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Rapids To Play Like Arsenal? Forget It
by Paul Gardner, November 14th, 2008 7:01AM

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Here we go again, deja vu with knobs on one more time. The Colorado Rapids have gone for an English coach. They should take a look at their own history. Their very first coach, back in 1996, was a highly touted Englishman, Bob Houghton. A total flop who was fired after just that one season. Having brought with him his English notions about soccer, having failed to realize that they're not good enough for the American scene.

Now they give us Gary Smith. Also replete with English ideas. With depressing predictability, Smith's first move was to appoint an English assistant, Steve Guppy. Heaven forbid that there should be any diversity among the coaching ranks. I can confidently predict that Smith and Guppy will soon be off on a recruiting trip ... they will go to England, of course, because that's all they know.

Smith's appointment is another of those "easy decisions" made by general managers -- take the guy already in place, the former assistant. We saw exactly this happen in Dallas four years ago, when Mike Jeffries was canned and the then Dallas GM Greg Elliott (a soccer know-nothing, he who infamously told us how important it was not to "pander to the audience") claimed to have had hundreds of applications (or was it thousands?) before he settled on Colin Clarke -- the Englishman who was already there. And that didn't work out too well.

The Rapids GM Jeff Plush is treading the same route as Elliott. No soccer background, but apparently the ability to make soccer decisions. He gives his reasons for appointing Smith as "His leadership and coaching, as well as the team's response to him on the pitch ..." Note the use of the word "pitch" -- a silly affectation that Plush no doubt believes gives him soccer cred.

Smith's record while performing as the interim coach (following Fernando Clavijo's departure) was 5-4-2, hardly a record to suggest anything earth-shattering. But it is not so much the stats that interest me as the action on the field (that's American for "pitch", Jeff).

I'm looking at how the Rapids played in those 11 games. I saw enough of them to know that all the ghastly old English shibboleths about the game were at work here -- the frantic charging about, the long ball, the huge battering ram at center forward (yes, take a bow Conor Casey). And a disdain for anything that looks like genuine midfield, creative play -- no time for that amid the physical helter-skelter of good old British get-stuck-in direct play.

Of course, all that banality can be dressed up in standard coaching drivel to make it sound positive. "They're fighters. They're more organized. The players know their roles" -- that's what former U.S. international Marcelo Balboa has to say about Smith's Rapids. And Smith, in a pregame interview told us that he wanted to "make sure that every individual mentally is fully prepared ... we're looking towards that real discipline and determination . . ." And so on. Sounds great. Pity there's nothing there about actually playing soccer.

As for that "role playing" mentioned by Balboa. There's one guy whose role is clearly understood: Cristian Gomez, whom Smith, with his English wisdom, has banished to the bench. The highly skillful Gomez, already an MLS Cup winner with D.C. United, and the league's MVP in 2006, is not good enough for Smith.

That really tells us everything. Rather than finding a way to use Gomez's immense skills, Smith prefers to avoid the complications that might involve, and simply drops him.

But even that soccer solecism should not surprise. Smith's coaching background in England reads like a crash course in primitive soccer. Spells with Wimbledon and Watford -- probably the two worst teams ever to sully the Premier League with the crudities of their physical, long-ball approach.

It is intriguing to note that alongside Balboa, a couple of Rapids players have praised Smith -- Mike Petke, like Balboa, a robust defender, and Pablo Mastroenni, a skillful midfielder given to disastrous bouts of getting stuck in (e.g. his red card in the fatal game against Italy during the 2006 World Cup).

I recall asking Houghton, back in 1996, what the Rapids might do to attract Hispanic fans. He looked at me blankly, and it became obvious that he was unaware there were Hispanics in Denver, and what that might mean anyway. That was not in the least surprising for an English coach of that era.

But it would be nice to find that we've advanced, and that even English coaches have progressed. Sadly, nothing I see of Smith's team, nor anything I hear from him, gives rise for optimism. A small but significant detail: Smith talks of "managing" the Rapids. No, Garry, in this country you're the coach, not the manager.

The manager, the GM, is Jeff Plush who, among his many achievements (non-soccer, all of them) in a very busy life, lists his membership of the advisory board of the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. You have to wonder how that group might feel about Smith's grossly insulting treatment of Gomez.

But Plush is perfectly satisfied -- listen to this: "The first thing you see is a real interest in what he [Smith] would call 'playing football' ... That's what Arsenal does all the time. Not just lobbing the ball forward and playing in a direct fashion. Playing the game the way it's meant to be played."

For a start, yes, Smith would call it "football" -- a pretty good example of the way English coaches refuse to adopt American ways. It's called soccer here Gary. As for Plush's intricate knowledge of soccer tactics -- he might do better actually looking at games than listening to his "manager." Can Plush really believe that the Rapids under Smith looked anything remotely like Arsenal?



0 comments
  1. Ian Plenderleith
    commented on: November 14, 2008 at 9:34 a.m.
    The agents of fading 30-something Championship-level benchwarmers are rubbing their hands in anticipation of an easy 15 per cent. To avoid disappointment, book your seats NOW for next season's exported Battle of Blighty, the Rapids-TFC high-ball showdown.


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