Tuesday, September 26, 2006
The ol' mailbag was starting to tip over, so I figured it was time to filter through them for your comments, kudos and criticisms. This time around, we will take a look at reaction to our last 23 Tickets manifest and the lack of a US coach.

Time is our most precious commodity, so let's dive right into your feedback...

23 Tickets... Part Deux

As with the August list itself, we received many notes regarding Sean O'Conor's reply to those claiming we intentionally pimp the YA's over MLS-based players because that's our job. Several readers had accused us of underestimating domestic pros, and our resident Londoner felt compelled to clear up a few things.

Some folks felt he was explaining away a ruse, some felt he was spot on and some felt his otherwise reasonable response was wholly unnecessary.

Charlie Cater reluctantly had our back, saying: "As an American who has lived for years in England, I think Sean O'Conor's latest column was more or less on target in terms of analysis re the differences between MLS and Europe. But it was also fairly defensive, so I can only imagine the kind of mail you must be getting that would make one of your writers feel the need to justify the 23 picks for SA (which I still think was a reasonable prediction given a 4 year time frame)."

Well Charlie, I didn't really find Sean's response as directly defensive, but I could see how it might look that way. I think he wanted to clear up the notion that we had the agenda of rating foreign-based players higher for nefarious reasons.

I should also say that we didn't receive anything too frightening, but a handful were... let's say... brusk. Personally, I don't mind reading a few email blasts. If everyone agreed with us, I'd be worried that we were doing something terribly wrong.

With apologies to Braden Smith for my clipping job, our next email reads: "Although I agree with the broad argument that Sean makes, I would also like to add that although the world often appears globalized, there often exists a network of regulations making it difficult for even high quality foreign players to join European clubs.

Often, the best players do wind up in Europe, but your column ignores the role that a national team appearance played in making that possible. Where would Landon, DaMarcus, or Bobby be if they had not had national team experience (either at the youth level or senior)?

It is no surprise that the consistent high performers in World Cup play are the teams with the highest quality domestic leagues. It's not just the size of their talent pool, it's their ability to subject that talent pool to the competitive spirit of the world's top players every week. American players are in a global competition with Africa, Latin America and Asia to be considered good enough to be selected to play in those leagues... so, I wouldn't be too confident that the cream rises to the top, so to speak."

While making several good points, I think you hit upon a somewhat common misconception: that we, as a staff, discredit or dislike MLS. This could not be further from the truth.

Without trying to speak for everyone on staff, I'd say MLS is a fantastic league considering its age. There are quite a few under-heralded players that are easily good enough to: 1) find success overseas in the right squad, and 2) contribute to the US National team down the road.

I think the game play and setting for player growth has improved greatly over 10 seasons, but some understandably zealous fans want MLS to be seen as nearly on par with vaunted Euro-set ups.

Maybe they honestly believe DC United could finish in the top half of the Premiership or maybe they just want American stars to stay where they can see them every week - that's great because I love to see soccer becoming a hot button topic back home, but the problem remains that these stances are unreasonable.

Bottom line: MLS is not equal to the Premiership or Bundesliga or even Eredivisie in terms of either current quality or development. But is it supposed to be after 10 years? I can't imagine so. To its credit, it definitely beats those other leagues in table competitiveness, which works to the advantage of US Soccer.

All in all, Major League Soccer deserves full credit for what it is providing, not premature expectations of what it is not. Your point about the increased difficulty in moving players abroad helps the league temporarily, but I say finding new stars to replace the DaMarcus Beasleys and Clint Dempseys when they leave in search of bigger trophies and bigger paychecks is how the league takes a permanent leap.

As for the national team influence on prospective YA's, I doubt anyone could deny the effect playing in high profile youth tournaments has had on our players as pros. Many of the young players receiving speculative support in our 23 Tickets squad are getting it because we've been very impressed with their Red, White & Blue showings (Benny Feilhaber and Marvell Wynne being two prime examples).

Moving along the same path, Justin Rao wrote in: "Must say that your 23 Tickets has a bit of European slant. Disagree with Donovan being left off the sure-thing list, I know all you boys hate the fact that he turned tail and slinked out of the Bundesliga, but is arguably the best field player in the MLS and will probably captain the team throughout qualifying. Also, I'd much rather have Joe Cannon on the squad than (undersized) Quentin Westerberg."

I was waiting for this to come up. On the surface, it does seem crazy - but I think we can dig deeper to find reasonable doubt. Let me begin by admitting that I did not drop Donovan below a "lock", as some of my colleagues have. I should also take Landon's side to say that I fully support his desire to live where he wants to live.

However, I feel his recent declaration that he doesn't even consider jumping the pond again has an impact that goes beyond where one player chooses to play his soccer. I believe he should lead the life he wants for himself without regard to what any of us think.

Still, it cannot be denied that this particular choice can have consequences for the final stage of his development. I believe MLS is doing its job in growing the American game pretty well, yet it seems odd to me to wish that our best players hang around home during the key growth points of their club career.

After all, the Japanese baseball, Spanish basketball and Swiss hockey competitions are all somewhat impressive leagues.. but for the sake of argument, how young Americans playing there would we want leading the national team?

I'm glad Donovan is happy, I really am, but even he admits that his game would improve in Europe. It's just not a sacrifice he's willing to make right now, which is a good reason for some to question his 2010 place in the team a bit.

As for Cannon, I completely agree with you. A related funny note to the conspiracy theorists that wrote in: despite being one of the European-based voters, I easily had more current MLS players on my ballot than anyone of the US-based staff members. Colorado Joe, as well as Chad Barrett, Ricardo Clark and Chris Rolfe, were on my personal list of 23, yet failed to make the grade on our compiled list.

For me, Cannon is surely one of the most underrated players in MLS history and a sturdy all-around netminder. After Tim Howard, we have a crowded keeper field, but as of now (for what that's worth), I like the Rapids man to be in South Africa.

That being said, some folks seem to think the 6'1" Westberg is shorter because of his untucked shirt and "faux-hawk" hairdo... I think the combination is an optical illusion. While he's no Edwin van der Sar, he's certainly no Oscar Perez either.

Bryan Rosenbaum also weighed in, saying: "Your article where you defend the Yanks Abroad 23 Tickets to South Africa is good, but I'm not sure it's necessary.

I, for one, enjoy the 23 Tickets and always have - if nothing else, it gets me thinking and I appreciate the constructive dialogue that is lacking in other media. Whether or not it's accurate isn't the point. After trekking to Germany for the World Cup, I, like many other Americans, came home wishing that atmosphere and style could somehow be replicated here at home.

I find it hard to believe that people are taking this article seriously and criticizing you for it, when after the results of the World Cup, the 23 Tickets to South Africa genuinely put a smile on my face and made me remember that the four-year process is just as enjoyable as the end result. Obviously we have more and more players to consider and that's only a good thing for the national team. Your article is clearly a fun piece, even though it's well thought out, and if readers aren't intelligent to understand that, you shouldn't feel the need to defend your selections. After all, nobody is holding you to this and it gives us a chance to have some fun."

Thanks for the backing, Bryan. Although we do make our best effort to scout everyone and put together quality teams as opposed to the best 23 players, you hit the nail on the head. Four years ahead, speculation plays a big part... and I'll be damned if wild speculation isn't tremendous fun!

Even if a few readers enjoy ripping into us pretty good, they are still in the act of enjoying - that alone is reward enough for us.

Who's missing?

Once again, Andy Orton was among the several readers wondering why Chivas USA sensation Jonathan Bornstein and Bolton youngster Johan Smith were absent from 23 Tickets altogether.

Andy noted Smith's Milk Cup showing, while adding that Bornstein is "a rookie, early 20's and he's played like one of the best defenders in the MLS. I'd be surprised if he's not leading all defenders in goals scored. What about him?"

I can guarantee Bornstein will get some attention in the next edition, if only because I have now seen enough of him to add him to my bubble. I think some of our European staffers took a while to get a look at him, but then again, the US-based guys hadn't tabbed him yet either.

He definitely seems a keeper, and (you guys know what's coming down the Lincoln tunnel now) I'd be surprised if a few European clubs didn't check into his availability this winter. When the time comes, I'd love to see him get a chance to play left back in the Eredivisie, maybe a mid-level like FC Utrecht or Roda JC that needs a skillful, spirited push from the back.

The same thing happened with Smith, who none of us had ever seen live until recently. We have one big rule for our balloting, and that's to prohibit anyone from naming a player they'd not seen perform - which essentially ruled Smith out from square one.

As with Bornstein, I doubt it is long before the Wanderer is included among our Bubble Battlers.

Patrick Leahy offered up the opinion that: "Quavas Kirk needs to be at least as high on the list as Marvell Wynne. I saw him live as a sub for Santino Quaranta when the Galaxy visited DC. Momentum shifted immediately. He is very impressive already and has huge upside."

Besides carrying obvious potential, I think Kirk suffers on our ranking in comparison to Wynne because we feel the Red Bull right back works from a position that has less competition.

Kirk is becomingly increasingly impressive, as you say, but has a few more players to battle than does Wynne. Marvell actually finished 24th in the voting (behind Chicago Fire forward Barrett), but was bumped ahead because we needed a second right back on the squad.

Where's the boss?

After YA's Aaron Gidding jabbed the USSF for dragging its feet on the coaching search, several readers expressed concern over the lack of a national team boss, as well as the friendly matches that would come with an appointment.

Writes Julio Hernandez: "I too am uneasy about the lack of a coach at this point. I understand that US Soccer wants to pick a coach that will take the 'Nats to the next level, but I wonder if they had even considered such a move prior to the World Cup. It seems to me that it was evident that Arena was already on his way out.

It is such a waste that the National Team is not taking advantage of these FIFA dates. If a coach had been in place, that coach could have had the chance to look as some of the younger players that have yet to played much as team, such as Bradley, Nguyen, Adu, etc.

For an organization that claims to want to do well in international competitions, they must also create the environment where this goal can be accomplished.. Instead of having Sunil Gulati jet-setting across the globe, it should be our young players that should be flying around, looking for quality competition."

To be frank, I expected the new coach to be at least named by now, if not already in command. Like you, I think it is high time we get this show in the road and don't particularly fell like letting any other open international dates to go to waste.

However, I'm not sure we try to blood all those youngsters just yet because I'd like to see them more established with their clubs first. For a guy like Bradley, that means regular first team action, while I think we can wait for a little more star power from Freddinho.

Finally, Matt Snyder suggested the USSF look to New England for the new coach, saying: "Your poll regarding who the next US Nat'l team manager will be had a name I had not seen mentioned before, but whom I personally think would be a great choice - nationality aside - Steve Nicol.

I personally think that Nicol has done a tremendous job at New England in getting players to over-achieve or simply play very hard."

Thanks for the note, Matt. The Revs boss has his name sporadically thrown about in back circles, but it probably not really in the mix. And while Nicol is obviously a very promising coach, I might argue that he has underachieved in New England, considering the roster he's had.