Before a full weekend of action for Americans playing throughout the world, we take a look at the most hotly burning questions on our minds as we plan a full schedule of game-watching in the Yanks Abroad multimedia bunker.
We’ve now entered a seeming dead period between the recent rapid-fire international windows. The recent qualifying games by the USMNT are almost in the rear-view window, and the final deciding set of games are well over a month away.
This allows us to try clearing the table of our leftover emotions, whether positive or negative, from the up & down trio of qualifying games, and dig into what’s happening in the club situations of American players…and coaches.
How well do the recent “inactives” return to action?
A number of Americans, mostly national team players, who are presumptive starters for their club teams, did not play as leagues returned to action last weekend, and in some cases also during the midweek games. Here, I’m including both the players coming off of post-USMNT rest as well as a couple others who have not played since the beginning of the international break, primarily for health reasons.
One of these latter cases is the most interesting since it involves a player who caught fire directly before the break, sadly too late for a call-up by Gregg Berhalter, and has has been forced to miss his team’s last two game due to illness. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the player in question is Josh Sargent, who seemed to finally find his footing with Norwich City FC after more than half a season of disappointment.
He was forced to miss last weekend’s FA Cup win over Wolves and Wednesday’s league draw against Crystal Palace with an illness, although the team has already confirmed that he is available again for this weekend’s game.
The question for young Sargent is whether he will build upon the pair of progressively stronger performances in their two wins before the break, or come out rusty, timid, and revert to the ineffective form he’s had for most of the season.
Saturday’s visit from EPL title favorites Manchester City will be a tough situation for him to show his stuff, since the Canaries will almost certainly be on the back foot from start to finish, under pressure, and needing more defending than usual from their wing players like Sargent.
In a way, this almost removes any significant pressure since this one would have been marked in the “L” column for the Canaries from the second the schedule was released. The man with nothing to lose has everything to gain, right? It will be difficult for Sargent to receive or create many, if any chances in this situation, so the two keywords to look for as indicators in Sargent’s game will be: ruthlessness and efficiency.
Additionally, several USMNT players were rested following their travel back to Europe, and will be hoping to return to their teams’ plans this weekend. Without detailing every game, this includes Chelsea’s Christin Pulisic, Genk’s Mark McKenzie, Boavista’s Reggie Cannon and Augsburg’s Ricardo Pepi.
Tyler Adams and Chris Richards are somewhat special cases for RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim, as they returned to Germany with minor injuries, which could have knock-on effects. Both players have returned to training and are projected to be available for their weekend games, however an immediate insertion in their teams’ starting lineups is less certain.
Does Christian Pulisic win another trophy with Chelsea? Does he even play?
On Saturday, shortly before lunchtime in the eastern edge of the US, Chelsea will take on Brazilians Palmeiras in the final of the 2021 FIFA Club World Cup. Their trip to Abu Dhabi in early-February is Chelsea’s reward, or obligation depending on how you look at it, for winning the Champions League trophy last year in May.
Historically, this trophy is typically won by the European representative, so far 14 out of 17 tournaments including the last eight straight, so Chelsea are the odds-on favorites to earn the victory.
(coincidentally, Chelsea was the last European team to lose the final, when they were narrowly defeated by Corinthians in 2012)
Christian Pulisic did not play in the semifinal win over Saudis Al Hilal, with Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel (or his proxy Zsolt Löw, who filled in due to a positive Covid diagnosis) instead opting to start an attacking three of Romelu Lukaku, Kai Haverts and Hakim Ziyech. “Tuchelöw” then brought on Mason Mount as his lone attack-minded substitute, leaving the American on the bench.
Keep in mind, Pulisic had just returned from an exhausting trip to the US, where he reportedly made a short family visit after the games, and had a lot of plane travel to arrive in Abu Dhabi. His participation in Wednesday’s game was always unlikey.
The immediate uncertainty is whether Pulisic will replace Havertz or Ziyech in the starting lineup. Reading the tea leaves, it seems unlikely that Tüchelow will change the front three formula that won them the semifinal, albeit narrowly. Chelsea will have five substitutions available in the competition – strangely only three were used by the shot-caller on Wednesday – so some kind of appearance by the American is highly likely.
Another trophy in the case for the Blues is equally, if not more likely.
Can Sergiño Dest grab the bull by the horns in the Barcelona Derby?
Sergiño Dest caught a break when preferred starting right-back Dani Alves was sent off during Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid last weekend.
Dest was immediately brought on to cover, which is a strong indiction that he will be head coach Xavi’s choice to fill in during what will be a three-game run without the Brazilian legend (2 in La Liga, one in the Europa League, where he wasn’t registered)
Dest has been hit hard by a series of untimely injuries, a positive Coronavirus result, a coaching change that has not gone entirely in his favor, and the arrival of a still-spry Alves on the scene. Remarkably, Sunday’s derby against Espanyol will be the first time he’s even been available for three consecutive games since the end of October.
In the previous two outings – a 90-minute start against Alaves on January 23 and the 19-minute emergency run-out against Atletico last weekend – Dest has performed admirably enough, but has not stood out.
Prior to his red card, Alves was the hero of the game against Atletico. In short, Dest needs to grab the bull by the horns – or in the case of Espanyol, the Parakeets by the wings – and show that he’s more than simply an acceptable backup, who is only temporarily holding a spot while the 38 year-old starter is waiting out his suspension.
In short, Sunday’s derby is a situation where will need to have a strong game, particularly in getting forward and feeding their recently boostered attack with crosses from the right flank, or he could already be the victim of another experiment by Xavi four days later against Napoli.
Is Venezia FC dead in the water?
Things are not going well for Venezia FC and its pair of Yanks, Gianluca Busio and Tanner Tessmann. In fact, short of their home city of Venice suddenly being flooded (oh wait, they are used to it), it could hardly be going any worse right now.
The Winged Lions have simultaneously lost their roar and had their wings clipped, having gone ten straight league games without a win, while picking up a pitiful three points over that time. Most critically, they are in the relegation places, two points below the surface.
On Saturday night, they will visit Turin to play against midtable FC Torino. This will by all means be a difficult game, however much less so than their recent run that included the likes of Napoli, Atalanta, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Lazio. This is the sort of game where a good performance, even in earning a draw, will be indicative of whether their recent tough run is a permanent, and likely fatal downturn, or simply result of tough schedule and bad luck.
Optimistically speaking, their fancy, new winter additions, Nani, Michaël Cuisance and Jean-Pierre Nsame, can make a permanent difference, however, it’s also often the case that even great players cannot do enough to lift a team that’s beyond saving (for example, is Manchester United any better since CR7 joined in summer?).
It’s also been an increasingly tough run for Busio and Tessmann. The former has been rotated out of the starting lineup on several occasions recently, had an untimely Covid diagnosis that likely robbed him of a USMNT call-up and also impacted his availability for the team (he’s not started since January 9), and hasn’t looked up to the lofty standard that he seemed to set for himself early in the season.
Tessmann has essentially been impacted by the winter arrival of Michaël Cuisance, a more experienced, refined and honestly talented central midfield presence. Still, he’s played in most games lately, occasionally starting, and done well enough to remain an option for coach Paolo Zanetti.
Taken alongside Cagliari’s visit to Empoli the next afternoon, Venezia’s trip to Torino will be a good litmus test to indicate where the team and its two Americans stand. Cagliari is in a similar position as Venezia, just two points ahead and barely safe, and also visiting a mid-table team who will not roll over, but will open a window to whether they can do well enough in tough situations to assure safety.
Keep an eye on these two games, not just the results but how Venezia and Cagliari preform. This will be a strong indicator about how difficult the coming months will be.
Is Pellegrino Matarazzo really safe at Stuttgart?
Finally, we take a look at the only American coach who is still leading a team in the top flight of a major European league. New Jersey-born Pellegrino Matarazzo has been one of the most under-the-radar, yet encouraging stories for the difficult road for American coaches in Europe.
He’s now been at the helm of Stuttgart for just over two years, and has earned the admiration of team management, players and fans after a solid ninth-place finish in the Bundesliga last season.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and depending on how one read the tea leaves, he might be in some risk of this end being nearby.
In short, Stuttgart are performing horribly, and short of a miraculous turnaround, they are favorites to be directly relegated at the end of the season. They have picked up one point since their last Bundesliga win in early-December, and are four points out of even the playoff.
Normally this would put the head coach – Matarazzo – at huge risk, however he received the “dreaded” vote of confidence from sporting director Sven Mislintat and team president Claus Vogt earlier this week. Beyond the often-true stereotypes that these sorts of statements from team officials always portend a coaching switch, one has to ask: were they good or bad for the American?
Strangely, neither Mislintat nor Vogt expressed their faith in his coaching or leadership abilities. There is little question that he is a good coach, as evidenced by his record last season, so sure, there is perhaps no need for club officials trying to avert a firestorm to state the obvious.
In his statements, Mislintat focused almost solely on complimenting Matarazzo’s ability to help the team fulfill its financial model of increasing the market value of players under his tutelage, and earning a net-positive €25 Million each year.
“[Pellegrino] is one of the most important parts of this club that makes this path possible at all,” he stated in reference to their financial targets. “Our framework is to earn an average of about 25 million euros net every year. That also means loss of substance every year. For that, we need a coach who develops.”
Will Matarazzo still be able to support this financial model by developing players for Stuttgart in the 2. Bundesliga? It will certainly be a tougher road than in Germany’s top flight.
Vogt took an even less committal tack in his comments shortly thereafter, seeming to throw his support behind Mislintat, rather than directly talk about the coach.
“The supervisory board stands behind the sports managers,” Vogt vaguely stated, not clarifying whether he is referring to Mislintat, Matarazzo or both. “We have sports managers who have taken responsibility in good times, and we are rock-solidly convinced that they will do it now, even in the difficult times.”
Later he added, “We will definitely also make sure that things stay calm around VfB.”
In my reading, which could be overly pessimistic, these statements are not in either case a resounding vote of confidence that Vogt and Mislintat are committed to Matarazzo as a coach. They are odd, cagey and intentionally non-committal.
Stuttgart visit third-place Leverkusen on Saturday, in a game which they hardly would be expected to come away with a draw. If they have another hard loss, as is the most likely outcome based on recent form, it will be interesting to see if Stuttgart’s management is still singing the same tune later that evening, or if they have already chosen to move on.