By Paul Gardner
Last time, you may recall, I was bitching about the sheer tedium of the playoff game between Colorado and Columbus. I asked the question: Does playoff soccer have to be like this?
Well, I got my answer, didn’t I ever. A resounding No! delivered and gift-wrapped by Dallas and Real Salt Lake on Saturday. A wonderful game, by any standards, in any league, anywhere.
Where Colorado and Columbus had given us an utterly threadbare game, here were Dallas and RSL pulling out all the stops to produce almost everything you could wish for in a soccer game, including shots, saves, misses, mistakes, stupidities, superb goals, plenty of excellent soccer, just enough feistiness (well, two red cards) -- all of this perfectly book-ended by an early 5th minute goal for RSL, and a late 87th minute winner for Dallas.
Between those goals the pace never flagged, the play was always open and skillful. Here we had two teams willing to do what Colorado and Columbus seemed unwilling to do -- to take the risks that playing an all-out attacking game demands.
I’m tempted to look at the background of the coaches involved to come up with explanation for that difference. On the one hand, Gary Smith of Colorado and Robert Warzycha of Columbus, two died-in-the-wool Europeans with an evident affinity for the European approach -- perhaps I should say the current European approach. You can see that approach in maybe 60 percent or 70 percent of the various European leagues -- English, Germany, Italian, French, Dutch, even the Spanish --that we now get beamed into us.
While it is not a game played with packed defenses, it is nevertheless primarily defensive in mentality. It is certainly not a version of soccer played with any great commitment to the attacking side.
On the other hand, we have Jason Kreis of Real Salt Lake and Schellas Hyndman and Dallas. American coaches -- willing to put the emphasis on attacking play. What we saw in their game was almost a festival of the offense. Of course there was defensive play and it was, I guess, just about adequate. But the point was that, in front of both defenses there were midfields almost totally dedicated to moving the ball forward, to passing the ball forward. With that mentality, you get teams playing with style and rhythm.
Switching games and teams: one team that surely ought to be playing with a good deal of style and rhythm is the Los Angeles Galaxy -- after all ... Landon Donovan and David Beckham? But Bruce Arena (an American, but with an influential European on his team) has the Galaxy strait-jacketed in the (European) defensive mentality. This was appallingly evident in its game against Seattle. If I were Commissioner Don Garber, I’d be seriously tempted to fine the Galaxy for having all that creative and attacking talent -- in a league that needs lively attacking soccer -- and not using it.
It was really quite sick making to hear our resident ESPN experts -- JP Dellacamera, John Harkes and Alexi Lalas -- instructing us on how amazed and admiring we should be at the defensive play of Beckham and Donovan. We, idiots that we are, wouldn’t have noticed it, of course. Maybe not -- but what we damn well could notice, without a lecture from the commentary box, was the virtual absence of attacking play from these guys. Do I really want to be watching Dema Kovalenko getting yet another yellow card while the Galaxy squeak out another meager 1-0 win?
The only factor that kept up the interest in this game was the tension -- which was largely created and maintained by the crowd, the atmosphere created by the wonderful Seattle fans. On the field we had a game that, after only 15 minutes, had Harkes commenting that he could see had “no possession or rhythm.”
Right. And that was all the Galaxy’s fault, a team playing defensive soccer -- and a team that looked suspiciously as though its main offensive aim was to win free kicks for Beckham to take. There was no Beckham magic in this game -- the one moment of magic came from Edson Buddle, with his snap-shot from 35 yards that completely fooled Kasey Keller for the game’s only goal.
While I’m on the subject of eking out 1-0 wins, much of what I’ve said about not taking offense seriously, and lacking style and rhythm, applied to the New York Red Bulls. Yikes! -- another team, with its costly DP troika, that ought to be playing classy stuff, but that never seems able to get things rolling. San Jose, like Seattle, tried its best -- as they should, being the home teams -- but it’s not easy to crack open defensively oriented teams that are looking to play counterattack soccer.
Bah, enough of this synthetic, tactics-dominated pseudo-soccer that is supposed to be so good for us -- away with it! -- and back to Dallas and Real Salt Lake, back to the real game. Let’s leave this first round of playoff games with a vibrant memory, a wonderful moment of soccer wizardry ... we’re in the 87th minute, with the game tied 1-1 ... Coach Hyndman sends on Eric Avila, slender, almost fragile-looking, but possessed of real soccer skills . . . it takes just 63 seconds ... David Ferreira, another small bundle of soccer energy, breaks away . . . a dribble for heaven’s sake ... he is outmuscled and knocked down, but has already passed the ball to Avila, who sprints forward, pushing the ball ahead twice, then right-foots the perfect shot from the edge of the penalty area, across goalkeeper Nick Rimando, to curl inside the far post.
Beautiful, exciting, memorable. Thanks Eric Avila, thanks Dallas and Real Salt Lake. Sad to know that one of these two adventurous teams will not get to the final. And downright obnoxious to know that one, or even two, of Los Angeles, New York, Columbus and Colorado can make it.
Imagining an MLS Cup between two teams from that safety-first foursome reminds me of a nice baseball story -- the expert who, before a World Series, spent hours analyzing and balancing the mountain of pitching and hitting stats for the two teams, before giving his verdict: I don’t think either team can win it.