I watched two rather different MLS games on Saturday. Both made enjoyable TV viewing: Columbus-D.C. United, for some intelligent soccer and for the ongoing attempt by both teams to play that way; while the Los Angeles-New England game, without offering much in the way of exalted soccer, created excitement from its physical qualities, its pace and commitment and so on.
Maybe the stats, for once, do tell the story here. A total of 23 fouls in the Columbus game, while the Galaxy and the Revs racked up 37, 21 of them from L.A. That's a lot of fouls - and I thought the Galaxy total should have been 22 - the extra one coming at the 90th minute when the Revs' Nico Colaluca was flagrantly upended in the Galaxy box. Sure looked like a penalty to me - but referee Mark Geiger, doing pretty well in a heated game, ignored it, and the Revs didn't do much complaining.
So the Revs coach Steve Nicol got a rather Brit style of "get-stuck-in" game, the sort of soccer that he evidently wants. I'm not sure if that's what Bruce Arena wants for the Galaxy, but I guess he'll take it for the moment, at least until Landon Donovan and David Beckham attempt to get their act together.
The only problem for Nicol was that he lost the game - unjustly, I thought. Apart from the non-PK call, the Revs were the better team in the second half, and were well on top as the game ended. But no goals for them.
Put it down to home field advantage. A narrow 1-0 win for the Galaxy which would probably have been a 1-0 win for the Revs had they been up in Gillette Stadium.
What the game had, in plenty, was goalmouth action. Rather chaotic stuff, most of it, but exciting despite - or possibly because of - that. Here the stats do appear to lie - they list a total of 23 shots. Well, it seemed more than that - and that is what attacking play will do for a game; of course, it takes two teams to make it work, and here you had both sides expending amazing levels of energy as they raced from one end of the field to the other.
Yes, the last 15 minutes or so of the Revs' onslaught on the Galaxy goal had an air of desperation to it - but that was matched by some pretty desperate defending. Add the two together and you had edge-of-the-seat tension with frantic action.
Maybe you'd like 90 minutes of that sort of stuff every game. You're not going to get it, it's beyond the physical and mental powers of the players. Anyway, as in any physical activity, changes and pauses and moments to catch one's breath are necessary, if only to emphasize the highlights.
Such changing moods and rhythms were in evidence in the Columbus-D.C.United game. No doubt part of the reason, a large part I suspect, was that each team had a skilled midfield player - a playmaker, a general, a maestro, there are quite a number of terms for the type - Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Christian Gomez. There were no players of that type to be seen in the Galaxy-Revs game. The Galaxy, of course, have such a player, the best player in the USA, Landon Donovan. The Revs have no one like that because Nicol is a Brit coach and such players do not rank highly in the Brit view of the game.
The Columbus game had its moments of goal-mouth action, but fewer than in the other game. Or so I thought. The stats say I got that wrong, as they list 31 shots, and of course there were two goals in a 1-1 tie.
It seems that helter-skelter action creates a false sense of continual excitement. Or, more likely, it was the excitingly climactic finish to the Galaxy game that sticks so dramatically in my memory.
Something else that sticks in my memory of the Galaxy game - not dramatically, but infuriatingly - is the TV commentary of analyst Brian Dunseth. It was, in a word, appalling. Yet Dunseth seems to have suddenly become the golden boy on television - this was the third game within a week during which I have been bombarded with his virtually non-stop humorless drivel.
It has obviously not occurred to Dunseth that switching from being a player to being a television commentator is actually a change of profession, and that this involves new skills. Like learning how to use the English language concisely and accurately. Like learning how to shape sentences in terms of length, rhythm and cadence. And like realizing that not everything he wants to say is particularly interesting. In short, learning when to shut up would be a good start.
Then there's Dunseth's primitive view of the game - a view that he repeatedly underlines with his praise for "professional fouls" and his demand that defenders repair dangerous situations by committing fouls, even dangerous ones. I wonder how our referees feel about that?
Talking of the rules brings me to the worst of Dunseth's faults - what I would think ought to be a disqualifying deficiency: he doesn't know the rules of the game. It's that bad - an "expert" telling everyone what they should be doing and he hasn't bothered to commit the rules of the game to memory. For a player, that may be good enough - I have always found players (and coaches for that matter) pretty ignorant about the rules - but for a TV analyst ... it's simply unacceptable.