By Paul Gardner
Twenty years ago, a few months before the 1990 World Cup, I asked the same question of two national team coaches: Did they feel under any obligation to play attractive soccer?
England’s Bobby Robson said Yes – “We’re in the entertainment business ... we owe the fans something.” Uruguay’s Oscar Tabarez delivered a curt No, saying his team owed the fans only one thing: “To win.”
However carefully you pose the question, the answers always seem to end up with an either/or reasoning: either you play attractive soccer, or you play winning soccer. As though it has to be either one or the other.
Obviously this is an utterly false notion -- there have been plenty of examples to contradict it. In fact, the contradiction is virtually a definition of a great team -- from the “Magic Magyar” Hungarians of the early 1950s, to Real Madrid 1956-60, to Brazil 1970 and so on to present-day Barcelona and Spain -- all of which played winning and entertaining soccer.
The problem being, not that it can’t be done, but that it is not easy to do. For mediocre, even merely good, as distinct from exceptional teams, the easier path is to concentrate on the winning, and leave the entertainment part to take care of itself. If it fails to materialize, well, that’s too bad.
Of the answers given above, I much prefer Robson’s -- but it is that of Tabarez, the bleak insistence that winning is the only form of entertainment that matters, that has gripped the sport.
Any lingering doubt about that state of affairs might well have been put to rest last week by a press report on the formation that Scottish coach Craig Levein used in the Euro 2012 qualifier against the Czech Republic: the report, using the standard three-number system for soccer formations, gave it as 4-6-0. So the zero-forward formation has arrived. The only good news is that Scotland lost the game.
I have been pondering the entertainment factor in the MLS context. Playoff time is arriving, and that does not bode well for attractive soccer. Sadly, we may not notice much of a difference in MLS play, for the top teams seem already to be gearing up (or down, really) for the grim reality of playoff soccer.
The L.A. Galaxy, for instance, had two games last week. It won both of them with much difficulty, and with little in the way of entertainment. The 2-1 win over Chivas USA, and the 1-0 road win over Philadelphia will both, no doubt, receive their share of praise as proof that the Galaxy now knows how to “grind out” wins against stubborn opponents.
I guess they do. On this form they may well grind their way to MLS Cup. Which would be a shame. Just two seasons ago, the Galaxy pulled off a pretty remarkable feat. This was the Ruud Gullit/Bruce Arena season, and although the team finished equal bottom in the standings it somehow managed to score more goals than anyone -- 55 in 30 games, nearly two per game.
I doubt whether that topsy-turvy stat has ever been achieved before in pro soccer anywhere. (In that same year, Manchester United won the English Premier League with 80 goals, bottom club Derby County had 20; in Spain, Real Madrid was champion with 84, while last-place Levante scored only 33).
The problem for the Galaxy was that it had conceded 62 goals, also a league high, more than enough to give it a losing record and to rule out a playoff spot.
The remedy, of course, was not to score even more goals, but to tighten up the defense. A remedy that is bound to mean scoring fewer goals. So it proved. In 2009, the Galaxy scored at the rate of only 1.2 goals per game -- but it got all the way to MLS Cup.
So far this season, the Galaxy has 41 goals; its goals-per-game average has gone up to 1.46 and it now lets in less than one. And it sits at the top of the Western Division.
That’s quite a turnaround that Arena has achieved. The downside is that it has been done at the expense of the game on the field. Galaxy-2008 games was always worth watching, was always full of action, skill and excitement (well, all those goals, for a start). They were, decidedly entertaining .
By 2009 they had become a pragmatic bore. The team that performed a pro bono publico service by beating the Galaxy in the 2009 MLS Cup, Real Salt Lake, was quite different -- lively, inventive, exciting -- and demonstrably the better team (even after a nasty crude foul from David Beckham had knocked its key player, Javier Morales, out of the game after only 20 minutes).
Last week’s Galaxy games were not encouraging. What on earth has happened to Bruce Arena that he can generate such drab soccer? This is not the way his UVa or his D.C. United -- or even his national team at its best -- played. In August the Galaxy came to play the Red Bulls (with all three of their DPs on the field). In a game of numbing mediocrity the Galaxy ground out a 1-0 win.
On Saturday Real Salt Lake was in Red Bull Arena. Same scenario as the Galaxy game, two top teams, plenty of firepower in the field. This time it finished 0-0.
Now the Red Bulls are grinding out ties -- and wins. After a recent 1-0 win over Kansas City, Bulls coach Hans Backe said, “This is not the type of soccer I want to see,” and admitted that he had “no answer” to why it was so sterile. Which is exactly the same response that Real Salt Lake’s coach Jason Kreis gave when asked about Saturday’s barren game against the Red Bulls.
After the Galaxy’s 1-0 yawner over Philadelphia, Arena admitted “We didn't play particularly well ... We won the game. Am I elated? Am I jumping up and down and doing cartwheels over the fact that we were fabulous tonight? No, I'm not.”
Three of the MLS’s best teams, three of the best coaches, all of them evidently satisfied with the scorelines, but all of them puzzled by their inability to conjure up goals.
I’ve mentioned five recent MLS games above, all featuring at least one top team. Those five games gave us just six goals, and very little by way of absorbing interest. This is a worryingly threadbare buildup to the climactic playoffs and MLS Cup.
Do MLS coaches “owe the fans” anything in terms of entertainment? I think they do. Not just to their own fans (winning may be enough for them) but to the larger, much larger group of soccer fans and potential fans. And to the TV viewers. And to MLS.
This is not just wishy-washy naivete. There is a solid business reasoning here. The strength of MLS, its ability to grow, to draw more fans, depends on the attractiveness of its product, the excitement it generates. And how that excitement measures up against the excitement of baseball and football and basketball.
Six goals in five bland games. Is that good enough?