Yanks Abroad returns to address the Five Big Questions that we’ll be pondering during the weekend’s action, with a slight focus on several of our players toiling away on a jolly island just off the coast of Europe.
Most of the European seasons are winding down to their final few games, which means that the picture concerning championship, promotion and relegation races are quickly becoming more clear, and in many cases more frantic.
As is typically the case, there are more Americans involved in the third category than in the first two, but this is the burden that fans of Americans playing in Europe have learned to endure over the years.
Since it is still only mid-April and the permutations are numerous, we’ll save those sad cases for a relegation-themed Five Big Questions article a few weeks down the line and focus on some more optimistic questions this week…for the most part.
In fact, several Americans find themselves on the cusp of major accomplishments, with games happening over this extended weekend potentially confirming either promotion, or a place in domestic cup finals.
Let’s dive into it:
Does Cameron Carter-Vickers continue pricing himself out of a permanent Celtic stay?
First, some context: on Sunday, Celtic will host Rangers in the Scottish FA Cup semifinal, the 429th edition of the legendary Old Firm Derby to take place in either league or cup play. If it seems like these two teams just played a few days ago, it’s because they did.
Celtic beat Rangers 2-1 in Ibrox in Scottish Premiership play on April 4, with their American star center back (and USMNT snub) Cameron Carter-Vickers scoring the winner, thus cementing himself as an all-time legend at the club…at least for a few months.
With how the relatively small top division is structured in Scotland, and there also being two cup competitions, these two teams typically play each other between four and six times each season.
One would think that this might somehow lessen the significance of these games. However, the fact that the game in Scotland is essentially ruled by the dual-hegemony of the two Glasgow clubs means that every meeting typically either has major title implications, or happens deep in a cup run.
Sunday’s FA Cup semifinal is a case of the latter, and both teams know that the winner will be heavy favorites to lift the final trophy after a final against either Hearts or Hibernian on May 21.
To put it mildly, Carter-Vickers is having the season of his career in Glasgow, and the conversation last fall began focusing on whether Celtic will be willing to do what it takes to keep him at Celtic Park. Both the player and head coach Ange Postecoglou made statements to this effect in late-2021, and all seemed good to go.
However, this concept of “what it takes” concerning securing his future has steadily evolved during 2022, and not in Celtic’s favor. Carter-Vickers has gone from being a standout player that Celtic would love to lock down for a few million, to being one of the best players in the league, who will attract EPL money.
While his parent club Tottenham would likely have taken a low-to-mid seven-figure amount for the center back last summer or even in the winter transfer window, his profile, and likely price have risen significantly. Let’s not forget, even though it seems that CCV has been around forever, partly because of the hype surrounding him as a teenager, at only 24 years old he still is a relative spring chicken for a center back.
While still likely surplus to Tottenham’s needs and also not a probable target for the upper echelons of the league, teams in the lower half of the EPL spectrum or some newly promoted side will have the financial means (and then some) to outbid whatever Celtic can put onto the table. It all depends on whether they judge a young center back who has proven himself possibly too good for the Scottish Premiership to be worth the investment.
In the end, Sunday’s Cup semifinal against Rangers will not be the game that tips the balance one way or another. Most likely the balance is already tipped, and another predictably solid performance will take him farther away from Celtic’s price range (and closer to Gregg Berhalter’s speed-dial, but that’s an entirely different topic).
Do Christian Pulisic and Chelsea bounce back from their Champions League letdown?
By all means, Chelsea should have secured themselves a place in the Champions League semifinal on Tuesday night. They did the unthinkable, overturned Real Madrid’s two-goal first-leg lead, and only need to hold on for 15 minutes. They only took five minutes to blow it.
Christian Pulisic had the chance – twice – to be the injury-time hero, but came up short, and was then anonymous for the 30-minute overtime period.
Let it be said that it should have never gotten to that point where we are discussing Pulisic not having saved the day. Still, contrived excuses aside, those types of experiences are deflating, and can sting a long time for both teams and individual players.
Chelsea have the chance for a concrete bounce-back on Sunday when they host Crystal Palace in the semifinal of the FA Cup. While winning this domestic trophy carries much less prestige than a second straight European Championship would, it is still a major goal for any team, even Chelsea, to reach the final in Wembley.
Pulisic has been in a bit of a funk lately, and the current front-three combo of Timo Werner, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz have been lethal over the last two games. Still, the luxury of being the Chelsea head coach is that another capable, and expensive, attacking trio of Pulisic, Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech are available as (momentarily) rotation players.
Will Thomas Tuchel plan some squad rotation for Sunday’s clash against Palace? With a critical game against fifth-place Arsenal three days later, it’s almost a certainty.
Does this mean Pulisic will get the start? That’s less certain, but well within the realm of possibility.
Will Tuchel, Chelsea and Pulisic use a cup semifinal, against a decidedly mid-table club, who they already shut out twice this season, and against whom Pulisic scored in August before his endless injury woes, to bounce back from Tuesday’s disaster? We’ll be eager to find out on Sunday.
Will Fulham mathematically seal promotion back to the English Premier League on Friday?
(and what would this mean for Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson?)
First thing, Fulham is going to get promoted back to EPL and they are going to win the Championship title. There is no realistic way that any turn of events will stop that from happening. The Cottagers are ten points ahead of second-place Bournemouth and 14 ahead of the line separating the automatic promotion spots and the playoff group.
This is more of a question of when they begin to receive their due congratulations, not if we’ll be congratulating their accomplishments.
However, if things go right, they can already begin their celebrations – at least for the more financially important achievement of promotion – after they visit second-bottom Derby County on Friday. This would come with five games left on their schedule.
Let’s break it down.
If Fulham win at Derby, and both Huddersfield and Nottingham Forest lose, it will be mathematically impossible for them to fall out of top two. Even if Nottingham tie, the gulf between the teams’ goal differentials (currently +59 vs. +25) will be too much to overtake in just a few games.
Even being on the road, Fulham not taking all three points over a woeful Derby team would be one of the biggest shocks of their season. Huddersfield have a slightly tougher task, hosting 11th-place Queens Park Rangers, but they did lose narrowly in the first meeting in late-November.
Forest have the most difficult situation, visiting Luton Town, the team directly below them in the standings, and another likely promotion playoff opponent.
It could all come together on Friday, when all 24 teams in the division play throughout the day, with Fulham having the spotlight in the lone late game. Surely those responsible for scheduling kickoff times were ready to turn the potential drama of an inevitability unfolding into a boon in TV ratings.
For Ream and Robinson, Fulham’s ascendance back to the adults’ table has very different meanings.
For Robinson, it’s simple: the unquestioned USMNT starter was going to be starting the 2022-23 season on a Premier League roster regardless of whether or not Fulham were promoted. Now, there is at least a chance that roster will continue to be Fulham’s.
For Ream, the situation is more complicated. His contract is up this summer, and there is little chance he will continue his role as a starter for the team in the top flight next season. He made seven appearances in their last Premier League season in 20-21, has a total of 46 since moving to England in 2012 (compared to 292 in the Championship) and at 34 years old, is not going to suddenly experience a major surge in development that suddenly turns him into a top-flight regular.
Instead, Fulham will invest in their central defense, either bringing in a quality player escaping a relegated team, a cast-off from elsewhere in the league, or a young hot-shot from a somewhat inferior league who has proven that he is ready to make the jump (I heard of guy playing in Glasgow who fits the bill…).
Whether Ream will dutifully stick around to remain as a bench option when needed, or leave for greener pastures – elsewhere in the Championship or back to MLS – will likely be sorted out in July and August.
Will Tim Weah or Ricardo Pepi score their first European goal of the season?
Since this is already getting long, I’ll keep the rest short…although not as short as the list of 2022 goals for Tim Weah and Ricardo Pepi.
Cheap-shots aside, these two attackers are integral for the USMNT’s success, but have both been withering in 2022. Neither has scored or set up a goal in any competitive game for club or country this year.
Certainly, both have extenuating circumstances. Weah has fought some injuries, was recently suspended, and has played second fiddle to the emergent superstar Jonathan David. Pepi is on a mediocre team that is often overwhelmed and trying to keep a step ahead of relegation.
Eventually, the excuses have to stop, talent overcomes those things hindering good players, and dam breaks. In other worse, eventually Weah and Pepi will put one into the opponent’s net.
Weah returns from suspension in time for Lille’s game against Lens on Saturday, a matchup that sees both teams fighting to jump into the European places. It’s more likely that Weah features as a sub than starts, but he can still do damage from the bench.
Pepi has been starting again as of late, helped by some absences in Augsburg’s squad, but has far from impressed in the role. Similar to Weah, it’s more likely that the 18 year-old comes off the bench this weekend. Their home game against second-bottom Hertha on Saturday is winnable, and with Hertha being defensively atrocious (allowing 66 goals through 29 games) this will be his best chance to open his scoring account before the season ends.
…that is until they close the season hosting Fürth (72 allowed in 29 games) in mid-May.
Does Haji Wright keep his hot streak running?
On the subject of attackers, Haji Wright has been on a tear in the Turkish SüperLig. Since returning to the Antalyaspor starting lineup four games ago, he has scored four goals and served up one assist, with the team winning all four games to keep open their narrow chance of claiming a European spot.
I say “narrow” very generously since they have a six-point gap to make up with only six games left.
Antalya visit Alanya on Saturday, one of the teams they would have to overtake if they want to reach the top four and claim a spot in the highly esteemed Europa Conference League.
More interestingly, the game will be another test of whether Wright’s recent streak is the emergence of a player who is finally putting together his substantial, albeit often frustrating, talent, or a well-timed fluke at the end of a loan.
Despite their lofty sixth-place standing, Alanya is surprisingly poor on the defensive side, allowing 52 goals through 32 games. This is fourth-worst in the 20-team league, and only one team who has allowed more goals is outside of the relegation places.
Wright is still likely a long way from being considered by Gregg Berhalter for the USMNT, even if the Turkish media might seem to think otherwise.
Still, his current loan with Antalya ends after only a few more games, and a strong end to this season will mean that he can aim higher than simply returning to Denmark’s SønderjyskE to play out the final year of his contract with the team.