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U.S. national team in high spirits as sensational 2013 draws to a close

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GLASGOW — Laughing and joking around on a cold, blustery November morning on the outskirts of Glasgow, all is well with the U.S. national team.

And why shouldn’t it be?

They’re coming off the back of one of their best ever international seasons under Jurgen Klinsmann’s tutelage, losing just three times during 21 games so far in 2013, going on a record-breaking 12-game winning streak, qualifying at a canter for the 2014 World Cup,  currently ranked 13th in the world and have arguably the strongest player pool the USMNT has ever had. Life is good for fans of the U.S.

Friendlies against Scotland on Friday (watch live on ESPN, 3pm ET) and Austria next Tuesday (2:45pm ET, live on NBCSN) close out an incredibly successful year. Being up close and personal with the squad, you can tell the players are enjoying themselves as they train in Scotland. A large group playing a possession game erupt into giggles and whoops of delight on numerous occasions early on in Tuesday’s morning session. Life is good for the national side.

“This team has always been about the collective group,” AS Roma midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We’ve always had a team that no matter who is available on a given day, no matter who is there, they’re going to step on the field and be committed to putting a performance in that really reflects the group and makes everyone proud.”

(MORE: Exclusive – U.S. ‘keeper Tim Howard agrees governing bodies can help with head injuries)

That large squad Bradley speaks of has been evident over the past six months as Klinsmann’s project has cranked up a notch. A Gold Cup win over the summer with mostly MLS players and young European and Liga MX hopefuls showed just how deep the USMNT are.

source: Getty Images
Tim Howard and Michael Bradley both agree this USMNT is thriving thanks to great spirit and togetherness.

One of those player who used clutch performances in the USA’s Gold Cup success to propel himself into the forefront of Klinsmann’s plans was Seattle Sounders striker Eddie Johnson. Speaking after training on Tuesday, the 29-year-old forward believes a strong feeling of togetherness is helping all USMNT players to get better.

“There are a lot of familiar faces, a lot of the guys who’ve been in the qualifying rounds, friendlies, Gold Cup, so we’re all used to playing with each other,” Johnson said. “The more we can have familiar faces, the better understanding and camaraderie we have as a national team on the field and getting better. This is a good test for us, two good games and every player here is eager to do themselves justice as far as putting themselves in a good position to end 2013, as well as put themselves in a good position to be selected for the World Cup.”

That team spirit is something Bradley, a stalwart for the U.S. in central midfield and perhaps the first name on Klinsmann’s team sheet, also alluded to.

“It’s a special group to be a part of,” Bradley said. “In the way with the team spirit and the way we get on with each other. When you look at the calendar, there’s not a lot of games left between now and the World Cup. We’re looking to use every chance that we get to move ourselves up the ladder.”

With big things expected at Brazil 2014 after breezing through qualifying and beating the likes of Germany, Bosnia and Italy in friendlies over the last few years, I asked U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard if this was the best USMNT team he’s ever played on. The Everton star paused and gave a glowing appraisal of the current roster.

“This is the most diverse,” Howard said. “I’ve played on some good U.S. teams, particularly when I was younger. This team has a lot of diversity in both age and background, I just think the best thing about this team so far is the balance. We’ve got the best balance, we’ve got depth in a lot of positions, we’ve got people who play in lots of different countries, we’ve got some olds and youngs. The balance is very good, the chemistry is very good.”

VIDEO: Jeison Murillo’s incredible bicycle from a corner kick

MILAN, ITALY - JANUARY 17:  (R-L) Jeison Murillo of FC Internazionale celebrates his first goal with Geoffrey Kondogbia during the TIM Cup match between FC Internazionale and Bologna FC at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on January 17, 2017 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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Look away now, Andy Carroll. Take a bow, Jeison Murillo.

[ VIDEOS: All in a week’s work — Messi free kick no. 1 | Messi free kick no. 2 ]

Just three days after Carroll scored the bicycle-kick goal of the year (so we thought), here comes Murillo, Inter Milan’s 24-year-old Colombian striker, to steal his thunder (below video). The fact he did it directly from a corner kick, with the ball traveling nearly 50 yards before flinging his body into the air and striking the ball so cleanly, (somehow) trumps Carroll’s accomplishment from Saturday.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

Sensational goals come in twos now, apparently, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Olivier Giroud scored stunning scorpion-kick goals (WATCH HERE and HERE) just days apart earlier in the season.

FA Cup roundup: Burnley, Crystal Palace advance to 4th round

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 17: Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace (C) celebrates scoring his sides first goal with Andros Townsend of Crystal Palace (L) during the Emirates FA Cup third round replay between Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers at Selhurst Park on January 17, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in FA Cup third-round replays…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Burnley 2-0 Sunderland

Sam Vokes and Andre Gray grabbed goals for Burnley, who opted for a largely first-choice lineup in Tuesday’s replay. Sunderland, meanwhile, went with a mix-and-match bunch and slumped to six games without a win (all competitions), meaning they can focus solely on Premier League survival from here on out. Burnley will host Championship side Bristol City in the fourth round next Saturday, Jan. 28.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Crystal Palace 2-1 Bolton Wanderers

Sam Allardyce picked up his first win as Palace boss, courtesy of a Christian Benteke brace scored nine minutes apart in the second half, as the Eagles came from behind to beat League One side Bolton at Selhurst Park. James Henry put the visitors three minutes into the second half, but Benteke hit back in the 68th and 77th minutes to improve Allardyce’s record to one win, two draws and three losses (all competitions). Palace will host Manchester City in the fourth round next Saturday.

Tuesday’s FA Cup scoreboard

AFC Wimbledon 1-3 Sutton United
Barnsley 1-2 (AET) Blackpool
Fleetwood Town 0-1 Bristol City
Lincoln City 1-0 Ipswich Town

AFCON: Ayew propels Ghana to victory; Egypt struggle vs. Mali

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 21:  Andre Ayew of Ghana celebrates scoring his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Ghana at Castelao on June 21, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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A roundup of all of Tuesday’s action in the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations…

Ghana 1-0 Uganda

PORT-GENTIL, Gabon (AP) Andre Ayew scored a penalty as Ghana beat Uganda 1-0 on Tuesday in a lackluster opening to the four-time champions’ bid for a first African Cup of Nations title in 35 years.

Ghana took control of Group D after seven-time champion Egypt struggled in a 0-0 draw with Mali in the other group match.

Ghana has three points, Egypt and Mali one each and Uganda zero.

Ayew, a West Ham winger, netted in the 32nd minute after Asamoah Gyan was held back by Isaac Isinde in the penalty area in Port-Gentil.

Avram Grant, a former Chelsea manager, is looking to lead Ghana to a second successive final but go better than 2015 when his team lost to Ivory Coast.

Uganda has also finished runner-up in the continental championship but the trip to the final in 1978 was the last time it qualified until making the Gabon event.

[ MORE: Monday’s transfer rumor roundup | Sunday | Friday | Thursday ]

Mali 0-0 Egypt

Later, 44-year-old Egypt goalkeeper Essam El Hadary became the oldest player in tournament history when he came on for injured Ahmed El Shenawy midway through the first half.

El Hadary, who celebrated his birthday two days ago, is participating in his seventh African Cup, having picked up winners’ medals in 2006, 2008 and 2010.

Egypt’s standout forward Mohamed Salah struggled and was replaced midway through the second half.

Mali, looking to improve on its third-place finishes in 2012 and 2013, produced many more chances.

Egypt failed to qualify for the last three editions of the tournament.

Wednesday’s AFCON schedule

Gabon vs. Burkina-Faso — 11 a.m. ET
Cameroon vs. Guinea-Bissau — 2 p.m. ET

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 14: Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur receives treatment from the medical team during the Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane on January 14, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.