Friday Newsletter: Finishing Up a 12-Day Europe Trip
Plus I answer your Mailbag questions
ON BOARD THE TRAIN FROM VALENCIA TO MADRID, Spain — Have I told you all thankful I am for all of your subscriptions? They allow me to have a travel budget and do reporting trips like this one. I’m flying home on Saturday after a 12-day trek covering the USMNT in Germany and Spain and then heading up the coast to report a pre-World Cup magazine-style feature here in Valencia. I think you might be able to figure out what that one’s about!
I’ve learned a few things on this trip:
· Even if my laptop dies, as it did on Saturday, I can survive using an iPad and keyboard attachment. (But I’d still rather have a working laptop.)
· Edinson Cavani, who walked by me today at the Valencia training facility, does not drive a sports car but rather a mid-level Jaguar sedan that’s obviously nice but not exactly what I was expecting.
· Spain has good trains. I’m currently on a high-speed “Ave” train to Madrid, and I took lower-speed but solid trains from Murcia to Alicante to Valencia. The only downer is that the high-speed trains are mostly just to and from Madrid, which in my updated Train Power Rankings puts Spain behind Japan, Germany, France and Italy but ahead of England. (The U.S. would be firmly near the bottom of the Train Power Rankings.) A World Cup 2030 co-hosted by Spain and Portugal would be pretty great from a travel perspective.
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· I almost went the entire trip without needing a single cash Euro. Basically everybody accepts credit cards these days in Europe, including taxis, so I didn’t bother to get any cash Euros. And I made until today, when the restaurant where I started writing this column told me their credit card reader was on the fritz. So I had to run and get some cash.
· My college buddy Rob Penner (who has done soccer work over the years with WPS and Bayer Leverkusen, among other things) invited me to stay with his family at their house on Wednesday by the beach in Alicante, which is a gorgeous city. I never knew until he told me that so many cities in this area begin with “Al” (Alicante, Almería, Albacete, etc) because of the Arabic influence over the centuries.
· Marriott points remain a sportswriter’s best friend. I arrived in Valencia on Thursday without a hotel reservation, and hotel prices were sky-high due to some event happening. But I was able to snag an Autograph Hotel reservation for a reasonable number of points and had my best hotel room of the trip. I get more fired about Marriott points than I should, but the truth is I would happily do an ad campaign for them (which this is not, by the way). My favorite Marriott points moment was probably when I got mugged at gunpoint in Honduras in 2009 and, since my wallet and credit cards had been taken, was able to get a hotel room at the Tegucigalpa Marriott using my points. Marriott points: Saving my rear for more than two decades.
· I kind of like Spain’s late dinner-time starts. I always try to stay committed to my weekly virtual sessions with my New York City-based trainer Kehinde on Monday and Wednesday afternoons NYC time, so that meant I was working out at 7:30 and 9:30 pm local Spain time this week. But because restaurants in Spain are still open after that, I was able to have good dinners after my workouts. Those are key on a trip like this when your work schedule is pretty crazy.
Anyway, I’m heading home on Saturday and spending three days in NYC before flying back to Europe on Tuesday night for the USWNT’s showdown in London against England. It’s a busy time of year!
OPENING THE MAILBAG
I’m not able to cut and paste since my laptop is dead, so I’m going to post screengrabs of your questions instead.
Good question, Greg, about Gregg. I actually asked Berhalter that question (How would you describe your system or game model?) in our roundtable session in Cologne, Germany, last week. Berhalter is usually better than his USMNT coach predecessors when it comes to providing detail answering reporter questions, but this time he wouldn’t answer it, saying it’s something he talked about when he took the job. You can’t force someone to answer a question, but I still thought that response was a lame one.
Pefok supposedly isn’t a good fit for Berhalter’s system because he doesn’t provide enough movement for what Berhalter wants from a No. 9, doesn’t have enough “verticality” and doesn’t have a high-enough expected-goals number when playing with the national team (which he hasn’t gotten many opportunities to do). Pefok missed a sitter in Mexico, and that didn’t endear him to Berhalter either. My counter would be that Pefok scores goals for the Bundesliga’s first-place team, plays a position the U.S. is weak in, and should certainly be called in considering rosters at this World Cup will have 26 players instead of 23.
A striker’s most important task is scoring goals, and Pefok scores goals. (Similarly, a goalkeeper’s most important task is stopping shots, and I’m not confident that the U.S.’s best shot-stopper, Matt Turner, will start either at the World Cup.)
From a club perspective, we’re heading toward the top women’s leagues being in the U.S., England, Germany, France and Spain. That should make for a tantalizing FIFA Club World Cup for women if FIFA ever gets its act together and organizes one. What we’re also seeing are similarities between what is happening in the women’s and men’s games. The NWSL is a salary-capped league with much more balance than the European leagues, kind of like MLS. And the European women’s leagues aren’t salary-capped, which has led to some super-teams like Lyon and Barcelona in very unbalanced leagues (kind of like European men’s club soccer). England is somewhere in between, as is the case with the men too.
I too would rather have seen the U.S. play Argentina and Colombia, which were in the United States during this window. U.S. fans would have been at these games, but it still wouldn’t have necessarily felt like a home game with all the fans that would have been cheering for those teams. I also have never bought the idea that playing Saudi Arabia would somehow simulate playing a nearby team like Iran (which is in the U.S.’s World Cup group). Just play the best teams possible, and Argentina and Colombia would have fit that bill this time around. These two games in nearly empty stadiums were pretty big bummers.
Thanks for putting so much thought into your question. I basically agree with the order of your list. I do think it’s wild that in two games the USMNT went from a team that was expected to advance from its World Cup group to one that is now a genuine doubt to do so. But you’re also right that these concerns didn’t just emerge over two games but in some ways during all of World Cup qualifying.
I think it’s certainly possible for the U.S. to right the ship for the World Cup. One tremendously important player is Weston McKennie, a tone-setter who seems to dial things up for games that count but can coast through friendlies. And even though McKennie is starting for Juventus most of the time, his team is really struggling, and other U.S. players like Christian Pulisic and Sergiño Dest aren’t playing much for their club teams. Youth is a real issue, and I think we may have extrapolated too much about these young U.S. players simply from the names of the clubs they play for.
It’s certainly possible that USA-England could break the record set by the 2015 women’s World Cup final. As you mention, it’s a 2 pm ET kickoff on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and there’s not much else in the way of sports going on that day. I’m still half-convinced there was a David Stern frozen envelope moment that ensured it for U.S. television, but who cares? The only thing that might keep it from being a record is if too many people are out shopping on Black Friday.
I don’t think it’s fair to lump together “American soccer media” as a monolith. There are a bunch of different approaches to covering sports, and we see that range in soccer too. I will admit that I tire of people who aren’t journalists thinking it’s a journalist’s job in a press conference to lecture a coach or pin him up against the wall. Asking tough questions is great. But a journalist venting at the coach because the fans want to vent at the coach isn’t my job description. Then again, media literacy is at an all-time low these days, so it’s not like I’m surprised.
The North London Derby. Arsenal is in first place, and Tottenham looks to me like the most likely team to challenge Man City for the title. I’ll watch both, though!
Probably New York City. You can probably go to a place in NYC and watch the game with a fan base for just about any of the 32 teams in the tournament. I’m not really a Vegas guy, but Las Vegas would probably be a good place to watch the World Cup, 2 am kickoff times notwithstanding.
Have a good weekend!