No matter what holiday you celebrate, or choose not to celebrate, it's the time of year when the wish lists comes out and dreams for the future percolate. With plenty on the horizon across all facets of U.S. Soccer, here is a five-item, American soccer holiday wish list for the coming months:
1. Landon Donovan puts off retirement
Landon Donovan's potential retirement or extended break from playing was overshadowed considerably by David Beckham's farewell from Major League Soccer, but now that the MLS season is over and Beckham is gone, the spotlight is solely on the Los Angeles Galaxy captain and U.S. all-time leading scorer.
Donovan has expressed his desire for a lengthy break for months now, even going to the extent of candidly saying in his post-MLS-Cup-winning press conference, "It's not a woe-is-me story, but I have to listen to my heart and gut, and right now my gut says to get away for a while."
Donovan has 100 percent earned the right to make the decision that is best for him without being ripped for it. With everything he has meant to U.S. Soccer, if he wants to bow out at 30, with five MLS Cups to his name, some major performances on the grandest stage in the World Cup and perhaps the most iconic moment in U.S. Soccer history, then by all means, go ahead. Perhaps after a few weeks or months off, he will come back ready to roll, but the selfish part in every American soccer fan should be pining for Donovan to recharge his batteries, come back hungrier than ever and plow through until after the 2014 World Cup (assuming the USA qualifies, of course).
The national team has had plenty of time to prepare for Donovan's eventual permanent absence given how many U.S. games he missed this year, but there is still that dynamic quality that Donovan brings which can change the complexion the American offense. The flanks and wide forward positions are not where Jurgen Klinsmann has an endless wealth of options, and no matter if Donovan's game is declining (are nine goals, 14 assists and an MLS Best XI nod really signs that the end is near?), the U.S. is a better team and one with greater potential when he is on the field and motivated to be at his best.
From an MLS standpoint, commissioner Don Garber seems to believe that the league can be just fine and stand on its own without Beckham and Donovan, but the fact of the matter is that those two have been the faces of the league for years now, and most casual observers and fans can at least maintain some tie to the league considering Donovan's mainstream stature. Losing both players, especially the main American pillar, would make MLS' 18th season one of its odder ones and present an unusual challenge.
2. A clean bill of health for Stuart Holden
Holden's return to training at Bolton last week was a breath of fresh air for the player, his teammates and his mounds of fans who have been yearning to see him return to the field and replicate his Bolton Player of the Year form from two seasons ago. The problem is, the last time Holden had the chance to make a comeback, he suffered a major setback and another long-term layoff followed.
Based on Holden's personal outlook, character and quality both on and off the field, it seems as if one of the more popular and skilled U.S. players has been dealt the most undeserved misfortune in the last two years. Here's to a gradual, sensibly timed return to the field, months of consistent performing while rediscovering his tenacious, classy form and an eventual return to the U.S. national team. If he comes back, the match he puts on his U.S. jersey for the first time since Oct. 2010 will become one of the more emotional events for the Americans in their quest to reach Brazil 2014.
3. A loan for Maurice Edu
Let it be clear that Maurice Edu's transfer from Rangers to Stoke City was an absolute must. Being shackled to the fourth tier of Scottish soccer wasn't going to do him any favors, and getting the lifeline of an opportunity to be exposed to the Premier League could only have been seen as a plus as the transfer window was shutting in August.
That said, Edu hasn't really been exposed to the Premiership at all. With one appearance all season and a logjam at both of his positions, Edu's place in the Stoke City pecking order is a tenuous one, and it is something that could cost him dearly when World Cup qualifying resumes unless a January loan materializes.
One could argue that training with Premier League players is at least better than toiling in the depths of Scotland's worst clubs. That alone, though, won't give him the necessary jolt to compete with the American central midfield likes of Michael Bradley, who is enjoying a fine Serie A campaign with Roma; Jermaine Jones, who is a favorite of Jurgen Klinsmann; and Danny Williams, who has emerged in central midfield for Klinsmann and is a fixture in Hoffenheim's lineup. Nor will it help him compete against U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, Stoke City teammate Geoff Cameron and the other center back candidates in the U.S. player pool.
Considering Edu's big-game experience both in the World Cup and in Champions League fixtures while with Rangers, along with his versatility (his performance at center back in Mexico in August caught Klinsmann's eye), he is an asset with something to contribute to the USA, but he won't continue to be on the radar if the next two-plus years of his contract with Stoke unfold like the first half-season has.
Premier League side Reading, for one, has expressed its interest in bringing in top-flight players on loan to help the team out of its doldrums. A drop down to a League Championship side wouldn't be the worst thing in the world either, as long as it means consistent playing time. Edu's move from Rangers was a necessity. So too is another move, at least temporarily, from Britannia Stadium.
4. A full-on commitment from Timmy Chandler
Timmy Chandler is "1,000" percent committed to playing for the United States. If you believe what he has to say in a Q & A with U.S. Soccer's website, that is. The on-again, off-again German-American fullback is still not cap-tied to the United States and spent a year not playing for the USA before returning to the lineup in the November friendly in Russia.
Until Chandler suits up in a World Cup qualifier, his talk will have to be taken at face value. Perhaps he has reached a point where he is comfortable enough in his standing at FC Nurnberg to leave on international duty when requested. Perhaps he has come to the conclusion that he indeed does want to commit himself to the United States once and for all, following in the footsteps of Jones, Williams, Fabian Johnson and Terrence Boyd as other German-Americans who have made that decision.
Coming out and talking as decisively as Chandler did and then backing that up with a decent showing against Russia during an odd, one-off friendly fixture date are signs that the 22-year-old dynamic fullback is inching toward that full commitment. If he is wearing a U.S. uniform on Feb. 6 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, then that commitment will finally become iron-clad after a seemingly endless saga.
5. The U.S. U-20s qualify for this summer's World Cup
The 2011 U.S. Under-20 men's national team was supposed to be a great collection of young talent, ready to announce their arrival on the international stage in the 2011 FIFA World Cup. Yeah, about that. Thomas Rongen's side failed to qualify from the 2011 CONCACAF championship tournament with a demoralizing quarterfinal loss to Guatemala and then sat back and watched as Mexico's U-20s captured third place at the world championship in Colombia, with a perceived talent gap between the Mexico and USA youth programs seemingly growing by the week.
Now, another generation of U-20s has a chance to make some international headway this summer, but getting there to begin with is of the utmost importance. With CONCACAF qualifying commencing in February, coach Tab Ramos, who was an assistant to Rongen in 2011, is under pressure to deliver a winner with another talented group of individuals who need to break the recent and troubling trend of U.S. youth teams (most notably the U-23s who did not qualify for the Olympics) failing to qualify for the finals of major international tournaments. The senior national team isn't getting much younger, meaning that the incoming generation needs to have the foundation of competing on the international stage before taking the reins from their predecessors.
"With the last group, it was certainly disappointing," Ramos said in a Q & A on U.S. Soccer's official website. "I want to make sure that in particular for this group, we have been and will continue to spell out how important it would be for them to participate in the Under-20 World Cup and to showcase themselves to the world. None of that can happen if we don't have a great tournament (at the CONCACAF championship). We won't look past what we have in front of us, and, as everyone says, we will take it one game at a time."
And on that note: Happy Holidays everyone!
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