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Not about what but how: the US, Italy, England, Spain & Portugal exits

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Those combing this site for opinions, answers and empathy early this morning found this strong piece from Richard Farley, which reflects on the progress of the United States soccer program after Tuesday’s World Cup ouster at the hands of Belgium in extra time.

Furthering that…

I received a Twitter reply today that charged Jurgen Klinsmann and the US team with failure, claiming that anything short of the quarterfinals is looked at as a joke performance by the world at-large.

Keeping in mind all of Richard’s points — quality of opposition, style of play, injuries, player depth — was the U.S. performance more impressive than every team that failed to make the knockout rounds? Was it worse than every team that continues onward?

In the latter case, the argument is fairly easy, but let’s rephrase the former query: Are you considering the U.S. tournament more of a success than Italy, England, Portugal and Spain?

Of course you are. But before another self high-five, consider style and what it means.

[ MORE: Analyzing Jurgen Klinsmann’s first World Cup with U.S. ]

[ MORE: Three things we learned in U.S. loss to Belgium ]

It’s hard-to-fathom whilst wallowing in the wake of a loss, but pretend Chris Wondolowski does manage to beat Thibaut Courtois and the Yanks move onto the quarterfinals. It doesn’t change Belgium’s dominance of the game, or the U.S. frittering away possession in the midfield. No one’s walking away claiming the Yanks were the better team, just that they had the better goalkeeper.

And by that logic, few would be tabbing the U.S. as favorite in a full-strength, neutral-site friendly played tomorrow against Italy, Spain, Portugal or England. That’s why these small signs of progress — committed defending, moments of dominant attack — against top competition are far more important to the growth of US Soccer than a single win or draw.

Look, beating Ghana and drawing Portugal are accomplishments, but the way the Americans controlled long stretches against Cristiano Ronaldo’s team is far more impressive than the points earned.

So let’s pull back the other four nations in question to join the United States. Italy can make some claims about a cheap red card but ultimately it was simply a disappointing attack to go with its traditional strong defense. Spain looked uninspired and sated, but ultimately is already a favorite to win its group at the next World Cup.

source: AP

Portugal and England, on the other hand, have some concerns. The former showed little outside of an injured Cristiano Ronaldo and needed gifts from Geoff Cameron and Fatau Dauda to earn any points. England looked lost outside of Wayne Rooney, Daniel Sturridge and Gary Cahill, and drew send-off games against Honduras and Ecuador to run its recent record to 0W-3D-2L.

An English friend was telling me how no American player outside of Clint Dempsey or Tim Howard would play for the England team. Maybe not, but gone are the days when American starters wouldn’t make the bench for the Three Lions.

So where does the US team rank? Even if you consider the Yanks behind Portugal and England in addition to Spain and Italy, the fact of the matter is that the United States is actually in the discussion. The back-to-back Round of 16 performances aren’t viewing like the ‘miracle’ quarterfinal run of 2002, rather explained with a “The Yanks have shown they’re capable if they play to their potential.”

The States remain a rising force in soccer: not there yet, but coming. And it’s no longer silly to imagine that the US could be a team favored against Portugal, England or another European power in a full-strength, meaningful, neutral-site game at the next World Cup.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

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.