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Americans in Ligue 1 : season preview

Ligue 1 will still have 2 Americans in 2010-2011, Carlos Bocanegra who moved from Rennes to St.-Etienne, and Charlie Davies who is still with Sochaux.

It would be hard pressed to say, for different reasons, that both their seasons have been crowned with success. Everyone knows what happened to Charlie Davies. He slowly got acquainted with Ligue 1 play before the devastating accident in October ’09 forced him to prematurely put an end to his season. Before that, he had shown that his pace could be problematic for slow French defenses. He scored a brace against defending champions Bordeaux and was elected Man of the Match after having martyred Monaco’s defense.

Carlos Bocanegra’s season contains more shades of gray. He was the starter at left-back for Rennes, and played the majority of the season, without impressing. The lack of a suitable replacement meant that he hung on to his position until late in the season where he was unfortunately injured. Upon returning, young defensive midfielder Romain Danzé seemed to be favored by coach Frédéric Antonetti and Bocanegra only filled in at the end of the season when there was nothing to fight for anymore.

Left back is not his favorite position, something that has shown this past season. The US National team captain was often overtaken by Ligue 1’s speedy wingers. With his experience, he was able to limit the extent of the damage but in contrast with Rod Fanni on the right, Bocanegra definitely looked like one of the weak spots of the team. His offensive production was also close to non-existent. Rennes considered parting with him in the winter transfer window, where he was rumored – already – to be headed to St.-Etienne, but Rennes wasn’t keen on investing on a substitute.

A risky move for Bocanegra

Bocanegra’s time at the Stade Rennais therefore was over, and St.-Etienne’s offer came as a blessing. Rennes was so willing to let him go that his transfer only cost les Verts a mere 500 000€. At first, one could think this is a pretty lateral move, but it looks more like a downwards move for Carlos. ASSE might have a glorious past but the present is far from brilliant. The team seems to be in constant rebuilding, the front office changes as often as Lady Gaga changes dress and stability is not “en vogue” amongst the club. The catastrophe of relegation was (yet again) barely avoided last season, and as usual, the club pledges to start off fresh and not reiterate the same mistakes they have been making over and over since their promotion in 2004.

Finally, this season, the coach hasn’t changed, as Christophe Galthier is being given some time to prove his worth. In order to do that, he is changing almost all of ASSE’s defense. New recruits Albin Ebondo (Toulouse), Sylvain Marchal (Lorient) and Bocanegra are poised to start the season and form the back four with Mamdou Bayal Sall. Bocanegra will be playing left-back. How long he will be there is a question that – sadly – needs to be asked. ASSE fans have a (deserved) reputation for being extremely demanding and critical of their players, and if Bocanegra plays like he did in Rennes, and if things start going haywire, Boca will be a pretty easy target and will be one of the first to get the axe. I don’t think a club will be reluctant with setting aside a player who cost next to nothing. I see a quick return to MLS for Carlos, but he will have had a good run in France ; his time is just over and he is not adapted to the demands of the left-back position anymore.

You can’t exclude things from finally going right in Saint-Etienne but given recent history, it isn’t likely either. It is therefore a pretty risky move for Bocanegra, something that looks kind of last resort. The advantage is that he won’t have to adapt to a new championship and/or language. This move is very “low risk-high reward” for the club, and there are players who can replace Bocanegra if things go wrong. So far, the club is unbeaten in pre-season play, if that means anything.

Unlikely sight? Sure hope not, but...

Charlie Davies’ situation is different and a little more complex.  He had some bad blood with his club who refused to clear him for World Cup play, citing the fact that he simply wasn’t ready and that it was in the club’s interest to keep him healthy so he could contribute in 10-11.

A couple weeks before season start, this standpoint needs to be questioned. FC Sochaux’s preseason has been subpar, and Charlie Davies didn’t take part in much of it. He played one half and 51 minutes in the first two games, which Sochaux heavily lost to inferior clubs ; he was then demoted to the reserves where he managed to score one goal, which earned him a call-up to the first squad for the next two games, both of them victories, in which CD9 featured no more than 10 minutes at the very end of the match.

The lack of communication from the club and the ever-so positive tweeting of Charlie Davies don’t allow us to get a fair view of the player’s situation with Les Lionceaux. It looks like coach Francis Gillot doesn’t think his American forward has totally recovered yet, despite all the hard-work he has put in.

This leads to the “chicken or egg” soccer dilemna : since Davies isn’t competitive yet, he isn’t playing much, but he needs the playing time to be competitive again. Sochaux’s reserve plays in 5th division, and Davies playing at that level for too long a time can’t be good for him.

Sochaux, a perennial relegation contender, will have an even harder time this season. Goalkeeper Teddy Richert – the soul of the club – is injured until the end of November, and playmaker Stéphane Dalmat, a driving force behind Sochaux’s decent 09-10 season was sold to Rennes. Sochaux is definitely weaker this season, and they will need to fight to stay in Ligue 1, something they are used to. But the core of the team is gradually getting younger, and the role of experimented players in relegation fights is well documented.

On a personal basis, Charlie Davies will be facing extra competition this season. Ideye Brown, who featured for Nigeria at the World Cup, was acquired during the winter transfer period to replace Davies and has been fairly successful with Sochaux. Vaclav Sverkos is a sure starter if he doesn’t leave the club, which looks like it will eventually not happen. More problematic, Sochaux just recruited Modibo Maïga, a promising striker who headed Le Mans attack last season, scoring 7 goals and showing lots of skills. It therefore seems that Davies is #4 in Sochaux’s forwards pecking order.

Sochaux having played with two strikers in preseason, it seems likely that Davies will eventually be used by Francis Gillot, except if the season gets difficult for Sochaux, and they revert to a 4-5-1 like they did last season, in which case 4 strikers will be a little too many. For a player who needs playing time to get back in shape like Charlie Davies and who already has had some beef with the front office, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him asking for a loan sooner than later.

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