Friday March 19th, 2010

On perhaps the best first day ever of the NCAA basketball tournament -- and believe me, folks, I still watch -- the madness wasn't confined to the U.S. side of the Atlantic. As soon as U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey scored his brilliantly delicate chip for Fulham to cap a four-goal rally that sank mighty Juventus in the Europa League Round of 16 and sent Cottagers fans into hysterics, variations of this question started rolling into my Twitter account:

"Best, biggest goal by an American outside of international play?" -- Adam Belz, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

If we're going to measure a goal, we need to take three things into account: How good was the quality of the goal? How big was the stage? And how important was the goal in the outcome of the game itself?

When you add it all up, I'm confident calling Dempsey's strike the finest big-game goal by an American in the history of European club soccer.

Let's break it down. How good was the quality of the goal? Sublime. We may have to wait until Dempsey is 75 years old to know the full truth, but he says he was trying to score instead of hitting a cross, and I believe him. If you look at the way he follows through, it doesn't appear that he's trying to hit a cross. When you take into account all the variables -- Dempsey's back to the goal, the advancing defender, the tiny amount of space, the goalkeeper's position, Dempsey's spot on the field -- the audacity of the attempt and degree of difficulty go higher every time you watch. Fantastic.

How big was the stage? Okay, so the Europa League isn't Champions League. Fair enough. But it's still Europe, and that's still Juventus wearing the opposing shirts. For Fulham to reach the last eight of this competition is a big accomplishment.

How important was the goal in the outcome of the game itself? Not only was it the decisive tally in a 5-4 aggregate thriller, it finished off a remarkable comeback by Fulham. The Cottagers were down 4-1 on aggregate after David Trezeguet's early strike on Thursday, and all they did was score four unanswered goals to take down one of the biggest names in European soccer. Granted, Fulham might have gotten a break when Fabio Cannavaro was sent off in the first half, but this was the definition of "stunning comeback."

Over the years, some Americans (including Dempsey) have scored important goals in European club soccer, and some have scored majestic goals. Here are the ones I can recall:


• 1999: Claudio Reyna's goal for Glasgow Rangers (at 1:20 in the clip) makes the difference in Rangers' defeat of Parma to qualify for the Champions League.

• 2007: Dempsey's goal for Fulham beats Liverpool 1-0 and saves the Cottagers from relegation in the Premier League.

• 2006: Jay DeMerit scores the decisive goal for Watford (at 0:45 in the clip) in a 3-0 victory against Leeds United to earn promotion for the Hornets to the Premier League.

• 2010: Maurice Edu hits the stoppage-time game-winner for Glasgow Rangers to beat hated rival Celtic in the world's biggest rivalry and essentially put Celtic out of the Scottish Premier League title race.


• 1990: John Harkes fires from distance past legendary goalkeeper Peter Shilton for Sheffield Wednesday. Bonus points for Harkes's mullet.

• 1991: Roy Wegerle slaloms through most of the Leeds United defense to bang home a beauty.

• 2010: Dempsey creates a goal out of nothing in a Premier League game against Stoke City.

Got any other suggestions? Send 'em in...

The 'Bag is finally back in the States after an 18-day trip to Europe for pre-World Cup stories. And while it's profoundly odd for me not to be covering the NCAA basketball tournament for SI for the first time since 1997, my visit to Euroland produced some indelible memories. In Greece I got to see the most insane fan fireworks display I've ever witnessed live, which made me feel a little like Bernie Shaw in Baghdad. I got to infiltrate enemy lines and visit England coach Fabio Capello at his office in Wembley Stadium. And I got to see a crowd of Everton fans belting out U-S-A chants at Landon Donovan.

So now that I'm back, let's get excited for ... an MLS players strike? Let's dive into the 'Bag...

What is the main sticking point for the MLS labor situation? I've heard that free agency is something being fought for by the players. Why in today's climate are the owners so against free agency? It seems like free agency coupled with a cap is the model that is making money for the NFL. Why wouldn't it work for MLS? Also, has there been any progress on upping the minimum salary? It seems like trying to justify a league that pays its least-expensive players less than the fry cook at the local fast-food joint is paradoxical at best. -- Jordan A., Indianapolis, Ind.

We're closer than ever to an MLS strike, which could start as early as Monday and scuttle next week's season openers -- from a nationally televised kickoff on Thursday between the Seattle Sounders and Philadelphia Union (think they regret that name yet?) to the New York Red Bulls and Chicago Fire at the fantastic new Red Bull Arena. The player union reps for each of MLS's 16 teams are meeting in Washington D.C. right now, and the main sticking point does appear to be their desire for limited free agency within the league.

Currently, MLS players who play out their contracts are not allowed to become free agents inside MLS and entertain multiple competing bids from MLS teams. The way the owners see it, players can always get competing bids from other leagues, both in the U.S. (as Steve Ralston did by joining second-division St. Louis) and other countries. The players, in turn, argue that not having internal free agency denies them basic rights that are granted to soccer players in other leagues around the world.

Everyone does agree on one thing: MLS's lack of internal free agency is designed to keep player costs down. But the league has repeatedly said that it will not budge an inch. It views preventing free agency as a cornerstone of its single-entity business model (in which the owners are all in business together and the league owns all player contracts). Hence the question: If you have a salary cap (as MLS does), shouldn't that be enough of a governor on salaries to at least allow some form of limited internal free agency? (The union argues that players who have a certain league tenure, like Ralston, should have the right to entertain competing bids in MLS.)

MLS president Mark Abbott gave me a hard-to-understand response when I asked him that question recently, but another MLS executive provided a clearer perspective. His argument: Limited internal free agency would cause a decline in the quality of players in the league (as long as the salary cap remained the same). Paying the same MLS veteran more money doesn't make him a better player, he argued, plus that extra expenditure would make it harder to pursue two groups on the international open market: 1) talented players from other countries, and 2) promising U.S. youngsters who are in demand abroad.

I certainly understand the economic theory, but I don't totally buy the quality-of-play argument. For starters, those U.S. youngsters with potential often need years to develop (or they don't develop at all), and it's hard for them to improve the quality of play over a 90-minute game in a way that a veteran making a low-six-figure salary could. What's more, MLS finds itself losing useful "middle-class" veterans such as Chris Rolfe, who decided he could make more money in Denmark and played out his MLS contract.

The owners' underlying point of forbidding internal free agency is also this: At a time when the league is not yet profitable and the court system has okayed the single-entity model, why should they bid against themselves to raise the salaries of players who aren't getting competing offers from other leagues? But I would argue that if a player has put, say, seven or eight years of sweat equity into building MLS (as Ralston had done), there's value in that long-term service that deserves recognition in the form of free agency once he has finished his contract. The question is whether that's worth striking over, and we're about to find out.

The owners and players have made concessions on other collective-bargaining issues -- including, I'm told, the league's minimum salary, which would go up --but internal free agency remains the main sticking point.

As important as these issues are to MLS players and fans, a work stoppage would be a terrible thing in the big picture. In the grand landscape of U.S. sports, MLS's presence would barely be missed. And, as I've mentioned before, the league's fans can be free agents, too, an option that's easier than ever with more than 50 games from other countries being televised each week in America. MLS needs to be closing the gap that remains between itself and the top foreign leagues, not making it bigger.

The USMNT has a long history of bad haircuts. From the days of Bruce Murray's afro-mullet combo (striking similarity with Michelle Akers) to Tony Meola's Jersey Shore look. There were also great moments from Alexi Lalas (Is his short hair worse than the long?) and Marcelo Balboa's business-in-front, party-in-back look of the mid-90s, which was awesome with the matching faux denim jerseys. My question to you: Who of the current crop of players is going to live to regret their current hairdo? -- Alex Hartwiger, Greensboro, N.C.

Great question. U.S. Soccer hasn't seen a truly ridiculous haircut since Clint Mathis's 2002 Mohawk and Landon Donovan's early-2000s bleach-blond dye job. I was hoping that somebody from today would at least go for a Salomon Kalou-style faux-hawk, but we're not even there yet. Perhaps the best potential for a mullet throwback look would be Jonathan Spector. I have high hopes for him in South Africa.

Who do you think will finish in the fourth position in the Premier League by season's end? -- Craig Giovanetti, Fairfield, Calif.

It's currently a four-team race for the last Champions League berth in England between Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Manchester City and Aston Villa. And while Villa is currently in seventh place with 49 points, I think Martin O'Neill's team has the most favorable schedule of the quartet the rest of the way and will sneak in to grab the all-important fourth spot. Spurs (52 points) faces consecutive games in April against Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, and not having leading scorer Jermain Defoe for the next few weeks due to injury will hurt. Liverpool (51) has played two more games than Man City and Villa and thus faces a difficult task to keep up. Man City (50) faces a tougher slate of games than Villa down the stretch. It's going to be close, but if I was a betting man I'd go with Villa.

It bothers me when I watch U.S. matches like the one against the Dutch and I still see the same lack of midfield control from the U.S. that has been our Achilles heel since 1994. Our midfielders are competent players. Why can't they control the ball with confidence against the bigger teams? It seems all we do is kick sky balls to the forwards and hope they control it. Is it a matter of skill? Of understanding how to move in space with each other and knowing where a teammate will be? Or is it that other countries play tight on us and don't allow us any space to operate? --- Brian Parsons, Grand Rapids, Mich.

This topic came up when I interviewed U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard in England recently. He argued that the U.S. has always played this way against the world's top teams: Staying compact on defense, showing a willingness to let the other team have the majority of possession, and then picking the right spots to go forward on the counter-attack. For Howard, it's relatively simple: If the opposing team has guys who play for Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, they're going to be really hard to play against, not least because the U.S. doesn't have those types of players in great supply.

I hear where he's coming from, but I do differ somewhat when Howard argues that the 2002 U.S. World Cup quarterfinalists played the exact same way. Sure, that team produced some counter-attacking goals, but I also recall that Claudio Reyna and John O'Brien had some really good midfield possession during that tournament.

Do you think it's a problem that ESPN is only using British announcers for the World Cup? Having followed the English game a bunch over the years, I personally think Martin Tyler is awesome and some people might be over-reacting. Having said that, I do like JP Dellacamera and think he got a little bit of a raw deal. -- Brad Martin, Chicago, Ill.

In case everyone hasn't heard, ESPN will be using four play-by-play commentators for its World Cup TV broadcasts, and none will have an American accent. I think Tyler should be great, and the other three (Derek Rae, Ian Darke, Adrian Healy) are capable guys. I don't care for the message that ESPN is sending by not including a single U.S. play-by-play voice on TV, especially Dellacamera, a veteran voice who I think is very good. (He'll be doing ESPN's radio broadcasts during the tournament.) It's as though he's being punished somewhat for being American. Granted, Dave O'Brien wasn't a good fit for the World Cup broadcasts in 2006 (though he's very good on other sports), but Dellacamera is about as far from O'Brien as you can get. Disappointing.

I'm sure everyone is asking this question, but I will add my voice to the throng: given Landon Donovan's criticism of David Beckham in your book, do you think he has a different view of Beckham's situation last year with AC Milan or does he view his own situation as different? Is this the most ironic sports story of your career? -- Drew Malak, New York City

The funny thing is I would guess that Donovan himself would tell you there's some hypocrisy in his stated desire to extend his loan with Everton a year after he criticized Beckham for his loan with AC Milan. It's an inescapable conclusion, to be honest. Why will Donovan get less criticism for it than Beckham did? There are probably a few reasons. One, he's not David Beckham. Two, Donovan never described himself as an ambassador for MLS who's trying to grow the game, as Beckham did. Three, Donovan has put more years into MLS than Beckham. And four, the Galaxy is no longer at its lowest point in club history, as it was when Beckham's loan to Milan was announced. You're right, though: There is a cosmic irony in Donovan going through the same rare situation that he criticized Beckham for just one year ago.

Is there anyone from the 1994 World Cup team (in their 1994 form) that could start for the U.S. this year? I'm thinking the 1994 Tab Ramos would look pretty good on the outside. -- Crick, Washington D.C.

I think you're right on Ramos, who remains one of the top creative players the U.S. has ever produced. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also think '94 John Harkes might be a useful addition to the current U.S. team. And while injury kept him from playing in the 1994 World Cup, it's easy to forget that Claudio Reyna was already a very good player in '94 and would have seen time on the field had he not gone gimpy. The fact that none of the three were on the field during the decisive part of the U.S.'s second-round loss to Brazil (Ramos went out with an injury; Harkes was out on yellow cards; Reyna was also injured) explains why it hardly seemed like the U.S. had a man advantage in that game.

That's all for this week. Make sure to send your questions in for the next soccer 'Bag.

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