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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.

MLS Cup: Toronto FC all about the team

Toronto FC defender Nick Hagglund, center, celebrates his goal against the Montreal Impact with teammates Michael Bradley, right, and Steven Beitashour (33) during the second half of the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference championship series, in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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Toronto, Ontario (AP) Team has been the theme for Toronto FC in the buildup to the MLS Cup final.

From boisterous practices to team-first media interviews, the All for One club motto has been plain to see ahead of the championship game Saturday against the visiting Seattle Sounders.

“You don’t get to this point by mistake or by accident. You get here because a group of special guys who have all bought into a philosophy, an identity,” said Toronto midfielder Will Johnson, an MLS Cup winner with Real Salt Lake and Portland.

“I say the same about Seattle. They’re bought into what they’re good at. We’re bought in, very motivated and want to sacrifice and put aside egos to get to a point as a team to compete for the big trophy.”

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

Star striker Jozy Altidore, no fan of chatting with the media, was downright prickly when a reporter asked him if he had taken time to reflect on his personal journey to the championship game.

“No,” he said definitively. “This isn’t personal, this is a team game. We’re here to try to help Toronto to be a winning team. This has nothing to do with individuals. So it has nothing to do with what I’ve been through. This is what the city’s been through, what the fans have been through, what this club has been through. That’s far more important.”

Fullback Justin Morrow, a seven-year MLS veteran, has never played this deep into the season before.

“Each week we build on top of each other and we get closer as the year goes on. It really feels like it’s a culmination this week,” he said.

[ UCL: Who can Arsenal, Man City, Leicester draw? ]

Coach Greg Vanney has made a point of praising the entire squad, including reserves who function as the scout team in practice. While he has done soccer’s equivalent of shortening his bench for the playoffs, the squad has stayed on point. If anyone has beefs, they have been kept to themselves.

That’s no small feat considering the salaries on the squad range from $7.12 million for star striker Sebastian Giovinco to $51,500 for youngsters Mo Babouli and Tsubasa Endoh.

For Morrow, being part of a tight-knit group allows you to forget that it is your job.

“When teams aren’t doing well, players tend to focus on that – their job and not about the other people on the team,” Morrow said. “And I think when teams are doing well, it becomes about the relationships between the players.”

Report: Atlanta United to acquire Parkhurst; Guardado hopes fading

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 12:  Michael Parkhurst #4 of the Columbus Crew SC controls the ball against against the Philadelphia Union on March 12, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Atlanta United is adding MLS experience to its high-flying international acquisitions.

The expansion side is set to acquire Michael Parkhurst from the Columbus Crew, according to a report from The Sporting News.

[ MORE: Mourinho worried about Zorya pitch ]

Parkhurst, 32, has been a fixture for the Crew since returning to MLS after stints with Nordsjælland and FC Augsburg. The 25-times capped American defender would join a relatively loaded expansion unit that reportedly will also add veteran Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, it seems the first-year club’s hopes of landing Mexican star Andres Guardado are fading.

From Ives Galarcep for The Sporting News:

The club has one remaining designated player slot it is expected to fill ahead of its inaugural 2017 season, but transfer target Andres Guardado appears less likely to be the player to fill that slot, sources have told Goal USA.

The Crew was a massive disappointment last season, failing to make the playoffs one season after making a run to the MLS Cup Final. Is Parkhurst a good gamble for Atlanta?

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Men in Blazers podcast: Conte v. Pep, Cherries comeback, Spurs-Swans

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Rog and Davo relive the tactical battle between Antonio Conte and Pep Guardiola, marvel at tiny Bournemouth’s comeback win over high-flying Liverpool and duck-and-cover while recapping Spurs 5-0 Swansea.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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Mourinho accepts Zorya compliment, but says best coach “doesn’t exist”

Manchester United's coach Jose Mourinho, centre, attends a training session with his team at Chernomorets stadium in Odessa, Ukraine, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, ahead of Thursday's Europa League group A soccer match against FC Zorya Luhansk. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
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On the eve of his side playing Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League, Zorya Luhansk boss Yuriy Vernydub called counterpart Jose Mourinho the best manager in the world.

And Mourinho disagreed.

Well, in principle.

[ MORE: Designing the best UCL Round of 16 ]

The Portuguese was flattered by Vernydub’s compliments and isn’t one to turn down praise. Yet at the same time, Mourinho thinks a coach’s success is year-to-year. There’s no clear best in the sport, according to Mou.

From ManUtd.com:

“He was nice by saying that but I don’t think he is right. I don’t think there is a best coach in the world. It doesn’t exist in my opinion. Every season one has to win the FIFA Gold Ball but I don’t think there is the best. You can say the best of the year and that I agree. Every year there is one with the most important result. So he is just being nice, no more than that.”

That’s almost meta, Mou.

Conceptually we understand, and Mourinho would feel he was the best in the world three seasons ago but not last year or this year (yet). Yet it’s difficult to say that the bodies of work from Pep Guardiola, Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Unai Emery, Antonio Conte, Luis Enrique, and Jurgen Klopp couldn’t be measured against each other, right?

[ MORE: United, Saints advancement scenarios ]

Onto the little picture Mourinho is worried about a potentially rock hard pitch at Zorya affecting the game. This, from the BBC:

“The pitch is very hard, the pitch is very icy,” said United boss Mourinho.

“They are putting warmth on the top of it, but the pitch is very difficult and people cannot make miracles. Let’s hope everything goes well.”

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