By Paul Gardner
I see that D.C. United President Kevin Payne has upset MLS Commissioner Don Garber by uttering some uncomfortable truths about the league.
This being the country of free speech and all that, it is therefore definitely disappointing to see that Payne has been told to shut up -- silenced, in fact -- fined $5,000 and made to issue an abject apology to the league and the clubs that, in short, he accused of playing a brand of soccer that isn't worth watching.
This is not the first time this season that Payne has been critical of his fellow clubs. He didn't think much of what Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer was saying about the choice of D.C. as the venue for the Open Cup final, and let fly at Hanauer with a salvo that said, in effect, who the hell is Seattle, a club with a less than one year history, to be telling the highly experienced D.C. United what to do?
OK. You can, should you so wish, decide that Payne is feeling the heat of another poor season for his club. Frustration is setting in, and he's leveling accusations at other clubs in the league to disguise D.C.'s lack of success.
Quite possible -- but I don't think his tirades should be looked at in that way. Particularly this latest effort. You could argue that he was wrong to single out New England, Colorado and Real Salt Lake as being dourly defensive teams -- maybe he should have chosen other examples. But by drawing attention to the fact that there is too much tritely defensive soccer in MLS, and that this is highly damaging to the league, Payne is spot on.
Which makes Garber's response over-sensitive. He's doing what is never a good idea -- shooting the messenger who brings the bad news, instead of facing up to the bad news.
Payne proceeds: "There are a lot of games in our league that I can't watch. The problem in our league isn't who is or isn't in the playoffs; it's that not enough people want to watch our league yet, and we have to convince them that our league is worth watching."
Can Garber or any of the owners contradict that? I don't think so. Can any of them contradict Payne's assertion that it is negative soccer that is the problem? "I don't think [playing conservatively] is the way to do it. I recognize there is more than one way to skin a cat. . . ." [Speaking as a rabid pro-cat person, I can tell you Kevin, that if I were Commissioner you'd get a much heavier punishment for that remark -- something really vicious like being forced to listen to 10 non-stop hours of Brian Dunseth analyzing the sport.]
"I'm not saying that everyone has to play an attacking style ..." says Payne. Nonetheless, this would be a much more entertaining league if everyone did play that way. Which is not going to happen. Playing cautiously is the way that coaches hang on to their jobs; they feel that it works, that their chances of not getting fired are better with a basically defensive team.
That Payne's comments come at playoff time is, I assume, no accident. This is when we start to hear, parroted by coaches and players alike, the ugly brainless phrase "Defense wins championships." Well, does it? Has anyone any proof to offer? Maybe there is incontrovertible proof in baseball or football, I wouldn't know. But in soccer -- is it always the strongest defense that wins? And even if that turns out to be the case, is it not possible that the winning team also has the strongest offense?
Brazil has not built the most successful record in world soccer -- by far the best record -- by playing defensive soccer. A wonderfully attractive -- and therefore attacking -- Spanish team won Euro 2008. Yes, they had a strong defensive record, giving up only three goals. But they also had a good goalscoring average of nearly two goals per game -- 11 goals in six games. In the first round that tournament, the best defensive teams were the Netherlands and Croatia, each of which surrendered only one goal in its three games. But both the Netherlands and Croatia were knocked out in the quarterfinals.
There is every bit as much evidence favoring goalscoring as a winning strategy as there is favoring defense. That coaches should opt for the easier option, cautious defense, is understandable. That Commissioner Garber should, at least publicly, knock down someone who is willing to decry that approach and to wish for something better is not encouraging.
We've had four playoff games now, and we're averaging two goals per game. Which is below this year's regular-season average of 2.54, which happened to be the worst in MLS's history (pause, while I wonder if there might actually be people out there who would rate that 2.54 figure as the bestyet).
Only one of the playoff games so far could be called entertaining -- the 2-2 tie between the Galaxy and Chivas USA. The wonderful crowd that turned up in Seattle got a badly refereed half-event of a game. They deserved better. No-risk Columbus tried to sneak out of Salt Lake with an un-honorable tie, but a lovely late goal from Robbie Findley made them pay for their caution. And the Revs and the Fire produced their usual no-frills battle in which the real sport barely gets a look in.
In short, not a great deal that was memorable happened in these games. This is not the way to start the playoffs. We can hope that the do-or-die return games will bring more excitement. It was explained to me once why MLS rejects the notion of away goals counting double -- a system used by virtually all the rest of the world. Frankly, I've forgotten the reasoning (though I do recall that it seemed to have some merit) -- but whatever it is, it looks like it's time for a rethink.