The European club season is heading into the homestretch, and readers keep wanting more Mailbag. So more 'Bag is what you'll get. Let's go ...
Will this be the year that Spurs finally quiet up Arsenal fans and take a Champions League spot?-- @turbo08610
With the Premier League title decided, two teams already relegated (Queens Park Rangers and Reading) and a third (Wigan) five points in the danger zone, the big question in England is which two of three teams (Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs) will finish in the top four and qualify for next season's Champions League.
Besides the tens of millions of dollars that go with Champions League qualification, there's plenty at stake for each team. Chelsea won the big trophy last season and it remains the holy grail for owner Roman Abramovich, who looks more and more likely to rehire José Mourinho as manager in the summer. (Chelsea interim manager Rafa Benítez won't be sticking around, but he can set himself up well for his next job if Chelsea finishes top four and wins the Europa League final.)
As for Arsenal, the Gunners have qualified for Champions League in 15 straight seasons under manager Arsène Wenger. With no trophies since 2005, Arsenal seems to view Champions League qualification as the main goal now that Stan Kroenke owns the team. Meanwhile, archrival Tottenham is trying to get back into Champions League for the first time since 2010-11. From a U.S. perspective, star Clint Dempsey has said for years that he wanted to play in Champions League, and now he finally has his chance.
Which two teams do I think will make it? Which will be the odd one out? Let's break it down with a look at the current standings:
Remaining Schedule (my predictions)
Chelsea: at Manchester United (tie), Spurs (win), at Aston Villa (win), Everton (win).
Arsenal: at QPR (win), Wigan (win), at Newcastle (tie).
Spurs: Southampton (win), at Chelsea (loss), at Stoke (tie), Sunderland (win).
That would produce a final table that Spurs fans won't want to see:
So much is dependent on the Chelsea-Spurs game on Wednesday at Stamford Bridge (2:45 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer), which would throw the race into complete chaos if Spurs were to win on the road. Nobody will want to miss that one.
HONIGSTEIN: Early Champions League final storylines
Moving on, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made a surprise announcement on the U.S. Soccer website Thursday that he will call up Stuart Holden for the May-June USMNT camp and the Gold Cup. Holden hasn't played for the U.S. since 2010 as a result of a series of debilitating injuries, but he has returned to action in England for Sheffield Wednesday (on a short-term loan) and is now back with second-tier Bolton. Much of the reaction on Thursday was positive on the return of one of the good guys in U.S. Soccer. There were also some questions:
[Holden] hasn't played as much as Landon [Donovan]. What gives?-- @kewlsocr
First off, let me say that it's a testament to Holden's perseverance and attitude that Klinsmann would make an announcement like this publicly. Holden is a great team guy, and if he can return to his pre-injury form he'll be a very useful midfielder for the U.S. The question is how much he can contribute internationally in the near term, especially since he hasn't had that many games at club level yet. I expected that Holden would be called in for Gold Cup, but I'm slightly surprised that he'll be in camp for the May-June friendlies and World Cup qualifiers as well. (Perhaps that will be mainly to keep Holden fit for Gold Cup and less about actually using him on the field in the big May-June games.)
All that said, this is the first time Klinsmann has come out ahead of time and announced he'll be calling someone into the national team squad. That's up to him, of course, but it's certainly something new. And it does make you wonder if he'll do the same thing for the U.S.' all-time leading goal-scorer (Donovan), or if Klinsmann will use every means possible to try to motivate Donovan into performing lights-out in MLS the next two weeks to secure a return to the national team.
What are your thoughts on the MLS Disciplinary Committee's two-game suspension of San Jose's Steven Lenhart? Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso is praised for being a hard-nosed player, while Lenhart is vilified as dirty, but both walk the same fine line. Seems like the league is coming down on all things San Jose.-- José Vega
I was fascinated by the varied reactions to Lenhart receiving a two-game suspension for his foot to the head of Chivas USA's Mario De Luna. Some readers thought the punishment should have been even more severe, while others thought there shouldn't have been any. Personally, I don't think there should have been any for this play, but I do think Lenhart hasn't done himself any favors by creating a reputation as a cheap-shot artist. (Not for nothing was he chosen the league's dirtiest player in my preseason MLS player survey.)
Keep in mind, though, that the Disciplinary Committee requires a unanimous decision to issue such suspensions, so there apparently wasn't any conflict among its members. I don't think the league has an axe to grind with San Jose, but I do think the club has to be careful about bad PR lately when you add together the Lenhart suspension, Alan Gordon's suspension (for a red card and using a homophobic slur) and the bad behavior of Earthquakes fans in Portland a few weeks ago.
PODCAST: Champions League, Robbie Rogers, more
Has Luis Suárez supplanted Mario Balotelli as the world's most interesting footballer?-- @BW628
I guess it depends on how you define interesting! If it's a combination of great talent with often bizarre behavior, then you might well be correct. Suárez is one of the world's top 10 players (which I don't think I could say about Balotelli right now), yet the Uruguayan Liverpool star continues to draw long-term suspensions for bad behavior, the latest being his bite of Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic. Then again, Balotelli made the Time 100 list of the world's most influential people, and it's unlikely we'll see Suárez on that one anytime soon.
A couple things on Balotelli: 1) It's too bad he didn't end up coming to the Time 100 gala in New York; I was hoping to see how he'd interact with the rest of the dignitaries on the list. 2) Every once in a while I'll ask my Twitter followers who is the one figure in world soccer they'd most like to see an SI magazine article on. Balotelli has gotten the most votes every time. (Now if his agent wouldn't demand a cover every time I contact him about it ...)
I'm a huge fan of the centennial crest U.S. Soccer is using this year. It seems this time of transition in the USMNT is a great time for a facelift. Do you see the us sticking with the centennial crest or updating our current U.S. crest anytime soon?
-- Andrew Hall, Andrew, Tenn.
I love the old-school U.S. crest being used on uniforms during this 100th-anniversary year, and I'd prefer that one over the "flying soccer ball" crest in a heartbeat. As I've said in the past, nothing good is ever happening on a soccer field when a ball is flying in an almost directly upward trajectory like the one on the U.S. crest. (It makes me think of shanked crosses and inept headers.) My suggestion: Continue using the anniversary crest or design a new one that doesn't include a flying ball and unnecessary stars. Very little good design in soccer came from the early- to mid-1990s, as you can tell with nearly every MLS uniform from that era.
What happened to Brek Shea? Is the Stoke experiment a failure?George McGregor, Sumter, S.C.
I'm starting to worry that Shea's season highlight at Stoke was his classic car interview with Sky Sports on transfer-deadline day in January. The big Texan hasn't been in Stoke's gameday squad since March 10 and hasn't played since coming on as a sub against West Ham on March 2. U.S. coach Klinsmann said at a recent event with reporters, "It's not helping us if [Shea] is not in their first 18."
I don't want to write off Shea yet at Stoke, especially considering the club spent a good chunk of change on him, but there will be significant pressure on him to prove his worth to coach Tony Pulis by the start of next season. One thing Shea has going for him is that Stoke now appears relatively safe from relegation, and he could appear in one of the last few games of this season.
Regarding the U.S.' four CONCACAF Champions League spots: I understand granting a spot to the winners of the U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup and MLS Supporters' Shield. I have a harder time reconciling giving a spot to the MLS Cup runner-up. Perhaps that spot should go to the Supporters' Shield runner-up to reward a longer run of success. Also, any chance of a return of the four-team group stage? I get why clubs wanted to eliminate the preliminary round and go to three-team groups, but it's less fan friendly, losing out on at least two MLS-Liga MX matchups per group. As a Seattle fan, I've enjoyed those matches, and they aid in the club's development.-- Matt Korpela
Love the idea to give the fourth CCL berth to the Supporters' Shield runner-up instead of the MLS Cup runner-up. Longer-term success should be rewarded in my mind in a situation like that. And while I understand your wish for four-team instead of three-team CCL groups, I don't mind the three-team groups at this stage of the competition. The travel demands were excessive in the four-team group days, and until CCL gets bigger I'm OK with lessening the travel stress.
My interest in soccer has grown throughout the years, usually just following the USMNT. As I learn more about the leagues, players and history, there is something that came to mind recently. For the 2012-13 season, the Premier League has six London-based teams. How is this possible? Even in the U.S., the most number of same-sport teams in a city is two. Obviously, in most other countries soccer is the de facto No. 1 sport. But I'm trying to comprehend six teams of one sport in a city all clamoring for public funds for new stadiums. And that does not include the other levels of the pyramid.-- Mark Dziak, Lakewood, Ohio
There's a good story about London and soccer by the excellent Sam Borden in TheNew York Times. Simply put, there's plenty of soccer to go around in London, which is big enough to contain it all. Keep in mind, there's not nearly the tradition of public funding for stadiums in England that there is in the United States (where it appears to be becoming less popular as well to fund billionaire owners).
Have the New York Cosmos overplayed their hand and missed the boat on NY2 in MLS? Do they have any future as a Long Island-based NASL team or should they try to sell the brand again?-- Stephen Pinto
I've gotten a lot of questions about the Cosmos in the wake of the news that the Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour is now the odds-on favorite to become the owner of a second MLS team in New York, with a $340 million stadium set to go up in Queens. But the reality is that the Cosmos haven't been considered a candidate for that MLS expansion team for a very long time, especially once they joined the NASL second-tier league.
The Cosmos will start up play in August in the NASL fall season, with games at Hofstra University and have announced hopes of building a fancy stadium near the border between Long Island and New York City. I will say this: There has been more sniping of late between MLS and the Cosmos. MLS commissioner Don Garber said last week that the Cosmos didn't have Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer as players anymore, and Cosmos boss Seamus O'Brien has dismissed MLS while steaming ahead in his plans to remake the Cosmos and build a world-class stadium that has nothing to do with MLS.
One last note: Remember my piece on Monday saying that several national teams are considering basing in the U.S. before leaving for the World Cup in Brazil? England manager Roy Hodgson spent part of this week in Miami scouting out a potential pre-World Cup training site. Who's up for a U.S.-England friendly next year?
TURNER: Newcastle divided by unrest