celebrates with teammate Michael Bradley after scoring his side's second goal during the group G World Cup soccer match between the United States and Portugal at the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, June 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Talking points: Signs of progress everywhere for the U.S. against Portugal


Now two hours after Silvestre Valera’s goal, fans’ disappointment is starting to give way. A more objective, less emotional reality is taking hold.

Yes, that just happened. Yes, the United States just went toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and nearly replicated 2002’s famous result. And yes, to the surprise of those who judged harshly after the win over Ghana, the U.S. is capable of playing some attractive, occasionally imposing soccer.

In the big picture, that means progress: Significant steps forward from 2010 — at least, in terms of how the team plays. Isolated to Brazil 2014, however, the result means the U.S. has work to do on Thursday against Germany.

Before we shift focus, though, let’s take another moment to consider what happened today in Manaus. Here’s three — no, four — talking points after the U.S.’s 2-2 draw with Portugal:

0. Let’s count all the ‘holy crap’ moments we’ve seen so far – Just in the U.S. matches, we’ve had …

This being the internet, I’d normally say “go home, World Cup, you’re drunk.” But no. No, no, no. Keep going. The next round’s on me. Stick around, World Cup. You are such an irresistible drunk.

[ MORE: Valera equalizer stuns U.S. | Man of the Match rankings | How the U.S. can advance ]
[ MORE: Soccerly covers the World Cup ]

source: Getty Images
Geoff Cameron of the United States looks on during a break in the action between the United States and Portugal. (Credit: Getty Images.)

1. The criticism of Bradley and Cameron has already started – There’s no defending Cameron’s mistake. His fifth-minute error won’t happen again, but it was still one of the worst mistakes we’ve seen at the World Cup. That Cameron was the man Varela ran behind on the tying goal only compounded the defender’s problems. He wasn’t the only man at fault, but his part meant he was involved in both Portugal goals.

As for Bradley, his giveaway that sparked Portugal’s last second counter is already being dissected (and rightly so), but the midfielder’s fatigue was evident moments earlier, when he stoically watched a Jermaine Jones pass roll to a Portuguese attacker in the U.S.’s third. Gassed by the end of regulation time, Bradley seemed out on his feet come the 95th minute, unable to maintain possession in those final, crucial moments.

Through 180 minutes in Brazil, Bradley hasn’t been himself. Against Ghana, you could explain that as him battling two defensive midfielders without the outlet of Jozy Altidore. Sunday’s game, however, was different. Though Klinsmann’s tweaked his formation to feature what’s normally his best player, Bradley has yet to distinguish himself in at this year’s World Cup.

2. Consider the proof of concept … – As the U.S. adjusted to Portugal’s early goal, eventually fighting back to take a second-half lead, all the qualities Jurgen Klinsmann’s been trying to install again came through. Granted, I said the same thing after the U.S. defeated Ghana, so this may be one writer who can’t let a narrative go. Still, let’s go down the checklist, shall we?

  • More resiliency/Better equipped to adapt to adversity: See the response to André Ayew’s goal, the comeback against Portugal, and the adaptation in the absence of Jozy Altidore.
  • More flexibilty/An ability to dictate play, when needed: It wasn’t needed for most of the match against Ghana, when the U.S. proved capable of playing on the back foot (four shots on goal to Ghana’s three). Against Portugal, Nani’s early goal made sure the Klinsmann fulfilled his promise of a more aggressive approach. Though the final scoreline wasn’t as good, the performance was more convincing. The U.S. just doesn’t have a set approach.
  • More depth/Less reliance on stars: Clint Dempsey was huge today, but Bradley — the U.S.’s most important player — was average at best, and while Europe-proven Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones had huge impacts, the MLS talents that Klinsmann has brought into the pool also paid off. Matt Besler was the team’s best defender, Graham Zusi made key contributions, Kyle Beckerman has become part of the foundation, while Chris Wonolowski and DeAndre Yedlin proved valuable options off the bench. Klinsmann is using more players, instilling them with the confidence they can compete at this level, and proving the depth in the U.S. pool is not as shallow as previously thought.
source: Getty Images
Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States looks on the United States and Portugal. (Credit: Getty Images)

3. … and the progress the U.S. has shown – Klinsmann was derided for saying the U.S. can’t win the World Cup, but was that ever the goal for this cycle? More readily, the goal was progress, and while 180 minutes isn’t much of a sample, compare this year’s performance against 2010’s.

While the U.S. finished first in that year’s group, the packet was weak. As the second round match against Ghana showed, the U.S. didn’t need to make progress as a program to top that foursome. This year, the U.S. beat Ghana. They went toe-to-toe with a Portugal team many thought would play through them.

Tied for first in their group, the U.S. has fully deserved their results. The team was seconds away from its first two-win group stage in history, and there’s still one match to go.

Most casting Portugal were clear favorites were basing their judgement on reputation alone. Portugal is established, European, have more talent, and play better soccer. In their eyes, the U.S. just aren’t on that level.

After today’s performance, does that perception change? The U.S. probably needs to get out of its group (and impress in the knockout round) before detractors believe a gridiron country and every produce a “proper football team,” but the objective reality is much different.

Even if the U.S. doesn’t make the final 16, they’ve shown huge progress at this tournament. The team may not be among the best in the world, but the arrow’s definitely pointed in the right direction.

Conte: My Chelsea will never play for a draw, home or away

HULL, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 01:  Antonio Conte, Manager of Chelsea reacts to his team scoring during the Premier League match between Hull City and Chelsea at KCOM Stadium on October 1, 2016 in Hull, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Antonio Conte knows what he’s doing — he’s playing the game made popular the world over by his predecessor and Sunday opponent, Jose Mourinho, and so many others who went before him.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Where other managers shy away from the controversy and the spotlight brought upon themselves by the psychological warfare waged by so many of the giants of the managerial profession, Conte has embraced the added attention he’ll now face when Chelsea host Manchester United on Sunday (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

While Mourinho hasn’t been quiet in the build-up to his return to Stamford Bridge — how could he, given the considerable demand for comment? — he has mostly kept the cheap shots to himself and attempted to treat the affair like any other. Of course, it’s not that for him; for the Chelsea fans; for Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who made the decision to fire Mourinho 10 months ago; and now, for Conte, who’s suddenly thrust onto the other side of the battlefield ahead of Mourinho’s grudge match — quotes from Goal.com:

“No, I think it is always right to play for a win. I try to transfer these thoughts to my players always. If you play at home or away, it must be the same.

“You must start the game with only one target: to win. Not to play for a draw. I don’t like this. It is not football. I don’t like this.”

“I think it is important to win, but for me also, it is important to win in the right way. Because, sometimes, it happened to me. I won in the past with other clubs, but I wasn’t satisfied with the performance.

“When you win is important, but it is important to also play good football, to play with a good intensity, to show always the will to win, the passion. For me, that’s important.”

The obvious inference here is that Mourinho’s teams have always been set out to play in a defensive manner — often times aiming for, or, at the very least, achieving 0-0 draws — something the Portuguese did earlier this week, away to Liverpool.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Conte didn’t ask to be the anti-Mourinho when he was named Chelsea’s new boss — not directly so, at least — but it comes as part of the territory when taking over from a mountain of a manager like Mourinho. Cool as ever, Conte is relishing his new role.

Introducing Zabivaka, Russia’s 2018 World Cup mascot

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: Official Mascot Wolf was chosen as Official Mascot of FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia and Nazario Ronaldo during 'Vecherniy Urgant' (Evening Urgant) TV show on Channel 1 at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MOSCOW (AP) Russia has chosen a cocky wolf wearing sporty goggles as the mascot for the 2018 football World Cup.

The wolf was chosen in online voting over two other mascot candidates — a cat and a tiger wearing a space suit.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

The announcement was made early Saturday at the end of an hour-long broadcast on state Channel One television. More than 1 million Russians voted in the contest, according to the broadcast.

World Cup matches are to take place in 11 cities in June and July 2018. The venues are in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Kazan, Krasnodar, Rostov-on-Don, Samara, Saransk, Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Yekaterinburg.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Wolf, the winer of FIFA 2018 World Cup Russia Official Mascot, Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Vitaly Mutko, TV host Ivan Urgant and Nazario Ronaldo attend at 'Vecherniy (Evening) Urgant' TV show on Channel 1 during at Ostankino on October 21, 2016 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

Aguero looking vulnerable as Man City evolves under Guardiola

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 15:  Sergio Aguero of Manchester City shows dejection after the final whistle during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Everton at Etihad Stadium on October 15, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MANCHESTER, England (AP) Manchester City’s spine of goalkeeper Joe Hart, center back Vincent Kompany, midfielder Yaya Toure and striker Sergio Aguero has anchored the team since 2011 in the most decorated period in its history.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

One by one, it is being dismantled by Pep Guardiola.

Hart has been sent out on loan to Italy.

The injury-hampered Kompany no longer appears first choice.

Toure has been ostracized.

And the seemingly unthinkable is happening: Aguero is coming under pressure for his place.

Aguero started on the bench for the English Premier League game against Everton on Saturday after playing two matches for Argentina during the international break. More surprisingly, he stayed among the substitutes for the Champions League match at Barcelona on Wednesday, when Guardiola preferred to play midfielder Kevin De Bruyne up front.

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Aguero has been untouchable, a guaranteed starter since joining from Atletico Madrid in July 2011. Suddenly, possibly the most popular player among City fans – and a scorer of 102 league goals in his first five seasons at the club – is vulnerable and seemingly dispensable, even if he is likely to regain his place for the Premier League match against Southampton on Sunday.

When asked if Aguero was being phased out, Guardiola said on Friday the player’s future was at City.

“When Sergio decides to leave Manchester City, it will be his decision,” Guardiola said. Then, echoing comments he made about Hart in August before allowing him to leave, Guardiola added: “I appreciate him (as) a football player. I appreciate (as) a man what he did here.”

It’s not just the recent selection decisions that hint at a sense of unease between Guardiola and Aguero.

Guardiola has said publicly on at least two occasions this season that he wants more from Aguero than just goals, just like he wanted more from Hart than simply making saves. After Aguero’s hat trick in the Champions League win over Borussia Moenchengladbach, Guardiola said: “I cannot teach him (about his talent in the penalty box) but he has to know that behind, the rest of the team wants to help him and that is what I want to convince him.”

While on international duty with Argentina this month, Aguero was quoted as telling Argentine media that Guardiola “is very picky about everything, (and) it’s good.

“The good thing is that I’m getting used to him and automatically going straight into pressing the centre backs.”

[ MORE: Sunday’s PL preview — Mourinho back at the Bridge; City-Saints ]

Aguero, who is contracted to City until 2020, has 11 goals in 10 appearances this season, and 19 in his last 20 dating to last season. There are few better, attainable strikers around and it will be intriguing to see how the situation pans out, especially with Brazil forward Gabriel Jesus due to arrive in December to provide competition up front.

Guardiola said on Friday he had no regrets about his decision to drop Aguero for the Barcelona game, which City lost 4-0 after having goalkeeper Claudio Bravo red-carded. That made it four games without a win for Guardiola, and a failure to beat Southampton would equal the longest streak without a victory in his coaching career.

In an answer that lasted more than 6 1/2 minutes on Friday, he defended his tactics at Camp Nou and praised the personality of his young players like John Stones and De Bruyne.

Guardiola repeated he will not change his style.

“I think about that, yes,” he said. “But after that, the solution is not better than what I believe. So I cannot. Do you know why as well? Because in seven years (at Barcelona and Bayern Munich), I won 21 titles. … So it’s three titles per year playing in that way.

“No, no, I’m not going to change. First, it’s going to happen that (if) it’s not going well in the future, next season isn’t going well in that way, I will go home.”

La Liga & Serie A roundup: Messi wins it late for Barca; AC Milan shock Juve

VALENCIA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 22:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates with his team mates as Neymar Jr. and Luis Suarez reacts on the pitch after being hit by objects thrown from the seats after scoring his team's third from the penalty spot during the La Liga match between Valencia CF and FC Barcelona at Mestalla stadium on October 22, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images
Leave a comment

A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ MORE: Saturday’s PL roundup: Liverpool, Arsenal go joint-top ]

Valencia 2-3 Barcelona

Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez led Barcelona back from 2-1 down to take all three points at the Mestalla Stadium and reclaim the top spot in La Liga. There’s lots to unpack here, beginning with the nasty tackle that’ll keep Andres Iniesta (knee ligament damage) out of action for up to two months. Then there was the controversial fashion in which Messi gave Barca an early lead.

Valencia hit back twice before Suarez drew the visitors level again, and Messi converted from the penalty spot in the 93rd minute to seal the victory, at which point Neymar was hit by a bottle thrown onto the field by someone in the stands. In the end, Barca are back on top, until Real Madrid are allowed to have their say on Sunday.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Espanyol 3-3 Eibar
Real Sociedad 3-0 Alaves
Granada 0-0 Sporting Gijon

Sunday’s La Liga schedule

Celta Vigo vs. Deportivo La Coruña — 6 a.m. ET
Sevilla vs. Atletico Madrid — 10:15 a.m. ET
Malaga vs. Leganes — 12:30 p.m. ET
Villarreal vs. Las Palmas — 12:30 p.m. ET
Real Madrid vs. Athletic Bilbao — 2:45 p.m. ET

AC Milan 1-0 Juventus

The kids are (a whole lot more than) alright at AC Milan. 18-year-old midfielder Manuel Locatelli unleashed a stunning strike in the 65th minute, as Milan shocked the world by upsetting the five-time (and six-time, presumably) defending champions, Juventus, at the San Siro. Then it was 17-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma’s turn to play his part, in the form of a stunning save to deny Sami Khedira an equalizer with the last kick of the game.

Juve remain top of the Serie A table, but it’s Milan who now sit second, just two points behind them.

Elsewhere in Serie A

Sampdoria 2-1 Genoa

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Udinese vs. Pescara — 6:30 a.m. ET
Torino vs. Lazio — 9 a.m. ET
Atalanta vs. Inter Milan — 9 a.m. ET
Cagliari vs. Fiorentina — 9 a.m. ET
Crotone vs. Napoli — 9 a.m. ET
Empoli vs. Chievo — 9 a.m. ET
Bologna vs. Sassuoo — 12 p.m. ET
Roma vs. Palermo — 2:45 p.m. ET