Honduras v United States - FIFA 2014 World Cup Qualifier

Losing time at Sunderland, Jozy Altidore needs to impress for U.S.

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Jozy Alitdore’s struggles have been well-documented, but until the Sunderland’s game at Wembley on Sunday, the United States’ first choice striker was still getting playing time with his Premier League club. For this weekend’s League Cup final, however, the 24-year-old was omitted from Gus Poyet’s team, and while Black Cats’ supporters were surely more concerned about their team’s outcome than the implications for Altidore, U.S. Men’s National Team fans undoubtedly looked at their striker’s omission as another warning sign. The 2013-14 season has turned into a nightmare for Jozy Altidore.

Sunday’s omission is one Jurgen Klinsmann surely noted, too, with the U.S. boss having previously detailed his views on winning playing time. After the U.S.’s win over South Korea in early February, the national team head coach said players need to ask what else they could be doing when they’re not being chosen by their clubs:

I tell players often that when they are not playing in their club teams, for whatever reason, to stop complaining about it and show your coach every day that you’re the hungriest on the training field, that you’re the most committed one that you’re the earliest guy coming in, and you’re the last that leaves. Tell me one coach in the world that would ignore that at the end of the day and not play him. When our players are not making certain teams, are not making starting lineups, there’s something that they’re not doing.

(MORE: Fear not, U.S. Men’s National Team fans: Ukraine is on the ground in Cyprus)

Altidore hasn’t been complaining, but it’s easy to see what he’s “not doing”. The former AZ Alkmaar, Villarreal, and New York Red Bulls striker has only scored twice in his return to England, where he previously spent an equally unproductive season on loan with Hull (two goals, 30 games in 2009-10). His work rate up top had previously won him playing time, clearing the way for Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson, but this weekend against Manchester City, Poyet decided to go in a different direction. For their most important game of the season, the Black Cats omitted Altidore.

Ahead of his national team’s only friendly (within a FIFA window) before pre-World Cup camps convene in May, focus now turns to Altidore’s international form. Should his club struggles affect his play for the U.S., the importance Klinsmann put on Altidore as part of his team’s spine may need to be reevaluated. Also from February:

“I think Jozy, once he’s keeping his playing rhythm and the quality that he has, is our number one center forward that we have. Clint [Dempsey] is the player behind him. We often talk about the spine of our team, which starts with Timmy [Howard] and goes through midfield with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, and then Clint and Jozy.”

(MORE: Players who need to make an impact for the U.S. on Wednesday (and there are a lot of them))

Having spent his tenure building that core, Klinsmann is seeing his plans undermined by what’s transpired at the Stadium of Light. Whereas so much was invested in working with Altidore — dropping him from the team and successfully reintegrating him a year ago — now a crash in production and Sunderland’s fight for survival could see Klinsmann’s lead striker lose valuable playing time ahead of the World Cup. The form that saw Altidore score eight times for the U.S. in 2013 is a distant memory, with the potential to struggle in Brazil  growing concern.

Sure, there’s Aron Johannsson, but he’s never had to be the main guy for the national team. As Altidore’s maturation shows, it’s not a given that club success will immediately translate to the international level. The likes of Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, and Chris Wondolowski are squad options, they’re not players who can carry the team into the second round. Already in his second World Cup cycle, Altidore has been groomed to lead the U.S.’s attack.

While a series of players are fighting for roster spots this week, Altidore’s performance Wednesday against Ukraine may be more important. Particularly with Clint Dempsey struggling, Altidore can’t go into May on this trajectory. With his spring playing time at Sunderland uncertain, the U.S.’s number nine could use a strong showing in Cyprus.

Bayern’s Vidal says “ugly” Atletico not deserved UCL finalists

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Juanfran of Atletico Madrid and Arturo Vidal of Bayern Munich argue during the UEFA Champions League semi final first leg match between Club Atletico de Madrid and FC Bayern Muenchen at Vincente Calderon on April 27, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal has declared “ugly” Atletico Madrid unworthy finalists in the UEFA Champions League.

Bayern was eliminated in the Champions League semifinal by Atleti on Tuesday, with Diego Simeone’s Spanish side advancing on away goals.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s UCL coverage ]

However, Vidal believed Bayern were the better team in the second leg, saying Atletico played “ugly football” to get through.

Today ugly football – Atletico – played against the best football in the world. The only time they saw the ball was for the goal.

They are going to be dreaming about us right up to the final. They did not have the ball, they took on the best team in the world, they took their chances and got to the final.

The best does not always win in football, like today. They are not deserved finalists.

Bayern Munich controlled more than 70-percent of possession and had 33 shots compared to Atletico’s nine, but those stats mean little as Antoine Griezmann’s away goal was enough to send Atleti to the final.

[ MORE: Former England striker Joe Cole headed to NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies ]

Atletico may not play the most attractive football, but after eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich in consecutive legs, it’s hard to argue anyone deserves this more than Simeone’s men.

Europa League preview: Liverpool, Shakhtar look to overcome Spanish foes

VILLARREAL, SPAIN - APRIL 28:  Cedric Bakambu of Villarreal is watched by the Liverpool defence during the UEFA Europa League semi final first leg match between Villarreal CF and Liverpool at Estadio El Madrigal on April 28, 2016 in Villarreal, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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The second leg of the Europa League semifinals kick off tomorrow, with two La Liga sides looking to make it an all-Spanish final.

[ MORE: Premier League Playback ]

Villarreal holds a 1-0 lead over Liverpool, while Sevilla scored two away goals in their 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk.

Liverpool vs. Villarreal – 3:05 p.m. ET
Villarreal won first leg 1-0

Adrian Lopez’s late winner in the first leg has given Villarreal a slight lead, while the Spanish side did well not to concede an away goal. However, Liverpool have overcome deficits at Anfield before, including their memorable 4-3 victory over Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinals. Emre Can is back fit for the Reds, as manager Jurgen Klopp will hope his fellow German can help the team to a cup final in his first year in charge.

[ RELATED: Liverpool preparing for another big Thursday night at Anfield ]

Sevilla vs. Shakhtar Donetsk – 3:05 p.m. ET
First leg ended 2-2 draw 

Sevilla are looking to become the first team to win three consecutive Europa League titles as the two-time defending champions face off against Shakhtar Donetsk. Sevilla are in the driver’s seat after scoring two away goals in Ukraine, and will feel confident of advancing to the final with a great home record at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium.

Men in Blazers podcast: Celebrating Leicester’s title with Arlo White

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In the latest Men in Blazers podcast, Rog and Davo celebrate Leicester City’s improbable Premier League title with Leicester’s own Arlo White.

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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European police say Russian mafia infiltrating soccer clubs

LISBON, PORTUGAL - NOVEMBER 04:  Sporting Lisbon fans celebrate after their team score a goal during the Portuguese Liga match between Sporting Lisbon and Uniao Leiria at the Alvalade XXI Stadium on November 4, 2005 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
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LISBON, Portugal (AP) Portuguese and European police say they have broken up a cell of an important Russian mafia group that allegedly laundered money through European football clubs.

Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency, said in a statement Wednesday the group identified EU football clubs in financial distress and infiltrated them with benefactors who brought much-needed cash.

[ MORE: Man City bounced from UCL ]

Once they were in control, the mobsters allegedly laundered millions of euros (dollars) through player transfers, TV rights deals and betting.

Portuguese and European police on Tuesday raided third-division Portuguese club Uniao de Leiria and arrested three key members of the Russian gang. Three other Portuguese clubs’ premises were searched.

Europol said the operation helped identify serious crimes in Austria, Germany, and the United Kingdom, though it gave no details.