AN INVITATION TO THE DANCE
Thursday, March 15, 2007
It is a rite of spring in the Old World. All across the continent, teams sitting well off the title pace in their respective leagues can still play for something: getting into Europe.

The phrase would be redundant from a geographic standpoint, but what they mean by it is gaining entrance into a UEFA competition for next season. Champions League for the brightest, a perfectly respectable UEFA Cup invite for some and a summer of regret for the rest.

Of course, it's not all about gaining entrance to a glamorous ball - participation in either of the tournaments allows the clubs to host additional high profile matches and dip their fingers in the television money honey pot. Future budgets can be made as the weather warms, tickets become hotter, the fans collect with a buzz.

The teams that narrowly miss out go back to the drawing board with slumped shoulders, especially when they a)are accustomed to making it "into Europe" on a regular basis, b)haven't been in a long time, or c)have ever been. Americans can be found on all three types of teams, heading into the home stretch with hopes that they won't be left sitting at home next fall.

American die-hards are no stranger to the annual chase, but considering they often support perennial frontrunners like AC Milan, Ajax, Arsenal, Celtic, Manchester United and Real Madrid, most never feel much April angst. They understand the chase, but might not relate to it.

Due to the increasing number of Yanks playing in European top flights, stateside fans at large can now share in the suspense.

Will Michael Bradley help Heerenveen book a fourth straight invite? Can Steve Cherundolo and the rest of Hannover's no names return to Europe for the first time since 1993? Will Reading go from the Coca-Cola Championship to the UEFA Cup in one season? Will Watford be relegated AND gain entrance to Europe in the same week?

There are plenty of stories to follow before we go investing brain power on Gold Cup, but make note: we will skip over Lee Nguyen and PSV Eindhoven, but not because he's shelved with an injury or because he failed to make a first team appearance this season. Despite the potentially fatal loss of center back monster Alex, the Farmers look a good bet to defend their title and score another Champions League ticket.

There is a lot of ground to cover, so let's begin looking at the prospects for each YA club still in the running...

Aalborg BK

Danny Califf and the Jutland boys still have nearly half of their schedule remaining, but on the up side, have already played SAS Liga kings FC Copenhagen two of the three required times.

They can also take heart that midfield spark plug and hot transfer topic Rasmus Wurtz is still around, but must kick start their drive by snapping a four-game win drought against visiting also-rans AC Horsens without the Yank.

If Califf plays as well as he did early in the season when he returns from a two-game suspension April 5th against second place FC Midtjylland, they have a strong shot at earning extracurricular activities.

Remember, the top four from Denmark get in the door of the Royal League, which also brings together the best from Norway and Sweden every year.

For AaB to earn a top three finish and UEFA Cup bid, however, the strikers are going to need to contribute more end result - no mystery there.

This struggle will be fierce and could come down to the last two matches, when they visit Midtjylland and host third place Odense, who currently hold a four-point UEFA Cup cushion.

Blackburn

Rovers are in decent position, if only because they have two roads to Europe.

The Lancashire bunch have won three of four, and eight of their last 13, to pull to within seven points of sixth place Everton in the Premier League. Brad Friedel has shown the way with some huge stops in recent weeks, both in league play and against totally denied FA Cup quarterfinal victims Arsenal.

Blackburn will await the winner of a Tottenham v Chelsea replay, but may not end up needing a possible UEFA Cup return that could be clinched by a place in the final.

Manchester United are the only top six club Friedel & Co. will face in the last nine Premier League games of the season. They must go the remainder without Andre Ooijer and Robbie Savage, but veteran backliner Andy Todd should be ready by the end of the month.

With twin avenues, Rovers probably like their chances of making it to consecutive UEFA Cups for the second time this decade. With Friedel in between the sticks, they have a netminder that can keep them in any game.

Long story short: Blackburn is the chugging sound clubs six through nine now hear coming from behind them.

Everton

Tim Howard has backstopped the Toffees up to sixth, which quite possibly could be good enough to enter Europe, but they do have four chasing teams within three points.

Everton's excellent +11 goal differential gives them an extra edge in a photo finish, but coach David Moyes has already applied the Intertoto Cup (a preseason UEFA Cup back door) just in case they don't end up in the Premiership top seven.

With a fit Andy Johnson, the Goodison bunch should be able to book their second UEFA Cup participation in three seasons. James McFadden can help cover the offensive loss of Tim Cahill when he returns from injury after the international break.

Of course, they do still have uphill trips to Bolton and Chelsea (set for closing day), as well as Mersey invasions from Arsenal and Manchester United.

Howard has been reaching the top shelf with his performances lately, but he and the team would both be served by a little less drama at the back. Excluding Johnson and injured players, the Toffees will face eight of the Premiership's top 12 goalscorers in the last nine games.

FC Nordsjælland

Heath Pearce and the Wild Tigers sit five points out of a UEFA Cup slot, but only one shy of Aalborg, current holders of the final Royal League place. The US left back is integral to FCN hopes, and eager to help the club finish strong before testing the free market this summer.

If this ambitious club wants to reach their goal, it will need to integrate a few new players and find some offensive consistency. FC Nordsjælland has scored four or more four times this season, while also banging one or less 11 times.

They do still have to play derby rivals FC Copenhagen twice, but seven of their last 15 games - and the final four - will come against the bottom five SAS Liga teams.

This ship could sink before they round the final turn; the sooner they rack up some wins, the better. A key stretch comes in mid-April when Pearce and the North Sea crew tackle FC Midtjylland, FC Copenhagen and Odense BK in a span of eight days - at least, the latter pair of dates will be set in the friendly confines of Farum Park.

Hannover 96

Like Reading, Hannover 96 currently reside in the last UEFA Cup slot available with nine league matches to play. Steve Cherundolo had a shaky start to the campaign, but is again among the team's driving forces.

With a recent offensive explosion apparently concluded, the Reds will need to focus better during the first and last five minutes of games, which is when they have leaked nearly 25% of their goals against total for the season.

The proud no-name cast will receive a big boost when veteran strike ace Thomas Brdaric returns from injury in the next couple weeks.

We will know much more about Hannover's chances after the next four rounds, which involves dates with Hamburg, Bayern Munich and Stuttgart. If they can hold or cut their three-point deficit to fifth place Nürnberg, a return to Europe is very possible.

They could also sneak into the UEFA Cup with a sixth place finish if Stuttgart win the German Cup, but it is Tony Sanneh's former club who guard the last certain berth in the Bundesliga standings.

Heerenveen

Michael Bradley and the Frisians stumbled a bit while Eredivisie top scorer Afonso Alves was sidelined, but he's back and they've now won two straight. Heerenveen currently are in sixth place, and hold the pole position for qualifying to the league's UEFA Cup playoff - but that's not what they want.

While only four points back of a capitulating Feyenoord and the last Champions League playoff slot with six to play, the Blue White Vikings also have a slightly tougher remaining schedule.

The bad news? They still must host warming NAC Breda and travel to AZ Alkmaar on the next to last day of the season. The good news? On closing day, Heerenveen will host Feyenoord.

The team is nearing full fitness, but Bradley will likely remain on his intermittent starter routine regardless of absences. The defense is playing its best soccer since the opening phase of the campaign, and his minutes off the bench could increase if the firm of Alves, Nilsson & Pranjic give Heerenveen halftime leads more often.

If they can finish in the top five, a UEFA Cup return is ensured. Winning the Champions League playoff is probably too much to ask... but based on the Abe Lenstra preseason plan, getting there automatically qualifies their Eredivisie campaign as a success.

Newcastle

I'm probably going to receive several terse emails suggesting I learn something about the game, but if Gooch Onyewu wants to play European ball next fall, he may want to shy away from making his loan move permanent.

The Magpies have marginally improved since his winter arrival, but no backline acquisition can cover the fact that the offense short circuits away from St. James.

When you can't score on the road, suddenly playing away to desperate strugglers Charlton, Sheffield United and West Ham doesn't seem so appetizing. To make matter worse, they must still accept visits from defensively sound Arsenal, Blackburn and Chelsea.

Factor in that Michael Owen is nowhere near ready, and it becomes evident that the notion of making up six points and 14 goals in differential to Everton is highly problematic.

At least there is always the Intertoto route, which the Toon used to gain UEFA Cup entrance last summer.

Reading

Bobby Convey is done for the season, but Royal goaltender Marcus Hahnemann will have plenty of say in whether seventh place Reading can attain UEFA Cup status from a tight race.

They trail fifth place Bolton, who they visit in late April, by four points. They only trail sixth place Everton on goal differential. Five chasers stand within seven points, including suddenly hot Tottenham.

The Premiership debutants were actually sniffing the Champions League for a good while, but a weekend loss to Arsenal leaves them nine points adrift of the fourth place Gunners.

Losing Ibrahima Sonko hurts worse than the Convey setback as Reading will only face two of the league's weakest seven attacks the rest of the way.

Hahnemann will need to be on his toes at the end of matches, which is when the Prem usually becomes hectic. He conceded several December goals in the waning moments, but seem to be back to his old late stingy self.

Liverpool are the only top seven club left on their schedule, but the key clash comes after the international break: a trip to Spurs' White Hart Lane.

Sampdoria

Barring a rash of injuries (or cocaine suspensions), Gabe Ferrari probably won't have much to say about whether Sampdoria clinch a second UEFA Cup berth in three years.

Despite the prolonged absence of captain Francesco Flacchi, our aforementioned drug reference case, Samp have three strikers of reasonable Serie A quality ahead of the young Yank.

They stand only two points "out of Europe" - problem is, the two teams directly in front of them are the penalized super duo of AC Milan and Fiorentina. Yeah... things don't look good for Sampdoria, especially when they just can't keep midfield motor Salvatore Volpe healthy.

The rays of hope are that they are done with both Milan powers, and will still have the pleasure of playing seven of the bottom nine clubs in the standings.

Wolfsburg

Kamani Hill will likely do a lot of watching from the bench down the stretch as winter catch Marcelinho has invigorated the attack.

However, if the defense has truly recovered from a February swoon that cost the club several points, the young American may well have UEFA Cup to anticipate during the offseason.

Wolfsburg trail the happy zone by eight points, but are aided in the hunt for their for their first UEFA Cup berth since 2000 by an extraordinarily soft remaining agenda.

Like Blackburn, Wolfsburg remain alive for a European ticket via domestic cup play, but their final path is unfortunately blocked by scary Stuttgart. The Intertoto Cup is also an option, but the club have failed to make that trek five times in the last seven years.

And straight from the "Yep, that's right!" file, we have our last two hopefuls...

Hamburg

Despite all the injuries and all the squandered points and all the demolished expectations (and the mere existence of Collin Benjamin), don't be stunned out of your socks if the HSV train screeches to a halt in a UEFA Cup station by the time this season's Bundesliga journey ends.

Thanks to a five-game unbeaten run that includes road wins over title scrappers Schalke 04 and Werder Bremen, Hamburg are now just eight points behind sixth place Bayer Leverkusen. Of course, they are also hanging a mere point above the relegation zone, so the task is more complex than usual.

Benny Feilhaber may have been returned to the second team during new boss Huub Stevens' recent roster consolidation, but both he and Preston Zimmerman are hoping recovered talisman Rafael van der Vaart can secure 2007/08 European participation for them to aspire to - the Oranje star has four goals in the last five games.

Led by the suddenly clicking central duo of Joris Mathijsen and Bastian Reinhardt, the AOL Arena boys have tightened up considerably at the back, allowing just one goal during the current streak.

This chase is complicated because Hamburg must jump six places over the final nine Bundesliga rounds, but they do have games remaining with five of the seven teams directly ahead of them.

Watford

No, I'm not drunk.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's outline my plan for relegation bait Watford to crash the 2007/08 UEFA Cup party: pray Middlesbrough somehow beats Manchester United in an Old Trafford FA Cup quarterfinal replay.

(Gulp)

Should Jay DeMerit and Watford win the tournament or finish runner-up to a Champions League qualifier, they would indeed have their pass stamped for Europe.

Without seeming to suggest that 2006 UEFA Cup silver medalists Boro are an easy bridge foe to new Wembley, the dream would almost certainly die against the deep and mighty treble chasing Red Devils.

Sure, the survivalists put a real scare into Sir Alex back in August... and sure, Fergie is running out of strikers... but seriously, do you have a better plan for Aidy Boothroyd's men?

Even if "Go Boro!" is what it has come down to for the Hornets, fans can hold some small hope in the fact that the Teessiders have actually advanced past United three of nine times - including a 1933 win in Manchester.

DeMerit will still need to devise a scheme to shut down Ayegbeni Yakubu in the semifinals if Middlesbrough can pull off a small miracle Monday night, but let's not put the cart before the horse.

All together now... Go Boro!