It's a busy time of the year in soccer, so let's get it started:
Who do you like in Sunday's MLS Cup final?
--Jim, Dallas, Texas
Whatever Dallas-Colorado may be lacking in star power, I still think it could be a fun final. Dallas has played entertaining soccer in the first two rounds, dethroning Salt Lake by continuing to push forward and then winning 3-0 at regular-season boss Los Angeles. And while Colorado hasn't been as much fun to watch, the Rapids are certainly capable of attacking with the league's top front line in Conor Casey and Omar Cummings. (Then again, so was the Netherlands in the World Cup final, and look where that got us.)
For me the most interesting battle will be in the midfield. Dallas plays with five guys in its midfield and figures to have the same man advantage against Colorado that it had against Los Angeles. Daniel Hernández has been useful on defense, transition and distributing the ball from his deep-lying central position, while Dax McCarty and wide-men Marvin Chávez and Brek Shea have all had above-average postseasons. The key, though, is David Ferreira, whose vision, movement and goal-scoring ability have turned Dallas into a fearsome team this season. Colorado's two holding mids, Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz, will have a lot on their plates, but they may be up to the task. Larentowicz, in particular, has been a two-way workhorse during the playoffs. If Colorado can get out on the counter, Cummings and Casey can strike with devastating effectiveness.
Neither back line is a fortress, so I think we'll see plenty of scoring chances this Sunday. And that's where Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman comes in. Simply put, Hartman is enjoying a monster postseason and saved Dallas early on against Los Angeles when his team was on the ropes, making save after save against his former team. I can see him doing that again. My prediction: Dallas 3, Colorado 1.
(Random aside: I had a fun conversation a few days ago with Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman, the MLS Coach of the Year. In addition to talking about his team, he also filled me in on his remarkable martial arts pedigree. Hyndman is a 10th-degree black belt, a level that very few people reach, and he has become an expert in Combat-Ki techniques, which have to be seen to be believed. Starting at 0:16 of this video you'll see Hyndman take a full-power kick to the groin from former Dallas Cowboys punter Mike Saxon. Hyndman grew up in the Portuguese-speaking Asian island of Macau, has trained in martial arts four to five times a week for the past 40 years and continues to do so. Along the way he has trained military and police officers, including spending a week with the Hong Kong police department. In other words, don't mess with Schellas.)
All this Qatar news -- how nervous should I be? It seems crazy that they'd chose Qatar over the U.S. [to host World Cup 2022], but this is FIFA so ...
-- Mike Decicco, Grass Valley, Calif.
I'm with you. The U.S. is competing for the 2022 bid with Qatar, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Qatar has been getting a lot of publicity for its bid of late. They've hired Zinédine Zidane to support the effort, hosted Wednesday's friendly between Argentina and Brazil and are claiming that they will get more votes in the first round of voting than any other bidder. Perhaps, but what matters is who gets the most votes in the final round. Qatar has promised to spend crazy amounts of money to provide new stadiums and air-conditioning for all their World Cup facilities, and FIFA might also be interested in bringing its showpiece event to the Middle East for the first time. But Qatar is also unbearably hot, ridiculously small, a potential security risk and doesn't embrace alcohol (which, if I recall, is consumed at World Cups). If the U.S. lost out to Qatar, it would be against all logic and rationality of what the two bids can promise.
South Korea and Japan just hosted the World Cup in 2002, so I don't see going back so soon as realistic. Australia, however, is a tough opponent who hasn't hosted the World Cup before and is getting support from some of the top writers in England (like Henry Winter of The Telegraph).
For me the big question is how badly China wants to host World Cup 2026. The same confederation can't host the World Cup on two straight occasions, and all of the U.S.'s competitors for 2022 (including Australia) are part of the Asian confederation.
Another thing to keep in mind: We'll find out later this week if FIFA will go ahead and vote on the World Cup '22 host on Dec. 2 or not. It's possible that the '22 vote could get postponed while the '18 vote goes ahead that day.
And one final point, considering there has been so much talk about potential ethics violations by FIFA Executive Committee members connected to the vote: The global media have differing standards on how they cover the vote process. For example, Sports Illustrated would never let me accept a free trip to a bidding country or to pose as somebody I'm not in an investigative story. Those are both things that have been done by media members at reputable outlets in other countries while covering the World Cup bid process. Different countries have different ethics standards, I suppose, but I do find it interesting.
With Alex, John Terry and Frank Lampard out for a while, do you see Chelsea holding onto first place?
The injuries are piling up for Chelsea, and recent surprise losses to Liverpool and at home to Sunderland have brought the Blues' lead down to two points over Arsenal and three over Manchester United. Those teams have their own issues, though, and I still think Chelsea has the best team for the long haul as long as the injuries don't linger. In the near-term, though, it could be tough: three of Chelsea's next four league games are on the road before it meets Manchester United at Stamford Bridge on Dec. 19. It's funny now to look back at the start of the Premier League season when Chelsea and other teams were winning 6-0 and everyone (including me) was bemoaning the lack of competitive balance. Now look: Chelsea is losing 3-0 at home to Sunderland, and the team that wins the title might have the lowest winning point total in years.
What do you think of Toronto's hiring of Jürgen Klinsmann as a consultant?
--Gordon, Toronto, Ontario
I'm curious to see who Klinsmann recommends to take over as the new coach and the new general manager. Toronto is clearly trying to shape a new identity after cleaning house during another disappointing season on the field. But Klinsmann was adamant during his recent press conference that he won't pull a Dick Cheney and recommend himself for either job. Consultancies in MLS are a little strange: It's hard to know how much blame or credit Klinsmann will get for his recommendations, but I do hope he'll steer Toronto toward an attacking mind-set that goes through every level of the organization.
Klinsmann, as you surely recall, has been the U.S.'s top choice on two occasions for the national-team coaching job, but discussions have broken down both times. He is still remembered for his role in guiding Germany to the 2006 World Cup semifinals, but Klinsmann also failed to last a season as the coach at Bayern Munich before he was let go.
During my recent trip to Munich I asked Bayern president Uli Hoeness what he thought of Klinsmann as a coach. Hoeness has a big personality, and (as we saw in his recent verbal skirmish with Bayern coach Louis van Gaal) he likes to speak his mind.
Here's what Hoeness said: "I still think that Jürgen could be a good coach for a national team. I'm not so sure anymore if he's a good coach for a [club] football team. Jürgen is a free spirit who needs his time out, you know ... In the national team you have your day off, your weeks off, your weekend, and that is for his character very important. With us I had the impression that was not the right thing for him. I could easily imagine if he's taking [a national-team job] as he was with Germany, it was a super time. I still believe that could work."
That's all for this week. See you next Wednesday ...