Thursday, December 1, 2005
We know that most sports fans harbor fantasies of being players, managers, and/or agents. Knowing that we can't do much to help our readers actually achieve any of the above ambitions, we've decided to do the next best thing and create an opportunity to get inside the minds of players, managers, and agents.
Every month or so, we'll pick a US player who is currently playing in MLS or elsewhere in the States and analyze where that player SHOULD be playing. We will bring in opinions from different members of the YA Staff who focus on different foreign leagues.
Each of us will discuss which team (if any) from the league we follow would make the best match for the player we're discussing. We'll try to take everything into consideration - from the needs, profile and financial resources of the team to the abilities, potential and personality of the player. In this edition of YA Matchmaker...
He may have spurned a November "training visit" to Everton in order to catch up on some rest, and he may well remain in MLS through World Cup, but Revolution coach Steve Nicol would probably concede that Dempsey is not much longer for that world. Teams in Holland and the UK have been taking notice for a year now, and a potential World Cup spot could put the Texas native on the world's biggest soccer stage.
Sturdy enough to work from defensive midfield, clever enough to play-make and smooth enough to feature as a winger in a three-man front line, Dempsey's European options are as wide as the Atlantic.
England (Neal Thurman)
It is going to take one of two types of managers to take a chance on Clint Dempsey – visionary or desperate. I know the first reaction to that statement will be that I'm down on Clint Dempsey, but that's not the case at all.
The sad truth of it is that people in general and, more importantly for this discussion, football managers specifically are somewhat lazy. It isn't their fault, it's just the way that our brains work – we like patterns and predictability. This is important to the case of Dempsey because he isn't an easy player to classify.
The real rub will come when the manager tries to figure out where Clint fits into the squad. Sure he has talent, but what is his position? By and large, the other Americans who have been given a chance to play abroad are prototypical players at their position.
Brian McBride has the stature and aerial ability of the stereotypical English target man in a 4-4-2. DaMarcus Beasley has all the speed and trickery usually associated with a Dutch winger in a 4-3-3 alignment. Landon Donovan has the speed, shot and creativity typical of a midfielder playing behind a lone striker in a 4-5-1 or a second striker in a 4-4-2. Oguchi Onweyu and Cory Gibbs both have the strength, straight line speed, and tackling ability of central defenders.
Dempsey has an impressive array of talents, but they don't fit into a typical package. He has the aerial ability of a target striker, but he sure doesn't look big enough to fight it out with the big boys of Europe. He makes excellent delayed runs behind the strikers like a central midfielder, but he has neither the creativity associated with a Dennis Bergkamp, the grit associated with a Roy Keane or Patrick Vieira, nor the rocket shot of Frank Lampard.
On top of that mixed bag of skills and attributes, Dempsey seems to find a way to be in position to make big plays. While this is an excellent skill to have, it is a difficult one for a manager to use as justification for what outwardly appears to be a risky purchase.
Finding a club that runs either a 4-5-1 (where Dempsey would be an offensive-minded central midfielder) would be even better, but a 4-4-2 would also do. So, who qualifies?
I'll start my list at the bottom of the Premiership because the managers there are the most likely to be innovative as they search for ways to stay up. As I think about the squads in the bottom ten in the Premiership, three of them jump out at me as possibilities.
Newcastle has struggled to live up to the expectations associated with signing Emre, Michael Owen, and Scott Parker in the off-season and re-acquiring Nolberto Solano. Portsmouth acquired the mercurial Laurent Robert from Newcastle to bring the ball down the wing and deliver deadly crosses into the area – they just forgot to bring in anyone who can do anything with those crosses. Finally, Sunderland tried a similar player in former Blackburn Rover Jon Stead, who hasn't produced anything of note so far this season.
With Pompey in disarray after the sacking of their manager last week and Sunderland already looking like they're guaranteed a spot in the relegation zone, the most interesting fit in my mind is Newcastle. Alan Shearer is retiring at the end of the season (and if you've seen him play this year, you might be under the impression that he's already done so) and while Dempsey isn't a replacement for the Alan Shearer of old, he might be just the ticket as the X factor in a 4-5-1 at St. James' Park.
With Owen playing in an advanced role, Solano and Charles N'Zogbia/Albert Luque keeping defenders wide and providing dangerous crosses from the wings, and Emre doing the majority of the distribution in the center of midfield, Dempsey would be free to find the openings in the defense and capitalize on them.
At the same time, Dempsey's presence would ensure that Newcastle don't lose the aerial element of their attack when Shearer finally does hang up his boots – a critical factor given the quality on both wings.
So there you have it – Clint, pack your cold weather gear and get ready for January on Tyneside.
I would be very happy to welcome an American player to St. James' regardless of talent, as I covet their press biscuits... and there would seem to be a gap in our hypothetical 4-5-1. For a number of reasons, I think it'll end up more like a 4-3-3 though and that's where it'll get a bit awkward.
Newcastle do seem to be building for a three-pronged strike force, rather than a target man and two wingers. They didn't buy Luque, a fantastic left-sided striker, to imprison him long-term on the left wing (a mistake they made with Laurent Robert), and recent rumours of interest in Kavehci Nihat bolster the hypothesis. Nihat is almost a mirror of Luque, a striker with a distinct bias to the right wing, capable of playing there but not necessarily happy to do so.
Then we factor in the firm Geordie interest in Nicholas Anelka, and it starts to look like we're building a bit of a striker-heavy squad. It starts to look less like the Chelsea 4-5-1, with a packed midfield to accommodate Dempsey's slight lack of mettle and willingness to get forward, and more like a 90s Juventus 4-3-3, with three out-and-out forwards and three combative midfielders.
For Del Piero, Vialli and Ravanelli, read Luque, Owen and Anelka (or Luque, Anelka, Dyer.... or Dyer, Owen, Nihat....). For Deschamps, Sousa and Conte, read Emre, Parker and... certainly not Dempsey, by the sound of it!
Another pointer towards Newcastle's long-term tactical plan is the Newcastle - Man Utd match earlier this season. It was the first time Souness had been able to play his first choice XI from the start, and how did Newcastle line up? In an attacking 4-3-3, with Luque, Shearer and Dyer in attack, supported by a midfield trio of Emre, Parker and Jenas.
Of course, everything fell to pieces after first half injuries to Dyer and Emre, but for 20-something minutes, we had a glimpse of the future - and Man Utd couldn't deal with it.
The thought of that happening with any kind of regularity in the future gives me butterflies, so I'm afraid I will have to spurn Dempsey in favour of someone more pugnacious and gritty, to help Parker and Emre run the midfield. Someone a bit nastier, perhaps. Aldo Duscher, why not.
If it's a 4-5-1 that Dempsey needs, I'd point him in the direction of Bolton, who are possibly the only Premiership side other than Chelsea not to have deviated from it in the last year.
I can think of no better side in which to showcase his aerial ability, and he'd be surrounded by hard grafters, more than able to cover for him.
What's more, with Okocha aging and liable to run off to Africa for a couple of months now and then, there's an opening for a playmaker. Dempsey is used to the crisp New England weather, so settling in at Bolton won't be a problem.
Holland (Greg Seltzer)
Despite my esteemed Geordie's assertions, I believe the best place for a versatile player like Dempsey is in a proper 4-3-3 set-up. Naturally, this leads one straight to the low lands. The Nagodotches gunslinger could legitimately take the field in any of the three midfield positions, with the added bonus of being able to fill-in on either wing.
The one stumbling block to a work permit in open arms Holland is that any American player must be good enough for the club to pay him at least a €451,000 salary. This requirement immediately eliminates half of the top flight clubs (a team like Groningen, that otherwise might be able to use Dempsey's talents, is not going to go out on what would be perceived as such a huge financial limb).
A couple teams that could take the "risk" on an MLS player of his stature are already well equipped in that area (for instance, Vitesse have multi-talented types Youssouf Hersi and Theo Janssen).
Feyenoord already missed this ship once (erring with an overly spendthrift "we'll pass" as they did with Bocanegra and Howard). PSV might have seemed a smart choice, but we can probably rule them out with the rebuilding going so smoothly at Philips. Tossing another player capable of multiple positions into a crisis scenario at Ajax would only cause more Mokum confusion for swimming head coach Danny Blind; besides, he only really needs defenders and forwards.
That leaves us with one highly desirable destination: AZ Alkmaar. That's right, Europe's darlings, the club that has fans rethink their "Eredivisie big three" stereotypes. This attractive option certainly makes sense in more ways than one.
As a fiscal entity, they are backed by Dirk Scheringa's fat insurance coin. The 1981 UEFA Cup runners up have recently found a level of glory missing for more than two decades and the chairman is eager make regular this winning AZ.
Dempsey would fit like a glove at the Alkmaarderhoudt, with coach and system. One-time Ajax treble maestro Louis van Gaal runs a tight ship in training, surely no problem for the crew-cutted effort maker.
Of course, when the whistle blows, Van Gaal lets his charges loose to perform an enthralling, overlapping, position-swapping orgy of attack soccer. It wouldn't be strange at all to imagine midfielder Dempsey rushing in on goal after taking a Shota Arveladze backheel or popping up at the back post for a downward header.
Dempsey could begin as a super-sub before worming his way into the lineup at as many as five different positions for a club alive in three competitions, including the UEFA Cup knockouts.
The goal will be to gain entrance to the regular XI at one of the top two points on the midfield triad. Playmaker Barry van Galen is aging and increasingly brittle, while much wanted Oranje pivot man Denny Landzaat could take flight at any time for a new Premiership or Serie A address.
With AZ, Dempsey would profit from the famous Dutch precision and structure, learn a thing or two from wily veterans and sharpen his edge with the hike in game speed. He would be reasonably assured of consistent European competition and an enjoyable life in a terribly charming locale that stamps a positive reference note on one's soccer passport.
Good luck in 2006, Clint! I hope you enjoy cheese!
Scotland (Peter Kratzel)
OK, so while most everyone else is promoting the pipe dream of sending Dempsey to the English Premiership (based upon what he's done for Furman in college and New England in exactly two years in the pros), it may be beneficial to take a look at where the midfielder-forward has a halfway decent (read: realistic) chance of ending up in Europe.
So...let's assume that Dempsey is available during the upcoming January transfer window and he is being shopped. Being totally honest, a manager in top flight Euro league soccer who is either A) on the brink of relegation (Put Name Here-Portsmouth), B) spending tons of money to acquire the players Chelsea has no need for (Souness-Newcastle), or C) busy turning mid-30 has-beens into a great team concept through Tai-Chi (Allardyce-Bolton) won't dip their toes in the water for a 22-year old who doesn't have the pedigree of a Donovan or Beasley.
Realistically, two countries that Dempsey could go to quite easily and become a success are either Holland or Scotland. Now the former country is renowned for finding players from all over the globe, spending less than top dollar for them, and then selling them onto the big boys two years down the line. Ajax and PSV have thrived on this model for years.
However, the only possible destination for Dempsey in the land from which the English language originated would be the Amsterdam Arena, given the struggles they have had competing with fellow YA'er Beasley and his PSV teammates. To be honest, it just doesn't seem like a good fit at this time.
Scotland is an entirely different matter. There are two teams that may be looking for an attacking midfielder, a position that would suit Dempsey down to a tee and get him noticed down in the south of England and maybe across the continent: Glasgow Celtic or Heart of Midlothian.
The SPL game is not as advanced as England, or even Holland for that matter, but they do require fast, tall forward midfield players to run at goal, and settle long balls up the pitch for the forwards. Add to that the current players in the attacking midfield role for each team: Stillian Petrov for Celtic and Paul Hartley for Hearts are both rumored to be on the move this winter.
Petrov is supposedly the target of a £4 million ($7.5M) bid from Fulham to join Bocanegra and McBride. Hartley, although signing an extension to his contract in August, has annoyed Hearts' Lithuanian chairman Vladimir Romanov (nicknamed “Vlad the Impaler” for his firing of the entire front office of the Edinburgh club a week after he assumed the chairman's seat) with his support of recently-fired manager George Burley.
While Clint Dempsey may not have the skills of the cream of the European crop, he certainly has enough to get him started in the SPL. Let's not forget that Claudio Reyna went a similar route several years ago when he moved from obscure German club VfL Wolfsburg to then Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers, a move that got him noticed in England and made him the first American to become a millionaire playing soccer (but I digress).
He may lack creativity, but that is not a key trait associated with many SPL players, and Celtic already has someone to do that side of the game in Japan's Shunsune Nakamura. The greatest value he would bring to the game in Scotland is his dogged determination, work rate, and grit.
It was these qualities that produced his goal in Chicago for the USMNT against England earlier this year, and it's these skills put him in the right position at the right time. And so, a cost conscious club, looking for maximum effort at a bargain ($2M) transfer fee, give Dempsey his shot and further glory in Europe.
While Hearts may be showing strong ambitions this year, breaking the stranglehold of the Old Firm for the first time in nearly 20 years, they can't offer the perennial trip to top European competitions like the Bhoys of Glasgow can. Dempsey in a Hoops jersey by the end of January, not to mention the possible opportunity to play on the same club as Roy Keane, is just too good to pass up.