In the past, this feature came the week after the Super Bowl, but thanks to the NFL’s expanded schedule, I’m bringing you the latest soccer transfer news in the dead week between the conference championships and the big game. While the NFL is having an unpleasant and long-overdue conversation about racial discrimination in coaching hires, we’re talking about other sports matters here. Come, my imaginary interlocutor, let’s see what’s happening in the soccer world.
What were the biggest moves of this January window?
Americans! There are so many American players plying their trade overseas that it’s hard to keep track of them all, a state of affairs that U.S. soccer fans could only have dreamed of 20 years ago. Central defender Auston Trusty is technically still with Colorado Rapids, but Arsenal struck a deal to buy him in the summer. (Not sure why the Gunners didn’t snap him up immediately, since they barely have enough guys to fill out their bench.) Our own FC Dallas sold striker Ricardo Pepi to Augsburg, where he’ll be looking to score enough to save the team from relegation, as well as center back Justin Che to fellow German club TSG Hoffenheim, who are on the outside of the country’s established powerhouses but often manage to overachieve somehow. Fort Worth native Bryan Reynolds escaped the purgatory of José Mourinho’s AS Roma and is now at the Belgian team KV Kortrijk, which is not nearly as glamorous as the Italian league, but he should get some run for the mid-table side. In Scotland, Rangers (a team with a history of taking on Americans) signed up central defender James Sands.
What about the Americans who moved this past summer?
Josh Sargent was misfiring at Norwich until he got off the schneid with an insane backheel goal against Watford. In your face, TalkSport. (This is how bad the Canaries are hurting for goals: Sargent scored his first two goals in England in that game, which immediately made him Norwich’s second-leading scorer.) Meanwhile, Gianluca Busio has firmly entrenched himself in central midfield at Venezia, defying the predictions of those who said that the 5’9”, 140-pound player would be eaten up by the big boys in Serie A. The Black Italian guy from North Carolina might well be on the plane if Team USA makes the World Cup this year.
Speaking of which, how’s the World Cup qualifying going?
Eh. Don’t get me wrong, our men’s team is fully on track to make the big dance in Qatar after last night’s win over a shambolic Honduras in freezing Minnesota. It’s just that the performances have been underwhelming given USA’s uncharacteristic wealth of offensive talent. International coaches don’t get much time to prepare their team, and Gregg Berhalter has had to deal with injuries to players and Weston McKennie acting like a Covidiot. Still, USA has been stodgy and lacking an identity, as opposed to Canada, which has notched wins over both USA and Mexico by knowing exactly who they are as a defend-and-counter team. With Cyle Larin trash-talking the Americans and Atiba Hutchinson scoring an even more ridiculous goal against El Salvador, our neighbors to the north look like they might trouble even the top teams at the World Cup, whereas Team USA doesn’t appear ready to do anything against the titans of the sport. Could be worse, though: Jamaica just accused Costa Rica of fielding COVID-positive players in the match against them.
Should Berhalter be fired?
Tough to say. I mentioned that he hasn’t had much time with his full complement of players, and it doesn’t help that he’s a relative neophyte with not much of a track record as a coach. We’ve seen teams and coaches struggle through qualifying before turning into tigers once they reach a major tournament. I don’t know that Berhalter doesn’t have some genius plan in his drawer for whomever USA might face. Still, U.S. Soccer is a notoriously clubby place (so much so that rankly sexist former president Carlos Cordeiro has a chance to be re-elected as the federation’s leader), and Berhalter has a reputation, fairly or not, as a guy who has the job because he knows the right people. Teams have also fired coaches who got them through qualifying so they could hire a different manager for the tournament itself. Right now, I’d feel better if I knew someone like Guus Hiddink or even the possibly washed Rafael Benítez would be prepping USA to face Brazil or Italy.
Speaking of washing, what is sportswashing?
Patrick Higgins got into this with his NFL column this week. It’s when a person or organization seeks to rehabilitate a poor reputation by becoming involved with sports, since lots of people like sports. We see it with China hosting the Winter Olympics (free Peng Shuai!) and Qatar hosting the World Cup, but nowhere was it more evident when a consortium backed by the Saudi government bought Newcastle United this past October. The government’s wealth fund is headed by none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who personally ordered the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and asked Boris Johnson to intervene so that the Saudis could take over the team.
How did Newcastle’s fans react?
In poor taste as that was, the team’s fans have been so dicked over by previous owners that they welcomed these superrich sugar daddies with all the blood on their hands. The Geordies had visions of their beloved Magpies being able to acquire superstars. Thing is, the Saudi cash came in so late and Newcastle’s roster was so bare that the team may end up relegated at the end of this season anyway. Far be it from me to root for any team to go down, but it would be very funny to see these sheikhs having to spend a year paddling around the Championship with Stoke City and Luton Town.
What else happened in Europe?
Tottenham Hotspur made some nice-looking moves at the end of the window, with new coach Antonio Conte taking some ex-Juventus guys in Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski. Juventus got rid of those attacking players so there’d be room for Dušan Vlahović, the Serbian striker whom everyone was pursuing in this window. Somehow, cash-strapped Barcelona managed to take on disgruntled Arsenal striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Manchester City reserve Ferran Torres. They did this by unloading high-salaried disappointment Philippe Coutinho, who caught on with Aston Villa and paid immediate dividends, as well as Sérgio Agüero, who was found to have a career-ending heart condition. The Argentinian goal scorer was a class act who will be missed.
FC Dallas just followed up a dire season by selling their leading scorer and a promising defender. Is there any reason to watch the Hoops this year?
Team USA right winger Paul Arriola makes North Texas into the latest stop on his itinerant career. His evident talent keeps him in demand, though he can be frustrating. Hoping to convert chances he creates is Alan Velasco, a teen prospect who has played for Argentina’s national team at the youth levels. Whether these additions give the home side a viable offense is anyone’s guess, but it can hardly be worse than last year.