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


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.

Will this be most competitive Premier League title race ever?

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So, who is going to win the Premier League this season?

That’s right, you haven’t got a solid answer.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

It’s okay. Most people haven’t. And that’s incredibly exciting.

As Jenna Corrado and I discussed in the latest PST Extra (watch by clicking play, above), it is tough to remember any Premier League season in history being this competitive at the top end of the table.

A unique set of circumstances has created what could be described as a “perfect storm” for the 2016-17 campaign.

Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City all have new managers and are taking time to settle down. The projects at Tottenham and Liverpool are in full flow. Arsenal’s squad is looking better balanced than ever. Chelsea and Liverpool do not have European action to contend with. The midtable teams in the PL are continuing to punch above their weight too.

[ VIDEO: Full PST Extra archive ]

The closeness between the perennial top six is apparent in the early season table too.

Via the, there has never been a closer margin between the team in first place and the team in fifth place after nine games of a season. There is just one point separating first-place Man City with fifth-place Tottenham. In fact, Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool all have 20 points and only goal differential separates them. Spurs and Chelsea sit one point behind on 19. Despite some early struggles, Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United only sits six points off top spot.

What this all adds up to is parity. Last season we saw Leicester City come from nowhere to win the league. It was remarkable. Unlike anything we’ve ever seen or are likely to see. However, in the end Claudio Ranieri‘s side won it at a canter as they were 10 points clear.

That happens in most PL campaigns.

In 2013-14 the title race went down to the penultimate weekend of the season where technically three teams could win it: Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea. Apart from that, it’s been pretty much a two-horse race up until the end.

The feeling early on this season is that a multitude of factors are combining which see the top six big boys more evenly matched than ever before.

The stats back it up in terms of the opening quarter of the season. Now let’s see if anybody can make a run and separate themselves from the pack.

Most would bet the team to eventually win it all are Man City as Pep Guardiola‘s methods start to ingrain themselves in City’s players and the potential for another spending spree in January is there. That said, the others can also spend big midseason too and if the margins between them are fine come the midway point, the addition of a few key players could make all the difference.

I’m willing to bet that this will be the most competitive ever season in the history of the PL’s title race. Bring it on.

Premier League Power Rankings: The Reds rise to the top

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The top of the Premier League is as close as it’s ever been with the top five teams separated by just one point.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Chelsea won big in the return of Jose Mourinho to Stamford Bridge, while Tottenham and Arsenal faltered with draws against Bournemouth and Middlesbrough respectively.

[ ARCHIVE: All of PST’s Power Rankings ]

Check out the latest round of power rankings ahead of Matchday 10.

source: 20 (20) Sunderland: The Black Cats have had a historically bad start to the Premier League season with just two points from nine matches. Things do not get easier this weekend as Sunderland faces Arsenal.
Hull City logo 19 (19) Hull City: The Tigers have lost five straight Premier League matches and have allowed five more goals than any other team in the league this season.  
source: 18 (18) Swansea City: Bob Bradley earned his first point as Swansea City manager with a scoreless draw against Watford. However, Swansea has still only won one match this season and are in the relegation zone.
200px-Middlesbrough_crest 17 (17) Middlesbrough: An impressive draw at the Emirates has Middlesbrough just out of the relegation zone on goal difference. A home match against Bournemouth will be another tough test for The Boro. 
source: 16 (14) West HamWest Ham earned its second straight 1-0 win, but needed a Winston Reid goal in stoppage time to sneak past Sunderland.
source: 15 (12) West Bromwich Albion: After falling to Liverpool 2-1 last weekend, the Baggies face another tough test as Manchester City makes a visit to The Hawthrons. West Brom is winless in its last four Premier League matches. 
source: 14 (16) Stoke City: The offense has picked up for the Potters, led by Xherdan Shaqiri‘s brace this past weekend. Another winnable match against Swansea on Monday offers Stoke the chance to extend its unbeaten streak to five matches.
burnley fc crest 13 (15) Burnley: Burnley earned a 2-1 win over Everton thanks to a dramatic 90th-minute winner from Scott Arfield. The Clarets are three points clear of the relegation zone.

12 (9) Crystal Palace: Crystal Palace was clearly the inferior side in the team’s 3-1 defeat at the hands of Leicester City. A match against Liverpool on Saturday will make it difficult for Palace to bounce back.
source: 11 (10) Watford: Watford had the chance to earn three points against Swansea City, but could only come away with a point. The Hornets have another chance at three points this weekend against Hull City. 
source: 10 (13) Leicester City: The Foxes looked impressive in their win against Crystal Palace despite having Jamie Vardy on the bench. Leicester will need to continue their good form to get a result against Tottenham this weekend.

9 (7) Manchester United: Manchester United suffered an embarassing defeat against Chelsea and appear to lack an identity under Jose Mourinho. 
source: 8 (11)
Bournemouth: Bournemouth has eight points from its last four matches, including a 6-1 victory over Hull City and a draw against Tottenham in their last two matches. The Cherries have a chance to continue their good form against Middlesbrough this weekend. 
source: 7 (4) Everton: Everton suffered a damaging defeat to Burnley. Although the Toffees are in sixth place, they are now four points off the pace of the top five.
source: 6 (8) Southampton: Southampton is unbeaten in its last five matches and earned an impressive point against Manchester City at the Etihad last weekend. 
source: 5 (5) Tottenham: Spurs are still the lone unbeaten team in the Premier League, but a draw against Bournemouth is not the type of result Tottenham has become accumosted to under Mauricio Pochettino 
source: 4 (2) Arsenal: The Gunners only earned a point at home against Middlesbrough. However, the team is unbeaten in its last eight.
source: 3 (6) Chelsea: Chelsea looks to have found its form under Antino Conte. The Blues dominated Manchester United and Jose Mourinho in a 4-0 victory. After a winless September, Chelsea have won all three of its Premier League matches in October and are just one point off the top of the table.
Logo_Manchester_City 2 (1) Manchester City: Pep Guardiola has gone six games without a win for the first time in his managerial career. Manchester City could only earn a point at home against Southampton last weekend, but the team is still at the top of Premier League on goal difference.
source: 1 (3) Liverpool: The Reds put on a beatuiful display against West Brom at Anfield last weekend. Liverpool is unbeaten in seven matches and is tied at the top of the table with Manchester City and Arsenal at 20 points.

VIDEO: Incredible goal from Graziano Pelle in China

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Graziano Pelle seems to be enjoying his time in the Chinese Super League with 5 goals and two assists in his first 12 games in China.

It’s no wonder he’s having fun when he’s scoring goals like this.

[ MORE: Mourinho gets FA charge ]

Pelle, 31, joined CSL side Shandong Lenung in July from Premier League side Southampton with plenty of people around the world raising their eyebrows at him.

With reported wages of over $250,000 per week making him the joint-sixth highest paid player in the world, you can understand why he moved to China for the final few years of his career.

Pelle’s decision to head to the Far East also hasn’t harmed his international chances as he continues to get callups to the Italian national team. Although, after refusing to shake the coaches hand during the last international break after he was substituted he may find callups harder to come by in the future.

Putting all of that aside, let’s marvel in the beauty of his fine finish in the CSL on Wednesday against Chongqing Lifan.

From the chest control, to the flick over the defenders head and then the volley, it has to be a contender for FIFA’s Puskas award which is given to the best goal score in world soccer each year.

Graziano, take it away…

Napoli treating Higuain as a traitor after record transfer

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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ROME (AP) A traitor. A mercenary. An ingrate.

Napoli fans have no shortage of insulting words when it comes to describing Gonzalo Higuain, the striker who transferred to rival Juventus for an Italian-record 90 million euros ($100 million) after scoring 36 goals last season to break a 66-year-old Serie A record.

So it will be interesting to see what type of reception Higuain gets when he faces his old club for the first time as Napoli visits Juventus on Saturday.

“I’ll greet him like a father does with a son who has really (ticked) him off,” Napoli manager Maurizio Sarri said.

Napoli forward Dries Mertens, one of Higuain’s best friends when they played together, was asked if he would prepare a “trick” for his former teammate to celebrate Halloween.

“No. At most, I’ll give him a slap,” Mertens said with a laugh.

Napoli fans are banned from attending the match for security reasons. That may prevent replicating a scene like when Luis Figo returned to face Barcelona after transferring to Real Madrid in 2000 and a pig’s head was thrown onto the pitch.

Juventus doesn’t visit Napoli until April.

Other strikers have left Napoli at the height of their powers in recent years – namely Edinson Cavani and Ezequiel Lavezzi, who went to Paris Saint-Germain – but the fact that Higuain moved to the club’s fiercest domestic competitor has sparked more outrage.

With 71 league goals in 104 Serie A matches for Napoli the past three seasons, Higuain’s popularity in Naples was beginning to approach that of Diego Maradona, his fellow Argentine who led Napoli to its only two league titles in 1987 and 1990.

When the transfer was announced in July, Napoli fans publicly threw their Higuain shirts, banners and scarves into the trash.

Outside the San Paolo stadium at Napoli matches this season, vendors sell toilet paper with Higuain’s image printed on it.

“He prefers the money to our love,” read a headline in Naples’ Il Mattino newspaper after the transfer.

The artisans on Naples’ famed San Gregorio Armeno street placed placards in the hands of Higuain’s Christmas figurine that read, “I’m a traitor” and “I’m a mercenary.”

Higuain was lambasted for performing medical exams with Juventus in secret in Madrid.

“Neapolitans were met with betrayal this summer,” Napoli president Aurelio De Laurentiis said. “(Higuain’s) brother (and manager) told me in February that he wanted to leave because there were no other stars in our squad besides him.”

Higuain attempted to calm the tensions before the season started by thanking Napoli’s fans for supporting him the past three years, but that only seemed to cause more problems.

Ten games into the season, Juventus holds a four-point lead over third-place Napoli.

Higuain enters on a four-match scoring drought in all competitions, while Napoli has struggled to replace him at center forward.

With seven goals in eight matches in all competitions, newly signed Poland forward Arkadiusz Milik was filling in quite nicely until he severely injured his left knee.

Manolo Gabbiadini, who had performed well as a backup to Higuain the past two seasons, struggled to replace Milik, then was suspended for two matches for a reaction foul last weekend.

As a result, Sarri has been relying on a three-man forward line with Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon flanking Mertens. The trio has been labeled the “piccoli” line for the players’ small stature.

“We don’t have a natural striker right now and we’ve got to adapt,” Sarri said.

Besides Higuain’s recent troubles, Juventus has its own injury problems in attack with Paulo Dybala and Marko Pjaca each out for several weeks.

Higuain started the season with six goals in seven Serie A matches but hasn’t scored since. He struggled again in a 4-1 win over Sampdoria on Wednesday.

“Higuain will score again soon, and by the end of the season he’ll have scored many,” Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said.

A goal against Napoli would be difficult for his former fans to digest.

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