EDGAR ZUNIGA - Friday, September 7, 2007
Racing Santander's American
In the past, whenever any young American soccer players made the jump to a high-profile European league, it was almost as if the kids were being sent to college.
You just hoped that they could learn to deal with living so far from home and wondered if they'd be able to live up to expectations or if they'd crack under the pressure and return to American shores looking for a do-over through Major League Soccer.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not dissing MLS; I support the league as much as any American that loves the beautiful game. It must be noted that the league has modestly crawled from the primordial ooze of '96, and has evolved steadily over the past decade. Now, with Becks and other international talents, it's evident that the league is headed in the right direction.
However, the gold standard is Europe and its top-tier leagues. So, when news came down that Freddy Adu, Benny Feilhaber, Sal Zizzo and Danny Szetela were headed for higher ground, it was only natural for several questions to come up.
Feilhaber became a household name after scoring that amazing goal that burned Mexico in the Gold Cup final. Up until that point, Feilhaber had been earning nods of approval and raised eyebrows from observers for his play with the senior squad during the tournament. Although Feilhaber was also part of that forgettable team that crashed out of the 2007 Copa America, he had done enough to attract the attention of Derby County.
Where Feilhaber will fit in with Derby is yet to be seen. It is highly unlikely, however, that he'll ride the bench for too long. Derby doesn't exactly posses a deep bench and Feilhaber isn't exactly fresh off the farm.
Arguably, he's one of the best midfielders produced by the US in recent years and has been gradually earning a spot with the senior US National Team. You can be sure that a mature and seasoned Feilhaber will be lining up with the starting 11 come World Cup 2010. Feilhaber will get his shot with Derby. The question is when.
Feilhaber in MLS? Don't bet on it. If so, it'll be a long way down the road. A sure bet is that Derby will take their lumps against the more solid teams in the Premier League. A 2-2 draw with Portsmouth in the first week of the season was a promising sign, but they've been battered since then and it seems they're on the path to relegation.
Zizzo was being eyed by MLS early on. However, Zizzo, who holds dual US-Italy citizenship, saw his future elsewhere. The good thing is that he chose to remain with US Soccer, unlike fellow American Giuseppe Rossi, who chose Italy over Team USA.
At Hannover 96, he joins long-time defender Steve Cherundolo, who also happens to be a San Diego native. So, the move was a smart one for Zizzo. It's not like the kid will be terribly homesick; Cherundolo will likely help him adjust to life in Germany and the pace of the Bundesliga, and former UCLA teammate Kamani Hill plays for VfL Wolfsburg. Hannover was eager to sign him, so it will be interesting to see how Zizzo will be used.
Although he's still young, if all goes well for Zizzo, he's sure to make an impact with Hannover and this will in turn earn him meaningful call-ups to the senior squad - maybe as early as the upcoming World Cup qualifying phase.
Then, there's Adu. Let's be honest: Adu was never happy with Real Salt Lake. Adu only scored once during his stint with the MLS bottom dwellers and he was quick to jump on the plane bound for Portugal the moment it was possible.
Adu had earned the favor of then Benfica head coach Fernando Santos, who planned to allow Adu to settle within the team and hopefully extract the same form that Adu displayed during the U-20 World Cup, but on a constant basis.
The Yank looked to be on a fast-track to a role at his new club, debuting in the first match of a home-and-away Champions League series against FC Copenhagen, a 2-1 victory for his team. However, Santos was fired by Benfica after a draw against Leix§es SC. in the first match of the season and was replaced for Spanish coach JosÚ Antonio Camacho.
Santos's admiration with Adu's potential meant that Adu was sure to become an integral part of Benfica within good time. With Camacho in charge, who knows? Ultimately, though, it's all up to Adu, who has handled all the hype and criticism aimed at him with notable aplomb. However, at this stage, and having shed the scrutiny that followed him throughout his MLS career, Adu will be a small fish in a big pond.
This means that he won't be guaranteed a spot in the starting 11. Nevertheless, if Adu can work his magic, he will prosper in Portugal, where the pace is slower than in MLS and the focus is more on trickery and guile. If Adu holds his own, it won't be long before US National Team coach Bob Bradley comes knocking.
Szetela, is also making the jump from MLS to Europe. After flirting with AS Roma, it was announced that Szetela would instead go to Newcastle. What? Another Yank in the Premier League?
Not only did Szetela turn down the offer from Roma, he also said no to Newcastle and Brescia. Instead Szetela will be heading to Spanish League team Racing Santander, a perennial mid-to low-table squad. Sure, sure, Szetela will probably get a bit more playing time with Santander, but you wonder about the experience he could have gained with higher profile teams.
So, who's next? Perhaps 17-year old New York forward Jozy Altidore? Maybe 20-year-old Salt Lake midfielder Nathan Sturgis?
Whoever it is, the prospect of "sending the kids off to college" doesn't seem like such a harrowing experience anymore. Although the expectations are higher than ever, the kids are more grown up these days and they're more prepared that their predecessors.