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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Inter Winners, Barca Losers in Ibra-Eto’o Swap

            Over the past week, a deal has been in the works between Inter Milan and Barcelona that would swap strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o between clubs.  Now that the players have each agreed on personal terms, it looks as if the transfer is finally complete.  Altogether, Barcelona will be sending Eto’o, Alexsander Hleb on yearlong loan, and 50 million euros to Inter in exchange for the Swedish striker’s services.  As Inter boss Jose Mourinho has said, this very well may be “the deal of the summer.”

            Mourinho is obviously ecstatic at the trade his club has just finalized.  Internazionale, desperately seeking their first ever European title, have just landed a proven Champions League goal-scorer in Eto’o, a fantastic wing player in Hleb, and enough money to buy one, even two more quality footballers.  All this gained at the small price of offloading perhaps Europe’s most overrated striker.

            Barcelona, on the other hand, must surely be second-guessing their involvement in one of the most lopsided exchanges in football this decade.  Figuring that Eto’o is of just as much, if not more worth than Ibrahimovic, naturally a swap for these two alone would have seemed fit for each club.  And, Barca most certainly could have wagered more in return for Hleb, who, while a misfit at the Camp Nou, has proved his brilliance in recent years, most notably during his time at Arsenal.  On top of this, the extra 50 million euros thrown away by the Catalonian club seems absolutely unnecessary.

            Barcelona will also have a bit of difficulty fitting Ibrahimovic into their formation.  Unlike Eto’o, who is great at getting behind the opposition’s defense off the ball, the Swedish international will act more as a target man.  It is also important to note that Ibra’s shoot-first, pass-second mentality will not be welcomed kindly by the likes of Lionel Messi and Thierry Henry.  Most importantly, if Zlatan wants success at the Camp Nou, he must abandon his Champions League struggles and find the back of the net on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.

            From a footballing perspective, it will be interesting to watch both Eto’o and Ibrahimovic with their new clubs, but economically, this deal seems quite a bit odd.  Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola has stated his desire to attain new, hungry personnel after winning the treble in his first year at the helm.  His wishes, though, have lead to an enormous blunder by Barcelona management.  And at the cost of the Catalonian club, Inter Milan find themselves a much improved side heading into a season in which coach Mourinho is desperate to win the Champions League title that Barcelona currently hold.

Americans Abroad: Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy)

            Landon Donovan has been reborn.  Once considered the Godsend for American soccer as a young blonde-haired California boy with lightning speed and promising skills, ten years later, the LA Galaxy captain plays a game that has matured even more than his appearance.  Although struggling with his form through the middle of the decade and enduring harsh criticism, Donovan has reemerged as the leader and most talented player on the United States national team.

            As many of his American teammates did, Donovan used this summer’s Confederations Cup as an opportunity to showcase his skills on the world stage.  And boy, did he do a magnificent job.  An excellent decision maker, a great distributor of the ball, capable of playing on either side of the field, and a relentless worker, Donovan is by far the best player on the United States team.  He was also perhaps one of the best performers in the recent World Cup tune-up.  After driving his nation to an outstanding second place finish in the Confederations Cup, Donovan looks to be receiving offers from European clubs this summer.

            Donovan is not all too familiar with European football, however, something he has been criticized for throughout his career.  Finding it difficult to leave his native California, Donovan has played the majority of his club football with the San Jose Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS.  In effort to take his game to Europe, Donovan attempted two stints in the German Bundesliga, one with Bayern Leverkusen and another with Bayern Munich.  Both, however, were unsuccessful.

            Donovan can succeed in Europe, though.  His two stays in Germany were atypical of what he would naturally encounter in a move across the Atlantic.  While at Leverkusen, a young, immature Donovan found it difficult to adapt to life in Germany.  And at Bayern he was forced to compete for playing time with an attacking unit consisting of Lukas Podolski, Miroslav Klose, Bastien Schweinsteiger, and Franck Ribery, thus not often seeing the pitch.  Should Donovan find the right opportunity with a team that actually needs his services, he can thrive in club football outside the US.

            Donovan’s skill has never been a question, and now that he has matured, at age 27 his time has come.  Apparently, newly promoted Serie A side Livorno have shown interest in Donovan, although the Galaxy captain should honestly be aiming for bigger things.  He has expressed interest in playing in Spain, where there would be no language-barrier, for he speaks fluent Spanish.  And with his speed, he could certainly fit well in the English Premier League with a team like Fulham or Everton, for instance.  But whether Italy, Spain, or even England, Donovan can without a doubt compete in any of the world’s top three leagues.  Now, it’s time for America’s biggest name to strut his stuff in Europe.

Americans Abroad: Clint Dempsey (Fulham)

Americans Abroad

            In my most recent article, I stressed the importance of our American internationals playing their club football in Europe.  In lieu of this, I would like to track the statuses of both the American players currently abroad, and also those who could be going abroad this summer.  I will compose a series of mini-articles, each of which I will dedicate to a different individual.  For previous articles pertaining to “Americans Abroad,” see “Jozy Altidore to Olympiacos” and “Eddie Johnson Revival.”  I will begin with Clint Dempsey.


            Clint Dempsey is one of the most successful United States footballers currently playing in Europe.  He plays his club football for Fulham FC of the English Premier League.  His tenure at Craven Cottage has been fantastic, to say the least.

            After only two and a half years abroad, Dempsey has established himself as a regular in the Fulham starting XI and as one of the club’s top performers.  Alternating between positions on the flank and up top as a striker, Dempsey tallied seven goals this past season, leading the Cottagers in scoring.  Two of these goals came in a 2-2 tie against powerhouse Chelsea, and another two in a 3-1 victory away at Manchester City.  These two enormous results proved crucial in a season where the Cottagers finished seventh place by two points, earning the last English spot for the next season’s Europa League.  This is only the second time in club history that Fulham has qualified for Europe.

            While willing Fulham to a stellar season, Dempsey has made a name for himself in England, one other clubs have certainly recognized.  Recent reports indicate that Dempsey has rejected a contract extension at the Cottage, thus indicating that he, too, is aware of his growing popularity.  After next season, Deuce will be free of his contract with Fulham and most likely looking to sign with a bigger club.

            Dempsey’s success in England has certainly affected his international play, most notably his performance in the recent Confederations Cup this summer.  While ineffective in the United States’ first two losses against Italy and Brazil, the Texas native was able to spark a seemingly improbable turnaround for the USA, leading his country to the tournament finals by scoring in each of their final three games.  Ultimately, Dempsey was the recipient of the tournament’s bronze ball, the award given to the third best player in the competition.

            With such great success in both England and on the international stage, Dempsey is blooming with confidence, perhaps his best asset on the pitch.  While not a dominant force in the game nor a consistent goal-scorer, Dempsey is on the field, as USA coach Bob Bradley says, “to provide moments of brilliance.”  And brilliant he certainly is becoming.  Fortunately, for Dempsey, there could not have been a better time for him to burst onto the world football scene as he is doing now.  This upcoming season, with another campaign in England, European competition, and the World Cup less than a year away, Clint Dempsey has a world of opportunity to take his game to the next level.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

US Confed Cup Success Bred in Europe

            In looking at Bob Bradley’s squads for the United States’ extremely successful Confederations Cup showing, there is one statistic similar amongst the majority of the USA players.  With the exception of a few individuals, the American line-ups consisted of players playing their club soccer in Europe.  No surprises here, though.  Soccer junkies all across the United States have been calling for our stars to go abroad for the past few years now.  There is no irony in the fact that now that America’s best talents are playing club football in Europe, the United States Men’s national team has had its best finish in any non-CONCACAF international tournament ever.

            Not knocking on MLS, but everything about club football on the other side of the Atlantic is that much better: the coaching, the competition, the supporters, etc..  Heck, even the schedules of game play are better.  (MLS still finds it sensible to hold their seasonal play throughout the summer, the time of year when all major international contests are played, most notably the World Cup.)  By playing in European nations, where the world’s best club football is played, whether England or Denmark, or France or Sweden, many of the United States internationals have found themselves more developed, better educated, more experienced, and all around better football players on the international stage.

            Of the 17 players that saw the pitch in the red, white, and blue outfit at this summer’s Confederations Cup, 12 play their club football in Europe: Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Michel Bradley (Borussia Monchengladbach), Benny Feilhaber (Aarhus Gymnastikforening), Charlie Davies (Hammarby), Jozy Altidore (Villareal), Damarcus Beasley (Rangers), Jonathan Spector (West Ham United), Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liege), Jay Demerit (Watford), Carlos Bocanegra (Stade Rennais), Tim Howard (Everton), and Brad Guzan (Aston Villa).  With the exception of Damarcus Beasley, who has struggled to recover his form since a serious knee injury sustained while playing with Rangers in 2008, these players were no doubt the core of the United States’ success.  Dempsey received the Bronze Ball, awarded to the tournament’s third best player.  Feilhaber showed no hesitation in taking on men in front of him.  Davies ran at defenders, wreaking havoc in the Egyptian, Spanish, and Brazilian back lines.  Oguchi Onyewu was a rock in the American defense.  And Tim Howard, easily the tournament MVP for the United States, was absolutely world class in goal.

            The remaining players, Landon Donovan, Ricardo Clark, Sacha Kljestan, Conor Casey, and Jonathan Bornstein, play their club football in MLS.  To be fair, Donovan was fantastic this tournament and Clark was a workhorse in the midfield.  Kljestan, Casey, and Bornstein, however, were totally ineffective on the pitch.  These players did nothing to establish their presence on the pitch, most notably lacking confidence and efficiency in decision-making.  European football would help these players, as well as the MLS stars who rode the USA bench this tournament, develop into better international competitors.

            So, not to beat a dead horse, but European football is where it’s at.  Fortunately, the number of Americans going abroad is increasing, and more and more European coaches are exploring the American market.  Historically, against the world’s biggest teams, the United States has lacked confidence and their technical weaknesses have often been exploited.  The recent Confederations Cup suggests otherwise, though.  And as more American footballers make their way to Europe, hopefully this summer’s success is just the beginning of more to come for the great USA.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Big Spending City Under Pressure This Season

            This coming season, no EPL team is under more pressure than Manchester City.  Now the richest football club in the world, City have already signed £90 million worth of new players this summer and show no intention of ending their spending spree.  With an attacking unit that now boasts Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gareth Barry, Roque Santa Cruz, as well as returning players Robinho, Steven Ireland, Elano, and Shaun Wright-Phillips, City may very well have the strongest offense in England.  However, after a disappointing campaign last year, during which manager Mark Hughes failed to meet high expectations, Manchester City need a successful 2009-2010 season to justify their big spending.

            While imitating the Real Madrid Los Galacticos method of signing big name offensive players finds Man City in a promising situation, their squad lacks defense, something that could be a major problem this coming season.  With Richard Dunne suffering a recent decline in form, Wayne Bridge and Micah Richards seem to be the only legitimate defenders on the City roster.  And it seems that John Terry does not fancy a move to the Eastlands as recent reports indicated, leaving Manchester City in desperate need of another defender.

            Ultimately, Manchester City ownership would like to see their team break into the EPLs “Big Four.”  And with Arsenal in a funk in recent years, now may be the time to do so.  After underperforming last season, only managing a tenth place finish, City fans are expecting a huge turnaround, one many deem too difficult to accomplish in such a short time frame.  Now, as the most threatening contender to disrupt England’s “Big Four,” this coming season, Manchester City will show whether or not they can live up to the enormous expectations they have built for themselves.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Eddie Johnson Revival?

           Eddie Johnson scored for Fulham this past weekend in a pre-season tune-up against Melbourne Victory of the Australian A-League, which the Cottagers won 3-0.  This was Johnson’s first goal in all competitions for the English Premier League side since joining in early 2008.  Does this goal forecast a revival for the forgotten United States’ striker?

            The word most characteristic of Eddie Johnson’s football career may very well be “inconsistent.”  Since 2000 when Johnson was 16, his time in professional football has been full of ups and downs.  Showing great potential at IMG Soccer Academy and as an establishment on the United States U-17 team, Johnson was drafted into the MLS by the Dallas Burn.  Initially he lacked consistency and struggled to find playing time.  By the end of 2003, though, Johnson had burst onto the United States soccer scene, winning the Golden Shoe at that year’s FIFA World Youth Championships as the tournament’s top scorer and also finding the back of the net more often with Dallas in MLS.  Soon after, he began earning caps with U.S. Men’s Senior Squad.  With impressive performances during the qualifying campaign for the 2006 World Cup, Johnson earned himself limited, but valuable playing time in Germany that summer.  Following the World Cup, though, Johnson’s club performances grew worse, resulting in a loss of his spot on the national team.  A quick reemergence in form, however, saw him once again thriving in MLS with the Kansas City Wizards.  At this, Johnson signed with Fulham, where his inconsistency has since been an issue.

            The interesting thing, though, is that Johnson has a boatload of potential- and European football has acknowledged this.  In 2005, Benefica (Portugal) attempted to sign Johnson for $5 million, a deal both the striker and MLS rejected.  Just before the 2006-2007 European football campaign, Johnson would have began a yearlong loan at La Liga’s Real Sociedad if new ownership of Kansas City, Johnson’s club at the time, had not interfered.  Later that year, Johnson trained with English Premier League side Reading, although a deal was never completed.  And in 2007 after being linked with newly promoted Premiership side Derby County, Johnson signed with Fulham, another EPL team, finally taking his football career abroad.

            Johnson’s first months at Fulham were a disaster.  He managed only six appearances and when on the pitch, was absolutely ineffective.  Manager Roy Hodgson often played Johnson as a winger in a 4-3-3 formation rather than his preferred role up top, contributing to the American’s struggles at Craven Cottage.  Fulham then decided to loan Johnson to Championship side Cardiff City.  At Cardiff, Johnson was far from spectacular, although much improved, finding 30 appearances and scoring two goals.

            This summer the American striker has returned to Fulham hoping to build on his experience in English football’s second division.  Fulham are coming off a fantastic season that saw them finish seventh in the Premier League and earn qualification for this season’s Europa Leauge.  They do, however, lack depth and will be looking for a contribution from Johnson in a busier-than-usual campaign this coming season.  And with recent reports indicating that Fulham have sold striker Bobby Zamora, a regular in the Fulham starting eleven last season, Hodgson may be looking for Johnson to take on a more active role this year. 

            Potential is something Eddie Johnson certainly does not lack.  After a yearlong struggle in England, Johnson should find himself a more matured and experienced footballer.  He now must realize that he cannot waltz around amongst the world’s top competition like he could in MLS.  Johnson’s goal this past weekend provides a glimmer of hope that he may rediscover his form with the Cottagers this fall.  Should he do so, the young American talent has a bright future ahead of him.

Jozy Altidore to Olympiacos

           Reports indicate that United States striker Jozy Altidore will join Greek powerhouse Olympiacos on loan from Spanish side Villareal for this upcoming season.  Altidore, who is one of the many United States internationals benefitting this transfer window from a surprisingly strong Confederations Cup showing, will be joining the most decorated team in Greek football.  This, unlike his first loan away from Villareal, looks to become a permanent deal as Altidore has expressed his desire to leave the Yellow Submarine, where he struggled to find playing time.

            This is quite an interesting move for Altidore.  Ironically, the 19 year old, while perhaps the most promising of young American footballers, will most likely be the only U.S.A. international moving to a weaker club this summer.  However, after a disappointing experience at Villareal, Altidore’s new team may provide him with just the right opportunity he needs to build his European career.

            At Olympiacos, Altidore will be given a great balance of success and mediocrity.  Olympiacos are the most successful football club in Greek history, winners of 37 Super League Greece titles and overall, over 50% of Greek football trophies.  Having won the League the past five years, Olympiacos will give Altidore a chance to win a domestic title in Europe, something only two Americans have ever done before: Damarcus Beasley with PSV (Holland) in 2005 and 2006 and Claudio Reyna with Rangers (Scotland) in 1999.  And because of these frequent championships, Altidore is very likely to experience Champions League football each year he spends at his new club, an enormous benefit for a young talent like himself.  Yet, despite their domestic dominance, the Greek giants are no continental powerhouse and thus do not necessarily attract individual names as big as their own.  Therefore, Altidore is likely to find in Greece what he could not in Spain: playing time.

            There is, though, a little bit of disappointment looming at the news of Altidore’s transfer from Spain.  Olympiacos is certainly a weaker side than Villareal, yes, but even more of a downgrade is the quality of opposition Altidore will be facing.  Although Olympiacos is a dominating force in Greece, the league they compete in is ranked 12th in Europe by UEFA, while Spain, Altidore’s former home, now arguably hosts the best football competition in the world.  Many have thought that, even if Altidore’s demands were a move away from Spain, he could succeed in the English Premiership, also perhaps the top football league in the world.  With the fast, long ball style of play and his big, strong body up front, Altidore might not be a bad buy for a bottom half of the table English team.  It was only last year when David Moyes of Everton was rumored to be interested in the Villareal outcast.  Unfortunately, though, with his move to Greece, Altidore will surely experience a weaker quality of play.

            In the end, however, for Jozy Altidore, the transfer to Olympiacos makes sense.  His gigantic move from New York Red Bulls of MLS to Villareal in 2008 proved too much too soon for the young American.  Altidore did not see the pitch more than six times in Spain, leaving him with a bitter feeling following the 2008-2009 campaign.  But, in June of this summer it was Altidore who had the last laugh, scoring the winning goal in the United States’ shocking upset over Spain in the Confederations Cup.  Now, instead taking a step-by-step approach with European football, Jozy Altidore prepares for the fall in Greece, the first stage of his very promising career.

Dutch Migration to Manchester?

           Perhaps the two biggest headlines of this summer’s transfer window so far are Real Madrid’s revival of Los Galacticos and Manchester United’s inability to sign a big name to fill the voids left in their squad by the departures of Christiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez.  Interestingly enough, though, Real’s ridiculous spending spree leaves them with a handful of players who can only figure that their spots at the Bernabéu have been taken by new signings Kaka, Christiano Ronaldo, and Karim Benzema.  With the exception of Raul and Gonzalo Higuain, both of whom are unlikely to leave Spain, in the 2008-2009 campaign Real fielded nearly an all-Dutch attacking unit consisting of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Rafael van der Vaart, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wesley Sneijder, and Arjen Robben.  Coincidentally, Manchester United needs attackers and at least a few of these five Dutchmen need new homes.

            Most notably among this list are Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben.  With Ronaldo gone, the United line up is lacking creativity on the wings, something Sneijder and Robben could very well provide.  Wingers currently on the Manchester United roster include Park Ji-Sung, Nani, Ryan Giggs, and new signing Antonio Valencia.  However, with Giggs taking on more of a central role as of late and Nani having been offered to Atlético Madrid in attempt to lure Sergio Aguero to Old Trafford, Sir Alex cannot think that Valencia and Park will be the ones to will his side to another EPL championship.  It also seems unclear at this point whether United will line up in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 this upcoming season.  If the Red Devils were to sign one of these Dutchmen, Sneijder or Robben, each player’s flexibility would allow him to flourish in either system.

            It appears that United are also looking to sign another striker.  (Wait, I though Michael Owen was the savior?)  Yet, it seems unlikely that Aguero would leave Spain and if reports that link Inter Milan front man Zlatan Ibrahimovic prove false, as they most likely will, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could certainly be a viable option.  After transferring from Ajax to Real Madrid just last January, Huntelaar has proven he can not only succeed at the highest level, but also that he can quickly adapt to a new league, scoring eight goals in just half a season with Real.

            At this point with no Ronaldo, no Tevez, and no big summer signings, Manchester United supporters have reason to be concerned.  Yet, should they sign one of Real’s Dutch outcasts, things at Old Trafford might just be alright.

A Month Later, Looking at the Ronaldo Transfer

           Initially, upon the news of Christiano Ronaldo’s record breaking transfer from Manchester United to Real Madrid, many were quick to criticize the Portuguese winger for what they saw as an ignorant, arrogant move, most specifically the British media and Red Devils supporters themselves.  However, nearly a month later, life at the Bernabéu has taken on some exciting personnel changes, while United have been oddly subtle in this summer’s transfer window.  Now that the shocking news of Ronaldo’s £80 million move has settled in, how does his future look now?

Team: Advantage Real Madrid

            In recent years, Manchester United have clearly been a better side than Real Madrid, most notably in Europe.  Historically, however, Real has had better success, a past they look sure to revive next season.  In effort to mimick the Galacticos era from previously in the decade, Florentino Perez has returned as president of the club and is fulfilling his promise of big spending.  Not even two months into the 2009 summer transfer window, alongside Ronaldo, Real has signed Kaka and Karim Benzema.  And Franck Ribery has come out and said he wants to leave Bayern Munich for Real only.  Among returning players at the club are Raul, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Wesley Schneider, and Robben, to name a few.  No defense?  No worries.  With an offense like that, Real Madrid boasts Europe’s most high-powered attack for the upcoming season.

            Manchester United, on the other hand, have unexpectedly experienced difficulty attracting big names to the club.  Having already lost Ronaldo, and with Carlos Tevez announcing his departure from Old Trafford, the Red Devils look to replace scorers of 87 goals over the past two years.  So far, injury-prone Michael Owen, Antonio Valencia formerly of Wigan, and French international Gabriel Obertan look to be United’s only solution, which on paper looks mediocre at best.

Manager: Advantage Manchester United

            As Christiano acknowledged during an interview following his presentation at Real Madrid, Sir Alex Ferguson is the “father” of his footballing career.  Ferguson, arguably the best manager in the world, has made Ronaldo nearly everything the player has come to be.  Unfortunately, equivalent coaching is something Ronaldo will not experience at Real Madrid.  In fact, Ronaldo may even lack consistent managerial personnel during his time at the Bernabéu.  Real dispose of mangagers like toilet paper, with five different individuals at the helm over the past five seasons.  Fabio Capello was even sacked after winning La Liga in 2007.  For Premier League junkies like myself, we see specifically with Chelsea how this has found not success on the field, but rather division in the locker room.  Frequent managerial changes at Real may have Ronaldo wishing he hadn’t left the world’s best coach after all.

League: Even

            Which league in Europe is the best is a very controversial topic.  Most, like myself, would say the English Premier League, but if there was any challenger, it would most definitely be Spain’s La Liga.  While lately the EPL has had better success advancing deep into the Champion’s League, Barcelona are the reigning champions, and Real Madrid look poised to go far next year. Neither league does very well in the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League), though.  Also note that many of Europe’s big stars are spurning England this summer, too.  Both Benzema and Ribery have said they don’t like English football (or in Ribery’s case, English weather), and David Villa wants to remain in Spain despite huge interest from both Chelsea and Man U.

Future: Ronaldo

            The coming years are more an advantage to Ronaldo than they are to Real or a disadvantage to Manchester United.  Ronaldo has constantly reiterated that playing at Real for him will be fulfillment of a childhood dream.  With United he has already won every trophy in England- the Premier League, the FA Cup, the Carling Cup- as well as achieving a Champions League title and a FIFA Club World Cup title.  The 2009-2010 campaign will allow him to start from scratch in a quest to win the Spanish equivalent of trophies.  As Ronaldo hopes, in a few years he will have dominated football in not one country, but two.

Verdict: Not so fast my friend.  Christiano Ronaldo’s transfer doesn’t look so bad after all.