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So now that we're in a new year, most of the focus is on the January transfer window in Europe that not only promises to have a huge impact on the way some teams will retool their squads, but also possibly will see various U.S. players heading to and from the States (Stuart Holden to Burnely?).
1. Landon Donovan in England. Donovan arrived on Merseyside on Saturday and was able to watch Everton beat Carlisle 3-1 in the FA Cup. He'll be in training all week and is expected to be available when Everton takes on Arsenal in its next league match. I'm not sure manager David Moyes will throw Donovan in action that early -- there'll be a natural adjustment period he'll need to adapt to the pace of English soccer, and the fact that Donovan isn't in game shape after a five- to six-week layoff. Bear in mind that Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger used Andrei Arshavin sparingly in the first four weeks after acquiring him in the '09 January transfer window, citing his layoff in the Russian winter break as the main reason. When Donovan does see the field, what are his prospects for playing time? Well, the good news is, it's not Bayern, which means there aren't a bevy of well-established world-class stars ahead of him in the pecking order.
I see Moyes using Donovan primarily on either the left or right wing to rotate with current incumbents Steven Pienaar and Diniyar Bilyaletdinov. The other possibility is using Donovan in the hole behind the main striker as the primary AM option (Leon Osman has been used there recently). Having said that, since both Pienaar and Bilyaletdinov are comparable talents to Donovan, it's unlikely he'll be able to displace either as the starter from the get-go and will have to earn his minutes as a sub initially. There's also the unlikely option that Moyes could use Donovan as a striker, but I doubt we'll see that unless both Louis Saha and Yakubu are felled by injuries again (always a possibility with that pair). One player Donovan won't be competing with for playing time is Brazilian striker Jo, who, as I said in March '09, is a horrendously overrated player who combines inept finishing with a horrendous attitude, and whose Premier League career looks to be all but over with just six goals to his name. Everton's schedule during Donovan's loan will see the team face virtually all the English powerhouses, so this promises to be an interesting 10 weeks or so. It'll also be funny to see him running around with my name on his shirt
2. U.S. training camp in Carson, Calif. The U.S. team's annual get-together at the Home Depot Center kicks off today. Looking at the list of players that coach Bob Bradley has called up, there are several names that are intriguing. First is New England's Kevin Alston, who has the look of a future national team right back, and along with Marvell Wynne (assuming Wynne continues his technical development) will push hard for a starting berth in the next few years. Should either Alston or Wynne emerge, one would then have the option of developing Jonathan Spector at center back (still his best position in my opinion) or seeing if he can play left back at the international level to fill the void there. Other camp prospects I'd be keen to take a look at would be Alejandro Bedoya and Houston's Geoff Cameron, who I think could play in Europe as a center back and is easily the winner of the No One Thought He'd Ever Be Quite This Good award, if such an award existed.
3. The Next Prodigy. I'm also of the opinion that sometime in the next eight years, Belgium will reemerge as a powerhouse on the international scene and recapture the glory of the Enzo Scifo years (what a player). For this to happen, it'll need the right coach who can conquer the divisive cliques and prima-donna attitudes that currently poison the national team setup, but in terms of superb young talent Belgium is literally overflowing. With players of the ilk of Eden Hazard, Moussa Dembele, Steven DeFour, Thomas Vermaelen, Axel Witsel and Sebastien Pocognoli, it's astonishing that the Belgium national team continues to flounder.
You can also add Anderlecht's 16-year-old Romelu Lukaku to the list. When I see Lukaku play, I'm reminded of a conversation I had in Houston at the Free Kick Masters back in 2008. I was standing on the sidelines with Robert Pires, Lionel Messi and Ronaldinho and the subject of conversation at the time was Jozy Altidore (who also was present). We were all talking about Jozy's age and trying to convince Ronaldinho and Messi that Jozy was in fact just 18 years old. Ronaldinho kept looking at Altidore's physique up and down, and then laughing in disbelief at the notion. Well, that description applies to Lukaku, except threefold. Lukaku, who already checks in at close to 6-foot-4 with impressive bulk and speed, is a sheer stud of a specimen who is already scoring with abandon in the Belgian league, and has drawn the interest of Chelsea (rumored to have already had a $18 million bid rejected). He's unlikely to move anywhere until he's at least 18, though since he's still attending high school during the week at his parents' insistence (school kid by day, striker by weekend, it seems).
4. The Former Prodigy. With Freddy Adu's club career once again in limbo (he's now back with Benfica) after failing to impress at Belenses, it's all but certain that Adu'll miss out on South Africa. There's next to no chance he'll get any playing time at Benfica, where Argentine winger Angel Di Maria is approaching serious stardom and attracting $35 million bids. The irony, of course, is that Di Maria was signed at the same time as Adu and flourished while Adu has barely gotten on the field. The rumor mill has Greek club Aris interested (there have also been dubious rumors of Hull, but the English Premiership would be a terrible move for Adu) and even some MLS clubs thinking of bringing him back to the States. (Considering the way he failed to light up the league last time, I doubt there's a lot of interest in him from MLS either.) Of course, Adu is still young and he can still turn it around if he gets in the right situation with the right coach, but in terms of his 2010 World Cup hopes, I think we can assume those are just a pipe dream at this point.
Also, don't forget to check out goalkeeper Brad Guzan in the Carling Cup semifinal first leg on Tuesday when Aston Villa takes on Blackburn. You can watch the game live (not to mention for free) on ESPN360.com at 3 p.m. ET.
On a last note, I've gotten various e-mails asking about the status of the U.S. Soccer podcast show that we put out on Fridays. As it stands, it's temporarily on hiatus until the 2010 MLS season kicks off, though we might do the occasional one prior to that where warranted.