By Neil W. Blackmon
Coasting past the international break, a busy week of EPL action and the first half of the Champions League quarterfinals, we’ve reached the “this time it’s for the money” part of the European schedule. That makes for an exciting weekend overseas, and one that will definitely impact the future of several clubs featuring Americans. Meanwhile, MLS sides are shaking off the early season cobwebs and rounding into form, and this weekend has at least a pair of matches that make it the most interesting week on the schedule to this point—which is fitting given that the week has been a banner one for the league, with Real Salt Lake advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League final in dramatic fashion in Costa Rica Tuesday evening. All in all, plenty of reasons to stay on the couch or head to your favorite soccer pub this weekend, and we hope this “Americanized” viewing guide helps you focus your viewing and rooting interests.
THREE NOT TO MISS
West Ham United at Bolton Wanderers, 10 AM ET, Saturday—I get it, there’s no American involved outside of probably bench-bound Jon Spector in this fixture (player at least—fans like President Barack Obama and our Jon Levy are deeply invested) with Stu Holden out and Sebastian Lletget flying back to East London for more reserve games after a sterling display of poise and skill in Guatemala the last week and a half, but clubs fighting relegation is where the most fascinating soccer lies abroad this weekend, and as such this is one of three matches you’ll want to keep an eye on. The other two fixtures that will critically impact the relegation fight this weekend do involve Americans (Tim Howard’s Everton at Marcus Hahneman’s Wolves, 7:45 AM, ESPN 2, Saturday and MB 90 and Brad Friedel’s Aston Villa hosting Newcastle United Sunday morning), but both those games will likely be decidedly negative in terms of tactics and style of play, whereas Bolton-West Ham promises at least the best shot at appealing, attacking, goals galore soccer.
There’s more at stake for the Hammers, clearly, but Bolton are within sneezing distance of the sixth and final spot in Europe (assuming an already qualified side win the FA Cup), and they’ll likely expect full points against a relegation threatened West Ham side. Owen Coyle’s side have missed Stu Holden since his horrific injury, but they still feature two of the league’s more underrated attacking options in Kyle Davies and Johan Elmander, who has been the subject of much summer transfer rumor mill fodder in the past week, with elite sides such as Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal said to be among those lurking. With Liverpool hosting suddenly hot Manchester City Monday night, Bolton can move within two points of the Reds Europa spot with a win and a Steven Gerrard-less Liverpool defeat. Those stakes alone would merit mentioning this match, but the real story is on the other side of the pitch.
West Ham’s collapse last week against Manchester United, while certainly a large-scale failure, was not necessarily something you can’t deal with. Sure, you never want to blow a two goal lead—but at the same time, Manchester United is Manchester United and these things happen and normally you can tolerate it even when it’s tough to accept. This time, however, it was a very difficult pill for the Hammers to swallow given that at least a pair of their relegation rivals managed full points. The largest benefactor of the West Ham collapse: Birmingham City, who earned full points over Bolton at St. Andrew’s and jumped all the way to 15th position. Victories by Fulham and West Brom nearly eliminated each of them from relegation discussion, while Aston Villa earned a crucial point at Goodison Park. Even Jermaine Jones and Blackburn Rovers, winless in over a month, earned a point at Arsenal—so the collapse was relatively costly to the Irons, and makes capturing at least a point this weekend relatively essential to their fight to stay afloat. I still think it is hard to imagine a side with dynamic attackers like Demba Ba going down—but crazier things have happened, and watching this weekend is warranted.
New York Red Bulls at Philadelphia Union, 7 PM, Saturday, ESPN 2—What’s not to like about this match-up? Two sides at the top of the Eastern Conference table (along with New England, who have played one more match than both New York and Philadelphia), a national television audience, a packed PPL Park with a maniacal Sons of Ben sensing a chance to make an early season statement, two young American starlets in Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream, and one of the league’s younger, more exciting sides on the other side of the pitch. Don Garber couldn’t write a better script for an early season showcase of Major League’s soccer quality, and after Real’s victory Tuesday, more folks are paying attention. As icing on the cake, the Phillies are out of town in Atlanta, meaning the Union are the center of the city’s attention for the weekend. This is as can’t miss as early season MLS gets.
As for the game itself—goals will be at a premium—both sides have defended tremendously early on but struggled to find the net, and there’s little reason things should be different at PPL Park Saturday evening. This isn’t to suggest the game won’t be exciting—on the contrary—these are two very strong midfields and both have electrifying players up front. As for a prediction, perhaps I’m just a bit intrigued to hear Thierry Henry’s tales of being a mentor to Agudelo, of focusing on an MLS Championship, and of how much he’s enjoying playing in the States—but I think the Frenchmen will be the difference Saturday evening. Let’s say 1-0, Red Bulls.
Mainz at Hannover 96, 9:30 AM, Saturday—Find a stream, because this is as big as it gets for Steve Cherundolo’s Hannover side. Currently sitting in fourth, just outside of Champions League position, Cherundolo, DaMarcus Beasley and the boys absolutely will deem a result essential against a Mainz side five points behind them and fighting for their Europa lives. European football of some variety seems likely for Cherundolo and the boys, but three points are absolutely attainable against a Mainz side not lacking offensive firepower. Twenty-one year old German sensation Andre Schurrle (incidentally the first German national capped to be born in reunified Germany) and Tunisian forward Sami Allagui pace the Mainz attack with twenty-one goals collectively, and it will be up to a recently porous Hannover backline to stop the bleeding and ensure in particular that Allagui, a forward with a Ruud Van Nistelroy knack for being in the right place at the right time, manages to stay off the score sheet.
ALSO ON TAP STATESIDE:
Charlie Davies, Dax McCarty and DC United host the LA Galaxy, but Landon Donovan, who has missed training sessions with “fatigue”, is questionable to play even if he makes the trip, which is likely.
It hasn’t been the best of starts for Jay DeMerit and the Vancouver Whitecaps, but with or without DeMerit, who suffered an injury against Paraguay, the Whitecaps do have five points. So while talks of a “Blackpool” type beginning are exaggerated, the Whitecaps are doing fine and will look to keep the ship sailing against Brian Ching and the Houston Dynamo Sunday at Robertson Stadium.
Young defender Ike Opara will hope to emerge from his session on the pine as San Jose hosts Toronto FC Saturday night at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Chivas USA host the rebuilding Columbus Crew and Robbie Rogers and Eddie Gaven in a game that both sides likely will dub a “must result.” That match, like the Earthquakes fixture, will kick at 10:30 Saturday evening.
ALSO ON TAP ABROAD:
Several Americans are in action today, including Ricardo Clark and Mix Diskeruud, but perhaps the bright spot of the weekend has already happened—Jozy Altidore has…wait for it…found the back of the net for Bursaspor against Antalyaspor in Turkey. That’s great news for Bursaspor and greater news for Altidore, a 21 year old kid who you can’t help but feel for since his poor performances in the March friendlies. He’s spent a week reading (or hopefully ignoring) a great deal of criticism, including this relatively harsh piece comparing him and Agudelo from Footy Matters.
The aforementioned Jermaine Jones and Blackburn Rovers face Birmingham; American EPL TOP 11 candidate Clint Dempsey takes Fulham to Old Trafford to challenge table leader Manchester United Saturday afternoon; Eric Lichaj and Leeds play Jon “Lightning Cup” Levy’s favorite Championship side, Millwall Saturday evening; Brad Friedel’s Ball Boy and Hull City take on Jay DeMerit’s former side Watford; Eddie “First Touch” Johnson and David Moyes’ old club Preston North end take on Portsmouth in a critical Championship tilt; Frank Simek and his hardware winning Carlisle United take on the least favorite team in England, MK DONS; German-American invasion darling Timmy Chandler and Nuremburg take on Bayern Munich, and finally, Conor Doyle heads back to England where he is unlikely to see action for Derby County this weekend.
That’s about it—enjoy the games and stay tuned to the site for a review of the week that was headed into this weekend from Dru Boyer, as well as Twitter for commentary throughout the weekend. Be safe.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.