SALVADOR, BRAZIL - JULY 01: Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States speaks to Eden Hazard of Belgium after Belgium's 2-1 win in extra time during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Belgium and the United States at Arena Fonte Nova on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.

Signs of progress small but clear for the United States

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Like a political candidate who ran on reform, Jurgen Klinsmann was immediately taken to task after today’s loss. After one question about his substitutions, the second salvo of his post-match press conference jumped right into the debate: Did Brazil 2014 represent progress for the United States?

I’m sorry, is this all coming too soon? Hardly. Even the broadcast disrespected your mourning period, jumping right into the debate moments after going back to the studio. Whomever asked Klinsmann the question in Salvador? He’s got to have his piece up by now. Just like presidential campaigns, the race never truly ends; it only rolls from one race to the next.

This campaign is going to be contentious, though. People are already digging in, trying to make their case why the U.S. is treading water. After all, by purely objective measures, the team appears to have done slightly better in 2010:

  • In South Africa, the team went 1-1-2 (W-L-D) overall, finished first in their group, and was put out in the Round of 16 with a relatively level 2-1, extra time loss.
  • In Brazil, they went 1-2-1 overall, finished second in their group, and were eliminated in the Round of 16 with a 2-1, extra time loss, where they were clearly second best.

For some, bottom lines are the only measuring stick. For them, the U.S. either held steady or receded in 2014. Ultimately, their record was worse in Brazil than it was in South Africa.

But after reading two paragraphs of that, hopefully those points have started to sound hollow. Objectively, sure, the facts hint the U.S. is treading water, but no fact exist without context. Level of competition is important. So is the underlying play. For a program focused on building for tomorrow, these things can be as telling as the results.

And if, in that quest for a better tomorrow, you’re inclined to look for progress, consider …

source: AP
Thomas Mueller scored the winning goal as Germany defeated the United States 1-0 in group play at the World Cup. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

1. Strength of opposition

Let’s do a little exercise, shall we? Take the four teams the U.S. played in 2010, add the nations the States faced in 2014, and make a list. Go from strongest to weakest and rank all the opponents the U.S. saw in the last two World Cups.

What do you get? It should look something like this:

1. 2014 Germany
2. 2014 Belgium
3. 2014 Portugal
4. 2014 Ghana
5. 2010 Ghana
6. 2010 England
7. 2010 Slovenia
8. 2010 Algeria

Maybe, in time, we’ll swap one and two. Perhaps three and four flip, too, but that’s not really the point, is it? By most estimations, the four teams the U.S. faced in South Africa were weaker than every team on the schedule this time around.

Think about that. Whereas the U.S. was drawn into a group of “How the heck is England a seeded team” in 2010, this year they were in one of the three toughest groups – one of the three toughest groups in an insanely unbalanced opening stage. I may not agree with all this Group of Death pandering, but Group G was really, really difficult.

So yeah, the U.S. was slightly worse, record-wise, in 2014. Does that mean they’re a worse team? Of course not. That the 2014 team matched the 2010 squad’s progress is a huge hint: The U.S. is better now than they were four years ago.

2. Injuries mattered

Let’s not act like 2010’s team was healthy going into the finals. Charlie Davies’ loss will forever be under-appreciated after his career changed course in Oct. 2009. Oguchi Onyewu tore his patellar tendon the same month. Bob Bradley had his challenges, too.

This year’s Jozy Altidore injury, however, was big. Say whatever you want about his quality, but the absence forced Clint Dempsey out of position and was a big factor in Michael Bradley’s performances. With one injury, the U.S. not only lost one of their two main goal scorers but also saw their two best players handcuffed. They were set back at two, perhaps three positions.

Then there was Fabian Johnson, who Jurgen Klinsmann lost early in the team’s decisive game. Omar Gonzalez wasn’t healthy coming into camp, sat out the first two games, then played the tournament’s last 210 minutes. And Matt Besler? The U.S. lost him for the second half of the opening match.

Klinsmann spent three years enforcing a resilience that paid off in Brazil, but that doesn’t mean the team wasn’t hamstrung. Bradley may have lost two key players, but unlike the Altidore injury, those absences didn’t affect other parts of the lineup.

Is that progress? No, but it does add context to this year’s results. Not only did the U.S face stiffer competition, but the internal obstacles may have been greater, too.

source: AP
Geoff Cameron (20) and United States’ Jermaine Jones, left, celebrate as Clint Dempsey, center, runs from the goal scoring against Portugal. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

3. The high points of the tournament

Think back to 2010. When did the U.S. truly play well? Not that the team was ever bad, but was there ever a point in South Africa that made you feel as confident about the team as the Portugal game did? There were certainly moments against Slovenia, and the end of the Algeria match is legendary, but this year’s performance against the Seleccao had people discussing whether the U.S. had really turned a corner.

That doesn’t change the bottom line, but it tells us how the U.S. went about their business. It goes to assessing what the team is capable of doing, going forward. It speaks to how, if things to continue to improve, the U.S. can grow, and yes, it speaks to progress. The 2014 team, at its best, showed it was capable for more than the 2010 squad.

4. What others around you are saying

Say you know your soccer. Like really, really know it; know it so much that you don’t usually need to listen to anybody’s opinion on anything. Not only are you perfectly qualified to be a professional sports journalist, but you may also be smart enough to know that, on rare occasions, you’re fallible. And when you are, the whole world’s likely to tell you.

This time, literally the whole world is saying so. Across the globe, this U.S. team has forced soccer fans to take notice. Two weeks after the planet had the same, pessimistic predictions that most U.S. fans begrudgingly made before match one, the world’s woken up. By derailing a talented Ghana and coming back (only to be ultimately drawn) against Portugal, the U.S. gave everybody reason to take notice.

This was more than knocking off Mexico in a 2002. This was beating teams the world thought would cut through a star-less American squad.

But let’s get back to talking about you. I know you’re smart. Hey, you tell us so all the time, but maybe your view that the U.S. was lucky against Ghana is jaded? Maybe, like a lot of other people noticed, the U.S. were just playing like a team with a lead. Perhaps they didn’t “choke” against Portugal (please, stop listening to so much sports talk radio). And although they were outplayed by Germany and Belgium, most of the world would be, too.

Maybe the Americans were actually kinda good. Not Germany good, but still … good, by a more inclusive, fairer standard.

But, of course, I’ll defer to you.

5. Everything else this team has done

The World Cup is ultimately four games. It’s pretty insane to draw huge conclusions based on such a small sample size. You know that Netherlands team that’s now a favorite to reach the tournament’s semifinals? They went 0-3-0 at Euro 2012.  Since then, they haven’t lost a competitive match, going 13-0-1 between qualifying and the World Cup.

So let’s look at the U.S. in the bigger picture. They locked up a World Cup spot in CONCACAF after eight of 10 final round games, ended up finishing first in the region, are confederation champions, and had a 12-game wining streak last year. Yeah, there were some down points, like the team’s performances against Ukraine (this winter) and Belgium (last summer), but nobody expected the U.S. to solve all its problems in one cycle.

If you want to say the U.S. isn’t making progress, that’s fine, but you have to explain why the last two years’ results are so deceivingly positive. You have to explain why the rest of the world is wrong to see the difference, and why the team looked so good at points of this tournament. Once you’re done with that, tell us why the U.S. were able to their overcome injuries, and why a much tougher schedule in Brazil couldn’t send them home after three games.

It’s not an impossible argument to make. I’m just glad you’re the one trying to make it; not me.

Personally, I see progress. It’s not earth-shaking, but it’s there, and it’s clear. The U.S. hasn’t established itself as a soccer power, but they’re better than they were four years ago.

PL Sunday preview: West Ham, desperate to end skid, host Southampton

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Dimitri Payet of West Ham United celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the  EFL Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Accrington Stanley at the London Stadium on September 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
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The 2016-17 Premier League season wasn’t supposed to be like for West Ham United. After moving into their new home, the repurposed Olympic Stadium in London, this year was meant to be about building on top of last season’s seventh-place finish, which saw them in the top-four race until the final days of the campaign.

[ MORE: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Fast forward four months, and Slaven Bilic‘s men have just one win from five games this season and find themselves 18th in the league table heading into Sunday’s clash with Southampton (Watch live, 11 a.m. ET, on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com). Home form (one win, one loss) has only been slightly better for the Hammers’ form away from home, where they’re 0-for-3 thus far. Michail Antonio has five goals this season, joint-top in the PL, all of which have been scored via headers.

Early-season fortunes have been only marginally better for Saints, having won five points from their first five games of the season. Manager Claude Puel got his first PL victory last weekend, though, over Swansea City, as his side notched its first clean sheet of the season.

[ MORE: Saturday roundup — Arsenal thrash Chelsea; City, Liverpool win big ]

Following another summer of key departures in the transfer market (Sadio Mane, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle), one can’t help but wonder how many more times the south coast can reload at the top of its squad without a noticeable falling-off, even if for just one season. Through five games, Saints have scored just four goals, including one own goal — Charlie Austin, Nathan Redmond and Jay Rodriguez the scorers. European qualification looks a long way off from 15th place, where they currently stand, and even farther off from Saints’ early-season performances.

INJURIES: West Ham OUT: Andre Ayew (thigh), Andy Carroll (knee), Diafra Sakho (back), Aaron Cresswell (knee) | Southampton OUT: Sofiane Boufal (knee)

Furious Conte has huge challenge to transform Chelsea

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LONDON — Antonio Conte almost shook with rage as he addressed the media post-game at the Emirates Stadium.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

The Italian manager isn’t used to losing games.

In fact, Chelsea’s humiliating 3-0 defeat at Arsenal on Saturday was the first time since 2009 that he’s lost two-straight league games as a manager. All is not well.

Speaking after the game, Conte’s voice became louder and louder as he discussed Chelsea now being a “great team only on the paper” and not on the pitch.

“We must work a lot. If someone thinks this season it is easy, we must work a lot to improve and to change the situation. I think that now we are a great team only on the paper. Not on the pitch,” Conte said. “To be a great team, I prefer to be a great team not only on the paper but also on the pitch because the pitch speaks. The pitch is the truth. The pitch is the most important thing for us. Not the words. Not the paper. We must change this. We must change this. Last season was a bad season. Last season we were a great team on the board. This season we want to be a great team on the pitch but we know there are many difficulties. If we understand this we are in a good position to recover and to change the situation.”

After three wins to open the Premier League season, Chelsea were tipped for great things. After two consecutive defeats to Liverpool and Arsenal we shouldn’t dismiss their title hopes either but Conte is concerned about his teams defensive display once again.

Chelsea has now conceded at least two goals in each of their last four games — a 2-2 draw at Swansea, 2-1 loss against Liverpool, 4-2 win against Leicester in the EFL Cup and the 3-0 hammering at Arsenal — and Conte stood with his arms crossed for most of the first half. He usually charges up and down the line, urging on his players. Not on Saturday. He looked embarrassed by the defensive errors.

Gary Cahill was inexplicably caught in possession by Alexis Sanchez for Arsenal’s first goal and his full backs were dragged out of position on multiple occasions as Branislav Ivanovic had a particularly bad evening. His defenders keep on making huge errors and it is something which has to change if Chelsea is going to challenge for the title this season. Right now John Terry‘s absence through injury is a huge loss as the veteran is by far Chelsea’s best center back.

In the second half of the London derby humbling at Arsenal, things got so bad that Conte changed from a 4-1-4-1 formation to a 3-5-2. That system is one he mastered with Juventus and the Italian national team over the past few years.

As a proud Italian coach who, like many of his countryman, prides himself on having a good defensive organization, Conte was seething with rage when asked if Chelsea were ready to switch to a 3-5-2 system permanently.

“I have to solve the situation. That is the most important thing. The situation is that every game we concede two goals, at a minimum,” Conte said, furiously. “For this reason, three back or two back or four back, I don’t care. It is important to solve the situations. I must find the right solution for this team because in every game we are conceding two goals. I work a lot to find the right solution.”

Conte will try to lift his squad as the Italian manager said the players and management win and lose together, a philosophy he has always had in his playing and coaching days. However, we are getting an increasing sense that he knows he has a huge challenge on his hands to transform Chelsea who are now eight points behind leaders Manchester City after six games of the season.

“The title? I think we must work a lot to find a continuity. I think that now the most important thing is to work and don’t think about other situation,” Conte said. “I repeat, we must show on the pitch to be a great team because Chelsea is a great team on the paper.”

ProSoccerTalk asked Conte about yet another slow start for his side as he bemoaned them throwing the game away in the first half against Arsenal and against Liverpool last Friday.

Why this is happening?

“I was a footballer and it happens in one game. It can happen,” Conte said. “You don’t have a good performance for many reasons. I hope to improve this situation because this is the second consecutive defeat after Liverpool. They are great teams, Liverpool and Arsenal. We must reflect on this because we had two defeats in two big games. For this reason we must be humble and understand the moment. To understand we need to work a lot and improve to change our story.”

Premier League roundup: Arsenal thrash Chelsea; City, United, Liverpool win big

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Paul Pogba of Manchester United (L) celebrates scoring his sides fourth goal with Jesse Lingard of Manchester United (R) during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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A roundup of all of Saturday’s action in the Premier League…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Arsenal 3-0 ChelseaFULL RECAP

Arsene Wenger was appointed Arsenal manager 20 years ago next Saturday, deservedly making the upcoming week all about the legendary Frenchman. On top of his two decades of guidance, Arsenal also fans have a 3-0 thrashing of London rivals Chelsea to celebrate. Saturday’s meeting at the Emirates Stadium was over not long after it started, Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott putting the Gunners 2-0 up inside the first 15 minutes. Mesut Ozil made it 3-0 not long before halftime, and that was that. The best Arsenal performance since … when, exactly? It’s been a while.

Swansea City 1-3 Manchester CityFULL RECAP

Will Pep Guardiola ever lose a game drop a point in the PL? That almost seems the more proper question, rather than, “When will he?” Swansea were his latest victims on Saturday, with many thanks due to the return of Sergio Aguero (suspension) and the brace he scored. Raheem Sterling bagged the other for Man City, a spectacular piece of dribbling that left Kyle Naughton‘s body on the floor and his soul in Aguero’s back pocket (WATCH HERE).

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 24: Raheem Sterling of Manchester City scores his sides third goal during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Swansea, Wales. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Manchester United 4-1 Leicester CityFULL RECAP

Wayne Rooney was dropped to the bench, and voila, Man United were a devastating attacking team against Leicester. Coincidence? The world may never know. The personnel move did allow Paul Pogba to play further up the field, just behind Zlatan Ibrahimovic, which resulted in the world-record signing scoring his first goal for the club. It came in the 42nd minute, and it capped off a four-goal first half for United, which also saw Chris Smalling, Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford on the scoresheet.

Liverpool 5-1 Hull CityFULL RECAP

James Milner‘s pair of penalty kicks led the way for Liverpool, who also got goals from Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana, in a 5-1 demolition of 10-man Hull. Coutinho’s goal was the pick of the litter (WATCH HERE), and perfectly exemplified the ruthless nature of the Reds’ devastating attack. Now level with Arsenal and Everton, just one point back of Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool are unquestionably in the race for the top four, and one of a few clubs with an outside shot at making a play for the title if everything falls their way.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Philippe Coutinho of Liverpool scores their fourth goal during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Hull City at Anfield on September 24, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
(Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Middlesbrough 1-2 Tottenham HotspurFULL RECAP

Heung-Min Son‘s first season in the PL was a largely forgettable campaign for the Tottenham attacker — four goals in 28 appearances — but after a full season in England, and a regular place in the starting rotation in 2016-17, the South Korean has matched last season’s output of goals already, through three appearances this season. Nos. 3 and 4 came in the first half on Saturday, helping Spurs to six games unbeaten on the season (one of two sides without a loss). No Harry Kane, no problem for Mauricio Pochettino.

Bournemouth 1-0 EvertonFULL RECAP

Everton were the side stricken from the ranks of the unbeaten on Saturday, losing 1-0 away to Bournemouth. The goal, scored by Junior Stanislas in the 23rd minute, was one of just three shots on target between the two sides. What the Cherries and Toffees lacked in quantity, Stanislas more than made up for with quality (WATCH HERE).

Sunderland 2-3 Crystal PalaceFULL RECAP

The spending power of PL clubs is simply unmatched the world over. For proof, look no further than Palace, a relatively small club in the grand scheme of the world’s game, spending $41 million on Christian Benteke this summer. A year after transfer rumors linked the big Belgian to some of the biggest clubs in Europe, he’s signed for last season’s 15th-place finishers. On Saturday, he’s scored his second goal in four games for the club, the 93rd-minute winner at the Stadium of Light. Imagine being, say, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Schalke, or any club of that size, and saying to yourself, “We’d love to have Benteke, but Palace are in for him. We can’t compete with that.” Palace, by the way, came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 against Sunderland.

SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24: Christian Benteke of Crystal Palace celebrates scoring his sides third goal during the Premier League match between Sunderland and Crystal Palace at the Stadium of Light on September 24, 2016 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Runnacles/Getty Images)

Stoke City 1-1 West Bromwich AlbionFULL RECAP

The hits just keep on coming for Stoke and Mark Hughes. The Potters just had to survive a few minutes of stoppage time, and victory was theirs for the first time in 2016-17. Instead, Salomon Rondon grabbed a 91st-minute equalizer, and Stoke would settle for their second point of the season. Fortunately for Stoke, Sunderland’s loss means the Black Cats replace them at the bottom of the league.

Sunday’s PL schedule

West Ham United vs. Southampton — 11 a.m. ET, NBCSN/NBCSports.com | FULL PREVIEW

Don’t look now, but Arsenal’s set up for a big Premier League run

Arsenal team manager Arsene Wenger applauds during the English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium in London, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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With a suspect Arsenal defense to open the season, the world watched as Liverpool battered Arsene Wenger‘s squad on Opening Day, a 4-3 loss that had the #WengerOut crowd foaming at the mouth, perhaps justly.

This was a manager who hadn’t exactly buoyed the confidence of his fans, and in fact had given his detractors more fuel. The same man who lamented the fee paid for Anthony Martial last year only to see the young Frenchman shine for his rivals was lamenting the ineffectiveness of “Financial Fair Play”.

[ MORE: Arsenal-Chelsea recap | 3 things ]

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to the Champions League group stage; We saw a confident Wenger carry a bit of a strut en route to Paris, claiming readiness to succeed in ways the Gunners hadn’t in a while.

On Saturday, after a rollicking 3-0 home win over Arsenal earned his side a standing ovation from the Emirates Stadium crowd, Wenger was beaming at his side’s “style and steel“.

And as our own Joe Prince-Wright heard in his post-match comments, the man celebrating his 20th year running Arsenal has an increased appetite for success. He was asked how his hunger compares to when he began his time at Arsenal.

“I’m hungrier because I know I don’t have 20 years in front of me, and as well because I feel more responsibility. I’m more conscious of what’s all about Arsenal. The weight of keeping people happy is heavier than when I arrived.”

And rightly so. After drawing at Leicester City on Matchday 2, Arsenal is 4-0 in the Premier League, 1-0 in the EFL Cup, and showed terrific heart in drawing on the road at Paris Saint-Germain.

While the money he paid for new players Shkrodan Mustafi, Lucas Perez, and Granit Xhaka wasn’t a pittance, the moves are looking shrewd right now. And the cupboard has been stocked with stars who were on show Saturday, including standout days for Hector Bellerin and Mesut Ozil.

When I was researching numbers for my post on Pep Guardiola’s hot start at Manchester City, I couldn’t help but be surprised at how many times Arsenal’s name was showing up either on their heels or leading in key offensive and possession categories.

[ BUNDESLIGA: Chicharito nets three ]

Arsenal has a very forgiving schedule in the lead-up to a brutal November, and can build itself a cushion in the competition for a Top Four spot before a 17-day stretch that sees it hosting Spurs and PSG with a visit to Manchester United in between.

Wednesday — HOME vs. Basel (UCL)
Oct. 2 — at Burnley
Oct. 15 — HOME vs. Swansea
Oct. 19 — HOME vs. Ludogorets (UCL)
Oct. 22 — HOME vs. Middlesbrough
Oct. 25 — HOME vs. Reading (EFL Cup)
Oct. 29 — at Sunderland

Gooners will be begging their side to give them 12-straight points, and a strong UCL performance could even render the PSG match in November more about positioning than advancement.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

In the meantime, Man City will be heading to Tottenham and hosting Everton amongst its fixtures, while Liverpool tangles with Manchester United. Those Red Devils also have to face Chelsea in October.

Wenger’s no fool: He’s seen the fixtures. Arsenal is primed to be atop or close to the top of the table in early November. With PSG slipping a bit in league play, perhaps a UCL slip-up could have the Gunners atop their group before that November match-up.

It’s too soon to talk title, but watching Arsenal on Saturday was to be reminded of the best times under Wenger.

And to imagine what could be come May.