Monday February 22nd, 2010

TAMPA, Fla. -- The 'Bag is back, folks. During my days covering college basketball I would do a regular mailbag column in which I answered reader questions, shared nuggets that didn't make my magazine stories, engaged in various parlor games, tracked down "Where Are They Now" figures and even recommended a movie or two. Now that I'm covering soccer full-time, the 'Bag (that's me) is back on the case. I'll be happy to answer your questions on just about anything in the soccer world -- the smarter and/or funnier the better -- so send 'em in and let's get after it.

I'm here in Florida for Wednesday's friendly between the U.S. and El Salvador (7 p.m. ET, ESPN Classic, Galavisión), so I'll kick it off with some national-team queries ...

Care to take a crack at the U.S. roster for South Africa? You could do it two ways: with the injured Clint Dempsey, Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies, or without any or all of those three. I also wonder who you view as possibilities but not locks at this point. -- Michael Diver, Pleasant Hill, Iowa

We'll make "The 23 Golden Tickets" a regular department between now and the World Cup. It's a list of the 23 players I believe coach Bob Bradley will pick for the U.S. team that travels to the World Cup in South Africa. (Keep in mind, these are the guys I think Bradley will go with, not necessarily the 23 I would pick if I were the coach.) Players with an asterisk next to their names are those I would consider locks at this point:

GOALKEEPERS: Tim Howard*, Brad Guzan*, Marcus Hahnemann.

DEFENDERS: Oguchi Onyewu*, Carlos Bocanegra*, Jay DeMerit*, Jonathan Spector*, Jonathan Bornstein*, Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson.

MIDFIELDERS: Clint Dempsey*, Landon Donovan*, Michael Bradley*, Ricardo Clark*, José Francisco Torres, Benny Feilhaber, Stuart Holden, Maurice Edu, Robbie Rogers.

FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore*, Conor Casey, Robbie Findley, Brian Ching.

Here's a more in-depth look at each group:

GOALKEEPERS: Howard is the unquestioned starter at this point. There have been some rumblings about Brad Friedel perhaps being called out of international retirement as the No. 2 keeper ahead of Guzan, but I just don't see that happening. For starters, I don't think Friedel would want to come unless he was the No. 1. Also, Bradley clearly trusts Guzan, who played in place of Howard during the big Confederations Cup win against Egypt last summer. Hahnemann gets the slight edge over Troy Perkins because of Hahnemann's good form for Wolves these days.

DEFENDERS: Onyewu started training last week for the first time since his knee surgery in October. The big concern with Gooch in June won't be his health so much as his sharpness. Will he get many games with AC Milan in the spring? If not, he should still have nearly a month once the U.S. gathers for its pre-World Cup camp on May 15 to get ready for June 12 vs. England.

The other defenders shouldn't be surprising. Bocanegra, DeMerit and Spector played well during the Confederations Cup and are healthy now. I suspect Bornstein has done enough to be a lock. Cherundolo will be healthy in time and brings experience and a useful cross, while Goodson is one of the few center-back candidates who's on the upswing of late. I also have Edu making the team as a midfielder, but he can play on the back line if necessary (as he did at the 2008 Olympics). Also under consideration: Chad Marshall, Edgar Castillo, Jim Conrad, Frank Simek.

MIDFIELDERS: First, the injuries: Dempsey, Clark, Feilhaber and Edu should all be fit in time for selection. Donovan and Michael Bradley are locks. Torres may not play as much as some fans want, but I'd be stunned if Bob Bradley didn't bring his creativity and potential to South Africa. Holden went a long way toward proving his worth to Bradley in the second half of 2009, though it would help if he starts getting playing time at Bolton. As for Rogers, he would improve his case with a good performance against El Salvador on Wednesday.

Other players still have a shot, though. DaMarcus Beasley was showing some good things for Rangers until his latest injury. Sacha Kljestan goes back a long way with Bradley and will have a chance to prove himself this week. Alejandro Bedoya is a bit of a longshot but not out of the picture entirely. Freddy Adu has gotten off to an encouraging start at Greece's Aris and made Bradley's Confederations Cup roster last summer. As for Jermaine Jones, his continued injury problems (he hasn't played all season for Schalke) may have put the German-American out of contention entirely.

FORWARDS: I am not yet ready to put Davies on the 23-man roster. His recovery from last October's horrific auto accident appears to have been near-miraculous at this point, but his injuries were so severe that we'll need to see if he can get on the field for Sochaux this season before entertaining serious thoughts of his being ready for South Africa. Altidore has been in good form for Hull City and should be a lock. Most observers think Ching and Conor will fight for one spot, but if Davies isn't ready I could see Bradley picking both Ching and Casey. Right now I'd give Findley a slight edge over Jeff Cunningham, but Eddie Johnson might leapfrog both of them if he starts knocking in some goals for Aris.

If you had to list your World Cup starting XI for the U.S., who would it be? -- J.P., Kansas City


DEFENDERS: Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, Carlos Bocanegra.

MIDFIELDERS: Stuart Holden, Michael Bradley, Ricardo Clark, Landon Donovan.

FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey.

The biggest shift here is moving Dempsey from right midfield to forward and putting Holden in his place on the right. Dempsey still strikes me as the best candidate to replace Davies up top, not least because Dempsey scored all three of his goals at the Confederations Cup from the forward position and has been hot-and-cold for the U.S. as a midfielder. I get the sense that Bob Bradley trusts Holden as a more traditional crossing right-mid than, say, Torres.

Clark and Edu could have a stirring battle for the central midfield spot. As for left back, the U.S. is going to be hard-pressed to come up with somebody to handle England's Aaron Lennon. I could see any number of candidates in that position trying to do so: Bocanegra, Spector, Beasley or even Castillo. This is where Donovan's ability and willingness to track back on defense could be helpful.

But remember: New injuries will happen. They always do. Just ask Chris Armas, Greg Vanney and Cory Gibbs, guys who got named to World Cup rosters only to pick up injuries just before the Main Event.

What's your take on the MLS CBA negotiations? -- Neil, Mount Kisco, N.Y.

After going several weeks without much news, we got a burst of public comments from both the players' side and the league over the weekend. Going public is part of most labor negotiations at some point, and I tend not to be alarmist over tough talk, which often is followed by a deal getting done. That said, though, the rhetoric didn't sound good. With the deadline for an agreement coming Thursday, the players certainly appear willing to go on strike if the MLS owners don't make concessions in three areas: guaranteed contracts, one-way league-held options and freedom of movement within the league for players who've been waived, terminated or are out of contract.

The league, meanwhile, has said it is willing to offer more (but not universal) guaranteed contracts, but it is adamant that it won't allow any sort of free agency inside MLS. One of the league's bedrock cost-saving arguments is that it doesn't need free agency if out-of-contract MLS players are free to explore opportunities in leagues around the world. That was the basis of the MLS players' lawsuit challenging the league's single-entity model, a case that was won by the league in 2000.

What I have a harder time understanding is why the MLS per-team salary cap wouldn't be enough of a governor on spending if some sort of internal free agency were allowed. When I asked MLS president Mark Abbott about that on Sunday, this is what he said:

"This is a key point. While there is a salary budget in place for teams within the league, teams in England, Germany, France, Spain, Denmark aren't subject to the salary budget. So in a typical North American sports league, if Team X doesn't want a player or is unable to reach an agreement, they go to Team Y, all within the salary budget. But they still remain within the league. The difference here is the player could leave the league -- and that's a very different dynamic that takes place in our league that the other leagues don't face. That's why the salary budget, although it governs internally, since international clubs aren't subject to it, it doesn't provide the same level of certainty that the player will remain in the league as it does in other North American sports."

I like to think I understand economics to some degree, but I'm afraid I don't totally understand his answer. (If anyone out there can, please send me an e-mail.)

What's tough for the players is that they have little leverage at this point other than to go on strike. Losing the court case removed one form of leverage. Another form was lost in November when FIFA announced that it would not intervene in labor talks after the MLS players' union and world union FIFPro had asked FIFA to intercede on what the players argue are MLS rules that contravene FIFA statutes.

It's hard to characterize either side as greedy when MLS continues to lose money. The players want what they feel like are some basic rights, and the owners don't want to budge on free agency. The trouble with any prolonged work stoppage is obvious, though: Fans can be free agents, too, and turn their attentions to those other leagues abroad that MLS' owners are so fond of citing. At a time when those leagues are more available than ever on U.S. television, MLS needs to be closing the gap between itself and those options, not making it bigger.

Is there any reason to suspect that anyone suiting up for the El Salvador match will make any sort of contribution in South Africa? Also, can you recommend any places to eat/drink in Johannesburg? -- Kevin Worthington, Hoboken, N.J.

Well, if you look at my likely starting lineup, the only MLS player in it is Donovan. I could see Casey or Ching coming on as subs, or perhaps Bornstein being a candidate for the left-back spot. But you never know who might be needed in South Africa, especially with the big unknowns of injuries and yellow/red cards during the tournament.

As for eating and drinking in Johannesburg, I wrote a column about World Cup travel back in October after I had lived in Jo'burg for seven months. The 'Bag's and 'Bag Lady's favorite nightlife area is Seventh Street in Melville, particularly The Ant (pizza/drinks) and The Lucky Bean (for a nice dinner). There's great food at Bukhara (Indian) and Wangthai (Thai) in Sandton's Mandela Square, plus you might get a glimpse of Pelé or FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who'll be staying at the fancy Michelangelo hotel next door. The Melrose Arch development has some nice restaurants, including Orient (Asian), Moyo (African) and The Meat Co. (steak). Also in Jo'burg's northern suburbs I'd recommend Yamato (Japanese/sushi) and Auberge Michel (fancy French).

There are about five times as many great eating options in Cape Town and nearby wine country, but I don't have the space here.

What are SI's plans for the World Cup this year? I saw that Peter King is going. I'd be interested to hear how many writers are going and plans for coverage. -- John Heffington, Austin, Texas

I don't want to give away too much, but SI's writing staff in South Africa will include me, Peter King, Mark Bechtel and Joe Posnanski. That's more SI writers at the World Cup than at any time since I joined the magazine in 1996. We've got some good magazine stories headed your way between now and June, too.

For all the talk over how many World Cup tickets have been bought in the U.S. -- more than in any other country except host South Africa -- the concern for U.S. fans now isn't buying tickets so much as finding affordable flights. Reports of airfares that are double the normal price have been common, and now some frustrated U.S. fans with tickets are trying to off-load them. Against that backdrop, imagine my surprise last week when I received offers for two all-expenses-paid trips (flights, hotels, meals) to South Africa: one in March by the South African World Cup organizing committee, and the other in April by official sponsor airline Emirates. (That one included business-class seats and a posh stop-over in Dubai.) Just so you know, SI has an ethics policy that forbids accepting such freebies, but the perks on offer are mind-blowing. ... If you have a second, check out the Web site for the Baltimore-based Craig Willinger Fund. It's a cool story: In 2008 soccer fans in Baltimore helped raise money so that Craig Willinger, a Bayern Munich fan with terminal Leukemia, could make a dream trip to Germany to watch his team play in person. Now the non-profit organization -- with Willinger chairing its board of directors -- is raising money to send other cancer-stricken soccer fans to this summer's World Cup. I'll check back in with these guys as time goes on to see how the project is going.

That's all for now. Send in your questions for a future 'Bag, and check back in this week for news from here in Tampa ...

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