STRANGE TIMES AT THE COTTAGE
EXTRA TIME
KENYA BROWN - Wednesday, August 8, 2007
How many times have we heard it? A player talks openly about the future of his club, shares his thoughts on a his new boss, and for his final statement gives the new head coach a vote of confidence.

Yawn.

If you have surfed any English soccer websites or picked up a London paper over the past weeks, you would have most likely have read that Brian McBride has given his backing to his new coach Lawrie Sanchez.

Of course, it's always good to hear a player supporting their boss, but I cannot see Sanchez keeping the Cottagers in the Premier League.

At least not without a dogfight.

Sanchez is well known for playing with and coaching the underdog. He did, to his credit, turn a downtrodden Northern Ireland into a Euro 2008 qualifying surprise during his international tenure, and last year, helped the Cottagers escape the dreaded relegation zone with a victory over Liverpool.

But, for all of his minor successes, the jury is still out on whether he will guide this team to a respectable position in the league this coming season. He's set quite a lofty goal by expecting them to earn a coveted European place.

You've got to give credit to Sanchez for his ambition, but with the team he is assembling a realistic goal would be to keep them out of the relegation zone.

This offseason Sanchez has gone about making the squad in the way he sees fit for them to take on the rest of the Premier League, and along the way has has spent nearly $50 million dollars of Mohamed al Fayed's money on new players.

It's not as much as Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal or Chelsea have spent in the past ten minutes or so, but for a team like Fulham it's an enormous chunk of change. Of course every season managers look to bring in players to improve their respective squads, but Fulham's shopping spree is looking pretty silly.

If you've seen Brewster's Millions, you know how hard it is to blow through this kind of money, but having analyzed the personnel return - $12 million for Diomansy Kamara among the doozies - on al Fayed's investment this offseason, you'd have to be concerned about Sanchez' decision making.

But more concerning, is how Sanchez will use his three Americans, and if you believe the English rumor mill, a possible four with Watford's Jay DeMerit supposedly on the wish list.

Thankfully, there is little question that McBride will be a vital component. The top marksman for the Cottagers last season has been the go-to guy for some time, but now the 35-year old faces competition from David Healy and Kamara.

While the former is the top scorer in Euro 2008 qualifying, the latter is an unproven player who has bounced around different clubs on the continent and in England.

Yes, McBride is getting on in years, but he has proven in his time at Fulham that he can still dominate games. Sanchez would be foolish if he did not have McBride in the squad each Saturdays, so, unless Healy, who admittedly is a fine striker, and Kamara are bagging the goals on a regular basis, McBride should still be an automatic choice in the lineup.

More of a question mark would be Carlos Bocanegra, who during the 2006/07, was asked to play three different places in the back in addition to a spell as defensive midfielder - where he excelled. Hell, he outscored mighty Shevchenko last season, and finished behind McBride on the Fulham goalscoring chart in his best offensive season of his career.

Now, will Bocanegra be called upon to play the "everywhereman" role again this season, or will Sanchez utilize 'Los at his preferred central defender position?

New defensive signings Chris Baird and Aaron Hughes - who played under Sanchez at Northern Ireland - bring more questions as to where he will be placed, and, if I am Carlos, I want to know my role in the squad now as to eliminate the guesswork.

The biggest question of all deals with the role of Clint Dempsey.

A January transfer signing, Dempsey was slowly being brought into the system by Chris Coleman, who was an admitted admirer of the Texan. After the Welshman's dismissal, Sanchez gave the former Revolution player his first start, and against Liverpool, he repaid his faith by scoring the game winner that ultimately kept the Cottagers in the Premiership.

Now as the new campaign gets closer, will Dempsey finally be a regular in Sanchez's lineup? Judging by the Fulham preseason, I wouldn't bet on it.

This is worrying because the midfield is stocked. Among others, Lee Cook, Simon Davies, Steven Davis (another Northern Ireland signing...), Russia international Alexei Smertin, and, should his recovery from a devastating knee injury continue as planned, Jimmy Bullard will all vie for playing time.

Dempsey could once again be used as a substitute and brought on late, and though he's still a relatively soccer-young 24-years old, collecting splinters on the bench for another season is not what this World Cup goalscorer envisioned when he forced MLS' hand over the winter. If this is what he is facing, a request for a loan to another club could be a good idea for Deuce.

Finally, if the three Yanks are to have any positive future with the club under the Sanchez regime, then they must get accustomed to his tactics, which are not going to win any aesthetics awards

It has been said by players such as Danish international Claus Jensen and Frenchman Franck Queudrue that Sanchez relies too heavily on long ball tactics in matches. This is where al Fayed's decision to hire Sanchez could come back to bite him on the backside.

If Sanchez has already lost the faith of two players - who are, by the way, on their way out of the club - then my money is on him eventually losing the faith of home supporters who notoriously turned several times on Coleman during his reign for negative tactics.

Using the hockey-style dump-and-chase through the entire 90 minutes is not going win many games these days in a league such as the Premiership, and though it may catch some teams off guard, Sanchez better rethink this strategy or else he could be looking for a new job come Christmas.

So as the new Premiership season creeps ever so close, many American eyes will be looking at Craven Cottage to see if the Sanchez regime can provide results.

It will come down to the decision making of the Sanchez that will ultimately tell whether this team will stay up another season, or if they will be preparing themselves for life in the Championship this time next year.

I just hope McBride won't be left disappointed by Lawrie Sanchez in the end.
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