Tuesday October 23rd, 2007

You've got questions, I've got answers. Let's dig in ....

Now that the MLS Playoffs are upon us, how do you like D.C. United's chances of winning the MLS Cup at home in RFK? -- Jeff Davenhall, Ashburn, Va.

Despite some late-season struggles at home, I like United's chances to win jersey star No. 5 at MLS Cup XII. (I always thought the Roman numerals looked better.) Here's my quick take on the road ahead:


No. 1 D.C. United vs. No. 4 Chicago

Cuauhtémoc Blanco has turned the Fire into a dangerous four-seed, but Chicago's finishing has been abysmal of late. United's collective shrug over the Supporter's Shield shows D.C. means business. The pick: United.

No. 2 New England vs. No. 3 New York

It would be a shame if this Revs outfit didn't win an MLS Cup during such a productive stretch over the past few years. But I think Juan Pablo Ángel shows his class in a tight one. The pick: New York.


No. 1 Chivas USA vs. No. 4 Kansas City

These two aren't exactly on fire heading into the playoffs, but Chivas has shown too much grit and cohesion all season to let Ante Razov's injury cause it to fall apart. The pick: Chivas.

No. 2 Houston vs. No. 3 FC Dallas

Even without the suspended Rico Clark, Houston has too many playoff pros for the perennially underachieving Hoops. The pick: Houston.


East: D.C. United over New York

West: Houston over Chivas USA


Ben Olsen caps a turn-back-the-clock season with a man-of-the-match performance in front of the home fans. The pick: D.C. United.

Do you think there's a timetable in place for Jozy Altidore receiving his first senior international cap? Also, do you think he would have been called up for the Switzerland match if he was playing for a European club right now? And what have you heard about him jumping the pond in January? I know he's young but it seems his skill set would partner with Clint Dempsey better than any of the current options on Bob Bradley's roster. -- Nicholas Rogers, San Francisco

If Altidore's Red Bulls fail to reach the MLS Cup final, I suspect he'll get called into his first U.S. senior national-team camp for the friendly at South Africa on Nov. 17. Like nearly all of you, I want to see how the 17-year-old center forward fits into Bradley's plans, and right now Altidore seems like a better option up front than Taylor Twellman or Eddie Johnson, one who could allow Landon Donovan and Dempsey to both play the withdrawn roles they're best suited for.

With national teams the process never happens as quickly as you'd like, however, and the emphasis in Altidore's first camp experience (as it was with Freddy Adu, Danny Szetela and any other newbies) will be more on how he performs in training every day than on his likely 15-minute debut on the field.

As for Altidore's overseas prospects, I think chances are he'll be in MLS next season unless he lights up the playoffs and a perfect opportunity comes his way. That's not a bad thing; Altidore's in a good situation in New York playing alongside Ángel and getting regular burn playing for one of the league's best coaches (Bruce Arena) when it comes to developing young talent. That would also allow Altidore to be part of the long U.S. training camp in January and potentially get some starts up front for the Yanks.

Judging by the last 15 minutes of the U.S.-Swiss game, it seems as though Adu put up a strong argument for a chance to play the entire game against South Africa. In the spirit of experimental lineups before World Cup qualifying do you think Bradley is going to take an extremely young lineup to South Africa? -- Tyler Gillespie, Columbus, Ohio

Sports Illustrated scribe George Dohrmann (a big soccer fan) and I actually made a list of all the positive things Adu did in his short time on the field against Switzerland, and it was a long list for a guy who didn't play very long. Adu was active and dangerous, and it was a good step toward earning more time in the near-future.

I know that the U.S. coaching staff was also looking closely at how Adu would perform in training every day, hoping that he wouldn't bring any of the attitude that's sometimes a drag on his game. (Let's just say it's probably time that Adu stops calling out Peter Nowak for "overcoaching" him during his D.C. United days, considering that Nowak is an assistant coach for the U.S. senior team and the head coach of the Olympic team Adu wants to play for next year.)

Take out your crystal ball and tell us: Who will be the starting XI when the national team begins World Cup qualifying next year? -- Paul Hauge, Westfield, N.J.

This is just me trying to read the oft-impenetrable mind of Bradley, but here goes:

Goalkeeper: Tim Howard.

Defenders: Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Bornstein.

Midfielders: Donovan, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, DaMarcus Beasley.

Forwards: Dempsey, Altidore.

None of those are really going out on a limb, but Bradley's not one of those guys who's big on surprises anyway.

Which big-name signings do you see coming to MLS in the next year? Conversely, who do you see leaving MLS for Europe in the off-season? -- Jim, Sunnyvale, Calif.

The name that seems most likely is Juan Sebastián Verón to D.C. United. Other than that I'm not hearing anything that's worth taking seriously. As for departures, Johnson looks like a solid candidate to move to Europe, but I doubt we'll see as big a migration as the one made by the U.S. U-20 guys (Adu, Szetela, Sal Zizzo) during the summer.

Do you think Giuseppe Rossi will ever play for the U.S.? -- Luis Escalante, Pasadena, Calif.

If I was a betting man, I'd say no. Rossi clearly wants to play for Italy, and his performances with Villarreal suggest he'll get that opportunity with the Azzurri's senior team before long. Don't think the USSF hasn't been trying to persuade Rossi to go with his New Jersey-born roots instead. Bradley admitted recently that he's spoken with Rossi about it, and I was told last year that Sunil Gulati had been working on Rossi through his former assistant coach at Manchester United, Carlos Queiroz (a Gulati chum).

Why am I not hearing rumors of every MLS team that has not used its DP spot bidding on Juan Román Riquelme? -- Mike, Seattle

Riquelme certainly seems like an ideal DP target, but there's one big complication: a transfer fee. Villarreal is likely to sell Riquelme (who's clearly not in the Yellow Submarine's plans) for well more than a $10 million fee, and one thing you'll notice about MLS's DP signings this season (including David Beckham) was that they came on free transfers.

In fact, the Galaxy had no desire to pay Real Madrid even the limited sum that would have sent Becks to L.A. for the start of the season. MLS teams' unwillingness to pay big transfer fees on the world market is only one of several reasons why we haven't seen that many DPs this season (and may see even fewer in 2008).

(All this Riquelme talk reminds me, make sure to check out this excellent blog featuring the genius stylings of Ray Hudson, one of JRR's biggest admirers. There's a reason why Hudson is my favorite TV commentator working today, the Dick Vitale of American soccer.)

Please shed some light on why Donovan won the U.S. Player of the Year award. I know it's based on national-team performances but all but one or two of his goals came from penalties or a hat-trick against Ecuador. He also gets a free pass from scribes like you, which further validates that we are not a real soccer nation in that the press refuses to criticize an alleged top player. There would be riots in England if a Steven Gerrard or Wayne Rooney insisted on playing with QPR in the Championship rather than a Liverpool or Manchester United. -- Brett MacQuarrie, Boston

Well, if England is your gold standard for soccer journalism, then consider me glad not to make the cut. I don't vote for the U.S. Player of the Year award, and to be frank this was one of those years that I didn't feel like any Yank really deserved it. Donovan had a brutal '06 and got plenty of criticism for it (including in this column), and his World Cup performance was best symbolized by his inexplicable pass when he had open space with the ball at his feet late in the game against Ghana.

That said, Donovan had a better year for the U.S. in '07 (admittedly not an important year internationally), and I'm still trying to fathom why some U.S. fans dislike the guy so much. Because Donovan has chosen to play in MLS instead of Europe, we may never know how good he could have been on the world stage. But he remains the best field player the U.S. has ever produced, and that's worth something.

With the MLS season drawing to a close and Beckham set to be the DP for the Galaxy, if the league doesn't allow another DP slot, could Donovan go abroad (pending his wife's getting a role in a Pedro Almodóvar movie in Spain)? Or will the San Jose Earthquakes get him? Something has to give here. -- Scott Monette, San Antonio

Donovan told me on Sunday that he expects to be with the Galaxy next year. The most likely scenario is that MLS decides to give each team a second DP slot, but if that doesn't happen, then look for the Galaxy to trade for one. There's a reason, after all, that Donovan joined L.A. instead of the Earthquakes when he returned to MLS in '05. I don't see him heading back to the Bay Area.

After a full season at the helm, it's fair to question how much progress the Red Bulls have made under Arena. What is your opinion (in terms of personnel, tactics, etc.) of the job that Arena has done so far? Is he on his way to redeeming himself after the events of '06? -- Josh Beall, Somerset, N.J.

Ask me this question again after the MLS playoffs. Arena has a history of getting a lot out of his MLS teams in the playoffs, and if New York can win a playoff series for only the second time in club history I think you could say he's got RBNY on the right track. His team has been a mixed bag this season: impressive for the first half, not so much down the stretch.

Signing Ángel as a DP was a great call, but dropping a seven-figure DP salary on Claudio Reyna was questionable from the start and looks even more so now. Trading away Todd Dunivant for Kevin Goldthwaite was a bad move, but drafting Dane Richards has turned out well. I would argue that next season is the year Arena will deservedly have a ton of pressure to produce a champion, but we're not there yet.

Who will coach the Quakes next year? Will the Quakes get any "special" opportunities to get former Quakes (current Houston) players who want to come back to the Bay Area? -- Andy, Fremont, Calif.

If Frank Yallop loses his job in L.A., then I'd expect the Quakes would hire him in a heartbeat. (I think it's 60-40 that Yallop stays with the Galaxy, however.) Houston's Dominic Kinnear is a Bay Area guy who'd be great for the job, and at the very least he could use S.J.'s interest to leverage a better deal for himself with the Dynamo. As for the Houston players, several of them had an affinity for San Jose, so you might see a few guys take a close look at moving back.

Suspending Ricardo Clark for nearly one-third of the season is way out of line. I believe five games would have sent the same message. What is your take on the nine games? And why does Carlos Ruiz get off nearly scot-free when he is the real culprit here (and a total disgrace to the beautiful game)? -- Tony Nolte, Houston

No matter how annoying Ruiz may be, you just can't assault a guy on the field the way Clark did. Ruiz isn't the culprit here. Clark is. And while I do find it odd that Clark's suspension was more severe than Darío Sala's was for his playoff meltdown last season, I don't have any huge beef with Clark's punishment. Sala's should have been just as long.

I hear you wear a scarf all the time. Any truth to that? -- Tim, St. Louis

Hmmm ... any chance you're referring to the Jimmy Conrad column where he describes the unnamed "bald fellow who ... wears cool, hip clothes to every event I see him at. The guy loves the scarf. Pouring rain, scarf; denim-on-denim, scarf; 112 degrees, scarf."

Welcome back to the postseason, Jimmy! (Good thing you never had to wear the Toucan Sam rainbow-sleeved Wiz get-up K.C. had back in the old days, or it might be hard to take you seriously as a fashion arbiter.) Anyway, just as a playoff incentive, if you and the Wizards reach the MLS Cup final I'll promise to wear a rainbow-striped ascot this time around.

Do you really think the punishment fit the crime in the Hope Solo soap opera? -- Avery, Oklahoma City

Simple answer: Hell, no. From the moment Solo criticized then-coach Greg Ryan -- and, indirectly, teammate Briana Scurry -- I knew Solo would come to regret what she said, whether or not it was true (which nearly all of it was).

The fact is, if Solo had kept her yap shut she would have been seen universally as the victim of the worst choke-job decision by a coach in U.S. soccer history, and instead we'd be talking about the real issues at hand: how the U.S. can catch up the ground it has lost to Brazil and Germany, and which coach is the best choice to lead this team forward. (In the wake of Ryan's departure on Monday, the Swede Pia Sundhage gets my nod for the gig.)

Clearly Solo screwed up by criticizing her teammate. By any measure, though, the team's decision to blackball/scapegoat Solo was excessive, a collective embarrassment that raises questions about the team's leaders and calls to mind negative stereotypes of over-the-top sorority-style vindictiveness in groups of women.

An appropriate punishment would have been to suspend Solo for the third-place game but still allow her to accept her third-place medal and fly home with the team. Instead she was excommunicated in a manner that brought ugly reminders of Debbie Keller's banishment from the team before the '99 World Cup after she filed a lawsuit against UNC coach Anson Dorrance.

It's worth noting that the only U.S. player who risked her standing to provide some support for Keller was Kristine Lilly, who was in a relationship with Keller's brother at the time. That's the same Lilly, of course, who as the U.S. captain kept portraying Solo as a villain, even comparing her to Terrell Owens -- who, unlike Solo, has a long history of anti-team behavior and was never the victim of such a clueless coaching decision in a big game.

In the wake of Solo's apology and self-imposed three-game suspension, it's a shame that Ryan never accepted responsibility for the chaos (on the field and off) that his decision caused. Nor should anyone continue buying into the notion of the U.S. women's national team as some sort of idyllic oasis free of the sports world's typical big egos and Machiavellian locker-room lawyers.

That was never the case anyway, not when even the team's legends (Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy) maneuvered behind the scenes to oust former coach April Heinrichs.

And you know what? That doesn't make them bad people. It just makes them normal, flesh-and-blood human beings. Those players aren't deserving legends because of some I'll have two fillings marketing campaign. They're deserving legends because of their remarkable winning achievements on the field.

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