Grant Wahl answers your questions on the Ballon d'Or, transfer speculation both home and abroad, MLS SuperDraft and Mario Balotelli.

By Grant Wahl
January 12, 2016

The 2015 FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony is done. Lionel Messi and Carli Lloyd are the individuals sitting astride the colossus that is world soccer. There was a bit less side entertainment this time around: Messi wore a plain black tuxedo, and there were no snide gazes from rival Cristiano Ronaldo when the Argentine won his award. Thank goodness we still had the release of who voted for whom, in which neither Messi nor Cristiano had each other in his top three and Guatemala was convinced that Javier Mascherano was the best player on the planet!

Let’s dive into this week’s Mailbag…

With all the money in the Premier League, isn’t it curious nearly all the FIFA 2015 World Best XI came from Spain? Think that will shift in the future?


Eight of the players in FIFA’s World XI ply their trades in Spain, all of them for either Barcelona or Real Madrid. Not one of the 11 winners came from the Premier League, which I do expect to change in the coming years as the Premier League’s TV money leaps into the stratosphere. But I still don’t expect the PL’s greater wealth to take away many (if any) top players from the two Spanish giants. So get used to seeing players from La Liga on the podium in Zurich for a while.

Who would you choose as your three subs (honorable mention) for the FIFA World XI?


Tough call, but I’d have Atlético Madrid defender Diego Godín, Barcelona defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets and Barça forward Luis Suárez (just nudging out Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski).

How much longer until an American cracks the FIFA World XI?


Basically you’re asking when will the U.S. produce its first male soccer superstar? And we’re no closer to answering that question with a real name now than when we started asking the question 20 years ago. It could be a while yet.

Who gets to decide which media members can vote for Ballon d’Or?


So here’s how the voting works: Each FIFA member nation gets three votes: The national team coach, the national team captain and one media member.

The U.S. men’s voter is Paul Kennedy of Soccer America, who has done work for France Football (which organizes the vote with FIFA) for several decades. The U.S. women’s voter is Jeff Kassouf of NBC Sports. I’m not sure who exactly “decides” which media member gets to vote, but from talking to Paul I know it has been a challenge over the years to find even one voting media member in some of the smaller FIFA nations.

True or false: Lionel Messi is to Steph Curry as Cristiano Ronaldo is to LeBron?


True. It’s been fun to see the mutual admiration society develop recently between Messi and Curry, who’s body shapes and playing styles have a lot in common. As for the other two, Ronaldo and LeBron are physical freaks who … both have spent time in Miami?

What’s more crucial for Man United: Getting rid of manager Louis van Gaal or securing a striker in this transfer window?


Planet Futbol
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For me, it’s ending Van Gaal’s tenure. The only reasons I think it hasn’t ended already are 1) boss Ed Woodward doesn’t want to admit his hire went wrong, and 2) United is one of the clubs that has offered Pep Guardiola a contract, and they’re simply waiting for him to decide. As for buying a striker this month, United seems more intent on acquiring Lazio winger Felipe Anderson, who is a lot like Memphis Depay.

Who should Chelsea go after and who will they get?


I’d like to see Chelsea go for an Atlético Madrid two-fer and get defender Diego Godín and manager Diego Simeone, but I don’t see that happening during the season. Front-line possibilities include Shakhtar’s Alex Teixiera and Milan’s Carlos Bacca. But don’t look now: Diego Costa may be rounding back into form.

Who will get Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang?


My guess: Nobody will land the red-hot Dortmund striker who just became the African Player of the Year. He’s too valuable to Dortmund right now to move him.

Will Liverpool dump Christian Benteke like they did Robbie Keane after six months?


Planet Futbol
Tactical breakdown: How Jurgen Klopp is transforming Liverpool

I think Benteke has a lot to prove in the coming months as he tries to show Jurgen Klopp that can fit into the manager’s system. That involves scoring, of course, but it also requires being the first line of defense in Klopp’s high-pressing set-up. So far I haven’t been seeing it, and if that doesn’t change I could definitely see Benteke moving in the summer. Talk about a big week for Liverpool, by the way, hosting Arsenal (on Wednesday) and Man United (on Saturday) at Anfield.

What happened to Mario Balotelli?


SI Wire
Soccer star Mario Balotelli on cover of Sports Illustrated

Sigh. The one-time SI coverboy, who’s still just 25, is about to return from injury for AC Milan, where he’s on loan this season from Liverpool. Balotelli has been in a funk for much of the time since World Cup 2014, and he hasn’t played for Italy since that tournament. Liverpool was clearly a bad move, and injuries have been a constant problem as well. I still think Balo can get his career going again, but he needs some consistency at club level first.

Most intriguing player linked to MLS [lately]?


Gotta be Radamel Falcao’s chalk outline and Columbus. I’ll be honest, I have no inside scoop on this one, but I can’t help but smile even thinking about it. Hard to see it happening, though.

Is there streaming or TV of the MLS draft or has it become so irrelevant there isn’t?


The draft will be streamed live on the MLS website and on Thursday at 1 p.m. ET. I wouldn’t call the draft irrelevant. Last year’s draft included players like Cyle Larin, Fatai Alashe, Tim Parker, Khiry Shelton, Matt Polster, Cristian Roldan, Saad Abdul-Salaam, Dominique Badji and Oniel Fisher.

The problem is that not even most MLS fans watch college soccer on a regular basis, and coverage of college soccer is nowhere near what it is for college football or basketball. As a result, we don’t already have a deep relationship with these players, which is what causes people to get so much more excited about the NFL and NBA drafts.

That said, the MLS draft has gotten less important over the years with the advent of Homegrown players—the biggest rookie addition to the league would be Seattle HGP Jordan Morris, who has no chance of being taken in the draft—and with teams having so many ways to add players to their rosters.

What are the chances of LA Galaxy signing Jelle Van Damme, Joleon Lescott, Nigel de Jong and Ashley Cole?


Lescott and Cole both look likely at this point, and considering Lescott is 33 and Cole is 35, you really don’t want to be adding too many guys north of 30 in MLS. Van Damme is 32 and De Jong is 31. There’s no way all four are coming in, but there’s also reason for Galaxy fans to wonder if there’s too much age on this team.

Do you think Jill Ellis really deserved to win world Coach of the Year?


I do. Ellis made the big tactical decisions that needed to be made during the World Cup, and they paid off for her in the end. You could argue she was forced into moving Carli Lloyd higher up the field by the yellow-card absence of Lauren Holiday in the quarterfinals, but it took guts for Ellis to keep Lloyd higher and bench Abby Wambach for the games that mattered most at the end.

Will you be at #nscaabaltimore this week?


I will indeed be in Baltimore on Wednesday and Thursday for the MLS draft and NSCAA convention. I’ll be doing the SiriusXM CounterAttack show on-site Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. ET, and we should be located right in the middle of things. Please say hello! Can’t wait to get back to the city where I lived from 2007 to ’12.

Best sports venue to never host a WCQ? Why would it be a good pick to host? My pick is AT&T Park in SF.


For me the answer is clear: Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., which has hosted friendlies but never a World Cup qualifier. The reasoning for not hosting there is also pretty clear: No matter who the U.S. plays, the opponent will have a supportive crowd in the New York City area.

Other soccer-specific stadiums that have yet to host a U.S. World Cup qualifier are Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Tex.; BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston; Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pa.; and Avaya Stadium in San Jose, Calif. As for NFL stadiums with real grass that haven’t hosted qualifiers, I’d consider Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.; Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia; and University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

Who do you think the next U.S. player to join a Premier League team will be?


I’m not expecting any U.S. players to join a Premier League team in the January window, but my guess for the next one (whenever that is) would be New York Red Bulls defender Matt Miazga. He’s very much on the rise, and it also helps that he has an EU passport (Poland) and doesn’t need to qualify for a work permit.

Who starts at GK for the Copa America Centenario? Tim Howard or Brad Guzan?


The short answer is whoever is starting for their club team at the end of the season. But if both are still starting I suspect Howard will be the No. 1 for the U.S. in the Copa América.

Who would be your soccer sports writer of the year?


I think this question came in reference to my tweet congratulating SI’s Tom Verducci on winning his second straight National Sportswriter of the Year award this week. There are a lot of good soccer writers out there these days, in and out of the U.S., so I’ll give two awards. For the U.S. I’d give it to Sam Borden of the New York Times, who was all over the FIFA scandal and was even in the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich at 6 a.m. when arrests happened (twice!). For outside the U.S., I’d give it to Rory Smith of the Times of London. He’s fantastic, with a good eye for a story and global interests.

Out of the 4 teams in the MLS Eastern Conference who didn't make the playoffs in '15, who has the best chance to make it in '16?


I’d say Orlando, which dealt with a ton of injuries last year and still nearly made the playoffs. I’ll be leery of NYCFC’s defense until I see proof otherwise.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)