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

23 Comments

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.

Southampton 4-2 Manchester City: Southampton carves up City behind Mane hat-trick, Tadic service

during the Barclays Premier League match between Southampton and Manchester City at St Mary's Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Southampton, England.
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City clearly had one eye on the Champions League semifinals. It came at the expense of their chances to remain in the competition next year.

The visitors at St. Mary’s had the opportunity to lock up Champions League play next season with all three points, but instead Manuel Pellegrini rested a number of starters including Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne, and Southampton ripped them apart in a 4-1 win. Saido Mane grabbed a hat-trick and Dusan Tadic had a trio of assists as their attack swarmed a mistake-prone and clearly distracted Manchester City.

Both sides had spells in the opening 20 minutes, but Southampton appeared more dangerous. Shane Long made multiple appearances in front of the Manchester City goal, picking the pocket of Pablo Zabaleta to earn a corner on 15 minutes and shooting just wide of the near post in the 19th minute.

Frasier Forster was required to keep the game scoreless in the 20th minute as Kelechi Iheanacho stole the ball from Virgil van Djik on the touchline and found Raheem Sterling in space inside the box, but his shot was saved expertly by Forster.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

It would be the in-form Long to take the lead in the 25th minute on a beautiful bit of play. A fantastic ball over the top of the City defense fell to a streaking Dusan Tadic, and his flick over the top met a sliding Shane Long, who beat Nicolas Otamendi for the opener.

They’d get a second just four minutes later on yet another sweet-looking goal, with Tadic getting yet another assist with a perfectly weighted ball for Saido Mane, who smacked it by Joe Hart from a tight angle.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Southampton continued to press and hold much of the meaningful possession, but Manchester City refused to capitulate, scoring a lifeline before halftime. With the ball in the Southampton penalty area, Cuco Martino saw the ball skip off his thigh and pop into the air, where Iheanacho latched onto it and headed it into the net.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

It was a tough way for the hosts to go into halftime, as they had dominated much of the first half, but no matter, as they made amends. Following the break, Southampton restored their two-goal lead off a corner in the 57th minute as Van Djik’s header was tipped by Joe Hart off the crossbar. Jose Fonte whiffed at the rebound but Mane was there from point blank range to give Southampton a 3-1 lead.

Mane would complete his hat-trick in the 68th minute. Van Djik won the ball in the Southampton half to start the break, and Tadic picked up his third assist of the match as he slotted Mane through on goal for yet another clinical finish.

Manchester City got another back as Iheanacho bagged his second in the 79th minute with a wonderful curler from outside the box, but it was too little too late for the visitors.

Both teams fought until the final whistle, and it could have cost Jesus Navas his fitness as the Argentinian seemingly picked up a serious limp in the final few minutes.

VIDEO: Claudio Ranieri says he might miss Leicester City winning the Premier League

MANCHESTER, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 01:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City applauds the fans after the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on May 1, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Following Leicester City’s gritty draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Foxes missed out on securing the Premier League trophy, but come tomorrow evening, they could still be celebrating.

With the point against United, their magic number is now two, meaning any dropped points by Tottenham wins Leicester City the league title. Tottenham travels to Stamford Bridge tomorrow to take on Chelsea, and should they fail to win, the trophy is Leicester’s.

But manager Claudio Ranieri, the hero in Leicester for guiding their beloved club to the unthinkable, might be the last to find out.

In his post-match comments, Ranieri said he could be on a plane during the Spurs game, therefore unable to find out the result until he lands. The reason? He’s going back to Italy to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother.

“I would like to watch to watch the match,” Ranieri said. “But I think I am on the flight back from Italy, and then it’s difficult for me to watch the match. Maybe when I landed, I will know the result.”

What a family man. No wonder his team plays like a close-knit unit.

AC Milan fights back for draw against Frosinone, but still falls out of European place

MILAN, ITALY - MAY 01:  Mario Balotelli of AC Milan reacts during the Serie A match between AC Milan and Frosinone Calcio at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on May 1, 2016 in Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Marco Luzzani/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

AC Milan fought back from down 3-1 to earn a point at home against relegation candidate Frosinone, but by dropping points they’ve also dropped out of a European position.

Frosinone got goals from Oliver Kragl and Luca Paganini in the first half, and Federico Dionisi struck in the 54th minute to go 3-1 up. But Luca Antonelli scored in the 74th minute – just a minute after coming on for AC Milan – and Jeremy Menez finished a penalty in added time to pull level.

The draw, coupled with a 1-0 Sassuolo win against Verona, dropped the Rossoneri to 7th in the Serie A table, out of the Europa League places. They sit on 54 points, with Sassuolo on 55.

Contributing heavily to the final result was Frosinone goalkeeper Francesco Bardi, who saved a Mario Balotelli penalty and produced a host of acrobatic first-half saves to keep the Milan attack at bay.

AC Milan hardly has time to lick its wounds, with just three matches remaining, two against Juventus and Roma to close out the year. Meanwhile, the point for Frosinone is important but likely not enough as they fall four points back of Palermo who Sampdoria.

Watch Live: Southampton vs. Manchester City (Lineups & Live Stream)

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28:  Raheem Sterling of Manchester City and Victor Wanyama of Southampton compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Southampton at the Etihad Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester City has shuffled the deck, with five changes from last time out as Manuel Pellegrini and company travel to St. Mary’s to take on Southampton, live at 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Sergio Aguero is on the bench, while Kevin De Bruyne is not selected at all for City as Wilfried Bony is the man up top along with Kelechi Iheanacho in support. Jesus Navas is also among the substitutes, with Samir Nasri and Raheem Sterling among the starters.

WATCH LIVE: Southampton vs. Manchester City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

David Silva is not included in the squad having suffered a hamstring injury, and while Yaya Toure has returned to fitness, he is not among those named.

For Southampton, three changes from their 4-2 win over Aston Villa dot the map, with Cuco Martina, Jordy Clasie, and Saido Mane all coming into the side. Charlie Austin is on the bench having returned from a hamstring problem, but Shane Long gets the nod to start, while Graziano Pelle does not appear.

A win for Manchester City would put them firmly in fourth at 67 points, seven clear of Manchester United with two more games to play.

LINEUPS

Southampton: Forster; Martina, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Clasie, Wanyama, S.Davis, Tadic, Manè; Long.
Subs: Stekelenberg, Yoshida, Soares, Romeu, Ward-Prowse, Rodriguez, Austin.

Manchester City: Hart, Zabaleta, Otamendi, Mangala, Kolarov, Delph, Fernandinho, Nasri, Sterling, Iheanacho, Bony
Subs: 
Caballero, Sagna, Clichy, Demichelis, Fernando, Navas, Aguero