The best women's player, MLS coaching changes and more mailbag
We haven't done a soccer mailbag for a while, so let's dive in:
The U.S.' Abby Wambach won the 2012 FIFA women's world player of the year award on Monday in Zurich, beating out second-place Marta and third-place Alex Morgan (who had no business finishing behind Marta). Wambach, the first U.S. winner of the award since Mia Hamm in 2002, deserved it in my mind. I'm the U.S. journalist voter for the award (the national team coach and captain from each country also vote), and my ballot looked like this:
2. Christine Sinclair
3. Carli Lloyd
This wasn't an easy choice. As many as five players had reasonable arguments for being voted No. 1. When it came down to making small distinctions, I looked at how players performed during the Olympics, by the far most important women's soccer event of the year. I hope someday that the women's club game closes the gap of importance between itself and the Olympics/World Cup, but that currently isn't the case. Nor do national-team friendlies come close to the Olympics in importance either. In the games that mattered most, Wambach's five goals in six Olympic matches (to say nothing of winning the gold medal itself) gave her the edge over the rest. Sinclair was a one-woman wrecking crew for Canada, but she didn't win the gold medal. Lloyd was a menace in the midfield and had four Olympic goals, including both in the final, which barely edged her ahead of Morgan, who still had a remarkable breakout year. It's a sign of the U.S.' quality that this discussion hasn't even included Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo, who were excellent in 2012.
Well, first things first. We'll know soon if Chandler will be on the U.S. squad for the World Cup qualifier against Honduras on Feb. 6, and if he is you can bet Jurgen Klinsmann will make sure Chandler gets on the field in an official game so that he can be cap-tied to the U.S. for good. If that happens, Chandler surely has the talent to be a starter for the U.S. at right back or right midfield, depending partly on how he competes against Steve Cherundolo, Graham Zusi and Landon Donovan (if Donovan is part of the picture, which I think he will be at some point soon again).
I think having a soccer referee on-hand would be a great idea for any studio show. It seems to work pretty well on NFL broadcasts, and I'd argue soccer has more controversial officiating decisions than even the NFL. I wish officiating wasn't so often the main talking point after a big soccer game, but we can't change the fact that it is. Let's put a former U.S. World Cup referee like Esse Baharmast in front of the camera and see how it goes, OK?
I would have put Pirlo in place of Xavi, Lahm in place of Dani Alves at right back and Ashley Cole in place of Marcelo at left back. As for Van Persie, he's a remarkable finisher, but I rate Radamel Falcao a shade ahead of him right now.
Holden made a big step in his comeback from injury this week by playing 65 minutes for Bolton's reserves. It has been so long that Holden has played regularly that in fairness we shouldn't be talking much about his national team future yet. But if he does make it all the way back, there should be enough time for him to get back into the USMNT picture before World Cup 2014. Holden's two-way skillset could fit into Klinsmann's plans quite well if everything works out.
I'm going to keep an open mind about any new coach in MLS, including Toronto's Ryan Nelsen and Montreal's Marco Schällibaum. But there are a few things I could say already. For starters, most North American observers (including me) know little about Schällibaum other than his resume, which includes a long playing career that featured national-team duty for Switzerland, as well as coaching jobs at several recognizable clubs like Basel and Sion where he was not above average in his results. Schällibaum speaks several languages, which should be helpful, but all it takes is one look at MLS history to know that a lengthy list of European newcomer coaches has never been successful at winning trophies, with the lone exception of Colorado's Gary Smith in 2010 (and he was out of his job a year later).
Can Schällibaum buck the norm? Maybe. But if I was an MLS owner, I wouldn't hire a newcomer from overseas to be a coach in this league. On-field coaching is only one part of success in MLS, where the best coaches know how to draft a college kid who can be a useful player on just $45,000 a year. The coaches who've won in MLS (Bruce Arena, Sigi Schmid, Dom Kinnear, Frank Yallop) know how to deal with salary caps, roster limits allocation money and all the things that are special in this league, and Schällibaum hasn't had to deal with that before. But there appear to be owners in MLS who are still willing to try overseas newcomers as coaches -- Montreal and New York are two examples -- and we'll just see how it goes.
As for Nelsen, he was a terrific player and leader for D.C. United when it won the 2004 MLS Cup, and his quality has taken him to the Premier League and the World Cup with New Zealand. I think Nelsen has a better chance for success as a coach than Schällibaum, in part because he knows MLS and appears to have skills that would translate into coaching. But you never know. MLS teams seem to want their own versions of Salt Lake's Jason Kreis, a 30-something player who can go straight from the field to the sidelines without missing a beat. But Kreis may be the exception rather than the norm. Lastly, the uncertainty around when Nelsen will be able to leave his playing commitments at QPR and become a full-time MLS coach add to the difficulty of his transition.
I'm now hearing that the venue for the U.S.' home opener vs. Costa Rica on March 22 may not be announced until next week. The finalist cities are Salt Lake City, Denver and Kansas City. Don't look for the rest of the U.S. home venues to be released at the same time. There is a requirement that FIFA and CONCACAF be notified by a certain amount of days before the game, so that's the limiting factor here. That said, U.S. fans would certainly like to know as far in advance as possible so that they can make travel plans and be able to afford the flights.
New England has said it's seeking a new stadium closer to Boston, which would be better for soccer fans, but the reality is there's not much financial incentive for the Krafts to do so when they own Gillette Stadium, where their Revs and NFL Patriots play. I remember speaking to Bob Kraft at a World Cup 2006 event in Germany, and he seemed like he was at least into the idea of soccer, even though his son Jonathan has been the main guy in charge of the Revs. As I'm sure you know, the Revs have drawn well at times in their history (especially toward the start of MLS), and they did reach four straight MLS Cup finals from 2005-08, losing all of them. But the ownership does need to catch up to the rest of a league that has left New England behind in recent years.
What matters is where Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer come down on it, and they have changed their policy recently to allow for home World Cup qualifiers to be played on temporary grass fields. That theoretically opened up Seattle and Portland to host games, but Portland owner Merritt Paulson said this week that he won't allow a temporary grass field to be laid over his artificial turf field. It's mainly up to Klinsmann whether he'd be willing to stage a game on fake turf, but I'm not betting that he will be.