By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 15, 2011) US Soccer Players — It’s easy enough to add to the pile of criticisms directed at Europe’s other club competition.  It’s too large, the schedule is a gauntlet for teams, there’s the late inclusion of ousted Champions League clubs, and there’s an overall question of importance.  The expectation is that this is a competition that should be won by one of those Champions League group stage disappointments, basically calling into question the competitive worth of the other 186 teams. 

Yes, 194 teams total will be part of the 2011-12 Europa League.  33 of those are castoffs from the Champions League, originally in that tournament’s qualifying rounds and now with the eight third-place group stage finishers.  The rest are the breadth of Europe, almost guaranteeing a team gets a trip a few time zones away.  The impact of that on a European club isn’t the same as say a Major League Soccer team where long trips are business as usual.  It’s disruptive, the kind of thing that can impact a club’s chances in their domestic league and cup competitions. 

Remember, that was one of Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s responses when his club crashed out of the Champions League but didn’t finish fourth in their group.  Thursday soccer, meaning in Europa League weeks United’s Premier League games get pushed to Sunday.  No team really looks forward to a Thursday-Sunday week.  It’s the European version of a National Football League team having the Monday night game.  Well, short of that spotlight game on their schedule.  Until the very late rounds, nobody is confusing the Europa with the big time. 

Yet on Wednesday, we saw Fulham’s Clint Dempsey playing like the Europa was the only thing that mattered in front of the home fans at Craven Cottage.   His effort included a goal, but Fulham were unable to advance.  There was Dempsey, collapsed on his knees with the posture and look of someone who had just seen a disaster unfold.  Stoppage time equalizers that knock your team out of a tournament will do that, even in one so easily pushed aside by pundits, fans, and clubs alike. 

Granted, Fulham has had success in the Europa.  There’s a long tradition of cup teams in English soccer.  For a team that isn’t likely to threaten the Champions League qualification places, Fulham saw the value in the Europa.  For them, it was an opportunity.  For Dempsey personally, part of his legend at Fulham is scoring the long-range goal that beat Juventus in the 2009-10 Europa League. 

"Nine times out of 10 you won’t make it but sometimes you’ve got to take a risk," Dempsey said after that game.  That might as well have become an object statement for Fulham, worthy of white boards and signs as they make their way out of the tunnel.  That season, Fulham made the Europa matter.  This season, they knew what they’d missed. 

Described as "teary-eyed" Brede Hangeland told his club’s official site:  鈥淭o go out like that with the last kick of the ball is very, very frustrating and hard to take鈥?  I鈥檝e been thinking about the fact that we started on the 23rd of June and it feels like that was all for nothing at the moment, so it鈥檚 very, very disappointing."

While recognizing how much his team had put into this tournament, Fulham manager Martin Jol wasn’t completely conciliatory in his post-game comments: "In the second-half our best players were probably almost worn out. They were tired. It is probably the 30th game for a few of them and that is not an excuse because we are a team that can defend a lead.  We were 2-1 up and then 30 seconds from the end we did not have the cleverness or experience to keep it in their half."

If Jol’s comments resonate, that alone can show the value of the Europa League for a team that takes it seriously.  That’s not an empty statement.  Enough teams that have advanced to the knockout stage have done so with what’s amounted to half measures.  They’re opportunists, seeing the minimum of what’s needed to keep going and playing to that.  If that means flattering that decision by winning more than expected, it doesn’t change the methodology in place.  Enough of those clubs sink the competitive spirit of any competition, something that just adds onto the Europa’s problems. 

Does that mean we have to have clubs like Fulham carrying the banner for the competitive opportunity of the Europa into the later rounds?  It certainly wouldn’t hurt. 

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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