Altidore left in Alkmaar: Progress has a weird way of rearing its head

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It used to be enough to be playing regularly in a big league. And when people said big league, they always meant Europe, though it didn’t necessarily have to be England or Italy. The Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland – these were big leagues in the days when the U.S. men’s national team boss had fewer options. If one of Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley’s biggest names hit a rough patch in Europe, what were the alternatives? In the days when Major League Soccer’s quality had taken a step back – when the league put only five players on rosters for South Africa – there weren’t a lot of opinions.

Two years ago, it would have been inconceivable to leave someone of Jozy Altidore’s stature off a national team roster that took Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley to World Cup 2010. Bob Bradley also selected Herculez Gomez to that team, a man who had to be pulled back from the thickest part of the international wilderness. His Mexican Primera scoring title with Puebla helped punched his ticket to South Africa.

That’s how much things have changed under Jurgen Klinsmann. Two years ago, that scoring title demanded Gomez get a look in the weeks before the World Cup. Now, Altidore leading the Netherlands in scoring actually obscures the picture. If you look at Altidore as a collection of attributes that have to fit into a system, you see his year-plus under Klinsmann and wonder what he brings to the team. If you look at his club form, you end up going to your forum of choice and posting some version of “This. Is. Crazy.”

It’s no longer enough for fans just to look at the scoresheet every weekend to get insight into the roster. Style matters. The component parts of a player’s performance are important. Fit with the team’s approach, philosophy, and attitude matter more than ever, and Altidore is not the only U.S. talent to struggle with Klinsmann’s new world order:

  • Eric Lichaj has made three starts this season for Aston Villa, enough to win the attention of national team fans asking for a recall. Klinsmann’s demurred.
  • Sacha Kljestan was called in this time, but despite seeing regular time at Anderlecht, the former Chivas USA midfielder has not cemented a spot in Klinsmann’s setup.
  • Benny Feilhaber was often Bob Bradley’s first substitute. In Klinsmann’s setup, there’s no clear place he would play.

This idea that fit can transcend pure talent isn’t unique to Klinsmann. One of the more curious omissions for the last World Cup was Esteban Cambiasso, left off the Argentina team despite being the best defensive midfielder in Italy. He just didn’t fit with what Diego Maradona wanted to do. Likewise, Miroslav Klose has remained an option to start as Germany’s No. 9 because his skillset is a better fit for what Joachim Löw wants. Mario Gomez, despite Gomez’s vastly superior club production, can’t push an aging Klose out of the picture. Diego never got a look for Brazil under Dunga, Darren Bent’s been neglected by England, while Fernando Llorente’s never been able to turn Vicente del Bosque’s head with Spain. Among nations with deep talent pools, an Alitore-esque situation is not uncommon.

In that sense, Altidore’s omission is a mark of progress for U.S. Soccer. The program is no longer reliant on the handful of players who were getting regular playing time in Europe. They don’t have to build around them. The head coach can afford to voluntarily omit one of his best club-level performers knowing the team’s unlikely to miss a beat. True, it’s not like Altidore is as important as a Clint Dempsey, but in the past, the omission of an Altidore would have caused a severe change in the U.S.’s fortunes.

The move also shows how much Major League Soccer has progressed. If it weren’t for Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon, Klinsmann may have had to make a go of it with a player he knows doesn’t work. Few people will argue that Johnson or Gordon are better players, in the abstract, than Altidore, but as it concerns fit with what Klinsmann wants to do, they’re the right call.

And would that quality of player have been there three years ago? Would Eddie Johnson have come back and been able to reach such a high level against the competition that was present in 2009? It’s unlikely. Back then, the league was offering Conor Casey and Brian Ching – strong players, but not options that would have left Altidore in Alkmaar.

LIVE, FA Cup semifinal: Chelsea v. Southampton

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Chelsea and Southampton clash in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Sunday (10 a.m. ET kick off) for the right to play Manchester United in the final on May 19.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

Antonio Conte led Chelsea to the FA Cup final last season but they lost to Arsenal. Even though the Blues are up against it to finish in the top four in the league, winning the cup would be a big success for Conte.

Saints haven’t made a cup semifinal since 2003 when they lost to Arsenal in the final. Mark Hughes‘ side are entrenched in the relegation zone and have a bigger challenge than making the final.

[ MORE: Minute-by-minute on Chelsea v Saints

Click on the links above to follow the action live, while we will have reaction and analysis live from Wembley right here on Pro Soccer Talk.

Arrests made after violent soccer riot in South Africa

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DURBAN, South Africa (AP) Police say two people have been arrested and more arrests are imminent after a violent riot at a South African soccer game on Saturday night, when hundreds of fans ripped up parts of the stadium, invaded the field, and seriously assaulted at least one security guard.

Players had to run for the safety of the dressing rooms as the fans swept onto the field soon after the final whistle.

[ MORE: The latest Arsene Wenger news ]

Police responded with stun grenades to disperse the rioters, and television pictures showed riot police storming the field and a white armored police vehicle racing across the edge of the pitch.

South African Police Services spokeswoman Nqobile Gwala on Sunday confirmed the arrests and said the two people were facing charges of public violence and malicious damage to property.

The violence mainly by Kaizer Chiefs fans followed their team’s 2-0 loss to Free State Stars in the semifinals of the Nedbank Cup competition at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in the east coast city of Durban, one of the stadiums built for the 2010 World Cup.

In the most disturbing scenes, a female security guard was set upon by a group of supporters on the field. She lay on the ground as they hit her with plastic chairs. A man then kicked her twice in the head. After the second kick she lay motionless and face down on the grass.

Police spokeswoman Gwala did not say if anyone had died in the violence, saying police had no information yet from stadium or medical authorities on any deaths.

Kaizer Chiefs coach Steve Komphela resigned after the game.

“Emotional” Mertesacker: Send Wenger off “with a cup”

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Arsenal defender Per Mertesacker has made 220 appearances for the club, all with one man in charge of the Gunners: Arsene Wenger.

[ MORE: The latest Arsene Wenger news ]

Mertesacker has won three FA Cups with Wenger, and he took up his pen — or laptop — for Sunday’s Matchday program.

The 33-year-old German says it’s down to Arsenal’s players to send off Wenger right: With two more successful rounds in the UEFA Europa League against Atletico Madrid and either Red Bull Salzburg or Marseille. From the BBC:

“We were only informed on Friday about the manager’s decision to step down at the end of the season, so it’s still quite emotional,” Mertesacker said.

“He’s been the major figure of this club for more than 20 years. He’s been so impressive for me and he has trusted me so much throughout my career, in bringing me here and making me captain even when I was injured. He also gave me a future role here at the club so I am very grateful and humbled for the opportunity he gave to me.

“There’s now an emphasis on us doing it for him too. We want to give him the send-off he deserves: with a cup.”

The French legend to end his time at Arsenal against Marseille would be delightful, don’t you think?

Watch Live: Arsenal-West Ham, Stoke-Burnley

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The Premier League has a pair of 8:30 a.m. ET Sunday kickoffs for us this morning, including one of Arsene Wenger‘s final matches at Arsenal.

There’s a London Derby between Arsenal and West Ham United at the Emirates Stadium, as the Gunners look to stay fresh for Atletico Madrid and the Hammers aim to firm up their Premier League status for next season (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

LINEUPS

Arsenal: Ospina, Bellerin, Koscielny, Mustafi, Monreal, Elneny, Xhaka, Ramsey, Iwobi, Welbeck, Lacazette. Subs: Macey, Mertesacker, Holding, Chambers, Maitland-Niles, Nelson. Aubameyang.

West Ham United: Hart, Zabaleta, Ogbonna, Rice, Cresswell, Masuaku, Kouyate, Noble, Fernandes, Mario, Arnautovic. Subs: Adrian, Cullen, Evra, Lanzini, Hugill, Carroll, Chicharito.


Stoke City’s climb out of the relegation zone will have to overcome Burnley’s desires for a Top Six place, as the Clarets can pass sixth place Arsenal with a win and a Gunners loss to West Ham (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. ET on NBC Sports Gold via NBCSports.com).

WATCH LIVE, ONLINE, HERE

LINEUPS

Stoke City: Butland; Johnson, Shawcross, M.Indi, Pieters; Bauer, Allen, Badou, Shaqiri; Crouch, Diouf. Subs: Haugaard, Zouma, Ireland, Cameron, Fletcher, Ramadan, Campbell.

Burnley: Pope, Lowton, Long, Tarkowski, Ward, Lennon, Cork, Westwood, Gudmundsson, Wood, Barnes. Subs: Heaton, Taylor, Marney, Vokes, Hendrick, Walters, Bardsley.