Struggling Hull City kept its Premiership hopes alive with a crucial 2-0 win over Fulham on Saturday. Of interest to U.S. fans is that striker Jozy Altidore continues to play a big part in the Tigers' recent revival, drawing a penalty after Fulham's Chris Smalling was forced to rugby tackle him to prevent a sure goal. On loan from Villarreal, Altidore's grown immensely as a player this season, particularly as he continues to acclimatize to the Premiership. His hold-up play is far better, his tactical awareness and movement has improved, and his ability to draw fouls is becoming top-notch. Combine that with his inherent physical power and he's been giving veteran Premiership defenders all they can handle lately.
I'm not convinced he'll ever become a consistent 20-goal-a-season striker, but I do think his upside is that he'll gradually evolve into a more prolific version of a Carlton Cole or John Carew-type. There's no question that Hull will want to keep him long-term, but in the event the club is relegated, I think Altidore's done more than enough to earn himself another shot with another English team next season. With Villarreal likely settling on Nilmar and Giuseppe Rossi as its forwards of the future, it's inevitable it'll look to loan out Altidore again or sell him in the summer transfer window. Look for Altidore to end up with Everton (given the Toffees' lack of depth at striker, growing U.S. affiliation and overall lack of cash), Fulham (he'd be the perfect backup for Bobby Zamora or even potential replacement if Roy Hodgson decides to cash in on Zamora) or even Blackburn this summer. Here's what else I'm thinking from this weekend's action:
1. Opening week in MLS. As with the start of any new season, it's always interesting to see how new faces fare in MLS and after Week 1, there were several displays of note by various newcomers. Among these was Kansas City's English import Ryan Smith, who looked lively with a goal and an assist, as the Wizards demolished D.C. United (now headed by ex-K.C. coach Curt Onalfo) 4-0. Smith's an intriguing prospect. For a start, he's eligible to play for the U.S. national team (his father is American) and he was part of the same lauded youth crop at Arsenal that produced current standouts like Cesc Fabregas. Early on in his career, he seemed destined for a star turn, earning a call-up to the England U-20s and receiving praise from Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger. "He has so many ingredients that you love to have when you're a young player and I am confident he will be a big success," said Wenger to the club Web site back in September 2005. "He's creative, he's quick, he can score goals, he's left-footed as well, and he's a great crosser of the ball."
Since then though, Smith has struggled with injuries, consistency and subsequently bounced around with various clubs in the lower English tier, before arriving in MLS. It'll be interesting to see how he progresses with the Wizards, on early evidence very few players in MLS have his ability to take on defenders one-on-one. Others to impress include the Red Bulls' tandem of rookie defender Tim Ream, who already looks like the steal of the 2010 SuperDraft, and Estonian international midfielder Joel Lindpere, who scored the winner as New York crowned Red Bull Arena's MLS debut with a 1-0 win.
2. A return to the Big Apple? Speaking of the Red Bulls, former midfielder Dave van den Bergh was at Red Bull Arena following his unceremonious dumping by FC Dallas. The 33-year-old Dutch midfielder, who was instrumental in the Red Bulls' surprise run to MLS Cup in 2008, told MLSSoccer New York reporter Kristian Dyer that he did not intend to retire -- but did have interest in signing with the Red Bulls if the feeling were mutual. "If they would offer me a contract, I'd be interested, [since] this is a team I have a lot of heart for." Said Van den Bergh. In addition to New York fans, I'm sure striker Juan Pablo Angel (who has greatly missed Van den Bergh's delivery from the wing) would love to see it happen, too.
3. The Galaxy could struggle this year. With a couple of teams stealing all the headlines for disastrous opening games (D.C. United and San Jose, with the Quakes' 2010 edition in particular looking no different from their terrible 2009 edition), it might seem strange to criticize the Galaxy -- especially after they opened with a 1-0 win over the Revs. However, here's why I think the Galaxy will struggle in 2010: Already without David Beckham for most, if not all, of the season, the reality is that the Galaxy will be probably be deprived of Landon Donovan for most of the season too. Already slated to miss large chunks of May and June with the U.S. national team, the chances are slim that Donovan won't be heading to Europe post-World Cup. Everton's management and fan base is enamored with him and despite its financial woes, I suspect that manager David Moyes will come up with the $10 million or so that he'll need to make Donovan's move permanent. Even if he can't, after Donovan's impressive loan stint with Everton recently, there won't be a shortage of other suitors. I also can't imagine that Donovan -- now that he has the bit between his teeth and has had a positive experience of top-flight European soccer -- won't be hankering for a move back to Europe. Without both Donovan and Beckham, the Galaxy becomes just another defensively-solid MLS team that will struggle to score. Teams will be able to press the Galaxy's pedestrian midfield higher up the field without fear of Donovan's breakaway speed or the incisive raking balls that Beckham provides. I'd be extremely surprised if the Galaxy make the playoffs, unless Donovan chooses to stay.
4. Villa begins their annual fade. I had tuned into the Chelsea-Aston Villa showdown, half-expecting to see another superhuman display by U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel. You know, the type of performance where Friedel single-handedly carries Villa and stones the opposition (see Tottenham vs. Aston Villa on Feb. 6) and makes you think: a. As good as Tim Howard is, it's a shame that Friedel has retired from the U.S. national team and b. What an incredibly inept goalkeeper coach Joe Corrigan was.
However, to my amazement, Chelsea destroyed Villa 7-1 (there really wasn't much Friedel could do on any of the goals), which brings me to my point. I really don't think Villa can finish in the top four this season, and not just because of that result. Under manager Martin O'Neill, Villa perennially fade in the latter stages of every season, especially in March. In fact, if not for a farcical own goal by Wigan's James McCarthy in Villa's 2-1 win on March 16, this would have been yet the fourth consecutive winless March for Villa under O'Neill.
At least O'Neill used to have the excuse of coping with a tired team and lack of depth (although some would argue that's also partially due to his penchant for using the same lineup game-in and game-out, with little rotation). However, this season, with Villa possessing its deepest squad-ever under O'Neill, that clearly should be less of an issue. Although no one can deny that O'Neill has done wonders with the Villa squad since taking over, he does tend to be one-dimensional with his tactics. His teams are always set up to counterattack and get the ball out wide to the wingers and bang the ball in to a big target man. When Plan A fails, his teams often have no alternative strategy or imagination and that's why, of all the teams in the top third of the Premiership, Villa tends to struggle the most offensively. If they continue their present swoon, O'Neil's men might even find themselves beaten out for the final Europa League spot by hard-charging Everton.