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Jan 24, 2008

Crew dismiss Schelotto rumors

Back so soon?

USMNT midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who made a meteoric rise on the national team scene in 2007, is being heavily pursued by MLS for a return to the U.S. I had two different MLS head coaches confirm to me their teams' interest in the 23 year-old Feilhaber just prior to the beginning of the recent SuperDraft. Feilhaber, a former walk-on at UCLA, played in the Champions League for German Bundesliga side Hamburg during the '06-07 season before moving to certain relegation candidate Derby County of the English Premier League this season. Derby is actively listening to offers from other European clubs and Major League Soccer. With the transfer window closing Jan. 31 expect the Feilhaber sweepstakes to continue.

Schelotto's return

During the buildup to the draft, rumors ran rampant that Guillermo Barros Schelotto was unhappy in Columbus and wanted to stay in Argentina. However, Crew coach Sigi Schmid asserted the opposite is true. "I talked to Guillermo a couple of days ago and he will get his P-1 visa stamped in Argentina on Jan. 21st or 22nd and his itinerary for his return to Columbus is all set," Schmid said.

Schmid went on to explain, "As for all the rumors, it was much easier for us to play 'bad cop' for Guillermo because of all the pressure on him to help his hometown club [Gimnasia y Esgrima de la Plata, which is in a relegation battle]. Everyone is telling him he's the club's savior and he wants to help because that's the type of pro, type of person he is, just a great guy. It's all fine with me because that's part of the game you have to play sometime." Schelotto will move his family back to Columbus sometime in mid-March and is expected to take full part in the Crew's preseason, which includes a trip to England where the Crew will train at Aston Villa's training complex.

Can you hear me now?

Sean Franklin, selected by the Galaxy with the fourth overall pick of the SuperDraft, grew up in Palmdale, Calif., played just down the 5 and 405 freeways at Cal-State Northridge and will now play only about 35 miles from campus at the Home Depot Center. Obviously, Franklin hasn't had to go far to realize his soccer dreams but whether he knows it or not, he's already a world away. The talented midfielder was set to be welcomed into the pro ranks by none other than new teammate David Beckham. Beckham, who is spending the offseason in London training with Arsenal, was scheduled to talk to Franklin via mobile phone just minutes after the Galaxy selected the midfielder. But the call didn't happen. The reason? Some unforeseen delays closed the window of opportunity to talk and David was off to board a helicopter and couldn't get cell service. I am sure Franklin will get to talk to and meet David soon enough, but that would've been some welcome to his new world.

Combine needs boost

A survey of all the MLS coaches regarding the scouting combine produced the same overall analysis: The level of play at the combine has declined the past three years and has to improve. As one Western Conference coach told me, "The first 15 minutes was all I needed to see and I didn't see much." Another coach, this from the Eastern Conference, echoed the same sentiments, "It's getting harder and harder every year to find quality during the chaos of the combine." The combine isn't going anywhere anytime soon but it's clear it needs some tweaking moving forward.

Expansion race down to two

It appears the race to become MLS' 16th franchise and next expansion city is Philadelphia/Chester's to lose. As one high-ranking league source confirmed to me, "Chester has clearly begun to separate itself. They have the right capitalization, both local and state government support and the right ownership group in place." The league source also said, "St. Louis is right there but just needs the right and dynamic ownership group with all the prerequisites in place as they've got just about everything in place everywhere else." MLS is not required to make an announcement by the reported Jan. 31 deadline but that didn't stop the "Sons of Ben," the supporters group of the possible Philadelphia/Chester franchise, from making an appearance and a good amount of noise in Baltimore during the draft.

Draft shrinkage?

With MLS conducting its first draft with 14 teams and two more set to join the league starting with Seattle in 2009, MLS officials are already talking about reducing the draft from four rounds to three to keep what is already a long day from getting much longer. Sixteen teams will certainly push the draft close to five hours in length. I know it's not NFL in length, but it's still a long day for a league with half the number of teams as the NFL. It's been 18 years since the NBA reduced its once long-winded draft down to its current format of two rounds with resounding success. MLS expects to do the same to ease what is becoming an increasingly crowded draft board. Its best effort to still accommodate the player pool, the supplemental draft, which is held the week following the SuperDraft, could possibly increase from four to five rounds.

Celebrity soccer challenge

Soccer Hall of Famer Mia Hamm and her husband, L.A. Dodgers infielder Nomar Garciaparra, are hosting a celebrity soccer challenge match benefiting Childrens Hospital Los Angeles and the Mia Hamm Foundation. The event takes place rain or shine Saturday, Jan. 26, beginning at 4 p.m. ET at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. Proceeds will benefit bone marrow patient and family services at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles.

Yours truly will join Hollywood celebrities Carlos Mencia, Jay Mohr, Nikki Cox, Ty Pennington, Tony Hawk, Bianca Kajlich and current and former members of the men's and women's national teams in a spirited and competitive match to benefit this extraordinarily worthwhile cause. Confirmed soccer greats include Landon Donovan, Chris Albright, Brad Guzan, Alexi Lalas, Kristine Lilly and Julie Foudy.

To purchase tickets, go to Ticketmaster. For more info on the event visit the Mia Hamm Foundation web site.

Allen Hopkins covers Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer for ESPN. Look for Allen patrolling the sideline during "MLS Primetime Thursday." He can be reached at studiosports@yahoo.com.