I've been asked how much soccer I'll be watching in the next few weeks, with the Olympic Games kicking off Wednesday, a steady diet of MLS action, and the international club friendlies – those of the Herbalife Football Challenge and others – tossed into the mix.
Picking your spots is essential in these critical times, and though I’m obligated to watch the MLS All-Stars take on my favorite foreign club team -- which has been the case for the past 42 years for anyone who believes me to be a bandwagon jumper or Johnny-Come-Lately or both – I don’t have any real interest in seeing how the best MLS players – or a lot of them, in any case -- shape up against the best club team, at least officially, in Europe as of last May 19.
The irrelevance of the All-Star Game won’t sway those fans who want to see Chelsea in-person, just as was the case last week in Seattle to when it played the local team and at Yankee Stadium over the weekend to evaluate how it stacks up against another high-spending entity, Paris Saint-Germain, which is coached by one of the many men let go by Chelsea, Carlo Ancelotti. Alas, PSG’s biggest splash didn’t join up with the team in time to see The House That Jeter Built, but soon enough Zlatan Ibrahimovic will give us plenty to chew on.
MLS certainly wants a good TV rating (ESPN2, 8:30 p.m. ET) for its midsummer showcase event, and a closer final score than the past two editions in which, frankly, the MLSers got their fannies whomped by Manchester United: 4-0 last year, 5-2 in 2010. (In 2009, incidentally, new Red Bull signing Tim Cahill got the start and played 76 minutes in what ended as a 1-1 tie, which Everton won on penalty kicks, 4-3.)
The match of the day is, of course, Roma-Liverpool at Fenway Park (ESPN2, 6:30 p.m. ET), which won’t be the anticipated showdown of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, since Dempsey’s current club, Fulham, refuses to acknowledge that a formal bid has been made, much less accepted. But though Bradley joined Roma just last week, already the cyberworld is abuzz about how he’s adapting to the system of Coach Zdenak Zeman, finding his role alongside Daniele De Rossi and Francesco Totti, and preparing for his second season in Serie A after a very solid showing for Chievo Verona.
Regardless of where Dempsey winds up, he and Bradley are embarking on two of the most important seasons for any American players in Europe. Bradley, who turns 25 next week, is expected to be a linchpin for Roma, a storied club whose recent struggles haven’t lessened the expectations of its demanding fans or American owner, Thomas DiBenedetto. As an attacker in his prime (29), Dempsey’s next club will not see him as a project, but someone expected to produce quickly and consistently.
What’s the connection to the All-Star Game? Both Bradley and Dempsey started their careers in MLS and while Bradley left for Europe after two seasons with the MetroStars there’s no question their glittering achievements reflect well on their domestic origins. As they and dozens of others – such as Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron most recently,Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore and Tim Howard longer ago -- have demonstrated, starting in MLS and getting to Europe can be done.
Dempsey and Bradley are experienced pros who, as foreign players, are intently scrutinized every time they play and off the field as well. Fortunately, they have the temperaments as well as the talents to cope in a stressful environment, unlike a few other Americans who landed on their heads in Europe and eventually were forced to come home.
I like the Wednesday schedule because the lighter fare is served in the afternoon and evening after a big breakfast (or lunch depending on your time zone): USA-France (noon, NBCSN) in the opening match day of women’s Olympic play. Since Germany isn’t in this Olympics, the door is wide open for several teams to join heavyweights USA, Brazil and Japan among the medal contenders. Eight of 12 teams advance to the quarterfinals and just one upset could drop an upstart into the final. France played some great stuff last year at the Women’s World Cup before losing to the Americans, 3-1, in the semis.
Is Canada ready for prime time? Can Sweden, third-place finisher last year at the Women’s World Cup, go one step further? Is there a surprise team amongst the African or Asian contingents? How far can the homefield advantage push Britain? Has the young North Korean team that took its lumps last year at the World Cup improved sufficiently to emulate its quarterfinal showing at the 2007 competition?
The insanely crowded soccer schedule lists six women’s games for Wednesday and while I’m anxious to see the host team play New Zealand, want to get a good look at Brazil (which plays Cameroon), and will have to squeeze in some time to check out Japan-Canada, I’ll need some time away from the screen to rest up and recharge and refocus my eyeballs.
There are eight men’s matches Thursday. Let the Games begin!