Archive for December, 2011

2011 US Soccer Year In Review: A Great American Story, Almost

Homare Sawa's goal in the final three minutes of the Women's World Cup Final was perhaps the largest of a series of "almost" great moments for US Soccer in 2011.

Neil Blackmon on the year that was in US Soccer.

“There is no other sport like football. It is beautiful and it imitates life because it is a game of failure. Americans have baseball, and it is beautiful and there you have failure too—but football is different because it is epistemological. You can have failure and it’s to scale of course, but the degree of failure is always a question of method. And you can always answer the question why if you look hard enough. And there are a lot of almosts.”

– Johan Cruyff

There’s an old joke that sportswriters have a tremendously self-important job, that they don’t read the papers, they just write for them. It’s a funny joke but it misses the point: writing about sport is cloaked in insecurity because the challenge of the blank page is so daunting. A sportswriter is essentially given a blank page, some peripheral information that includes numbers and letters and trends and the writer is then tasked with making a series or a ballgame out of the whole thing. It’s a powerful, ego-driven thing, the task of making an event or series of events or story that others may not have seen come to life on a page. And it’s true that it’s less so in the age of instant media, but in the end it’s still one that leaves the writer completely exposed. One failed paragraph, one misguided suggestion, one failed letter and an entire moment in time falls flat.

Why mention any of this? Because even in the age of instant media, it’s been my great privilege despite my day job to write stories about soccer, about the US National teams and the Barclays Premier League, and despite my own insecurities in doing so, I get to recreate the smell, the feeling, the texture of a game that matters to people. We leave the television and internet to the sight, or the sound, and try to capture the ineffable moment. And sometimes, when we’re lucky, we almost do. And for those of us, who like me, have a platform for our passion, even (especially?) without profit, that’s almost as good as it gets. My path to soccer writer that practices law as his day job isn’t exactly a vintage American tale of accomplishment, but it is almost. And it’s one that I couldn’t help but think about as I reflected back on the year that was in US Soccer. For if US Soccer, in the total sense of the phrase “US Soccer”, could be given a one word summation in 2011- wouldn’t that word have to be “almost.”

We entered 2011 coming off a World Cup that was almost the greatest in modern Men’s National Team history. The Americans achieved their greatest draw since Bunker Hill, scored almost the most important goal in the history of US Soccer in the 91st minute, and won a group at the World Cup, and one that included England no less. On this ground alone, you could argue 2010 was the best World Cup for America in the modern era, but to do so you almost have to forget the almost invincible Tim Howard being just off his line on Kevin Prince-Boateng’s early strike, and Carlos Bocanegra almost having enough skill to recover on Jay DeMerit’s blunder leading to the Asamoah Gyan’s extra time winner in the second round.

A heroic performance from Tim Howard was almost enough to beat Argentina in March.

Fast forward three months, and the Yanks almost got the better of one of the globe’s finest sides, Argentina. Sure, it took a Jim Craig in Lake Placid type performance from Tim Howard in the first forty-five, but Bob Bradley made his typical rope-a-dope adjustments in the second half, where he shored up the US liabilities, addressed the oppositions strengths, and switched his formation. It almost worked, and who knows what a better result than a draw would have delivered—but we do know the game offered two revelations in side back Timothy Chandler, who stopped the Argentinian siege of the right flank (a movie we’d see again in the summer, without the German-American, sadly) and Juan Agudelo, whose work rate coupled with a hard-tackling American midfield created space for the Americans creative engines, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. It was almost a result worth savoring, save the first forty-five minutes, full of reservations.

Across the pond, Clint Dempsey was almost the best CONCACAF field player in the Barclay’s Premier League, except that for every splendid, jersey sullied performance from Fulham’s #23, there was one more attention-grabbing and to the constantly insecure American soccer faithful, more ominous from Mexico’s young Javier Hernandez. And when speaking of Hernandez, it’s almost worth a paragraph to stop.

The rise of Hernandez from Mexican Primera club Chivas– Mexican power but still more or less an outpost on the global map of club importance–was almost antihero role reversal. After all, America is supposed to be the place where a Horatio Alger tale is possible, rise from the one bedroom apartment in some dark corner of Queens or where have you to profit and prominence. Didn’t Herman Cain, one of 2011’s most fascinating figures, suggest that “If you aren’t rich and successful, blame yourself.” There’s still a Calvinist strain connecting prosperity to divine election in the Occupy Wall Street version of America, and isn’t this why we’ve always felt a strong connection to Clint Dempsey of Nacogdoches, Texas? Here’s a guy who came from playing backyard soccer and imitating the ball tricks he saw on public television on Sunday mornings, who was never on the silver spooner American youth developmental radars, who ended up getting a late scholarship to an above-average soccer program, and who has ended up, just this fall, passing the legendary Brian McBride as America’s most successful scorer in the globe’s finest league? Hernandez is antihero precisely for stealing the spotlight in our shadowy little region of the soccer universe from Dempsey, the Horatio Alger tale of American soccer. It would be one thing if Hernandez himself had come from threadbare beginnings, but beyond having a professional soccer player father who thought his son “too small” to make a mark on the game, there’s nothing remarkably compelling about the young man’s life story. Only his game makes for powerful narrative.

A dream start in the Gold Cup Final was almost enough for the US. But Gio Dos Santos and Javier Hernandez have restored Mexico's regional superiority.

This summer brought the Gold Cup, and the story almost had a happy ending. There was a moment in late May at Wembley Stadium where a few of the more optimistic believed Hernandez was mortal. Barcelona’s backline had trapped Hernandez into submission in the Champions League final, and Hernandez wandered around the midfield for the latter portion of the game, pouting and half-chasing the ball. But the cynical knew better. The US backline, with or without the German revelation we met against Argentina in March, is no Barcelona. And despite a second consecutive international tournament where the Pride of Nacogdoches was the States’ finest player, it was Hernandez who was the difference, along with the enigmatic youngster Gio Dos Santos, who plays every bit the role of wimpy Clark Kent at his clubs but climbs into a phone book and dons a green, red, and white cape upon his every return to international play.

After a Gold Cup that saw the Americans almost fail to get out of group play, and The Americans almost had enough that day too—they found a belated Father’s Day goal gift from Michael Bradley, and an under-attack from various media outlets and inconsistent Landon Donovan doubled the lead minutes later, donning his own cape from whatever energy he seems to find when seeing the green, red and white in front of him. It was a 2-0 lead that was almost too good to be true, and when longtime, understated and underappreciated side back Steve Cherundolo’s 32 year old legs could carry him no further after twenty minutes, the slow death of America’s title hopes began. Javier Hernandez’s continual darting runs sliced open a patchwork American back four, and after Clint Dempsey had a rocket shot ricochet off the bar that almost tied the game at 3-3, Gio Dos’ Santos scored the tournament’s most brilliant goal, to put Mexico ahead 4-2 and help El Tri hoist the trophy.

Two years prior to this June’s final in Pasadena, it was almost safe to say that in under the decade since Brian McBride’s header found the back of the net in Korea in 2002, the United States had changed the power structure of CONCACAF for good. In the last World Cup cycle, after all, the Americans had won the qualifying group (again) and a World Cup group. Perhaps Mexico and the rise of Chicarito then were a well-timed reminder that in sport, as in life, things can change very quickly. Mexico won the U-17 World Cup this year and finished second in the U-20 tournament. Top team vs. top team, June’s result made it almost safe to argue El Tri are two goals better on a neutral field. The American players, and their Federation officials, left Pasadena wondering how to narrow the gap.

Late in 2010, a goal from 21 year old Alex Morgan helped the Americans qualify. We learned much more about Baby Horse this past summer.

As fans and journalists alike, there wasn’t much time to stew over Gold Cup defeat. The Women’s World Cup in Germany in late June and early July came as welcome respite, and delivered the proverbial goods. The whole tournament was broadcast in beautiful high-definition by ESPN and as the group stages progressed, the ratings, and the number of American television sets TIVOing matches expanded exponentially. Read that sentence again, and it’s almost beyond the realm. People were locked in and this group of incredible athletes, these women, were more than compelling.

Soccer is a global village these days in the men’s game, this much we know, but this gamble by ESPN was a societal experiment that almost failed before it even started. The Americans almost failed to qualify long after the television deal had been inked. It took a clutch goal from a 21 year old to help the Americans out of the hole, and in the aftermath, ESPN promptly dubbed young Alex Morgan, who had just graduated from Cal-Berkeley “NEXT” in its annual year-end magazine honoring special young athletes who should and will command our attention in the years to come.

With the country tuned in, the World Cup run almost ended like the men’s did—right when it was becoming magical and people were paying attention. After 120 minutes, the Americans trailed Brazil in the quarterfinals and as the fourth official signaled “three minutes” of stoppage time, hearts had left throats, beginning the descent into pit-of-the-stomach despair. In a flick of the foot of Megan Rapinoe, a short-haired pile of spunk and tenacity, everything changed. The “cross”, as I would call it writing that evening, was perhaps the most remarkable goal in the history of US Soccer. That came two minutes into stoppage time after 120 minutes of play was remarkable enough—that it was a precise cross from twenty-five yards to the head of a late running American legend in Abby Wambach, who was likely playing her final Women’s World Cup was drama of Shakespearian measure.

Rapinoe to Wambach was "the moment" in US Soccer in 2011. Almost forgotten is that the US had to make five penalties to win.

For Rapinoe, the women who made the pass, it meant becoming a household name and an indie heartthrob with her own Portlandia-esque love song, who challenged, if only for a moment, the most zealous Zooey Deschanel adulator for affection. For Wambach, it was vindication of a spectacular career in an unappreciated sport, one that ultimately made her the first women’s soccer player ever to be named the Associated Press’ female athlete of the year.

Almost forgotten in the aftermath of Wambach’s perfect header, in the months that have followed, was that the Americans had to convert five penalties and get an otherworldly save from Hope Solo to win the game, and then they had to win a semifinal before they had a chance to really win anything. They did both of those things of course, and almost won the whole tournament too. Alex Morgan, whose teammates call her “Baby Horse”, scored a goal even more enormous than the one she scored to help the team qualify, netting in the World Cup Final. Again a fourth official signaled “three minutes”, but this time, the Yanks were on the wrong side of riveting. Japan, playing in a tournament with heavy hearts in the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy, found a goal off Homare Sawa’s head. Then it buried all its penalties and the US didn’t. The women almost won the World Cup. In that tournament, we were reminded of how pure and wonderful this game we’re so passionate about can be. But in those three minutes, we were also reminded how gut-wrenching almost can be.

Bob Bradley was let go after the Gold Cup defeat. You could almost argue that he was doomed since he hugged Ricardo Clark after starting him against Ghana last summer.

Speaking of gut-wrenching, how about the way things ended with Bob Bradley, the man who helped an American team win a group at the World Cup and, with a 2-0 win that ultimately denied Spain an international treble, brought the United States within a half of winning a FIFA international tournament? Bob Bradley was always America’s second choice. You don’t get hired on an interim basis amid public longing and contractual breakdown news leaks about Jürgen Klinsmann when that isn’t the case. I’d like to write that Bob Bradley didn’t care about being second-choice in the beginning and second-choice in the end, but the truth is, we just don’t know. What we do know is that he left as the winningest manager in the history of American men’s soccer, with a record of 43-25-12. He worked his rear end off, and he instilled, for a long while, a sense of pride and “can do” into the team that had disappeared in the complacency of the Bruce Arena second World Cup cycle.

Of course, it wasn’t all roses and sunshine. Bradley was tactically limited and, like any manager, had his favorites. Some, like Jon Bornstein, made it hard to forget that he capped more players than any US manager ever. Bradley was fine at in-game adjustments, but his team sheets often left us scratching our heads. And for every decision to start Conor Casey resulting in a brace and road qualifying points there was a Ricardo Clark against Ghana after Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley had bossed the midfield in two games type decision. The Gold Cup might have been the last straw, but the truth is the Bradley era ended when the Americans lost to Ghana, and too many folks forgot that they won the World Cup group. The focus was on what almost happened. A reasonable quarterfinal draw, a path to the final. What almost was in 2010, and another almost in the 2011 Gold Cup Final meant Bob had to go. He was replaced by Jürgen Klinsmann, the man Sunil Gulati almost hired in 2006.

The choice to hire Klinsmann was remarkably consistent with the American fear of regretting choices we never make. Gulati had to know, much like the killer in Dirty Harry had to know if Callahan had a bullet left in the gun. It was also a question of method, as the Cruyff quote that precedes the piece notes. The US had tried things Bruce’s way, and done things Bob’s. Perhaps it was time for a different method. And yes, if in the larger context, Bob Bradley’s fate reads like a down-on-his-luck figure in a Fitzgerald novel, that’s because he is. And maybe letting Bradley go early in his second-term is a good thing. As Fitzgerald wrote, “there are no second acts in American lives.”

Klinsmann’s term almost got off to a storybook start, but the Americans couldn’t muster a winner against a Chicharito-less Mexico side. Since then, there’s been the usual pendulum, just one reoriented towards a new manager: cynics who feel Klinsmann is the classic great player, inept-manager—a void who will be exposed as such without Joachim Low playing the role of wizard behind the curtain, and those who think his infusion of German-American and Latin-American talent will help the Yanks forge a desperately needed offensive spark and identity—one that is essential if they are to maintain any semblance of regional primacy. In my view, the jury’s still out. But the great news is that World Cup qualifying starts in 2012, and by next holiday season, we’ll almost know.

Happy New Year’s to all The Shin Guardian readers. All the best in 2012. And remember, it’s almost time for another Olympics, and another chance to see US Soccer do something quite special.

If Tim Ream Goes Bolton…

Smoldering kindle around a possible sale of the New York Red Bulls’ Tim Ream to Bolton.

Wandering?

While nothing is confirmed and Ream’s wedding–to a US bride, not to a new team–has been cited as the reason he is not in Jurgen Klinsmann’s January Camp, the move would seem to make a lot of sense and offers the opportunity to investigate a few things around both the teams and leagues:

• First, it would seem the Red Bulls are selling at a valley in Ream’s value. After his rookie campaign, there seemed to be signs and assurances everywhere that Ream would be the first in line to claim the mantle that Carlos Bocanegra has held most recently at US left centerback. Ream’s second campaign however saw decidedly uneven play in 1-on-1 defending and his team the subject of one salacious locker room accusation after another.

In short, it’s not hard to figure that Ream’s value–the price being mulled ($1.5M) seems exceedingly low–probably dropped some in 2011. One also has to wonder if the off-field situation in New Jersey impacted Ream’s desire to move abroad earlier–by all accounts both MLS and Ream probably had more to gain after another year of seasoning.

• Continuing with the price, Ream’s sale would seem to be the catalyst for the long-rumored Gary Cahill move from the Reebok. Cahill, a terribly overrated centerback who nevertheless has English blood and thus has homegrown value, is rumored headed on to Chelsea as a seeming heir apparent for John Terry or cover is Terry is found guilty of racial abuse charges that will come to bear, or rather, be decided in February.

Fascinating here in that the continued discrepancy between MLS salaries and Euro salaries will probably make these sorts of move more and more frequent (think George John to Blackburn) in the future. That’s a good thing for US Soccer. English player A, from Premiership bottom table feeder club B is sold to top table side C and then an American is brought in as a cheap and capable replacement.

The US doesn’t have many trade balances in their favor, but it stands to reason this would be a boon for the league as a whole.

• Who’s next after Ream and how much–truly–did words from Jurgen Klinsmann help. Ream and now Robbie Rogers seem to be getting much more frequent press and looks than they did in the past. Just how much of a power player is Klinsmann becoming both in the States–where national team caps are a necessity for overseas work permits–and abroad where cheap stop-gap or squad players help out budgets more and more constrained by FIFA Fair Play rules.

• One can point to agents as well as grabbing a larger and larger foothold in Europe with the volume of American players on the rise. Scandinavia was always a destination point, but now clubs like Everton, West Brom and Bolton are seeded with players and relationships are built for larger pipelines as well.

It used to be Lyle Yorks who’s calling card was “I’ll get you to Europe.” It still is, but Richard Motzkin (Landon, etc.) with Wasserman has become even a much bigger player abroad with his roster. James Grant, etc.

• And what for Bolton? Don’t expect the Wanderers to can legend Owen Coyle after he unceremoniously departed Burnley just a few short seasons ago. Coyle’s had injuries–more impactful for a team with a thin budget–and really lacks star power. That said, Ream is still affordable if Bolton somehow get relegated. Bolton won’t get relegated mind you.

• Oh, and who’s next? Is it Rogers in fact? George John? Geoff Cameron? Luis Gil? Todd Dunivant? …Cmon, Dunivant.

—–

A very good move here if it comes to fruition for Bolton. A solid move for Ream. Another challenging player move for the New York Red Bulls.

Happy Holidays from The Shin Guardian!

Our 3rd year with a holiday card–in fact, we may actually have two!

(click to enlarge)

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This one a popular play on the original “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” was done, superbly, by Robert Kammel of kammel+morgan design group. Great work, Robert. Thank you.

….and, of course, Happy Holidays and and a very Merry Christmas from The Shin Guardian! Thanks for another great year!

Thank you.

Jurgen Klinsmann With 20 Names For Camp Cupcake

And the invites are in…or out rather.

Geoff Cameron gets his long-deserved invite...

Jurgen Klinsmann will undoubtedly run a different January camp than his predecessor Bob Bradley did. That, and the US goes on the road for not one but two matches against Venezuela and Panama. (Really looking forward to that Panama affair.)

Klinsmann’s roster to train in Carson, CA:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (7): Geoff Cameron (Houston Dynamo), A.J. DeLaGarza (LA Galaxy), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), George John (FC Dallas), Zach Loyd (FC Dallas), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland), Heath Pearce (Chivas USA)

MIDFIELDERS (6): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Ricardo Clark (Eintracht Frankfurt), Benny Feilhaber (New England Revolution), Jeff Larentowicz (Colorado Rapids), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

FORWARDS (4): Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), C.J. Sapong (Sporting Kansas City), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

The skinny:

• Tim Ream, absent. Is a sale pending?

• No true fullbacks. Will DeLaGarza, Pearce, Parkhurst or Cameron be used on the outside? The roster versus positions would seem to suggest it’s about the player being a USMNT player, not necessarily what position they play. Only Loyd is a true fullback.

• SportingKC stand-up: No first Chance Myers, but CJ Sapong and Graham Zusi with invites.

• Bunbury and Agudelo the lone U-23 roster representatives.

• Fascinating centerback battle amongst Gonzalez, John, perhaps Parhurst, Cameron, De La…you get the picture.

 

For Man United: What Happens When Ryan Giggs Retires?

Not the president of Kramerica Enterprises....

This time the chalkboards do tell the tale.

Fulham played a 4-2-4 defense and engaged Manchester United’s “back-six” with their “front-six.” It was a good strategy despite the ending scoreline of 5-0. Sir Alex Ferguson recognized it as such, pulling off a woozy Phil Jones (from an early Clint Dempsey elbow) and adding in another attacker in Ashley Young to provide central linking while moving Antonio Valencia to rightback.

(Once Fulham fell behind early on some uncharacteristically shoddy backline defending, they had to press….then…it was curtains.)

Manchester United played with double pivots of Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. While Giggs was given license to go forward, this time the passing arrays tell the story. Who is going to unlock defenses once Giggs is gone?

Mr. Carrick’s rather neutral passing chart…

Mr. Neutral....

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Mr. Giggs’s …unlocking

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Mr. Progressive is...Mr. Giggs?

Supporting material: On Michael Carrick

Live Commentary: Wednesday, Almost Boxing Time…

Lots of games today. You talk.

Guzan The Villian? Is he back? (Courtesy The Offsides Rules)

Part II of II: On The US Foreign Services With Greg Seltzer

This is Part II of TSG’s discussion with Amsterdam-based Greg Seltzer of MLSSoccer.com and No Short Corners. You can find Part I, here.

Gatt and a legend...

Matthew: So who are the key Americans abroad that US fans should truly be excited by? So many times one goal is enough to chop a forest worth’s of timber to power the hype machine…who are the Americans that in either good club situations or just have more talent than anyone else that fans will start hearing about in say 2013 or 2014?

Greg: Hmmm. That’s a loaded and difficult question. I think we are already hearing about many of the guys overseas young, such as Josh Gatt.

Considering the new 4-3-3 mandate and his elusiveness, Gatt probably has to be considered among the very most exciting prospects. He’s fast as all hell, fearless and has a great head on his shoulders.

You can certainly add other rising winger-types like Joe Gyau. If you don’t have ace wingers, you can be often up against it in a 4-3-3.

We have several #9 style forwards that have great promise and are in good situations, such as Conor Doyle and Andrew Wooten. I also hold good hope for attackers like Tony Taylor that can move around the forward line. The same goes for Stefan Jerome, who I’ve always been a fan of. Obviously, wingbacks are very key in that formation, so you need to keep an eye on guys like Marc Pelosi and Sean Cunningham.

Of course, a 4-3-3 team must rule the center of the park, so players like Charles Renken, Sebastian Lletget and Will Packwood come to mind quickly. The latter two are currently playing in probably the fastest reserve league in the world, trying to crack into the certainly the fastest league in the world in the Championship – that cannot hurt.

Obviously, if Fabian Hürzeler makes the switch, he zooms to near the top of our excitement list – the kid is smoooooth. I also have a lot of hope for Jared Jeffrey, though his situation is both good and bad until he can crack a stacked first team midfield. I’ve heard raves upon raves for center back John Anthony Brooks, but he’s one I’ve actually yet to see play a real game, so I don’t pretend to know precisely how excited we should be about him.

Back in America, I’m plenty excited about certain players for how they may eventually fit snugly into the 4-3-3. I very much wish Ike Opara could stay healthy. You’ve got guys like Luis Gil, Blair Gavin and Danny Cruz that could really turn out nicely for that set. Naturally, Perry Kitchen is a monster and a bit of a Swiss Army knife, not unlike Zach Loyd. And as always, I remain a big Sean Johnson fan among the keepers.

Some of these guys won’t be ready to be in the squad discussion by 2014, but so much can happen in the career of a prospect in two years. Part of the fun and agony of this kind of excitement is waiting to see how it all turns out. As it looks right now, though, we have plenty to be excited about.

Matthew: Okay, that was a bid email to dissect their. Let’s narrow. You’re top three US prospects. Ones with a chance to make it to the semi’s of the Champion’s League with their club team?

Okay, and moving through leagues a little. Michael Bradley is now the janitor of the midfield at Chievo. Do you see more Americans moving to Serie A in the future or are the homegrown rules too stric

TSG agrees...if he could only get a healthy season or too under the belt...

Greg: My top three wish list based on future need would be probably be Gatt, Gyau and Opara. And, of course, if Liverpool develops Marc Pelosi as a proper raiding left back, the USMNT fandom would swoon. Right now, obviously, Opara needs to stay healthy for five minutes to see if he can fulfill his promise. As for the three that are the best bets at this time, it’s probably Gatt, Kitchen and pick your favorite between Boyd and Wooten. Considering the type of player Jozy is and how young he is, I might actually propose that Wooten gets called first of the two because he brings a little something different in style.

On number two, the roster limit is a hindrance, and sometimes the teams interested in Americans can also be a deterrent. Bradley certainly could have joined a better club from his level, but with Chievo he gets to walk in and be expected to be one of the key players. With some of the other teams that have shown interest in him, that would not be the case. Roma told me flat out they did not envision him starting regularly the first season, and I’m pretty sure that’s all he needed to hear to choose otherwise.

Frankly though, with the USMNT system change, I doubt so many Americans will find that the place to go. Presumably, the mad rush of promising youngsters would now want to flock toward the Eredivisie or Belgium. Players of Bradley’s position can go to Serie A – that works fine. But If an American attacker or wingback or playmaker or center back really wants to jump over to a super-tactical league, I’d suggest France over Italy at this point. And only after pushing him to the Eredivisie. If you want to star for the Nats looking forward, then now is the time to do what Jozy did. Others might disagree, but I’m not especially interested in having our players in Italy. It doesn’t meet our direction.

Matthew: Fascinating insights Greg. So to follow-up what is that is makes Belgium, The Eredivisie, and LigueOne ideal destinations for Americans–how have they become more technical and are they open to receiving more Americans in their ranks?

On the opposite side of the table, do you get a lot of inquires about European players heading westward to MLS? Do media folks, agents, etc ask you about playing in MLS and where do you rank MLS in terms of quality play versus European leagues?

Greg: Well, Belgium and the Netherlands obviously have the 4-3-3 connection which ties into the new US national team gameplan. Besides, it’s kinda hard to not notice that nearly every American that gets to the Eredivisie becomes a key USMNT figure to one degree or another. With France, it’s just that more clubs are spending some money right now than in places like Germany and there’s no great admission roadblock. I have also noticed a steep increase in French clubs checking out our players, so that may turnout to have been a giveaway. Heh.

And on number two, I do sometimes get asked about this. I’ve had players ask me about the league or living there. I’ve had agents with a client that wants to go there, asking about league personnel rules or about which MLS teams might need a player in that position. I’ve also had plenty of writers and execs and fans and whatever you can think of asking about various things with MLS. It still has that

“The Other” vibe, probably mainly because of the distance and structure/format differences. And they don’t show it on TV here, unlike some countries. Of course, Dutch folks are highly intrigued by and attracted to “The Other” – they likely to be worldly. And they love soccer. They’ve recently seen guys like Dave van den Bergh go over to have success and the Dutch do like us, tracking the players far and wide abroad.

They’ve read all the comments by guys like Gullit, Seedorf and Davids that have seen and discussed MLS. It won’t be like that everywhere in Europe. Some places nobody asks this stuff. They only might in Italy or Germany, they won’t in England. The French tend to ask because Henry is there now. I may be at the Euro-epicenter of MLS inquisitiveness, actually. Danes seem to know the most without asking.

Ugh, asking me to do this is career suicide! I’ll forever be the guy who placed MLS below such and such league. Okay, here’s where I honestly stand on this: it’s nearly impossible to judge for two reasons.

You have the oppressive heat MLS guys play in for some months, just when they get to form it’s the dog days already. Secondly, there’s the depth/organization issue. Overall, most of the Euro-clubs we think about should be more consistent and all because they have more player resources. Plus, you have the ever-tumbling parity few leagues can match.

It is the true apple and orange.

If you look at one MLS club and wonder how they’d do in some league over here, well probably not as well as you’d hope they would to be honest. If you take the overall league play, it looks better, because there are certainly times when you could say, oh sure this is certainly as good as an average English Championship game. If forced to set all the excuses and variables aside to just pick a place by how hard it is to play in MLS… I’d say at this time, MLS has passed the Scottish Premier League in overall quality. In fact, with their squad resume, the 2011 Galaxy would actually be a threat to win the title this season. I would generally say MLS is at or near the level of maybe Denmark and Greece, and not quite to the level of places like Belgium, Russia and Turkey. The important thing is MLS raises in quality nearly every season, so it won’t be too long before America can claim a league on par with.

Matthew: Let’s finish up with some softballs. Where does Charlies Davies head next? Is it Europe? Who is the next American to play in Champion’s League?

Greg: Yes, Charlie looks set for a new Euro-address. I have a few clues and have eliminated some areas as possible destinations, but haven’t been able to pinpoint where he’s headed. Yet, anyway.

The only American with a ticket to play in the next Champions League right this moment is Josh Gatt, so that was probably easier to answer than you’d hoped.

Beyond him, I’m very confident Sacha Kljestan will be there next Fall, as will Mo Edu provided he doesn’t leave Rangers.

Beyond them, guys like Jozy, Jermaine Jones and Michael Parkhurst are in great position at midseason to qualify. Then there’s Bryan Gerzicich at Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona. They are the surprise leaders in Israel, but still with plenty of work to do to get to the Champions League. As is, it seems pretty safe to say next season’s Champions League class of Americans will come out of that group of players unless some big club manages to grab Clint Dempsey in the summer.

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