proven he belongs.

“He’s great around the goal, that is for certain,” Curtin said. “He hits a heavy ball, great left foot, makes great decisions around the goal, can pass. It’s good to get him going in terms of defensive running, he has really worked hard on that, he’s worked his tail off.”

The work is paying off for the first-year Union attacker, as he scored twice against the Harrisburg City Islanders, notched a goal against New York City FC and then buried the Chicago Fire with a hat trick.

It was a lucrative week and a promising development for the Union heading into Saturday. 

“He give us a calmness on the ball, and we were very happy for him,” Curtin said. “He’s put in a lot. He did a great job getting the goals for us, he’s carrying us to be honest.”

2. Sloppy defense
Though the Union found an offensive answer in Alberg, they haven’t found one recently on defense. The once defensively-stout Union have relaxed a bit, allowing three goals in two consecutive games.

“Three goals given up is not something that we want each game,” Union fullback Keegan Rosenberry said. “Jim talks about it game in, game out, the one goal per game average. We can do better. We can do better in possession, we can do better in limiting counterattacks.”

But if the Union have a surprise characteristic this season, it’s the ability to fight through defensive adversity and fight back in games. Despite going down 3-0 against NYCFC, the Union nearly fought back to tie the game, eventually losing, 3-2. Against the Fire, they gave up the opening goal to David Accam just two minutes into the game before scoring four unanswered. 

“No one hangs their head here,” Pontius said. “We all get back to work. That’s been the mentality of the group. Even 3-0 down at NYC. No one gave in. We kept working at it and ended up tying that game. The resilience of this group is good.”

3. Skillful but inconsistent
Consistency, or lack thereof, has been the theme of the season for the Whitecaps. After ripping off three straight wins in early May, Carl Robinson’s club went 0-2-1, or 1-4-1, if you count the Amway Canadian Championship (Canada’s Open Cup).

But despite their record, the Union are wary of the Whitecaps’ skill.

“They find ways to get points,” Curtin said. “They’re a team that has individual guys who can beat you off the dribble. They have crafty, clever, dynamic individuals. But they’ve conceded some goals this year, so we’ll be looking to attack on our home field.”

Making matters worse, the Whitecaps, who are sitting sixth in the Western Conference, haven't defended well of late, giving up 15 goals in their last seven MLS games.

“You always try to get better,” Whitecaps midfielder Andrew Jacobson said. “I think we just expected to be great defensively, but I think it’ll come. As the team starts playing better and gets rhythm in the attack, it’ll help our defense as well.”

4. Keep an eye on ...
Union: Although Fabian Herbers has done a commendable job filling in for injured C.J. Sapong, the Union could use their physical leading scorer back. Lucky for them, that could happen this Saturday in a minor role, according to Curtin. “C.J. has been working out on the field, he’s able to cut and he’s running hard,” the coach said. "We’re optimistic that he’ll play a role [on Saturday].”

Whitecaps: On a team full of skillful talent, Pedro Morales, a midfielder, leads the Whitecaps in goals with six and assists with three. “The key is Pedro Morales," Curtin said. “He draws a lot of penalty kicks, so you have to be smart with one-on-one defending in the box.”

5. This and that
• The Union are 2-2-2 against the Whitecaps all-time and 1-0-2 against them at Talen Energy Stadium. 

• With a 6-0-2 record at home this season, the Union are riding a 10-game unbeaten streak at Talen Energy Stadium, tying a franchise record. “That’s a credit to our fans, our players, we’ve made it a tough place to play,” Curtin said. “We’ve been good at home and want to keep that going.”

• The Union are looking for a set back line. But that hasn’t been an easy task with Ken Tribbett and Josh Yaro competing admirably for the spot. “We have four good center backs,” said Curtin, who wouldn’t reveal who will play next to Richie Marquez on Saturday. “Ken brings a different skill set, he has the aerial presence and size. Josh brings a little more speed.”