Forget about skill, forget about artistry, forget about subtlety -- for that matter, forget about soccer. Just send the lads out there to get stuck in, this is all about grit and stamina and sacrifice and slamming your foot hard into the ball whenever you get anywhere near it.
Not pretty. If you think we're immune to that sort of stuff -- after all MLS clubs don't have relegation problems -- you're wrong. What MLS does have is the playoff system, which is where we are right now -- and squeaking into the playoffs provides a pretty good excuse for adopting the crudities of survival soccer. Especially if you have an English coach. Which the Colorado Rapids do.
Don't they ever. Meet Gary Smith, who appeared on the MLS coaching scene in August to take over from the departed Fernando Clavijo. As the Rapids were not doing well, Smith instituted some changes -- and of course, Smith being English, and English coaches never knowing anything other than English soccer, we got at once the benefits of survival soccer.
Actually, we got more. Smith's background reveals his association with two English clubs, Wimbledon and Watford, who just happen to be two of the worst clubs ever to play in the English Premier League. Clubs devoted to brainless long-ball soccer, spiced up in Wimbledon's case with a hefty does of physical intimidation (think Vinnie Jones, Dennis Wise, Ben Thatcher).
So Smith comes ideally equipped to bestow the joys of survival soccer. Which go like this: start off by purging from the team anyone who suffers from the disadvantage of being overly skillful. Smith's Watford/Wimbledon eyes quickly got that sorted out. The perfect victim presented himself immediately. Cristian Gomez, widely regarded as one of the most talented players in MLS. Clearly he had to go. Now it's a bit difficult telling such a player -- Gomez was the league's MVP only two years ago, a three-time all-MLS selection, and a key player on the DC United team that won MLS Cup in 2004, that sort of stuff -- that he's not good enough.
So some soccer-babble has to be spouted -- and the survival-soccer people are pretty good at that. Smith duly obliged: "There's no doubting Cristian's ability. There's no doubting Cristian's worth," he assured everyone. Of course not, it was all very unfortunate, but he'd have to sit on the bench anyway and watch the likes of Connor Casey and Nick LaBrocca astound everyone with their survival skills.
All for tactical reasons, you understand. Smith again: "At the moment I think we're making the transition from a side that was quite creative at times but conceded too many goals, to a side that hopefully over the course of time will show that we're very frugal with what we offer other teams."
I need to do some translating here, for the survival vocabulary is full of coded meanings. For "there's no doubting Cristian's ability" read: "I'm not having any of that Argie fancy-schmancy short passing rubbish on my team." For "a side that will show we're very frugal with what we offer other teams" read: "we'll play defensively and whack the ball upfield for Casey whenever we can."
So Smith got some good results doing that, including a rather ridiculous 5-4 win in New York -- which even he would have to admit was hardly a matter of being frugal. Crude, yes. Frugal, no.
Last night, Smith's W/W survival stuff was on view again. Pregame he told us about discipline and determination, ho hum, and about not gifting opponents opportunities, ho ho hum hum. The basic survival kit. So the Rapids went out and managed to give up three goals and lose to the worst team in MLS. It was pretty primitive stuff. It got what it deserved. Smith may well be satisfied, though -- it sure looked like the Rapids have managed to stop being "a side that was quite creative at times."