American Exports: What's left to play for, Part 1
AMSTERDAM – As Lord Tennyson once said, spring is when "a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." In a sometimes equally poetic way, it is also the time when his thoughts turn to what's left to play for with his favorite European club.
With so many Americans involved in important matches down the stretch of traditional trans-winter schedules, we've split this review of what's at stake across the pond into two parts.
In part two, we will deal with promotion and relegation. For now, we will kick off by looking at title hunts, cup dreams and the ubiquitous chase for Europe.
There are four US internationals chasing league glory among the top 15 European leagues in the UEFA co-efficients ranking. The only top-flight winner last season, Rangers' Maurice Edu, is perhaps the one with the best view of the finish line.
Two points back of leaders Celtic with a game in hand, the Scottish giants hold their own three-peat destiny. One potential monkey wrench: They have four of six remaining away from Ibrox, including the oft-tricky trip to Aberdeen.
If Rangers win it all again, Edu becomes the first American to raise three straight league trophies in a European honor division.
[inline_node:329706]Another former MLS ace, Anderlecht's Sacha Kljestan, is the only current member of a table-topper – but with a twist. The controversial new Jupiler League "Championship Playoff" method for determining a champion has changed things up a good bit.
The Mauves led by a point through 30 games and would traditionally have claimed the crown with that. This season, the top six are cordoned off from the rest, their point totals halved and rounded up to the nearest digit before running a good ol' hexagonal.
Anderlecht still lead Genk by the same margin, but now must maintain the advantage through another 10 games with all chasers now within eight points.
Next door in the Eredivisie, Oguchi Onyewu and holders FC Twente are a point shy of PSV Eindhoven's lead with six games to play. They will emerge from this international break by hosting the Farmers and close the season with a trip to Ajax.
Finally, Bursaspor's Jozy Altidore represents the longest shot, with his reigning champs nine points off the pace in third with eight games left. Offering a ray of hope is the fact that their next two home games are against leaders Fenerbahçe and second-place Trabzonspor.
Among second flight exports, AGF Aarhus' Benny Feilhaber is sitting on an eight-point cushion with a game in hand and 13 to go to a convincing promotion. In Turkey, Freddy Adu and loan side Rizespor are three points from the throne with six games to play and will visit leaders Samsunspor on closing day.
France’s Ligue 2 has an astounding 12 teams within seven points of the penthouse 10 rounds from the end, with Quentin Westberg and Évian two points off the top in third. In England’s Championship, Zak Whitbread and Norwich City are second place longshots, nine points back of QPR with eight to play.
[inline_node:331085]Let's begin at the UEFA level, where Twente loan defender Onyewu is the last American standing in either tourney. After tackling PSV, the Tukkers will trek to Villarreal to open their Europa League quarterfinal tie.
Advancement from that would see them face the Porto/Spartak Moscow winner as Gooch bids to follow in Clint Dempsey's finals footsteps from last year.
Among domestic cups, Rangers have already repeated as Co-Operative Insurance Cup champs, putting them in for a double. Onyewu's Twente are in for a treble, having clinched a May 8 final date with KNVB Cup defenders Ajax in Rotterdam.
Germany's DfB Pokal will feature Duisburg for a fourth time, with US call-up David Yelldell aiming to backstop the club to its first cup triumph in the May 27 final against Schalke in Berlin.
Over in Denmark, Michael Parkhurst and Ekstra Bladet Cup holders FC Nordsjælland are still alive for a repeat. At the end of April, they'll host a semifinal first leg with Randers FC.
In the Czech Republic, Stefan Jerome will hope to have breached the Sigma Olomouc rotation by the time they battle in a quarterfinal at Jablonec on April 20.
Of course, Bolton have a great chance to nab a Europa League invite even if they don't win the FA Cup. Wanderers have a final four date at Wembley with Stoke City on April 17, opposite a Manchester derby in the other semifinal. Sadly, they will run the last lap without injured midfield ace Stuart Holden.
Title chasers Anderlecht, Rangers and Twente currently hold down Champions League slots, but only the Belgians are sitting on a direct group-phase berth.
Altidore's Bursaspor are nine points adrift of another invite, while Clarence Goodson's Brøndby are two points away from Denmark's second Champions League pass with 11 games left. Both seem likely to at least find their way to the Europa League.
[inline_node:324102]The real Champions League story this spring is Steve Cherundolo's Hannover 96, who hold a two-point edge on Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga's third berth with seven games remaining.
The Reds – with or without a DaMarcus Beasley return – are done with FC Hollywood. With four games left against top seven sides, they cannot yet count on a backup Europa League consolation.
One of those four tilts is against Timothy Chandler's FC Nürnberg, who are two points shy of a Europa League place and eight back of Hannover. They will play host to key matches against direct competitors Bayern and Mainz in April.
In neighboring France, Carlos Bocanegra and Saint-Étienne need to make up 10 points in 10 games to reach the Europa League. Similarly, Bolton sans Holden and Tim Howard’s Everton are nine points from a qualification place with eight matches left.
However, Stefan Jerome's Sigma are much closer to the prize, two points out of the last Czech invite. Of course, Alejandro Bedoya already helped Sweden's Örebro already qualify for the next Europa League with a bronze league finish in 2010 – but he is expected to be gone by tourney time.
In Israel, US Under-20 ace Alex Zahavi is close to hedged bet of sorts. Loan side Hapoel Acre hold the final playoff spot for this Belgium-style top-tier hexagonal; the postseason best three reach Europe and parent club Maccabi Haifa currently stand first. Meanwhile, former Red Bulls defender Leo Krupnik and Maccabi Netanya are one point off that last Israeli top-six playoff spot with three regular-season games left.
Finally, in Bulgaria, Jemal Johnson and Lokomotiv Sofia are one point behind the league's final Europa League slot with 11 rounds remaining.