DAVID SMITH - Tuesday, May 12, 2009
The sun is close to setting on one of the more memorable and unpredictable German campaigns of recent memory. In contrast to the usual status quo with Bayern already crowned champions and the best of the rest duking it out for the remaining Champions League and UEFA Cup...pardon...Europa League places, no less than four [?] teams find themselves within a fingertip of lifting the trophy, separated by just a couple points.
It goes without saying that we'd much rather be looking forward to the season's fast approaching final weekend, hoping for Landon Donovan to fire the winning goal in the dying moments that lifts Bayern to the title over Stuttgart, but alas, Landon looks better in a LA Galaxy uniform than lederhosen, so instead our hopes rest on a different group of players fighting either to live another season in their respective league or perhaps make the upwards climb towards the top tier.
The time is ripe, then, to consider what awaits our players should they suffer the unimaginable drop or be fortunate enough to gain promotion for the following season.
At the top of the list is none other than Michael Bradley, who has found his first year in Germany with Borussia Mönchengladbach to be a season-long crash course in the finer points of fighting for survival. He's acquitted himself well, steadily adjusting to the rigors of the German game while showing the occasional flashes that hint at the quality of player he is expected to become.
In the case that the Foals make a quick return to Germany's second tier, what's in the crystal ball for our newest thorn in Mexico's side?
Bradley has spent this season building chemistry with two of Germany's most promising midfield prospects in Marko Marin and Alexander Baumjohann - neither of which would see a minute outside of the top flight. Baumjohann has already committed to trade his Foals uniform for a Bavarian one over the summer (there's a Donovan-sized pair waiting for him). Marin has had one foot out the door for the entire season, and relegation would only make the persistent rumors of his impending move a certainty.
With two of his midfield partners heading to greener pastures, Bradley would likely assume a pivotal role pulling the strings in the center of Gladbach's field, an experience which cannot be discounted. Losing the pair would undoubtedly leave the team struggling to find a new attacking core, however this is the type of situation which can provide a young player the impetus and setting to develop by leaps and bounds.
Before most of you reading this proceed write me off as a delusional idealist viewing a year in 2. Bundesliga through a pair of rose-colored glasses I'll say what's on everybody's minds - the thought of having the one and only immovable object in the national team's central midfield toiling around outside of the top flight in the season immediately preceding the World Cup is a terrifying, if not abhorrent proposition.
Love him or hate him, it takes little stretch of the imagination to see that the 2009-10 season is one where Bradley - and the red, while & blue - would be best served by continuing his learning against top-level opponents on a weekly basis. Should the Foals plummet down a league, Bradley will look ahead to one of the most important seasons of his young career with the choice of either spending the year out of top flight competition or forced to work his way into another team's cast of characters.
While neither proposition is ideal, the more beneficial is apparent. Whether it's with the Foals or not, Bradley's future must lie at the top of the pyramid, in Germany or elsewhere.
Lurking several spots below on Germany's grand totem is another player in the midst of the converse situation - Kaiserslautern's Luis Robles. Two years after choosing to eschew the glitz and glamour lifestyle of a MLS rookie and instead pursuing his options with 2. Bundesliga club FC Kaiserslautern, a game of injury-spawned musical chairs has seen the native Arizonian win the starting position between the posts for the Red Devils as they bear down on a tight race for promotion to the Bundesliga.
Since being thrust into the starting lineup in October and subsequently winning it outright over the winter break, Robles has quickly proved his acumen as a keeper worthy to face 2. Bundesliga competition, reportedly catching the eye of the elder Bradley.
However the question remains - would Kaiserslautern's upper brass trust him as a Bundesliga starter should the Red Devils make the jump?
For any team, the keeper is the last line of defense, whose mistakes or clutch performances are often the difference between points gained or lost. These tiny factors are amplified for a team just returning in the top tier where the difference between survival or relegation often comes down to a razor-thin margin.
Promoted teams in particular are wary of thrusting an inexperienced keeper into the limelight, often choosing to have a veteran on hand as they gain their footing on a different level of competition. Even the usual league stalwarts are not immune from this philosophy, as evidenced by Bayern's temporary casting aside of highly touted but largely inexperienced Michael Rensing for the elder Jörg Butt when Kahn's heir showed his cracks down the stretch.
With Kaiserslautern likely facing a coaching overhaul in the offseason after the last-minute dumping of Milan Sasic, Robles would surely find himself in a preseason fight for the starting job with either his current competition Tobias Sippel or a veteran transfer target.
Competition is never a bad thing and he has given every bit of evidence in his short time that he can be expected to continue the American tradition of high-quality top-flight keepers. However a move to the Bundesliga after barely a half-season of first-team experience would likely mean either resuming a bench role for the time being should the new coach choose to put the team in the hands of a veteran, or being constantly under the microscope and possibly one of the first to be sacrificed if or when things go wrong.
It's a risky proposition but if there's any position that has seen Americans repeatedly surpass expectations, then Robles is playing the right one.
Venturing further downwards through the standings we finally arrive at little-known TuS Koblenz, who are fighting to avoid a drop to Germany's 3rd Liga.
Home to a pair of yanks, Matt Taylor and David Yelldell, Koblenz has spent the last few months drifting in and out of harm's way, with a tough run-in standing between them and another season in the 2. Bundesliga.
In only his first season at this level, Yelldell has emerged as one of the league's better in goal, consistently keeping his team in games even when their attack falls flat. While the Koblenz staff would certainly love to keep the German-American around to work his magic should they be forced to navigate a year in the 3. Liga, it goes without saying that any number of teams would be eager to give him the opportunity to avoid the drop.
An unfortunate late season hand injury that will likely keep him sidelined through the end does little to hurt his stock within the league, meaning this former understudy of Brad Friedel will most likely be seeing 2. Bundesliga action again next year, whether it be with Koblenz or in a new home.
Matt Taylor, who is just finishing his first year abroad, faces a more difficult road. He has indeed shown promise and abilities as a dangerous attacker, however a generally inconsistent Koblenz attack, the expected first-year adjustment to a new league and a nagging knee injury for most of the spring have hindered him from planting himself in Koblenz's starting lineup.
Taylor could certainly expect to shine in a possible 3. Liga campaign with Koblenz, but as a player who's produced seven goals and four assists in limited time on the field, it takes no stretch of the imagination to fathom that other 2. Bundesliga options could very well be available.
With only a pair of games left on the schedule and the questions of promotion and relegation far from answered, the best we can do is sit back and cross our fingers - or as the Germans say, press our thumbs - that the best cases come about and this group of players hold on to their status or make their dream jump.
But as any scientist will tell you, the most interesting substance comes out of chaos and disorder, so we'll be ready in any circumstance.