Wednesday November 3rd, 2010

ABOARD UNITED FLIGHT 4962 FROM MADRID TO WASHINGTON D.C. -- Lots of fun stuff going on in Planet Fútbol this week--mine and the world at large--so let's crank out a Mailbag. Ready, go!

Do you think Dallas has any chance of winning the MLS Cup? -- @rdmcclenagan

I do, but it won't be easy. Dallas got things off to a good start in the opening leg of its Western semifinal on Saturday, using a late (and majestic) Eric Avila strike to go up 2-1 on defending champion Salt Lake. No team has won at Salt Lake in more than a year, but a tie this week would give Dallas the mild upset and knock out the champs. For me this is the most interesting matchup of Week 2. Salt Lake will be missing its best player, red-carded midfield maestro Javier Morales, so RSL's vaunted depth will get a big test. (I suspect there will be a lot of pressure on Andy Williams, in particular, with Morales out.) If David Ferreira can keep finding seams in the defense the way he did on Saturday, Salt Lake's league-best defense may continue allowing more chances than we're used to seeing. And if you let Jeff Cunningham have even half a chance, he's capable of finding the net (as we saw last week).

In the end, I still think Salt Lake's defense, depth, quality and home-field advantage will win out. (I also can envision Nick Rimando coming up with some of his usual playoff theatrics.) One other point about Saturday's Dallas-Salt Lake game: I was reminded once again that beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to soccer. Soccer America's Paul Gardner, usually one of the bigger curmudgeons you'll find, heaped praise on Dallas-Salt Lake: "a wonderful game, by any standards, in any league, anywhere." Meanwhile, Fox Soccer's Jamie Trecker had the opposite view: "Technically poor, slow and meandering ... It sucks." I like and respect both these guys, and I happen to think the game was somewhere in-between, with flashes of impressive skill and generally attack-minded play marred by some mistakes. But my point is this: How great is a sport when two people can see the same game completely differently?

Has Arsenal done enough so far through the season to be legitimately considered for the EPL title or Champions League? -- @Drofdarb23

There's still a long way to go in both competitions, but if you're an Arsenal fan I think you have to be somewhat encouraged so far. Chelsea is going to be awfully hard to beat in the Premier League, but this Arsenal team appears to have more bite in the midfield than at any time since Patrick Vieira's glory days. That's allowing dynamic players like Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin the time and space to create, and I've been impressed with new acquisition Marouane Chamakh, who may not be the smoothest forward but finds ways to score. The big questions for me: Will Arsenal finally go after a reliable goalkeeper in the January window? Can Arsene Wenger get his injured players back on the field and performing? (I'm looking at you, Robin van Persie and Thomas Vermaelen.) Can this injury-prone team avoid them moving forward? And can Arsenal prevent the kind of shock results that we saw when it lost at home to West Brom a few weeks ago? You can't let that happen if you want to win trophies (which, as we know, Arsenal hasn't done since 2005).

I read with great interest your article on concussions. A couple questions: It doesn't seem like concussions really register in European soccer culture. Petr Cech has his headgear, as does Christian Chivu, but the general approach seems to be in line with what the NFL was like not too long ago: Get up, play on and don't mention it. How do you see this playing out in the coming years? I know, too, that headgear is not a magic bullet. What do you see happening in terms of protection for players? -- Joe Addison, Washington D.C.

I've had the same questions about how concussions are viewed in European soccer, and I'm hoping to do some detailed reporting on the topic soon. The awareness of concussions does appear to be higher in American soccer, but it's not like the sport is fundamentally different here -- you could argue that there's even more athleticism and speed in the European game that might cause head injuries. When I asked Taylor Twellman about concussions rarely being part of the discussion in Europe, he noted that his first concussion as a pro came when he was playing at 1860 Munich, and very little was done about it at the time.

Twellman retired Tuesday due to his ongoing battle with post-concussion syndrome, a sad ending to one of the most productive careers ever by a U.S. forward in MLS. Twellman will always be remembered for his fearless forays into the penalty box, and it's a shame that his playing days are over far sooner than they should have been. To his credit, Twellman plans to become the main point man in America raising awareness over concussions in soccer. Through his achievements on the playing field and off (where he's off to a good start as an analyst for ESPN), he's the ideal man to do it.

As for headgear, there is not yet any proof that it prevents concussions in soccer. When I spoke to one of the U.S.'s leading concussions experts, Dr. Robert Cantu, he told me that the best thing to do to protect soccer players is for players and their trainers to be aware that they can't return to the field too soon after suffering a head injury.

Have you read Inverting the Pyramid? I just started it and am really digging it. Do you think tactics are as important as the author Jonathan Wilson does? -- @FerrisOnline

There's a reason SI.com soccer editor Jen Chang hired Wilson to write for us: He's the foremost journalist expert in the world on soccer tactics. I have read Inverting the Pyramid, Wilson's epic account of the history of tactics in the sport, and I can't recommend it highly enough. (I even got Wilson to sign it for me at a party at our World Cup house in Johannesburg.) It's definitely graduate-level material, and those who aren't X's-and-O's types might find it tedious in places, but I came away with a fundamentally altered view of the sport. That's in part due to my own upbringing: I didn't grow up in a soccer-crazy culture, and most SI writers (with the exception of Dr. Z) are better at storytelling and building relationships with the people we cover than with the nuts and bolts of sports tactics. I've acknowledged that I need to improve my tactical analysis and have been trying to do so in recent years.

Wilson has been an inspiration in that department. Back in January at the Africa Cup of Nations, we got stuck in a flight delay together at the airport in Luanda. The four-hour conversation that followed was one of my highlights of the year.

Why don't we see more winter loans from MLS to Europe? The timing after the MLS postseason is perfect. -- @KSchulman

Good question. The most high-profile examples in recent years are David Beckham (to AC Milan) and Landon Donovan (to Everton), but it seemed to happen a bit more in the early years of the league with several players going on loan to clubs (some of them pretty random clubs) in South America. MLS does have a relatively long offseason, especially if your team doesn't make the playoffs, so I can understand if players would want to make some money and stay sharp. The reasons why an MLS team wouldn't want to let its players go out on loan in the winter are pretty simple: The players risk not getting enough rest in the offseason and, worse, an injury that could limit their availability once MLS starts again. That's exactly what happened with Beckham this year, after all.

What's your feeling on MLS being invited to the Copa Libertadores -- @TwoSevenStreet

If it pans out, it would be a huge step for MLS. In recent days the president of CONMEBOL announced that the door is open to bring MLS into the Copa Libertadores, the most prestigious club tournament in the Americas. Mexican teams have been a positive addition to the tournament, and in time I think MLS outfits would be as well. Not that it would be easy. Keep in mind, MLS teams haven't won the CONCACAF club championship in almost a decade, so there could be some sizable smackdowns in Libertadores. But MLS does bring some glitzy names to the table, which would no doubt interest CONMEBOL, and participation in Libertadores could greatly improve the quality of MLS teams over the years. Speculation is that it could start in 2012.

Do you think the U.S. women can win the World Cup next year? And do you think the program is faltering? The Under-17s didn't even qualify for their World Cup, and the Under-20s lost in the quarterfinals earlier this year. -- James, Los Angeles, Calif.

First off, I do think the U.S. women can win their first World Cup since 1999 next year. The U.S. is the No. 1-ranked team in the world, it won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics and Pia Sundhage's team has done a pretty good job of improving its technical abilities to show that it's not all about athleticism. That said, the Americans won't be the favorites in 2011. That has to be Germany, the two-time defending World Cup champion, which will be hosting the tournament. The Germans will get very vocal home support -- that was clear to me when I spoke to people on my visit to Germany last week -- and the Germans have several young players who will make an impact.

Which leads me to your question about U.S. youth development in the women's game. That's the subject of a longer piece in the future, but suffice it to say that former U.S. coach Tony DiCicco has been vocal of late criticizing the way players are being developed in America. Brazil and Germany are two of the countries producing better young talent, and the U.S.'s failures at the U-17 and U-20 level show that as the competition in the women's game gets better, the U.S. will have to adapt.

Leaving aside the bid for World Cup 2022, which includes the U.S. and will be decided on Dec. 2, which bid do you think should win the right to host World Cup 2018 -- England, Russia, Spain/Portugal or Netherlands/Belgium? -- Jim, Seattle, Wash.

For me, the answer is simple: England makes the best case of the four candidates. It's the birthplace of the sport. It hasn't hosted the World Cup since 1966. It has modern stadiums, an established infrastructure and no need for a major investment of public money to host the World Cup -- no small thing after the significant public investment required for hosting World Cups 2010 and 2014 in developing nations. While I don't think England should be complacent about winning the bid for '18, as though it's a birthright, I do think it is the best option by a wide margin.

By returning the World Cup to Europe in 2018, FIFA is acknowledging that this won't be an event that transcends the sport in the way that World Cup 2010 did by taking place in Africa for the first time. All four '18 bid candidates have established football cultures, so there is no chance for FIFA to engineer a quantum leap for the sport, as it would do by awarding the 2022 bid to the United States or the 2026 bid to China. What's more, while England's three bid rivals all have their own compelling reasons to bring the World Cup to their countries, they have more caveats as well.

Russia has never hosted the World Cup and would no doubt spend the most money on organizing the tournament. But it also has a significant crime problem and, worse, an authoritarian political culture in which elections are questioned and journalists are muzzled and even sometimes murdered. Although terrorism is a threat around the globe, it's not hard to envision widespread fear over, say, an attack by Chechen separatists at the World Cup. Nor do the recent votes-for-sale allegations against FIFA's Executive Committee help Russia, which (due to its oil wealth and reputation for corruption) is the candidate that FIFA can least afford to choose if it wants to dispel its own unsavory reputation.

The biggest problem for the other two candidates -- Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium -- is that they're shared bids, and that itself should be a deal-breaker after the not-always-smooth sharing of World Cup 2002. Both bids would provide perfectly pleasant locations to host the World Cup, but they don't have as many positives as England does. Spain hosted the World Cup more recently than England has, and the Spain/Portugal bid has been hurt by allegations of collusion with Qatar. As for the Netherlands/Belgium bid, it just hasn't gained enough traction to give it an advantage.

For all those reasons, I'm left with one conclusion: It's England's time.

That's all for this week. See you next Wednesday ...

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