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If You're Not First... You Can Finish Second (And There's No Shame In That)

This has been a season to remember for Tottenham Hotspur. The trophy case won't show much for their efforts, but I sure am proud to support this club. Regardless of whether we chase down Chelsea (likely not), this pressure-filled "must win" run in proves Mauricio Pochettino & Co. are building a new culture and not just a new stadium. 

The Spurs have been pests that will not go away. That is backhanded praise I don't think anyone could have uttered in years past. This same roster was unable to chase down Leicester City last Premier League season; fizzling to a third-place finish. The lights got their brightest and the up-and-coming Spurs wilted in its immense heat. 

But this year has been different. With their 2-0 result over Arsenal on Sunday, Tottenham has nine straight league victories for the first time since 1960 -- 13 straight at home. Sadly, the train is going to run out of track. There's just no time left to chance down the Blues, whose remaining fixture is absurdly soft. Even if the Spurs win out (4-0-0), the 89 points are seemingly not enough. To win the league -- on goal differential tiebreak -- Chelsea would really have to stub its toe (2-2-0).

Where would these two draws magically come from? I could try to make an argument for The Hawthorns (West Brom) in two weeks and maybe at home v. Watford three days later. I can't objectively see either of these happening. Chelsea's opponents unfortunately have nothing to truly play for down the stretch. 

But let's not leave on a down note. Here are some historically positive things this specific Tottenham club could potentially check off the list this May:

> They'll (finally) finish above Arsenal in the table for the first time since I was in fourth grade. 

> They're going to amass the club's most wins in 56 years (with four fewer matches than the top flight of the past).

> They are on pace for the greatest goal differential for a league runner-up. The +34 from last year matched the club's best since 1978; with an asterisk because it was back when THFC was a member of the relegated Football League Second Division. This Spurs side should obliterate that mark, and could finish 50 goals on the positive side of the ledger for the first time since (you guessed it) 1961.  

> If they finish with three losses, it will be the fewest in any of their 125 seasons -- at any level.

> Fittingly, they can go undefeated at home, in White Hart Lane's retirement year (which would be the 14th such instance in Premier League history). Tottenham is the only member of the "Big Six" to have never accomplished the feat.

> With a little hot streak, the team could have a trio of 20-goal scorers -- in all competitions -- for the first-time ever.  

> This might coincide with Harry Kane winning back-to-back EPL Golden Boot honors. It would be the first time a Tottenham player won consecutive top-tier English football scoring titles since the great Jimmy Greaves three-peated in '63, '64, '65.

To many across the pond, these "cute" facts will be moot. The Spurs will have a top-four finish and nothing more. Their impressive margin over those who also qualify for UEFA Champions League play will be irrelevant.  

I respectfully disagree. Experience in any sport matters. There's no way to practice adrenaline-filled road matches; no way to emulate a situation like the Spurs faced last Wednesday at Selhurst Park. Goalless in the 78th minute -- in a "loss and it's over" predicament -- Christian Eriksen responded with a monumental blast from 25 yards out. The players didn't press, collapse, or look nervous. It was the Spurs doing the most non-Spurs thing I've ever seen.

Moments like that are my takeaway from this current campaign. Even a heartbreaking FA Cup semifinal loss (to Chelsea, of course) was oddly a step in the right direction. I do subscribe to the adage that there are no moral victories to be extracted from defeat. How they played did not correlate with the 4-2 scoreline. Anyone who watched the match could see that a rung in the ladder had been, in fact, climbed. Give me that exact same match-up in next year's installment and I like the Spurs chances to avenge the loss.

With a payroll that is dwarfed by its primary competitors, this Tottenham squad has slowly built itself into the true definition of team; chemistry over a collection of stars. Maybe it's because I watch Miracle two or three times a year (one such viewing in the last week), but I see some Herb Brooks in "Poch". In a world where managers/coaches sign talent -- and run into challenges on how to maximize them -- both Brooks and Pochitteno sought specific pieces necessary only to their unique puzzle. The scheme is rigid and players adjust; not the other way around. On the pitch, the modern iteration has come together as organically as that archetype team did on the ice.

It's what leaves me believing the future looks really bright: the tight-knit core of Eriksen, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Heung-Min Son, Eric Dier, Ben Davies, Hugo Lloris, and Kyle Walker (if he isn't signed by Bayern) are all still climbing their world-class trajectories. This team is poised to make a hardware sweep in 2017-18. 

But THFC should not be shooting for a singular title with a window of opportunity this wide open. Hardware in bunches is going to take one more big-time (not necessarily big-name) star. 

There's no denying the need to spend more on player wages to sustain top-tier finishes in today's Premier League and especially UEFA Champions League. Spurs have to join both Manchester clubs, Arsenal, and Chelsea in the £200m payroll stratosphere. Currently, they rank sixth in English football, with £121.2m spent on players.

Keeping up with the Joneses -- in the on-field arms race -- does not scare me. I trust the current ownership/manager tandem to bring on the proper supplemental acquisitions. The team dynamic will not be sacrificed by providing Pochettino with a shiny new toy. 

Undoubtedly, Tottenham will shop smarter than several disastrous case studies, most recently Leicester City. Following their surprising 2015-16 Premier League trophy grab, the Foxes doubled their payroll for half the results -- £36.6m to £66m while dropping 11 spots in this season's table. That's the type of roller-coaster movement that exists when you try to rush a dynasty; spending just to spend. Flash-in-the-pan greatness won't happen with this particular Tottenham brain trust. The foundation is stable enough to support a decade and not only a year.

The far-more-likely train derailment -- to the success of the club's current path -- is a full season of home matches in Wembley Stadium. I'm holding my breath on that one. 

In the meantime, let's hope they close out hallowed White Hart Lane in style -- with a win over Manchester United in two weeks. What could be better than ending the year on a 13-match EPL win streak? 89 points would tie the record for the highest runner-up total in English football history. It would send the message to all: we didn't lose it/gift it away this year; the race simply ended too soon.  

Having said that, even a 0-0-4 stumble across the finish line cannot change my stance on this matter. They've earned the right to remain at 77 points and not have the word "choke" enter the conversation. In my opinion, anything more is icing on the cake. If style points mattered at all, most pundits would say Tottenham's had a year of more consistent quality.

Preventing Chelsea from a month-long victory lap around England has earned some serious respect in rival camps. Other fan bases have taken to social media to tip the proverbial cap; thanking the Spurs for never letting the Blues get more than four points clear. The longer Chelsea has to wait to clinch the title limits the time we all have to put up with their gloating supporters.

In all seriousness, kudos to Chelsea if they finish it out. By pushing them to the brink, I believe we've actually helped the league -- and soccer in general. Coasting to a trophy isn't exciting. If it takes 90+ points (with a result on Survival Sunday) then isn't everyone a winner? Hell, it might take an EPL record 30 wins to sit atop the table. Who can be mad if you fall just shy of that pace?

With no traditional postseason tournament -- a purely American construct -- we'll sadly never again witness this 2016-17 Tottenham squad clash with Chelsea; one more time, Super Bowl style, for all the marbles. What a pity. 

It is the Scott Van Pelt age-old question: "can a season, that does not end with a championship, be labeled a success". Emphatically, yes. It's about to happen in North London.  

No one remembers who came in second. 

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