CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Tuesday, May 22, 2012
At season's end, it's time to go back over the season and travel along the peaks and valleys that made up the year for the continually growing number of Americans plying their trade in jolly old.
It seems as though the season lasted forever, which is great if you are a fan since this season played out as one of the most entertaining in recent memory, with the league title going down to the wire and Chelsea winning the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League Final, but only finishing sixth on the year in the league.
Between both the rising and the well-entrenched stars, the Premier League has provided a nearly endless selection of jaw dropping moments of great plays, goals, and individual stupidity. These individual moments were equaled by an intense race for promotion in the Championship and the battle to avoid relegation in the Premier League, with both races prominently featuring U.S. National Team players.
There has been enough said about Stuart Holden's continued injury problems that the issue doesn't warrant much of a write up other than a brief recap to look at what could have been for Bolton. Holden began to return from his six month injury layoff in September, logging an FA Cup game against Aston Villa. However, something wasn't right and he went back under the knife, revealing another six months of waiting before he could get back on the field.
Bolton's woes were not limited to Holden, but his vital presence in the midfield was sorely missed and was perhaps one of the biggest reasons that the Wanderers spent the entire season fighting off relegation. However, the February transfer of Tim Ream from the New York Red Bulls paid dividends, as the team collected 16 points from his 13 games, compared to the 20 points in the 25 games before he arrived.
It's difficult to say that Ream single handedly turned Bolton from a basement team guaranteed to be relegated to a team that threatened up until the very last seconds to stay in the Premier League, but the team's turn of fortunes did indeed start with his arrival. The statistics show nominal improvement with Ream on the field, but nothing significant. The goal against average is only slightly better, at 2.0 compared to 2.04, and the goals per game average is also only slightly better, at 1.25 compared to 1.16. However, four of Bolton's 10 wins and four of their six ties this season have come since Ream's February arrival.
Nothing changes the fact that Bolton had a miserable season and only at the end saw a light at the end of the tunnel, though after blowing their 2-0 lead against West Brom in the second to last week they made it significantly more difficult to stay above water, the light was much dimmer than it could have been.
Despite this, Tim Ream played very well, though he faltered at times. The positives to take away are more numerous than the negatives, and the move appears to be as good as the one that Holden made, before injuries kept him off the field for the past year.
Down in the Championship, Jonathan Spector earned another starting position with Birmingham City as they fought for promotion for the whole season, before losing in the semi-finals of the Promotion Playoff. His move from West Ham to Birmingham was significant in hindsight because, even though he was released from West Ham, he said after the fact that he felt that promotion back to the Premier League was imminent with the Blues. How fitting that West Ham won the Promotion Playoff Finals.
The final several weeks of the campaign was marred by Spector's nagging thigh injury, keeping him out of several key games, and also killing his chances of being selected by Jurgen Klinsmann for this summer's National Team roster, announced over this past week.
Aside from Spector's good play, there wasn't much more happy news out of the Yank-laden Championship, except for the possibility that Middlesbrough defender Seb Hines would be open to a switch from England to the U.S., potentially providing a great backup option for the aging center defense that eagerly awaits Omar Gonzalez's return from injury.
Robbie Findley's season was looking pretty good, scoring six goals in 26 games in all competitions. Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse in February when he began to sustain a series of injuries that would limit him to only one more game for the season. First it was a muscle injury, and then it was a concussion sustained in training. He just could not seem to get fit before getting hurt again, which was also the story with Robbie Rogers.
Rogers' move from Columbus to Leeds during the winter transfer window was one that was ripe with possibility, as he had the opportunity to get his feet wet with a mid-table Championship team. Instead, he logged 44 minutes in four games, after taking a concussion in his first appearance.
The injury saw him miss the next month of games from the end of February into the end of March, before he was eased back into the lineup as a late substitution for a couple of games, before fracturing his ankle in his first starting assignment. The ankle injury ended his season, and his hopes for being on Klinsmann's summer roster.
Continuing with the injury news is the made-of-glass Zak Whitbread, who missed half of the season. The first half of the season saw him out for three months, but his triumphant return in the second half seemed to be making up for it as he began playing well enough to be considered a dark horse contender for making the roster for the upcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
However, Whitbread having some of the worst luck possible for an athlete, first sustained a minor ankle injury that was a day-to-day situation, but it then progressed into a thigh injury that ended up sidelining him for the final month of the season. Altogether, Whitbread missed about four months of the season.
Unfortunately, the timing could not have been worse, as his contract was up with the summer.
Sure enough, within days of the breathtaking season finale in Manchester, Norwich City released Whitbread, making him a free agent. Although he has not found a new team yet, there is reported interest from Everton, Sunderland, Wigan Athletic and a host of Championship teams.
Better injury news was the return of Eric Lichaj from his hip injury that sidelined him for half a year. Lichaj was able to quickly work himself back into the lineup of an unimpressive and relegation-threatened Aston Villa, and solidified himself as the main man on the backline, even scoring a goal and notching an assist against Chelsea. Although they were winless in his nine games, they did earn five crucial points from ties that secured their spot in the Premier League next season. Lichaj seemed to play his way back into the National Team, especially with the Timmy Chandler situation developing the way it did. However, it was not to be.
Continuing with happier news, American and Everton fans were once again teased by Landon Donovan's loan spell that saw him play an important role in the offense and once again earn a clamoring for his permanent move to the Liverpool-based club, but once again, nothing doing for the National Team talisman.
There was some talk of Donovan perhaps feeling that the timing would be right for a permanent move if the Galaxy were able to win the CONCACAF Champions League and earn a spot in the Club World Cup, leaving him little else to conquer in the MLS. Toronto's victories over the listless Los Angeles side did nothing to help that talk, and now we're set for another transfer window to pass without Donovan moving to England.
Even though it seems like a sad note, the positive things to take away from it are that Donovan is highly coveted and he has performed superbly in the limited time given to him. Those two factors should make any American fan smile, regardless of what team he does or does not transfer to.
Staying with Everton, Tim Howard enjoyed a quiet but excellent season, steering the Toffees to the third lowest goals against average in the Premier League, at 1.05. Howard's 12 shut outs put him in a tie for fourth in the league, and the goal that he scored against Bolton made him only the fourth goalkeeper ever to score in the Premier League.
One more piece of the puzzle for a brief English recap is Clint Dempsey, whose record shattering year will be permanently etched into the memories of a generation of American and Fulham fans. His 23 goals in all competitions easily come in as the American record for goals scored abroad, while those goals also moved him to the milestone 50 Premier League goals, fourth in the league in scoring, and setting a new record for Fulham's top scorer in a season.
Along the way, he scored the first hat-trick by an American in the Premier League, and also scored the first free kick goal of his career against Bolton, followed by a second against Sunderland. Dempsey just will not cool down as he becomes entrenched in the running for being named the greatest American player ever.
Whether or not he is better than Donovan is a completely irrelevant discussion as the two are such different players, and while it's just about impossible to say which of the two is better, it is certainly good for American soccer to have them playing at such a high level at the same time.
While Dempsey's record setting goal pace catches the most American headlines, perhaps the most significant record set this season comes from Brad Friedel, the ageless titan between the goalposts for Tottenham who extended his consecutive Premier League starts record and became the first player ever to start in 300 consecutive games.
To further prove his iron man reputation, Friedel was also the first player ever to start in 200 consecutive games. Now faced with Champions League soccer next season, he will have the opportunity to retire as one of the very few Americans to have played at the highest level possible for club and country.
It was a year of highs and lows for the Americans playing in England, and with the summer transfer window upon us, it is only going to get wilder as the drama continues. Will Zak Whitbread stay in the Premier League? Will Clint Dempsey go to Arsenal? Will Brad Friedel take his stream into the Champions League?
How will Tim Ream and Stuart Holden cope with playing in the Championship next season? As usual, the Silly Season will hold the answers while also bringing up more questions. With the breathtaking finish that this season had, here's to hoping that next season carries the momentum.