With the business end of the Premier League season in full swing and with the MLS 2021 season about to kick off, US goalkeeping legend Brad Friedel spoke exclusively to CardsChat about his former clubs Liverpool, Aston Villa, Blackburn and Tottenham on their hopes for the remainder of the season. Friedel also shared his thoughts on the current crop of Premier League goalkeepers, offered his insight on the US talent on show across Europe’s top leagues and analyzed the key players, teams and new managers to look out for ahead of the MLS 2021 campaign.
What has gone wrong with Liverpool this season? How did it get to the stage that they’ve lost 6 home games this season?
I really wouldn’t look too much into the issues that Liverpool have had this season, a lot of it has to do with the issues that they’ve had in the centre of defense. It’s been incredibly unsettling for them and they have been playing midfielders in the centre of defence at times. The central defenders that they do have when fully fit are amongst the best in the world. I think that they got to a point in the season where they needed those two or three results to kick on and they would have been title contenders.
I do think their squad is still the best squad in the Premier League. People might argue that Man City’s is, but I think top to bottom when everyone is fit, Liverpool are and they have a tremendous manager. It’s not too different to Man City’s trouble’s last year and Pep Guardiola, one of the best managers of all time – and still is. Jurgen Klopp is a great manager and this run doesn’t change the fact that he is one of the very best. I think that this season has just been a little bit unsettling and it seems like there is some frustration throughout the other players in the team because results aren’t going their way. I think it’s just one of those things where results didn’t go their way and it’s caused a little bit of issues in the squad, but they’re still very, very good, amongst the best in Europe. They will get it together; Klopp will get it together and for the Premier League, their focus will be next season but for the Champions League it could be now.
What do you make of the calls for Klopp to be sacked? Do you think he would be interested in the Germany job?
I have no idea if Klopp will be interested in the Germany job. I think most top managers at some time in their career, if given the opportunity of being the head coach of the national team and a big nation they would look at it. I have no idea if that is in Klopp’s mind or not. With regards to calls for him to be sacked, I think that’s ludicrous to be honest with you. What I would say is a lot of the head coaches, especially the ones where they require a lot of concentration and a lot of hard work from the players you need to then change it every so often and get new blood in and go again. I think Sir Alex Ferguson was the absolute very best at this. He stayed in his job for so long but he still had to reinvent every so often. There were many times throughout his career I can remember that the papers, people, were calling for him to be sacked – for which again I’ll use the same word I used for Jurgen Klopp which is “ludicrous”. You see how good Sir Alex was so I think Klopp, who knows better than myself, who he needs to get out, who he needs to bring in, and then they can reinvent themselves a little bit. But they don’t need a lot of change, they would maybe need a small tweak. Maybe all they need is the summer off and everyone will come back in and be reinvigorated. With regards to the national team job, I have no idea what Jurgen Klopp’s plans are for the future. What I would say is that it’s very enticing at some stage in a career to manage a ‘Germany’. How many people get the opportunity to do that in their lifetime? So, you just have to wait and see on that front. Sacking him? No way, come on.
Someone who has just won the League with Rangers, Steven Gerrard, do you think Liverpool will have one eye on him as a potential when the time comes?
Stevie, throughout his entire managerial career, will be always and forever be linked to the Liverpool job if he has never taken it. Especially if he goes on and has great successes at Rangers and if he moves on from Rangers to another enormous club and has great successes there. Of course, he’s going to be linked. He’s a Liverpool legend, the people there adore him, and he was one of the very, very best players and he’s now proving himself to be a very good manager. So, I think for the longevity, as long as he’s a head coach, if never taken the Liverpool job, if he keeps having successes, of course you’re going to see him linked to that job many, many times.
We spoke about the League being out of their grasp now, how much pressure will there be on Liverpool to win the Champions League? And how much expectation for a club like Liverpool to bring home some silverware this season?
There’s going to be pressure on Liverpool to still try and finish in the top four, there’s going to be pressure to bring in silverware. But I think that’s every season with a club the size of Liverpool. They won the league last season, I’m not saying you get credit in the bank forever, but they’ve had a two or three month slip in form and I still think from now until the end of the season you can see them going unbeaten, with the squad they have. You never know. You just need to look at how many points behind Man City were from Liverpool and they caught up and then created a 20, nearly 30-point difference, it’s an incredible turnaround. Liverpool has the ability to go on an unbeaten run as well. I’m not saying they’re going to catch up with Man City, but they can catch up in to the top four.
Allison has made a series of uncharacteristic errors this season already. How much is that down to the unsettled defence or should that not affect him considering how established and what a great keeper he is?
That unsettled defence and the personal problems that Allison has had this season definitely can affect a person. It’s difficult to put into words when things go wrong. I wasn’t the type of person that was ever nervous or seemed affected by certain things. But for one or two seasons in my career goals were going in or little mistakes were happening, or you’re getting exposed for your mistakes for whatever reason. I don’t know him as a person so I don’t know what his disposition is but I think he is one hell of a good goalkeeper and if he’s going through a bit of a bad season let him get on with it. From the outside looking in, I don’t think there are any alarm bells to want to sell or to swap or to bring someone else in or drop him. Just let him get through this period. He definitely does not become a bad goalkeeper overnight. He’s still one of the world’s best. He’s having a little bit of a dip, let him go through it and come out the other side. He’s an experienced goalkeeper now, he’s been in the biggest of games, he’ll be fine.
You mentioned about Liverpool’s squad needing addressing, how much do the front three need to be improved this summer? And would it be a good place to look at Dembele from Barca this summer?
What I would say is that Liverpool don’t need to change any of them if they’re all three happy and performing. The quality that the three (Mane, Firmino and Salah) have are second to none. But at times this season they haven’t all looked happy. These are the little idiosyncrasies that we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. Normally if you take them off the pitch and things are happy you’re not acting a little bit petulant, things of that nature. So, something is going on. If it’s a little bit of a bigger issue than a smaller issue, then that might have to be addressed. With regards to the players that would come in, I’m sure they have their analytics department, they have their scouting department, and they’ll know who to bring in. I would imagine it would be a player in the ilk of a Dembele or a player who is at a big club, or in a big league that is performing well because you’re Liverpool and you want to sign a player that is going to help you win the League or the Champions League. So that would be the type of player that they would go for of course. But you might not have to, depending on what the actual issues are. Can they be resolved internally? Is it a contract dispute? Who knows. These are the things that go on at every club, unless you’re there, unless you’re the players agent and whoever at the club is doing to negotiations, we just don’t know. There is something a little bit off but hopefully it can be rectified quickly for Liverpool’s sake.
Liverpool are linked with the likes of Haaland, Mbappe who are obviously the global superstars at the moment. Do you think Liverpool can compete with the likes of Real Madrid and Man City still for those kinds of signatures?
Liverpool can compete for the signings of Haaland nad Mbappe, the question is if they will? The group that owns Liverpool, they have deep pockets. But then you also have to consider financial fair play, you have to consider what the balance sheet looks like and you also have to take in to account that you’re in COVID. We’re still in a pandemic, we’re not out of it and the match day revenue losses for these clubs are enormous. So, you’re going to have to take that in to account and perhaps Liverpool would think that they can get off on a discount because of COVID. But the selling club may think that ‘you’re Liverpool, you can afford it, and we’ve got, perhaps, a Man City or a Real Madrid that will afford it’. Can they do it? Yes, they can. But will they? It’s a different story.
Thomas Tuchel has yet to really give Christian Pulisic game time at Chelsea. He’s been linked with a move to Chelsea, do you think he’d do well there, and could Klopp take him to the next level?
I think Liverpool’s system is a good one for Christian, without a doubt. He’s very quick, his first steps are quick and even when he gets going, he’s very quick. The pressing style that Jurgen Klopp likes to play under, then the quick counterattack and the runs through the lines, I think he would be able to perform very well in that system. Again, I have no idea if that’s a player that they’re looking at, but that type of system would be ideal for someone like Christian.
What do you make of Christian Pulisic’s role at Chelsea? Does he have the potential to be the most successful American player to play in mainland Europe?
Pulisic has the potential to be the most successful American player in mainland Europe but it is still relatively early days with a new head coach at Chelsea who I hope he can do well under. At the beginning of the season, he was unplayable at times and doing really, really well. Let’s just see how it goes for the US. He is our best attacking player, and we’ve got a few of them. We need him to stay injury free, that’s for sure.
Liverpool is reportedly among a number of top clubs said to be keeping tabs on young Schalke striker, American, Matthew Hoppe. Does he have the quality needed for a club like Liverpool?
Time will tell if Liverpool target Matthew Hope has the quality to make it at Liverpool. I think, with a signing like that, it depends on the amount of money you’re paying and the wage that you’re paying. I’ve not studied Hoppe like they would have studied him, that’s for sure. If Klopp thinks he would be a good addition, then that would be the only approval that he would need.
How big of a blow will the Arsenal result be to Tottenham and their season? Do you think it’s a reality check as to how far they are away from competing?
I don’t know if losing to Arsenal is a ‘reality check’ because derby’s it doesn’t matter what local derby it is. Sometimes form and League standing go out of the window. They’re fantastic games to be involved in and sometimes the results just aren’t what you expect going into them, that’s the same all over the world. Will it be a blow right now? Yeah of course. They were on good form and if they would have got the three points (they are six behind the top four) it would have taken them three points off the top four plus continue the form that they’re on. I still think they have enough confidence from recent results to make a good run of the last stretch of games that they’re going to have. I know that they all want to get in to that top four place and I think there’s a quality to be able to do it but they’re going to need some luck on their side as well. Losing to Arsenal when you’re a Tottenham player or supporter, it’s always a blow of course. That’s your main local rival so you can’t sugar coat that it’s okay to lose it nor that it would be a big blow. But, not sugar coating anything, I still think that they have quality in the squad to make a run for it to the end of the season.
What do you make on the whole of the job that Jose Mourinho has done so far? And do you think he is the man to take them to the next level? Or is there a ceiling with him?
I think Mourinho’s the right man for Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino’s style and Jose Mourinho’s style of play are two different things. So, Mourinho would need time to know which players are going to be able to play in his style and there is a long line of players who have been groomed by Mauricio Pochettino in his style, that’s number one. Number two is that you’re at a club that doesn’t have even the fifth biggest budget in the Premier League. So, you’re going to consistently have to try and get 100% out of every single player to be able to compete, to possibly be able to win the League.
Your transfer budget and your salary budget are not amongst the top. It’s not all about money, but when you’re talking about Man City and Liverpool being able to go for certain players, I’m not sure if Tottenham will be in that arena for those kind of transfer fees. So, could they go buy Mbappe? If they wanted to, I’m not saying they need to because they have Harry Kane, but I’m not so sure.
So, is Jose the right man? Jose is an incredible coach, he’s been one of the very, very best of all time. But he also needs some of the very best players to be able to win the League. I think Daniel Levy and the board to an unbelievable job at Tottenham, look at the training ground, look at the stadium, exciting players on the pitch and they do it all not budgeting at the top, and they make money. The club is in a very healthy position, I think it’s a little bit unfair to talk about all the time ‘is Jose Mourinho the right guy if they don’t life a trophy?’ You also have to budget in certain ways to win the trophies in the Premier League I’m afraid.
Do you expect Tottenham to finish in the Top 4 this season?
Do I expect Tottenham to finish in the Top 4? Probably not. Hope? Yes. Do I think they can? Yeah. The probability is that they probably won’t at this stage but they also have enough quality. The front three that they have, with Bale, Kane, and Son, and if you have Lucas playing, the four attacking players, they’re as good as anybody in the Premier League. They can get a run together without a doubt. They can go unbeaten themselves and if they do that then they can see themselves up there. But there are other teams that are very good around them. So, I would say with stats and probability, and things of that nature they’re probably just going to miss out. But could they? Yeah, they could.
If Tottenham were to win just the League Cup this season, would that be seen as enough improvement? Or would it just be seen as papering over not finishing higher in the League?
If Tottenham were just to win the League Cup then that would be an improvement, it’s a trophy, it’s not easy to win trophies. When you’re going up against the massive budget teams and if you can win a trophy then it’s a huge success.
Hugo Lloris is a player that has come under some criticism. Do you still think he has the quality to be Tottenham’s number one? Or is that a position that they should address in the summer?
Hugo Lloris still has the quality to be Tottenham’s Number One. Sometimes you have to understand that the grass is not always greener and when you have experience seasoned professional football players that can deal with the ups and the downs it’s important. Hugo is a good guy, a good leader, he’s a humble guy, does his work every day. I would imagine that all of his physical stats are still top drawer, if his physical stats start dropping a little bit or mentally he doesn’t want to play, then that is something different and they can address that. But from what I see, I don’t know where you would go buy another goalkeeper that would be better. Again, looking at budget numbers as well, where are you going to find a better goalkeeper? France’s number one, at Tottenham under the budget figures that they have and that they bought Hugo for. I still think he’s Tottenham’s number one and I don’t see a need to change that.
Has Gareth Bale now proved his worth and the money that Tottenham shelled out to secure him on loam? Has he proved himself or are you still expecting more from him?
I’m still expecting more from Bale because I’ve played with him, I know how good he is. Obviously, he had some fitness issues and there’s still lots to come from him. Gareth’s such a good player. Big physical player, incredible left foot, powerful runner, good in the air. When he is on his game he is virtually unstoppable.
Does Harry Kane need to leave Tottenham in order to win himself trophies as he enters the prime years of his career? Which club do you think will be best suited for him?
I think Harry Kane will eventually be sold by Tottenham. I think it will start getting to a point of near impossible to keep him. He has proven himself to be one of the best goal scorers globally. Where he would go, I don’t know. Tottenham are very savvy and very good in the transfer market. I don’t know if they would hold on and only sell him abroad or sell him in the Premier League. I would think that they would probably not want to play against him, so then you would have to look around. And COVID is going to come into play a little bit in terms of who could afford the transfer fee.
What I do know about Harry as an individual is, he will think every season that he’s going to win a trophy with Tottenham. He’s a great team player and a great number nine himself that we all know, so he’ll also think, every season, that he can win these trophies with Tottenham. But him leaving will be dictated by the board and when or if they accept a transfer fee. It’s not going to be dictated by the player. That’s something that Tottenham does better than most in world football. And people can say or think what they want about Daniel Levy, but this is, by him being as good as he has been in the transfer market, has put Tottenham into just a wonderful financial position.
So, they’ll dictate – if Harry Kane moves, that’ll be dictated by the club accepting the transfer fee. If Harry stays, Harry will give his all towards the cause to win as many trophies as possible for Tottenham.
Two of your former clubs face each other this weekend, Villa vs Tottenham, do you expect there to be an “upset” in that Villa can claim a victory?
Aston Villa could absolutely cause an upset against Tottenham this weekend. Aston Villa are having a tremendous season, full of confidence, they have an outstanding goalkeeper who is in really good form, there’s a great connection with the two centre backs. They’ll miss Grealish if he doesn’t play, they’ll miss him because when you play against the top teams, to have a player like Grealish is a huge help. But the Aston Villa team is full of confidence. They’ll be a hard game for Tottenham, without a doubt. I think Tottenham is better player-for-player but that doesn’t mean you’re going to go in and win.
You talked about how impressive Aston Villa have been this season, they dropped off a little bit in the last couple of games, but do you still think that they could potentially fight for those Europa League places this season?
Aston Villa could possibly finish in the Europa League spots this season but everything has to fall their way. I think it’s tremendous that they’re going to be in the Premier League again. I think they’re going to finish comfortably in mid-table and if all the stars aligned then possibly. But it’s an outside chance.
How much of the success goes down to Emiliano Martinez specifically? How important has he been to Aston Villa?
It helps a lot when you have a consistent goalkeeper, a consistent performer, you know exactly what you’re going to get from him. The relationship Martinez has with his two centre backs, the back four as a whole, the holding midfield. You can go into every game knowing you’re going to get at least a seven out of ten performance and occasionally he’s called upon to do the eights and the nines. He’s been a really top signing for them.
Do you think Jack Grealish should be one of the first names on the England team sheet in the summer? Should he be a guaranteed starter?
I don’t think Grealish is a guaranteed starter for England in the summer but I think he puts his name in the hat in the running. He’s got a lot of competition. I don’t think you can give too many people guaranteed spots, but he can definitely play for England no doubt. But he’ll have to continuously keep earning his place and call ups in the England squad. Tough to say guaranteed starter, but in the squad, I would say so and on the team sheet, I wouldn’t blink an eye if I saw his name there.
Can Aston Villa keep hold of Jack Grealish this summer or should they cash in to reinvest in the rest of the squad?
I don’t know Villa’s finances and whether they need to sell Jack Grealish but I do think it’ll be very difficult to keep a hold of him. Firstly, the transfer fee that they would be able to command for him would be tremendous. Secondly, just the individual wage packet. I think, at some stage, you’re going to have to be fair to the player who has come through your own system. And if someone’s going to be able to offer double, triple – or even more – wages than what you could offer him, you need to possibly look to let go.
It’s probably not what Villa fans want to hear or see, but that’s the reality of the situation. Unless there’s a big pot of cash sitting there with Villa – which could be the case – after being promoted and then staying in the Premier League and now being comfortable – maybe they can continue to give him a pay packet that keeps him at the club. Who knows!
They’ve had a bit of a drop in form over the past month, is there still an outside chance of the Play-Offs, or is it preparing for next season?
Blackburn need to focus on reaching the Play-Offs next season now. A month ago, everything had to go perfect for them to be in contention and it pretty much went the absolute opposite way. They’re going to have to try to find budget numbers from somewhere and get that extra quality. They’re not that far off of it. The games they lose are generally by a goal or they draw when they should have won. It’s one or two more players to try and get them in the play-offs, three of four more players if they want to try to get in to the top two spots. But they cost money and they’ve got a tonne of debt at the club. We’ll just have to wait and see what they can try to get in terms of players in the summer.
How impressed have you been with Adam Armstrong this season? Do you expect him to the be the subject of a big money Premier League move in the summer?
If Blackburn get into the playoffs and get promoted, I can see Adam Armstrong staying with the club. Actually, undoubtedly, he would stay with the club. If they don’t, that will be a discussion, because they might need the finances to come in.
Who do you think is the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment? Who is setting the standards?
Right now, I like Ederson in this moment in time. I turn on the TV to watch him. I can’t say that about too many other goalkeepers. There are tonnes of goalkeepers I respect, don’t get me wrong. But when the ball goes back to Ederson, I’m actually disappointed when he gives an easy pass. I want to see him do something because I know he can. When he hits the 70-/80-yard passes right on the money, plus he can shot stop. He for me, with his age also, I think he’s sublime. I really like watching him play.
Do you think there is too much of a reliance now on goalkeepers needing to play with their feet? Does it invite too much unnecessary pressure?
It depends on an individual’s coaching philosophy as to whether there is too much reliance nowadays on playing with their feet. Not long ago, about 78% of goals were scored from losing possession in your half of the field and the other team being able to attack quickly on your goal. So, it just depends on what your football philosophy is as a manager, so I think if you’re going to ask your goalkeeper to play out at the back and take some risk, then you have to be prepared to concede some goals from time to time. If you don’t, then your philosophy is for your goalkeeper just to clear the danger, then that’s a different way of playing as well, but I see that philosophy less and less. And I see managers with the philosophy of a goalkeeper wanting to have a decent pass percentage rate themselves.
Has the standard of goalkeeping got progressively better? Or progressively worse would you say?
The standard of goalkeeping has got progressively different. Keep in mind when I was first playing you could still pick up a back pass. It’s just a different role for a goalkeeper. I still think the most important thing is keeping the ball out of the back of the net. I think that got lost in some countries with the playing out from the back at all costs, at all times. I also think for a goalkeeper the most difficult league in the world to play in is the Premier League. I think the second most difficult league is the Bundesliga. I think the number of crosses, physical play and different elements you’re involved in in a game-to-game basis is more than the other leagues. So, you have to deal with breakaways, you have to deal with shots from the angle, you have to deal with shots from distance, you have to deal with shots in the box, with short crosses, long crosses, deep crosses, distribution, teams pressing you. You have to deal with it all. In a lot of countries, you don’t. You hardly ever have to deal with a cross let’s say. When you’re playing out from the back you hardly ever have pressure on you. The Premier League you have it all. To then watch a goalkeeper that is very good with his feet, but can also do all the other elements of goalkeeping to the highest of standards, that’s why I think Ederson is the best.
Dean Henderson has featured ahead of David de Gea for Man United in the past couple of games. Do you expect him now to cement that role?
Let’s wait for Dean Henderson’s dip – what makes a goalkeeper is how they react to mistakes. Every goalkeeper makes mistakes, the bigger the club that you’re at, the more highlighted your mistakes are and let’s see what happens and see how he deals with mistakes. Is he an excellent goalkeeper? Yes. Does he have all the technical qualities? Yes. I don’t know him as a person, so I don’t know what he’s like mentally. He will no doubt make a few mistakes, let’s see how he reacts when the world thinks he’s bad and made the mistake. Then I’ll let you know if I think he’s better than David de Gea because David de Gea has been there and done it, he’s been through it. He’s been goalkeeper of the year, he’s been down, he’s seen it all and that’s the telling moment for me with a goalkeeper.
MLS & US National Team
Who do you expect to win the MLS Cup this season? Columbus Crew obviously reigning Champions. Do you see them as favourites to retain or…?
There is so much parity across the MLS League and a lot of it comes down to your confidence and getting it together at the right time to make a run into the play offs. So, Columbus will definitely be in with a shot. A team like LAFC could be decent. I would assume with Greg Vanney going to LA Galaxy they’re going to be much better than they were last year. Interested to see what Phil Neville does at Inter Miami, they have resources there, they could be decent. Orlando with Oscar Pareja are going to be decent. I’m not certain about New York Red Bull, NYCFC, Totonto possibly they still have a couple of very good players on the books there. But a lot of the teams are very similar and if they keep their designated players fit at the right times and they make a run to the play offs, there’s usually at the start of the season one of eight teams that will win the League. It makes the League exciting to be honest with you because it’s usually not one team that runs away with things. For example, Sporting Kansas City is a very good team and then the season before last they didn’t even make the play-offs and finished virtually in the last position with the same players. This next season Sporting Kansas City could be one of the favourites. So, it’s an interesting League.
What do you make of Atlanta United’s decision to appoint Gabriele Heinze? He brings a strong European playing pedigree to the MLS.
Whenever you hire a foreign manager into – or a head coach – into MLS, whether they’re a good coach or not, you have to wait to see if it’s a good hire or a bad hire. And I really hope that Heinze makes a success but there are so many rules to contend with. You’re working with a salary cap, it’s hard to get rid of players, it’s hard to bring in your own players all the time. There are collective bargaining agreement issues of when you can train players, when you can’t train players, the amount of days off that you give players. When you play at big clubs in Europe, days off are few and far between. In the MLS, it’s mandatory you have to give a certain amount of days off a month.
And a lot of managers just don’t understand it. And I didn’t when I was the head coach of New England, I didn’t understand how a player could return back to pre-season over 20lbs overweight and not have repercussions for it. It just didn’t happen at Tottenham or Liverpool, or anywhere in Europe. That doesn’t happen. So, he’ll have to get used to that quick and he’ll have to adapt quick. For his football methodology and his thoughts on football – I think he’ll be a great hire for that. It’ll be how he can adapt to the rules, the travel, playing on some plastic pitches, what COVID is going to throw at him, what players he can and can’t get.
Because you saw Tata Martino was incredibly successful at Atlanta, then they brought in de Boer and I think he found it really difficult to navigate through the MLS rules, and then they had a very poor season. Atlanta is a wonderful club, an incredible fan base. If fans can come back into the stadiums, and he should thoroughly enjoy his time there. But we’ll have to see how he navigates through all these interesting rules over here.
What is your reaction to the appointment of Phil Neville as coach of Inter Miami?
I did my pro licence with Phil Neville so know all about his quality. I think it’s a great hire, I really do. It’s hard to get through the rules over here, so he’s a really mild-mannered guy, a very intelligent guy. The players will like him, he speaks Spanish from his time at Valencia, which will help him here in Miami. It will also help with a lot of the foreign players that you bring in, because there’s huge influx of players from South America that come in. So, the language will not be an issue whatsoever. But he’s going to have to get used to everything that I just rattled off with regards to Gabriel Heinze.
The other thing he is a little bit of a disadvantage is the fact that Inter Miami was only a first-year team last year and they never really got to have a normal season because of COVID. So, they’re still bit-piecing their entire club together. They call themselves ‘Inter Miami’, but they don’t have land for their stadium in Miami so they play up in Fort Lauderdale. A beautiful training facility and a really nice makeshift stadium for a few years, but there’s a lot of uncertainty with the club itself.
And a lot of times when the managers don’t succeed, especially the foreign managers, it takes them a while to know all the rules, and then by the time they know all the rules, they probably would have liked to man-manage the players a little bit different. But hopefully he hits the ground running and does a great job because he’s a really, really good guy.
Given his experience, is Neville better-placed to get the best out of big-name signings like Gonzalo Higuain and Blauise Matuidi?
Phil Neville will be fine to deal with big name signings like Higuaín and Matuidi. He played at one of the biggest clubs in the world for a long time. And you know what I think will help him even more is his time with the women’s national team in England, because it showed that Phil was able to adapt to a completely different way of playing. And he and Gabriel Heinze, they are going to have to adapt over here. If he thinks he’s going to come in and only be able to set his rules his way, he’ll be sorely mistaken because you do have to understand that the level of professionalism that he’s used to is going to be a lot different over here.
The likes of Higuain, Matuidi and Vela are all amongst the top stars in the MLS – do you think the MLS is more attractive to players coming from Europe than it was at the start of the Beckham era?
The MLS is now more of an attractive option for players from Europe’s top leagues. It’s better football, they’re better players. The money isn’t as big as some people might think – for designated players, it can be, but there is a salary cap and structure scenarios over here. So, I think a lot of the European players are a bit surprised when they see the offers that come in. But it’s better, and it gets better and better every single year – more fans, more participation on social media and a lot of the cities that you can live in are beautiful cities. And a lot of the cities, you can also live, for the most part, anonymously, which you can’t do in Europe.
Does David Beckham have the potential to make a bigger impact on the MLS as an owner than he did as a player?
The impact that Beckham had on the MLS as a player can’t be repeated as an owner. The impact that David had on MLS reverberated globally. No one really knew about MLS until David came here. And he got MLS into media outlets and social media outlets that MLS could never have imagined without the signing of him. Now, once in those outlets, MLS hasn’t left them, so can he make an impact, here, in Miami? Yeah, absolutely. If they win the league, will it be because David Beckham won the league? I think it will be Inter Miami and David’s name will definitely be there, but I think, during his time at LA Galaxy, what he did for the league will never be replicated by anyone unless Ronaldo and Messi come over at the same time. But what David did for the league is just second to none to what anyone’s done in the league so far.
Three more teams are set to join the MLS by 2023, taking the league to a total of 31 teams. Is this a golden era for the MLS?
The MLS still hasn’t reached the ‘golden period’. Every time the league expands, we dilute the product on the field. We need the television contract to get a lot bigger. It doesn’t even cover the salary cap amounts. So, we’re still in a growing phase at this moment in time. COVID has hit the owners’ pockets big, so thankfully there’s no wage reduction over here in salaries. Thankfully, the MLS players union and owners have agreed to extend the CBA for two more years. So they have either five or seven years to run on a CBA. Where there are increases, gradually going up, but not further. I think this year stays the same as it was last year because they did get hit hard, but the whole soccer in general over here is still growing. We’re not in a golden era.
I think Gregg Berhalter has a little bit of a golden era with the young players that we have on the national side. That, I would agree with. But golden era of MLS – not yet. We’re still growing. When they reach the maximum on the teams, then probably five to ten years after that we’ll start getting to a little bit more of a golden era.
Which player do you expect to make the biggest impact in the League this year?
Carlos Vela again at LAFC. I don’t think I see Higuain and Matuidi being the players that make the biggest impact on the league. I could be wrong but I don’t really see that happening too much. The League is interesting. Every game becomes open at some stage and it becomes this counter attacking game of football. I think Pozuelo at Toronto is probably still the main attraction in the entire League.
You mentioned Carlos Vela as the player that might make the biggest impact but he’s also got his fellow countryman Chicharito now in the League. Do you expect there to be a bit of a battle now between those two as to who will be able to contribute to the most goals?
There could be a battle between Vela and Chicharito, but Chicharito had a really difficult time last year and if you look at his career and he’s had his successes he’s had a wonderful team around him and he’s that fox in the box kind of player. He’s not the type of player that’s going to run a game. Vela can run a game. Pozuelo can run a game. Chicharito needs service in the box to be effective. Hopefully Greg Vanney can get those pieces in the puzzle so they can get the ball to him in the box, but if they don’t Chicharito is not going to run the tempo of a game.
In terms of the Champions League. Seven of the eight of the R-16 match ups feature an American in their squad. Is this the opportunity for an American to win the Champions League this season and play in the Champions League final for the first time? And how important would that be for the national game.
It would be huge if an American were to play in the Champions League Final. It really would. It would give even more recognition to the sport over here which we’re always looking for more and more. It’s building and getting bigger day by day. The other thing that is wonderful is that if I were Gregg Berhalter sitting in his shoes, the head coach of our national team, I would be loving this because there are so many players that he can call upon that are getting the experience against the very best in the world. That hasn’t happened for quite some time. We have a lot of very talented young players scattered across Europe and here in the MLS and Gregg has a very good squad of players to choose from.
Comparisons between 2002 and now. Who out of this current US squad are you most excited about and think has the most potential to end their career at the top level?
The players that excite me most in this US squad are: Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent, Timothy Weah – we’ll see how his career goes but he has some exceptional talent – Giovani Reina, Gianluca Busio at Kansas City if he can get himself over to Europe he’s got some incredible talent. I think those are the top. Weston McKennie for me is top, top drawer.
What do make of Weston Mackennie’s impact at Juventus following his loan move from Schalke?
Well, I coached West when I was a head coach at the under-19 national team and from back then, I said it to my staff after the second training session with him, I said, “This kid’s special. He has a lot of work to do – fitness and this, that and the other, but he’s special.” And he proved that when he moved to Schalke, and now he’s at one of the truly biggest clubs in the world. As long as he keeps his head on the right way and works extremely hard – which I’ve always known him to do – then he’ll be lifting trophies with Juventus. And let’s see where his career takes him from there, but he’s a true leader, very athletic and just a truly gifted individual and a great kid. A really, really good kid.
Giovanni Reyna has broken into the Borussia Dortmund first team over the last 12 x months – how much potential do you think he has?
Another one who – he was with the youth 15 and youth 16 national team when I was coaching. I know his dad, obviously, really well. It was kind of surprising because Claudio was out in Manchester City and then we heard that Gio signed for Dortmund. I don’t know how that went down inside the Manchester City group, but we were all looking to see how he’s doing and he started playing with the first team. And boy, he has just done incredibly well. He was one that I never coached. I watched him play, was on the scouting radar, knew he was good and I had no idea ‘who’s this kid?’ He’s another one that could do some special things on the international stage and be an incredibly good player for the US for years.
Zack Steffan – do you think he needs to now leave Man City in order to progress with his career? Obviously with Ederson in front of him?
I think it has probably done Zack a world of good for this season to be under Pep and be with the players he has. But yes, he is going to have to play football, that’s for sure. He has the fortunate and unfortunate scenario of seeing Ederson on a day-to-day basis, but unfortunate that he’s playing behind, who I think is the best in the world. So, at some stage he’s going to have to play football, yes.
Do you think he has the quality at the moment to make it in the Premier League? At a club lower down? Or do you think he needs some experience?
Yeah, he’ll get the experience. He’s good enough technically. It’s going to be the same situation that I said about Henderson, we’ll see what happens when he makes the mistake on the big stage. But he has all the tools without a doubt.