SECOND HALF STORIES
With the second half of the season well underway from Mexico to Europe, there's a few particular things to look forward to until it comes to a close.
One of the usual sources of entertainment over the Holiday season is the winter transfer window, but it didn't yield many surprises for Americans, or even much activity at all. The summer could see a host of moves that will set the excitement levels back up to 11 (or at least eight), but that's a ways off. Until then, these are the things to watch for during the run of play.
In Mexico there are several stories to keep an eye on surrounding the usual suspects:
Will Edgar Castillo translate his consistent and quality play with Tijuana back into a National Team performance? His underwhelming showings last year left Primera Division fans flummoxed. The Mexican league has never been top of the charts in defense, and it's almost always a wide open celebration of attacking play while gutting any form of defensive stability, but Castillo shows well in his various club opportunities, much better than how he shows while wearing the red, white, and blue.
The level of competition is definitely different, but the speed of play is so fast in Mexico that he shouldn't be getting caught flat footed the way he did for the U.S. Castillo is not the first, nor will he be the last, player who performs well for his club but not for his national team. U.S. soccer history is full of such players.
The problem with Castillo is that he plays at a level that seems like it should translate well for the U.S., but it's not just that; it's the fact that he plays in a position and with a style that seems like it should suit Jurgen Klinsmann's style of play very well. While Castillo shouldn't command a starting role with the National Team, if he continues his good play with Tijuana, he should warrant at least one more look, if not in the friendlies against Scotland or Canada, then maybe as part of the squad to face Antigua and Barbuda in the first round of World Cup Qualifying.
The problem with Castillo in a National Team uniform has seemed to be a high level of nerves and a lack of confidence. If these two issues can be overcome, he could be a possible asset to backup Brek Shea until a better candidate is found, especially given the injury tendencies of DaMarcus Beasley, which brings us to the polarizing man himself.
Beasley has been playing very well with Puebla since joining the team in 2011, and his performances over the past two games have shown a lot of flashbacks to the younger Beasley before he moved to Europe and became a different player. He has been getting behind the defense, using his speed to split defenders, and has been slashing across the middle from the left flank, throwing defenses into disarray.
His game against Tijuana featured all of these elements, almost scoring a goal by sneaking behind the defense, drawing a penalty kick by splitting the defense on the dribble, and causing general confusion with his speed and slashing. Unfortunately, he left the game early with an injury, which has been his problem over the past few years. The licks he used to take as a youngster that he sprung back up from without hesitation have appeared to catch up to him.
Beasley still has some good years left on him, but his durability has fallen so much that there are legitimate concerns about whether or not he can make it through another Qualifying campaign injury free. His presence in Central American games is vital due to his experience playing in the extreme atmospheres that Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica offer. Beasley isn't quite made of glass, and the value of experience and speedy play that he offers is worth the risk of him taking a knock that puts him out of the game.
Another player worth taking a risk on is Herculez Gomez, who has gotten off to a slow start in limited minutes with new team Santos Laguna. Given his age and slump in production compared to his campaign with Estudiantes, time is running out for Gomez. He certainly knows this, as he told YA in December that he now considers himself an ex-National Team player.
There are too many promising young players in the pool, particularly at the U-23 level, for Gomez to warrant long term consideration, but until those players step up to the plate he is a viable alternative to Teal Bunbury, who has surely been passed in the depth chart by C.J Sapong.
The fact of that matter is that Jozy Altidore needs a second striker to play with in order to be effective, and if that player isn't Juan Agudelo for whatever reason, it needs to be another player who isn't an Altidore clone. Gomez would be a good selection due to his speed and craftiness, and his knack for scoring ugly goals.
Bunbury is a good player, but the reason Gomez should be considered over him, at least for the time being, is that he is simply a harder worker. Gomez does not stop, which is what allows him to score so many ugly goals. Bunbury, as has been noted by fans and media alike, has a tendency to disappear, to slow down, to appear confused about his role. Until he finds whatever spark he needs to keep going for the length of the game, Gomez needs to be looked to as a player who simply makes things happen, one way or another.
Across the Atlantic, there's another set of events, actions, and speculation to look forward to.
Mikkel Diskerud moved on loan to KAA Gent in the Jupiler League, a big step up in competition from Norway. How will Diskerud perform in the new atmosphere? He made the bench in his first opportunity with the team against OH Leuven, but didn't get into the game. Gent is in a race for second place, barely leading Club Brugge and Standard Liege, while trailing two and a half games back from Anderlecht.
The step up in competition is going to have one of two effects on Mix, in that he will either suffer in the new atmosphere after being comparatively sheltered in Norway, or he will be set free and excel. If he performs as well as has in Norway, then it will be a wonderful opportunity for him to be seen on a larger stage, especially if Gent keep on pace to make the Champions League qualifying round.
With Stabaek's financial troubles, there seems to be very little chance of them not selling Mix if a halfway respectable offer comes through, whether it comes from Gent or someone else. The 21 year old's market value has gone through the roof, so to speak, from a paltry sum of under $100,000 to now being estimated at over 10 times that amount, so Stabaek would turn a hefty profit by unloading him. If he performs well with Gent and the U.S. U-23 team, there will be a significant rise in his stature culminating with invitations from Klinsmann.
Speaking of market values going through the roof, there are few players of any Nationality playing in the Premier League this season that has seen their stock rise as sharply as Clint Dempsey. With 16 goals in 32 games through the beginning of February, he is behind only an elite group of players, including Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney.
Dempsey has made clear his desire to play in the Champions League, and right now while at the highest level of play he's ever had, the timing is right. The question is whether or not Fulham can stomach to sell their best player. If they do, it won't be for anything less than an American record, well over $10,000,000. Over the past two seasons, his value has almost doubled, and if he keeps playing this well and scoring with consistency, Fulham's asking price may end up at $15,000,000, putting him out of reach of most teams that are not in the Champions League.
The question, of course, is whether or not Dempsey can maintain his level of play through the rest of the season. There's no indication that he's slowing down, but he is hampered by a weak, disjointed lineup that makes it difficult for him to consistently shine. The second half of the season is already proving an intriguing plot, and will continue to be the most watched story by American fans.
Another stalwart who could capitalize on a strong second half is Michael Bradley, who has been one of the best players for Chievo this campaign. Settling into a more defensive minded role has reduced his opportunities on goal, but has tightened up his ability to control the back end of the midfield, making him an even more valuable player for the National Team.
Chievo bought him on the cheap after he fell into the doghouse at Gladbach, but his stock has been back on the rise and if he continues at his current level of play he will be an interesting option to other fringe Champions League teams, especially AS Roma whose American owner is still looking for an American player. Bradley's contract is a multiple year deal, but Chievo may want to turn a quick profit by flipping him if he impresses through May. They would be sacrificing a lot of their defensive stability, but being a yearly mid-table performer doesn't show a lot of ambition outside of staying in the Serie A.
Ambition brings us to the curious case of Charlie Davies. What is in store for his future? D.C. United didn't use their purchase option despite him having a relatively great season, so he finds himself back at Sochaux, clawing his way back up the ranks. Davies has been in action with the Reserve team, and he finally received his first call up to the matchday roster that will play Rennes.
The long awaited return to European action for Davies will keep people on the edge of their seats if and when he takes the field, and the chances seem to be getting better and better as Sochaux struggles to find the back of the net this season. They have scored 22 times in 21 games for the third worst offensive output in Ligue 1. This has left them in a three way tie in the relegation zone, but they only need one point to climb back to relative safety. It's only a matter of time until manager Mehmed Bazdarevic starts looking for more exotic options to pull them up, and that may be the time that Davies finally gets an opportunity to shine in France.