Friday Newsletter: Why I Don't Think the UK Sanctioning Abramovich Is the End of an Era
I'd Love to Be Wrong, But It Seems Like More of a One-Off
(Sorry about posting the Friday Newsletter on Saturday. I’ve been behind a day all week.)
I like to think I’m an optimist. For me, it’s an article of faith that the growth of women’s soccer will be the biggest global sports story of the next 50 years; that soccer will eventually join American football and basketball as one of the three most popular U.S. sports; and that the USMNT will win a World Cup in my lifetime.
But I’m not naive, either.
And so it’s hard for me to believe the pronouncements I’m reading that herald the end of an era in soccer with the United Kingdom’s sanctions against Chelsea’s Russian oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich, and the impending sale of the club. We’re being told in some quarters that the Premier League, for example, will now have much stricter standards for potential owners, that state-backed wealth funds currently owning teams like Manchester City (Abu Dhabi) and Newcastle United (Saudi Arabia) won’t happen in the future.
But who’s to say that what’s happening with Abramovich and Chelsea isn’t a one-off? Why should we believe that anything significant will change? For starters, there’s no realistic chance that anything happening today will cause the ownerships of Man City and Newcastle to lose their teams.
And even if something similar to Newcastle’s Saudi-backed group comes along, it’s just as hard for me to see the Premier League or other major European soccer leagues turning them away as it is to see FIFA banning Saudi Arabia from this year’s World Cup the way it recently did (however reluctantly) with Russia.
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Saudi Arabia, the unexpected leader in its Asian qualifying group ahead of Japan and Australia, is likely to clinch a World Cup berth on March 24. Meanwhile, the government of Saudi Arabia has spent the past seven years initiating a war of choice on its neighbor, Yemen, a war that has claimed 250,000 lives and killed as many as 10,000 children.
There are a lot of false equivalences being pushed out in the world these days, but Saudi Arabia and Russia is not one of them. One of the main differences, though, is this: the United States and United Kingdom are some of the western countries selling Saudi Arabia weapons that are being used in Yemen. You most certainly will not see U.S. Soccer announcing, as it did with Russia, that it will refuse to play Saudi Arabia anytime, anywhere.
For years, American soccer fans have asked me when FIFA will take away the World Cup hosting rights from Qatar, an authoritarian country with a dismal human rights record toward the migrant workers that make up a majority of the nation’s population. My response has always been the same: Never. FIFA just won’t do it. And, by the way, did you know that the U.S. has a military base in Qatar? Or that just this week President Biden designated Qatar a major non-NATO ally of the United States?
Look, I would love to be wrong. I would love to see the Premier League, other European leagues and for that matter the NBA become a lot more discerning when it comes to vetting their prospective club owners. I would love to see FIFA ban Saudi Arabia from the World Cup and move the tournament from Qatar. But if you think those things are going to happen, if you think we’re seeing the end of an era with Abramovich, you haven’t been paying close attention to these organizations for years.
OPENING THE MAILBAG
You have traveled the world providing us with great soccer coverage and stories. What is the current opinion of people around the world of U.S. soccer and our domestic league? What, if anything, has changed about their views in the last 10 to 20 years?
Soccer in OK
The general sentiment I encounter is that the business of American soccer is admired more or less uniformly these days, but their thoughts about the soccer itself are a mixed bag. You still encounter the holdouts who think U.S. players aren’t very good, but with more American players at the top European clubs, more people are starting to appreciate what U.S. players are bringing to the table. Then sometimes I unexpectedly run into people who are obsessed with American soccer. Recently I interviewed Venezia’s Italian technical director, Paolo Poggi, who stunned me with his detailed knowledge of MLS teams and prospects. He watches a ton of MLS, and it was a blast talking to him about it.
Why is it many professional level players are horrible with one foot? You see many left-footed players with absolutely zero confidence in their right foot. How is this possible at a professional level? Why do coaches let this happen?
I think it’s pretty rare that you find a player who can’t do anything with his or her weaker foot, but it’s still shocking that it happens at all with professionals. Just speculating here, but maybe the fact that some of the best players of all time (Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi) have had genius left foots but rarely used their right foot for anything has given coaches and players more unconscious permission to allow it themselves. That said, I’ve had long discussions with players like Christian Pulisic about all the things he did as a kid to work on his weaker foot.
Along the theme of March Madness, what role (if any) do you see college soccer playing in American soccer in the context of the modern global landscape?
College soccer still has a role in producing players for the pro game, including some who go on to play in Europe. If college soccer can get the longer seasons that many want, I think that could increase even more. But here are just a few names of college players from recent years: Daryl Dike, Henry Kessler, Alistair Johnston, Frankie Amaya, Andre Shinyashiki, Tajon Buchanan, Chase Gasper, Tristan Blackmon, Chris Mueller, Brandon Bye, Mason Toye, Mo Adams, Alex Roldan, João Moutinho.
Who do you see as the two or three World Cup favorites? Any other “sleepers” besides Canada perhaps?
My favorites include Brazil, France, Germany, England and Italy (if it can get in). I look at sleepers as candidates for a deep run, and if that’s the case, I’d say Senegal, the Netherlands and Denmark.
Is Pochettino overrated?
I’ve learned not to make big-picture statements about any coach based on his experience at PSG. That club just seems to have a deep-seated culture that prevents coaches from working at their best. Thomas Tuchel is the obvious (but hardly the only) example of someone who immediately went on to do bigger and better things the second he left PSG, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Pochettino does the same. I certainly think Poch is capable of leading Man United to more success than they’re currently enjoying, and I wouldn’t use his tenure at PSG to discourage United from hiring him.
How much am I jinxing it by thinking and typing the words "all-MLS Concacaf Champions League semifinals"?
The Soccer Gods could sting you for this! But it’s hard not to think that this might finally be the year for an MLS team to win CCL. I still think Cruz Azul (down 1-0) may find a way to get past Montreal in the return leg in Canada, so having all four semi teams be from MLS may be expecting a bit too much. But New York City, Seattle and New England are in great positions to advance.
When I sent a friend (and fellow USMNT fan) your article strongly recommending attending a USA-Mexico match in Estadio Azteca a few weeks ago, he wasn't as sanguine. He lived in Mexico City for about 3 years (2017-2019), and his comment was, "I'd be slightly afraid for my life." Then Querétaro happened. Does he have a point? Or is "safety in numbers" enough?
In my experience over the years, some of the people who overplay hooliganism the most are people in those countries themselves. (For me, that was the case when I lived in Argentina.) Look, I understand there might be some trepidation for attending Mexico-USMNT following the Querétaro violence. But I would also say 1) There has never been any violence at any Mexico-USA game in the Azteca that I have attended, and 2) U.S. Soccer put out a statement this week saying it has been in consultation with the Mexican federation about security for the game and has been assured that it won’t be a problem.
Who does Berhalter call in to play at the No. 9 for upcoming WCQs?
Well, Berhalter did attend one of Josh Sargent’s recent games for Norwich, so we could see a recall there. It would be crazy from my perspective if Jordan Pefok doesn’t get a recall. And I expect that despite his tough start with Augsburg, Ricardo Pepi will get called back into the squad.
Sean Johnson or Ethan Horvath as No. 1 GK with both Steffen and Turner hurt?
I’m still waiting to see first if both Zack Steffen and Matt Turner will be unavailable for the upcoming qualifiers. But if they are, my guess would be that Sean Johnson would get the start for the USMNT. Gabriel Slonina has been in recent camps, but at 17 he would be a surprising choice to play in these huge games given his lack of experience. Johnson is 32, has played in important games and figures to be steady if given the opportunity.
Have a good weekend!