Grant Wahl addresses the U.S. men's national team, CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, Clint Dempsey's U.S. omission, Patrick Vieira to NYCFC and much more in his latest mailbag.
The U.S. men's national team kicks off 2018 World Cup qualifying Friday night in St. Louis on the heels three straight losses on U.S. soil. On that note, let's jump right into this week's 'Bag:
If the USMNT doesn’t get the needed results in first WCQs, how hot of water could [Jurgen] Klinsmann be in?
Well, there was what I would call “an informed rumor” (i.e., multiple connected sources, but without direct knowledge) going around that Klinsmann has been told by U.S. Soccer that he’s out if he doesn’t get six points this week at home against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and away at Trinidad and Tobago. But that was denied to me by everyone I spoke to with direct knowledge of the situation (Then again, none of those people would want that out there anyway).
Put it this way: Three points at home against tiny St. Vincent on Friday in St. Louis has to happen. St. Vincent is No. 129 in the FIFA rankings (the U.S. is No. 33), and the six-game semifinal round of World Cup qualifying offers little margin for error, especially against minnows.
Tuesday’s game at Trinidad and Tobago (ranked No. 54) is the hardest of this six-game round, and based on current form it’s not hard at all to imagine the U.S. failing to get three points.
T&T had a pretty good Gold Cup (tying champion Mexico 4-4 in the group stage) and tied El Tri again 3-3 in a September friendly. Port-of-Spain will not be a cakewalk.
What six teams do you like to come out of CONCACAF fourth round qualifying into the Hex?
So here are the three semifinal-round groups, from which the top two teams will advance to the 10-game Hexagonal:
Group A: Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Canada.
I’m trying to imagine a scenario in which El Salvador and Canada would have a chance against two teams that have become World Cup regulars, and I just can’t do it.
Advancing: Mexico and Honduras.
Group B: Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti, Jamaica.
I’m not going to pick the chalk in every group here, and this group is the most evenly balanced of the three. World Cup quarterfinalist Costa Rica has been up and down since Brazil 2014, but I think the Ticos will still advance. Any of the other three have a shot too—don’t sleep on Haiti, which can play—but I’m going to go with Jamaica, which made the Gold Cup final and has added some firepower through players with Jamaican relatives.
Advancing: Costa Rica and Jamaica.
Group C: USA, Trinidad and Tobago, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Guatemala.
Man, the U.S. got a sweetheart draw here, which (this being soccer) probably means it won’t end up being as easy as everyone expects.
Advancing: USA, Trinidad and Tobago.
Why did Klinsmann drop Clint Dempsey for qualifiers?
Do we see Dempsey return to USMNT or is this the beginning of the end of the Dempsey Era?
When you see that Clint Dempsey has scored nine goals in 10 games this year for the U.S., you’re probably scratching your head that he was dropped by Klinsmann for the first two World Cup qualifiers.
But such was the coaching staff’s distaste for Dempsey’s performance against Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup that the decision was made not to bring him in. Does it mean Dempsey, 32, is done with the national team? Not necessarily. He’d like to play in the Copa América Centenario, and he’d like to break Landon Donovan’s career U.S. goals record of 57 (Dempsey is currently on 49). I also think there could come a time when Klinsmann decides he needs Dempsey’s goal production.
What are the pros/cons of NYCFC hiring Patrick Vieira?
I got a call on October 14 from a source telling me Vieira would be replacing Jason Kreis, and my first reaction (before making more calls over the next week to confirm) was: Wow! First off, wow that Kreis (one of the U.S.’s best coaches, an MLS Cup-winning manager) would be fired after just one season, given how much he’d been hamstrung by Frank Lampard’s late arrival. And wow that Vieira had agreed to leave the home office at Manchester City to replace him.
What are the pros of Vieira? Well, his stature from his playing career is immense. World Cup winner. Arsenal Invincible. Unforgettable rival to Roy Keane. (Which reminds me, I really do need to see the “Best of Enemies” ITV video on Vieira-vs.-Keane) You can be sure Vieira will be respected by Andrea Pirlo, David Villa and Lampard. Also, whenever I have spoken to Vieira, he has been tremendously insightful on the game.
He has also put in his time over the last few years as a coach of Man City’s reserves and elite development squad. There is very little on a soccer field that Vieira hasn’t seen or experienced.
What are the cons? The usual ones for someone in Vieira’s position. He hasn’t had to deal with MLS’s peculiar rules, including a salary cap, roster limits, expansion drafts, allocation money and a thousand other only-in-MLS terms. It makes me think back to LA’s Ruud Gullit, still the highest-paid coach in MLS history, whose response to the MLS expansion draft was to say the players should refuse the transfer.
Over the history of MLS, the league’s most successful coaches and teams have been the ones who can identify players who can contribute despite making less than $100,000 a year.
Vieira will need to rely on people who know the U.S. system, so you can expect there will be more pressure than ever on Claudio Reyna, NYCFC’s director of football.
Ultimately, it would be good for MLS if a big-name coach came in from abroad and had some real success for once. You don’t want to be seen as an insular soccer culture, and you can argue that the sample size for big-name foreign coaches hasn’t been big enough to draw any real conclusions yet. Whatever happens with Vieira, his time in Gotham should be extremely compelling to follow.
QUICK STATION BREAK
Here are some things on my mind:
• This interview of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger by Erik Bielderman for L’Equipe Sport & Style (translated in English on Arseblog) is the best interview I have read in a long time. So much that’s worthwhile here. It’s also worth noting that Wenger has a real concern for the use of PEDs in soccer, which is something that should get greater scrutiny in the sport.
• The new documentary Ronaldo premiered this week and is available on DVD starting Tuesday. The film follows Cristiano Ronaldo for much of 2014 and includes plenty of behind-the-scenes footage—his young son is a star in front of the camera. I’ve seen the movie and recommend it. Yes, it’s a positive portrayal, and you can’t help but smile sometimes when Ronaldo confirms some of the notions about him. (He tells his agent, Jorge Mendes, that he is the Cristiano Ronaldo of agents.)
But there’s a lot of honesty here too, including about painful subjects in Ronaldo’s life like his late father. I spoke to the director Anthony Wonke the other day, and he told me how he waited until after almost all of the movie had been shot—and he had built a relationship with Ronaldo—to do the voiceover interviews (in a room with no cameras). That way Ronaldo was comfortable with him, and it shows.
• The big youth soccer story of the week is U.S. Soccer reaching a lawsuit settlement and announcing that it will limit headers by youth players under the age of 13. The news has been seen as a big victory for those favoring concussion safety, while some coaches say it will limit U.S. youth soccer development and even create the possibility for increased concussions.
• It took a lot of courage for NYCFC’s Sebastián Velásquez to post this on Twitter and Instagram on Monday. Good luck to him in his continued recovery.
• When I first lived in NYC in the late 1990s, there was no easy way to see a big Argentina-Brazil game, so I took the 7 train out to Queens one night to a Brazilian bar that had the game on closed-circuit TV. It’s a little easier to see Argentina-Brazil nowadays, thankfully, and BeIN Sports will have the game of the week, a World Cup qualifier from Buenos Aires, on at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday. Argentina needs a win after getting only one point from its first two qualifiers, and the Albiceleste will have to do it without Lionel Messi. Must-see TV here.
BACK TO THE ‘BAG
Despite FIFA problems, world football is growing in the U.S. How will it change or help when/if FIFA gets on the right track?
If FIFA starts becoming a cleaner organization (and that’s still a very big IF), my guess is the influence of petrodollars (Russia, Qatar, Equatorial Guinea, etc.) will decline when it comes to hosting big international events. As a result, you should see more events going to established democracies like the U.S., Australia and other places.
What are your favorite moments from the MLS playoffs [so far]?
In no particular order:
• The 11-round penalty shootout in Portland, capped by both goalkeepers taking penalties and KC’s Saad Abdul Salaam hitting both posts on a penalty that would have given his team the win.
• Walker Zimmerman’s crazed-maniac deathstare after his penalty kick gave Dallas the playoff win over Seattle.
• The wild four-goal first half between Seattle and LA.
• Seattle game-winner Erik Friberg’s postgame interview with Unimás, when he said he didn’t speak Spanish and the interviewer said she was speaking to him in English.
• Juan Agudelo’s bicycle-kick goal for New England. First goal of the playoffs will be the best goal of the playoffs.
• Kei Kamara’s series-winner for Columbus against Montreal.
• Jermaine Jones losing his mind and going after referee Mark Geiger. (Not exactly a “favorite,” but memorable nonetheless.)
• Clint Dempsey’s big-time free kick golazo to give Seattle a 2-1 lead on Dallas.
• Krisztián Németh’s extra-time goal at Portland. (Have all the best goals been scored by losing teams this year?)
Last four teams in playoffs not in top 10 of highest MLS payrolls. Insights?
Well, it shows you can in fact compete for titles in present-day MLS even if you don’t spend more on payroll than most of the teams in the league. That was beginning to become a question as LA Galaxy had won three of the last four MLS Cups with one of the league’s highest payrolls.
That said, we shouldn’t look just at the payroll figures put out by the MLS Players Union. For example, the New York Red Bulls have the league’s lowest payroll per the MLSPU, but they also spent a significant additional amount on transfer fees this year. It’s interesting: The media often fail to include salary information (and focus only on transfer fees) when they report on player acquisitions in the biggest European leagues, but in MLS it’s often the opposite.
Portland’s payroll is in the bottom half of the league, but it spent $5 million on Lucas Melano’s transfer fee.
Yellow card accumulation rule. Thoughts? Diego Valeri and Rodney Wallace now out for Portland.
In general, I prefer having a higher threshold for yellow-card suspensions, whether it’s the World Cup or the MLS playoffs.
Bob Bradley keeps moving up in world football. Where do you see him in five years?
On Tuesday, the French second-division club Le Havre announced that Bradley is taking over on Wednesday and will coach the team this weekend. One of his assistants will be Pierre Barrieu, who was the U.S. fitness coach for more than a decade and had a huge impact on the U.S.’s fitness level improving to one of the world’s best.
Le Havre was bought last summer by the American Vincent Volpe, and it plays in an impressive new stadium. The club is currently in fourth place in the second division, and if Bradley leads it to promotion it would be only the latest success for the American coach.
Where do I see Bradley in five years? Coaching in one of the world’s top four leagues.