Postcard from Europe: What's left at stake this season
AMSTERDAM – It's that time of year again. The flowers are in bloom and there's plenty of glory to chase (or disaster to avoid) for Americans working overseas. So let's get right to the good stuff, shall we?
A handful of US internationals are heading into the final turn with championship hopes intact, with Jozy Altidore (at right) fighting for the most prestigious league prize.
His AZ Alkmaar are one point up at the top of the Eredivisie table, but the going is going to get tough for the Cheese Farmers down the stretch. While they are done with second-place Ajax, their final seven games include crunch clashes with PSV Eindhoven, FC Twente and Feyenoord, all of whom are within five points.
Next door in Belgium, Sacha Kljestan and Anderlecht enter the 10-game championship playoff with a three-point edge and bitter memories of blowing the league lead at this stage last season. Six points back in third, Mikkel Diskerud's Gent are also in the Jupiler League fight.
Over in Denmark's Superliga, Michael Parkhurst and FC Nordsjælland have clawed to within three points of holders FC Copenhagen with 11 games to play. Vying for their first ever title, the Wild Tigers could be in for the match of their history when the leaders visit Farum Park on May 2.
But the first American of the 2011-12 season to be crowned a league king will all but surely be Israeli club Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona’s Bryan Gerzicich. Consistently standing out in defensive midfield, Gerzicich and Kiryat Shmona are in position to clinch their first Ligat Ha'Al championship at home with a draw against second-place Hapoel Tel Aviv on Monday night.
Leagues aren't the only place to mine for silver, and several Americans remain after cup glory into spring.
On the continental level, four clubs employing Yanks have reached the Europa League quarterfinals. Amazingly, they all managed to avoid each other in the draw, offering the possibility that each can make the final four to make this year's edition a real American house party.
It may be easier said than done. Altidore's AZ must now tackle Valencia, Steve Cherundolo's Hannover 96 have drawn 2010 champs Atlético Madrid and Jermaine Jones' Schalke get to deal with Manchester United-slayers Athletic Bilbao. Injured Sporting CP defender Oguchi Onyewu – who worked this round for FC Twente last year – will hope the Lions can keep roaring in the tourney until he's fit.
In domestic cup play, Tim Howard (at right) and Everton are in hot pursuit of his second FA Cup win, with USMNT predecessor Brad Friedel (pictured at top) and Tottenham Hotspur joining them in the semifinals. Each will need to survive a mid-April derby at Wembley to set up a final showdown; the Toffees have Liverpool in their path, while Spurs drew Chelsea.
In Portugal, Onyewu’s target return date gives him a fair shot to make the Taça de Portugal final squad on May 20. The 15-time tourney champs will face Académica, a club whose lone triumph came 73 years ago.
To the north in Denmark, two clubs with Americans are in the last four hoping to succeed Michael Parkhurst as DBU Pokalen champ (yes, it's been renamed). The two-leg semis start April 18, with Conor O'Brien's SønderjyskE forced to tackle FC Copenhagen and Brad Rusin's HB Køge pitted against AC Horsens.
Finally, Leo Krupnick and scorching-hot Maccabi Netanya are awaiting the elite eight draw for Israel's State Cup.
Some Americans could punch their tickets to next fall's UEFA competitions through league titles and others with a domestic cup triumph. For several, it’s going to be a fight to get tickets to a dance.
Friedel and Spurs can earn a Europa League pass by winning the FA Cup, but they have bigger fish 'n chips to fry with a five-point edge on Chelsea for England's fourth Champions League invite and eight games to the finish line.
Not far away in Scotland, Alejandro Bedoya, Carlos Bocanegra and Maurice Edu would love to hang onto the second Champions League berth to expedite Rangers’ path out of administration. The Ibrox bunch are three points clear of Motherwell, a team they must play twice over the final seven games, including an away game on Saturday.
In the Bundesliga, Jones and Schalke are in line to claim a Champions League berth and they lead fourth place Borussia Mönchengladbach by two points in the race for Germany's third group-stage ticket.
Meanwhile, captain Cherundolo's Reds are two points out of a Europa League slot with seven games left.
Portugal's table has Onyewu and Sporting nearing a Europa League return, eight points clear of sixth-place Guimarães with six games remaining.
A look at the Danish chase shows Chris Rolfe and Aalborg BK three points and as many places out of Europe, with Clarence Goodson's warming Brøndby three points back of them in eighth. The teams meet for a potentially telling contest at AaB on May 6.
Heading back to Israel, a four-game win streak has Krupnick and Maccabi Netanya two points up for the Europa League table spot that comes with third place.
Hold the Elevator!
Most of the promotion watch centers on England, where both Danny Potts of West Ham United and Birmingham City's Jonathan Spector (at right) sit in playoff slots with an April 9 clash in London looming.
The Irons are a point out of the second automatic EPL elevator, while Spector's Brums have a game in hand on all eight teams within a half-dozen points of their sixth place. Among that pack, three points adrift, are Robbie Rogers and Leeds United. One tier down in League One, Frank Simek's Carlisle are three points and a game in hand up for the final promotion playoff berth.
Over on the continent, Matt Taylor and suddenly slipping Paderborn are eight points from automatic promotion to the Bundesliga with seven games left, but just three points out of a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, with a win streak at five and their unbeaten run up to 12, Dutch side Helmond Sport and Charles Kazlauskas look poised to cinch another promotion tourney berth.
Happily, there aren't many Americans struggling to avoid the quicksand this season.
Most notably, Tim Ream and recovering ace Stuart Holden are dangling a point over the trap door with Bolton. Wanderers have a game in hand on the three teams currently below them and Spurs are the only top four team left on their schedule.
The German relegation picture shows Timothy Chandler's FC Nürnberg only four points clear of the drop zone, while Alfredo Morales and Hertha Berlin are two points from survival. They're only above Andrew Wooten's Kaiserslautern, who look destined to fall into the second flight with only seven matches to make up eight points.
In neighboring France, it remains to be seen how much action is in store for Charlie Davies as next-to-last Sochaux race to make up two places and two points over the final nine games. Elsewhere, Rusin's HB Køge are 11 points from safety in Denmark, making them a candidate to join the shortlist of clubs who've fallen out of the top flight and booked a place in Europe in the same season.