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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.

Pellegrini rues “absolutely wrong” penalty decision in City’s loss to Spurs

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Raheem Sterling of Manchester City protests with referee Mark Clattenburg after he awarded a penalty for his hand ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Manchester City fell 2-1 to Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday in a massive battle in the Premier League title race.

[ RECAP: Man City 2-1 Spurs ]

While Christian Eriksen‘s late winner was the game’s deciding goal, it was Harry Kane‘s opener from the penalty spot that has caused some controversy.

Tottenham’s Danny Rose whipped in a cross that was blocked away by a jumping Raheem Sterling in the 54th minute. Sterling had his back to the ball, but the cross took a deflection off his elbow and referee Mark Clattenburg signaled for a penalty.

Speaking after the match, City boss Manuel Pellegrini was extremely angered by the decision, saying City were the better side until the penalty changed the flow of the match. Pellegrini also thought back to Tottenham’s win over Man City in September when the same official was in charge when Spurs scored two goals that looked to be offside.

It was a penalty that referee Mark Clattenburg wanted to sign for and he gave the sign. It was absolutely the wrong decision, it hit the back of Raheem Sterling then his elbow. Sterling was not even seeing the ball. It was the same referee in the first game where there were two clear goals in offside and we lost 4-1.

It was the key moment that decided the game; before that they did not shoot towards our goal and did not have any chances. We took the risks, the spirit of the team was good but it was not enough.

The rules regarding a hand-ball have been the topic of much conversation this season, as there seems to be a gray area where officials are forced to make judgement calls, with this decision very harsh.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Tottenham’s win over Man City ]

Now six points behind leaders Leicester, Manchester City will take a break from Premier League action and play a string of important cup ties. First up is a fifth-round FA Cup match against Chelsea before a long trip to Dynamo Kiev in the Champions League, followed by the League Cup final against Liverpool.

Watch Live: Canada takes on T&T in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 11:  Deanne Rose #6 of Canada battles for the ball with Kayla De Souza #4 and Mariam El-Masri #15 of Guyana during the 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at BBVA Compass Stadium on February 11, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Canada and Trinidad & Tobago face off for the top spot in Group B in CONCACAF Women’s Olympic qualifying today in Houston.

[ WATCH LIVE: T&T vs. Canada ]

With wins in their opening matches, both sides are tied on three points and will look to take sole possession of first place on the Road to Rio.

Canada started off qualification with an easy 5-0 win over Guyana, while Trinidad & Tobago needed two late goals to beat Guatemala 2-1.

[ WATCH LIVE: T&T vs. Canada live online via NBC Sports Live Extra ]

After taking home the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, the Canadians will be favorites along with the United States to qualify for the Rio Games from CONCACAF.

Premier League roundup: Top Four tussles and a Liverpool light show

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal in action with Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s Premier League triple header on NBCSN delivered drama, goals and controversy by the time the dust settled on the day’s action.

[ MORE: Saturday’s action ]

All told, we saw 12 goals, a red card, two penalties and a tightened title race.

Let’s take a spin through those three matches.

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester CityRECAP

The Emirates Stadium crowd saw a little bit of everything. The Gunners went down 1-0 on a controversially drawn and lethally taken penalty from Jamie Vardy, then saw a glimmer of hope when Foxes defender Danny Simpson took two quick and silly yellow cards. Theo Walcott found the leveler and Danny Welbeck, out for 10 months, returned to score the winner in the fourth of four minutes of stoppage time. The Gunners are now two points back of Leicester and nine goals of differential behind No. 2 Tottenham.

Aston Villa 0-6 LiverpoolRECAP

Having two of your brightest attackers in the lineup can do a lot for an offense’s potency, and Philippe Coutinho found Daniel Sturridge to open the scoring very early at Villa Park. A deluge of goals followed, and Villa will be wondering if there’s any way out of the drop zone after James Milner, Divock Origi, Nathaniel Clyne, Emre Can and Kolo Toure also scored for the Reds to bury the home side’s goal differential with its table status.

Manchester City 1-2 Tottenham HotspurRECAP

If Vardy’s penalty was controversial, Mark Clattenberg’s decision to award one to Tottenham was cataclysmic. Raheem Sterling‘s leaping block of a cross was deemed to be a handball, and Harry Kane beat countrymate Joe Hart with a PK. Super sub Kelechi Iheanacho equalized for the Etihad set, but fellow late game entry Erik Lamela sprung Christian Eriksen for a tidy match winner in the 83rd minute.

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 26 15 8 3 48 29 19 7-4-1 8-4-2 53
Tottenham Hotspur 26 14 9 3 47 20 27 7-4-2 7-5-1 51
Arsenal 26 15 6 5 41 23 18 8-3-2 7-3-3 51
Manchester City 26 14 5 7 48 28 20 9-1-4 5-4-3 47
Manchester United 26 11 8 7 33 24 9 6-4-2 5-4-5 41
Southampton 26 11 7 8 34 24 10 7-2-4 4-5-4 40
West Ham United 26 10 10 6 40 31 9 5-5-2 5-5-4 40
Liverpool 26 10 8 8 38 36 2 4-5-3 6-3-5 38
Watford 26 10 6 10 29 28 1 5-3-5 5-3-5 36
Stoke City 26 10 6 10 27 32 -5 5-2-5 5-4-5 36
Everton 26 8 11 7 46 35 11 4-4-6 4-7-1 35
Chelsea 26 8 9 9 38 36 2 5-5-4 3-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 26 9 5 12 27 32 -5 4-2-8 5-3-4 32
West Bromwich Albion 26 8 8 10 24 32 -8 4-4-5 4-4-5 32
Bournemouth 26 7 7 12 30 44 -14 3-4-6 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 26 6 9 11 24 34 -10 4-5-5 2-4-6 27
Norwich City 26 6 6 14 30 50 -20 4-4-5 2-2-9 24

Newcastle United 26 6 6 14 27 49 -22 4-5-4 2-1-10 24
Sunderland 26 6 5 15 32 50 -18 4-3-6 2-2-9 23
Aston Villa 26 3 7 16 20 46 -26 2-4-7 1-3-9 16

Spurs’ Kane wants to win everything: “We are buzzing”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his penalty with Danny Rose during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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FA Cup, Europa League, Premier League? Yes, please. Harry Kane wants them all.

Kane converted a penalty kick as Spurs bested Manchester City 2-1 on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium, moving to within two points of the Premier League’s top spot.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Eriksen’s winner ]

The big striker was euphoric after Christian Eriksen also scored to help Spurs pick up the win, and said the media can decide what it wants about their chances; He knows they can do it.

From the BBC:

“That is up to you lot if we are challengers, we know what we are capable of. We are still in three competitions and we are taking them all very seriously. We are confident we can beat anyone in the league, you saw that today and we came away victorious. We are buzzing.”

Spurs have captured 15-straight points in making their run to second. There’s plenty of time before March 5’s big North London Derby with Arsenal, but we’re looking forward to it.

Before then, Spurs have a pair with Fiorentina in the Europa League, an FA Cup date with Crystal Palace, and PL fixtures versus Swansea and West Ham.

Title race on!