Wednesday February 9th, 2011

With the cancellation of Wednesday's friendly between the U.S. and Egypt in Cairo, it's an unplanned slow day in the world of American soccer. So let's open the mailbag and answer some of your questions:

Why is David Beckham so special that he doesn't have to be with the L.A. Galaxy during preseason? -- @JoseCerrato

Good question, José. On the one hand, you could argue that Beckham (who just extended his training stint with Tottenham Hotspur until late February) isn't missing much by not being with his Galaxy teammates during MLS' equivalent of spring training. Even if he's not playing in games for Spurs, he's getting fit and will be ready for the start of the MLS season next month. But when you look at the big picture of his 3½ seasons with the Galaxy, Beckham's absence only reinforces the primary message he has given to L.A. fans: that he's a part-time player who has never made the Galaxy and MLS his top priority. You'd think by now, after the millions of dollars that L.A. has paid him, after playing in only half the Galaxy's games since joining the team, that Beckham would be bending over backward to do so.

Beckham's commitment to MLS stands in stark contrast to, say, Thierry Henry's. If Henry is with the New York Red Bulls during the preseason, then why isn't Beckham with Los Angeles? Tim Leiweke, the president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy, is trying to forge "a strategic alliance" between the Galaxy and Tottenham, and letting Beckham train with Spurs may well be part of his strategy. But it only continues the Galaxy's pattern of allowing Beckham to set most of the rules. Nobody will say so publicly, but if I'm a player on the Galaxy right now, I have a hard time feeling like Beckham is part of the team.

Beckham's time in American soccer may well be in its final countdown. This is the last year of his MLS contract, and on July 1 he can sign a new deal with another team as a free agent. Presumably he will. And while he may not care much what people in MLS think, on some level Beckham has to care how people will view his legacy in American sports and the way it compares to another icon who saw himself as soccer's ambassador to the United States. On that score, longtime American soccer fans can say: We knew Pelé. He made the Cosmos his top priority. He won championships. And you, Mr. Beckham, are no Pelé.

Do you see a permanent move for Michael Bradley to Aston Villa? Would love to see him play more on TV. -- @MDressler12

It's too early to tell, obviously, since Bradley has yet to play for Villa in a game. But Villa has the option to purchase Bradley's contract from Borussia Mönchengladbach this summer, and Bradley has made no secret of his desire to play long term in the Premier League, which is well suited to his game. When you look at Bradley's climb as a professional, it's unlike anything we've seen from an American player in its variety and continuous path upward: MLS at 16, Eredivisie at 18, Bundesliga at 21 and now, at 23, the Premier League. Bradley has plenty of competition for playing time in the Villa midfield, but he's managed to earn a regular spot at all of his previous destinations. Eventually I could see him starting alongside Villa's new purchase, Cameroonian international Jean Makoun, in the central midfield.

I think you should make a "reliable Twitter sources" list. -- @JJKRumlauf

This topic came up on the last day of the European transfer window, when Twitter was the best way of keeping up with the latest news -- as long as you knew who was a reliable source of information. I have now gone and madea list of people I consider good sources of breaking news and analysis.

Who do you see being upset in the last 16 of the Champions League? I like the French teams Lyon and Marseille to surprise. -- @AtleticoDiez

So you're picking Lyon to upset Real Madrid and Marseille to take down Manchester United? Pretty bold, my friend. I think Real Madrid is most definitely vulnerable, but I don't see José Mourinho's boys going down this early, not least because he knows he'd likely lose his job if that happened. Nor do I see Man United having any trouble with Marseille.

If I had to pick two upset candidates, it would be Copenhagen over Chelsea (yes, I said it) and Tottenham Hotspur over AC Milan. Chelsea is going to take some time to adapt to having Fernando Torres and Didier Drogba playing up top together, and I'm not impressed with their creativity in midfield these days. Meanwhile, Spurs seems pretty fearless these days, and Milan has been dropping unnecessary points in Serie A.

While Bob Bradley's moving toward a 4-5-1 to accommodate more of the Yanks' crop of midfielders seems a good idea, it still doesn't answer the question of which four top-flight mids will secure starting spots. Assuming Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, there are Stuart Holden, Jermaine Jones, Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley. Four go in, three come out? -- Jordan Armstrong

It's great to have choices, right? Using five midfielders seems like the smartest way to get the best U.S. players on the field at the same time. Right now I would guess that Michael Bradley is as much of a lock to start as Donovan and Dempsey, which would leave Holden, Jones and Edu fighting for two spots. Holden has a bit more offensive spark than the other two, so I could see him filling the more attack-minded central position while Jones and Edu compete for the holding spot alongside Bradley. Edu might be more likely to start in the 2014 World Cup since he's younger than Jones, but I could see Bob Bradley going with Jones today if everyone were healthy. Then again, 100 percent health is a rare situation indeed, so injuries might well play the big role in determining the U.S. lineup.

I'm going to the Old Firm on Feb. 20. Any advice on places to go out pre/postmatch? -- @JeffU822

Speaking of Edu, his Rangers take on Celtic in the latest edition of Glasgow's Old Firm rivalry a week from Sunday. I attended an Old Firm game for a Sports Illustrated story in 1999, and I had a memorable experience, to say the least. One day I went to the hardcore Celtic pub, a place called Bairds Bar in the Catholic East End of Glasgow. After speaking to some of the fans, I hopped in a taxi and asked to go to the Louden Tavern, the big Rangers bar just 10 minutes away. The cab driver said he had never driven from one stronghold to the other before. You should give it a shot, too. Just be careful and have a great time. You'll never experience a soccer event quite like it.

I feel like a lot of U.S. soccer writers tend to report on all the good things and (mostly) ignore the bad aspects of the USMNT and MLS. Is this for fear of being shut out by inside soccer sources or because they feel obligated to help grow interest in the sport and that negative press would hamper those efforts? How can writers overcome this? -- Adam Morris, Fayetteville, N.C.

I don't know if I agree with you on that one. I think there are several journalists covering American soccer who cover it just as they would any other sport here. That's the standard that I would use instead of trying to compare it to how soccer is covered in Europe. In my experience, as long as journalists are fair-minded in their criticism and don't make things personal, the subjects I've covered (in college basketball, soccer and other sports) know that it's all part of the game. I can't speak for other writers, but I know that my job isn't to be a cheerleader for the sport. It's to cover things like a pro.

How do you see the ridiculous relegation race in the Premier League shaping up? Eleven squads are within five points of 18th place. Insane. -- @AaronGernes

How crazy is it that Wolves have beaten Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool yet still find themselves in the drop zone as of today? Of the three teams on the outside looking in right now (Wigan, Wolves and West Ham), I think Wolves has the best chance of surviving, mainly because they're capable of taking down anybody at any time. I'd be worried if I were a fan of Birmingham or West Brom, which has just undergone a coaching change. But the great thing about this season's Premier League is that you never know what's coming next. Could Fulham or Aston Villa go through a rough patch and put itself in danger? You bet either could.

MLS in the Copa Libertadores? Can this be done? -- Marlon Hidalgo

Maybe. For the first time last year, CONMEBOL announced that it was interested in including MLS teams in the Libertadores at some point. But an MLS official told me last week that the league has not received any actual contact from CONMEBOL discussing Libertadores. If it's going to happen someday, it's still a ways off.

Have a good week!

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