Ahem, we need to talk about that awful call in U.S-Canada Olympic classic

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All credit to the United States for finding a way, for three determined rallies from a goal down, for reaching deep into the reserves at the 122nd extraordinary minute to locate that sensational game-winner – and for willing their way into Thursday’s Olympic gold medal match.

But I think we need to address one particular Canadian killer: the strange referee decision to whistle an indirect free kick at a critical juncture, not long after Canada had taken a 3-2 lead.

Jenna Pel will be back later with more thoughts and deeper analysis of Monday’s incredible evening in Manchester; she’s got the serious knowledge on all things U.S. women’s national team.

(MORE:  the brilliant Alex Morgan saves yet another day)

Meanwhile, I’ll address the less popular issue, this unpleasant little matter that I’m sure most U.S. soccer supporters would prefer not to mention:

What a horrible moment for Norwegian referee Christina Pedersen to make such a highly significant decision, to award an indirect free kick to the United States in the 78th minute, adjudging Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod of time-washing.

And make no mistake, an indirect free kick from 17 yards may not be a gift from the heavens (as a penalty kick might be), but it’s a wonderfully fortuitous turn of events for the attacking team – especially one that is a goal down with 12 minutes remaining.

I’ve watched more professional soccer matches than I can possible count.  (Best, ridiculously wild-ass guess: somewhere north of 2,000.) I have never – no exaggeration here, never – seen that called.

(MORE: A fresh look on Tuesday morning, regarding a fresh round of media excuse making here)

I went back and counted. McLeod (pictured above) had the ball in her hands for 11 or 12 seconds; some of that was on the ground, which referees typically wouldn’t count toward the six permitted seconds for distribution. Or that’s what I’d guess. Again, I’ve never seen this be a big issue.

Yes, her 11- or 12-second hold represents a clear, technical violation of the “six second rule,”  a law that is violated at least a dozen times in every professional match.

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The penalty kick that resulted from the U.S. free kick? I have no problem with that; it was the correct decision. The problem is that it never should have gotten there.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Here’s what my NBC colleague Kyle Martino said of the Canadian ‘keeper kerfuffle:

“My heart goes out to Canadian players, because it was such a tough moment,” Martino said. “To be playing so well, to bring your best game, against the best team in the world. And then to have the game flipped on its end because of a call like that? If I was playing in that game, it would have drove me nuts.”

It really was a heartbreaking moment; no matter your rooting interest, you hate to see something like that weight so heavily into a result.

(UPDATE: Some reports say McLeod may have been “warned.” We’ll keep alert for what she says, but know this: it’s irrelevant here. A violation would need to be egregious to make this kind of critical decision, and McLeod’s breach certainly was not.)

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.