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 ]
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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.

Croatia fears World Cup chance may never come again

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MOSCOW (AP) The rain hid Croatia’s tears.

After Luka Modric collected his Golden Ball award in a downpour, he shared an emotional embrace with Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, both wearing the country’s red-and-white checkered uniform.

Croatia knows Sunday’s 4-2 loss to France in the World Cup final was a chance that may not come again anytime soon.

“We were so close and we played the best soccer. We deserved more,” said Modric, who at 32 may have played in his last World Cup match.

Croatia’s first golden generation lost to France in the 1998 World Cup semifinals, and its second went one better. Besides Modric, goalkeeper Danijel Subasic will be 38 at the next World Cup in Qatar, midfielder Ivan Rakitic will be 34 and forward Mario Mandzukic will be 36.

“I wish we are now 24, everyone and Luka especially,” Croatia defender Dejan Lovren said. “There is a time when something needs to end.”

Among a crowd of men in dark suits on the World Cup podium, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, Grabar-Kitarovic’s team shirt showed her passion for Croatia, a country of barely 4 million people.

While some of the players shed tears on the field, fans at home celebrated in the thousands despite the loss.

“Overall, we’ve been better,” Lovren said, critical of the way France played. “They did it the other way. They didn’t play football. They waited for their chances and they scored. They had their own tactic and you need to respect that. They played the tournament like that every game.”

Croatia went down with the same grit that had taken it through three extra-time matches, all won after conceding the opening goal. When Ivan Perisic scored in the 28th minute after Mario Mandzukic’s own-goal had given France the lead, Croatia looked ready to do it again.

Then came a penalty, called after a video review, which Antoine Griezmann converted.

Trailing 2-1, Croatia conceded two more goals but kept fighting. Mandzukic then took advantage of a goalkeeping error to make it 4-2, becoming the first player to score for both teams in a World Cup final.

“When you want to be the best then you need to win, simple as that,” said Lovren, who lost the Champions League final with Liverpool in May. “It’s not easy to accept that. It’s something that I will carry for my life.”

James Ellingworth is at https://twitter.com/jellingworth

More AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

VIDEO: Juventus unveil Cristiano Ronaldo

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Things are pretty crazy in Turin right now.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been unveiled as a Juventus player after his record $120 million transfer from Real Madrid, the largest few ever paid by Juve or any Italian club in history.

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The five-time World Player of the Year causes  a stir wherever he goes but this was something else.

Ronaldo, 33, signed autographs and posed for photos with fans as thousands turned out to see him arrive in Italy.

The Portuguese star last played on June 30 against Uruguay, as Portugal lost 2-1 and crashed out of the World Cup at the last 16 stage.

Juve are heading on a U.S. tour this summer and their first game is on July 25 against Bayern Munich in Philadelphia, before they play Benfica, the MLS All-Stars and his former club, Real Madrid.

Take a look below at some of the scenes from Ronaldo’s unveiling at the fourth club of his career after his spells at Sporting Lisbon, Manchester United and Real Madrid.


With flags, song, pride, French celebrate unifying victory

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PARIS (AP) It was a victory for all of France and the home crowd did it justice, pouring into Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue by the tens of thousands to celebrate in an explosion of joy.

France’s 4-2 win over Croatia in the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday marked the second time in 20 years that France has won the World Cup, and came at a time when the people feel needy.

“It represents enormous things,” said Goffrey Hamsik, dressed in a hat resembling a rooster – the French national symbol – and a shirt with the No. 10 for Kylian Mpappe, the 19-year-old breakout star who hails from the Paris suburb of Bondy.

“We’ve had lots of problems in France these past years,” he said, recalling deadly terror attacks. “This is good for the morale … Here, we are all united. We mix. There is no religion, there is nothing, and that’s what feels good.”

Troublemakers marred some of the festivities at the top of the Champs-Elysees, breaking the window of a major store, throwing bottles, temporary barriers and even a bicycle at riot police as the celebrations wound down close to midnight. Police responded with water cannon and tear gas. BFM-TV reported that the store was pillaged.

Earlier, people wrapped in flags and dressed in crazy hats, and one man spotted totally nude except for the Tricolor, marched down the avenue where France displayed its military might a day earlier for Bastille Day.

Revelers set off smoke bombs in the national colors – blue, white and red – obscuring Napoleon’s triumphal arch. People climbed atop every newspaper kiosk and bus stop in the area to wave flags and lead the crowds below in cheers. The national anthem, the Marseillaise, rang out, cars honked horns and cherry bombs cracks.

A young man sprayed a fire extinguisher on the crowd on a late hot afternoon.

Hundreds of police in riot gear were discretely lined up on side streets to monitor revelers. Typically, celebrations in France end up with some broken shop windows and other destruction, and Sunday was no exception. Tear gas was lobbed at one point on the Champs-Elysees. About 4,000 police watched over the fan zone – packed to its 90,000 capacity – during the match, then moved to the Champs-Elysees and neighboring streets.

As night fell, The Eiffel Tower flashed 1998-2018 to mark France’s two World Cup titles.

The Arc de Triomphe was awash in the national colors, lit with the rooster, the faces of the winning team and the words “Proud to be Blue,” or French.

The celebrations were spread across the nation.

For all the crazy antics – and some revelers who got out of control – a sense of patriotism and unity was almost visceral.

Antoine Griezmann, the France striker who scored one of the goal’s Sunday, told a news conference two days before the final, televised on BFM TV, that pride in country is in short supply.

“We say it so little … We should be proud to be French,” Griezmann said.

Mahmoud Bourassi was among those taking a longer-term view and he had some sobering thoughts about France’s run to the title and the festivities it has sparked.

Bourassi runs a youth center in Bondy – Mbappe’s home that was among those scarred by riots in 2005 that exposed the fissures of France that have yet to heal – and he knows the teenage star of the tournament.

“All this euphoria and effervescence, it’s positive but it’s emotional and ephemeral,” he said ahead of France’s win. Bourassi said sports is a “catalyst to bring people and nations together.”

But, he added, it must be built on.

“What we’re seeing is magic, exceptional. But what are we going to do with it tomorrow?”

That is a question for President Emmanuel Macron, who was in Moscow celebrating with the team on victory night, and will receive the squad more formally on Monday at the presidential Elysee Palace.

Revelers celebrated the moment.

“We’re happy. It took 20 years … It’s the pride of the nation. It unites everyone. It federates,” Frederique Pourquet said as she and her friend left the Champs-Elysees.

The win “shows that the French people are consolidated and the work of all France,” said Omar Bzi.

Hajar Maghnaoui, of Asnieres, north of Paris, said “It’s a way to bring the French people together, and also the world.”

John Leicester in Moscow contributed to this report.

Sunday league in New York rallies around assaulted referee

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I had to share a nice, feel-good moment from my neck of the soccer woods on this fine Sunday in July.

It starts with something heinous, though.

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Let’s begin here: The Buffalo District Soccer League (BDSL) is an 81-team men’s league in Western New York. It also conducts the Tehel Cup, the oldest amateur cup tournament in the United States.

Unfortunately, this post is about neither of the positives associated with those facts, as last weekend saw a player lose control after receiving a red card. The player in question hit referee Mike Crane, leaving the official with a head injury.

It’s not the first time we’ve written about referee assault; Unfortunately, typing the phrase “referee dies” in the PST search tool brings up multiple entries.

Yet the incident understandably caused a stir in the Buffalo soccer community, as the BDSL rallied around Crane and its officials.

Clubs assembled before their matches to take photos with the referee units, tagging each on Twitter with the hashtag #UnitedForCrane.

Let’s hope this post serves as a reminder to all weekend warriors and professional players alike: It’s still just a game.