Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Arena's Challenge -- I was in New York this past weekend. I missed both of United's games, so I won't insult anyone's intelligence by writing about games I haven't seen. When I was in New York, I did have the displeasure of watching the New York Red Bulls take on the Columbus Crew. I thought I'd write about the monumental challenge that Bruce Arena has taken on in coaching the Red Bulls. The former D.C. United and U.S. national team coach has a long row to hoe.

The Red Bulls played most of the game with a man advantage, but you wouldn't have known it watching the game. They were rarely dangerous, and they were disorganized. They were mostly plodding, unimaginative and not especially skilled. Despite getting every break possible, it seemed that the Red Bulls were destined for an unearned scoreless draw. There was very little to hold one's interest in the game, except that it was a delight to hear the best broadcast team: J.P. Delacamera and Shep Messing. Still, I found there were two players worth discussing here.

The Red Bulls have the most famous player in the league, Youri Djorkaeff. One of the real stars of the 1998 World Cup champion France team, Djorkaeff may not be a household name here, but he is known throughout the world. With the New York team, Djorkaeff has had some memorable moments, including a brilliantly taken free kick for a goal in the opener against United earlier this year. But, he poses a real challenge for Coach Arena.

During Saturday's game, Djorkaeff played like one who is convinced his teammates are of little help -- that he, and only he, can be relied upon to make anything happen. Djorkaeff repeatedly held on to the ball far too long, trying to create chances on his own, when there were better options available. Attack after attack fizzles at Djorkaeff's feet. But, how does Bruce Arena coach the French star to do things differently? Djorkaeff is playing out the string, winding up a proud career. Right now, he is bigger than the coach, bigger than the team.

On the other end of the career spectrum is the Red Bulls' 16-year old Jozmer Altidore. A Jersey native, and the son of Haitian immigrants, Altidore has been a sensation on the United States Under-17 youth national team. In the second half of Saturday night's game, the kid got his first taste of MLS' play. Josey made all the right moves, playing with the poise of a much more experienced veteran.

His big moment came unexpectedly. Taking the ball about 35-40 yards from goal, Altidore created a little space for himself as he drove towards the goal. He surprised everyone in the stadium with a well-struck right-footed drive to the upper right corner of the goal, from about 28-30 yards out. His sudden strike for goal showed the confidence, imagination, intention and skill that a top player must have. This was no garbage goal, cleaning up a loose ball around the goal -- nor was it a mere finish to an attack created by another. This play was all Josey.

One good shot and 30 minutes in one game does not make a career, but Altidore showed enormous potential and poise. As he gets a little older and develops the fitness he will need to play 90 minutes regularly, Altidore may become one of the best American players. For now, he is as he described: "I'm 16. I'm just having fun, man."

Here's hoping soccer stays fun for Jozmer ("Josey") Altidore -- for a long time to come. If he can maintain that enthusiasm, even as he learns the work habits of a top-level professional, Altidore will be something really special. He'll be only 20 when the next World Cup rolls around, but he may merit serious consideration for a place on the team. And he is the kind of player the Red Bulls can build around -- at least until he is discovered by top European clubs.

I'd like to propose that the MLS consider a novel arrangement. Right now, the MLS is stifling the development of top American players in refusing to transfer their contracts to interested European clubs. Instead of battling with its players, the MLS can work with them. With the players' agreement, the MLS can sign them up for long-term rights deals, and loan them out to the European clubs for extended stays -- perhaps with options up to five years -- long enough to interest the European clubs, who would be taking the risk that the American player will take to the European game.

I think the Clint Dempseys of the world would agree to such an arrangement, committing them to return to the MLS while they are still at the peak of their game, while providing them the chance to develop their potential in the top European leagues...and earning the large salaries that players in Europe can command. MLS would benefit because they would get these players back while they are still at the peak of their powers.

In the long run, the level of play in the MLS would surely benefit from such an arrangement -- and that would be the best thing that could happen to the league. If the league can find a way to grow the talent to avoid more games like the Red Bulls-Crew affair, the crowds will come out consistently, even as the ticket prices inevitably rise. TV ratings will also go up. It would be great if the league could raise its level of play, all on its own. But that's just not going to happen. A cadre of Americans skilled and trained in European play would be the biggest shot-in-the-arm that the league can get.

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