By Paul Gardner
What do you suppose clubs and coaches -- and general managers -- look for when they’re signing new players? What comes first? It’s worth pondering, for the answer may well tell us what sort of soccer a team wants to play. Or conversely, what sort of soccer a team has given up trying to play.
A couple of recent MLS signings underline the point: D.C. United has brought in Danny Allsopp, an Australian, and the Seattle Sounders signed Switzerland’s Blaise Nkufo. There are similarities: both players are far from young (Allsopp is 31, Nkufo is 34), and both are goalscorers. It can’t be the age that has attracted the clubs, so is it the goalscoring skill?
You’d think so. But the introductory words of the clubs concerned leave room for considerable doubt, because they focus on another similarity. Announcing the coming of Allsopp, D.C. United’s general manager Dave Kasper told us in a press release that the Australian “has shown an ability to score goals” and immediately characterized Allsopp as "an athletic forward.” The quality is evidently considered the main Allsopp attraction -- if it isn’t, then why mention it first? Well, I say “first” -- in fact Kasper didn’t mention any soccer qualities at all. Just general athleticism.
The same thing, only more so, applies to the remarks made by Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer to describe Nkufo: “He’s big, strong, powerful ...” The only conclusion to be drawn from the comments of both Kasper and Hanauer is that both Allsopp and Nkufo were signed primarily because of their physical qualities. Size and athleticism.
Reading that takes me back over 30 years to a New York press conference at which the then President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Gene Edwards, was extolling the virtues of the American team that was about to depart for a youth tournament in Monaco. “Our boys are big, fast, strong, intelligent and so competitive. What they lack in skill they make up in heart.” Quite -- but big, fast, and strong came first. In Monaco the U.S. boys played four games, and lost all four. Big, fast, and strong was not enough.
But that particular lesson -- that when you play soccer it really ought to be the soccer skills that come first -- has always been under challenge from those who want an overtly physical game.
To say that the recent remarks about Allsopp and Nkufo are not promising is putting it very mildly. D.C. United has always been a team that has treasured soccer skills. While the Sounders, last year, frequently delighted with their skillful play. We will be told, of course, that nothing will change, that the skill will continue, the attractive play will maybe get even more attractive. And I shall not believe it until I see it.
Signing large-size forwards is rarely a good move for a team that wants to use soccer skills and guile and artistry. And we’re talking about big guys here: Allsopp is 6-foot-1, Nkufo is 6-2. What inevitably happens with that sort of player is that they become target men. A British phrase, of course, but a suitably banal one to describe the banal play that uses target men -- basically long balls from almost anywhere on the field, Hail Mary “passes” that the big guy will, with any luck, latch on to, and with a lot more luck, be able to do something constructive with.
The big guys can also be relied upon to use their size to create physical confrontations with defenders. None of that is delightful to watch. Well, it may be to some people, those who want their soccer to resemble football, I suppose. If that style takes over, you can forget about playing to the feet of smaller, more skillful players. There’s not really much place for them.
To make way for the formidable Allsopp, D.C. United have got rid of their Brazilian Luciano Emilio, who can only offer a 5-10 frame. A logical move. Now we have to see what will happen to Fredy Montero at the Sounders. Hanauer has already given an oblique hint about that, vouching that Nkufo is “slightly different than some of our guys today.” Indeed. And the player he is most different from -- by those physical criteria cited by Hanauer -- is Montero.
It would be a pity to see Montero depart, but that looks a likely outcome. MLS is a league that has trouble hanging on to its gifted players -- particularly when they are Hispanic. So we’ve said goodbye prematurely to Luciano Emilio, Claudio Lopez, Marcelo Gallardo, Hercules Gomez, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Carlos Ruiz, Amado Guevara, Joselito Vaca, Jose Cancela and Jorge Campos.
This is also a league that is repeatedly described, by players and coaches, as a “physical league.” They mean that as a compliment, of course. I, for one, do not understand why, and I deplore any signs of making this, quite intentionally, an even more physical league.