LOS ANGELES -- Greetings from Southern California, where I opted to spend some time with the U.S. women's team this week as it prepares for the Olympic qualifying tournament later this month in Vancouver. (We have MLS Draft coverage elsewhere on SI.com, so don't worry.) I decided to open up the mailbag this week for questions on Alex Morgan, Clint Dempsey, Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry and a number of other topics. Let's dive in:
That's the question I get more than any other from fans of the U.S. women's team. The 22-year-old Morgan scored in the World Cup final and semifinal off the bench, and she seems like a natural complement up top for Abby Wambach. But Morgan has yet to become a starter for coach Pia Sundhage, and the recent switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation from a 4-4-2 means it's even less likely we'll see Morgan in the lineup. (If there's going to be only one forward, that's Wambach.) I wouldn't mind seeing a 4-3-3 with Morgan as one of the three forwards, but Sundhage doesn't appear to want to go in that direction.
On Wednesday, I asked Sundhage when Morgan might become a starter. "We don't know," the coach said. "As of now she's coming off the bench, and that's the best way to help the team. She's a little bit limited when it comes to reading the game, and she's young. That's obvious. At the same time, the more minutes she gets on the field, the better chance she'll have to make the starting lineup. She's getting closer, that's for sure. I'm a lucky one. I have a really good team, so it's not enough to have one good game or play a couple of minutes of great soccer or practice. You have to do it consistently. Alex is doing better and better. It will be interesting to see how long it will take her to get into the starting lineup, because she will be in the starting lineup sooner or later. I have no doubt in my mind about that."
Moving to a 4-2-3-1 means it's extremely likely that holding midfielders Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx will continue to be starters, as will Lauren Cheney and Heather O'Reilly in the attacking midfield and Wambach at forward. The other flank midfield spot is probably up for grabs between (most likely) Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez. Is Morgan a potential candidate here? Not likely. But there will continue to be questions as long as she's not starting, especially if Rodriguez is in the lineup.
Quick aside: I asked Sundhage if she hopes to coach the U.S. beyond 2012 (the next major tournament is World Cup 2015), and this is what she said: "I'm only employed until Dec. 1, 2012, so I don't know what I want to do. So instead of worrying about what the future holds for me, I'm staying in the present and trying to give my best every day. I think this is the best team in the world, even though we didn't win the World Cup. I love the way we're playing right now, and I can see the potential. I think this is the beginning of a great era."
Dempsey is in a zone right now, having scored 12 goals in all competitions this season for Fulham, and so naturally the question has come up over whether he might make a move in the January transfer window. Dempsey has said for years that he'd like to play on a Champions League team, and I'd say he has earned the chance to prove himself on that stage. For me, it comes down to a couple factors. Now that Dempsey is 28, will teams think he's getting too old to make the move? And, especially pertaining to this month, will a Champions League team have a sudden need (through injury) to replace a player?
The two English Champions League possibilities for a January move are Arsenal and Chelsea. Maybe Arsenal might be a bit more in need of a player like Dempsey, but it would be too strong to say the Gunners are crying out for one. Nor do Man City or Man United seem like obvious destinations for him this summer. An intriguing possibility would be a Champions League team outside of England. Dempsey has told me in the past that he'd be open to making a move onto the Continent at some point. And -- Spain take notice --he speaks more Spanish than he lets on.
This week Messi won his third straight FIFA Ballon d'Or as the world's best male player. No male player has ever won more than three global player of the year trophies, and keep in mind that Messi is still only 24. (Of course, there was no global player of the year award during the career of Pelé or in the prime years of Diego Maradona.) My opinion as of now is this: Messi needs to win a World Cup with Argentina to be considered the greatest of all time. Having success with your national team is still a big part of how we measure a player's career, and the fact is that Argentina has not won any major senior titles with Messi.
What if Messi wins, say, seven world player of the year awards but doesn't win the World Cup? Then the debate will rage, not least because in the past 10 years European club soccer -- and in particular the UEFA Champions League -- has become more important in relation to the World Cup. At this point, most observers around the world would say that the standard of play in the Champions League is significantly higher than that of the World Cup. Does that mean the World Cup has become irrelevant? Not in my mind. But I would say that the World Cup (and national-team play in general) is a bigger deal outside Europe. That's true in Argentina, where Messi will always be measured against Maradona's World Cup '86 tour de force, and it's true in the U.S., which has embraced the World Cup as a big-time sporting event but has yet to do so with the European club game.
I'm OK with it for now, though I'll reserve judgment until we see what happens this season. MLS has switched to an unbalanced schedule in 2012, which means most geographic rivals will meet each other three times in the regular season compared to twice in 2011. The two biggest concerns are: 1) Will this water down some great rivalries like Portland vs. Seattle? 2) Will the inherent competitive imbalance make rivalry trophies like the Cascadia Cup less important to fans? Consider: In the Cascadia Cup (the season series between Portland, Seattle and Vancouver), Seattle will only get to play two of the six games at home and four on the road. Fair? Not really, though the tables will be turned in 2013.
In the big picture, though, I'm in favor of having more games that really matter during the MLS regular season, and the new schedule makes that happen. I know that some folks think having too many games has watered down great rivalries like Celtic-Rangers (and for that matter, Yankees-Red Sox), but three games a year doesn't seem like too many.
I could write a whole column about how Twitter has transformed soccer news consumption, making Planet Fútbol a lot smaller and revealing more about some of the sport's most notable figures. You can see the people I follow here (http://twitter.com/#!/GrantWahl/following). The recent arrival of Dempsey on the Twitter scene (@Clint_Dempsey) was a bit unexpected. He told me that while he'd held off for a long time, not wanting to fuel any tabloid stories that could be taken the wrong way, he finally took the plunge in part because several fake Dempsey pages were popping up. Now you can't get the guy off Twitter. One of the best parts of Dempsey's interactions with U.S. teammates has been the public airing of nicknames inside the team, including Brek Shea (Rembrandt), Landon Donovan (Fivehead) and Dempsey himself (Onion Eyes). As in any workplace, sports teammates aren't always the best of friends, but you do get the sense that the players on the U.S. men's team are closer than teammates on many other teams.
As great a sports moment as it was when Henry scored in his return debut for Arsenal (check out
If only there were bidding wars to show these games! This month's U.S. men's friendlies (Jan. 21 vs. Venezuela in Phoenix and Jan. 25 at Panama) are being shown only on ESPN3.com (in English) and Galavisión (in Spanish) and not at all on the cable channels of U.S. Soccer's two English-language rights holders, ESPN and NBC Sports. The good news: You should be able to see these games without too much effort, since it's not some kind of obscure PPV-only event. The bad news: It's not exactly a ringing endorsement from U.S. Soccer's two main rights holders.
Granted, these are not A-roster games since they're not taking place on FIFA international dates. And while choosing to play a road game in Panama should be a good experience to toughen up some of the younger U.S. players, it was always unlikely that ESPN or NBC Sports would spend the money required to send a full crew to Central America. But not broadcasting on ESPN2 or the NBC Sports Network from Arizona? That's surprising. ESPN says its schedule is full of Australian Open tennis coverage. Meanwhile, NBC Sports appears to be a bit behind schedule on its hires, having yet to announce a broadcast booth partner for play-by-play man Arlo White. (FOX's Kyle Martino has been offered the gig, but no public announcement has been made yet.)
One gesture that might be good for Galavisión to make: Why not do an English-language broadcast in addition to the Spanish-language call and have it available on the SAP button?
I guess there's always a chance, but I highly doubt it at this point, judging from what's coming out of FIFA these days.
Don't like it at all, but I also don't see it happening. In contrast to MLS's smart expansion city choices in recent years (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Philadelphia, Toronto, Montreal), the league made some questionable moves on where to start out in the 1990s, including Columbus, Denver, Tampa Bay and South Florida. (I would have included Kansas City on that list five years ago, but Sporting's new owners have turned that market around.) Yet I never thought that putting a team in D.C. was a bad idea. It's a good soccer city with devoted fans, and the biggest challenge is finding a better stadium situation. I think United will find a home in D.C. eventually, and I don't see Baltimore as a viable alternative. I live in B-more, and there just isn't any real clamoring for an MLS team.
That's all for this week. Enjoy the weekend!