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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.

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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.”

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.

Emre Can back in the Liverpool side ahead of Europa clash vs. Villarreal

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14:  Emre Can of Liverpool battles for the ball with Idrissa Gana of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Liverpool at Villa Park on February 14, 2016 in Birmingham, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Emre Can has recovered from an ankle injury and will be in Liverpool’s squad for their Europa League semifinal against Villarreal on Thursday night.

The German international has not played since April 14 when he was forced off in the Reds’ wild 4-3 win over Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool prepping for Villarreal ]

Giving his team update on Wednesday, manager Jurgen Klopp said Can is back in the team, although captain Jordan Henderson is still out. The Reds enter the second leg trailing 1-0 on aggregate.

Another positive note out of Melwood was the return of Danny Ings to first-team training. The 23-year-old striker signed with Liverpool last summer, but managed just eight appearances before having his season end to a torn ACL in October. Ings is still far away from his full return, but it was a good sight to see him back on the pitch and making progress in his recovery.

Disappointed Pellegrini rues lack of offense in Man City’s loss to Real

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 04:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City reacts during the UEFA Champions League semi final, second leg match between Real Madrid and Manchester City FC at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 4, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images )
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Manchester City put in an uninspired performance against Real Madrid on Wednesday, losing the match 1-0 and falling out of the UEFA Champions League.

[ RECAP: Real Madrid 1-0 Man City ]

The match was decided by just one goal, but the scoreline was flattering to City as they failed to create any kind of real chances at the Bernabeu. Over the two legs, City managed just two shots on target.

While City were wildly disappointing in the second leg, manager Manuel Pellegrini did not think the match was that one-sided, saying both teams struggled on the attack.

I am disappointed because I think that was a very close game with two teams who did not create many chances. The two teams were working with no-one making a difference.

It is not the best thing changing a defender very early but I don’t think we had any problems in defence, we had problems creating, same as Real Madrid. They did not create many chances.

Real Madrid was not in top form, but they still could have scored three or four goals on Wednesday. Joe Hart had to come up with some big saves to keep things close, as the England goalkeeper was by far City’s most valuable player throughout the tie.

[ MORE: Liverpool preparing for Europa League match vs. Villarreal ]

The absence of David Silva through injury certainly hurt City’s attack, but there was very little service moving forward from the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Yaya Toure. The poor play in the midfield left Sergio Aguero stranded alone up top, nearly invisible in the second leg.

Without service, Aguero was forced to track back to try and find the ball himself, leaving City no options to hit on the counter. For a tie between two of the most expensive teams in the world, neither side was truly impressive, but City surely disappointing.