Time for our biweekly Mailbag on all things soccer, with the questions—all of them from actual readers—greatly appreciated by me. Let’s go!
But first: there's been DEFCON-1 breaking news from UEFA, which announced late Friday it had banned Manchester City from European competition (including Champions League) for two seasons and issued a €30 million fine. Man City, UEFA said, “committed serious breaches of the UEFA Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations by overstating its sponsorship revenue in its accounts and in the break-even information submitted to UEFA between 2012 and 2016. The Adjudicatory Chamber has also found that in breach of the regulations the Club failed to cooperate in the investigation of this case by the CFCB.”
Man City announced it would immediately file an appeal with Court of Arbitration for Sport.
What’s my take? Well, if CAS upholds the punishment it will be a watershed moment in the sport. The biggest trend in world football over the past decade has been the increasing polarization between the wealthiest 1% of clubs and all the rest—and the decrease in competitive balance resulting from that. I’m surprised that UEFA had the guts to throw the book at City, but this will serve as a warning to every other club in Europe that it can’t try to get away with flouting Financial Fair Play rules.
How will the decision affect Man City? If it’s held up, or even reduced to one season, I would expect to see the departure of Pep Guardiola and a number of City’s top players.
How does the decision affect this season’s Premier League race? Now the race for fifth could matter a heck of a lot more if the spot vacated by Man City, which began Friday in second place, goes to the next team in line after the top four. The possibility of Sheffield United (currently in fifth place) qualifying for Champions League (along with Leicester City) means a lot of people will be rooting for the little guy. Of course, it also gives a much better chance to Spurs and Man United as well.
Onto your questions:
Which team has a better chance of taking home the Champions League crown - Bayern Munich or Juventus? – @nickhennion
I don’t know about you, but I am in full UEFA Champions League withdrawal mode, so its return next week couldn’t come at a better time. Let’s not just limit this discussion to those two teams, though if I had to pick I would say Bayern has a better shot than Juventus at this point.
Who do I like to win Champions League? The picks I’m seeing most often from cognoscenti are Manchester City and PSG, which I kind of understand, but let’s get real here: Liverpool, the current champion, is having an unreal season for a reason, leading the Premier League by an astronomical 22 points. So let’s not overthink this. I like Liverpool, the best team in Europe by a large margin at this point, to win the Champions League again. That said, nothing comes easy in Champions League, and Liverpool having to face Atlético Madrid in the round of 16 is a tougher matchup than most people might think, given Atleti’s underperformance in La Liga. Koke is back from injury, and Diego Simeone’s team will make LFC earn everything they get.
As for PSG and Man City, I honestly think both teams could be in trouble in the round of 16, considering PSG has Dortmund and City has Real Madrid. Those two matchups are the ones I’m most excited to see. Dortmund is the most unpredictable team in Europe, capable of scoring and conceding tons of goals, but its ceiling is extremely high. And Real Madrid has quietly been going about its business in La Liga.
It’s crazy how different some of these matchups look now compared to when the draw took place, but aside from Liverpool just about every big team in Europe has had some major ups and downs during a mercurial season.
If you picked the starting lineup for the USMNT, who would be in it? – @GorelickRich
Here’s mine, a 4-2-3-1, assuming that everybody is healthy:
Zack Steffen; Reggie Cannon, Aaron Long, John Brooks, Sergiño Dest; Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie; Christian Pulisic, Sebastian Lletget, Gio Reyna; Jozy Altidore
Forward: Altidore. Josh Sargent has been going through a rough stretch at Werder Bremen, which means Altidore gets the nod as a guy with a track record (though you hope he can stay healthy for a long stretch).
Attacking midfielders (left to right): I know Reyna is just 17, but he’s getting real time now at Dortmund and deserves a shot in March. His ceiling is a lot higher than that of Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola, so let’s see what he’s got. Lletget has been very good for the national team and gets a slight nod over Duane Holmes, who’s having a good season at Derby County. And Pulisic is an automatic, though you certainly want to see him get back on the field soon for Chelsea.
Central midfield: McKennie and Adams should be in these positions for a long time. You hope they get a nice run of good health, obviously. In my podcast interview with Adams this week, we talked at length about Gregg Berhalter’s preference now that Adams be a central midfielder with the national team. That’s Adams’s preference, too.
Defense: Dest can play at either right back or left back, and while right back is his better spot, he can do fine on the left too. Here’s hoping Antonee Robinson gets a call in March and can show if he has shored things up defensively. If he has, then Dest can go to right back. Cannon gets a slight nod ahead of DeAndre Yedlin, mainly because there’s not a big difference and Cannon is just 21, while Yedlin is 26. At center back, Brooks and Long are in pole position for now.
Goalkeeper: Berhalter has to hope that Steffen gets healthy. If not, Brad Guzan and Sean Johnson enter the picture.
What does Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea mean for the attacking options next year? – @jkbuse
I love Ziyech and think he brings a lot of things that Chelsea needs, namely a left-footed wide attacking option that the club currently doesn’t have. Whether Ziyech plays on the left or right remains to be seen, but he has been extremely effective as inverted winger for Ajax. (Keep in mind, though, that Pulisic is more effective wide right than he is on the left.) Most people expect that Pedro (now 32) and Willian (31) are on their way out from Chelsea, and the 26-year-old Ziyech will help when it comes to setting up Tammy Abraham. Ziyech’s versatility is extremely useful; he can play centrally as well.
When will the host cities for World Cup 2026 be announced? – @Forzap
I did some reporting on the next few questions for ‘Bag readers, including this one. A U.S. Soccer source told me the host cities for World Cup ’26 in the U.S. are expected to be announced in the first quarter of 2021, likely in March.
Any news on the USMNT U-17 coach? – @agostino_jerry
The U-17 position has been open since Raphael Wicky left to take the Chicago Fire job. A U.S. Soccer source says they’re “closing in” on a new U-17 coach.
When can we expect the SheBelieves roster to be released? – @bennadeau5
A U.S. Soccer source says: “Soon.”
Do you know the reason why Christen Press is now wearing number 20? – @carmenarcem1
A U.S. Soccer source says Press (who normally wears No. 23) had to wear No. 20 during the Olympic qualifying tournament because Concacaf required 20-player rosters and player numbers between 1 and 20. She’ll go back to No. 23 for the SheBelieves Cup, but Press–presuming she makes the squad headed to Japan–will have to pick between No. 1 and No. 18 for the Olympics since those rosters have just 18 players on them.
Which pair of soccer shorts that you own are you most proud of? – @acreach
Ha! If you don’t know, I collect uniform soccer shorts to exercise in. Probably my favorite ones right now are my Alan Gordon game-used Chicago Fire shorts.
Explain the Olympic process. Does Gregg [Berhalter] ask each guy if he wants to go, then his club if it will release him? If a player is in qualifying, has his club signed off on his being in Tokyo? What does MLS think of the Olympics? It's been a while since it has been asked. – @DanielC00635829
The Concacaf men’s Olympic qualifying tournament is next month, and the U.S., coached by Jason Kreis, will be trying to qualify for the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Keep in mind, though, FIFA does not require any club to release a player for a non-senior tournament, which includes the Olympics themselves. Berhalter, Kreis and U.S. Soccer have been in communication with clubs to see which players they’ll release for the qualifying tournament, which does take place mostly over the FIFA window in March. But don’t look for Pulisic, Adams and McKennie to be released for the qualifying tournament. Many of the players expected to be available for qualifying were part of the USMNT’s January camp and friendly against Costa Rica.
I did find it interesting this week in my podcast interview with Adams that he is very interested in going to the Olympics themselves if the U.S. qualifies—and that he thinks Pulisic and McKennie would be as well. European clubs will be more likely to release players for the Olympics, and the word is that even Mohamed Salah wants to play for Egypt.
I’m always fascinated by the response to the Olympic men’s tournament, which is an Under-23 competition with three overaged players allowed per team. Most European countries put little value on it, but that’s not the case for countries outside Europe. Remember, too, that we put a lot of emphasis on the Olympics in the United States. I’ve always found it amazing that on Abby Wambach’s book jacket, for example, she’s noted as an Olympic gold medalist but not a World Cup champion.
You have two weeks in England to teach college students about English football. Where are you taking them? – @JPatrickMarsh
To Manchester, where you can visit the national football museum and Old Trafford, etc. And to a tour of lower-division games and locations where you could see how deeply the sport of soccer infuses the culture of the country.