Friday, February 23, 2007
There always seems to be a bit of a lull this time of year in YA Land, or it might just be that there is a lull right now and I'm making up the trend.

Unfortunately (some might say fortunately, and they're probably both right), there was no YA All-Star Weekend, so I can't point to the near riots, reported shootings and general odor left by the free-for-all in Vegas as described by Bill Simmons over at ESPN - while at the same time proclaiming the greatness of the sport I cover.

Nor are our players being arrested for drunk driving, bar-brawl inciting, or talking about their sleepovers of yore and relationships gone sour. All in all, reporting on Americans playing soccer in Europe is a pretty tame affair.

There are some great stories to follow over here, however, and some things all who follow the trials and travails of Americans playing soccer in Europe should be paying attention to.

(Winston Churchill once said: "This is something up with which I will not put." Obviously, I will.)

Though England has the most popular league on the planet, (my source? The Premiership, itself. Mohammed Ali is impressed with their self-promotion. Even Rock... err... Sylvester Stallone chose it as a venue to promote his flick), some of the more interesting things to be on the lookout for are the Americans in the two levels of Bundesliga.

Former UCLA star Kamani Hill arrived in Wolfsburg out of nowhere just a few months ago, and has proceeded to impress none other than Klaus Augenthaler enough to earn playing time in three out of the first five matches of the year, which has been no small feat.

The German soccer league has always been notorious for being one where youngsters sat and watched the veterans play, while they toiled away in the reserve squads and waited for their opportunity to impress. All the same, Hill has been on the game day roster for each contest since becoming eligible at the beginning of the year.

The NoCal native responded by dipping a 30-yard burner just over the crossbar in his first appearance versus Hertha Berlin and earning the foul that led to his team's tying goal in the waning minutes against league leaders Schalke 04.

It should be remembered that this is the same coach that the LA Galaxy can thank for having Landon Donovan on their roster. Moreover, the longtime American Golden Boy was none too flattering when asked what he thought about his being 'scapegoat-ed' by the then Leverkusen coach.

Hill hasn't grabbed any headlines, nor has he had any problems with "Augie" as of yet. In fact, it would seem that the old school German coach is making Hill a personal project.

The very fact that just six months ago he was probably planning which classes to take at UCLA and is now playing in Germany's top flight, for a team that still has a slim chance to play in Europe next year - that is enough to keep me interested.

Moving just a bit north to Hannover and Steven Cherundolo, we find that the other USMNT surfer has a shot of playing in Europe this year as well.

Hannover is unbeaten in their last four games, winning three and scoring 12 goals with two wins on the road. In doing so, they have moved into sole possession of seventh place and are only three points out of having a date with a UEFA cup opponent next year.

Despite a status with Hannover rising with each passing season, the San Diego native is still sometimes perceived to be too short and too small to play an equivalent role at the National Team level.

Just last August, a number of American fans were flabbergasted when Cherundolo chose not to escape the strict confines of the "how the mighty have fallen" Bundesliga to the greener pastures of England in the form of a contract with Bolton.

Though the spurned English club is fifth in the Premiership (do I have to call it that?), it doesn't look like such a silly move now that Cherundolo has stayed where he wanted to be.

Some guy from Georgia may have come in with a bang and left almost as irreverently a couple of years ago, but Cherundolo just keeps on paddling outside and I'll be watching with hopes that he reaps his just rewards.

Speaking of Georgia, Josh Wolff seems to have - as that old guy from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade might say - 'chosen wisely'. Munich's other and older club (by like 23 minutes), 1860, also is gunning for a chance at glory and hoping for a shot at promotion to the Bundesliga.

Alongside the former Kansas City Wizard forward is Gregg Berhalter, who last year converted the penalty that secured promotion for former team Energie Cottbus. The American duo will have to kick it up a notch if Berhalter is to repeat the feat.

Though recent stumbles have made their job considerably harder and the Lions sit 10 points back from third place Hansa Rostock, promotion is still a possibility. They wouldn't play games in March, April and May if they didn't matter. As a good friend once said to me: "Crazier things have happened."

But has anything crazier happened than an American playing with a Serie A team at only 18 years old?

Well, that is exactly the goings on at Sampdoria with Gabriel Ferrari. Three years younger and just as ignored at the ODP level as Kamani Hill, Ferrari made his debut by playing a little bit less than an hour against Inter Milan in the Italian Cup.

He hasn't seen any time since, but with the looming drug-related suspension of striker Francesco Flachi, things may be looking up for the New York city native.

With depth in the United States forward pool rivaling that of the kiddie's end, this is a kid that should make the higher-ups pay attention. Despite Italian roots, he's not to be confused with Giuseppe Rossi; Ferrari recently told us here at Yanks Abroad that he has no greater ambition than to play for the Red, White & Blue.

Above and beyond any interest in our Yanks in continental Europe, however, is the interest in the destination of choice for most international players - the almost sacred Premiership.

Sure, there are some nice stories coming out of the former empire, and though I am often asked about Bobby Convey, the Fulham Trio and Timmy Howard, the question that I am asked the most is: "Flan, do you think that Jay DeMerit and Watford are going to survive the promotion battle this year?"

My answer is always the same. If Jay DeMerit says it's not over, then it's not over.

You can look at the standings, and you can look at history and you can say that Watford have no chance at being anymore than a slingshot-promotion. Nonetheless, neither of those criteria applies to the Watford centerback, and until he says he gives up, I won't either. Betting against the Wisconsin native is just bad "bidness".

Finally, the good folks at Leeds United are giving us a train wreck to keep our eye on. Just as I feel a sort of malicious glee awaiting updates on Britney Spears' life unraveling before our very eyes, seeing one of the most storied teams in all of soccer toy with relegation for the second time in three years is just too good to pass up.

I've never been one to bash players for going somewhere for more money, which is almost certainly what Eddie Lewis did two years ago when he jumped ship at Preston North End for the supposedly better chance at promotion with Leeds. It seems that the player once touted as the "American Beckham" has chosen poorly.

While his former team is for the third year in a row gunning for automatic promotion, the legendary Yorkshire club might be heading in the opposite direction just a year after the aforementioned DeMerit willed Watford past the Whites in last season's Championship promotion playoff final.

This is a team that just six years ago was playing in the Champions League semifinals, won the last title not called the Premiership and has a fan base that rivals Newcastle or Arsenal. Currently in last place, the fabled club is a good bet to kick off next season in League One.

Though I would never wish any misfortune on Lewis, I've always had a soft spot for Schadenfreude and seeing Leeds fail to stay up this year would certainly bring a warm chill the cold side of my heart.

There may be yet a YA silver lining to emerge from the situation up there with the arrival of Jemal Johnson. Having been let loose by his fourth club in half as many years, the fleet-of-foot sometimes goal scorer has an opportunity with a club which literally has nothing to lose.

Firmly entrenched at the bottom of the table with a minus-23 goal differential, they should be looking for goals anywhere they can find them. It is the perfect opportunity for the young American to capitalize and show his former employers what they've lost.

Gentleman (and ladies), start your televisions...