Brad Guzan of the U.S. blocks a shot from Costa Rica's Alvaro Saborio during their 2014 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Commerce City

Jurgen Klinsmann says Brad Guzan has earned a U.S. start; he most certainly has

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Just so there is no confusion, Tim Howard remains the unquestioned U.S. starter in goal for Jurgen Klinsmann’s national team, as well ensconced in his role as anyone this side of Michael Bradley. No one should read too much into Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to give Brad Guzan the start Tuesday in Panama.

Klinsmann has said repeatedly that Howard is his starter, and the longtime Premier League man has done little to undermine his position.

Besides, in previous final-day World Cup qualifiers, when safe passage into the tournament or into the next round is assured, managers have frequently included a few of the trusted backups. It’s just a reasonable thing to do, rewarding the understudies and protecting the front line men.

There is some significance, however, in seeing Guzan get a start. First, it’s a reminder that Guzan is having an outstanding calendar year. The window of achievement actually started in late summer of 2012, when Guzan took the job at Aston Villa from Shay Given, putting a choke hold on the position and never looking close to giving it back.

(MORE: Guzan happy at Villa, downplays Arsenal chatter)  

Guzan was huge in filling in for the injured Howard early this spring, in the snowy white win over Costa Rica and then in the scoreless draw in Mexico. Both performances were tremendous demonstrations of composure under intense pressure.

Guzan getting a start here also underscores the exceptional depth Klinsmann has in goal right now. If Howard were to be injured between now and next summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the United States would hardly suffer.

Finally, it does remind us that Guzan continues to push Howard, who probably needs pushing. He hasn’t really been challenged for years at Everton nor with the national team. While Howard remains as professional as they come, nothing squeezes the most quality from an athlete like a true challenge for his position.

Howard did OK on Friday, for instance, but probably needed to handle a couple of Jamaican balls into his six-yard box with just a little more certainty. Yes, it’s nit-picky, but when you have a figure like Guzan around, you can get a bit nit-picky. That’s the point; he can be better and probably knows that he needs to be.

“Brad Guzan has earned the opportunity to start against Panama,” Klinsmann said. “He has been outstanding for Aston Villa all year, and he has been huge in the games he has played for us in World Cup Qualifying. As I said before, we have one of the best situations in the world when it comes to our goalkeepers.”

(MORE: U.S. releases Howard, three others back to their clubs)

El Clasico: Ramos’ 90th minute equalizer leaves Real, Barca level (video)

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 03:  Luis Suarez (2nd L) of FC Barcelona and Sergio Ramos (L) of Real Madrid CF fight for the ball during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid CF at Camp Nou stadium on December 3, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
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Real Madrid’s six-point table lead over Barcelona remains thanks to Sergio Ramos’ heroics near both goal lines, as La Liga’s leaders came back to draw 1-1 at Camp Nou on Saturday in the first El Clasico of the season.

Luis Suarez gave Barca a second-half lead only to see Ramos claw one back and then save a goal at the death.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

It’s no surprise that Ronaldo was lively, and one of his two shots saved by Ter Stegen after a clever dribble inside the 18.

Messi had a moment, too, his free kick dipping around the wall but into the waiting arms of Keylor Navas.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

A careful Messi dribble ended with a lofted ball that Luis Suarez chose to trap rather than volley, and Real Madrid killed the chance for a corner kick.

Suarez put Barca up off Neymar’s arrow of a free kick, slightly redirecting the tight-angle shot with his head.

Neymar nearly made it 2-0 in the 68th minute, dribbling through Real’s right side before sailing a shot over Navas and the goal.

Andres Iniesta sprung Messi through in the 82nd minute, but the Argentine dragged his shot wide of goal.

The chances came late for Real, with Sergio Ramos heading a corner just over a leaping Ter Stegen… and the bar. Then Jordi Alba cleared Ronaldo’s in-tight header off the line after Marcelo’s terrific cross.

The equalizer came in the 90th minute, as Ramos rose high to head his chance off a diving Ter Stegen and into the goal. Barca answered with a chance of their own, but Ramos cleared the chance off the line.

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West Brom 3-1 Watford: Baggies ruthless against 10-man Hornets

WEST BROMWICH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Jonny Evans of West Bromwich Albion heads to score the opening goal during the Premier League match between West Bromwich Albion and Watford at The Hawthorns on December 3, 2016 in West Bromwich, England.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
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  • Evans, Brunt, Phillips score
  • Kabasele got Hornets back in it
  • Pereyra sent off late on 
  • West Brom unbeaten in four

West Brom beat 10-man Watford 3-1 at the Hawthorns on Saturday to continue their good form as Tony Pulis‘ side push towards the top six.

The Baggies went 2-0 up in the first half through Jonny Evans‘ header and then Chris Brunt‘s low free kick found the back of the net. Watford had some hope in the second half as Christian Kabasele made it 2-1 but after Roberto Pereyra was sent off the Hornets’ chances of a comeback were all but over and Matt Phillips scored late on to seal the win.

With the victory West Brom moves on to 20 points and leapfrog Watford in the table, who stay on 18.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Baggies got off to a flying start at home as Brunt’s corner was met with a towering header by Evans at the back post to put them 1-0 up in the 16th minute.

West Brom then sat back for the rest of the first half, with Watford doing most of the pressing but coming up against a stubborn Baggies rearguard.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Then came the sucker-punch.

Brunt doubled West Brom’s lead before the break as his free kick from 25-yards out took a deflection off Juan Zuniga and hit the back of the net. 2-0 and Watford were in a hole.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Watford came out fighting in the second half with Troy Deeney meeting a cross from the right but his shot was blocked by Gareth McAuley.

Soon Watford did pull one back as Ben Forster made a great save as McAuley’s header looped towards his own goal and from the resulting corner the ball was slotted home by Kabasele. 2-1. Game on.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Watford’s quest for an equalizer was hampered late on as Pereyra was sent off for reacting to a challenge by James McClean with plenty of players from both teams getting involved.

And the game was put beyond doubt in the closing stages as Phillips cut in off the right flank and drilled a low left-footed shot home. 3-1.

Sunderland 2-1 Leicester City: Black Cats buzzing, Luck running out for Leicester

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Robert Huth (2nd L) of Leicester City shows his dejection after conceding the own goal during the Premier League match between Sunderland and Leicester City at Stadium of Light on December 3, 2016 in Sunderland, England.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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  • Black Cats up to 18th
  • Own goal, Defoe the markers
  • Leicester two points clear of drop
  • Okazaki pulls one back

Sunderland looked left for dead; Now the Northeast club’s Premier League survival hopes very much alive.

The Black Cats knocked off Leicester City for a third win in four games, kicking the Foxes firmly into the relegation mix after a 2-1 match at the Stadium of Light on Saturday.

Jan Kirchhoff hit the header than turned into a Robert Huth own goal, making a much-needed return to the Sunderland side.

Demarai Gray found Shinji Okazaki to make it 2-1 with 12 minutes to play.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Victor Anichebe is a striker in form, barely missing with an early laser before seeing a sure goal deflected away from goal to set up a fifth minute corner. The hosts were humming at the Stadium of Light.

Anichebe had a shout for a penalty in the 14th minute while Wes Morgan jostled with him in the box, but his cries were unheard and the big man didn’t go down.

Scary before the break, as Marc Albrighton and with Black Cats midfielder Steven Pienaar came together in an inadvertant collission. Pienaar was left the worse for it.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Islam Slimani didn’t see a seeing-eye pass through the 18 before it struck his shin, and Sunderland dodged an early bullet.

But oh boy. Kirchhoff won a free header by beating Huth to a corner kick, and his effort hit the defender on the way into the goal.

Defoe buttressed the lead with a fine goal, and it was one Sunderland would need following Okazaki’s finish.

Young goalkeeper Jordan Pickford got the job done for the Black Cats down the stretch, and Moyes can puff out his chest for yet another week after a miserable start to the season.

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Stoke City 2-0 Burnley: Hughes’ go top half with win

STOKE ON TRENT, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03:  Jonathan Walters (2nd L) of Stoke City celebrates scoring his team's first goal with his team mates during the Premier League match between Stoke City and Burnley at Bet365 Stadium on December 3, 2016 in Stoke on Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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  • Walters lashes home
  • Muniesa nabs first PL goal
  • Clarets sink 14th

Jonathan Walters and Marc Muniesa scored as Stoke City continued to make its early season woes a thing of the past in a 2-0 win over visiting Burnley on Saturday at the Britannia Stadium.

The loss leaves Burnley just three points above the drop zone, while Stoke arrives in the top half with 19 points.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Burnley had the ball in the early stages, but Bruno Martins Indi provided the first bit of true danger when the Stoke back headed the ball off the woodwork.

Tom Heaton missed the game through injury, but he wouldn’t have made a difference on Walters’ opener. The Stoke man belted a Mame Biram Diouf cross behind Paul Robinson to give the Potters a 20th minute lead.

Muniesa scooped up his first PL goal before halftime when Marko Arnautovic provided good service and the ex-Barca man didn’t mess up his lines.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

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