Los Angeles Soccer: AGF Aarhus
It's a fluke of scheduling more than anything else, but Rangers FC, with Fontana's Maurice Edu making big contributions, is back atop the Scottish Premier League standings.
The Blues toppled Aberdeen and St. Mirren last week to go to 25-5-2 for 77 points, one more than their hated Old Firm rival Celtic FC (24-3-4).
Celtic won its league game last week, beating St. Johnstone in a midweek clash, then routing Aberdeen on Sunday in a Scottish F.A. Cup semifinal. So the Bhoys have a game in hand, so if they win out, they claim their 43rd Scottish crown and first in three years.
Same holds for Rangers, which is seeking its 54th league title. The crown probably will be determined when the clubs face off Sunday, their seventh meeting this season, at Ibrox, the Blues' home ground. A draw favors Celtic.
Edu, who has had a fine season with the Glasgow power, capped a 1-0 midweek victory over Aberdeen with a blast that was just tipped over the crossbar. He set up Nikica Jelavic and Steven Davis for superb chances that weren't finished in Saturday's 2-1 win over St. Mirren.
BACK ON TOP: Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan returned to RSC Anderlecht's lineup and set up a goal in a 2-0 Belgian victory over Racing Genk in a showdown for the Jupiler League lead.
Manager Ariel Jacobs had omitted Kljestan, who left Chivas USA last summer to join the 30-time Belgian champion, from Les Mauves' first two games in the six-team, 10-game playoff round to determine the champion.
Former U.S. national team goalkeeper Brad Friedel, having sufficiently convinced Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier that he remains atop his game at 39, is said to be on the verge of renewing his contract with the English Premier League club.
Friedel, who starred at UCLA, has played every minute of the season save for two games last August in the UEFA Europa Cup and English League Cup clashes in September and October, when former Chivas USA keeper Brad Guzan got the call.
Friedel, who was part of the U.S.'s 1994 and 1998 World Cup teams and a key contributor to the Americans' quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup, has played in England -- with Liverpool, Blackburn and the past three seasons for Aston Villa -- since 1997.
Tony McGill, Friedel's agent, told reporters in Birmingham on Monday that talks had begun with Aston Villa on a new contract. The current deal ends this summer.
“Brad is very happy at Villa. If Brad was not happy, he would not be talking over a new contract,” McGill said. “I have spoken with [Aston Villa] chief executive Paul Faulkner, and talks are going very well indeed.”
Aston Villa, owned by Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner, is trying to stave off relegation to the second-tier Championship. The Villans (8-13-10) are 15th in the 20-team league, just two points above the drop zone. The bottom three clubs are relegated.
Fontana's Maurice Edu has emerged as a force in central midfield this season for Scottish giant Rangers FC, taking on more responsibility in attack and contributing mightily to the club's bid to win four trophies.
The Blues are out of one competition, ousted from the Scottish Cup by "Old Firm" archrival Celtic, but two championships are within grasp -- and a showdown Thursday at home against Dutch power PSV Eindhoven could send them to the last eight of the UEFA Europa League.
They can win the Scottish League Cup title Sunday, when they take on Celtic for the fifth time since New Year's, and are in command in the Scottish Premier League despite sitting two points behind Celtic in the standings.
And Edu (Etiwanda HS), whose stoppage-time goal three weeks ago sent Rangers past Sporting Lisbon and into the round of 16 in Europe's No. 2 club competition, is basking in his opportunity to play an important role for a storied European club against top competition.
"It's great getting the chance to play against the best teams in the world and test yourself against them," Edu, a U.S. national team midfielder who played in last summer's World Cup, told Major League Soccer's Web site this week. "You dream of playing in these competitions, so I'm just glad it's become a reality for me."
Injuries, mostly, limited Edu to 19 league starts in his first year and a half with Rangers, but he's made 27 starts -- and scored five goals -- in all competitions since the season kicked off last August. The goal against Sporting Lisbon was the biggest, by far, guaranteeing the SPL a second automatic berth in the lucrative UEFA Champions League.
"At the beginning of the season, the manager [Walter Smith] challenged me to get a few more goals ...," Edu said. "He's encouraged me to get forward and make late runs to support the strikers. I've been fortunate to grab a few goals. I like it because I've always seen myself as a box to box-type player. Hopefully, I can add to my tally before the end of the season."
He'll get his chance against PSV, which Rangers held to a scoreless draw in the first leg last week in Eindhoven. That gives the Blues the advantage heading into their home leg, but a tie with goals would send PSV through.
Sacha Kljestan has been in and out of RSC Anderlecht's lineup since joining the club from Chivas USA last summer, and things are going south again.
He's featuring less and less as the reigning Belgian champion hits the pivotal part of the schedule, and if that's just part of being a young pro in a competitive European environment, it doesn't make it any easier.
“It's tough to deal with," Kljestan, who has started just one off Les Mauves' eight games since the Jan. 23 return from winter break, told Major League Soccer's Web site last week. “I played 4½ years and I think I started every game but one in MLS. It takes some adjustment, but I think I have a good mentality. I fight for my place every week, and whether I'm in the lineup or not, I support my teammates. I think my coaches and teammates recognize that.”
Kljestan (Huntington Beach/Huntington Beach HS) supported his teammates from the bench in both legs of the UEFA Europa League round-of-32 loss to Ajax Amsterdam, and he didn't feature in Friday's showdown with Genk, which is tied on points with Anderlecht (both are 18-3-7) but ahead on goal difference atop the Belgian Jupiler League standings.
The club is winless in its last four games and outscored, 8-1, in that span -- after a two-month stretch with nine successive shutouts. Kljestan, of course, started during part of that streak, then sat for three games, then returned as a late substitute in two more. He's played just 54 minutes in Anderlecht's last nine games, getting 45 in his lone start, a 2-0 debacle at Westerlo two weeks ago.
Kljestan sees the bigger picture. He's experiencing Europe -- he and his fiancee, model Jamie Lee Darley, have enjoyed trips to London and Paris -- and working on his game, with hopes of going to a bigger club and playing a big role with the U.S. national team.
“We have a healthy competition in training for selection every week. I think it's making me a better player -- but obviously, I want to be on the field to help my team the most,” he told the MLS Web site. "Every day in training, I have to test myself a little more, and I think I've become a better 90-minute player in all aspects.
“In MLS, I played as more of an attacking midfielder. Here I've played as more of a defensive midfielder, so that part of my game has improved. At the end of the year, I'll be able to say that my game has become more well-rounded.”
OLD FIRM LOSS: Fontana's Maurice Edu and Rangers FC is out of the Scottish Cup following a 1-0 loss Celtic in last week's fifth-round replay, the Blues' second defeat to their Old Firm rival in 11 days.
Rangers FC's back-to-back Scottish Premier League titles might not get another “-to-back.” Sunday's 3-0 loss in the fourth of seven “Old Firm” meetings this season with archival Celtic FC has left Gers on the verge of elimination in two competitions.
And the Bhoys can end Rangers' title hopes in two more competitions, too.
Gary Hooper scored twice in the first 28 minutes Sunday at Celtic Park as Celtic's lead over Rangers (18-4-2) reached eight points, 64-56. The Blues, with Fontana's Maurice Edu a constant in central midfield, have two games in hand, but another loss could leave a gap too great to be bridged.
“Celtic deserved to win the game -- I don’t think we can have any complaints,” Rangers manager Walter Smith told reporters. “Our possession and defending was poor. It was as disappointing an Old Firm game since [returning to the club in 2007 after a decade away]. … The pressure is now on us to try and get a level of consistency in our game to make sure that when the next Old Firm game comes round, we’re in better shape.”
There are three more Old Firm meetings to go: in a March 2 Scottish Cup fifth-round replay at Celtic Park, in the March 20 Scottish League Cup final at Hampden Park, and at Rangers' Ibrox home in the championship bracket during the SPL season's final phase. Celtic is 2-1-1 in the first four this season, with two successive SPL wins.
Rangers has won 53 Scottish League titles, but not three in a row since a string of nine ended in the 1997-98 season. Celtic has 43. The last time a club other than Rangers or Celtic won? 1985 (Aberdeen).
Rangers' first priority: getting past Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League's round of 32, a task made more difficult by last week's draw at Ibrox.
EUROPA LEAGUE: Neither Rangers nor Belgian champ RSC Anderlecht managed the kind of result their were looking for in the Europa League's knockout openers. At least Rangers remains alive.
Maurice Edu's Rangers FC and Sacha Kljestan's RSC Anderlecht return to European action this week with the resumption of the UEFA Europa Cup, the continent's No. 2 club competition.
Scottish champion Rangers is home against Sporting Lisbon and Belgian titlist Anderlecht plays host to Ajax Amsterdam on Thursday as the knockout stage begins with round-of-32 first legs. All second legs will be a week from Thursday.
Fontana's Edu, who last month returned from a knee injury, has been a fixture in central midfield for the Blues, who joined the Europa League fray after finishing third, at 1-2-3, in group play in the first-tier UEFA Champions League.
Sporting won its Europa League group and is 7-3-0 in the competition, but that was last fall. The club is in crisis after selling top star Liedson, then firing sporting director Costinha when he railed publicly against the move. The president is leaving, chief creator Marat Izmailov is looking for a new home, and manager Paulo Sergio seems to be cracking under the pressure.
Huntington Beach's Kljestan, who has been in and out of Anderlecht's lineup (and has been a late substitute the past two weeks after sitting out the previous two), went 2-3-1 in Europa group play; Ajax, like Rangers, falls from the Champions League after finishing a point behind AC Milan in its group.
If Rangers reaches the round of 16, French club Lille or Holland's PSV Eindhoven will be the foe. Anderlecht's opponent would be Russian power Spartak Moscow or Switzerland's FC Basel.
The full Europa League slate:
Manchester City (England) at Aris Thessaloniki (Greece)
Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands) at RSC Anderlecht (Belgium)
Sporting Lisbon (Portugal) at Rangers FC (Scotland)
Villarreal (Spain) at Napoli (Italy)
Sporting Braga (Portugal) at Lech Poznan (Poland)
Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) at Besiktas (Turkey)
FC Twente (Netherlands) at Rubin Kazan (Russia)
VfB Stuttgart (Germany) at Benfica (Portugal)
Paris St.-Germain (France) at BATE (Belarus)
Liverpool (England) at Sparta Prague (Czech Republic)
Spartak Moscow (Russia) at FC Basel (Switzerland)
Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia) at Young Boys Berne (Switzerland)
CSKA Moscow (Russia) at PAOK Thessaloniki (Greece)
FC Porto (Portugal) at Sevilla (Spain)
PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands) at Lille (France)
Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) at Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine)
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: The first four of eight round-of-16 series begin this week in the UEFA Champions League. Tottenham visits AC Milan and Schalke 04 plays at Valencia on Tuesday; Barcelona plays at Arsenal and Ukraine's Shakhtar Donetsk at AS Roma on Wednesday. The other four series begin next week.
BRADLEY'S FIRST: Manhattan Beach's Michael Bradley made his English Premier League debut Saturday, struggling to make an impact as a second-half substitute in Aston Villa's 1-1 draw at Blackpool.
Michael Bradley took the field, where he was greeted with cheers by Aston Villa's faithful, but was in suit and tie for Saturday's English Premier League clash with visiting Fulham.
The U.S. national team midfielder, whose family lives in Manhattan Beach, had to put off his debut with his new club until his International Transfer Certificate arrives from Borussia Moenchengladbach.
So he instead was introduced the crowd before kickoff, saluting all three sides of Villa Park, and then watched U.S. teammate Clint Dempsey beat former UCLA goalkeeper Brad Friedel to lift Fulham to a 2-2 draw.
“I have spoken to people, and the first thing they always say about Villa Park is the heritage of the ground,” Bradley told Aston Villa's Web site. “They talk about Villa Park being a traditional stadium, with a great atmosphere, and they always say the fans are tremendous, they make loads of noise and they are really loud.
“I can't wait to play to get out there and play now. I am just excited to be here and ready to get going. That's why I have come to play in the Premier League. I want to play at the highest level and test myself in the biggest of games.”
He'll likely make his club debut Saturday at Blackpool and hope to make his first home appearance two weeks later against Blackburn. His goal: Make the kind of impact former Irish star Roy Keane made in the EPL.
“I have watched all sorts of games from when I was little, and watched midfielders, obviously,” Bradley told the Guardian. “The one I looked up to was Roy Keane and the job he did at Manchester United. The way he was able to be the engine and heart of their team and help them be successful was something to aspire to.”
There were a lot of clubs looking closely at Michael Bradley, but as soon as the U.S. national team midfielder got word that Aston Villa was interested, his departure from Borussia Moenchengladbach was a done deal.
The 23-year-old midfielder, the son of U.S. coach Bob Bradley, on Monday joined Villa, arriving on loan until summer.
The Birmingham-based club, mired in a disappointing English Premier League campaign, has an option to purchase Bradley's contract, which runs until summer 2012. The announcement follows by days Pasadena's Yura Movsisyan's move from Danish club Randers to Russian Premier League side FC Krasnodar.
Bradley, whose family lives in Manhattan Beach, won't be cleared to play in Villa's game Tuesday against Manchester United, but he could debut Saturday against U.S. teammate Clint Dempsey and Fulham.
“Within the last week or so I heard that the manager [Gerard Houllier] was interested in bringing me here,” Bradley told Aston Villa's Web site. “From the moment I heard that, I was really excited and really just hoping that everything could get done. For me, the Premier League is the best league in the world. You watch a game in the Premier League, and the speed of the game, the pace and the power all stand out.
“To have the opportunity to come here and test myself at the highest level, week in and week out, is incredible, and to try to take the things I do as a player and make them count at the highest level -- it's a great challenge.”
Bradley's father was linked to the Aston Villa managerial job until Houllier, a former French national team coach, was hired in early September. The club is owned by Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner and features three other Americans: goalkeepers Brad Friedel and Brad Guzan and defender Eric Lichaj.
Bradley, who signed with MLS's MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) at 16, moved to Holland's Heerenveen at 18 and joined Gladbach in 2008 on a $3.43 million transfer, has quickly risen in international soccer. He enjoyed a breakthrough World Cup in South Africa and was one of few pluses this season for the German club, which sits at the bottom of the Bundesliga standings.
Bradley's representatives asked for a transfer during the Bundesliga's winter break, Gladbach technical director Max Eberl told German newspaper Express, and there was immediate interest from England's Sunderland, Turkey's Galatasaray, Italy's Palermo and several Bundesliga clubs.
Reports Friday had Bradley headed to Galatasaray on a $6.8 million transfer, but he spent the weekend in England finalizing details and taking a medical exam.
Bobby Wood's climb from the youth teams at Germany's TSV 1860 Munich has reached the club's top side, and he's hoping to make his first-team debut this weekend.
The 19-year-old forward from Irvine, who was just out of eighth grade when he joined 1860 at 14, was called up last week after strong performances for the club's under-19 and under-23 teams, with seven goals in 18 appearances.
He didn't suit up for Friday's victory at VfL Osnabrueck but could play Saturday against MSV Duisburg. 1860 is 8-5-6 and sits eighth in the second-tier 2. Bundesliga.
“I usually play on the right or left side or as a forward,” the versatile Wood told the Yanks Abroad Web site last summer. “I like to get the ball into space and try to use my speed as an advantage. I also like to take players on and create chances.”
Wood, who attended Lakeside Middle School in Irvine and developed through the Irvine Strikers, one of the area's elite youth soccer clubs, also is among the top forwards for the U.S. under-20 team . He is expected to be in the Americans' starting lineup when CONCACAF qualifying for next summer's FIFA U-20 World Cup begins in April.
“Before I moved to Munich, I was never good enough for the national team,” Wood aaid. “I was never called up or I was not even known, but now it seems like the sacrifices are paying off. Ever since I have moved to Munich, I have developed so much as a player and person.”
Americans who have played for 1860 include Galaxy defender/assistant coach Gregg Berhalter, former U.S. forwards Josh Wolff and Taylor Twellman, and, until earlier this month, forward Kenny Cooper, who has joined the Portland Timbers.
ANOTHER GOAL: Matt Taylor's sizzling form for Germany's Rot Weiss Ahlen returned intact from winter break. The former UCLA and Chivas USA forward scored his eighth goal in 12 league appearances in the third-tier side's 3-2 loss Saturday to TuS Koblenz.
Edu (Etiwanda HS), who missed two months with a knee injury, was again a second-half substitute, coming on in the 62nd minute for Steven Davis. He scored in the 82nd -- his third goal of the season -- taking a throw-in from Steven Whitaker, then half-volleying it from the top of the box into the lower-left corner.
Edu returned to action last Monday, playing the final 24 minutes in a Scottish Cup triumph over Kilmarnock, then was in the starting lineup for a friendly Tuesday against Carlisle, a 2-0 victory. The Blues (14-2-2) are five points behind hated rival Celtic (15-2-4) but has three games in hand.
"I'm hoping to play a lot more now that I'm back ...," Edu told Rangers' club Web site. "I want to ease my way back into things and get into the team every week again. Things have dragged on quite a bit, but I'm back now, and that's the main thing."
Edu said he knew he was back after a tough challenge by Kilmarnock's Garry Hay left him prone on the field -- but able to play on.
"Those are the kind of tackles you don't want, but when you get through them and realize you are OK, it does a lot for your confidence," Edu said. "To get through that tackle was good for me, and it gives me a lift in terms of working through the next few weeks."
Fontana's Maurice Edu finally returned to the field after two months on the sidelines with a knee injury, coming on as second half substitute in Rangers FC's 3-0 romp Monday over Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup.
Edu (Etiwanda HS) entered in the 67th minute for Jamie Ness with the Glasgow giant holding a 2-0 edge.
His left knee was hurt Nov. 10 from a lunging tackle by Hibernian's John Rankin, and he missed seven matches while recuperating. Manager Walter Smith and assistant coach Ally McCoist had predicted returns last month, but Edu wasn't able to return to full training last week.
After the game, Edu tweeted: “Good win today n good to be back on the pitch! Missed the game too much when I was injured! N again, thank u for your continued support!”
Rangers advanced to the fifth round of Scotland's top cup competition. The draw will be held Tuesday.
FADING AWAY: Brad Friedel's Aston Villa is in trouble, and so is manager Gerard Houllier. The Villans (5-10-6) slipped into the relegation zone for the first time in seven years, falling to 16th with a 1-0 midweek loss to Sunderland. They are just one point ahead of last-place West Ham United.
Rangers FC twice has said Maurice Edu is on the verge of returning to action from a knee injury suffered in November, even listing target games for his comeback. The second date passed Sunday, and still no Edu.
When will he be ready to play? No clue. Turns out the midfielder from Fontana hasn't returned yet to full training. “He's doing his workouts in the gym,” a club spokesman told Major League Soccer last week.
Edu was hurt during a 3-0 loss to Hibernian on Nov. 10 and has missed seven games. Another five matches have been pushed back by poor weather.
Rangers lost, 2-0, in Sunday'sshowdown with archrival Celtic FC and finds itself four points behind the Bhoys-- but with two games in hand.
FEILHABER ON THE MOVE?: Benny Feilhaber'sDanish team doesn't return to action until late March, but he could be on the field well before then. The U.S. national-teamer's agent says he is considering three offers.
“There's a few different things on the table,” Lyle Yorks, the agent, told Major League Soccer's Web site last week. “There's a European club, a team in Mexico and one in South America.”
Mexican media have reported that Cruz Azul is interested in the 25-year-old midfielder from Irvine, and the SouthAmerican team is understood to be from Brazil, where the former UCLA standout was born. Yorkshas said there has been contact with clubs in Denmark, Netherlands and Spain.
Rangers FC finally got a game in, after four postponements because of horrid winter weather, but something was missing from the Scottish champions' 4-1 Boxing Day romp at Motherwell.Maurice Edu.
The central midfielder from Fontana, out since sustaining a knee injury Nov. 10, had been pegged by manager Walter Smith to make his return in the traditional post-Christmas match. He wasn't deemed fit enough to make the bench.
Rangers assistant coach Ally McCoist, the former Blues striker, told The Herald Scotland that Edu ought to be ready for the Jan. 2 showdown with Old Firm rival Celtic.
Rangers (13-1-2), which leads Celtic (12-2-3) by two points atop the Scottish Premier League standings, first has a date Wednesday at St. Johnstone.
Rangers FC has finally set a solid target for Maurice Edu's return: Boxing Day.
The midfielder from Fontana, out since sustaining a knee injury Nov. 10, could be back on the field when the Scottish Premier League leader takes on Motherwell next Sunday in the traditional day-after-Christmas match.
Rangers is slated to play Tuesday at Dundee United, but three of its past four league matches have been postponed because of harsh weather. Saturday's clash with St. Mirren at Ibrox was called off when pipes burst during a post-snow and ice thaw.
“[Last] weekend would have been too soon for Maurice,” Rangers manager Walter Smith told the club's Web site. “But I would think he would start to get a run-out in training this weekend, and we'll see where we go from there.
“I don't think he'll be ready for the Dundee United match … but [next] weekend at Motherwell looks like a real possibility.”
Edu (Etiwanda HS) has missed only five games since he was hurt in a 3-0 loss to Hibernian, the Blues' only league defeat this season. He was out for Rangers' final two group-stage matches in the UEFA Champions League but can look forward to UEFA Europa League action in February.
Poor weather has impacted every club in Scotland. Rangers (12-1-2) maintains a three-point lead in the SPL over archrival Celtic FC (11-2-2), and the Glasgow powerhouses have two games in hand over their nearest rivals.
EUROPA, EUROPA: Belgian champion RSC Anderlecht, with Huntington Beach's Sacha Kljestan (Huntington Beach SH) now a regular contributor in midfield, booked its passage to the second-tier UEFA Europa League's round of 16 with a simple 2-0 triumph over Croatia's Hajduk Split in a Group G finale, getting the required aid from group winner Zenit St. Petersburg -- a 3-0 winner at AEK Athens -- to push ahead of the Greeks and into second place.
Their reward: a Low Countries showdown with Ajax Amsterdam, a former European powerhouse unable to compete with the big-country giants since the Bosman ruling brought a form of free agency to European soccer in 1995. The draw was held Friday in Nyon, Switzerland.
RSC Anderlecht is in a must-win situation Thursday, and its going to need a little help, too.
The Belgian champion will advance to the UEFA Europa League's round of 32 with a win Thursday over visiting Hajduk Split and a victory by Zenit St. Petersburg over AEK Athens.
Anderlecht, with former Chivas USA captain Sacha Kljestan (Huntington Beach/Huntington Beach HS) in midfield, is 1-3-1 in Group G of Europe's No. 2 club competition and sits three points behind AEK (2-2-1) in the battle for second place. RSCA holds the tiebreaker with the Greeks and will advance if they finish even on points.
The Mauves might seem to be in an advantageous position. Zenit (5-0-0) has won all but one of its group matches by two goals, and the Russian group leader romped to a three-goal lead in the other victory, a 3-2 decision over Hajduk Split in Croatia.
All AEK needs is a draw to advance, but if they lose, Anderlecht is ready to take advantage.
Scottish champion Rangers FC, with midfielder Maurice Edu (Fontana/Etiwanda HS) expected back shortly from a knee injury, dropped into the round of 32 after finishing third in its group in the top-tier UEFA Champions League.
A draw Friday in Nyon, Switzerland, will set up eight four-team brackets for round-of-32 matches Feb. 17 and 24 and round-of-16 games March 10 and 17. The survivors will be drawn March 18 into an eight-team bracket. The final is May 18 in Dublin, Ireland.