The post-mortems of the USA's World Cup campaign are continuing. Here's what comes to my mind when I think about the national team's efforts in South Africa:
The boys in Brazil
Of the U.S. side that started against Ghana in 2006, just four were in the lineup on Saturday. Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra will both be 35 by the time the next World Cup kicks off and thus unlikely to still be in national team uniform. However, Clint Dempsey, who will be 31, and Landon Donovan, 32, should still be around to offer veteran savvy.
Which other Rustenburg starters will be in Brazil? Tim Howard will be 35 and could still be in goal. Michael Bradley will remain a fixture in the first XI, as could Jozy Altidore, especially if he can add goals to his game. Jonathan Bornstein has age on his side, too, although he also needs to be more consistent.
Thus, there are plenty of spots for the next generation to make their own by 2014. The likes of Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Torres, Stuart Holden and Jonathan Spector should all be back for their second World Cup and, beyond that nucleus, the USA's pool features many players not yet in their mid-20s.
Meanwhile, it is logical to think that some as-yet-unknown youngsters will also emerge in the coming years. Hopefully, among them will be an out-and-out goal scorer, a penetrating winger and a world-class central defender.
What about Bob?
Meanwhile, who will be in charge of those donning the red, white and blue in four years? Bob Bradley's contract with U.S. Soccer expires at the end of the year, and it remains to be seen if he will be offered a new one. There will certainly be calls for a new face, similar to those that echoed in 2006 when many fans asked for a big name with European experience to be put in charge.
Bradley's World Cup performance offered ammunition to his supporters and detractors. During games, his tactics and decision-making were, generally, very good. Of course, they had to be for, more often than not, they were made in response to lackluster starts by teams he picked.
Perhaps Bradley, who prepares for matches meticulously, outthought himself at times. Video analysis and scouting is all well and good, but sometimes gut instinct can be a guide, too. The U.S. boss was at his best when reacting quickly to what was happening right in front of him.
Coming as it did just four days after the U.S. had clinched a spot in South Africa, October's match against Costa Rica in Washington, D.C., was meant to be a celebration. Instead, it was overshadowed by a pair of events, the effects of which are still being felt eight months later, thousands of miles away.
First, on the night before the game, Charlie Davies was involved in a car accident, suffering serious injuries that would keep the breakout star of the national team in 2009 out of the World Cup. Fans at RFK Stadium, who paid tribute to Davies, were then rocked by the sight of Oguchi Onyewu leaving the field on a stretcher with knee ligament damage.
While Davies watched the World Cup on television, Onyewu did make the squad for South Africa, but his performances showed he is still striving for full fitness. One wonders what impact both men could have made if they had been fully fit.
It wouldn't be a World Cup without the U.S. being on the rough end of a key decision from a referee. To a list that includes Hugh Dallas from 2002 and Jorge Larrionda and Markus Merk four years later, you can now add Koman Coulibaly after his decision to disallow Edu's "goal" against Slovenia.
As fans crave a better display from their national team in 2014, they should also hope for its luck to change with the man in the middle.
Look back in anger
Once all the head-scratching and hand-wringing dies down, the prevailing feeling for U.S. players, coaches and fans, when they reflect on the 2010 World Cup, will be one of regret. Ghana, though talented, was beatable. It would have been a tougher nut to crack, but Uruguay could have been seen off, too. That would have set up a semifinal, probably against Brazil.
The USA was good, but it could have been great. Maybe next time...
Landon Donovan spoke on our show "Press Pass" about the confidence he gained while playing with Everton and how it can help him in South Africa. He also warned England not to underestimate the U.S.
"I think [Fabio] Capello is a very, very good manager and I don't think there is any way that they would underestimate us. A lot of the English players now have played against a lot of our American players in their league, so they know a lot about us.
"In the past, perhaps they would have underestimated, but at this point I think they know very, very well that we're a team that's capable of beating them if they're not prepared."
Meanwhile, Jozy Altidore joined SportsNation for a playful swipe at us English, smashing a few china tea cups with the official World Cup match ball.
A few observations from game day at Rentschler Field:
• Jose Torres could be an interesting player to watch in South Africa. He is technically excellent and demands the ball -- useful assets to have for maintaining possession when closing out games.
• Clarence Goodson looks more dominant when attacking on his own side's set pieces than when defending those of the opposition.
• Oguchi Onyewu has a long way to go before he is back to the fitness and form he showed before his long injury layoff. Despite that, he had to be part of the squad.
• No such benefit of the doubt has been given to Brian Ching, which is surprising. Against the Czechs, his ability to hold the ball up allowed midfield runners to join attacks in a way that wasn't seen before his introduction.
• The Czechs had four shots on goal, all of which went in. Brad Guzan was not directly at fault for any of them, but his failure to command his area allowed numerous crosses and knockdowns to pass across the face of his goal.
Wednesday was announcement day as 23 players were officially introduced as members of Bob Bradley's squad, live on "SportsCenter."
As I watched the events from the comfort of an air-conditioned room, I did wonder who, with temperatures in the 90s, decided that long-sleeved tracksuit tops should be the clothing du jour. Were there no polo shirts available?
The opportunity to talk to the chosen ones then followed for the media. I started my rounds with Clint Dempsey, who said that the announcement of the squad is a stress-reducer, as the players who make the cut are now certain of their spots and can focus on the tournament.
Dempsey was pleased with his form at Fulham -- "My goals have gone up each season I have been there" -- although he admitted to being frustrated that his role in the closing rounds of the Europa League was mainly coming off the bench. Learning to play as a line-leading striker, he said, is something he has been happy to do for the sake of the team.
The Texan also said he enjoyed being criticized, as it adds "fuel to the fire." However, he wouldn't budge when asked what his former coaches at New England, Steve Nicol and Paul Mariner -- a Scotsman and Englishman, respectively -- have said to him about the big game in Rustenburg on June 12.
Jonathan Spector praised the England wingers he might face that day, and also suggested he believes that Steven Gerrard is most dangerous when he has a free role underneath the strikers.
Steve Cherundolo, who is heading to his third World Cup, was under no illusions regarding the distractions that have to be avoided in South Africa:
"It is naive not to take in the atmosphere of South Africa, but you have to do that at the right time. … All of the B.S. before and after the game cannot change what goes on during it. The guys need to understand that and remain focused."
I was very impressed with Jay DeMerit, who offered thoughtful answers and spoke eloquently -- "Some of us that do it our own way, I wouldn't have it any other way" -- about his journey from non-league soccer in England to the World Cup.
Out of contract with Watford, the defender doesn't expect to return to the Hornets, but he would like to stay in England. A strong showing at the World Cup, he added, is the best way for him to shape his future.
A thing that made me go hmmm ...
I'm not going to kid anyone: Getting paid to write about and watch soccer is a pretty great way to make a living. For example, in addition to all of the Team USA-related goings-on at ESPN HQ this week, I also crossed paths with two legends of the game when they popped in to Bristol.
Dragging myself to the gym Tuesday was more rewarding than usual, given that I ended up having a chat with Jurgen Klinsmann, who was in town for the U.S. versus Czech Republic game. A very pleasant man, the German legend spoke positively about his home nation's World Cup chances, even in the absence of Michael Ballack.
Later on the same day came another treat. Those of you who have enjoyed the excellent "I scored a goal" series may have been wondering why there hasn't been an edition featuring Pelé (a scorer of two in 1958 and another in 1970). Well, your wait is almost over. The great man has told his story to ESPN. It was a privilege to meet him.
Oh yes, Danica Patrick was in the building, too. Yup, not a bad few days.
My take on the move is that it has the potential to be one of the most spectacular in league history. Granted, Henry has had a poor campaign with Barcelona -- scoring a meager four goals in 30 appearances and making only three starts since the beginning of February -- but the fact is that he is just a year removed from being a major part of a Barcelona side that was one of the most successful teams of all time.
As Sir Alex Ferguson -- no bad judge of talent -- said when asked about Henry on Tuesday: "He's not a deteriorated player by any manner or means. He's still a very, very competent player. ... I think he'll be a success [in the USA]. I've got no doubts in my mind with that."
Henry is sure to welcome the change of scenery. Interviewing him when he visited Boston in 2007, I was struck by his enthusiasm for the United States, which, he admitted, was fueled by its being "one of the places I can be left alone." Equally, it is certain that his new Red Bulls teammates will embrace him. Three straight defeats have taken a little of the gloss off the start New York has made in 2010, but coach Hans Backe's side remains in second place (5-4) in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
Henry's arrival will address the main issue affecting the Red Bulls in their opening nine matches: a paucity of goals. Only Kansas City, Philadelphia and DC have struck fewer than the nine managed by New York, four of which have come from Juan Pablo Angel. The Colombian remains a potent threat but is now 34 and would benefit from the assistance Henry can provide in shouldering the scoring burden.
Signing Henry does not make New York the odds-on favorite to win the MLS Cup or to even top the standings in the East at the end of the regular season. Reinforcements may be needed to boost a midfield that has struggled to consistently create chances, although the Frenchman should help in the creativity department.
One thing for sure is that Henry's arrival will provide a post-World Cup boost to MLS, which will be felt in crowd numbers across the country. Now the Red Bulls have to put the talent around him so that he can flourish fully in those stadia.
Gooch's grand gesture
While many fans would happily play for free, just to have a shot at the big time, there are few veteran professionals who, despite being established internationals, would offer their services gratis. Therefore, take a bow, Oguchi Onyewu.
In a move that echoes the actions of another Milan man, Fernando Redondo, who suspended his salary in 2000 having sustained a knee injury shortly after signing for the club, Onyewu this week agreed to stay with the Rossoneri for another season for free, following a debut campaign at the San Siro in which he made just one substitute appearance.
The situation is a win-win for both parties. Onyewu earns plenty of goodwill, as well as another chance to impress the Milan powers-that-be in a bid to earn a longer-term contract. Not that he may make many more appearances in the red-and-black next season than he did last, if reports linking him with a season-long loan move to Chievo are to be believed.
A move, though, would still be beneficial. Onyewu would still be in Serie A and, out of the limelight, he could focus solely on playing. Meanwhile, Milan would retain the registration of a player on the right side of 30 -- no small matter given the average age of the rest of the club's defenders -- while also having the chance to watch closely how he handles a full season in one of the world's top leagues.
As he prepares to take part in his third World Cup, Landon Donovan spoke frankly this week about his development as a person which, he believes, has assisted in his growth as a player, to the point where he now feels more content than ever with his position as one of the leaders on the national team.
To paraphrase the 28-year-old, Donovan was too young to know any better in 2002 but not old enough to see his responsibilities in 2006 as anything other than a burden. Four years on, he has found a balance that currently sees him playing the best soccer of his career.
With a goal and nine assists in nine games, the Los Angeles Galaxy captain has been a contributing factor in 10 of the 15 goals his team has scored in the opening two months of a campaign he began in midseason shape following a successful loan spell at Everton. L.A. (8-0-2) is in first place in the Western Conference.
A return to Europe following the World Cup cannot be ruled out. For now, though, the man who describes himself as being more "real" and "centered" than in the past has the focus to inspire his country in South Africa.
While the probables fine tune ahead of the June 12 opener against England, the possibles have a pair of friendly matches in which to impress. Having said that, it is likely Bradley will learn just as much from what he sees in training sessions once his men assemble at Princeton at the start of next week. Here are a few key battles featuring players that could be vying for a roster spot:
Clarence Goodson versus Chad Marshall: assuming Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra are fit and that Jay DeMerit remains ahead of them, there could be a need for only one further central defender. Neither has totally convinced at the international level, although Bradley seems to favor Goodson.
Jonathan Bornstein versus Heath Pearce: Bornstein is another favorite of the coach but he has work to do to prove his nightmare display against Holland was not more than a blip. I don't think there is much between them in terms of defensive ability. Perhaps Bornstein is a slightly better athlete while Pearce has greater quality with his final ball.
Alejandro Bedoya versus Robbie Rogers versus DaMarcus Beasley: Youth battles experience here. Bedoya is making a surprising run at the final squad after having only debuted in January. He remains a long shot but that may change if he continues to impress. Rogers has struggled for confidence in national team colors at times but has talent as well as left-footedness. Beasley's experience makes him the most likely but he has to stay injury-free and prove he can get back to something near his pre-2006 level of play.
Sacha Kljestan versus Jose Torres: Torres has been unconvincing in his limited opportunities with the national team but is better in possession and I see him as a superior option to Kljestan who, despite having some impressive goal-scoring moments, has also lacked consistency and, at times, discipline, on USA duty.
Everyone except Jozy Altidore versus everyone except Jozy Altidore: Given that Clint Dempsey could ultimately be seen as the best option alongside Altidore, it may be that traditional strikers are not as in demand. Edson Buddle, Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez are the men in form but are unproven at this level. Bradley knows exactly what he will get from Brian Ching and his decision to omit Conor Casey makes clear who he sees as his first-choice target man. Robbie Findley will have to have an exceptional camp to force his way into the reckoning.
Disappointing for Davies
Arguably the main discussion point arising from the announcement of Bradley's provisional squad was the omission of Charlie Davies. I have read and heard some opinions criticizing the coach for this but I find it hard to apportion any blame in that direction. Why would Bradley not want a player who, prior to his injury, had established himself as the USA's No. 1 choice up front?
Unfortunately, the main issue in all this was time. Despite his Herculean efforts, Davies has not recovered to a level that would allow him to play in the World Cup. Had he made it back on to the field with Sochaux, even in just a cameo role, the decision may have been different. As we have learned, the Ligue 1 side reportedly refused to release its player on medical grounds despite Davies' return to training in March. Understandably, Davies is frustrated with his club, especially its president, Alexandre Lacombe, and it remains to be seen if this episode has a negative impact on his future with Sochaux.
For now, though, as Davies himself said, it is time to move on and use this setback as motivation on his road to full recovery. The same goes for his national team, which must learn to do without him.
A thing that made me go "Hmm ..."
Citing a desire to "provide substantially more playing opportunities while producing a fair and compelling qualifying competition," CONCACAF is proposing an overhaul of the way teams reach future World Cups.
By adapting its system more in line with that which CONMEBOL follows in South America, CONCACAF will do away with the six-team final "Hexagonal" round. In its place a 12-team competition will be implemented, in which each country plays 22 matches. Details as to how teams qualify for the final group are, as yet, unknown.
On the one hand, an increase in games -- the USA played 18 times on the road to South Africa, using 43 players in the process -- means an already cluttered calendar becomes even more congested and the demands on players are increased.
On the other, more matches means more chances for the best teams to establish themselves as such, although I doubt the USA and Mexico will see this as much consolation. Let's face it, barring a remarkable series of events, the region's dominant powers will always emerge on top, no matter how long the qualifying process.
It's interesting to compare what goes on in this part of the world with qualifying procedures in Europe. There, the big boys have to play a maximum of 12 qualifiers and even that is often seen as too many. With every cycle come complaints that minnow nations such as the Faroe Islands and Andorra, to name but two, should have to play off against one another to have the chance to take on the continent's superpowers. Don't expect UEFA to attempt to follow CONCACAF's lead any time soon!
Six weeks into the 2010 season, there has been no more impressive team in MLS than the Los Angeles Galaxy. Coach Bruce Arena's side is nine points clear at the top of the Western Conference, having dropped just two points in its opening seven matches (6-0-1).
Defensively, no team in MLS has conceded fewer than the two goals that keeper Donovan Ricketts has allowed, and such stinginess at the back has helped the Galaxy capitalize on another happy knack: scoring early. In their six wins to date, the Galaxy have opened the scoring in the sixth, seventh, 26th, 11th, first and 21st minutes, respectively.
At Colorado on Wednesday, where Los Angeles had drawn once and lost five going back to 2006, that winning formula was again in effect following Alan Gordon's header (which also extended the Rapids' winless run in games when their opponent scores first to 60 games). At no point this season has Arena's side trailed -- no other MLS side can boast this -- and only once has it been equalized after having taken the lead.
Thus, while Edson Buddle's free-scoring start to the campaign has rightfully earned him plenty of praise, as well as consideration as a late candidate for the U.S. World Cup squad, the numbers show there is more to this Galaxy side than its leading marksman. Meaning that, if Buddle joins L.A. teammate Landon Donovan on the plane to South Africa, the Galaxy will be well-placed to cope without their talismanic duo.
Before all that comes another big test, at Seattle on Saturday.
Chivas on the rise
The Home Depot Center must be a pretty cheery place at the moment, given Chivas' recent resurgence. Having lost three of their first four games under new coach Martin Vasquez, the Goats have hit their stride in the last three, collecting seven points while scoring eight goals in the process.
Against New England on Wednesday, Chivas took advantage of some generous offerings from the host's defense to record its first-ever win at Gillette Stadium. While Jesus Padilla led the scorers with two strikes, I was also impressed with his partner up front, Justin Braun, who bagged his second goal of the season.
A member of the national team squad at its January training camp, Braun, at 6-foot-3, has size on his side. And the 23-year-old's intelligent hold-up play and decent movement off the ball prove he has a soccer IQ. His display against the Revolution was the latest example of the progress he has made since he first impressed then-Chivas coach Preki at an amateur tournament two years ago.
A pause for some good causes
Finally, a word for a pair of causes that deserve as much publicity as they can get.
MLS fans will recall Joe Vide, who played for New York, San Jose and D.C. United from 2006-08. Last month, the 25-year-old was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a form of blood cancer also known as Hodgkin's disease.
Vide is currently undergoing treatment (at his own expense) and has set up a website to keep people apprised of his progress and through which donations can be made to help cover his medical expenses.
Meanwhile, "Boots For Aba'fana" is a nonprofit organization working to supply basic gear to young footballers in Khayelitsha, South Africa.
With the World Cup just over a month away, the eyes of the world are set to turn to the Rainbow Nation, and this organization aims to assist future generations of South African soccer players by donating lightly used soccer equipment to those in need. Read more about the cause here.
It's a shame that, to many, Jozy Altidore's season-long loan to Hull City will be remembered for an out-of-character moment in which he lost his composure with an opponent.
True, the American forward has not set the scoring charts alight. His inability to find the net consistently -- just one goal and 30 shots in 28 league games -- along with the rest of the strikers on the Tigers' squad, means he should shoulder his fair share of the blame for the club's relegation from the Premier League.
However, while the end was not pretty, there are positives Altidore can take away from his first full season of top-flight experience, during which he showed an ability to compete at the highest level. More importantly given his age, the 20-year-old also demonstrated he has what it takes to learn on the job and is undoubtedly a better player now than he was a year ago. Thus, the big question is this: Where does he continue to develop his skills next season?
I would like to see Altidore given a chance to succeed with the club that owns him, Villarreal, but such an opportunity is likely to depend on what moves the yellow submarine makes within its striker ranks this summer. Nilmar (age 25) and Giuseppe Rossi (23) could be targets for other clubs -- or could be entrenched as the starting forward line at El Madrigal for years to come -- while Joseba Llorente (31) is likely on the downswing of his career. Thus, there could be an opportunity for Altidore, unless Villarreal decides to bring in new faces.
Whether or not he stays at Villarreal, there should be plenty of interest in Altidore -- much of which likely will come from English clubs -- but I wonder whether any will be prepared to sign him on a permanent basis. Another season spent on loan would be less than ideal, although it would be more advantageous than being on the fringes at his parent club. Among the American squad members headed to South Africa, there are few for whom the coming months are more important than the New Jersey native.
Houston has a problem
While Altidore mulls over options for his future, another young American, Geoff Cameron, is coming to terms with surgery, followed by a long period of rehabilitation.
The Houston midfielder will miss the rest of the MLS season after rupturing his right PCL in Saturday's loss to Chicago. It's a crushing blow for an impressive player whose form and ability to play more than one position certainly drew the attention of European clubs, as well as Bob Bradley.
Furthermore, Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear must be wondering what he has to do to catch a break after the latest setback to his side. Having lost Stuart Holden and Ricardo Clark during the offseason, Houston now sees Cameron join Brian Ching on the sidelines.
With so much talent either departed or unavailable, Kinnear will look to trusted veterans such as Brad Davis and Brian Mullan. And after an underwhelming start to life in Texas, Luis Angel Landin (one goal in 14 games) needs to start justifying his sizable salary.
A thing that made me go hmmm …
Can Colorado, currently in second place in the West after its win at New England, sustain its form? It may be too early to confidently make long-term prognostications, but signs are good for Rapids fans who hope to see their club return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
Colorado's home advantage in the rarefied air of Commerce City has long been established, but what has been less consistent is the team's ability to grind out results on the road. Thus, that Gary Smith's side has already won twice away from home in 2010, matching its total road triumphs of a year ago, is impressive.
Before the start of this season, Smith made a pair of key moves to boost a squad that already had its share of talent, not the least of which was the forward duo of Conor Casey and Omar Cummings (combined 24 goals and 13 assists in '09).
It was behind that front two where strengthening was required. Smith gave up Cory Gibbs to New England, but by getting Jeff Larentowicz in return he was able to solidify central midfield and ease the workload of veteran skipper Pablo Mastroeni.
Meanwhile, to replace Gibbs, Colorado brought in Marvell Wynne from Toronto with the intention of playing him in the center of defense alongside another converted fullback, Drew Moor. The result has been a back line that has allowed just five goals in as many games thus far.
Good luck, Shalrie
It has been revealed that Shalrie Joseph was admitted to the league's substance abuse and behavioral health program, two days after the New England midfielder was granted an indefinite leave of absence from the team.
Before joining ESPN, I covered the Revolution for three seasons and, in addition to witnessing his obvious on-field abilities up close, found Shalrie to be an always engaging and thoughtful interview subject.
Here's hoping a nice guy, who happens to be one of the best MLS players of the past decade, gets the help he needs to conquer whatever problems he has.
Rico a no-go in Germany
When Ricardo Clark left MLS for Eintracht Frankfurt at the end of last year, most fans of the national team were pleased that one of Bob Bradley's main midfield men was preparing for the World Cup by playing for six months in the Bundesliga. With 50 days to go until the tournament kicks off in South Africa, and Clark still to debut for Eintracht, those hopes for fine-tuning have been replaced by an increasingly desperate need for him to shake off the growing rust.
Injuries initially hampered Clark's chances of making an impression in Germany, and things have not got any better since he returned. He has been an unused sub for eight straight games.
Clark's inactivity means that not since the U.S' Nov. 18 friendly in Denmark has he kicked a ball in anger. Given the paucity of obvious alternatives to partner Michael Bradley in the engine room, this is a situation that has to change soon. Perhaps it would have been less of a problem had he stayed in Houston.
Edson Buddle's imperious start to the season continued Saturday, but the Los Angeles man does not have a complete monopoly on the "most in-form American striker" moniker due to the impressive consistency being shown by Herculez Gomez for Puebla in Mexico.
Gomez, who endured mixed fortunes while playing in MLS for Los Angeles, Colorado and Kansas City, is the joint leading scorer in the Torneo Bicentenario with 10 goals in 13 games.
Each man is, of course, unproven at international level so either would be a risky pick for a World Cup squad. Where Buddle is concerned, he has the edge as far as all-round ability goes, while his effective partnership with Landon Donovan at the Galaxy is another plus on his résumé.
However, Gomez has been hotter for longer as both a starter and, more crucially, should either make the trip, neither man would start for the U.S. in South Africa as a substitute. Goals in each of the past four occasions in which he has been introduced off the bench proves he has what it takes to influence a game as a replacement, which may just edge him ahead of Buddle in Bob Bradley's eyes.
Well played, San Jose
Given the way I criticized San Jose following an anemic opening day defeat to Real Salt Lake, it is only fair that I acknowledge the impressive response since by the Earthquakes.
Last year, Frank Yallop's side failed to record its second victory until its 11th match and a back-to-back win streak -- similar to the one they are currently on thanks to triumphs over Chicago and New England. This was a luxury it did not enjoy until October when pride was the only reward.
Rookie defender Ike Opara has been the talisman for the turnaround. Having struggled to contain Javier Morales and company in his debut, the third overall pick has settled into a backline that has conceded just one goal since RSL bagged three against him. Opara has also chipped in at the offensive end with two goals.
San Jose is also getting contributions from Bobby Convey -- remember him? -- who has two assists in as many games, matching the number of helpers he compiled in 25 matches in 2009. Meanwhile, Joey Gjertsen and Brandon McDonald have impressed since being promoted to the starting lineup for the Quakes' second game of the campaign.
A thing that made me go hmmm
How many designated player signings will be made by MLS clubs this summer? The league's recent move to increase the number of DPs that clubs can have to three, certainly indicates that it expects an influx of star names.
A recent article in France Football suggested that a host of its nation's veterans are ready to cross the Atlantic, with names mentioned including Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira and, of course, Thierry Henry, who seems to be the odds-on favorite to become a New York Red Bull as soon as the World Cup is over.
The Red Bulls have also been linked with Raul and, this week, Alessandro Del Piero. Clearly, given the DP rules, four into three does not go, but any combination of this trio, as well as Juan Pablo Angel, would be a mouthwatering prospect for crowds at the club's impressive new stadium, which, it was announced Wednesday, will host a four-team tournament from July 22-25 featuring the Red Bulls, Manchester City, Tottenham and Sporting Lisbon.
Don Garber had some interesting things to say this week in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl. Among the topics touched on by the MLS commissioner was the makeup of the national team squad. Though he stopped short of saying Bob Bradley is biased in favor of foreign-based players, his feelings on the subject were, nevertheless, pretty clear:
"But today clearly there is an emphasis for (Bob Bradley) to pick players from Europe, and that's something that he believes will give him the best team on the field. I think many of our coaches and certainly we would feel there are many players in our league that can perform at the same level as some of the players he is selecting."
After the U.S. squad for the 1998 World Cup featured 16 MLS players, the 2002 and 2006 rosters featured 11 each. A previously gradual move away from domestic talent has accelerated under Bradley, who picked just five MLS players for last year's Confederations Cup roster. Thus, the numbers indicate that Garber is right to say European players are favored. However, the conclusion should not be that Bradley is making the wrong selections.
For example, upon reading Garber's comments, the first question that sprang to my mind was: Who are these players being overlooked? When everyone is fit and available, Bradley's first-choice side would likely contain just one MLS player. Landon Donovan aside, the only other name that comes into the frame is Jonathan Bornstein, and he may well have slipped down the pecking order after his nightmarish display in Amsterdam last month.
Even among the alternates, MLS men would be few and far between. In addition to Bornstein, Conor Casey and Chad Marshall deserve consideration but both have been inconsistent to date on international duty. Heath Pearce and Brian Ching are options, as is Sacha Kljestan, although his stock has fallen as well.
On the one hand, I understand where Garber is coming from. From his point of view, as he continues to build MLS, it must be disheartening to know that top American players see Europe as the ultimate environment in which to fulfill their international ambitions. To them, MLS is little more than a stepping stone.
Where the national team is concerned, however, it is hard to argue with where Bradley places his emphasis. The majority of his preferred starters play in the top European leagues where the level of play is higher than in MLS and, therefore, closer to World Cup standards. Thus, these players are likely to assimilate more quickly to the demands of the international game.
This debate has parallels with a similar one that has been going on recently in Australia, where Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek has been outspoken in his belief that players who play in Europe will have more chance of representing their country.
As with MLS, this is not what the A-League wants to hear. However, national team coaches are not paid to consider the ramifications for domestic leagues of their selections. Their job is to select the best players available to them and, from the point of view of Bradley (and Verbeek), the fact is that the overwhelming majority of them play outside their homeland.
Well played, in-form man
One MLS player who is doing his chances of a spot in South Africa no harm is Edson Buddle, who has notched all five of the Galaxy's goals as Los Angeles opened with three straight wins.
The variety in Buddle's goals has been impressive. A header in a crowded penalty area beat New England and he won the Super Clasico with another header, having beaten his marker to the near post, as well as a composed close-range finish. Against Houston, Buddle showed he is not just a penalty-box player with a fine solo run and left-footed strike to put L.A. ahead before sealing his side's win with a volley.
It has been seven years since Buddle earned his one and only international cap. Now the challenge for him is to maintain his form -- no American striker other than Herculez Gomez is currently more prolific -- as well as the understanding he has struck up with Landon Donovan. If he stays consistent and injury-free, it is not inconceivable that he is included in the World Cup squad.
After Danny Allsopp and Adam Cristman contributed three of DC United's five goals in a scrimmage win over Crystal Palace Baltimore on Monday, it might not be too long before the duo is given the chance to link up in MLS. Goodness knows, their side needs a spark from somewhere.
Two weeks into the new season, United fans have had few positives to take from the start of the Curt Onalfo era. A 4-0 hiding at Kansas City was a poor start but perhaps, given that the Wizards were at home and DC was integrating a number of new faces, somewhat understandable. Less acceptable to the 20,664 in attendance was United's defeat in its home opener against New England on Saturday.
With Fred and Luciano Emilio -- what would D.C. fans have given for them to be playing? -- watching from the stands, Onalfo's side failed to take advantage of the abundant possessions it had, conjuring just three shots on goal. Starting up front, Jaime Moreno and Chris Pontius struggled to have an impact, not that that was entirely their fault. On too many occasions, promising positions were wasted by the lack of a quality delivery in the final third.
To make matters worse, the Revolution snatched victory with two Kenny Mansally goals in as many minutes. A harsh lesson it might have been, but DC should learn from the impact made by Steve Nicol's substitute, who took each of his tallies with a confidence hitherto undemonstrated by anyone else at RFK Stadium on the night.
At 36, Moreno surely should be used sparingly while Pontius is more suited to a role as an attacking midfielder. Allsopp and Cristman should be given their chance to lead the line and ignite an offense that has been a little late to awaken in 2010.Edu takes his chance
Despite bagging the winner in February's Auld Firm derby against Celtic, the past couple of months had not been entirely smooth sailing for Maurice Edu with Rangers. Thus, his fans, not to mention Bob Bradley, probably were heartened to see the midfielder not only back in the starting lineup Saturday but also scoring the only goal of the game against Hamilton.
That Edu continues to start is important, especially given the struggles for playing time of a number of other American midfielders based in Europe. Jermaine Jones' ongoing injury worries look set to dash his hopes of a World Cup spot, while Ricardo Clark (although now injury free) has seen his preparations for the tournament hindered by his inability to get off the Eintracht Frankfurt bench, where he has spent each of the past six games. Perhaps he will get his chance against Michael Bradley's Borussia Monchengladbach on Friday.
There is mixed news for the wide men, too. Clint Dempsey looks to have fully recovered from his knee injury, and Stuart Holden said this week that he hopes to be fully fit by the start of May. DaMarcus Beasley, however, has been an unused substitute in three of Rangers' past four games, with his only appearance coming in a shock Scottish Cup defeat at Dundee United.
With a number of leagues across Europe looking set for dramatic conclusions and the start of the 2010 MLS campaign upon us, let's not forget there are just more than two months until the World Cup begins.
Ahead of the festivities in South Africa, please allow me to recommend "Feet of the Chameleon," a book by Ian Hawkey that tells the story of the sport's development on the planet's second-largest continent and offers the reader a glimpse at key events in the soccer stories of a number of African nations.
Among other subjects discussed: the bare-footed Nigerians who toured England shortly after World War II ended, the Algerians who fled professional careers in France a decade later to help further the cause of their homeland's quest for independence and the establishment of African nations as a legitimate force on the World Cup stage in the latter part of last century. Hawkey intertwines eyewitness accounts with humor, anecdotes and history to explain from where soccer on the continent has come.
Moving ahead to the present day, the author contrasts the ever-growing number of African players excelling in the world's best leagues with the issues that remain back home, which include underdeveloped infrastructure and reduced crowds, as well as the ever-present threat of corruption, before concluding with thoughts on what might be the impact and subsequent legacy of the coming World Cup.
Although negotiations are ongoing, the prospect of a strike by the players of MLS grows likelier with every passing hour. Reports on Wednesday stated that, unless deal for a new collective bargaining agreement can be reached by next Monday, the players will down tools four days before the scheduled start off the regular season.
There are myriad unresolved issues to reach a new deal. One of the most fundamental is free agency, which is as craved by the players but opposed by the league and its owners. AEG president Tim Leiweke said this week, "We will wait as long as it takes. We will never, ever agree to change the [single-entity] system."
Perhaps a new CBA will be agreed upon, and the brinkmanship that we have endured over the recent days, weeks and months will be seen merely as the effective use of legitimate negotiating techniques employed by opposing sides keen to get the best outcome for those they represent. This is the best-case scenario.
The alternative, more unthinkable outcome is that the most eagerly anticipated season in the league's history will not begin on time. In that instance, everyone suffers: administrators, coaches, players and fans. Furthermore, the global image of MLS would take a hit.
U.S. confirms Australia friendly
The U.S' pre-World Cup schedule is complete following the addition of a June 5 friendly against Australia, which will be played in Roodepoort, a suburb of Johannesburg. Following that, the U.S. will play the Czech Republic (May 25) and Turkey (May 29). The encounter with the Socceroos completes a trio of testing ties, which should have Bob Bradley's side well prepared for its tournament opener against England on June 12.
The difficulty level of this year's schedule is in welcome contrast to the final three games played prior to the 2006 World Cup. With due respect to Morocco, Venezuela and Latvia, contests against nations currently placed 25th, 41st and 23rd in FIFA's rankings will provide a more realistic reflection of the competition that is to follow for the U.S.
Good luck, recovering man
In case any of you have been hiding under a rock for the past few days, David Beckham suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon on Sunday, an injury that will keep him out of action for at least six months.
Of course, much of the immediate attention centered on the fact that he will miss the World Cup, but Los Angeles Galaxy fans are no doubt more concerned by the loss of one of their star men in 2010. Indeed, some may even be fretting that they have seen the last of Beckham in a Galaxy uniform. Approaching 35, could this be the end of an outstanding career?
Beckham has insisted that the most serious injury he has ever suffered will not cause him to prematurely hang up his boots, and barring any serious complications in his recovery, I expect this to be the case. After all, it was not too long ago that he stated his desire to play until the age of 40. The Galaxy should reap the benefits of his desire for such longevity, given that they, not England or AC Milan, will likely be his one and only priority.
A thing that made me go hmmm
According to a report on the club's Web site, Valencia is to play three games on a preseason tour of the U.S.' northeast this summer.
The six-time La Liga champions claims it will play games against Philadelphia, New England and DC United between July 31 and Aug. 8, although it should be noted that nothing has been confirmed by the prospective opponents. Indeed, New England has flatly denied the story. In previous years, Valencia has been linked with providing All-Star game opposition.
Donovan's situation differs from that of Beckham a year ago
I wonder if David Beckham has afforded himself a wry smile at the irony of this week's statements from Landon Donovan, in which he said he would like to skip the start of the MLS season in order to lengthen his stay with Everton.
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, as Donovan prepared for the new MLS season with the L.A. Galaxy, his hackles were raised by Beckham's successful lobbying for an extension to his loan at AC Milan, and Donovan went public with his criticism, claiming that, among other things, the Englishman was not committed to coach Bruce Arena's side.
For Los Angeles, the knock-on effect was having to play the opening 3½ months of 2009 without one-half of its most dynamic duo. When Beckham did return, the media descended on the Home Depot Center to report on the conflict between the club's two stars, causing an unwelcome distraction for them and the rest of the team.
In the months following, Donovan mended fences, admitting he was "unfair" and that he did not give Beckham a chance to show his humility. He also signed a new contract with MLS, one of the clauses of which allowed him to seek overseas loans during the offseason. Soon afterward, a deal was struck with Everton, which led to a loan spell so successful that both player and club have sought to increase its length.
Some may claim that, given his criticism of Beckham last year, Donovan's quest for an extension of his own makes him look hypocritical and guilty of some of the same failings. However, though it is true that there are similarities between the situations, they are not completely identical.
First and foremost, like the rest of us, soccer players are fundamentally motivated by looking after "No. 1." Given that, the actions of Beckham a year ago and of Donovan now are understandable. Both are career-minded men who have come to see a greater benefit for themselves in playing abroad -- in the short-term at least -- than in plying their trade in MLS.
However, whereas Beckham's ultimate aim was to effectively double the length of his loan in order to finish the Serie A season with AC Milan, Donovan is on record as saying that he wants to extend his stay with Everton by just one month until April 15, which would allow him to play immediately for the Galaxy upon his return to Los Angeles.
If, that is, there are games to play in -- the specter of a possible players' strike has to be a major factor in Donovan's thinking and a major reason for the game of brinkmanship he is currently attempting to play. Returning to America only to then down tools in solidarity with his colleagues would do little for his career, especially with a World Cup looming.
Meanwhile, projecting forward to the longer term, I wonder what Donovan's thoughts are about the four-year, $9 million contract he signed in December. Does he regret putting pen to paper, or will his ambition be satisfied by a two-month sojourn in Europe every January?
Perhaps we will never find out. Such has been the impression Donovan has made in his short time at Everton. His list of suitors has grown to the extent that, if the price is right, a post-World Cup transfer back to Europe is a strong possibility -- although whether Goodison Park would become his new, permanent home would remain to be seen.
The future, though, is just that. For now, Donovan will settle for another month on Merseyside.
A thing that made me go hmmm
Donovan's future could be impacted by the latest collective bargaining agreement talks, which are due to take place this week.
After two negotiation extensions still failed to provide enough time for MLS players, the league and its owners to come to terms on a new deal, the opposing sides will return to the table along with George H. Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who will serve as mediator in the discussions.
It should be noted that Cohen's presence is in a "nonbinding" capacity, meaning nobody should be fooled into thinking that, at this stage, this is anything other than a small step in the right direction toward finally agreeing on a new CBA. His input may help, or it may muddy the waters further.
The fact is that the divisive issues remain the same. The players remain focused on their goals, with two of the most fundamental being free agency and guaranteed contracts, both of which the league and owners have hitherto refused to grant.
For its part, MLS is prepared to operate under the old CBA and has stated that it will not sanction a lockout. Thus, there is greater onus on the players to make something happen. Time is running short to get a deal done before the start of the regular season on March 25, a date which could, in theory, see players use the most useful piece of leverage remaining to them, which is to strike.
This is how Rafael Van der Vaart, the Netherlands midfielder, described the U.S. men's team after Wednesday's friendly in Amsterdam:
"A robust side, but not great in terms of quality," he said, in Dutch. "Hard to play against, though. They played compact, we had trouble getting through. Soccer-wise, they're not great, but they're hard to beat."
Should these comments cause affront to American fans or are they, in fact, a backhanded compliment? I tend to lean toward the latter viewpoint and think that it does no harm to the U.S.'s reputation if the squad is known as an opponent that, no matter how well it may be playing, is always a tough nut to crack.
The Netherlands game was a case in point. It wasn't pretty and there are many areas in which improvements can be made, but it is of some comfort that Bob Bradley's side hung in there against a side that won all eight of its World Cup qualifiers and has been beaten only once at home since 2005 -- a span of 25 games.
Now, having established itself as a hard-to-beat opponent, can the U.S. kick on to compete at soccer's top table, so that results such as last year's Confederations Cup semifinal win against Spain are seen less as flukes and more as the norm?
Work to do
Alexi Lalas' comments at the end of the game were spot-on when he said the final 15 minutes shouldn't mask the Americans' overall performance. The Netherlands had taken its foot off the gas as it rang the changes, and the withdrawals of Nigel De Jong and Mark Van Bommel opened previously unavailable space in midfield.
That said, although there were plenty of negatives, there also were some positive aspects to the U.S.'s display. Defensively, Jay DeMerit's return was a plus and, further forward, Michael Bradley put in a good shift against accomplished opponents. DaMarcus Beasley and Maurice Edu were solid off the bench. Up front, Jozy Altidore was a willing runner, though he received little support.
Such help in the attacking third should come from Clint Dempsey, one of a number of key men who have to be healthy if the U.S. is to do anything of note this summer. The Fulham man could be back in action in the next couple of weeks, and his return may be followed swiftly by that of Oguchi Onyewu -- although playing time with AC Milan may be an issue for the defender.
Of course, the positive news -- which also features Charlie Davies, Steve Cherundolo and Ricardo Clark -- has been offset by another negative blow, this time to Stuart Holden. American fans may be forgiven for wondering what they have done to offend Lady Luck, who continues to be a cruel mistress.
Group C watch
England: beat Egypt 3-1
The final score looks comfortable, but this was no walkover at Wembley for England. As the hosts struggled for ideas, Africa's champion excelled in the first half and was deserving of the lead given to it by Mohammed Zidan's cool finish.
Fabio Capello shook things up at the interval, and whatever he said had the desired effect, as England upped the tempo to eventually overrun the Pharaohs. Substitute Peter Crouch scored twice and generally provided a more suitable foil up front to Wayne Rooney than had Jermain Defoe earlier.
Slovenia: beat Qatar 4-1
A comfortable win over an opponent ranked 92nd in the world was probably the least anyone expected, so in that respect this was a useful run-out for Slovenia.
Beyond that, it's hard to read too much into the display of Matjaz Kek's men, who cruised to a 3-0 lead after 34 minutes. Among the scorers was Milivoje Novakovic, who notched five goals during World Cup qualifying and, at 6-foot-4, is sure to prove a handful for any defense.
Algeria: lost to Serbia 3-0
A full house was on hand in Algiers to celebrate the nation's first World Cup qualification in 24 years, but the pageantry that preceded the game was contrasted by the disappointing display that followed.
Serbia took the lead after Algerian goalkeeper Lounes Gaouaoui missed a left-wing cross, and it added two more goals in the second half. At the other end, the Desert Foxes' attacking woes continued. This was the fifth time in seven games that Rabah Saadane's side had failed to score.