Hi yo, everyone. My biannual soccer transfer piece has been relegated to the blog. In some ways, that’s good because I have more space to discuss an, ahem, unusual summer transfer window after a period where a lot of stuff happened, even if most of it was off the pitch. Here we go.
Don’t you usually do this in early September?
Yes, but like everything else, soccer has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The European soccer leagues shut down in March and only got back up in August to complete the seasons that had been suspended. The teams then had a whisper of an offseason break (for some, it was less than a week) before starting up their new season. While the teams were playing, they were still wheeling and dealing until the window closed this past Monday.
How is soccer handling the pandemic?
Belarus kept its soccer league going well into May, with dictator Alexander Lukashenko saying that vodka could cure the coronavirus. Now, faced with protests in the streets, Lukashenko is openly begging the Russians to keep him in the office he’s held since 1994, which has nothing to do with soccer, but I thought I’d mention it. In the early days of the pandemic, the presidents of the sport’s ruling bodies in Japan, Mexico, Serbia, and Switzerland all caught the virus, as did Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and players Paulo Dybala, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ezequiel Garay, and Marouane Fellaini. None of these proved fatal, though Dybala wrote that his lung capacity has been impacted. In the Champions League, the Italian team Atalanta should have been a Cinderella story of a historically unfancied team making a deep run. Problem was, they’re based in Bergamo, which was the epicenter in Europe during the early days, and it’s likely that they and their fans spread the virus to Spain when they traveled to Valencia. When play resumed, the 10 teams that were still in the running were sealed in a bubble in Lisbon, and this proved to be as effective as the NBA bubble. Now that the bubble is burst, though, players are getting sick again back in their home cities, and national teams will be crunched when it comes to qualifying matches for next year’s World Cup, which is still scheduled to take place in Qatar in 2022. Not so lucky is the Olympic tournament, which (like the rest of the Games) had to be postponed to next summer. You’ll have to wait until next summer to see the USA women’s team in action again.
A lot of Americans. I’ve spent previous editions of this feature raving about Christian Pulisic, who since has been productive for Chelsea when he’s been healthy. However, now all the buzz is about other players such as midfield playmaker Gio Reyna, who is at Pulisic’s old stomping grounds at Borussia Dortmund and recently tallied three assists and looked unstoppable in their game against Freiburg. Elsewhere in Germany, Tyler Adams has now come into his own at Red Bull Leipzig, where he scored a goal that eliminated Atlético Madrid from the Champions League and got his team into the semifinals. Weston McKennie was the brightest light on a flailing Schalke 04 team, and now that German club has loaned him to the Italian champions at Juventus, where he’s being coached by the legendary Andrea Pirlo and looks like he belongs on the same team with Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo. It puts us Americans in the awkward position of rooting for Juventus, which won titles in the early 2000s by cheating way worse than the Houston Astros. Borussia Mönchengladbach picked up American right back Joe Scally, a teen prospect from New York City FC. Reggie Cannon, last seen being booed by some knucklehead FC Dallas fans for joining the George Floyd protests, is now at Boavista. We can debate whether the Portuguese league is a higher standard of competition than MLS, but he’s already settling in there, and Porto and Benfica will give him stiffer tests than any teams in our league. Rounding this out, right back Sergiño Dest trod the path of many great players by moving from Ajax to Barcelona, where he’ll be playing alongside Lionel Messi and getting first crack at starting for the mighty Spanish club.
Speaking of Barcelona, what’s a burofax?
The Spanish equivalent of a registered letter. It’s also what Messi sent his front office to say that he wanted out. His brilliance papered over a great many cracks in the past, but thanks to Barça’s reckless spending and mismanagement, those have grown too many even for him to patch. The team bought some big-ticket offensive players to keep up its title-winning form, too many of which were busts, and other core players got old at the same time. The rot eventually showed up on the field, as the blaugrana suffered humiliating Champions League exits at the hands of AS Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich, and this past year was the first in 15 where they failed to win a single trophy. As political as any big star, Messi first voiced his displeasure behind the scenes, then finally overcame his aversion to the press and gave a lengthy interview saying that he was willing to leave the only team he has ever played for in order to win more. Somehow, Barcelona’s management was blindsided by this, just like they were when Neymar decided to leave for the same reasons four years ago.
What happened next?
Messi appeared to overplay his hand. His contract stated that he had until the end of the season to opt out, a date that was originally set for June, when the season was scheduled to end. When it dragged on into late summer, the Argentina star thought he was still okay to opt out, but the Spanish league ruled in favor of the team. I haven’t read his contract, nor am I an expert on Spanish contract law, so I’ll have to take everyone’s word that he’ll have to play out his final year at Barcelona regardless of his motivation level. While this may harm his rep, it certainly throws a harsh light on team president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who had perhaps the greatest player in history on his team and then did so much to alienate him.
What does that mean for Dest?
He’s stepping into a dysfunctional and potentially toxic environment. Though Bartomeu is slated to step down next March, this may not be enough to lift the cloud over the team. Dutch head coach Ronald Koeman thinks highly enough of Dest that he tried to convince the player to play for the Dutch national team instead of USA, but who knows whether new management will keep Koeman on?
Didn’t Dest have an offer from Bayern Munich? Why would he want to go to this mess instead?
The good news is that there’s less competition at Barcelona at the right back position. With the German and European champions, he’d have had to shift Joshua Kimmich and Benjamin Pavard into other positions or out of the starting lineup. (I’m not counting new acquisition Bouna Sarr, because Bayern only got him after Dest had gone to Spain.) In Catalonia, he’ll only be competing with the aging and uninspiring Sergi Roberto. He’s already been given the jersey number 2, a sign of the organization’s faith in his abilities. The distraction of a disgruntled Messi may take pressure off him and let him develop at his own pace as he plays the position manned by legends like Michael Reiziger, Albert Ferrer, Carles Puyol, and Daniel Alves. One USA player at Barcelona is unprecedented, and if offensive player Konrad de la Fuente is promoted to the senior side from the B team, our country will have two. Fans love players who win titles, but they also love players who lead a troubled team back to glory, which is the chance Dest has now.
Why did Messi want to move to Manchester City?
His old coach, Josep Guardiola, is there now, and the English club seems to have more of a plan than Barcelona does at the moment. What’s worrying about City is that so far this year, defensive fragility has seemed to be their undoing, as they got smashed by Leicester and blew a lead to Leeds. Just before the window closed, they moved for central defenders Nathan Aké and Rúben Dias to shore up their backline, but they never upgraded at left back, where Benjamin Mendy has looked like a headless chicken in recent games. We’ll see how well it works.
What about the other team in Manchester?
United’s farcical bumblings in the transfer market were mirrored on the pitch, as they were blasted 6-1 by Tottenham Hotspur. (Spurs’ coach José Mourinho used to coach United, and he must have enjoyed humiliating them.) Of the Red Devils’ new acquisitions, Dutch midfielder Donny van de Beek looks sharp, and even though Uruguayan striker Edinson Cavani was a panic buy, he’ll still help. The embarrassing part is that they craved English attacker Jadon Sancho, but his employers Borussia Dortmund set a hard negotiating stance, and Man U wouldn’t put in a bid for fear of looking like they were being dictated to. They tried to pressure Dortmund via the press, but the German club held firm, and now United are bereft of a playmaker to inject some creativity into their offense, because they didn’t have a Plan B. Former United players are now blasting the team, and management is accusing them of sowing trouble. The boardroom is paranoid and unwilling to make the right move for fear of looking weak. In other words, Manchester United is the Trump White House.
Is there a bright side for United?
They just started up a women’s team after some years of being too good for that, followed by the realization that such things are good for both the brand and the bottom line. Manchester United Women signed USA players Tobin Heath and Christen Press, and now their jerseys are outselling the men’s players’. Maybe they should suit up for the men’s team, too. They could probably help the offense.
Did anyone in England have a good transfer window?
The aforementioned Tottenham snagged starting-quality fullbacks in Sergio Reguilón and Matt Doherty, the Danish defensive organizer Pierre-Emile Højbjerg looks like a fine pickup as well, and former Spur Gareth Bale rejoined the team amid tears of joy after parting acrimoniously from Real Madrid. Quietly, Liverpool did well to bring in Diogo Jota, a Portuguese winger who’ll give their starting forwards a break (and is needed now, since Sadio Mané tested positive for COVID), as well as Thiago Alcántara, a finesse operator who’ll give a different dimension to a hard-driving midfield. Loudly, their crosstown rivals Everton have transformed from a boring team into one that looks very dangerous, thanks to newly acquired Colombian wizard James Rodríguez firing in clever passes behind strikers Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who is suddenly leading the Premier League in scoring. While the fans and press never really appreciated James in Madrid and Munich, Everton’s coach Carlo Ancelotti managed him in both places and knows how to deploy him. The Toffees were succeeding despite shaky goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, so they brought in Sweden’s Number 1 Robin Olsen to push for the starting role. If they keep playing like they have, Everton will challenge for the Champions League spots.
Can anyone take advantage of the churn at Barcelona?
Their rivals at Real Madrid were eerily quiet. I’m not sure why they let Reguilón go when he could be a long-term replacement for Marcelo at the left back spot. The Spanish team making noise was Atlético Madrid, which rescued Belgian winger Yannick Carrasco from exile in the Chinese league and pried their former striker Luis Suárez loose from Barcelona, which didn’t want to lose him to a Spanish rival. Uruguayan defensive midfielder Lucas Torreira never caught on at Arsenal, but with Diego Simeone coaching him, he’ll have the best tutelage possible. He’ll have to make up for Ghanaian midfield engine Thomas Partey going the other way to the London club on the last day of the window, something which has mightily pissed off los rojiblancos.
What about Italy and Germany?
Whole lotta meh. McKennie was part of Juventus’ retooling of their midfield, as the bianconeri got Arthur from Barcelona and right winger Federico Chiesa, whose father Enrico was a much-loved goal scorer. To counter this, Inter Milan imported Moroccan right winger Achraf Hakimi from Real and Nicolò Barella to provide some toughness in the middle of the field. Everybody else rearranged deck chairs. Same deal in Germany, where Bayern made the puzzling signing of Eric Choupo-Moting, the Cameroonian striker who has been disappointing everywhere he’s gone yet keeps convincing top-level teams to want him. Former World Cup hero Mario Götze wound up at Dutch power PSV Eindhoven, and if he can’t make chances against those cotton-soft defenses in the Dutch league, we’ll know he’s washed.
Did any MLS teams make moves that could change the balance of power?
This won’t alter the balance, but L.A. Galaxy shipped Serb winger Aleksandar Katai to Red Star Belgrade after his wife made racist remarks on Twitter about the George Floyd protests. Inter Miami is owned by David Beckham, who was a big, splashy MLS move himself once. This window, they owned the headlines by nabbing Argentinian striker Gonzalo Higuaín and World Cup winner Blaise Matuidi from Juventus.
What about FC Dallas?
After being excluded from the ad hoc MLS Is Back tournament because of a coronavirus outbreak, the local side borrowed attacking midfielder Andrés Ricaurte from Independiente Medellín, and if he follows the path of other Colombians in North Texas, he’ll be absolutely brilliant before he gets hurt. Sporting more marquee value is fellow newcomer Franco Jara, the Argentinian striker who bounced from Benfica to Granada to Olympiakos. He’s off to a flying start in North Texas, scoring five goals in his first 10 games. We’ll see if Justin Che and Carlos Avilez, promoted from the home side’s affiliate at North Texas SC, can pick up the slack in a defense that lost Cannon and Zdeněk Ondrášek.
An English non-league match between Ilkley Town and Carlton Athletic was interrupted when an alpaca ran onto the pitch. I’m out.