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  • Answering your wide-ranging questions on U.S. youth team success (or lack thereof), the MLS season ahead and much more.
By Grant Wahl
February 22, 2017

“You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences. I mean, they’ve got the same s--- over there that they’ve got here, but there it’s just a little different.”

— Vincent Vega (John Travolta) in Pulp Fiction

MUNICH — They broadcast Champions League a little different over here in Germany. On Tuesday night, as I settled in to watch what turned out to be two wild Champions League games (with 14 goals!), I noticed that Sky Sports in Germany had a couple wrinkles in its presentation.

One of them was in the pregame show, where there’s an actual studio audience, which had me envisioning Fox’s Alexi Lalas, Eric Wynalda, Warren Barton and Rob Stone getting the crowd going like a WWE wrestling audience (Think about it, guys!). Then there were the German game broadcasts themselves, in which we’d see five minutes of one game live, then five minutes of the other game, unless someone scored and you’d switch over to that game immediately.

Lacking two TV screens and wanting to stay on top of both games, I kind of liked it, as long as there wasn’t a blowout (which there wasn’t).

I love coming here, even if I still don’t speak a lick of German, which only becomes a problem when you consume the decaf coffee in your hotel room instead of the real stuff (which caused me more angst than you might think). Anyway, I had some time to crank out a Mailbag, and you guys had questions, so let’s go!

What is your prediction for best (and worst) storyline in MLS during the 2017 campaign? @DRock_18

Look out, folks, the MLS season starts a week from Friday. We’ll have plenty of coverage next week on SI.com (including my annual Ambition Rankings), but there’s nothing wrong with an MLS teaser right now. Right off the bat, I’d say the best storyline would be Atlanta debuting in the biggest of ways, rekindling memories of Seattle in 2009. The worst? That might be the comparisons I expect to see between Atlanta and fellow debutante Minnesota. They may both be expansion teams in the same year, but their aspirations and approaches are completely different. Atlanta and LAFC? Now those would be similar. I could see Minnesota wanting to be more like, say Kansas City. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

People scoff at USMNT players coming to MLS, but it seems USWNT players are discouraged from going abroad. Why the difference? @timwszalek

As with most comparisons between women’s and men’s soccer, that’s kind of an apples and oranges situation. I’d prefer to focus on the USWNT and what I do believe is a worthwhile question: In a typical year, why are national team players strongly encouraged by U.S. Soccer to play in the NWSL? It seemed odd that Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd talked about getting the blessing of coach Jill Ellis to sign a pro deal overseas. (That said, Crystal Dunn did make a permanent transfer to Chelsea, which is a bit different from the short-term contracts of Lloyd and Morgan.) With European women’s clubs starting to provide more in terms of money, facilities and investment, the NWSL and U.S. Soccer should provide national team players offers they can’t refuse in a competitive market—and not rely on U.S. Soccer to steer U.S. national team players to domestic clubs because the players fear for their national team standing.

Is Hérculez Gómez the next great ex-player turned commentator? Have always found him to be really refreshing. @KurtWitt

There are a lot of good commentators out there, and I think Herc is well on his way to becoming one of them. Selfishly, I’m bummed that I don’t get to work with him over at Fox Sports anymore now that he has joined ESPN, but he’s doing great there and will only continue that. I think he’s an insightful guy who does the work to prepare, and he can speak two languages. He knows the sport on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as well as anyone.

Love the podcast. Judging by your interviews, all the American soccer journalists seem to get along – is it that way in Europe? @KurtWitt

Thanks for listening to the Planet Fútbol Podcast! I’m really enjoying doing it every week, and this week’s interview with NBC Premier League analyst Kyle Martino is one of the most revealing ones we’ve had. I really want to keep doing these, so you can do me a huge favor by subscribing, recommending it to your friends and writing a review. Seriously, it really helps. Anyway, to answer your question, just about everyone in the U.S. soccer media seems to get along pretty well. That’s less so the case in Europe, where the sport is bigger and there’s more competition.

What's the one interview that you have NOT done that you would like to? @stanwilliams9

There are about a thousand. But if I had to pick one one-on-one interview, it would be Diego Maradona. I actually asked him for one in 2010 when he was the Argentina national team coach, but he wanted 100,000 euros and it didn’t happen. After Maradona, the undone interview that I’d want to do is Zinédine Zidane. He’s larger than life for me, in part because he was the world’s greatest player during the time I started covering the game. It’s no coincidence that one of my dogs is named Zizou.

Have we had any team success at the youth level since Jurgen Klinsmann and the academies started? @DRBulldogs13

Timely question, considering the CONCACAF qualifiers for the Under-20 World Cup are ongoing, with Tab Ramos’s U.S. team losing to Panama 1-0 and beating Haiti 4-1 so far. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy started in 2007. Klinsmann became the U.S. men’s coach in 2011 and the technical director in 2013 before being fired from both jobs in late 2016. Here’s the rundown on world championship performances by the U.S. men’s youth teams during that time:

UNDER-23 (Olympics)

2008    Out in group stage (Coach: Peter Nowak)

2012    Failed to qualify (Caleb Porter)

2016    Failed to qualify (Andi Herzog)

UNDER-20 WORLD CUP

2009    Out in group stage (Thomas Rongen)

2011    Failed to qualify (Thomas Rongen)

2013    Out in group stage (Tab Ramos)

2015    Quarterfinals (Tab Ramos)

UNDER-17 WORLD CUP

2009    Round of 16 (Wilmer Cabrera)

2011    Round of 16 (Wilmer Cabrera)

2013    Failed to qualify (Richie Williams)

2015    Out in group stage (Richie Williams)

Winning isn’t all that matters when it comes to developing players, of course. That said, it’s a pretty dismal record, with the brightest spot being the quarterfinal run in the 2015 Under-20 World Cup.

Planet Futbol
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What are your top three favorite cities to visit when you cover games? (Chicago better be on the list somewhere!) @LindseyGMurphy

Keep in mind a couple of things here: One, I live in New York, so I won’t include NYC. And there are a lot of great places among MLS cities. But of those cities, I’d rank them this way for me:

1. Kansas City. My hometown, great food and soccer atmosphere.

2. Seattle. Gorgeous, great food, biggest fanbase in MLS.

3. Portland. Scenic, great food, hardest-core fanbase in MLS.

Sorry, Chicago didn’t make my top three. But let me put it this way: There’s not a single MLS city that I’m not excited to visit when I get the chance.

After Tuesday’s strong performance, is Radamel Falcao back to his Porto and Atlético Madrid level? @MannekenPis9

He may not be quite back up to that crazy-high level, but it’s great to see Falcao get back close to it. His breathtaking chip of a goal against Man City was one of my favorite moments from a game in a long time—just a thing of beauty after he had absolutely worked John Stones. (Yes, Falcao also took one of the worst penalties we’ve ever seen, but I’m choosing to forget that for now.) With 16 goals in Ligue 1, Falcao is tied for third in the league for the team (Monaco) that’s leading the league. Talk about a gratifying resurgence from one of the game’s good guys, who also happened to be a chalk outline at Man United and Chelsea not too long ago.

Planet Futbol
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Will Geoff Cameron be ready for the March U.S. qualifiers? @TheUnderdog28

If everything goes according to plan, yes. Cameron, who has been out since late October with a knee ligament injury, is crucial to the U.S.’s back line, which suffered without him in losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in November. But he could be back on the field this weekend when Stoke meets Spurs.

If Cameron is available, that would be a huge boost for Bruce Arena’s U.S. team for the two big March World Cup qualifiers. I think Cameron is underrated in terms of his importance to the U.S. team.

Which country do you think is consistently developing the best youth/talent at the moment? @EdPham

It’s hard to argue with France right now. Just look at these guys: Man United’s Anthony Martial (21), Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé (19), Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé (18) and Thomas Lemar (20), Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman (20), Celtic’s Moussa Dembélé (20), PSG’s Adrien Rabiot (21) and Lyon’s Maxwel Cornet (20). Yikes.

Thanks for reading, everyone. See you next time!

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