When CBS announced the cast for the 21st season of The Amazing Race in August, fans of snowboarding, skateboarding, and adaptive sports recognized two prominent names in the mix: Amy Purdy and Daniel Gale, co-founders of Adaptive Action Sports.
Their organization has helped bring adaptive sports -- including Adaptive Snowboarder X, Adaptive Skier X, Mono X, Adaptive Skateboarding, and Adaptive Moto X to the X Games and now to the Paralympics. Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the International Paralympic Committee, announced in May that Para-Snowboarding will make its Paralympic debut with the addition of men's and women's Adaptive Boardercross as a medal sport at the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, with qualifiers beginning in January, 2013.
The Amazing Race premieres at 8 p.m. ET Sunday, and while CBS executives wouldn't let any secrets out about how the race shakes out, we were able to catch up with Purdy, a double beneath-the-knee amputee and the top-ranked female adaptive snowboarder in the United States, and Gale, who has served as sports organizer for all of the adaptive events at X Games over the past seven years, for a sneak preview of their race around the world and the even more exciting races ahead. Purdy and dozens of other athletes working with Adaptive Action Sports will train for qualifying events on the road to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Amy Purdy: The Amazing Race is everything that you would expect it to be and more. I think it's going to be a great platform for my message, which is that it's not really about me trying to show how able or how capable I am so much as that we're all able, we're all capable. We all have challenges and we all face adversities. We all have to adapt. The Amazing Race is perfect for me because it's all about adventure and travel and taking risks and throwing yourself out there and challenging yourself. That's what I've been doing with my life anyways, so it's a beautiful platform to be able to take that to a bigger audience. I really do feel blessed.
Cliff Lipson/CBSSnowboarders Dan Gale and Amy Purdy will join the cast of the upcoming season of 'The Amazing Race' on CBS.
Daniel Gale: Well, first of all, co-founding an organization like Adaptive Action Sports is a huge undertaking, especially for such a deserving community of people, and setting out to run an organization like that heightens your drive to achieve and set goals and really strive to meet those goals. Translating that into an adventure like The Amazing Race, I think the biggest thing we've learned from our experiences together is that whatever comes along, you have to adapt quickly! That's something we say to our new athletes who are just coming on board with Adaptive Action Sports and it's something we've learned from a lot of the athletes we work with: If there's a will there's a way. That's sort of a cliche, but it's so true. People adapt to make things happen if they really want them to. We took that mentality into The Amazing Race and we really try to live that way.
Purdy: Running the organization has been a challenge for us all along because Daniel and I are also a couple and we work together as business partners. We wear lots of different hats in our relationship, and I think because of that we know where we can push buttons and we know how to communicate with each other under different circumstances and different challenges. We don't always communicate awesomely, but going onto the race we felt really confident because of knowing each other as well as we do.
Last year I caught up with snowboarders Andy Finch and Tommy Czeschin as they were getting ready to premiere in Season 19 of the race. They ended up doing pretty well, ultimately finishing in fourth place. Did you get a chance to chat with them to get any tips before your race?
Gale: We know those guys but we never really had a chance to powwow because everything happened pretty quickly once we found out we were racing. But we're huge fans of those two and we loved the way they ran their race. We took whatever notes we could from watching them in Season 19.
Purdy: We were really inspired by their attitudes going into the race and how well they worked together. We definitely took that with us and kept them in the back of our mind as role models. I think it's good to see racers on the show who aren't always super dramatic, who are just entertaining because of who they are.
What was your reaction after the Paralympic announcement was made in May? This would have been right around the time you were first preparing for The Amazing Race, right?
Purdy: It's so exciting it's crazy. Everything in my life has just been getting more and more amazing. When I did the TED speech for TEDxOrangeCoast in 2011 and it went viral, I thought, "Oh my gosh, this is just incredible." This is what I set out to do: I wanted to speak, I wanted to have a platform, and I got that opportunity and thought, "I just don't know if it gets any more amazing than this." And then we get offered the opportunity to go on The Amazing Race and I'm thinking, "This is insane!" We're huge fans of the show and we knew it would be another incredible platform. And then literally just before going on the race we find out that the Paralympics have accepted snowboarding! We'd originally been denied last summer and had given up on it for 2014 and gone back to our normal lives, and then, suddenly, it was on. Now we're working so much on what's to come that we've barely even had time to process it all. We just moved to Summit County in Colorado and I'll be training out here probably six days a week for the next two years.
What do you think turned the International Paralympic Committee around and got snowboarding fast-tracked for Sochi?
Purdy: Honestly, I think it was seeing it at the X Games. The X Games opened their arms to us and gave us the opportunity to showcase our sport in a world-class venue, and that was a huge help because it allowed us to show the rest of the world -- and the Paralympic Committee -- what we're capable of.
What does the qualification process for the Paralympics look like over the next two years?
Purdy: This year I have to do four qualifiers. I'm the top-ranked rider in the U.S. and last year I was the top-ranked in the world, but even though I have those credentials they're pretty much wiping the slate clean and everybody has to qualify. I am working harder than ever to qualify for the team because this is really a dream come true. I was 19 when I lost my legs. I'd dreamt of this adventurous life that I wanted to live, and I refused to let it get out of reach. I remember thinking, early on, after I realized that I could still snowboard, "If snowboarding is ever in the Paralympics, I'm absolutely going to be there." It's just so cool that we were able to help get it there and that my dream has made a lot of amazing things happen. Now that I actually get to try to qualify for the team, the next two years are going to be incredibly busy. I've never been so excited to be so busy.
The Adaptive Action Sports motto is "Live Beyond Limits." What do you hope people take away from seeing you compete on The Amazing Race?
Purdy: I think the thing people love about the show and the reason it's so popular for fans is that it's real, everyday people racing. I hope people see us and see that we're real people with real challenges who have worked really hard to get to where we are, to live beyond limits. I hope the take-away is that if you work hard, anything's possible. We try to live every day of our lives as a great adventure, and we're just really excited that we get to share that experience with everybody else who's watching.
Gale: Amy is an amazing person and it's an honor to be on the race and be her teammate, on the show and in everything else we do. Hopefully she'll crush it at the Paralympics -- I know she will -- and if people want to support our Paralympic efforts they can visit AdaptiveActionSports.org to learn more about our work and to make a donation to help her train and to help the many other athletes we're working with.
Donovan's situation differs from that of Beckham a year ago
I wonder if David Beckham has afforded himself a wry smile at the irony of this week's statements from Landon Donovan, in which he said he would like to skip the start of the MLS season in order to lengthen his stay with Everton.
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, as Donovan prepared for the new MLS season with the L.A. Galaxy, his hackles were raised by Beckham's successful lobbying for an extension to his loan at AC Milan, and Donovan went public with his criticism, claiming that, among other things, the Englishman was not committed to coach Bruce Arena's side.
For Los Angeles, the knock-on effect was having to play the opening 3½ months of 2009 without one-half of its most dynamic duo. When Beckham did return, the media descended on the Home Depot Center to report on the conflict between the club's two stars, causing an unwelcome distraction for them and the rest of the team.
In the months following, Donovan mended fences, admitting he was "unfair" and that he did not give Beckham a chance to show his humility. He also signed a new contract with MLS, one of the clauses of which allowed him to seek overseas loans during the offseason. Soon afterward, a deal was struck with Everton, which led to a loan spell so successful that both player and club have sought to increase its length.
Some may claim that, given his criticism of Beckham last year, Donovan's quest for an extension of his own makes him look hypocritical and guilty of some of the same failings. However, though it is true that there are similarities between the situations, they are not completely identical.
First and foremost, like the rest of us, soccer players are fundamentally motivated by looking after "No. 1." Given that, the actions of Beckham a year ago and of Donovan now are understandable. Both are career-minded men who have come to see a greater benefit for themselves in playing abroad -- in the short-term at least -- than in plying their trade in MLS.
However, whereas Beckham's ultimate aim was to effectively double the length of his loan in order to finish the Serie A season with AC Milan, Donovan is on record as saying that he wants to extend his stay with Everton by just one month until April 15, which would allow him to play immediately for the Galaxy upon his return to Los Angeles.
If, that is, there are games to play in -- the specter of a possible players' strike has to be a major factor in Donovan's thinking and a major reason for the game of brinkmanship he is currently attempting to play. Returning to America only to then down tools in solidarity with his colleagues would do little for his career, especially with a World Cup looming.
Meanwhile, projecting forward to the longer term, I wonder what Donovan's thoughts are about the four-year, $9 million contract he signed in December. Does he regret putting pen to paper, or will his ambition be satisfied by a two-month sojourn in Europe every January?
Perhaps we will never find out. Such has been the impression Donovan has made in his short time at Everton. His list of suitors has grown to the extent that, if the price is right, a post-World Cup transfer back to Europe is a strong possibility -- although whether Goodison Park would become his new, permanent home would remain to be seen.
The future, though, is just that. For now, Donovan will settle for another month on Merseyside.
A thing that made me go hmmm
Donovan's future could be impacted by the latest collective bargaining agreement talks, which are due to take place this week.
After two negotiation extensions still failed to provide enough time for MLS players, the league and its owners to come to terms on a new deal, the opposing sides will return to the table along with George H. Cohen, the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who will serve as mediator in the discussions.
It should be noted that Cohen's presence is in a "nonbinding" capacity, meaning nobody should be fooled into thinking that, at this stage, this is anything other than a small step in the right direction toward finally agreeing on a new CBA. His input may help, or it may muddy the waters further.
The fact is that the divisive issues remain the same. The players remain focused on their goals, with two of the most fundamental being free agency and guaranteed contracts, both of which the league and owners have hitherto refused to grant.
For its part, MLS is prepared to operate under the old CBA and has stated that it will not sanction a lockout. Thus, there is greater onus on the players to make something happen. Time is running short to get a deal done before the start of the regular season on March 25, a date which could, in theory, see players use the most useful piece of leverage remaining to them, which is to strike.
It's been nothing but good news for the U.S. team lately (meaningless loss to Honduras aside). The injury updates on key players like Oguchi Onyewu and Clint Dempsey appear rosy for the World Cup, and in Charlie Davies' case, there's a possibility that he could return as well.
On the field, U.S. players are continuing to make their mark in the EPL. Dempsey was arguably Fulham's best player before being hurt, Jonathan Spector has filled in well for the injured Herita Ilunga at West Ham and although Jozy Altidore has yet to score his first EPL goal, he's starting to contribute (he had an assist for Hull against Wolves over the weekend). Speaking of Altidore, he also managed to draw the penalty for Hull's second, although it was a soft challenge. If there's one thing you can clearly point to in Altidore's development, it's that since he's been in Europe, he's definitely learned how to embellish the effects of contact from defenders and win more free kicks. Of course, the biggest news was Landon Donovan's first goal for Everton (against Sunderland) and how he has played in general. Here's what I'm thinking:
1. Donovan finds the perfect fit overseas at last. There's no doubt that Donovan has proved he belongs and has the ability to play at a very effective level in the Premiership. He's had a couple of very good outings mixed with some average outings, but that's to be expected of someone who's still adjusting to the English game (I'm admittedly surprised/impressed, though, by just how quickly he has gotten up to full speed). The key here is that he has greatly endeared himself to Everton coach David Moyes and fans alike with his work rate, his set-piece work on corners and his intelligent use of the ball in general. He has even won over the hardcore skeptics in the Everton fan base who had wondered if the move was partially due to the marketing uplift it would give the club in America (a certain element of Manchester United fans also once wondered the same thing about Park Ji-Sung).
With Donovan recently stating more or less that he's having one of the best moments of his career, it's safe to say that he'll want to stay in England. The bigger question is whether or not Everton can come up with the $11 million or so that it'll take to prise him away from the Galaxy and MLS. (There's no question Everton wants him back, but its finances are shot.) If Everton can't find the money this summer, it's likely Donovan will draw interest from some other Premiership teams, but there's no doubt that Everton is the best fit for him.
For a start, Everton mirrors the U.S. national team in the sense that it likes to put men behind the ball and defense and relies on counter-attacking and set pieces offensively. Also, Everton is one of the closest-knit squads in the Premiership, a welcome respite for Donovan from places like Bayern (or some other top-tier teams) where squad camaraderie doesn't exist on the same level. Finally, and most importantly, Donovan isn't the best player on Everton (he's the fifth- or sixth-best) and isn't expected to carry the load, which allows him to play within himself and in the flow of the game without having to force things. If he went to another team -- say, Hull, Burnley or Wigan -- there'd be a lot more pressure on him to shoulder the offensive burden.
As for his next game, it comes in the traditionally heated Merseyside derby against hated rival Liverpool (Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET, ESPN2). If as expected, the Reds line up with defensive liability Emiliano Insua at left back, it's a matchup that Donovan could expose due to Insua's propensity to get caught out of position and lack of foot speed.
2. John Terry's days as England captain are numbered. After the latest scandal/revelation in John Terry's turbulent off-the-field life/soap opera, you have to think that England coach Fabio Capello is ready to pull the plug on Terry as captain of the English team. It was revealed in the English tabloids this past week that Terry had an affair with former best friend Wayne Bridge's girlfriend (the only question appears to be whether said girlfriend was Bridge's ex at the time, as Terry claims, or whether she was in the midst of reconciliation with Bridge, as others have claimed).
Either way, all this tabloid-speak about his personal life could be disregarded if not for Terry's litany of scandals. Who can forget his drunken taunting of American tourists in 2001 in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks? Or how about recent allegations that he accepted significant sums of cash to conduct behind-the-scenes tours of Chelsea's stadium? Or how about accusations that he was seeking to profit from his England World Cup captaincy after revelations that his agents had circulated e-mails touting for commercial endorsements?
In terms of Terry's character, it's not as if the apple has fallen far from the tree either (his mother and mother-in-law were arrested for shoplifting last year). The question in footballing terms is what should Capello do about all of this, and make no mistake, Capello will do something (he already met previously with Terry about the e-mails to remind him of his "proper" duty as England captain).
Given his status as one of England's finest defenders, there's little to no chance that Terry is dropped from the lineup or squad (and nor should he be). However, I don't see how he can remain the English captain. Aside from the image aspect and conduct unbefitting what the captain of any national team should represent, the simple fact is that he has more than likely lost the respect of many (if not all) of his England teammates (Bridge is likely to be a member of the World Cup squad as well). A similar thing occurred in Australian Rules Football in 2002, when North Melbourne's Wayne Carey (considered one of the greatest Aussie Rules players of all time) was caught philandering with the wife of then-best friend and North Melbourne vice captain Anthony Stevens. The result? With the entire team strongly united against him and facing national condemnation, Carey resigned from the club and went on hiatus from the league for 12 months.
What will the players of Major League Soccer be up to at the start of next week? Although a number of teams have already convened for the beginning of preseason training, there remains the chance that, come Feb. 1, tools will be downed until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached.
Days before Sunday's expiration of the current deal, it remains unclear as to where MLS and its players are in relation to a resolution. However, the parties involved are still talking, and the impression I get is that, slowly but surely, an agreement is getting closer. It also seems that even if this weekend's deadline passes, things will be sorted out well before the start of the new season on March 25.
On the same subject, an interesting nugget popped up on the personal blog of Freddie Ljungberg on Tuesday. The Swede confirmed he would be back with the Sounders next week after he was told there would be no lockout or strike. Of course, this may mean that, as opposed to a new CBA being imminent, the ongoing negotiation period will merely be extended. A knock-on effect of that could be the non-interruption of teams' preseason schedules.
Well played, young men
If you have yet to read the interview of Charlie Davies conducted by my ESPN.com colleague Ives Galarcep, then make a point of doing so. The U.S. striker continues to make remarkable progress in his recovery following his involvement in a fatal car crash in October.
Despite all he has been through, Davies retains lofty ambitions. He intends to return to training with Sochaux by the end of February and aims to be playing again by April. Two months later, he plans to be in South Africa as part of the United States' World Cup squad. His comeback to date has been remarkable. To see him line up against England on June 12 would be nothing short of unbelievable.
Davies is rehabbing alongside another key man for the national team, Oguchi Onyewu. The AC Milan defender is also targeting a late-February return to practice, which would give him two-plus months to regain full match fitness … provided he can get on the field.
An unused substitute for his new club five times in the opening six weeks of the season, Onyewu logged 31 Champions League minutes two weeks before he suffered a knee injury against Costa Rica. Since then, the Rossoneri's form has improved, but cover for first-choice central defenders Alessandro Nesta and Thiago Silva is one area in which Milan remains short -- meaning opportunities should present themselves for a healthy Onyewu.
A thing that made me go hmmm …
Here's hoping that Davies and Onyewu (as well as Clint Dempsey) continue to rehab smoothly, for there was little in Saturday's friendly with Honduras to suggest that the Americans' reserves are capable of stepping up to perform on the biggest of international stages.
Granted, the early red card shown to Jimmy Conrad -- could the referee not have shown a little more common sense, given the circumstances of the game? -- plunged Bob Bradley's side into a hole from which it was difficult to escape. But nonetheless, a number of potential World Cup squad members missed a chance to shine.
Most disappointing to this observer were the performances of a pair of midfielders. Despite his ability to do so, Benny Feilhaber was unable to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Meantime, the regression of Sacha Kljestan continues, with the Chivas man bearing little resemblance to the player who netted a hat trick against Sweden in the opening international of 2009.
Elsewhere, Kyle Beckerman did OK, as did Robbie Rogers and Brad Davis, whose passing acumen and set-piece delivery was a key factor in the U.S. team's best spell of the match, which came in the final 20 minutes. The Houston Dynamo defender is worthy of another look when Bradley's men take on El Salvador on Feb. 24.
Rivalries renewed in Africa
The Africa Cup of Nations semifinals take place Thursday. First, Ghana faces Nigeria, before Algeria and Egypt meet for the fourth time in the past eight months. Algeria has recovered well from its opening-game defeat to Malawi, and was worthy of its quarterfinal win against Ivory Coast, a game in which the Desert Foxes twice came from behind.
As well as beating Egypt in a World Cup playoff in November, Algeria also was the last country to beat the Pharaohs in a Cup of Nations match, all the way back in 2004. Since then, Egypt has gone 17 games without defeat and has won back-to-back championships.
Clint Dempsey won't require surgery on his injured knee and will likely return to action in May. It remains to be seen what his fitness level will be after such an extended period of time on the sidelines, but early indications are that he should be healthy in time for the World Cup in June.
Now that we've got the good news out of the way, let's get to the not-so-great news.
What's that, you say? How is that the good news?
That the injury status of one of the U.S. national team's most important players has been upgraded from "sky-is-falling disastrous" to just plain "unfortunate and unnerving" has to be taken as positive news, especially after a truly troubling performance against Honduras on Saturday in the first international friendly of 2010.
In light of a growing list of injuries to essential players, you might have been hoping for a silver lining in the form of a deeper and more developed player pool, as Bob Bradley sent out what was basically a B squad. But you'd be disappointed. If you don't believe me, all you'd have to do is look at Bradley's facial expressions during the Americans' 3-1 loss in Carson, Calif. Even by his stoic and solemn standards, you could see he was not at all comforted by the display of his reserve squad.
And what exactly was he seeing? More importantly, what was he expecting? By definition, such games are meaningless. And with the exception of Benny Feilhaber, no player on display at the Home Depot Center is a shoe-in for South Africa. So the fact that the team lost was not altogether troubling. The expectation for a game like this is not in the result, but in the impression that players make. It's a tryout for the few remaining places on the final roster.
And that's what was so frustrating. The best you can say about most players was that their performance was underwhelming enough not to seriously damage their chance at getting another look in the near future. However, at the same time, no one player distinguished himself in any meaningful way.
Clearly, any criticism, observation or judgment has to be qualified with the fact that the game lost much of its impetus with the mind-numbingly bizarre decision to send off Jimmy Conrad and award a penalty before 20 minutes had ticked off the clock. But in a strange way, that's almost immaterial. While it may have left no doubt about the final result, it could have been used as an opportunity.
We've seen enough of these games to know that the result is not what's at stake. Again, it's about the impression made by players with something to prove. And playing a man down for well over an hour actually provides a unique, albeit unfortunate, scenario for players to do just that. The opportunities to get on the ball in pressure situations increases, while the pressure to actually win the game and get a result lessens.
Bradley pointed to the poor quality of his team's passing as something he was most disappointed in. The lack of rhythm and tempo, the absence of any quick passing combinations or short exchanges was clear to see. In my opinion, midfielders Feilhaber and Kyle Beckerman are most culpable on this count.
Even before Conrad was shown his second yellow and given his marching orders, it was largely the responsibility of Feilhaber and Beckerman to get on the ball and provide some balance in the passing game. The U.S. needed possession to create avenues in order to get other players, like Robbie Rogers and Sacha Kljestan, involved in the play more. Honduras wasn't overly aggressive providing pressure in the middle of the field, even with a man advantage. However, Feilhaber and Beckerman seemed overeager to dump the ball forward into the path of forwards Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley as a first option.
As for the Findley-Cunningham partnership, I'd have preferred to see Conor Casey get a start, but you can understand Bradley's thinking. They're players who offer similar qualities and who are somewhat unknown quantities at the international level. It's likely that it will come down to choosing one or the other (if either) for the final World Cup roster. Why not throw them out together and see who performs best? Unfortunately, the circumstances prevented them from really getting involved in the game, though you'd have to give the nod to Findley on the night for showing more initiative.
As for the defense, well, it was also downhill after Conrad's sending-off. But the fact that Jonathan Bornstein, who shifted to the center of the defense in place of Conrad, was more convincing than Chad Marshall says a lot about the Columbus man's display. Right back Marvell Wynne probably provided the most instructive lesson of the night in showing that he's not the answer at the international level, at least not yet. The physical tools are obviously there, but we can probably expect to see Kevin Alston from the New England Revolution get the nod the next time around.
And hopefully the next time around, against El Salvador in a month, we'll have something more positive than Clint Dempsey's not-so-injured knee to talk about.
After watching Chelsea, Barcelona and Milan dismantle opponents in recent weeks, I couldn't help asking myself: If I were a manager of a European club, which teams would I least like to face right now? Well, below you will find my answers in the form of power rankings:
1. Chelsea -- Maybe Chelsea shouldn't be ranked ahead of Barcelona, but when a team scores seven goals in a game and plays with as much class as it did in its 7-2 drubbing of Sunderland, it's tough to keep them out of the top spot. Simply put, it was the best game Chelsea has played under manager Carlo Ancelotti this season. The rest of Europe will be in serious trouble once the Blues get all their players back from the African Cup on Nations.
2. Barcelona -- Talk of a mini-crisis has subsided after a couple of dominant wins in La Liga in January. Barcelona looks primed to start pulling away from Real Madrid should its rivals continue to experience road bumps. The defending Spanish champs have gone on an offensive assault in their past two league games, scoring nine goals while not conceding any.
3. Milan -- Some may feel this is too high a ranking for the Rossoneri, but since the start of the new year, this team has looked incredibly good. Milan remains an older squad but unlike past seasons it has depth to go along with a finally healthy, strong defense. The team faces a big test Sunday against city rival and league leader Inter. A win for the Rossoneri in the Milan Derby would break the Serie A season wide open.
4. Arsenal -- The young Gunners showed some grit to go along with the flair we all know they possess. A 4-2 comeback win against Bolton (after trailing 0-2) last weekend is proof that this team is ready to fight Chelsea and Manchester United for the Premier League title.
5. Real Madrid -- Just when you think this team has found its stride, it hits a road bump. A hard-fought, and frustrating, 1-0 loss at Athletic Bilbao dropped Madrid five points behind league leader Barcelona. I'm not quite sure what to make of the Galacticos 2.0. On paper they're one of Europe's top three teams, but they have struggled to score in recent league matches. Not having the in-form Gonzalo Higuain was a factor in Real's surprising loss last weekend, but that's not much of an excuse when you have Karim Benzema as his replacement.
6. Manchester United -- Despite a multitude of injuries, the Red Devils have put on a brave face this season and remain strong contenders in the Premier League. They rebounded nicely last weekend from a league draw against Birmingham, with a 3-0 pounding of Burnley, but again showed their vulnerability with a loss to Manchester City in the Carling Cup. The news that John O'Shea is lost for the rest of the season is just more bad news for Red Devils fans.
7. Internazionale -- I feel strange putting the Italian giants this low, particularly because they top Serie A. But in recent weeks Jose Mourinho's men have not looked that great. Sure, they demonstrated an uncharacteristic grit in their previous two league games, coming back to defeat Siena and tie Bari, but those are opponents the Nerazzuri should easily dismiss. Inter looks very susceptible heading into this weekend's derby against city rival Milan.
8. Bordeaux -- For years French soccer was dominated by Lyon, but Bordeaux is now the new bully on the block. Behind the play of French starlet Yoann Gourcuff, who was reborn at the club last season, Bordeaux continues to breeze through France's League 1 and looks like a very tough out in the Champions League.
9. Valencia -- Since the start of the new year the Spanish side has beaten all comers while playing a very attractive brand of soccer. Players like David Villa and David Silva make them extremely dangerous on the attacking end; the two were instrumental in the team's 4-1 win over Villareal on Sunday. Should Real Madrid continue to struggle, there's a very good chance Valencia will overtake them in the standings in the coming weeks.
10. Bayern Munich -- After a slow start to the season, the German giants are on a hot streak. They've now won five-straight league games, and in December they crushed Juventus to advance to the second round of the Champions League. Oh, and they did it all without the services of world-class winger Franck Ribery, who just happens to make his return this week against Werder Bremen.
Don't agree with the rankings? That's OK. Below I've included a SportsNation ranker. Re-rank this list as you see fit. Also, please feel free to share your top-10 teams in the comments section. Let the debate begin.
The way things have been going in recent months, U.S. soccer fans may be forgiven if they have taken to watching games involving prospective World Cup squad members from behind their sofa.
With two first-choice men -- Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies -- already nursing serious injuries that put in doubt their participation in South Africa, Sunday's news that Clint Dempsey had sustained a knee injury initially seemed to be yet another hammer blow to Team USA's hopes this summer.
Fortunately, tests revealed that the severity of Dempsey's damage isn't as great as was first feared by his club manager, Roy Hodgson, who uttered two words you never want to hear in the same sentence of an injury update: "cruciate" and "ligament." Fulham's statement on Tuesday may have been vague and contained no specific diagnosis but, crucially, it did say that Dempsey should not require surgery and is expected to be back before the end of the Premier League season.
No player ever likes to be sidelined by an injury, but the chance to rest what must be a weary body is one that may prove beneficial for Dempsey. Since the start of the 2008-09 season, he has made 67 appearances for his club and played 18 times for his country. An enforced break provides a perfect opportunity to recharge his batteries ahead of a huge summer.
For although Dempsey has been criticized at times for his play with the national team, there is no doubt he is an absolutely vital member of Bob Bradley's side, possessing the ability to change games in a way that few others on the U.S. roster can. His versatility is important too, especially with uncertainty about Davies. I wouldn't be surprised to see Dempsey play at his best position, as a supporting striker, in South Africa.
A case for the defense
While the encouraging displays of Landon Donovan for Everton have garnered much attention in recent days, it's worth noting that he isn't the only American abroad who has impressed.
Among the defenders, Carlos Bocanegra logged 90 minutes in Ligue 1 for the first time in more than a month as Rennes drew at St. Etienne, a club to which the American captain has been linked recently. Jonathan Spector was included in the West Ham lineup to face Aston Villa and performed well against Ashley Young -- this three weeks after doing OK against another young England international, Aaron Lennon.
In Scotland, Maurice Edu appears to have made his own starting spot with Rangers' first team. Meanwhile, one of his rivals for a place in the national team midfield is bound for Germany, as Ricardo Clark agreed to join Eintracht Frankfurt.
Donovan aside, the news for other members of the U.S.' attacking fraternity has been less positive. Jozy Altidore has lost his place at Hull and will be further discouraged by the arrival of a new rival for playing time, Amr Zaki. Meanwhile, Stuart Holden's trial at Bolton was hampered by a thigh injury, though Wanderers manager Owen Coyle hasn't ruled out signing the Texan.
Good luck, contending men
With places on the U.S. World Cup squad still up for grabs, Saturday's friendly against Honduras will provide a chance to impress for a number of players. Among those I'll be following closely are Benny Feilhaber and Robbie Rogers, who could be key men this summer (especially if Dempsey is deployed as a forward), as well as Geoff Cameron. The Houston man is capable of playing in midfield, but I would prefer to see him in central defense, an area in which quality depth is a little sparser.
Beyond that trio, perhaps two stars of last year's draft class -- Kevin Alston and Omar Gonzalez -- will make their international debuts while, at the other end of the age and experience scale, Jimmy Conrad and Jeff Cunningham have another chance to show they have something left to offer.
A thing that made me go hmmm …
After a slow start, Africa's World Cup-qualified countries have found their form in the African Cup of Nations. Bouncing back from its opening-match loss to Malawi, Algeria -- a group opponent for the U.S. on June 23 -- claimed a win and a draw against Mali (1-0) and Angola (0-0), respectively (although just one goal scored in three games will concern coach Rabah Saadane). In the quarterfinals, Algeria will meet Ivory Coast, which was impressive in its 3-1 disposal of Ghana.
The Black Stars, whom the U.S. could face in the second round in South Africa, overcame that defeat and the injury loss of their inspirational captain, Michael Essien, to beat Burkina Faso and clinch a knockout-stage tie against the host nation. Meanwhile, Nigeria put together back-to-back wins to reach the last eight. Cameroon would also advance by avoiding defeat against Tunisia on Thursday.
Only nine months ago, it appeared Ronaldinho's international career may be coming to an end. A forgettable first season at AC Milan, one in which he often struggled to get playing time, ensured that the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year did not get a call-up to the Brazilian national team for the Confederations Cup or the team's final World Cup qualifying push. But a recent run of good form has left the door open for his possible return to the Seléçao just in time for the 2010 World Cup.
Times are good for Milan, particularly for Ronaldinho, who has found a new home with a club that has always had a taste for signing Brazilian players -- whether they be good (Kaká), bad (Ricardo Oliveira) or past their prime (Ronaldo). After last season, it appeared Ronaldinho, 29, was destined for the latter designation. But a new season, as well as a new manager, have rejuvenated Ronaldinho, who is playing with an energy and a focus unseen in recent years.
Despite the resurgence in his game, this isn't the same player who dominated the middle of the decade. Gone is the explosive creativity, now replaced by chips, well-weighted passes and an occasional burst down the wing. And although his performance this season has never approached the level of his golden period with Barcelona, Dinho has injected a great deal of excitement into a club in desperate need of just that.
So when he scored two goals in Milan's 3-0 demolition of rival Juventus on Sunday, it was natural for talk of a return to the Brazilian national team to heat up. It also helped that only weeks earlier, Brazil manager Carlos Dunga said he was open to the player's return.
But is calling up Ronaldinho to the national team worth the risk to Dunga? Certainly a spot could be found for Dinho somewhere on the bench, and there is even an argument to be made that he could replace Robinho in the starting XI, given Robinho's current struggles at Manchester City. But in my opinion, Ronaldinho's addition would be an unnecessary risk for Dunga given the central role Kaká now plays with the national team and the poor track record the two players have had as teammates (see Brazil 2006 and Milan 2007).
It's hard to imagine that reuniting the two stars for a third time would yield different, more successful results -- the main reason being that both Ronaldinho and Kaká need to see a lot of the ball to be effective. And although Dinho may have reinvented himself in recent years, the man still needs to get a lot of touches to influence a game. Can those touches be provided without affecting Brazil's current equilibrium? Doubtful.
And even if Ronaldinho were relegated to the bench, away from the team's current starting lineup, an ace in Dunga's back pocket to be used in case of emergency, it would create too much of a distraction. One poor opening-round performance this summer -- a very real possibility given that Brazil will have to face Portugal and the Ivory Coast -- will give rise to cries for Dinho's inclusion in the starting lineup, an added distraction for a coach and team that seem to have it all figured out at the moment.
Oh, the hardships of having too big a talent pool to choose from! But seriously, this will not be an easy or fun decision for Dunga, if Ronaldinho keeps up this run of form.
For now, we wait. Regardless of what the final verdict may be, however, it's nice to see Ronaldinho back in form and enjoying the game again.
While the national team's training camp continues in California, Bob Bradley will no doubt have an eye on Angola, where one of the U.S.' World Cup Group C opponents, Algeria, has started poorly in its Africa Cup of Nations campaign.
The Desert Foxes were beaten 3-0 by Malawi on Monday, a result that was called "a lesson in humility" by their coach, Rabah Saadane, whose starting 11 featured nine European-based players. Algeria was ineffective in attack and porous at the back, where each goal conceded offered confidence to the U.S. ahead of the countries' June 23 showdown.
Algeria's preparations for the tournament were hampered on its eve by the withdrawal of experienced goalkeeper Lounes Gaouaoui, who has acute appendicitis. His replacement, Faouzi Chaouchi, had impressed in shutting out Egypt in November's World Cup play-in game but was unable to repeat his heroics against Malawi, with two of those goals following his mistakes.
Not that Chaouchi was solely to blame for the defensive lapses. Malawi's opener came after Madjid Bougherra -- a teammate at Rangers of Maurice Edu and DaMarcus Beasley -- played two attackers onside before compounding his error by colliding with his goalkeeper, resulting in a botched Chaouchi clearance, which presented Russel Mwafulirwa with an open net.
Malawi's second and third goals indicated how much Algeria misses the injured Antar Yahia, whose goal two months ago clinched a spot in South Africa, in defense and implied a weakness against the crossed ball, which the U.S. can look to exploit.
First, Elvis Kafoteka got in between two defenders to head in a left-wing delivery before halftime. The result was sealed shortly after the interval when, after Chaouchi weakly punched a center from the right, David Banda fired home from close range.
Algeria, which will look to improve against Mali on Thursday, is not the only World Cup-bound nation to start slowly at the Cup of Nations. Nigeria was beaten by defending champions Egypt, and Cameroon lost to Gabon, while Ivory Coast could not find a way past Burkina Faso, despite registering 22 shots.
Holden to Bolton
Stuart Holden had to be patient but finally has his chance to impress Owen Coyle. The Scottish-born Texan is on trial with Bolton this week after his would-be new manager, having quit Burnley, took over at the Reebok Stadium.
On the face of it, having to go on trial seems a little disrespectful. Holden will face a test of his character, as well as his ability, while he attempts to impress prospective new teammates, several of whom will feel he is a threat to their jobs.
However, Holden in good stead because of the belief that Coyle appears to have in him. It would have been very easy to have pushed the midfielder to one side while he gets his feet under the table in his new role, but the fact that Coyle has called him in before he has even taken charge of Bolton in a game suggests a contract is Holden's for the taking.
The respective merits of Bolton and Burnley is a debate that has raged, with Coyle as its subject, for several weeks. From Holden's point of view, playing consistently in the Premier League is more important than for which club he turns out. Bolton's squad is slightly bigger than is Burnley's, but a strong display on the practice field should keep Coyle in his corner, meaning a contract and opportunities will follow.
The change in the calendar year brings about a heightened sense of anticipation ahead of the World Cup in June. Moves in the January transfer window seem to be made more with an eye toward South Africa than in securing professional stability. Those recovering from injury face a race against time to get from the treatment table to the playing field in time to prepare for June.
Some American players -- and by extension, American fans -- find themselves in a state of anxiety this time of year. South Africa suddenly doesn't seem so far away and the opportunities to make an impression are becoming few and far between.
Maurice Edu, for instance, only recently returned to the field for Rangers after a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to injury. He has limited time to force himself back into Rangers' coach Walter Smith's lineup and show U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley he can be the type of box-to-box midfielder the national team lacks at the moment. Similarly, his Rangers teammate DaMarcus Beasley is in equal need of health and opportunity as he sets out to convince Bradley and American fans that a short memory can be a virtue when considering selection for the national team.
For players like Oguchi Onyewu and Charlie Davies, the countdown to June probably feels more like a race against time and the ground both need to cover to get back to full health seems daunting. Onyewu's prognosis has been more positive. It remains to be seen when and if Davies can return to full fitness.
Perhaps no national team member has a more important decision to make than Stuart Holden. A move from the MLS to Europe so close to the World Cup is a tricky proposition. He can feel confident he's done enough to warrant inclusion in Bradley's June roster, but he'll need regular run from now until then if he's to force himself into Bradley's starting 11. He has a lot at stake and a move overseas right now is certainly ambitious. But he also seems to have plenty of good options, and at 24 years old and entering the prime of his career, that's not a bad dilemma to have.
Speaking of options, they seem to be what Eddie Johnson and Freddy Adu are running out of. Their loan to Greek club Aris feels more like an exile, a move motivated more by desperation than an attempt to secure their long-term future. But the past couple of years have treated neither player kindly and a guarantee of regular minutes might be the best they can hope for. As it stands, they're likely on the outside looking in on Bradley's World Cup roster.
While these are some of the many developing subplots to keep an eye on from here to June, perhaps the most intriguing storyline is not one involving fringe players looking for a late push or established players on the move. It involves players so obviously entrenched in the national team side you might forget that they too are facing pivotal moments in their careers.
I'm talking of course about Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. I exclude Tim Howard from this discussion because it's rather implausible to think he's going to suffer a major dip in form in the next six months. He offers the best quality a goalkeeper can provide: an excellence that's so consistent it borders on boring.
If recent performances are any indication, Dempsey and Donovan are primed to make major strides in the coming months. Donovan was impressive in his Everton debut, assisting on the opening goal and causing fits for Arsenal's left back Armand Traore in a 2-2 draw. That he was included in the starting 11 with so little preparation time against a team that had previously beaten Everton 6-1 shows the confidence Everton coach David Moyes has in Donovan's ability.
Dempsey, meanwhile, has not only cemented himself in Fulham's starting 11, he's become perhaps its most important player. Tied with Bobby Zamora as the team's leading scorer with six goals, he's at the forefront of much of Fulham's attacking movement. And if his wonder goal against Stoke is any indication, he's developing an appetite for goals that might cause Bradley to rethink his role in the national team side.
In the coming months, it's natural to focus on how the bottom of the national team side will shape up and what players will play their way into a trip to South Africa. But we should keep in mind that it's still the cream of the crop that will determine the U.S. team's fortunes in June. The two best American players are playing and performing well for competitive English sides. The strides they make and the progress they bring to South Africa could be the most interesting development for the national team in the months leading up the World Cup.