(Very quick thoughts, so please disregard a general lack of proper spelling and grammar)
OK, kidding about the last part of the headline (sorry). It is interesting though, that England and the United States, two of the principle exponents of the 4-4-2 in South Africa–when most sides had switched to some variation of a single-forward, five-man midfield (4-2-3-1, 4-2-1-3, 4-2-2-1-1)–played a similar formation in their first friendlies since the Cup. The surprising part? It wasn’t a 4-4-2.
Both Fabio Capello and Bob Bradley lined up their squads with just one “true” forward–Wayne Rooney for the English, who endured boos throughout, and Edson Buddle for the United States. Playing behind them in the hole, as “false 9’s”, in the nomenclature of our times, were two men who were deployed primarily on the wing throughout their respective World Cup campaigns: Landon Donovan and Steven Gerrard.
There are some interesting parallels to consider:
- Both men serve as the heart and soul of their nation’s offense. For all of the support they receive from Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard (in Gerrard’s case), and Clint Dempsey (mainly, in Donovan’s case), England and the United States live and die on the performance of the two men.
- Both prefer playing in the middle, and seem to excel when given the opportunity. Yet both were also pushed out to the wings in recent years by coaches (Capello and Bradley) seemingly dead-set on playing a rigid 4-4-2 (yes, both have experimented, but they’ve consistently returned to the 4-4-2 when the pressure was on). In both cases, the rationale was the same: they may start on the wings, but they are given the freedom to roam across the pitch, choosing their positions as they see fit. At times, this logic was proven correct; at others, it caused both to either disappear for stretches, or to force the subject, leaving the wings bare and their defenses exposed.
What makes the situation even more interesting is that both nations arrived in South Africa obviously short of a quality second striker option of true international caliber. The United States had lost Charlie Davies nearly eight months prior, while England’s two year audition phase for Peter Crouch, Jermaine Defoe and Emile Heskey had yet to produce a clear winner. Yet both managers chose to stick to their preferred 4-4-2, forcing their true creators to the wing.
And yet, coming back from a month-long break, both Bradley and Capello opted to move away from the formation, choosing instead to play with their starts in the withdrawn forward role, and to great effect. Gerrard responded by carrying England with two wonderful second-half strikes, while Donovan–not atypically, mind you–looked the only man on the pitch for the United States who actually deserved to be there, and nearly struck in the third minute after a lovely, mazey run through the Brazilian defense.
I’m not suggesting that Capello and Bradley are tactically naive–that’s just silly. There is simply irony in the mutual circumstances surrounding the squads, and in the events of the last few days.
I was rather surprised to check back today and see there are still a significant number of people checking daily, so apologies for the lack of posts over the last few weeks. Yet with the dearth of transfer rumors, and the cold, disappointing reality of a job that has mercilessly picked up in pace over the last two months, there has been neither time nor reason. As for the absence of material around tonight’s USA-Brazil game, well, that was because it just didn’t matter. It wouldn’t have mattered if they’d have run rampant over the young Brazilians, nor did it matter that they were very much played right off of the pitch in New York.
My quick opinions for a game with no significance for present or future (unless you live in Brazil, in which case the next eight years of your soccer fandom is going to be sweet):
- Bradley was justified in not giving Charlie Davies a look at training camp. Does that have anything to do with this game? No. But I still find it funny that people hold it against Bradley, when Davies isn’t able to get in the Sochaux 18 on game days. I love Charlie, but come on. OK, rant over (well, that one, at least).
- Robbie Findley is just rubbish. As someone who campaigned vehemently against him seeing any time in South Africa, I feel oddly justified with every additional appearance. He lacks anything approaching technical skill, although the two patented “run to the end line and then panic, all without slowing down or doing anything with the ball” moves did make me (temporarily) giggle. Seriously, just stop–there’s no point in putting him in friendlies anymore. Give time to some kids, it’ll be much better used.
- Bedoya also showed why he wasn’t ready for the WC. Yes, the Brazilians were very quick and energetic, but Davies’ Boston College buddy looked out of place. I’m being admittedly harsh on him, but for a guy who’s biggest assets are reportedly speed and a good touch, he looked lethargic and overwhelmed, particularly for someone who had the summer off.
- The Bradley-Edu pairing in central midfield is promising, but there’s work to be done. Bradley was lacking his usual touch, while Edu, though energetic, seemed a bit out of control with his movement. Granted, they had a lot to handle in the middle since they had no defensive cover from Feilhaber and Bedoya on the wings.
Now, two relatively upbeat comments:
- I liked seeing Donovan play in the hole behind Buddle, and would love to see him play in that spot with Altidore up top. Throughout May and June, I kicked and screamed like an annoying child because Bradley refused to play with a lone striker, despite a lack of class on the forward line. Depending on the progress of Stuart Holden and Jose Torres, I could see the Donovan-Altidore partnership becoming the first choice in the future.
- Omar Gonzalez was quite impressive. He held his ground well, and clearly has the athleticism to play on this level. I’m excited to see his continued progress.
Unfortunately–or, rather fortunately, depending on your viewpoint–it doesn’t look like I’ll have the time in the next 24 hours to dig deeply into the new rumors surrounding Michael Bradley’s future. Here’s a quick look at the growing list of suitors in England:
- Liverpool – With the Javier Mascherano-to-Inter rumors continuing to gain steam (with the inevitable “It would be a dream” comments added to the dialogue by Mascherano’s agent yesterday), Anfield could emerge as a legitimate possibility for young Michael–and would be quite a move for him, regardless of the financial problems plaguing the club.
- Everton – Everton would be a wonderful opportunity for Bradley, although I’m not sure where he fits in at the present time. The Toffees already have a wealth of young talent in the center of midfield, including Tim Cahill, Marouane Fellaini, Jack Rodwell, and Johnny Heitenga. While I could see them taking the opportunity to cash in on Fellaini–if there’s a market for the 22 year-old–it doesn’t seem likely that Cahill or Rodwell, in particular, will be moving on. Until other moves happen, this doesn’t seem likely.
- Blackpool – The Blackpool rumor doesn’t make a great deal of sense. They’ll be extremely hard-pressed to stay up in the EPL, and while Monchengladbach hasn’t exactly set the Bundesliga on fire over the last two years, a relegation battle with a new team doesn’t seem all that appealing for the midfielder.
- West Ham – Bradley would make sense for West Ham, particularly if Scott Parker moves to Aston Villa. Again, though, would this actually be a significant improvement over Monchengladbach?
My, how opinions do change quickly. Two years ago, there remained large pockets of the United States’ fan base that still considered Michael Bradley to be an overmatched 20 year-old, his starting spot in the midfield still chalked up to raw nepotism. While that sentiment always gave of the waft of hopeless naiveté, it has been all but obliterated over the last eighteen months, as Bradley has gone about establishing himself as one of the best young midfielders in Europe.
Bradley’s transformation as a player–and the evolution of his talents and skills over such a short period of time–could serve as a case study for the development of a central midfielder. A professional at 16, Bradley became the youngest player ever sold by Major League Soccer with his move to Dutch club SC Heerenveen. After playing in a primarily holding/defensive role in MLS, his offensive prowess blossomed in his second full season in the Netherlands, as he found the net sixteen times in the Eredivisie and 20 times in all competitions—a record for an American in a European first division (and an accomplishment that remains under-appreciated).
Despite his growth as an attacking player at the club level, Bradley accepted a defensive role with the national team, quickly earning a reputation as a tough-tackling enforcer with something of a temper. He began to show a knack for scoring crucial goals, with his two against rivals Mexico in the February chill of Columbus marking his true arrival as an impact player on the international level. Entrenched as a starter by late 2008, only yellow card accumulation kept him out of remaining qualifying matches.
Yet the Bradley that many fans came to know only over the last two months—a true box-to-box midfielder at home against the world’s best teams—is a relatively new permutation, and owes as much to his natural growth as it does to the deployment of Landon Donovan out to the wing. As a result, Bradley has been handed to the keys to the American attack in the middle of the pitch, and he used his new freedom to dominate large stretches of the matches against England, Slovenia, and Algeria at the World Cup. For all the hype that surrounded Donovan and Dempsey, it was often Bradley who initiated the offense, leading the American counter-attack that provided so many opportunities.
Following his impressive showing in South Africa, the 22 year-old is expected to draw suitors from across Europe, with his potential growth as a player and reasonable contract (he’s signed for another two years) providing a tempting option for teams looking for a presence at the center of midfield. Until bids are confirmed, the rumors will continue to fly, just as (unsubstantiated) hints of interest from Arsenal percolated over the course of the last two years.
So, which club would make sense for Bradley? His options fall into two distinct groups. He could receive and consider an offer from a top club in one of the big four leagues, the type of traditional power who expect an annual appearance in the Champions League. In that scenario, however, Bradley would likely need to wait for regular playing time, a situation for which his drive and temperament do not seem particularly well suited. Thus, the more likely option is a move to a larger club in England, Italy, or Germany, offering the chance of European football, along with an easier path into the starting XI on match day.
Below are what I would consider to be the most likely destinations for Bradley, should he move in the coming weeks. This isn’t necessary where I would like to see him, but clubs whose needs could be met by Bradley, and vice-versa. Am I missing a club?
Aston Villa – In 2009-10, 31 year-old Stilliyan Petrov shared central midfield duties with James Milner, the latter of whom was transformed by a move inside from the wing, and the subsequent license to roam forward. Yet it’s widely expected that Milner will be on his way to Manchester City (because they really need more midfield help), while Petrov’s time is limited. Considering manager Martin O’Neill’s preference for British players, a more natural move for Villa may be to pluck Scott Parker from West Ham. Yet with the excessive fees placed on homegrown players by EPL clubs, Bradley could be a younger, fiscally prudent solution. Villa continues to lurk outside the top four; they have the steady resources needed to compete for a spot in Europe; and to the extent it matters, they have a well-respected American owner in Randy Lerner. Villa would be a strong move for Bradley, and two years in the EPL could set him on his way to an even bigger club.
Liverpool – Liverpool have issues—serious, short-, medium- and long-term issues. What remains to be seen is just how deep the cuts will be over the next year. Chelsea is hot on the heels of Fernando Torres, but the key for Bradley is the future of Javier Mascherano. If the Argentinean bolts the Merseyside, Bradley could well become a viable option, with Lucas—the young Brazilian—remaining as the only central midfielder left on the roster with any proven ability (aside from Steven Gerrard, of course). Roy Hodgson likes bargains, and is more willing to look outside of the British Isles for talent than most of his compatriots—which is convenient, since Liverpool can’t afford young English players anyways. If Bradley is going to join a traditional power, Liverpool could be a prudent bet.
Blackburn – Could Ewood Park be Bradley’s English destination? Steven N’Zonzi certainly made his mark over the past year, starting 33 games at the heart of midfield. Question marks remain about his ideal partner, with the veteran David Dunn expected to compete with Keith Andrews. There is some young talent on the books, but if the Rovers opt for some steel beside N’Zonzi, Bradley would present a nice option.
Others – Chelsea and Manchester United aren’t yet realistic. I would give my left pinky for Bradley to join Arsenal, but the wealth of young midfielders makes such a scenario unlikely. Tottenham has Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddleston, who don’t seem to be moving any time soon. Birmingham has an aging core Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer, but Michel, the Spaniard who drew premature comparisons to Javier Mascherano, was purchased in January.
Werder Bremen – If Bradley stays in the Bundesliga, perennial Champions League participants Werder Bremen could be the most likely destination. It seems nearly certain that Bremen will lose the mercurial Mesut Ozil to one of his many suitors, supplying them with the cash to make at least two significant moves. There’s no doubt they need help. The ancient Torten Frings served as Ozil’s midfield partner, but his time is coming to an end. Bremen does have the option of Philip Bargfrede, another member of Germany’s promising youth movement who saw significant time a year ago. Beyond that, however, the cupboard is relatively bare. Bremen would offer Bradley a significant upgrade over Monchengladbach, and Bradley would likewise fill an area of need.
Hamburg – Hamburg presents a very interesting case. Ze Roberto somehow made it through 22 matches last season, despite being just shy of his 37th birthday. David Jarolim anchored the midfield, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30. Hamburg does boast quality young players like Tomas Rincon (though his natural position remains unclear) and Robert Tesche, though the loss of Jerome Boateng to Manchester City deprives the club of some flexibility. For Hamburg, the decision comes down to the amount of faith they have in the young players already with the club, and their sense of how much Roberto still has in the tank.
Bayern Munich – Without a few precursor moves, this isn’t likely. Yet Bastian Schweinsteiger’s play has made him a target for Chelsea (joining Fernando Torres?), which could leave a hole in the middle of the Allianz Arena. Mark van Bommel is 33, and in addition to burnishing his reputation as the most despised player in Europe, his long-term effectiveness must be in question. Furthermore, aside from Thomas Muller, Bayern isn’t blessed with wealth of riches in the talent pipeline. 31 year-old Anatolly Tymoschuk serves as the main cover in central midfield, and while Ramires, the young Brazilian, is on Bayern’s radar, a move for Bradley could be a realistic option for the German champions.
Others – Arturo Vidal and Stefan Reinartz look poised to be the focal point of the Leverkusen midfield over the next few years, so that doesn’t seem like an option; Nuri Kazim Sahin and Sven Bender will do the same for Borussia Dortmund. Stuttgart or Wolfsburg? While both would be modest upgrades, neither seems likely as a destination.
Palermo – Palermo will remain steady contenders for a European spot, and with an aging midfield corps, they may be a nice fit. The club occupies a position in Serie A reminiscent of those held by Aston Villa and Tottenham in England—usually just outside of the top four, but rarely lower than mid-table. Palermo prefers a 4-3-1-2, with Giulio Migliaccio getting the most time in the central midfield spot. He’s not entrenched in the position, however, sharing roles across the middle four with other aging players such as Fabio Liverani, Mark Bresciano, and Fabio Simplicio. Only Antonio Nocerino provides relative youth, and Bradley could have a chance to start right away.
AC Milan – At first glimpse, Milan could appear to be a stretch. Yet as we noted in our discussion of Clint Dempsey, the Rossoneri’s old guard is beginning to fade into the sunset. Andrea Pirlo will occupy a playmaking role for another few years, but Massimo Ambrosini and Gennaro Gattuso are nearing the end of their time at the San Siro. Mathieu Flamini has struggled to stick in the first XI since his move from Arsenal two years ago, and there’s little in the way of young talent ready to emerge, with Matteo Brighi (29) and Simone Perrotta (32) the principle options. A move to Milan could portend a slow integration into the lineup for Bradley, but would be an intriguing long-term proposition.
Others – Roma? I’d love to see it, but it doesn’t make sense until DeRossi or Pizarro move on. Napoli? The combination of Walter Gargano, Michele Pazienza and Luca Cigarini seem to have things set. Juventus? Felipe Melo became suddenly more difficult to move after his meltdown for Brazil against the Netherlands (although rumors of a move to Arsenal persist); Christian Poulsen isn’t slowing down; and Diego and Mohamed Sissoko continue to wait for their shot. Sampdoria? Too much young talent in the midfield.
I didn’t bother listing any Spanish clubs, since I don’t see Bradley’s skills translating as well in La Liga, where technical ability is prized over physicality and grit. So, what do you think? Thought you’d see more options? Surprised to see Bayern and Milan? Now watch him end up in France.
Well, for the second time in two weeks, Clint Dempsey is being linked to a big Italian club. Previously tipped to have caught the eyes of Napoli, it’s now being reported that AC Milan has set its sights on the American midfielder. Would such a deal make sense? Let’s have a look…
Milan’s Age Problems
As a new season dawns in Italy, the three traditional Serie A powers—Juventus, Internazionale, and Milan—all find themselves navigating through various periods of transition, with each having turned to a new manager in the past six weeks. For their part, Milan face critical decisions about the club’s long-term future, fighting the same affliction that plagued the Italian national team in South Africa—a lack of youth in the squad.
Of the seven midfielders and forwards seemingly in contention to start for the Rossoneri, only Alexandre Pato is younger than 28. In fact, the four preferred midfielders remain Andrea Pirlo (age 31), Genarro Gattuso (32), Massimo Ambrosini (33) and Clarence Seedorf (34). Thankfully for Milan, the defense is a bit younger, with the likes of Ignazio Abate (24), Thiago Silva (25), Luca Antonini (27), and—potentially—Oguchi Onyewu (28) taking over for legends Alessandro Nesta and Gianluca Zambrotta in the back.
Still, this is hardly a team built for the future, particularly when the players most frequently tipped as targets to move away from the club are Pato (still just 20) and Klass-Jan Huntelaar (26). Complicating the issue is that a club of Milan’s stature cannot afford to sit mid-table for a year or two while younger players are allowed to prove themselves. Missing the Champions League would be akin to disaster—for the club’s pride, its fiscal health, and Berlusconi’s ego—so a full-out youth movement is unlikely. Instead, a seemingly more sound strategy would be to invest in young players with high potential, while complementing them with players coming into their prime like Dempsey, who is both affordable and proven at the highest level.
Tactical Outlook—Would Dempsey Play, and Where?
Throughout 2009-2010, former boss Leonardo preferred to play some variation of a 4-3-3, with the most common wrinkle involving Andrea Pirlo or Clarence Seedorf stepping into a central attacking midfield role to form a 4-2-1-3. If Pirlo remained as part of the two-man shield ahead of the defense, he was joined by one of Massimo Ambrosini or Gennaro Gattuso. When Pirlo moved into the advanced attacking role, Ambrosini and Gattuso dropped back as the defensive cover.
The wing positions remained fluid. Playing from a 4-3-3, Ambrosini and Gattuso tended to line up as the wide midfielders, providing cover for Pirlo’s forays ahead. On the forward line, Ronaldinho, Pato, Seedorf, and Marco Borriello—who had 14 strikes in league play—rotated between the three spots, with Borriello typically lining up in the middle. With rumors continuing to circulate about possible departures for Ronaldinho, Pato and Huntelaar, along with concerns about Seedorf’s ability to remain injury-free for another season, there are clearly opportunities to be had for a hybrid midfielder/winger.
Tactically, it remains to be seen how Milan will line up for the coming season. New manager Massimiliano Allegri utilized the 4-3-1-2 almost exclusively at Cagliari over the past year. If that holds, one would presume that Milan would continue to use a combination of Pirlo and Seedorf in the playmaking role (with a possible cameo from Ronaldinho), with Pato and Borriello as the forwards. Still, there is a clear lack of cover—for injury or loss of form—throughout the attacking lines, so opportunities are there.
As usual, the Rossoneri have been linked with a number of sought-after players, with recent rumors involving moves for Keisuke Honda, the young Japanese midfielder who impressed in South Africa, and Luis Fabiano, the Brazilian striker who is reportedly keen to join Milan or Manchester United. Yet Honda would not come cheap, with CSKA Moscow likely looking to double or triple the €6 million transfer fee they paid for him a year ago, while Fabiano will be 30 by the winter break (and won’t be given away by Sevilla).
From the Milan perspective, Dempsey would seem to make a great deal of sense. They would get a battle-hardened veteran who has a penchant for scoring big goals, while he’s versatile enough to play in the midfield or provide cover up top, if needed. They wouldn’t be relying on an unproven commodity, and he could be theirs for a reasonable price (£12 being the rumor). Finally, with both Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu on the roster, Milan could continue building their foothold in the United States, a market they’ve long coveted.
From Dempsey’s perspective, there would be little downside. Milan wouldn’t make the buy if they didn’t believe he could contribute significantly for the next 2-3 years. There would be nothing in the way of a guaranteed starting spot, but depending on Allegri’s preferred formation, he would certainly be in contention for sustained playing time on one of the wings, with the aforementioned versatility also likely to earn some burn. With Milan looking to launch a sustained Champions League campaign, there will be no shortage of opportunities, particularly on this aging roster. With Milan looking to offload Huntelaar and—possibly—Ronaldinho, Dempsey would have an opportunity to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world in the prime of his career, and could get 20-30 starts a year in Serie A and the Champions League.
While I was initially skeptical, this is a deal that could make great deal of sense for both sides.
This week, lost amidst the countless reviews of the United States’ performance in South Africa, coach Thomas Rongen released the roster for the U-20 national team’s upcoming domestic training camp in California, part of their extended preparations for the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup qualifying. To the extent that deeper meaning can be found in the invites to a training camp that gathers a full nine months before qualifying is likely to begin, the roster seems to offer further evidence that young American players are continuing to stretch across the globe, choosing to develop at clubs throughout Europe and the Americas, rather than staying stateside.
If you’re unfamiliar with how international youth soccer works, there are World Cups held every two years at the U-17 and U-20 levels, while U-23 teams compete every four years to earn a spot at the Olympics (and the United States also fields a U-18 team). Unique to the United States, the U-20 squad is historically comprised of a mixture of college and professional players, all of whom in the current cycle were born after 1991.
What seems to be setting the current U-20 pool apart from its predecessors, however, is the number of professional players in the ranks who play abroad. There have always been a handful of young Americans playing overseas, such as Jonathan Spector and Jovan Kirovski at Manchester United, and Frank Simek and Danny Karbassiyoon at English rivals Arsenal. Yet the trend to move abroad early in the development process appears to be accelerating, and quickly.
Now, it’s important not to make too much of this one roster, since outside factors certainly help to dictate who will be available for any individual camp. A session in the summer months affords Rongen the opportunity to bring in foreign-based players who would otherwise be unavailable, due to the August-through-May schedule adhered to by most leagues outside of the United States. Furthermore, MLS teams are approaching mid-season, and are understandably unwilling to lose important young players for a routine national team training camp.
However, this roster does reflect a broader trend that first appeared last December with the cycle’s inaugural camp. Since then, the team competed in the 2010 Copa Chivas tournament in Mexico last January, the Dallas Cup in March, and the Cor Groenewegan Tournament in the Netherlands in May. As a result, the sample size seems large enough that we should be able to glean a decent understanding of how the player pool and potential roster is beginning to shape up.
The striking thing about the upcoming camp is the distribution of the professionals. Major League Soccer will have a lone representative in Conor Shanosky of DC United. On the other hand, eight players are based in Mexico, including a trio from C.F. Monterrey, while others will be travelling from Costa Rica, Brazil, and Portugal.
By my count, 10 MLS-based players have been involved thus far in the cycle (I could easily have missed one or two, since the official player pool on the US Soccer website is out of date). Included in the December camp were Moises Hernandez (FC Dallas Juniors), Cesar Zamora (Chivas USA), Juan Agudelo (New York Red Bulls), Tristan Bowen (LA Galaxy), Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union) and Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union). Brought in for the Copa Chivas were Michael Ambrose (FC Dallas), Bryan Gallego (New York Red Bulls), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), and Faud Ibrahim (Toronto FC). Up to this point in the cycle, that’s it.
The contingent from abroad, however, has been growing. Sebastian Lletget (West Ham United), Will Packwood (Birmingham City) and Cody Cropper (Ipswich Town) are based in England, following a path that has become relatively well worn in recent years, and they are joined by a growing diaspora on the continent. Samir Badr (FC Porto), Gale Agbossoumonde (SC Braga) and Greg Garza (Sporting Lisbon) are developing in Portugal, where Garza just played a part in Porto’s U-19 league title. In Germany, Parker Walsh and Bobby Wood are teammates at 1860 Munich. Elsewhere, Frabrice Picault (Cagliari Calcio) is in Italy; Erik Benjaminsen (Stabaek) is in Norway; Lester Dewee (Olympique de Marseille) is in France; George Pantelic (FK RAD Belgrade) is in Serbia; and Alex Molano (Dinamo Zagreb) is in Croatia.
Interestingly, the largest group of young Americans is clustered in Mexico. Justin Perez, Cristian Flores and Julio Cesar Castillo are all employed at C.F. Monterrey. They are joined by Victor Garza at Tigres; Ernest Nungaray at Monarcas Morelia; Roberto Romero at Cruz Azul; Adrian Ruelas at Santos Laguna; and Moar Salgado at C.D. Guadalajara. Further south, Ronald Mendrano Williams joins the squad from L.D. Alajuelense in Costa Rica, while Kevyn Batista represents South America, playing at Desportivo Brasil in Brazil.
Obviously there’s still a long way to go until final roster decisions are made, and there’s no doubt that Major League Soccer will be well represented on the final list, with players like McInerney and Okugo helping to lead the team into Colombia. Yet the growing trend of young American talent moving abroad is certainly something to watch. As this squad develops over the next eight months, it will be fascinating to watch how the makeup of the roster changes. The results will not just have an effect on the future of the National Team, but could also raise questions about the future of youth development in the United States.
Introducing a new feature, which may or not be repeated at any time in the future: Snap Judgment. With today’s juicy little rumor that Napoli are eying American stars Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, here’s a quick look at why it may–or may not–make sense.
First, some quick background. Napoli finished sixth on the Serie A table last season–above historic powers Juventus–and qualified for the Europa League. Unfortunately for Napoli, the success of Slovakia starlet Marek Hamsik (12 league goals) and Italian quasi-journeyman Fabio Quagliarella attracted wandering eyes from the rest of the continent. Hamsik has been alternatively linked with Manchester United, Manchester City and Inter, while Quagliarella is the subject of rumors involving a possible 25M-Euro bid from Russian champions Rubin Kazan.
Napoli endured and interesting 2009-2010 campaign, taking just four points from its first five matches before Roberto Donadoni was relieved of his managerial duties. New skipper Walter Mazzarri abandoned the 3-5-2 formation Napoli had opened the season with, opting for a modified 4-3-2-1/3-4-2-1, with Hamsik moving up into one of the attacking midfield spots. Quagliarella lined up as opposite attacking midfielder, or as the lone forward. The two combined with Ezequiel Lavezzi to form the main attacking thrust, and the loss of one–or both–would leave Napoli painfully short of offensive talent, reliant on Lavezzi and German Denis, the 28 year-old striker.
The move may well make sense for Dempsey. Despite the heights reached by Fulham over the last year, the sad truth is that the club is limited by its size. Without a significant influx of outside cash, it will be difficult to compete year after year for a spot in Europe. With an aging team and Roy Hodgson heading north to Liverpool, Fulham is more likely to find itself in a relegation battle than in a Europa League Final. Dempsey is in the prime of his career–he should be looking to play in Europe consistently over the next two-three years, and if Hamsik leaves, Napoli’s set-up seems tailor-made for his skills.
Altidore’s decision is more difficult. His most significant consideration must be to play for a team–and more specifically, a manager–who wants to help him learn. He needs consistent playing time, whether that means in Serie A or in the English Championship. He needs to be pushed in training, day in and day out, and have a backroom staff that understand his potential–and are willing to put up with his mild immaturity when it comes to practice regimens. If Altidore can get games for Napoli, a move could make sense.