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.

Watch: Scott Sinclair nets stunning curler in Celtic victory

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Celtic is enjoying another fine campaign in Scotland, and much of the team’s success can be attributed to the play of Scott Sinclair.

[ MORE: Burkina Faso, Cameroon progress at AFCON 2017 ]

The Englishman was at it again on Sunday during Celtic’s 3-0 Scottish Cup win over Albion Rovers when the 27-year-old curled an absolutely sublime effort into the top corner for the game’s opening goal.

The finish, Sinclair’s 13th of the season in all competitions, came after the winger picked up the ball on the left side of the Albion penalty area. Sinclair then proceeded to slot his dipping shot just under the bar and into the far post.

Celtic now moves on to the fifth round of this season’s tournament, joining the likes of Rangers and Aberdeen. In addition to the team’s success in the competition, the Bhoys have yet to lose a match in the Scottish Premier League this campaign (19 W, 1 D).

La Liga & Serie A: Sevilla avoids Osasuna upset, Barcelona cruises

EIBAR, SPAIN - JANUARY 22:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona competes for the ball with Ander Capa (L) and Dani Garcia of SD Eibar during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and FC Barcelona at Ipurua stadium on January 22, 2017 in Eibar, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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A roundup of Saturday’s action in Spain and Italy’s top flights…

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Eibar 0-4 Barcelona 

Four different goalscorers and three points has put Barcelona inches closer to Real Madrid at the top of La Liga, and it certainly was a complete effort for the Blaugrana. Denis Suarez gave Barca the lead ahead of halftime before Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar each netted in the second stanza to give Luis Enrique’s side a strangle hold on the match. Barca now sits just two points behind Real as the season nears its halfway point.

Meanwhile, Barca suffered a major loss during the match when Sergio Busquets was carted off the pitch after sustaining an ankle injury. Busquets left the game after receiving the brunt of a Gonzalo Escalante tackle in the eighth minute.

Osasuna 3-4 Sevilla

There were goals galore at the Estadio El Sadar, however, Osasuna remains at the bottom of La Liga despite their best efforts. The last place side led on two occasions against Sevilla, but a strong second half from the visitors allowed Los Rojiblancos to remain within a point of league leaders Real Madrid. Vicente Iborra recorded a brace for Sevilla, with goals on both sides of halftime, while Franco Vázquez and Pablo Sarabia also inked their names on the score sheet.

Athletic Bilbao 2-2 Atletico Madrid

Atleti went ahead early on against Bilbao, but Diego Simeone’s men needed a late Antoine Griezmann finish to earn a point on Sunday. Koke struck inside of three minutes to give Madrid the early advantage before goals from Íñigo Lekue and Oscar de Marcos gave Bilbao the lead. Atletico has now fallen eight points behind Real Madrid, while Bilbao sits seventh on 29 points.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Betis 0-0 Sporting Gijon
Real Sociedad 1-0 Celta Vigo


Juventus 2-0 Lazio

Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain each found the back of the net early on for Juventus and Massimiliano Allegri’s side never looked back from there. After scoring in the fifth and 16th minutes, respectively, the Bianconeri remain atop of Serie A after picking up the team’s 16th win on the season. Lazio remains fourth following the defeat, now sitting eight points behind the league leaders.

Roma 1-0 Cagliari

Edin Dzeko netted his 14th league goal of season for Roma on Sunday en route to the team’s fifth consecutive victory in all competitions. The win sees Roma move to within a point of Juventus at the top of Italy’s top flight, however, the Bianconeri currently hold a game in hand. Meanwhile, Cagliari sits 11th in Serie A on 26 points.

Sunday’s Serie A schedule

Bologna 2-0 Torino
Empoli 1-0 Udinese
Genoa 2-2 Crotone
Palermo 0-1 Inter Milan
Pescara 1-3 Sassuolo
Atalanta 1-0 Sampdoria

AFCON wrap: Burkina Faso tops Group A, Cameroon also through

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - SEPTEMBER 29:  Bertrand Traore of Ajax is chalenged by Darwin Andrade of Standard Liege during the UEFA Europa League group G match between AFC Ajax and  R. Standard de Liege at the Amsterdam Arena on September 29, 2016 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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One down, three to go.

Two nations advanced out of Group A on Sunday, and neither of the spots were held by the tournament’s hosts.

[ MORE: All AFCON 2017 coverage ]

Cameroon 0-0 Gabon

Hosts Gabon needed a victory to reach the final eight, however, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and co. struggled mightily to break down the Cameroonian backline.

The Panthers failed to manage a shot on target on Sunday, while Cameroon — who finishes second in Group A — recorded a shot goalward just once.

Cameroon will likely face Senegal in the knockout phase after the Lions of Teranga locked up a spot in the next round.

Guinea-Bissau 0-2 Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso topped the group based on goal differential after an early own goal and Bertrand Traore added a second after halftime.

Rudinilson Silva was caught in an uncomfortable position after 11 minutes when the Guinea-Bissau defender put the ball into his own net. From there, Traore doubled the advantage for Burkina Faso after finishing off a Prejuce Nakoulma pass.

The Stallions will face the runner up of Group B, currently Tunisia, in the quarterfinals.

Group A table (* indicates teams that advanced)

*Burkina Faso (5 points, +2 GD)
*Cameroon (5 pts., +1 GD)
Gabon (3 pts., 0 GD)
Guinea-Bissau (1 pt., -3 GD)

Monday’s AFCON schedule

Senegal vs. Algeria — 11 a.m. ET
Zimbabwe vs. Tunisia — 2 p.m. ET

Henry bashes Arsenal’s Xhaka after second red card of season

LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 22:  Granit Xhaka (2nd R) of Arsenal talks to Steven Defour (1st R) of Burnley before shown a red card during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium on January 22, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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It’s become a trend, albeit one that the Gunners certainly aren’t too fond of. Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka was sent off for the second time this season and while his side did manage to hold on to three points, the Swiss international has quickly made a name for himself in England for all the wrong reasons.

[ MORE: Arsene Wenger apologizes for sending off ]

Xhaka, 24, was dismissed in the second half of Sunday’s 2-1 win over Burnley after making a rash challenge on Clarets midfielder Steven Defour in the 65th minute.

[ MORE: Gunners up to second place after handling Burnley ]

Former Arsenal legend Thierry Henry sounded off on Xhaka’s latest dismissal following the match, calling out the midfielder for his lack of discipline.

“It’s not the first time. He did the same thing against Swansea,” Henry told Sky Sports. “This one I just don’t get it. Against Swansea it was a counter. Here, he gives the ball cheaply away.

“Why are you doing that 60 yards away from your goal, 25 minutes to go, you’re in control of the game? You misplace a pass. So what? Stay on your feet.

“As soon as you do that, the rules say it’s a red. Is it worse than [Marcos] Rojo who didn’t get a red? No. But the rule says both feet off the ground, it’s a red.”

Since the beginning of 2015, Xhaka has been shown red cards on six occasions dating back to the midfielder’s time with German club Borussia Monchengladbach, and including appearances for both club and country.

Xhaka’s suspension will keep him out of Arsenal’s next three matches, including home fixtures with Watford and Hull and a difficult road visit to Chelsea.