Why US Soccer hasn’t progressed under Klinsmann

The US Men’s National Team scored a 3-2 win today in foggy Slovenia with goals from Edson Buddle, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore. A positive way to cap off their two-match trip to Europe which saw them lose to France 1-0 in Paris Friday.

Today’s result was probably an accurate reflection of the match, although one could certainly make the argument that Slovenia deserved a point after hitting the woodwork twice in the second half. But that line of thought would lead one to ignore the long stretches of possession and pressure the US held in the first half. That said, this is still not a US side capable of playing with Europe or South America’s biggest nations.

Many had thought that former coach Bob Bradley’s inexperience in the game outside of the US had hindered this side. Bob Bradley’s MLS-bred tactics were believed to be no longer compatible with a largely European based national team, led by Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, Chievo’s Michael Bradley, Sporting’s Oguchi Onyewu, and so on and so forth.

Enter Jurgen Klinsmann. The former World Cup winner, manager of the German National Team and Bayern Munich was charged with adapting the way the US play to fit the style of their many Europlayers.

This charge is one-half of the problem. Although the majority of the national team is European based, the side doesn’t have the technical ability (bar Dempsey, LA Galaxy’s Landon Donovan, and Bolton Wanderers’ Stuart Holden) to operate with a possession style of game (no matter how much this blogger would like to think it does).

Klinsmann has regularly opted for a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation, in which a target striker is left alone up top to be flanked (in theory) by wide attacking players and a creator playing slightly deeper into the midfield. The result of Klinsmann’s insistence on operating with a single striker is five goals in seven games. That stat is slightly misleading considering three of those goals came in today’s Match against Slovenia, in which Klinsmann reverted to a 4-4-2. So two goals in six games is a more accurate gauge of Klinsmann’s 4-3-3 experiment.

What this tells us is that the US do not have the supporting attackers to successfully support a lone striker. Or they don’t have a lone striker capable of operating on his own. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

Altidore has progressed leaps and bounds since his transfer to Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in the summer, looking like becoming the out and out striker the US have been desperately waiting for. But at 22 years old and just in the infancy of rehabbing his career from the bewilderment of his development at Villrreal and Hull City, he can hardly be expected to carry the brunt of the US’ attack.

Although Dempsey has turned into one of the Premier League’s best attacking midfielders, he’s Klinsmann’s only proven option in support at the moment. Donovan has been recovering from injury and focusing on his MLS playoff run for the past two months, Holden looks set to miss another four months with a knee injury after already losing the previous eight with another knee injury, and at 21 years old, FC Dallas’ Brek Shea may look like the star of the future, but his present is still rather inconsistent.

However, what may be Klinsmann’s biggest dilemma to this point is his midfield. His 2-4-1 record has been largely ignored amongst analysts and insiders because he’s still undergoing player evaluations. With no major tournaments to qualify for until next summer when World Cup qualifying starts, commend Klinsmann for taking his time to see what his best 11 is and in what formation. The biggest problem with his evaluations is that his midfielders are all the same.

Michael Bradley, who was an automatic selection under his father, seemed left out under Klinsmann (although just moving from Monchengladbach to Chievo, some believe Klinsmann wanted Bradley, a known quality, to settle in Italy before joining up with the Nats). With Bradley on the outside for the past few months, this allowed Rangers’ Maurice Edu, Schalke’s Jermaine Jones, Real Salt Lake’s Kyle Beckerman, and Hoffenheim’s Danny Williams to fight over the three midfield places in Klinsmann’s 4-3-3.

Each name on that list is a defensive midfielder by trade. Sure, Edu has progressed some while in Glasgow to be a threat going forward, Beckerman is the closest thing the MLS has to Xabi Alonso, and Williams can play anywhere on the pitch, but none of them are creators. In fact, even Michael Bradley has spent more time anchoring this US side’s midfield than driving it forward.

The biggest problem Klinsmann faces in evolving this US team is that he has no spark in midfield. He experimented today with moving Dempsey to a central role to aid this with some success. But the fact is this side sorely misses the impact of Holden, a player who may never be the same after a year out with knee injuries. Pachuca’s Jose Francisco Torres was an early favorite of Klinsmann’s, but a foot injury has left him on the sidelines for the past two months.

So if Holden never recovers and Torres never progresses past just the gobs of potential he has at present, where will the US get their spark? Those are two pretty far out questions to be asking some six months from the start of qualification, but they aren’t unreasonable. Players recovering from knee injuries have a history of being completely unpredictable as far as when or if their form will ever return. And the amount of young players with gobs of potential must outweigh proven playmakers 100:1.

It’s not difficult to see that injuries have ravaged this US team. Those injuries have limited player evaluations and slowed this team’s adjustment to Klinsmann’s game to a snail’s pace. It would be foolish to write off Klinsmann’s attempts at this early stage, but it seems strange so few creators have found their way into Klinsmann’s midfield.

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What’s in a name?

Newcastle supporters have had a lot to complain about since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007. His appointment of Dennis Wise as director of football, which subsequently led to the resignation of manager and fan favorite Kevin Keegan. The club being relegated in 2009 for the first time in 20 years. The £35 million sale of England striker Andy Carroll, seemingly with the funds being pocketed by Ashley.

But now it seems that Ashley has gone too far. What’s the latest “last straw” for Newcastle supporters? The renaming of their famous grounds, St. James’ Park. Ashley’s been working on selling the naming rights to the grounds for nearly three years now. In October of 2009, Ashley decided to name the stadium sportsdirect.com @ St. James’ Park, using his online sportswear retailer as naming rights holder in an effort to drum up interest in an outside group purchasing the rights.

This plan had not garnered the attention Ashley was hoping for, so this week he announced that the name St. James’ Park would be discarded all together. What was once St. James’ Park is now Sports Direct Arena. Again, Ashley using his sportswear retailer’s name to drum up interest in buying the rights to the entirety of the grounds.

“When we initially launched our plans at the end of 2009, we invited sponsors to attach their brand to that of St James’ Park,” Newcastle Managing Director Derek Llambias said. “However, it has become clear that in order to make the proposition as commercially attractive as possible, a potential sponsor must be given the opportunity to fully rebrand the stadium.

“Naming the stadium the Sports Direct Arena helps up to showcase the opportunity to interested parties. We are now actively seeking a long-term sponsor wishing to acquire full naming rights for the stadium.”

Considering this same strategy of using a dummy sponsorship deal to lure a real sponsorship deal has been unsuccessful for the past three years, I’m skeptical rebranding the grounds in its entirety will do much more, but I digress.

But are Newcastle supporters justified in their disgust over Ashley’s latest attempt at a money grab? After all, this is a club that plays in the Barclays Premier League, competes for the FA Cup with Budweiser and the Carling Cup, and runs around with Northern Rock plastered on the front of their shirts.

And selling naming rights isn’t that uncommon in the sport. Manchester City just sold the rights to Manchester Stadium for £400 million to Etihad Airways. In an effort to keep up with the mega money coming into the sport, Arsenal didn’t just sell the naming rights to Highbury Stadium. They turned the grounds into luxury flats, built a new 60,000-seat stadium a 10-minute-walk away, and sold the naming rights of that stadium to Emirates airline.

Roman Abramovich is trying to do the same thing at Chelsea. Abramovich tried to buy the publicly held Stamford Bridge from the supporters who purchased it in an effort to save the club in the 1990s in an effort to mimmic Arsenal’s plan and develop the current ground after moving to a new stadium. The Chelsea Pitch Owners declined Abramovich’s offer, and the naming rights for Stamford Bridge are expected to be sold beginning in 2012/13.

Some will argue that none of the clubs that have sold their rights have grounds with the tradition of St. James’ Park. I might disagree. Stamford Bridge is 108 years old, Arsenal up and left their home of 93 years at Highbury, and Liverpool have actively been looking for ways to get out of historic Anfield in order to turn more of a profit at a new stadium, which would undoubtedly sell its naming rights.

If Newcastle is ever going to compete with the big clubs, it has to put sentimental ideals like this aside and generate as much money as possible. Supporters need to determine what’s more important to them: the name of the stadium or having the old stadium at all. Because judging by other clubs, new stadiums with corporate names seem to be the way to go. Besides, soccer sold out many, many years ago.

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Smith out, Ryan in to rebuild Twins

The Twins announced today that they had parted ways with General Manager Bill Smith and had installed former GM Terry Ryan as the interim GM. Smith had taken over for Ryan when Ryan resigned from the position after the 2007 season.

Smith’s seat as Twins GM had grown hotter and hotter in the past 12 months. With one of the highest payrolls in the league, the Twins were once again swept in the American League Division Series by the Yankees in 2010. Smith’s task for 2011 was to move from perennial postseason candidates to perennial World Series contenders. His Twins went on to lose 99 games and recorded the worst record in the American League.

Considering the injuries the Twins endured in 2011, Smith’s firing may seem a touch harsh. However, payroll ballooned under Smith from $62 million in 2008 to $113 million last April. Based on Smith’s spending and the Twins results in the postseason and their monumental collapse in 2011, one could be led to believe that Smith spent wildly and on the wrong players. But that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.

Under Smith’s reign, All Stars Joe Nathan, Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, and Michael Cuddyer have all received contract extensions totaling $335 million. A hefty sum, but within the Twins organization, that amount can be justified by nurturing players in-house versus paying even further over the odds on the free agent market.

Some of Smith’s contracts have hamstrung the Twins. Paying any player $23 million a season will make it difficult for any team to install talent around him (bar the Yankees). Giving that money to Mauer, who’s had a career filled with nagging injuries, and you’re looking at 20 percent of your payroll tied up in one player, who happens to be on injured reserve.

However, that wasn’t necessarily Smith’s biggest problem. Smith also had a knack for getting fleeced in trades. Repeatedly. His first major action as GM in the early months of 2008 was to trade Johan Santana to the Mets for Carlos Gomez, Phil Humber, Deolis Guerra, and Kevin Mulvey. Gomez is now in Milwaukee, Humber with the White Sox, Mulvey is in the Diamondbacks’ Triple-A organization, and Guerra is in Twins Double-A ball.

Not long after that, Smith dealt the Twins’ hottest pitching prospect in Matt Garza (the man who Ryan wouldn’t include in the proposed Alfonso Soriano deal) as well as Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay for Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. Garza went on to win the 2008 ALCS MVP and Bartlett was named the Rays’ MVP of the same season by local sports writers. Young was dealt to Detroit this past summer for relief help and Harris was dealt to Baltimore (with JJ Hardy, whom the Twins received from Milwaukee for Gomez) after the 2010 season.

After Nathan was lost to Tommy John surgery prior to the 2010 season and the Twins looking poised for a deep playoff run, Smith decided that he would need a top-shelf closer. And so, he dealt the Twins’ sparkling catching prospect Wilson Ramos for the Nationals’ All Star closer, Matt Capps. As a rookie in Washington, Ramos has put up numbers that have only been matched by Mauer, Buster Posey, Craig Biggio, and Jason Kendall in the past 25 years. Matt Capps has accumulated 31 saves in 42 opportunities with an ERA of slightly higher than three, while his $7 million a year contract, which expired at the end of the season, leaves him unlikely to return to the Twins.

With a horrid 2011 in the rearview mirror, the Twins have anywhere between $30 million and $40 million to spend in free agency. They need help with their starting pitching, their bullpen, a middle infielder, and a catcher who can step up when Mauer will (frequently) need to be rested. On top of all those holes, they also could be set to lose Cuddyer, Nathan, Capps, and Jason Kubel via free agency.

So Ryan will step in less than a week after free agency has begun with the task of rebuilding this franchise. And for as much doom and gloom as I’ve spent the previous 650 words explaining, Ryan gives the Twins options. With Smith in the driver seat, the Twins were unlikely to trade to patch their holes. Under Ryan, the Twins could use their depth in back-end starting pitchers to acquire bullpen, catching, or middle infield help. Kevin Slowey and Nicky Blackburn are solid if unspectacular starters that could command the sort of patchwork help the Twins need.

The mess Billy Smith has made in the past four years will take time for Ryan to clean up. The cupboards are bare, the payroll is bloated, and there are lots of holes to fill (makes me wonder if Bill Smith and Doug Risebrough went to school together) in the major league clubhouse. But Ryan gives the team and its fanbase a reason to be optimistic.

Now all the Twins need is to somehow convince Ryan to remove the interim tag from his title.

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Valencia closes 2011 MotoGP season

The 2011 MotoGP season came to a close this afternoon in Valencia with one of the most exciting races of the year. A fitting way to conclude a largely forgettable and regrettable (barring Casey Stoner’s achievements) season. Funny, as it also concluded the 800cc era, which can be summarized just as the 2011 season has been.

Casey Stoner took the final 800 race by 0.015 second over Ben Spies after coughing up a near 10-second-lead. Spies managed to take the lead with a lap to go before Stoner retook the advantage out of the final corner. “When we came out of the last corner I got the paint sucked off the bike by Casey as he went past,” Spies said, hinting that Stoner’s Honda had “a bit more motor… down the front straightaway.”

Andrea Dovizioso took the final podium position and secured his third place in the world championship standings today after holding off and eventually leaving teammate Dani Pedrosa, who eventually finished fifth.

Much of the weekend’s drama came at the start, when a collision between Dovizioso and Alvaro Bautista sent Bautista, Valentino Rossi, Nicky Hayden, and Randy de Puniet into the gravel. Bautista claimed Dovi moved over on him and left him nowhere to go, Italian media outlets argued that it was Bautista who had turned into Dovi. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of those arguments. But the result was three Ducatis, who had looked more competitive than they had all season, packing up early from a wildly unpredictable race in conditions that played into the Ducati Desmosedici GP11.1’s hands.

Away from the on-track competition, there was on-track festivities to commemorate the life of Marco Simoncelli. The 24-year-old Italian who was killed at the Malaysian GP two weeks ago was remembered with a lap of honor featuring all riders from MotoGP, Moto2, and the 125s, all headed by 1993 500cc World Champion Kevin Schwantz, piloting Simoncelli’s Honda. What followed was a two-minute casino, at the request of Simoncelli’s father. Two minutes of fireworks and engines revving. Hard to imagine a better way to remember such a charismatic young man.

But with the close of a season and an era of which many will wish they could forget, a new chapter opens to the public on Tuesday when teams will return to the Ricardo Tormo circuit in Valencia (hangovers permitting) to test the new 1000cc machines for 2012. It will mark the first time that Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati have all had their 1000cc machines on track simultaneously and will give us a glimpse as to just how far ahead of everyone Honda are, and just how much ground Ducati have made up.

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World Superbike 2011: What Phillip Island’s taught us

The 2011 World Superbike season got underway this weekend in Australia at the most picturesque circuit in motorsport, Phillip Island.

This season stood to be one of the most interesting in the series’ recent revival. Reigning champion Max Biaggi returned with Aprilia, Ducati left only a shell of a factory effort in the series once nicknamed the “Ducati Cup” and left Carlos Checa with the keys. Yamaha brought in former MotoGP runner-up Marco Melandri and two-time World Supersport runner-up Eugene Laverty. Last season’s runner-up Leon Haslam moved from the underfunded Alstare Suzuki squad to the up and coming factory BMW team.

What that jumble of a paragraph is getting at is that World Superbike has seen an influx of new talent, a large amount of rider turnover, and all the young and promising Brits have another season of experience under their belts. To summarize, World Superbike now has a grid where a top 10 finish is a genuine accomplishment for a world championship caliber rider.

Even better, in that depth the series now has even more potential winners than its glamorous cousin, MotoGP, who many are saying has the deepest field of winners in decades. Essentially, in Leon Camier, Biaggi, Jonathan Rea, Checa, Troy Corser, Melandri, Noriyuki Haga, Laverty, Michel Fabrizio, and Haslam, World Superbike has the most exciting and unpredictable grid on the planet.

So what did we learn from round one?

First, Ducati may have pulled their official support, but Checa and his Althea Ducati squad are more than up to the task of picking up the slack with the few factory techs still hanging around. Checa dominated this week’s preseason tests before topping each free practice session, securing pole, and taking a comfortable double victory.

Second, Biaggi and Aprilia are back and just as strong as 2010. Phillip Island has been a bogey track for Biaggi with Aprilia, but a pair of second places indicates the Roman Emperor is up for the challenge of defending his brand new number one plate.

Thirdly, Yamaha have done extremely well in recruiting Laverty and Melandri. Many wondered if Melandri could ever rediscover the form he showed in his 990cc MotoGP career, or if his entrance into superbike racing would just be an extension of the misery he’s suffered since his ill-fated switch to Ducati in 2008. After spending most of preseason testing moping in positions that would lead you to believe it would be 800cc Melandri, he found some magic before race one and looks to be closer to his old self than ever. And Laverty, well, he’s impressed me more than Cal Crutchlow did at this point last season, if I’m honest.

Haslam’s move to BMW was meant to be the ticket he needed to adequately challenge for a championship. This weekend proved that it wasn’t going to be as easy as many predicted based on the S1000RR’s success last season. But Haslam managed to score a podium in race one despite a lack of grip and chatter issues, and added a top five in race two. When he gets adjusted to his new ride, the switch to BMW should offer what everyone thought it would, championship contending speed.

And the rest? Well, Jonny Rea must be eager to get out of Australia after pitching his CBR1000RR down the road a number of times throughout the week, as well as banging up his wrist, shoulder, ankle, and fingers in various offs. Still, a reasonable points haul considering his luck. So long as his injuries don’t slow him down too much throughout the season, he looks strong.

Nori Haga looked dangerous for spells aboard his new Pata Aprilia team. At his beloved Valencia, he could be up for stealing a win. Joan Lascorz showed glimpses of serious potential, but faded in both races. If he can show a bit more consistency as the season progresses, he could throw a spanner in the regular order towards the end. And it must be said that Leon Camier put in a gutsy ride. He may have only managed a couple of 13ths, but he did so with a suspected case of glandular fever, even getting sick in his helmet on a number of occasions throughout the weekend. Here’s hoping to a quick recovery, and a return to the front for Camier.

And now? We wait. We wait an entire month for the show to return to Europe. Well, the UK, but you get the point. A home round so early in the season should give us an insight in to how serious of contenders Haslam, Rea, Laverty, and Camier really are.

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West London’s new look: Transfer activity from Chelsea and Fulham

The transfer window closed just more than a week ago, and we are starting to see the effects of the big buys. Chelsea were the big spenders of this month’s transfer window in spending £75 million (including bonuses) on two players. Operating on a substantially smaller budget, Fulham brought in three players who will have an impact on the club’s top half aspirations for the second half of the season.

First, at Chelsea and the name on every broadsheet and tabloid back page a week ago was Fernando Torres. Chelsea broke the British transfer record and splashed £50 million on the Spanish striker who’s been out of form since a knee injury suffered last April. Good bit of business for Liverpool, who’ve likely gotten £15 million or so more than the player is worth.

“It’s a lot of money, but potentially worth it,” said The Times football correspondent, Matt Hughes. “I think long-term, he’s a replacement for [Didier] Drogba.” The problem with him being the heir to Drogba is what to do with both of them in the present. Chelsea have reverted to manager Carlo Ancelotti’s diamond midfield rather than the tried and tested 4-3-3 formation installed by Jose Mourinho. In Torres’ debut, Ancelotti’s diamond left the flanks empty, and the central of the park cluttered. To sum up, it was ineffective. Where Chelsea finds space for their new golden boy will be a difficult task for Ancelotti.

The second big name signing that arrived at Stamford Bridge this week was Brazilian David Luiz. Big name might not be the right phrasing, but you get my point. Luiz’s signing is as important to Chelsea as Torres’ is exciting. Chelsea have sorely missed Ricardo Carvalho, who was sold to Real Madrid in the summer, and that has been exacerbated by injuries to John Terry and Alex.

“I think it’s a good signing,” Hughes said. “Maybe slightly overpriced because it’s Chelsea.”

Luiz looks a like for like replacement for Carvalho, except perhaps slightly better in every department. In his 20-minute debut, Luiz looked composed, sharp, quick, intelligent and capable of carrying the ball forward. And at 23, could be the anchor of Chelsea’s defense for the next decade or more.

Of the players out the door at Chelsea, one of the most watched will be Gael Kakuta as he spends the remainder of the season on loan at Fulham. “He’s skillful and tricky and creative, which is one thing Fulham lack,” Hughes said. Kakuta is the 19-year-old French star at the center of FIFA’s investigation and ban (which was later overturned) of Chelsea’s transfer market activity after his former club, Lens, claimed Chelsea unsettled the player in order to secure his services. In other words, Kakuta is one of the brightest young talents in world football.

Fulham also added former Reading, Chelsea, and Aston Villa midfielder Steve Sidwell for a bargain £500,000. Sidwell anchored Fulham’s midfield against Villa on the weekend, breaking up opposing play and creating a fair few impressive passes and shots of his own. A player who was tipped to do little more than offer competition for Fulham’s present central midfielders Dickson Etuhu and Jonathan Greening, Sidwell looks set to displace both as a regular starter if he can continue his run of form.

Fulham also added former Chelsea, Barcelona, and Tottenham forward Eidur Gudjohnsen on loan from Stoke for the remainder of the season. Gudjohnsen isn’t likely to be more than a supporting player for Fulham, but his addition means a side that has looked relative toothless since the injury to Bobby Zamora in September, now has a wealth of options in attack. Gudjohnsen joins Moussa Dembele and Andy Johnson, both returning from injury, and Zamora, who should return to action by the end of February, as out-and-out striking options. Further, the addition of Kakuta means Fulham have another versatile goal scoring threat from midfield in addition to, Fulham’s most valuable player this season, Clint Dempsey.

Six weeks ago, Fulham were in a relegation fight. Since then, they’ve climbed to 12th in the Premier League. With these additions, Fulham should climb into the top half by season’s end. And European places, although a long shot, aren’t out of the question.

As for Chelsea, their weekend loss to Liverpool likely signaled the end of their title pursuit. However, the remainder of the year should be used to sort out how to effectively use Drogba and Torres simultaneously so long as they aren’t in danger of falling out of the Champions League places. Given the talent of that side, and Ancelotti’s prowess, that should be a no-brainer. But this season has gone anything but to plan for Chelsea.

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What’s wrong in West London

Although the Premier League table may say otherwise, there are no two clubs in the division playing worse football than Fulham and Chelsea.

Chelsea ended October as league leaders and were six points clear of their closest challengers. In that impressive first third of the season, Chelsea won eight, drew once and lost once, scoring 27 goals and conceding 3. Since the start of November, they’ve won just one of eight, drawing three times and losing four more, only managing 5 goals and conceding 12.

Fulham have not suffered the fate of two seasons. Theirs has been a rather monotonous, succession of mediocrity. In 18 games, the Cottagers have won just twice. Both wins came against fellow relegation-battlers Wigan and Wolverhampton. In that span of time, Fulham have averaged less than a goal a game.

So what’s in the Evian in West London?

For Chelsea, it’s a club undertaking massive personnel changes while attempting to defend a league title. The losses of Ricardo Carvalho, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Deco, and Juliano Belletti were only softened by the purchases of Yossi Benayoun and Ramiers, and the addition of academy players Josh McEachran, Gael Kakuta, Patrick van Aanholt, and Jreffrey Bruma.

Benayoun only featured in three matches before a torn Achilles ruled him out until the end of March, and Ramiers has looked astonishingly poor since his £18 million switch from Benfica.

Meanwhile the youth movement has had mixed results. Kakuta has shown glimpses of what scouts saw in the French prodigy, but he’s looked immature and out of place more often than not, while Bruma has only been used in defensive emergencies and his performances did little to inspire confidence.

McEachran has been the bright spot of the lot, but at 17, he can’t be relied upon to pick up all of the slack of players like Cole and Ballack. van Aanholt has also looked like a player ready to step into the side. Unfortunately for Chelsea, widely-heralded as the best left back in the world, Ashley Cole already occupies that position.

What Chelsea need is new faces. Players with the ability to change the game. It’s been nearly three years since Chelsea did anything close. Their addition of Nicolas Anelka in January 2008 was not seen unanimously as a game changer.

It’s nearly a certainty manager Carlo Ancelotti will add a central defender in January. The question is, how big of a gamble do they take? Gary Cahill of Bolton could step in and deputize respectfully for Alex, but at 25 and with only one cap for England, he may not be to Chelsea’s standard. Especially not at £15 million. Benfica’s David Luiz is the player with the most upside, but at £30 million and unfamiliar with the English game, it’s a pretty high-risk move. Roma’s Philippe Mexes offers a more tested option, and with only one year remaining on his contract, could prove to be the economical choice.

Past the defending, nothing is out of the question for Chelsea. They are in desperate need of creativity and goals. Some will argue the return of Frank Lampard is all the creativity and goal-scoring Chelsea need. Perhaps, but that won’t change the form of Anelka, Kakuta, Salomon Kalou, or Florent Malouda. Since Malouda has cooled off (zero goals, one assist in his past nine games), Chelsea have lacked any and all flair and trickery to complement the power of Didier Drogba. If they’re serious about retaining the Premier League title, Chelsea need to add a true game changer to flank Drogba.

For Fulham, the solution is pretty obvious, but the questions are rather confusing. The injuries to Bobby Zamora and Moussa Dembele have decimated Fulham’s attacking options. Recently-fit Andy Johnson and habitual Fulham reserve Eddie Johnson simply have not been able to stand in for Zamora and Dembele. The over-reliance on midfielders Zoltan Gera and Clint Dempsey has been glaringly obvious, scoring two goals or more on just on occasion since Zamora’s injury.

A proven striker is what Fulham need more than anything. However a central midfielder would be close behind. Danny Murphy looks to have lost a step from last season (which is saying a lot as he was nearly 33 a year ago) and Dickson Etuhu has been a near disaster this season. If there is any consolation for Fulham, it’s that its defense has been only worrying compared to the midfield and front line’s calamitous reputations. The return of Philippe Senderos from injury in February should allow more flexibility at the back to allow Aaron Hughes to cover for John Pantsil, Carlos Salcido, Stephen Kelly, or Chris Baird (whichever is playing most suspect at that time).

The solution at both clubs is the same (past spending money). Give the managers time.

Ancelotti is a proven winner, he picked up two Champions League trophies with Milan, one of which was at the beginning of their penny pinching days. If Chelsea is serious about building a perennial championship contending team (you know, like they had when Mourinho was in charge), they need to give Ancelotti time to build a squad in his image. Ancelotti should be given until this time next season.

Hughes should also be given time over at Fulham. However, the circumstances are more dire, meaning Hughes won’t have the luxury of another year of patience. Hughes will likely be given another week. If Hughes fails to produce three points from the next three matches (away to Stoke, away to Tottenham, and home to West Brom), he will likely be sent packing. What’s in Fulham’s best interest is to support whoever manages the club in January and allow him to improve an aging and mediocre squad with funds appropriate for this league (that would be more than £10 million, Mr. Al-Fayed).

The biggest difference between the two: If Chelsea fail to improve, they’ll have a furious Russian owner with questionable character. If Fulham fail to improve, they’ll be relegated. For both these West London clubs, it’s do or die.

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The 10 best albums of 2010

As 2010 comes to a close, I’ve collected the 10 best albums of the year. A lot of people have told me this was a pretty weak year musically, but I have to disagree. I’ve compiled 10 albums that all have at least 30 listens through on my iTunes and who knows how many more on my iPod. Beyond this list, there were great releases from Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, The Dead Weather, Brandon Flowers, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, Hot Chip, and The Roots. Not a shabby list, I must say.

With that, here are the 10 best albums of 2010.

10. Yeasayer Odd Blood

Yeasayer’s follow-up to their debut All Hours Cymbals resulted in multiple singles amongst indie circles in the first half of 2010. Perhaps the most eclectic album of the list, Odd Blood continues on the run of pop-synth success but leads off the album by exploring the darker side of electronica with “The Children.” An up and down listen, but enjoyable the whole way through.

Key track: “Ambling Alp”

9. Jeremy Messersmith The Reluctant Graveyard

Another sophomore release makes it to number nine on the chart, with Jeremy Messersmith’s follow-up to The Silver City. Messersmith stormed the Twin Cities music scene in 2008 with his Elliott Smith-like vocals, but The Reluctant Graveyard signals a departure from the desperate sound of Smith. Hints of The Beach Boys can be heard in the first single, “Violet,” while “Lazy Bones” and “Dillinger Eyes” give us a glimpse of what Messersmith is capable of in a pop sound. But his bread and butter remains in haunting melodies like “John The Determinist.”

Key track: “A Girl, A Boy, And A Graveyard”

8. Phantogram Eyelid Movies

Phantogram’s debut album is possibly the most fun album to listen to on the chart. Radio friendly “When I’m Small” gives us a taste of what this New York-based band is all about and “As Far As I Can See” keeps your head nodding perhaps better than any other track on the album. Phantogram closes out with “10,000 Claps,” an experimental track that has the ability to calm even the most coffee-fueled stresser.

Key track: “Mouthful Of Diamonds”

7. Sleigh Bells Treats

Sleigh Bells are probably the most hyped debut act of 2010, and Treats didn’t disappoint. Listening at proper volume, or at a live show, Sleigh Bells should cause your ears to bleed. But the king and queen of noise pop will leave you at least smiling while bloodied. “Tell ‘Em” is a statement of intent to kick off the album, and it never slows down.”Kids” and “Infinity Guitars” further illustrate how intense and fun this band really is. Easily the best combination of volume and ingenuity of 2010.

Key track: “Crown On The Ground”

6. Dessa A Badly Broken Code

The first full-length release from the Doomtree star and former slam poet was a smash hit amongst indie hip hop circles in the US. The best lyricist on the chart, Dessa catches your attention with her poetry seamlessly intertwined with beats that are hard not to nod your head to no matter how stoic you want to look. The lyrics are most beautiful in “Children’s Work” and the beats are most infectious in “Dutch.”

Key Track: “The Chaconne”

5. Gorillaz Plastic Beach

The most adventurous album yet from Gorillaz, Damon Albarn has enlisted the likes of Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mos Def, and a handful of other hugely famous artists to guest on tracks from start to finish. Plastic Beach’s first single, “Stylo,” is probably the most catchy Gorillaz single since… well, their last album, but great nonetheless. Snoop’s cameo on “Welcome To The World Of The Plastic Beach” gives you the impression that this is still a Gorillaz album based in hip hoppy goodness. While “White Flag” features the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music and pushes the boundaries of what is possible for this band. Think Albarn’s take on George Harrison’s obsession with Indian instruments.

Key track: “Rhinestone Eyes”

4. Gayngs Relayted

Quite likely the most interesting release of 2010, think smooth jazz/easy listening goes electronic. Add a beat here and there and you get Gayngs. You can find yourself hypnotized by the vocals in “No Sweat” and “Crystal Rope” and just as easily bewildered and enthused by the accompanying synth sounds. In Relayted, Gayngs has released the baby making music for 2010.

Key track: “Gaudy Side Of Town”

3. Atmosphere To All My Friends, Blood Makes The Blade Holy

As one of the leading acts in indie hop hop, Atmosphere is no stranger to being high up charts. But To All My Friends is easily the greatest release from the Minneapolis-based act. The piano and guitar pieces of “The Major Leagues” and the aggressive and humorous lyrics of “Commodities” make it hard not to nod your head with a wry smile. And that really applies to the entire album, although the wry smile may turn genuine.

Key track: “Scalp”

2. The National High Violet

The latest release from The National is the best haunting electric guitar album in quite some time. Like Interpol or Bright Eyes, but better. Matt Berninger’s voice will seduce you in “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and from there, you’re at the mercy of High Violet. “Afraid Of Everyone” is perhaps the most catchy track on the album in a haunting way, but still isn’t the best. High Violet is where you can find the best track of 2010, “Conversation 16.”

Key track: “Conversation 16”

1. Arcade Fire The Suburbs

The undisputed album of the year, The Suburbs has everything you could want from an album. A track to rock out to in “Month Of May,” a track to get you ready to rock out in “Ready To Start,” and everything you’d expect from Arcade Fire in tracks like “City With No Children” to successful experiments in “Sprawl II.” It’s hard to tell you what’s good in this album. There is really something for everyone in here, no matter your tastes.

Key track: “We Used To Wait”

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World Cup host selections 2018 and 2022

FIFA announced Thursday that Russia will host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar will host the 2022 World Cup.

The announcements weren’t complete shots in the dark, as both Russia and Qatar were amongst the favorites going in to the voting. However, both nations had serious question marks looming over their bids. Allegations of corruption within England and Spain regarding the Russian bid have made the rounds for weeks now. And Qatar will need to build many stadiums and training centers in the next 12 years.

Perhaps more shocking than the selections of Russia and Qatar, has been just how poorly favorites England and the US faired. England, the bookies’ favorites coming in, received only two votes and were knocked out of the first round. The bid from the Netherlands and Belgium received four and they were at 50/1 winners compared to England on less than even money.

The US was outvoted in the early rounds by Japan and Korea, hosts merely eight years ago. Eventually the US bid made the final round of voting, but was beaten by 6 votes of 22 available.

Clearly, there was some overconfidence within the England and US camps, but why? The FA is confident, bordering on arrogant, regarding everything. So this isn’t a major surprise. But surely it would have only taken a decent bid to win with the infrastructure already in place and such passion for the game.

And the US, really, why the overconfidence? I’ve never really understood why US Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati remains in charge. He’s failed to attract a top-level manager for the national team and it’s stagnated in the past World Cup cycle and failed to attract a World Cup. Time for a change.

What’s really sad in all of it has been the reaction of soccer media in the US. One of the most respected bloggers on the subject in the US, Ives Galarcep, said the following on Twitter after the announcement:

“I apologize in advance 4 my language since I keep it clean on here usually, but 2 quote Kanye West, this is ‘Fucking Ridiculous’#SoAppalled,” “Whether it’s Jose Mourinho, Jason Kreis or Caleb Porter, whoever coaches USA in 2022 better put up a five spot on Qatar in group play.” and “I would have said more than a five-spot but considering it’ll be two thousand degrees, may be tough to score more than five on Qatar.”

What’s worse, was the response of US star Landon Donovan on Twitter, “I have an idea..we play Qatar in a friendly(they can even host it), and the winner gets to host the 2022 WC..wait, do they even have a team?”

Sure, as a fan of the US National Team and current England resident, I was bummed to hear the news. And sure, I blasted FIFA over their decisions amid corruption (you can read those bits on twitter, @austinlindberg). But it’s time to grow up, guys. Everyone knows there’s at least a hint of corruption within FIFA, but that’s the way it is. No sense in blasting Russia and Qatar over it.

Because when it comes down to it, Russia and Qatar will put the necessary effort into making their World Cups a success. No one wants to be remembered as the host nation of an awful World Cup. And in the case of Qatar, the spectacle of the whole thing will be a lot of fun to watch.

So settle down. Even if the US was hosting in 2022, it wouldn’t make much difference. Their home matches against the world’s best are usually better-supported by away fans, anyway.

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