In my debut article I'm taking on the hat trick format to discuss a needed holiday tradition in MLS, a quick look at the revival of Italian soccer, and a couple familiar faces playing with their respective national teams. Does anyone have any fireworks ready?
1. The holidays may have lulled most of the soccer world into a brief slumber, but the English Premiere League is still going full speed ahead with their traditional Boxing Day matches. I woke up early yesterday to watch Fulham play Chelsea (between James Coston and myself there seems to be a nifty little Fulham supporter sub-culture growing here at Hot Time) and thought about MLS strengthening their Independence Day tradition.
Last season only two games were played on July 4th with a strong Seattle vs. Los Angeles game and an awkward Salt Lake vs. New England game. Now is the time to amplify that commitment to the Independence Day gameday. Understandably, complications may arise when trying to find television time to accommodate an all day smorgasbord of All-American soccer, but with 19 teams in the league next year surely some markets would be able to showcase an MLS game. Also, on World Cup years it may be better to forgo the gameday entirely with respect to the world's biggest sporting event.
Ideally, as many teams as possible would participate in the Independence Day tradition with games kicking off at various times starting east and heading west with Vancouver and Montreal playing on the road and Toronto sitting out
for being an absolutely miserable team because someone must.
Eastern teams and Chicago may have difficulties finding footing with attendance early on as baseball dominates the sports landscape, but a commitment to the tradition will only reap more benefits in the future. Columbus, D.C. and Kansas City can host early Eastern kickoffs to avoid baseball-strong markets hosting.
Western teams (and of course the Pacific Northwest in specific) would have a better chance at gathering an audience with reigning champions Los Angeles hosting and Seattle and Portland preferably hosting separate games as well. I would like to see the Fire play in one of those cities as the Cubs/Sox series usually occurs over that entire weekend.
With a focus on strategic scheduling, the league can start building a much needed holiday tradition of its own.
2. One may say this recent season of the Italian Serie A has been one of the most exciting in recent memory. AC Milan and a rejuvenated Juventus sit atop the leaderboard at 34 points, Udinese, led by Antonio DiNatale, sit in the third and final Champions League place with 32 points and Lazio and Inter Milan hold up the Europa League spots in fourth and fifth with 30 and 26 points respectively.
Nearly avoiding what seems to be an annual work strike before the first matchday, a healthy amount of entertaining matches have come from this season culminating in the 3-3 thriller between Napoili and Juventus where the Old Lady came back from a two goal deficit to bring a point back home to Turin.
Juventus have been the captivating story of this Serie A season for me as they have bounced back wonderfully from the Calciopoli scandal of 2006 which resulted in exile into Serie B, a player exodus, and a struggle to get back to the top of Italian soccer. Led by the old guard of Alessandro Del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon and the crucial signing of Andrea Pirlo and former youth team standout Claudio Marchisio, Juventus looks poised to return to European competition and possibly win the Scudetto.
While on the topic of European competiton, the Italians have been impressive with five of its seven representatives still in the hunt for the Champions League or Europa League. Napoli and AC Milan must now face the remaining English clubs Chelsea and Arsenal respectively and Inter must navigate passage to the quarterfinals by playing Marseille. In the Europa League, Udinese look to advance past PAOK of Greece and Lazio must take down former champions Atletico Madrid. Italian clubs are more than capable of advanceing far in both tournaments. It would be quite a story to see Italy reign supreme in European club competition again.
3. Finally, I am quite encouraged to see both Gonzalo Segares and Sean Johnson get call-ups to their national teams. It has certainly seemed like a while since the Fire have had players represent their national teams besides Marco Pappa and I hope this is a trend that will continue.
I find this especially encouraging for Segares who had a difficult time on the field last season after returning to Chicago. With Segares back on the Costa Rican team radar, a boost of confidence can push his form forward even more. Sega has performed better and better since his return and may have even more to offer if he gets sufficient rest and another fullback to keep his form in check.
Sean Johnson finds himself on Jurgen Klinsmann's list of call-ups for the United States national team January camp along wth D.C. United's Bill Hamid and Real Salt Lake's Nick Rimando. I would like to see Johnson get at least a half in one of the games, but I believe the experience of being with the senior team and working with Klinsmann directly is what Johnson needs most right now. If Johnson can show in training he can work in Klinsmann's system with a good attitude, more call-ups should come for the 22-year old goalkeeper.