By Paul Gardner
"He's kind of a calming influence. I think we were too hectic on the ball in the first half and he kind of settled us a little bit when he got the ball, and it helped us a lot." That is Landon Donovan, talking about Jose Francisco Torres -- and in particular the effect that Torres had on the U.S. team when he subbed in for the second half of Saturday's game against Turkey.
If only that had been Coach Bob Bradley speaking. But, no. From Bradley we got the usual coaching banalities: “I thought Jose really played well and was sharp and found the right people and covered all the holes really well.” Even when he’s praising someone, Bradley’s comments make the guy sound more like a plumber than a soccer player.
Nevertheless, Bradley did praise Torres, and that is quite something. But it is Donovan’s comments that contain real soccer worth, rather than mere tactical small-talk.
Donovan lets it be known that “we were too hectic on the ball in the first half.” I’ve been waiting a long time for someone to notice this. Ideally, it should be a coach. It should be Bradley. Or it should have been Arena, or Sampson, or Bora, or Gansler. One of those guys should to have noticed, should have said something. None of them did. In the end it has to be a player -- and it has to be Donovan, now a player with the experience and the authority to point out something that the coach seems to have overlooked.
Dammit, of course the American midfield is too hectic. It always has been, for as long as I can remember. That’s the style that American soccer has been brought up on. Athletes in midfield, charging about for 90 minutes, full of energy and willingness to run through walls and ditches, preferably sweating profusely, maybe foaming at the mouth a little, and even a spatter of blood from a graze will help. College soccer, anyone?
Over the past three generations we have managed to find a player -- always either Hispanic or of Hispanic background -- to dump in the middle of this whirlwind to attempt to instill some sanity. Hugo Perez, then Tab Ramos, then Claudio Reyna. A thankless task for all three, but carried out with varying degrees of success. Soccer subtlety vs. athletic ability. It ought not to be “vs.” -- the two should combine, but that has rarely been the case.
Circumstances change. The problem now is slightly different. Bradley has two skillful midfielders (neither Hispanic, but both with considerable Hispanic experience when young) in Donovan and Clint Dempsey. A problem, because both players are equally as effective as forwards, possibly more so. If they keep moving forward, who can maintain a midfield presence behind them, one that controls the ball? Ricardo Clark? Maurice Edu? Michael Bradley? Forget it, these are players whose middle name is “Hectic.”
After watching Torres’ calming influence on the American midfield -- indeed, on the whole team -- against Turkey, it must surely occur, at last, to someone that the American midfield consistently tries to play at a speed that is beyond the technical abilities of its players. Inaccurate passes (take a look at Clark) and unnecessary fouls (see Bradley, M.) are the inevitable fruits of this fault.
Benny Feilhaber was very unfortunate to be trapped in this first-half madness, trying to make some soccer sense of frantic Clark and Bradley movement and some very fragile defending. His replacement by Torres altered everything. Why? This is what Torres has to say, talking about the change he senses when he switches from Mexican league soccer to the national team: “The pace of the game is always quicker, faster. So when I come in, in two or three days I've got to be right on target. I have to be fast on the ball, get the ball moving and make tackles.”
The problem with that analysis -- from Torres himself -- is that it does not correspond to the evidence of one’s eyes. Which was that Torres managed not to get swept up in the hectic action, that he did indeed stand out as Donovan’s “calming influence.”
There was an unhurried coolness about almost everything that Torres did. If there was an adjustment here, it surely was not that Torres was speeding up his play, but that he was successfully tempering the game around him so that there might now be a chance for something thoughtful to happen.
In short, the midfield began to play as the constructive force that it needs to be, with pace when necessary, but now with time for intelligence to play a role.
That ought to be what Bob Bradley wants. But one wonders. It has taken him quite a while to appreciate what Torres brings. Even now, there is absolutely no guarantee that Torres will even get on the field in South Africa. Bradley may still prefer the bigger, faster, stronger guys.
I hope not. To bolster my hope, I have to do a bit of imagining here. At the end of Saturday’s game, the TV camera followed a determined looking Bradley striding across the field, heading for ... I’m not certain, for the camera managed to cut away at the crucial moment. But it sure looked as though Bradley was heading toward Jose Torres. So I’ll assume he was, and I’ll assume that he was going to praise Torres. That would be nice -- so encouraging for Torres, for the USA ... and for Bob Bradley.