Thursday, February 11, 2010

US v England - recent developments

There's always an emptiness felt after the Superbowl.  We have to wait 7 whole months before the next NFL game!  So what's next in the world of sports?  Yeah, March Madness will be good for a couple weekends, NBA playoffs will be interesting unless the Lakers steamroll everyone, (don't bring up the bore that is baseball) but greatest of all, of course ... the World Cup this summer!

Its only early February but we've already had a momentum shift in team morale leading up to the US-England clash.  With Charlie Davies, then Onyewu, then Dempsey each going down with serious injuries, things were looking grim for US hopes.  But there has been a turnaround of fortune in the last few weeks.

The news that Gooch and Deuce should be fit by April or May brings some optimism to fans.  Also, the outrageous news that Charlie Davies thinks he will be training again by April is quite shocking, but at least gives US fans reason to tentatively hold its collective breath.  Then, Landon Donovan's performances with Everton, including his man of the match showing vs EPL leading Chelsea yesterday has been an absolute revelation.

England on the other hand was in great shape.  Already in a easy group, they had a squad as experienced internationally as any in the world and equally as healthy.  But recently, they have been dealt a couple blows.  Captain John Terry was found to have been involved in a relationship with then girlfriend of ex-Chelsea (and current England) teammate, Wayne Bridge.  Bridge was supposedly one of his closest friends as well.  Capello, the English manager, stripped Terry of the armband as he absolutely had to do, but was still stuck in the position of deciding whether to bring Bridge to South Africa.

Then, in a wicked twist of fate, Ashley Cole, the starter in front of Bridge at LB, broke his ankle during a 50-50 ball in the aforementioned Chelsea - Everton match by, who else, LANDON DONOVAN.  Hilarious.  Cole is expected to be out through May and will have a hard time being fit by June.  This means that Capello will have to decide if Wayne Bridge should be his replacement especially since his position on the field is literally right next to John Terry.  Incredible.

Yes, I know that England is still the more talented and favored side, even if they decide to not replace Cole and play with just 10 men.  But, at the very least, US fans can hope for a splintered and battered English team on June 12th.

Wynalda - Harkes

In an odd coincidence, the Terry - Bridge episode closely mirrors what happened to the 1998 US team.  Wynalda finally revealed after this Terry incident that John Harkes, the captain "for life" in 1998 had an inappropriate relationship with Eric Wynalda's wife.  The US manager, Steve Sampson, decided to drop Harkes from the squad 2 months before the 98 WC but told no one the reason for his decision.

This doesn't excuse Sampson for his horrific coaching during that WC but it does shed a different light on his predicament.  Harkes has not denied Wynalda's revelation (while Sampson has spoken freely about it since) and it really has made him out to be the bad guy in retrospect.  After being dropped, Harkes went on the warpath in critcizing Sampson, using Sampson's noble decision to keep the affair a secret against the manager.  While Wynalda and Harkes have both become soccer analysts, it will be interesting how this plays out in the lead-up to the World Cup fervor.

Personally, the situation makes me absolutely sick but I would have handled in differently.  I would have brought in both Harkes and Wynalda in a meeting together to see what their thoughts were.  Perhaps the seeds of reconciliation could have been planted at that point especially since Wynalda had expressed his opinion that Harkes should be kept on the team anyway.  Though we don't know exactly what the rest of the team knew, it was important for Sampson to explain everything to them simply because this situation, while personal, still affects everyone on the team.  I would've had both Harkes and Wynalda speak to the team on the issue and let them vote on whether Harkes should stay on the team.

Team cohesion is important going into a WC.  Confusion and doubt cannot come from the manager.  Just as Capello has done to Terry, Harkes should've been stripped of his captaincy but allowed to play, as long as these 3 things occurred: he was remorseful about his actions, Wynalda endorsed his participation and the team voted unanimously in his favor.  Ultimately, while I don't necessarily disagree with Sampson's decision to drop Harkes, it was important for him to be forthright with the players, if not the media.

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