Barca, Milan headline star-studded week

Welcome to the first edition of Five-A-Side – your weekly spot to get caught up with all the chatter that will dominate the headlines each week.

Miss any of the action from the weekend? Want to be up to speed on what everybody is going to talk about around the water cooler and on the message boards? Don’t get left behind. Strap on your boots and get on the pitch to find out the five topics that have the biggest buzz this week.

The champions are here

First things first: We have a big week of action coming up as the semifinalists of the Champions League will be determined Tuesday and Wednesday.

Everybody should be talking about the home team in this second leg capitalizing on what they accomplished on the road last week. In a competition like this, really how often do you see four teams getting results on the road against predominantly big clubs in pressure-packed stadiums? Teams that did the business in the first leg set themselves up wonderfully to move on.

You don’t want to have semifinal thoughts in your brain already, but for clubs like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, it is going to be awfully tough. I can see them saying, "You know what? Maybe I can spare a body here, maybe rest this guy a little bit – if we need him in the 78th minute; if things really hit the fan, then we can cover ourselves.”

I think we can say who our four semifinalists are before the games even begin. But if there’s a chance for an upset, it has to be AC Milan – and it would be against the team that is, arguably, the favorite to win the whole tournament, FC Barcelona. If Milan were just a bunch of guys on a good team, I don’t think I’d fancy them that much against Barcelona. But the fact they have a guy in Zlatan Ibrahimovic we know can single-handedly win a game for you makes things a little dicey. Add in the fact Barcelona did not get a road goal last week, and it changes everything. That matchup is going to be the most entertaining of the bunch.

United in the driver’s seat

I don’t think there’s any doubt that Manchester United are in charge of the Barclays Premier League title race following this past weekend’s results. Frankly, in my eyes they have been the leaders for a few weeks now, even when they trailed Manchester City in the standings. United have the knack for making late-season charges, and they know that City don’t have the history of winning championships. Add in the team’s respective remaining schedules, and it’s a huge advantage for United.

United are definitely the favorites. They’ve been there before. They are smart enough to know that you don’t slip up against the teams you are supposed to beat. They don’t allow that to happen, particularly at this time of the year.

If somebody tells you that Manchester United are not the favorites, politely nod, back away and run from them.

The tension is building up, and Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson are so savvy and confident that they can play any type of game that’s needed – mind games, PR, marketing, on the field – they’re the ones to beat. City knows it, and they look a little scared, nervous and unsure of what they should be doing right now this late in the season so close to potentially winning a title. United always looked comfortable and confident, as if they were telling the world “It’s OK, we don’t need to be in the lead right now, but we know it’s coming. And when we get it, here comes our foot on your throat.”

LA’s false start could lead to changes

The MLS season is only a few weeks old, but the one team that has already started the year on the wrong foot is the LA Galaxy. The reigning champions, with all their stars and money, have had a rough going early – including a 3-1 loss at home Saturday to the New England Revolution.

It all began with Omar Gonzalez tearing up his knee even before the season started. I think everybody knew that was going to be a big injury, but no one has been impressed with the Galaxy back line at all – and not only in MLS play. You go back to their performances in the CONCACAF Champions League and you’re watching them just hemorrhage goals to a Toronto team that has never been in the playoffs before. All apologies to our Canadian friends, but you don’t lose to Toronto at home in a game that matters. That should not happen.

The Galaxy have big issues, and they are going to do something, I’m convinced. I know my gut, and it’s telling me that head coach Bruce Arena, team owner Philip Anschutz and AEG president Tim Leiweke are in communication saying “We need to sort something out” – and my guess is that it’s going to be something fairly big quickly because if you let something hemorrhage too long, then it just gets out of control.

American pride

This is a big week for American players abroad, with Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones and Steve Cherundolo in action when the Europa League kicks off Thursday.

That’s great news for the stars and stripes on a week when it’s definitely needed after the U-23 squad failed to qualify for the Olympics last week.

I know a lot of fans were upset about the result, and rightfully so. But there’s no way you give up on the Americans. You shouldn’t do that for two reasons:

A. If you’re a patriot, you never give up.

B. If you’re a soccer fan with enough knowledge, you know we’re OK – we just need to work some big issues out.

There was a lot of stress with the full US national team for the opening couple of months of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign. There was a honeymoon, but if he hadn’t just been named and you looked at the results the US got, you’re scratching your head saying, “No, that shouldn’t happen.” The win against Italy helped calm things down a little bit, but I think there’s still some concern with the full US national team, and that creates a trickle-down effect.

What bothers me is the fact I’ve expected more from the US on all levels the past 10-15 years I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with this sport and I’m not seeing the progression that should be there. I don’t see the US pulling away from the Canadas and El Salvadors of the region. I’m not even talking about Europe – getting to that level of European competition is a different level. Back here in CONCACAF, it should always be a two-headed battle between Mexico and the US. Everybody else, good luck. What worries me is the fact we are getting bypassed by some of these countries right now.

Giorgio, in memoriam

And, of course, I want to send my love and respect for Giorgio Chinaglia, who died Sunday from a heart attack.

What I loved about Giorgio is that he backed up his words on the field. He had this bravado, this aura of arrogance, and you probably didn’t like it but you had to respect it because he could do it. He carried himself like he owned Manhattan during his years with the Cosmos of the NASL. You have to respect someone who can act like that and pull it off.

What Giorgio did was bring attention to the game in the United States, and I think his impact has been undervalued. He was right there with Franz Beckenbauer, Pele and Rodney Marsh. I think what Chinaglia did was sometimes lost a little bit in that. He scored a ton of goals, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, his posters were on walls. He was the ONLY STRIKER in America at that time. Think about it, there were no other strikers on the map at that time in the United States who could score like Chinaglia in his heyday with the New York Cosmos.

After his playing days ended, he never lost his passion for the sport. Whether he was right or wrong, positive or negative, he continued discussing topics and care passionately about this sport. The more and more I reflect on his career and his life, there’s just this striking parallel to my friend Eric Wynalda – two forwards who carried themselves a special way, who aren’t afraid to share their opinions, and of course, they are always right (in their minds). They are two big personalities. No wonder they got along so well. And no wonder I love them both.

We’ll miss you, Giorgio.