CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Tuesday, January 3, 2012
2011 was another year for American soccer. Not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, but plenty of developments both positive and negative worth remembering for one reason or another.
For US National Team games, there were a lot of lows and very few highs. It was a long, dark tunnel for a stretch of about half the year, but there was a glimmer of light in the distance signaling the end of hardship. Maybe, at least.
The year started off innocently enough, with rumors of an imminent Clint Dempsey move to a Champions League caliber team, with the favorite being Arsenal. That did not happen, and that hasn't necessarily been a bad thing; Dempsey's stock has continued to go up, with 21 goals, 7 assists and 74 shots on goal in 57 games for club and country in 2011. He averaged 1.42 direct interactions (a combination of goals, assists, and shots on goal that did not result in goals) on goal in 57 games, the highest of any Yank Abroad in a major league.
As effective as Dempsey has been, he's a bit of a ways behind Chris Wondolowski's domestic leading 1.94 over 35 games. For statistic's sake, Landon Donovan scored 1.26 over 42 games and Jozy Altidore scores in at 0.29 in 35 games (starting at the end of his spell with Bursapor, which yielded abysmal statistics).
On the other side of the Atlantic, Herculez Gomez spent approximately four months tearing up the Mexican Primera Division, cementing himself as one of the most efficient goal scorers in the league, and earning a move to annual championship contenders Santos Laguna to start 2012. After a largely forgetful first half of 2011, Gomez made the move to Estudiantes Tecos and the rest, as they say, is history. His eight goals in 17 games didn't come in as the best, but his goal per minute average three quarters of the way through the season was an astounding 1:80.
Gomez is excited about the move to Santos Laguna, and sees it as a major step, showing that he's a completely different player from the one who moved to Mexico from MLS. That particular move to Puebla could be looked at as symbolic for Americans in career doldrums, as Gomez's success since then hasn't been a one-off. DaMarcus Beasley arrived at Puebla over the summer and instantly saw a rejuvenation of his career. The old Run DMB was back after a several yearlong European vacation, and saw his statute rise to the point of becoming a selection for the U.S. National Team again.
Puebla must have decided that good things come in threes, because they are trying to do it once again by bringing in Eddie Johnson, whose career has spiraled into oblivion since departing MLS. If Puebla can get the once-prolific striker back on track, they must look like an appealing move for a number of other Americans who have found out that Europe doesn't always have greener grass. Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley could be two players to benefit from such a move.
While Mexico can be a deceiving league, making some players look better than they really are simply due to the style of play that the Primera Division offers, a competitor wants to compete. Mexico is looking more and more like an intriguing alternative to returning to MLS with tails tucked between the legs, whether or not that feeling of surrender would be justified.
It certainly was not justified for Freddy Adu, who delighted fans by returning stateside and joining the Philadelphia Union. A lot of hindsight can be used in The Freddy Experiment, and a lot of lessons must be learned to prevent that debacle from happening again. Mainly, no matter how good the kid is, don't push a 14-year-old into the professional sports world, no matter what the sport is. While Adu could play better than most at that tender young age, the case proved to be the definitive example of both trying to grow up too fast, and media hype. There are a number of other definitive examples that The Freddy Experiment offered, but the most important thing is that the career of "The Next Pele" is not over.
Despite having been on America's mind for almost a decade, he's still only 21, and will have ample opportunity to continue developing into the player that he was hyped up to be. His return to MLS came at the perfect time, and it's paying dividends.
Of players who did not leave MLS at the wrong time, or go into the wrong situation, Stuart Holden has found himself having a year that can best be described as "total disaster." Holden had such an impact on Bolton, was named their Most Valuable Player despite being injured for a third of the season. His return from injury was supposed to spell a turn-around of the team currently sitting in the relegation zone, but unfortunately, a routine check on his knee revealed previously unknown damage that would sideline him for an additional six months.
It was a shocking blow for Bolton and U.S. fans alike, and really, the only thing to do is wait for March to roll around, and hope for the best. If Holden is able to make a full recovery and get some game time in the final weeks of play, there will be a lot of calls, perhaps premature, that he looks good enough for Jurgen Klinsmann to call in for June World Cup Qualifying games.
Holden's development as a player is crucial for a U.S. National Team that finds itself surprisingly lacking in the center of the field, and that development is directly proportional to being fully healthy before stepping on the field again. And also directly proportional to staying away from Flying Dutchmen and slide tackles.
Two former MLS goalkeepers finding themselves in unique situations are Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan. Some National Team fans found themselves getting impatient with Friedel's perseverance, and wondered if he shouldn't move back to MLS after one of the most successful American careers abroad ever. That desire was not bred from a lack of respect for the Ageless Titan, but because of a sense of urgency to develop a backup for Tim Howard.
Guzan's inability to break into the lineup ahead of his elder at Aston Villa was a spot of frustration that led to the idea that should Howard be injured, there would be no legitimate Heir to the Empire (to borrow from Timothy Zahn). This fear has been quieted somewhat with the rise of other potential backup ‘keepers, but also because Friedel made the move to Tottenham, seemingly opening the door for Guzan to step in at Villa.
Of course, Shay Given stepped into Friedel's spot, denying Guzan the opportunity to shine, once again. The sun ended up partially shining though, after Given took an injury, leaving Guzan as the default option in net. Finally, after three years of waiting, the former Chivas USA product got his first chance to start in a Premiership game. This could bode well for Guzan, as he gets to play in the fierce competition to the Carling Cup doesn't always provide, showcasing his skills to potential suitors who need a first choice stopper.
Back to Friedel, who has been enjoying a run of exceptional play that players ten years his younger would be jealous of. To think that he's been playing professionally longer than some youngsters in the EPL have been alive, and is still playing at a level that is close enough to his prime to not be considered a drop-off, is mind-boggling. A goalkeeper playing up to age 40 is not uncommon, but to not just stay at a high level of competition, but to move up in the table, is a rare thing. Edwin Van der Sar and Peter Schmeichel are a select few, and there's nothing wrong with keeping company like that. How much longer Friedel will go remains to be seen, but it should be noted as much as possible that we're watching one of the most respected and accomplished American players ever, who is also continuing to stretch his near insurmountable lead in consecutive games started. Will he be the EPL's Cal Ripken Jr.?
On that note, if Friedel goes one more season after this, he could break into the Top 10 for all time Premier League appearances, adding even more clout to his record.
From the seasoned category to the breakout youngsters category, 2011 was a fantastic year for Brek Shea, who has found many suitors across the pond after his MVP-candidate season and moderate success with the National Team. The winger has pretty much locked himself in as the first-choice selection for left midfield, and a move during 2012's summer transfer window to a bottom half Premier League or Bundesliga team would be a good choice. Earlier than that might be too soon, being out of rhythm with an already entrenched team. Moving in the summer would allow him an extra few months of MLS play, before going into pre-season camps with his new team.
A move in 2012 is almost a must for Shea, depending on where he lands. There's not much more that the MLS can give him in terms of development, so new scenery is in order. If that new scenery is a bench and a practice field, there's no advantage in it without an immediate loan deal.
Other breakout players have been the slew of German-Americans who have been moving up through the club ranks and earning invitations to the National Team. America's love affair with Jermaine Jones whetted the appetite for what else might have been out there, and it's not been disappointing. Timothy Chandler came in and set the fan base on fire, and was followed by David Yelldell, Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams into the National Team, and Andrew Wooten, Terrence Boyd, Royal Dominique-Fennel, and Jann George into the U-23 camp.
This influx of talent born from American servicemen overseas was bound to happen at some point in time, and what better time is when approaching the Olympics, when Nations from around the world stand together as one?
The coming year will have a lot of dramatic story lines, from World Cup Qualifying to Olympic Qualifying to the Olympics itself, not to mention all the other stories involved. Will Clint Dempsey finally move up to a higher quality team? Will Herculez Gomez finally get called back up to the National Team? Will Stuart Holden ever be the same? Will Brad Friedel gain a stronger resemblance to Mr. Clean? All these questions and more will be answered in 2012, and here's to hoping that Boxing Day matches aren't ruined by an apocalypse.