There are a lot of news pieces the past few days I want to cover, some good, some not so good.
Starting with the bad news, reports indicate the MLS players union voted 350 to two in favor of a strike if a new collective bargaining agreement can't be reached before the start of the season in two weeks. For a still relatively new league going into a key year, with expansion, increased attention to the sport because of a World Cup year, and the league ever-nearing the goal of having all it's teams in soccer-specific stadia, this could end up a disastrous turn of events.
This is not to say I don't 100% support the players in their fight with management, as I've already written about. Importantly for a league that struggles to legitimize itself at the gate in many markets is a situation I currently find myself in that is probably being repeated across the country.
DC United is desperately trying to get my friends and I to pay the remaining balance on our season tickets before the season starts, having already missed the designated deadline. Yet we're refusing to pay a cent further until we know we'll actually be seeing a product in return for our investment. My friend even laid into our poor DC United season ticket account manager explaining in no uncertain terms how we feel regarding the league's control over player rights and restricted movement, particularly when a hard salary cap limits how much salaries can ultimately increase (and it's a laughably low salary cap at that). We're not talking the NBA or MLB here.
The larger point is that I'm sure we're not alone in our stance, and that has to be seriously hurting the bottom line of numerous teams out there. A strike is still not certain, with the league saying that mediated talks this week have been productive even though the players are standing strong in their position. MLS needs to make concessions and it needs to do it soon. We're happy to give your our money, knowing full well I could spend my time watching the best players in the world on TV or simply spend my money watching the best hockey player on Earth in a much nicer stadium in downtown.
I'd like to give a nod to former DC United striker Alecko Eskandarian, who appears to be retiring, without actually using that word. Esky was never going to be a star, but he could have been a very productive MLS player, and will always be remembered as the 2004 MLS Cup MVP in DC United's 3-2 comeback victory over Kansas City. But unfortunately, serious concussions derailed his career.
I'll also love him for embarrassing the NY Red Bulls, which is always a fun thing to do. After scoring against the newly renamed Red Bulls in April of 2006, Esky ran to the sidelines, took a can of Red Bull, took a swig, then promptly spit it out on the Giants Stadium turf. He was fined for his antics, but I laughed. And it's just entertainment after all, so you can't ask for much more.
Maybe most importantly, with Yura Movsisyan now at Randers, there is no one to hold the mantle for Armenian footballers in MLS. Anyway, even though Alecko was probably too "Jersey" for my liking, I hope Alecko the best.
Following up on news that Jermaine Jones was with the US National Team in Amsterdam for their recent friendly against the Netherlands is some interesting quotes from Tim Howard in an interview with Grant Wahl of SI. Speaking about the team, he said that they are "hoping that Jermaine Jones makes it" and recovers from his injury problems to play in the World Cup.
Apparently the meeting, the first between Jones and the rest of the team, went well and Howard thinks Jones will fit in nicely because "he's got a lot of tattoos, he likes his music." Good to know the requirements of how to fit in with the USMNT. I think we can probably get Allen Iverson (if he's sober) and LeBron James on the team in time.
Still, the key point by Howard was that this version of the US team welcomes new comers with open arms (unlike say the reaction to the late addition of David Regis to the 1998 team). The players know well that Jones is highly regarded and feel that his addition would provide a boost to the squad and will welcome him accordingly. In fact, Howard compared the morale boost of adding a difference maker to the addition of Landon Donovan at Everton, while also noting that Charlie Davies would provide the same boost.
I previously gave up on Jones and was going to assume he was out of the picture for this World Cup, but hoped he would enter the team after that. I also worried about the chemistry issues if he just came in and took a starting spot from someone. Now, while still a little skeptical about his injury recovery, I'm suddenly much more interested in seeing Jones return to action and seeing him integrated into the team. With Clint Dempsey returning to action this week and Davies and Oguchi looking positive in their comebacks, one can only hope the injury situation will completely turn around and give the US the boost Howard was talking about for a sustained run in South Africa.
Lots of European action, so I'll hit on a few highlights.
A day after Arsenal crushed Porto, Manchester United was not to be outdone, routing AC Milan 4-0 on the back (or head rather) of Wayne Rooney. He's now reached 30 goals on the season and talk is turning toward him taking aim at Cristiano Ronaldo's 42 goals for Man U two seasons ago.
While there is a lot of soccer still to be played this season, this summer, and the opening of next season, but it appears Rooney is positioning himself to win worldwide honors. At the moment, I think I'd vote for him as best player on the planet over Leo Messi and others. His form has been just unstoppable recently. He doesn't give you the same flash as Ronaldo or Messi and he doesn't score as many awe-inspiring strikes as Ronaldo, such as the famous free kick against Portsmouth in the 42 goal campaign or his Champions League blasts against Porto and Arsenal last year. But Rooney's work-rate is second to none and by improving his heading of the ball this year he's turned himself into a more complete striker.
Regardless of the merits about whether Man U is better off without Ronaldo, which I still doubt when you consider their slight weakness in midfield compared to other top teams like Chelsea and Barca, you can't argue that Rooney hasn't benefited (yes that's a double negative).
Speaking of Ronaldo, he couldn't prevent Real Madrid from disappoint again despite scoring an early goal for los merengues. Truly astounding that this talented team still can't get it right. And Lyon is still a marvel.
Meanwhile, the Europa League round of 16 is poised with intrigue after the first legs of some very interesting ties. Liverpool continue to disappoint, losing by a goal to nil against Lille (how about those French clubs!). Some other nice matches include Valencia-Weder Bremen and Benfica-Marseille tied at 1 and Atletico Madrid-Sporting Lisbon goalless.
In Turin, Juve outclassed Fulham in Clint Demspey's return to action with a 3-1 victory. Juve's stated goal for this year is to climb the Serie A table and secure Champions League football for next season, but it appears they are poised for a run in the Europa League. I do want to point out that the attendance at the Stadio Olimpico was announced at 11,406. That number would be piddling for an MLS match (the last two seasons, very down years for DC United, saw them have an average attendance of 16,000 in 2009 and almost 20,000 in 2008), let alone for a big European match.
Of course that's because it's really only a "big" match for Fulham. The Cottagers are calling it one of the biggest in club history, while for Juve it's a big drop from battles against the likes of Man U and Real Madrid on the European stage. Although the Champions League is expected for a big club like Juve, the Europa League is nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact it could well prove to be more intriguing that the Champions League this season. I'll be happy to see Juve take it seriously and attempt to win the whole thing. Not sure they will, but Italian soccer could use any good news it can get.