CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Now that the hangover from last week's Champions League games has subsided and we‘re looking forward to the second leg of high drama, it's time to take a closer look at highly stressful European play and what it spells for international glory.
Despite the unexpected come-from-behind victory that Arsenal pulled off, Barcelona's roster of World Cup winners and other assorted superstars leave them as the favorite in the return contest, and perhaps still the favorite to win overall and be crowned champions of Europe once again.
The fact that Barcelona is acknowledged as the world's best current team is no mere coincidence when looking at their lineup: One two-time world player of the year winner, and eight World Cup winners in their starting lineup.
Those World Cup winners, of course, go on to combine with the rest of their countrymen to form one of the best national teams in the world. An argument can be made that the success of one is parallel to the success of the other, especially if the best club team in the world is made up of most of the best players from the best national team in the world.
Success breeding success is not a new story, and we're not nearly to the point where we can suggest that all of our Yanks need to come home and play on the New York Cosmos dream team in order to achieve total victory in Brazil. Looking at other aspects though can give a proper goal to shoot for, and one that is at least a tad bit more realistic.
Of the 23 players on Spain's 2010 World Cup roster, 20 have experience in Champions League play, and seven have won it all. On the other side of the field, the Dutch had their own recent champion in Wesley Sneijder, former champions in Giovanni van Bronckhorst, and Mark van Bommel, and runners up in Dirk Kuyt, Robin van Persie, and Arjen Robben.
In contrast, on the US' roster for South Africa, there were two lone rangers in a field position with Champions League experience, in DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan.
With talent pools going back several generations instead of just a handful of years ago, it stands to reason that Spain and Holland would produce more world-class players in each crop, than a developing nation would. Inroads must be made sometime, however, and perhaps the path of America's soccer future lies in Europe's premiere competition.
There is no tournament like the World Cup. Nothing can compare to the atmosphere, the stress, the importance, the pride, and the weight of entire nations resting on players' shoulders. Civil wars have been brought to a stand-still so factions could watch their team as a united front.
On a more negative note, criminal masterminds have (allegedly) ordered the execution of under-performing players. The fates of North Korean players were public shaming, but many of us feared a much, much worse reaction from Kim Jong Il upon their arrival home.
Setting aside Copa America as being an unlikely competition for the U.S. to ever be invited to again after 2007's debacle, and the European Football Championship as being even more unlikely considering the lack of European status America holds, the only tournament with the high-stress environment that Yanks can participate in is the Champions League.
Currently, Maurice Edu and Sacha Kljestan are the only Yanks with international experience looking set to participate in Champions League qualifying next season, let alone automatic play. Depending on the status of their loan deals, Oguchi Onyewu and Jozy Altidore could find themselves in similar positions.
There's no telling what spectacle the summer transfer window will hold, and it could very well be that a slew of Americans on under-performing teams find themselves as new additions to teams in England, Germany, or Spain that are coveting a European crown.
The obvious hot topic of debate is Clint Dempsey, who has recently expressed his desire to play in the Champions League, but whose Fulham team is unlikely to garner the points needed to climb high enough in the table to qualify for a playoff.
Rumors of a winter transfer to Liverpool were all the rage in the London tabloids, but frankly, given Liverpool's season, including a recent hammering from West Ham, a game in which Jonathan Spector played forward (he only needs to slot in at goalkeeper now to earn his Journeyman's badge), it's easy to think that Anfield may not see a trophy or European play in quite awhile. Of course, with all that history there, they will surely make a comeback.
A handful of Americans are starting to acquire the necessary skills to hold their own in competitive leagues around the world, with more hopeful prospects coming up through the youth pipelines.
The pool is there to begin encroaching on Europe, but with so many players from so many other countries also vying for the short supply of roster spots on Champion's League teams, it is obviously not an easy task. We have seen what happens when top American players move too early to top European teams, and spend their time riding the pine until they can get a loan deal to a lower division.
Despite the arguable need to put national team players in top club competitions to shore up their mental faculties to the stress of the environment, it must be a cautious process. Onyewu's move to AC Milan was immediately called into question when Milan's roster revealed that he would be sitting third on the depth chart, with superstar talents ahead of him.
Perhaps if he had stayed at Standard Liege a while longer, until a better opportunity came up, his game fitness would have been a little bit better and he would not have injured his knee, allowing him to stay fit and healthy for the World Cup in South Africa. Or maybe the freak accident would have occurred regardless of his physical shape, and there's no sense worrying about alternate scenarios.
It's not necessarily up to the player when his team decides to sell him and who they sell him to, but the above warning is worth noting: Nothing gets a player in game-shape like playing games. The dangers of going all out in a World Cup qualifier after sitting with the reserves for several months can be significant, just the same as doing workouts with nothing but pushups and then going into max-weight power squats with no preparation.
All that aside, with the importance of playing in high level tournaments with international implications, it is absolutely necessary for the moves to be made under the right circumstances.
The key, perhaps, is patience. Not just on the player's part, but his agent and his team. Fulham set a good example by declaring, and holding firm, that Dempsey is not for sale right now. His stock will continue to rise through the end of the season, and with players contracts running out in the summer, higher-level teams will be looking to replace their expiring, expensive contracts with new blood.
Perhaps that will be the key to putting more Americans into the Champions League.