Gus Johnson is good for soccer, Donovan's future, more mail
Been doing a lot of MLS reporting this week for SI's upcoming season previews, so let's do a Mailbag:
What did you think of Gus Johnson calling Real Madrid-Manchester United?
-- Everyone I've talked to in the last 24 hours
Maybe it's a slow news week in American soccer, or maybe this was just a big story in itself, but from a mainstream sports perspective the debut of Johnson on Fox Soccer got a lot of attention. I work for Fox Soccer, so keep that in mind, but I thought Johnson made a solid debut Wednesday. Was he perfect? No. (Ryan Giggs isn't English; goaltending isn't a soccer term; he needs to anticipate plays a bit better.) But Johnson didn't make any colossal errors, and there were times he got the call just right as a scoring chance was building. He was also better than soccer newbie Dave O'Brien ever was during his ill-fated foray into ESPN's play-by-play calling during World Cup 2006. Simply put, Wednesday's game was something Johnson can build on as he does more and more games.
The Gus Experiment appears to be a long-term project for Fox Sports as it builds toward World Cup 2018. Bottom line: He has to be good. But sometimes I think hardcore soccer people in the U.S. treat the sport as a sort of underground band and somehow resent it when that band has a chance to draw a bigger audience. Isn't that a good thing for the sport here? If Johnson can help bring new fans to soccer in the U.S., I'm all for it.
When will U.S. Soccer announce the locations for each of the home Hex games?
-- Paul Seifert
U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati indicated to reporters in Honduras last week that it wouldn't be too long before there would be an announcement. But on Monday this week I reported on Twitter that (per a source who has been 100 percent solid in the past) USSF was aiming to host the remaining qualifiers in Seattle (June 11 vs. Panama); Salt Lake City (June 18 vs. Honduras); Columbus (Sept. 10 vs. Mexico) and Kansas City (Oct. 11 vs. Jamaica). U.S. Soccer is a stickler about not making official announcements until contracts are signed, but all signs are pointing to these venues. The sites make sense. The federation has long wanted to put a game in front of the boisterous crowds in Seattle. Salt Lake City is nearby (which prevents major travel from Seattle) and a good alternative to Portland, which is refusing to put down a temporary grass field. Columbus is a house of horrors for Mexico over the years, and the U.S. has also had success in Kansas City, one of the nation's best new soccer stadiums. Pro-U.S. crowds should be the case in all four games, too.
More of a comment than a question re: American announcers. I think the general problem regular viewers of the Premier League or Champions League have with some American announcers is the phrases they use. I've heard countless times an American announcer call a pass "service" or the phrase "in the six" over and over again among others. No one else says things like this, it's unfamiliar to the sport (if one is watching a match on TV, the announcers then become part of the sport, too) and thus seems out of sync. By the way, I think Warren Burton did a pretty good job as a counter to Johnson. Not a bad start. Whereas with O'Brien, we knew right away. Good Lord we knew.
-- KC Alvano, Alexandria, Va.
Who do you fancy to be Chelsea's next manager?
Well, it sounds like Borussia Dortmund's Jurgen Klopp is planning to stay in Germany for now, which would take away the guy I think Roman Abramovich might want the most after Pep Guardiola decided to go to Bayern Munich. Would you believe it if I think José Mourinho might be the guy to come back to Stamford Bridge? I know Mourinho's departure from Chelsea got ugly back in the day, but it's clear that Mourinho is on his way out of Real Madrid and clear that he wants to go back to England. It looks like it could be a battle between Chelsea and Manchester City for Mourinho's services.
What is the most impressive individual performance you've seen in person?
Great question. Maybe it's because Real Madrid-Manchester United Champions League games are fresh in my mind, but it would be hard to top Ronaldo (Fenomeno)'s hat trick in their epic 2003 Champions League showdown at Old Trafford. It happened to be my first visit ever to Old Trafford, and I remember everything about the trip: sitting down with Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane on the day before the game; having Ferguson ask for Freddy Adu's phone number and meeting famed referee Pierluigi Collina at a Manchester restaurant. But nothing would top the game itself, in which Ronaldo scored three great goals in a match that included Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, David Beckham, Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Keane, Ryan Giggs, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Fernando Hierro, Guti, Fabien Barthez and the list goes on. The game's final score was 4-3 United, but Real Madrid went through on a 6-5 aggregate. My favorite single moment was when Ronaldo came off in the second half and got a standing ovation from the Manchester United faithful. I'm getting chills just thinking about it.
When would Landon Donovan have to return for him to realistically be called in for the Azteca? Or is it already unrealistic he won't be called in for the Azteca?
-- Theodore Eison
The more days that pass without Donovan on a field somewhere, the less likely it is that he'll be an option for the U.S.' two World Cup qualifiers next month (March 22 vs. Costa Rica in Commerce City, Colo., and March 26 at Mexico). L.A. coach Bruce Arena said last week that Donovan will be back with the Galaxy within a couple of months, which suggests he may not be ready for the start of the MLS season on March 2. Obviously, Donovan has to be playing in MLS if he's going to be considered for the national team, but that's not a slam dunk, either. There's always the possibility that Jurgen Klinsmann may not want Donovan back considering he hasn't been very involved with the team over the past year.
Maybe I've been naive, but I'm taking the news of all the match-fixing pretty hard. How have you coped with it given the current state of FIFA and the void of regulation of international online betting?
-- Keith Stewart
I think it's actually a good thing that EUROPOL announced last week that it had investigated some 680 games worldwide that were suspicious in terms of match-fixing. For starters, it's high time that a body with real investigative teeth started taking match-fixing seriously. And for anyone who has read Declan Hill's book The Fix, not much was very surprising in EUROPOL's findings. Maybe this will be what it takes to convince the Singaporean government to heed INTERPOL's international arrest warrant for suspected match-fixing kingpin Dan Tan and bring him to justice in Europe.
What are the chances we see Brek Shea, DaMarcus Beasley or even Josh Gatt in the March WCQs?
-- Christian Arevalo
If I were the coach, I would make sure there was more of a wide midfield presence than we have seen on recent U.S. squads. By using so many central midfielders, Klinsmann has expected almost all of the U.S.' width to come from the fullbacks, and it's not working out very well at all. I'd bring two of the three guys from above in for the March games, not necessarily to start them but at least to have them as options for a Plan B to come on during the game.
Who do you think that has to be the starting forward for Real Madrid vs. Manchester United at Old Trafford? Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuaín? I really think that neither of them is playing at a high level right now. And also in the defense I don't like Álvaro Arbeloa as a starter. I like Sergio Ramos better in his place as a fullback, with Pepe and Raphael Varane as center backs. Who do you think has to be the starting lineup?
-- Diego Espinoza
I like your points. With Pepe returning to form and Varane showing he has the chops to compete at this level at age 19, I'd move Arbeloa out, put Ramos at right back and use the other two in the central defense. As for center forward, Mourinho has a real problem right now with neither Higuaín nor Benzema in form. I tend to prefer Higuaín, but I suspect Benzema will get the start again at Old Trafford.
Who is your Champions League pick to win it all?
Barcelona, but people are ignoring how amazingly good Bayern Munich is right now.
I am a huge Brazil fan. How ready will they be for World Cup 2014? Will not being favorites help them?
-- Ashur Sada
My sense all along on Brazil 2014 is that it will be like Brazil itself: Incredibly fun but sort of disorganized. And honestly, that's OK with me. As for the Brazilian team, Big Phil Scolari has his work cut out for him. It's fascinating to me that Ronaldinho is back in the picture as a sort of wise, fatherly presence to the younger players. (I'm not kidding.) But the pressure will be highest on players like Neymar and Oscar to produce on home soil. Let's see how things go during Confederations Cup this summer. I could see Brazil doing well (they've won the last two Confed Cups, after all), but that might only make things tougher in the year ahead expectations-wise.