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American Exports: Belgian, French, Dutch season preview

Jozy Altidore training with AZ Alkmaar.

Photo Credit: 
Danielle Mes

AMSTERDAM — It's season-opening season in Europe and we're back to give you more of the lowdown on what to expect for American Exports.

Belgium's Jupiler League kicks off on Friday, so we'll start there this time. Also included are neighbors France and the Netherlands, who are each primed to start their new seasons next weekend.

JUPILER LEAGUE

ANDERLECHT

US Player: Sacha Kljestan (M)

Player Outlook: Kljestan has yet to feature in any friendlies, but is expected to dress for Friday's opener at promoted OH Leuven. He will probably start more games than last season even if the Mauves manage to hang onto Lucas Biglia through another window.

With Romelu Lukaku still in the side (for now) and Milan Jovanovic on his way (reportedly), it seems at the moment that Kljestan will continue in the same two-way central midfield role as he played most of last season in Anderlecht's 4-3-3. He could, however, become more involved in taking set pieces this term.

Team Outlook: You must know that Brussels is still steaming over what happened this spring. League leaders after the traditional 30th game end of the regular season, Anderlecht looked under a curse in the new Belgian title hex and finished third. This sort of thing does not go over well at Constant Vanden Stock.

Being that they have this shoulder chip and have thus far managed to retain the hot transfer topics (Lukaku, Roland Juhász, Kanu and Jonathan Legear), Anderlecht would already look to be favorites again. Adding summer coups Guillermo Molins, Ronald Vargas and especially defender Behrang Safari to the mix means anything less than winning the crown back will be deemed abject failure.

FRENCH LIGUE 1

SAINT-ÉTIENNE

US Player: Carlos Bocanegra (D)

Player Outlook: While the current Captain America ended last season in central defense, the addition of Paulão could either see manager Christophe Galtier offer up a new partner or ship him back out to the left. As Bocanegra was late to preseason due to Gold Cup R&R, this outcome remains to be seen.

Regardless of where he plays, Bocanegra may need to get acquainted with a new goalkeeper as veteran holdover Jérémie Janot is being pushed by new arrival Stéphane Ruffier.

Team Outlook: Losing midfield general Blaise Matuidi would hurt almost anyone, but with smooth lefty Jérémy Clément brought in as replacement, the Saint-Étienne defense may actually not notice a difference.

If Florent Sinama Pongolle can do as well in place of the departed top scorer Dmitri Payet, Les Verts will have a fair shot at finishing top 10 again. The initial thought here, however, is that the Sporting CP transplant may struggle to fill shoes. And if the offense stutters any more than it did last season, it'll be back to the relegation fight.

ÉVIAN

US Player: Quentin Westberg (GK)

Player Outlook: Like David Yelldell at Bayer Leverkusen, Q-Dub will be a No. 2 'keeper standing in for an injured starter as league play begins. On Wednesday, the club announced that Bertran Laquait will miss the first month, so as things stand, Westberg gets the nod for four league games.

Even happier, they will come against the other two promoted sides and a pair of relegation scrapers from last season. If Westberg performs solidly, he can probably nail down a domestic cup starting gig for himself. Watch out for a possible El Tri standoff against new Ajaccio recruit Guillermo Ochoa on August 20.

Team Outlook: While Évian is both a refreshing drink and the most well-equipped to stay up among promoted sides, it would be silly to think they can completely avoid drop concerns. Still, the addition of Sidney Govou probably gives them enough industry in attack to survive.

Of a little more concern to Westberg are the back-liners and he should be delighted with summer pick-ups Jonathan Mensah and Daniel Wass. The latter should prove a human pressure valve, while the Ghana international has former Lyon star Cláudio Caçapa around to show him the ropes. New defensive midfielder Mohammed Rabiu should also strength the back.

DUTCH EREDIVISIE

AZ ALKMAAR

US Player: Jozy Altidore (F)

Player Outlook: The US forward is being counted on to combine with fellow new recruit Ruud Boymans to spearhead the offense. Stateside fans can expect his technical game to gradually improve thanks to that famous Dutch attack coaching.

While Altidore joined full training last Wednesday, he may not be ready for the opener against PSV next Sunday. When he is ready, boss Gertjan Verbeek will ask him to plow road and score goals. With a fresh start and eager attitude, don't be at all shocked if Jozy does just that.

Team Outlook: The Cheese Farmers finished a respectable fourth last season, winning three of six against the top three of Ajax, Twente and PSV. However, a five-game winless slide to open the season and five leaked equalizing/winning goals over the final quarter hour of games left them double digits in points off the lead pack.

Can AZ regain title contender status and invade the top three this season? Yes, possibly, but they need a few things to go right.

For them to threaten the top, Verbeek will require 1) Altidore and Boymans to best the 21 goals that left in striker transfers, 2) the young defense to continue gelling and 3) that Pontus Wernbloom can prove an adequate successor to departed skipper Stijn Schaars in defensive midfield.


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