Talking points: Signs of progress everywhere for the U.S. against Portugal

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Now two hours after Silvestre Valera’s goal, fans’ disappointment is starting to give way. A more objective, less emotional reality is taking hold.

Yes, that just happened. Yes, the United States just went toe-to-toe with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal and nearly replicated 2002’s famous result. And yes, to the surprise of those who judged harshly after the win over Ghana, the U.S. is capable of playing some attractive, occasionally imposing soccer.

In the big picture, that means progress: Significant steps forward from 2010 — at least, in terms of how the team plays. Isolated to Brazil 2014, however, the result means the U.S. has work to do on Thursday against Germany.

Before we shift focus, though, let’s take another moment to consider what happened today in Manaus. Here’s three — no, four — talking points after the U.S.’s 2-2 draw with Portugal:

0. Let’s count all the ‘holy crap’ moments we’ve seen so far – Just in the U.S. matches, we’ve had …

This being the internet, I’d normally say “go home, World Cup, you’re drunk.” But no. No, no, no. Keep going. The next round’s on me. Stick around, World Cup. You are such an irresistible drunk.

[ MORE: Valera equalizer stuns U.S. | Man of the Match rankings | How the U.S. can advance ]
[ MORE: Soccerly covers the World Cup ]

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Geoff Cameron of the United States looks on during a break in the action between the United States and Portugal. (Credit: Getty Images.)

1. The criticism of Bradley and Cameron has already started – There’s no defending Cameron’s mistake. His fifth-minute error won’t happen again, but it was still one of the worst mistakes we’ve seen at the World Cup. That Cameron was the man Varela ran behind on the tying goal only compounded the defender’s problems. He wasn’t the only man at fault, but his part meant he was involved in both Portugal goals.

As for Bradley, his giveaway that sparked Portugal’s last second counter is already being dissected (and rightly so), but the midfielder’s fatigue was evident moments earlier, when he stoically watched a Jermaine Jones pass roll to a Portuguese attacker in the U.S.’s third. Gassed by the end of regulation time, Bradley seemed out on his feet come the 95th minute, unable to maintain possession in those final, crucial moments.

Through 180 minutes in Brazil, Bradley hasn’t been himself. Against Ghana, you could explain that as him battling two defensive midfielders without the outlet of Jozy Altidore. Sunday’s game, however, was different. Though Klinsmann’s tweaked his formation to feature what’s normally his best player, Bradley has yet to distinguish himself in at this year’s World Cup.

2. Consider the proof of concept … – As the U.S. adjusted to Portugal’s early goal, eventually fighting back to take a second-half lead, all the qualities Jurgen Klinsmann’s been trying to install again came through. Granted, I said the same thing after the U.S. defeated Ghana, so this may be one writer who can’t let a narrative go. Still, let’s go down the checklist, shall we?

  • More resiliency/Better equipped to adapt to adversity: See the response to André Ayew’s goal, the comeback against Portugal, and the adaptation in the absence of Jozy Altidore.
  • More flexibilty/An ability to dictate play, when needed: It wasn’t needed for most of the match against Ghana, when the U.S. proved capable of playing on the back foot (four shots on goal to Ghana’s three). Against Portugal, Nani’s early goal made sure the Klinsmann fulfilled his promise of a more aggressive approach. Though the final scoreline wasn’t as good, the performance was more convincing. The U.S. just doesn’t have a set approach.
  • More depth/Less reliance on stars: Clint Dempsey was huge today, but Bradley — the U.S.’s most important player — was average at best, and while Europe-proven Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones had huge impacts, the MLS talents that Klinsmann has brought into the pool also paid off. Matt Besler was the team’s best defender, Graham Zusi made key contributions, Kyle Beckerman has become part of the foundation, while Chris Wonolowski and DeAndre Yedlin proved valuable options off the bench. Klinsmann is using more players, instilling them with the confidence they can compete at this level, and proving the depth in the U.S. pool is not as shallow as previously thought.
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Jurgen Klinsmann of the United States looks on the United States and Portugal. (Credit: Getty Images)

3. … and the progress the U.S. has shown – Klinsmann was derided for saying the U.S. can’t win the World Cup, but was that ever the goal for this cycle? More readily, the goal was progress, and while 180 minutes isn’t much of a sample, compare this year’s performance against 2010’s.

While the U.S. finished first in that year’s group, the packet was weak. As the second round match against Ghana showed, the U.S. didn’t need to make progress as a program to top that foursome. This year, the U.S. beat Ghana. They went toe-to-toe with a Portugal team many thought would play through them.

Tied for first in their group, the U.S. has fully deserved their results. The team was seconds away from its first two-win group stage in history, and there’s still one match to go.

Most casting Portugal were clear favorites were basing their judgement on reputation alone. Portugal is established, European, have more talent, and play better soccer. In their eyes, the U.S. just aren’t on that level.

After today’s performance, does that perception change? The U.S. probably needs to get out of its group (and impress in the knockout round) before detractors believe a gridiron country and every produce a “proper football team,” but the objective reality is much different.

Even if the U.S. doesn’t make the final 16, they’ve shown huge progress at this tournament. The team may not be among the best in the world, but the arrow’s definitely pointed in the right direction.

USMNT Player Ratings from win over Ecuador

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Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team extended its clean sheet run to 180 minutes under the new coach with a 1-0 defeat of Ecuador in Orlando on Thursday.

[ RECAP: USMNT 1-0 Ecuador ]

The longtime Columbus Crew coach handed notable chances to several MLS mainstays who stood out in January camp, but also re-introduced Christian Pulisic to the fold.

The results were mixed, but the win was deserved as the U.S. did not allow much danger to reach Sean Johnson’s cage.

LINEUPS

Sean Johnson — 6.5 — Had to catch, what, one ball? Still, nice for him to get a clean sheet.

Tim Ream — 7 — A couple of dicey moments, sure, but the man with the captain’s band stood out at left back not just for his assist but his aggression in pressing high up the left flank.

John Brooks — 6.5 — Not much to do, but effective when needed with a win-saving stop. Here’s hope the thigh injury isn’t a notable one. Intelligent and accurate in his passing out of the back.

Aaron Long — 6 — His passing was a bit off early, and that will need to be better at the back of Berhalter’s defense, but overall he was composed and well-drilled.

Tyler Adams — 7.5 — Given he was playing an unusual position with immense responsibility (right), Adams deserves a lot of credit for keeping his motor high over 90 minutes. He only attempted two dribbles, staying in his shoes and venturing wide and forward on occasion. A very promising sign for an ambitious move by Berhalter. That’s a lot of green over there, and green is good —>

Wil Trapp (Off 59′) — 5.5 — He’s not supposed to be the guy who stands out in a game, and should be known for doing the little things, but he’s still not standing out from the pack as someone who should keep Michael Bradley or Tyler Adams from the center of the park.

Weston McKennie (Off 68′) — 5 — Potentially scary injury aside, he will have much better days for the U.S. than this and certainly didn’t show chemistry with Trapp. Second guessing is easy, but flipping McKennie and Adams might’ve been the play.

Paul Arriola (Off 77′) — 6 — An energetic, productive night on the wing takes a hit due to his inability to finish the match’s best scoring chance (even if the save was legit).

Christian Pulisic (Off 62′) — 7 — Not at his sharpest, but still quite lively in producing many American attacks. Had an memorable moment working over Antonio Valencia near the end line.

Jordan Morris (Off 68′) — 6 — Still learning how to be a winger, but a decent and industrious effort for the Seattle Sounders man.

Gyasi Zardes — 7 — It was the goal that did the trick for him over 90 minutes, and it was good to see the Columbus Crew man score a USMNT for the first time since 2016.

Subs

Michael Bradley (On 59′) — 6.5 — Quick decisions and possession-aiding passes with precious few mistakes (See Opta chalkboard from MLSSocccer.com at right).

Sebastian Lletget (On 62′) — 6 — Has to be a bit more careful in his own half, but we’d like to see him get a start against Chile.

Cristian Roldan (On 66′) — 5 — Sloppy with the ball in a short stint.

DeAndre Yedlin (On 66′) — 6 — Busy and ready to produce chances from the right side.

Jonathan Lewis (On 77′) — N/A —

Zardes goal pushes controlling USMNT past Ecuador

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  • Yanks have not allowed goal in 3 matches under Berhalter
  • Pulisic returns to USMNT set-up
  • MORE: McKennie stretched off
  • Zardes scores deflected winner off Ream feed
  • American control ball, but struggle in final third

Gyasi Zardes scored his seventh international goal and first since the Copa America Centenario as the USMNT handed Ecuador a 1-0 defeat at Orlando City Stadium on Thursday.’s

The win marks the third clean sheet victory in three tries for USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, who leads the Yanks against Chile on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

The U.S. came out of the gates flying, connecting passes with their wings and fullbacks sitting very wide to stretch the surface.

When Ecuador did collect the ball, the Yanks pressed very hard and won it back.

Industry and speed was the story of the USMNT game, with Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris leading the way in forcing the match on Ecuador.

Weston McKennie did some heavy lifting in nice combo play with Pulisic and Gyasi Zardes for a chance that was just missing the finishing touch from Paul Arriola (and got a nice save).

Pulisic was felled by a hard foul just inside the Ecuador half in the 55th minute, but carried on and Paul Arriola took a yellow for fouling Jefferson Orejuela in response.

Michael Bradley entered the match for Trapp in the 59th minute, and Pulisic exited for Sebastian Lletget three minutes later.

McKennie then suffered a painful ankle injury and eventually accepted stretcher help to get to the bench.

Zardes put the U.S. ahead when his powerful strike from atop the 18 took a huge deflection off the calf of Robert Arboleda and looped over the head of a flailing Alexander Dominguez.

The play began when Sebastian Lletget’s pressing pushed a poor Ecuadorian clearance to USMNT left back Tim Ream, who spotted Zardes in the middle of the Ecuador half.

USMNT, Schalke mid McKennie stretchered off with ankle injury

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Schalke and USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie limped off the pitch during the second half of a friendly against Ecuador on Thursday in Florida.

McKennie appeared to twist his ankle shortly after being called for a foul in the match, which stood 0-0 at the time.

[ MORE: Hazard, Real, and the back-up plan ]

He left the match with trainer help, and was eventually carted to the bench while seated on a stretcher.

A key piece of the program’s future, the 20-year-old midfielder has been a utility knife in the Bundesliga, playing everywhere from right back to left mid.

Only six players have played more league minutes for Schalke than McKennie, who earned his eighth cap on Thursday.

Making the case: Raheem Sterling as PL Player of the Year

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Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined someone making this case in a rational manner any time soon.

I especially didn’t think it would be me.

But as the Premier League takes a deep breath ahead of the stretch run, I’m going to have to say it.

[ MORE: JPW ranks the candidates ]

Raheem Sterling has been the best attacking player in the Premier League this season, and quite possibly the best player period.

Whether he earns the nod over defender Virgil Van Dijk is another story altogether, as it will probably comes down to wins and losses and one or two titles, but consider how deadly, consistent, and deadly consistent Sterling has been since the start of the season.

Of the four Premier League players who’ve accounted for some combination of 24 goals and assists, Sterling gets the least amount of positive publicity. Eden Hazard has largely been the Chelsea attack, Sergio Aguero has tied the PL hat trick record, and Mohamed Salah is riding his 2017-18 season through a remarkable cold snap of form.

But there’s Sterling, with 15 goals and nine assists in the second-fewest minutes of the bunch (Aguero).

How about these numbers — via WhoScored.com — in 2,149 league minutes?

Sterling is also averaging a tackle and .6 interceptions per match, the best of the bunch, while committed the fewest bad touches per game (most remarkable considering his second touch haunted him for several seasons).

A concession: For what it’s worth given the above stats, Hazard is easily in second of the bunch if not competing directly with Sterling. But Sterling hasn’t been a part of underachieving teams for three different managers, so we’ll abide.

There are two things going against Sterling, neither of which are his fault. The first is that Man City’s dominance of last season and run back into a title right this season has people imagining that the feast of talent at the Etihad Stadium makes numbers an afterthought; That is to say that Sterling, Aguero, and the Silvas (not to mention Leroy Sane) aren’t producing much more than their theoretical replacements.

And maybe there’s something to that, but here’s how important Sterling’s production has been to City.

In Premier League matches in which Sterling neither scored, assisted, nor drew a penalty, City has four wins, two draws, and four losses. When he has, that mark is 17-0 (He sat out wins over Huddersfield Town, Burnley, and Watford to complete Man City’s 24W-2D-4L record).

Aguero, for his part, racked up nine of his goals in three matches. I’m not here to hat trick shame, but Sterling feels a less replaceable part of Pep’s team.

The second thing going against Sterling is a bit more nefarious, linked to articles and conceptions about his gun tattoo or hairstyles. This part, hopefully, doesn’t require us to refute it.

Van Dijk has been phenomenal, and as a longtime defender admirer — those who can’t do it, love those who do it well — I’d be thrilled to see him join N'Golo Kante in non-scorers to claim such an honor.

But VVD was also on the scene for a moment that encapsulates what Sterling has become to City’s attack. He’s arguably been this season’s Leroy Sane, and coincidentally cues up the German with this incisive pass from well outside his office for the January winner against Liverpool.