CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Saturday, April 23, 2011
It has been difficult to be excited about soccer in recent weeks as one disaster after another has struck the real world. From civil wars in Africa to environmental disasters in Japan, boating accidents in Italy and school shootings in Brazil, the sobering images of reality that have pressed upon us from all angles of television, internet and newspapers have been enough to quell most cheerful thoughts and pre-game fantasies lately.
While these sights and sounds keep us grounded, it also makes it all the more important to appreciate the things around us that bring a bit of cheer and happiness that relieve real world stresses; whether it be the amusing irony of Sergio Ramos dropping the Copa del Rey trophy and then Real Madrid's team bus running it over during their first Spanish cup victory celebration in almost two decades, or the exciting atmosphere build-up of the USA-Spain match in June selling more than 30,000 tickets in the first couple days of availability.
Soccer has been a magical thing around the world, succeeding where political maneuvering has failed in many regards. Civil wars have been stopped in Africa, and typically hostile classes within a country have been brought together under a single unifying banner to celebrate the beautiful game. While the United States has never (and hopefully never will) gotten to the point where soccer is needed to stop, or at least temper, severe social unrest, it is still a game to be thankful for.
Even though Thanksgiving is not for another seven months, there are several things to take particular note of, the first of which is Charlie Davies' long-awaited return to action. It may have taken a loan move to MLS, a questionable decision as voiced by many since it now allows for DC United to purchase him, but when he clearly was not going to break back into the lineup at Sochaux, desperate times called for desperate measures.
It has been a deep sigh of relief that he has been rediscovering his game and scoring goals like he's back in Sweden, leading the league in scoring with five goals in six games. That three of them are from the penalty spot should not matter greatly, as every boost in confidence and every goal scored pushes him closer to where he once was.
Robbie Findley making his debut for Nottingham Forest is good news as well, after waiting out injury and recovery since the winter transfer window to break into the lineup. A short spell at the end of the game isn't what American fans were hoping for, but it's a step in the right direction for the speedster. Whether or not he will improve enough to get back on Bob Bradley's radar for the Gold Cup or World Cup qualifying down the road is of course yet to be seen, but given Findley's forgettable spell in South Africa, it will take a lot of convincing for American fans to once more welcome him into the fold. Hopefully, as cynical as it sounds, it will take just as much convincing for the coaching staff.
Should he become more than a one-trick pony and display the skill-set that is needed to thrive in England, especially with Forest clinging to the last promotion spot for the Premiership, it will go a long way to wiping his slate clean, and that is to be very thankful for.
While those and others are things to be thankful for, some things are head scratching and others are horrific in nature regarding American players, with the two at the top of those lists dominating headlines recently. Benny Feilhaber's departure from AGF Aarhus was a surprise to many as he'd been performing well with the team, netting several goals and looking sure to lead them back into the Danish top flight. Feilhaber had been the subject of transfer rumors for quite some time, with many expecting him to depart for his native Brazil. Not many suspected that MLS would put in a serious bid, and New England fans got quite the treat as Chivas and Philadelphia passed on picking him up.
Unfortunately, the multi-year contract that Feilhaber has locked into will likely keep him stateside until after his 29th birthday, effectively ending his foreign development. While MLS continues to make strides to catch up to some of the secondary leagues around the world, one has to wonder if Feilhaber would have been better served sticking with Aarhus through next season's promotion, then attempting to lead the team into a European competition. The future is uncertain, and there's no certainty that AGF would've immediately climbed to the top of the SuperLiga, but toiling in the middle of the pack in Denmark with a chance to get into high level European tournaments and continuing to develop as a playmaker seems, at this time, to be a better alternative to returning to America.
This is partly because of the second list that is horrific in nature, which of course involves former U.S. National Team midfielder Brian Mullan taking out Seattle's Steve Zakuani, breaking his leg and ending the young Congolese star's season. The tackle was ridiculous from the beginning, and while intent is not easy to judge in many plays that end up with nasty results, it was clear from the get-go that Mullan had little, if any, intention of cleanly getting the ball. The snapping leg was clearly picked up by the on-field microphones, and the flopping of Zakuani's once rigid right shin was ghastly, to put it lightly.
While incidents like these occur throughout the world, with Joey Barton being especially notorious in modern-day England, it serves as a reminder that a switch to a highly physical and sometimes dangerous league can be a turn for the worst for a player relying on skill. While it's acknowledged that MLS has calmed down over the years and is no longer as Wild West as it once was, the Mullan tackle serves as a cringing reminder to everyone that nowhere is safe.
Paranoia and alarmist attitudes aside, it could only take one bone-headed play to ruin the careers of the two Yanks who have just returned home. We'll optimistically and most likely realistically assume that it won't happen, but if it does, a serious look is going to have to be taken at two things: National team players returning home to a league that is most likely far more physical than the one they just departed, and in relation to that, the lack of consistent, strict punishment for players who seek to diminish the beauty of the world's game.