Thursday April 7th, 2011

Mailbag time this week. Let's dive in:

What do you think of the U.S. failing to qualify for the U-20 World Cup?

-- Freddie Smith, Kalamazoo, Mich.

It's never easy to draw the host team in a winner-take-all qualifying game, as the U.S. did with Guatemala on Wednesday, but there's no excuse for the U.S. missing out on the U-20 World Cup with a 2-1 loss. Coach Thomas Rongen's team had one mission -- qualify as one of four CONCACAF representatives -- and it failed. What went wrong? The U.S. simply didn't take advantage of its clear superiority in talent. The back line didn't play well, including supposed standouts Gale Agbossoumonde and goalkeeper Zac MacMath. Kelyn Rowe failed to convert several chances, and Conor Doyle had a subpar game, even though he scored the U.S. goal. Throw in a good performance by Guatemala, and it all added up to the U.S.'s first defeat against Guatemala at the U-20 level in 47 years.

Rongen is a good guy who spent a lot of time trying to uncover players who could make his U20s better than the disappointing outfit he led at the 2009 U-20 World Cup. But when you have a major talent advantage and don't succeed, a lot of the blame will fall on the coach. It's hard to envision Rongen keeping the U-20 job, but after discovering 500 players ages 12 to 20 eligible to play for the U.S., he may well be worth keeping on in an international research role. (In any case, he'll always be able to find work in TV, where he's a solid analyst.)

Will this be a wake-up call for U.S. Soccer? Maybe. Still, I'm less concerned with the result of one youth qualifying game -- an important one, but still subject to the vagaries of one game -- than I am with the inability so far of the U.S. to develop potential replacements (much less upgrades) for the generation of Landon Donovan, 29, and Clint Dempsey, 28. We've seen players generate a lot of publicity (Freddy Adu, Jozy Altidore, Eddie Johnson, Danny Szetela), but other than Michael Bradley, very few "next-generation" players have become consistently productive members of the U.S. senior team. (Stuart Holden might be one if he can remain healthy long enough to play for the U.S. on a regular basis.)

The recent U.S. trend of pursuing more passport holders who've developed abroad (Timmy Chandler, Mix Diskerud, Eugene Starikov, a host of U20s) isn't a bad thing as long as the domestic development system also improves. The U.S. residency program in Bradenton continues to operate (to debatable degrees of success), the USSF's development academy appears to be an intelligent move and clearly some MLS teams are investing more in developing their own talent, which is the way it works in most traditional soccer countries. But the proof is in how it all plays out at the senior level. Until we see the next Donovans and Dempseys, it's hard to be convinced that U.S. youth development is working as well as it should be.

Where would you rank the importance of Real Salt Lake's run to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League in the history of soccer in this country? For a club team in the U.S. to make a run like this has to finally bring credibility to the game in the U.S., as well as the league. Not to mention RSL's coach Jason Kreis is American. To me, all of these things add up to be as important as any World Cup run the USMNT has ever made.

-- Marc Dickerson, Salt Lake City, Utah

By any reasonable standard, Salt Lake's run to the CCL final is one of the most impressive achievements by an MLS team in the league's 15-year history. RSL is the first MLS outfit to reach the final since CONCACAF switched to a league format in 2008, and it had to play 10 games to get here, including several in hostile environments like the one it faced in Costa Rica on Tuesday night. As a result, I'd say Salt Lake has already earned a bit more credibility than D.C. United (1998) and the L.A. Galaxy (2000), which were CONCACAF champions but won those trophies in short-term knockout tournaments on friendly U.S. soil.

But I wouldn't go any further than that at this point, and I think it would be completely overblown to say Salt Lake has exceeded the U.S.'s 2002 World Cup quarterfinal run. If Salt Lake can beat Monterrey in a two-legged final, then that would be the finest accomplishment in the history of MLS -- at least until RSL had a chance to do even bigger things at the FIFA Club World Cup. But let's not get ahead of ourselves, shall we? Monterrey will be favored against Salt Lake (heavily in some quarters), and part of me thought it would have been better for RSL if Cruz Azul (a team it knows it can hang with) had hung on to eliminate Monterrey on Wednesday. But if you're going to be the best in CONCACAF, you might as well beat the best. Both legs (April 20 in Mexico and April 27 in Salt Lake) should be a lot of fun.

Is Teal Bunbury going under the radar with Juan Agudelo blowing up? His two goals were very professional and impressive last weekend.

-- @CamParkinson

Let's get one thing out of the way first: I don't think Agudelo is "blowing up." I keep hearing that the U.S. soccer media has been overhyping Agudelo, but honestly, I have seen very little evidence of that. In any case, both Agudelo and Bunbury are promising forwards for the U.S., and I expect both will make the Gold Cup team in June. I have been impressed with Bunbury's finishing for a while, and he has gotten off to a good start in MLS with three goals since returning from a preseason injury. It's tempting to think of Agudelo and Bunbury in the same breath, since they have joined the U.S. team and MLS at roughly the same times, but Bunbury is 21 and Agudelo is 18, so part of me expects Bunbury to be a shade more consistent right now. If both players can stay healthy, I'll look forward to tracking their progress in MLS this season -- as well as their push for playing time on a U.S. front line that is, frankly, wide open at this point.

With more games under the USWNT belt, it seems the 4-0 victory over Germany from last year is long gone. How do you think the U.S. women will fare after last week's 2-1 loss to England? Are you still confident in their ability to compete with the likes of Germany and Brazil?

-- Julia Spencer

The U.S. may be the No. 1-ranked women's team in the world right now, but at this point the Americans aren't playing like it. Give England some credit for playing a first half on Saturday that was as good as the U.S.'s was poor. Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd have had stellar careers, but they didn't have good games, which is a cause for concern with less than three months to go before the Women's World Cup. I also continue to be surprised by coach Pia Sundhage's unwillingness to start Alex Morgan up top. Germany and Brazil are not invincible -- remember, the U.S. won the 2008 Olympic gold medal -- but right now the U.S. has to be handicapped as the No. 3 or even No. 4 favorite (with Canada in the mix) heading into the WWC in Germany.

What's your take on Vancouver and the (maddening) Eric Hassli?

-- Gordon, Vancouver, B.C.

Oh boy, here we go. First off, Vancouver has been better than I expected, managing a win and two ties in their first four games. It's hard to compare the Whitecaps too much with fellow expansion newbie Portland, considering the Timbers haven't had any home games, but Vancouver does appear to be slightly better right now. Part of that is due to some dangerous forwards, including (so far) Camilo, Atiba Harris and the now-notorious Hassli.

If you missed it on Wednesday night, Hassli picked up perhaps the dumbest red card in MLS history. (Disclaimer: you know I hate the automatic yellow-card rule for anyone who celebrates by taking off his jersey. But the players are at least aware of the rule.) Already carrying a yellow, he converted a penalty kick and then celebrated by removing his jersey and throwing it to the crowd. Automatic yellow, automatic ejection. Chicago's Dasan Robinson got a second yellow for removing his jersey a couple years ago, but Hassli's was even more boneheaded, since: 1) It was clearly planned, 2) He apparently thought he'd avoid an automatic yellow by wearing a second jersey underneath the one he removed, 3) Vancouver was already down to 10 men before Hassli's ejection, and 4) It was Hassli's second sending-off in just three career MLS games.

If you're keeping score, Hassli now has three goals (to co-lead MLS), four yellow cards and two ejections in three games. He's bringing back fond memories of the Brazilian World Cupper Branco, who had three red cards in 10 games for the MetroStars back in 1997.

I'm curious to hear your take on the overall impact of the FIFA video game series, particularly in terms of American play/interest. I didn't care for soccer until about three years ago when I was introduced to the video game. Now my fondness for the virtual game has created a passion for the real one. Am I the only one? How can we make the connection stronger/more significant?

-- R.J. Wachs

I played a lot of EA's FIFA video game back in the late 1990s but haven't in recent years. It always seemed like a pretty good way to get Americans involved in following soccer. One time I was doing a story on the NBA player Bo Outlaw, and he started talking with his buddies about his "main man" Luis Enrique, who was the FIFA video-game equivalent of Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. It turned out that Outlaw was more or less obsessed with the FIFA video game and had started following the players whose names he had learned while playing it.

You get the rare opportunity to interview so many personalities in the soccer world. Who stands out? Who did you like best? Why?

-- @DSchnider

It has been a privilege over the years to interview some of the sport's most intriguing characters. Who stands out? Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho are charming and candid; they can fill your notebook with more good stuff in 30 minutes than many coaches could in 10 hours. Landon Donovan is the most honest player I have ever interviewed, but he is hardly the only one. Midlevel MLS guys like Alan Gordon, Greg Vanney and Chris Klein were insightful and funny whenever I interviewed them for my book. Some of my other favorite one-on-one interviews have included Didier Drogba, Clint Dempsey, Bruce Arena, Luís Figo, Alexi Lalas, Marco Materazzi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Gerard Piqué, Raúl, Michelle Akers and Hope Solo. All you're looking for is honesty and insight in a non-hurried atmosphere. David Beckham has been a good interview on the few occasions we have sat down together. He's smarter and more normal-acting than a lot of people give him credit for.

Thanks for reading. See you next week!

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