By Paul Gardner
Definitely, it's time for some praise for a couple of coaches whose teams I've never much admired -- but my opinion of their preferred playing style is not at issue here (I'll deal with that shortly). It's their honesty in assessing their own team's performance -- and their willingness to grant praise to their opponents -- that is getting to me at the moment.
Listen to Thomas Rongen after his U-20 U.S. national team lost to Guatemala -- a brutal defeat, one that no one expected, and one that could -- probably should -- cost Rongen his job. This is what Rongen had to say: “Obviously we are extremely disappointed by this result. If you look at the game, you have to take your hat off to Guatemala. The home team came to play. They had a good game plan ... but today wasn't our day. It was a good host team and our team wasn’t able to click on all cylinders.”
Straightforward, dignified, respectful -- and how often do we see that today, particularly at the top level of the sport?
Three days later, after his New England Revs had been beaten 2-0 by Real Salt Lake, Steve Nicol didn’t mince his words about his team’s performance: “There’s no hiding behind it -- we weren’t good ... we should have played better than we did, and we didn't ... we got what we deserved tonight.”
Equally refreshing in criticism of their own teams, neither Rongen nor Nicol rolled out the usual excuses -- the referee, the travel, the injuries that kept key players off the field, and so on.
OK, the final step of admitting personal responsibility for the defeats was missing, but a week or two back we did get that far. From a coach whose teams I have much admired in the past (though not so much lately). It was Bruce Arena who held up his hand as the man to be blamed for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s lousy play against Real Salt Lake (the Galaxy took a 4-1 pounding in the Home Depot Center): “We were completely outplayed in the first half and were punished properly. ... Obviously I point the finger at the coach when the team played the way we played in the first 15 minutes of the game.”
Yes, and I’m well aware that’s only taking in the first 15 minutes, but that will do. All three statements I’ve quoted are highly welcome -- they show a strength of character that would appear to be rather lacking elsewhere -- I’m thinking of the recent behavior and pronouncements of two of the world’s top coaches -- ManU’s Alex Ferguson and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger.
There are obvious differences in the three situations I have quoted. Rongen’s defeat was no doubt the hardest to take, because losing to Guatemala is virtually in the unthinkable category, for no better reason -- as far as I’ve been able to make out -- than that Guatemala is a very tiny country and the USA is a very big one.
It would be pretty daft, I suppose, to tell Rongen that his team should have played like Guatemala. But it would not be so silly to ask Rongen, and the entire personnel of the U.S. Soccer coaching coterie -- and, yes, that very much includes Bob Bradley -- to take a long, hard, humble look at Mexico -- which won the under-20 tournament. An average-sized team with skilled players in every position, a team with class and style, a team that was a pleasure to watch. And the jolting thought occurs: has it ever been true to say that of any U.S. national team, at any age level?
The Mexicans evidently do have something to teach us, MLS clubs finding it mighty difficult to beat Mexican teams. Right now, Real Salt Lake may be in the process of puncturing that jinx, having just reached the Concacaf Champions League final, in which it will play Mexico’s Monterrey.
It was precisely defeats by RSL that drew the self-flagellating remarks from Steve Nicol and Bruce Arena. In this case, I do think there is something to be learned. Namely that a skillful passing game can win things in this league, and against the Mexicans as well.
Nicol openly admits, boasts would not be too strong a verb, that he favors a physical game. There is never very much in the way of artistry to be seen on a Nicol team, and his efforts to avoid signing Latin American players have become almost comical to watch. Yes, I think he should take a look at RSL -- and in particular at its No. 10, the Argentine Javier Morales. But I say that knowing that nothing of the sort will happen.
I would be much more hopeful with Arena, whose best-ever team -- the 1996-98 D.C. United -- was built around a Latin No. 10, Marco Etcheverry. The 1998 team was good enough to beat the Mexicans of Toluca and win the Concacaf Champions Cup. Which makes it totally bewildering to see a player as crude as Chris Birchall starting regularly for the current team.
Nicol will no doubt have nodded in agreement at the words of Toronto’s Alan Gordon, who spelled things out after his team’s 1-1 tie with San Jose on Saturday: “That's what this league is, this league is physical. If we want to compete in this league, we're going to have to be physical.” There is no indication that Gordon finds that regrettable -- and why should he, he’s a big (6-foot-3) physical player.
The San Jose-Toronto game was, I suppose, a physical game -- it featured 30 fouls, which is a lot, one mass brawl, and eight yellow cards, four of them for rough play. It had its moments, but there is surely at least one important person who could not have been happy with that game, or with Gordon’s credo. I mean MLS Commissioner Don Garber who, on the eve of the current season, announced his plan to have referees be more strict in protecting skillful players, and in cutting down on violent tackles and other forms of physical play.
Even though I am in total agreement with what Garber is seeking -- a more attack-oriented, goalscoring game -- I remarked at the time that it would be difficult to get the referees to comply. And so far -- 17 games into the season -- I’ve seen absolutely no convincing evidence of any change in referees’ attitudes.
The league will continue to be a physical league until the coaches have the patience to look for more skilled players, and the courage to bring them in. Until that happens across the board, Gordon will have his physical league (maybe his physical team, too -- Toronto has a lot of very large players on its roster). And we shall still have to put up with the time-honored conventional wisdom that the way to beat the Mexicans is not to challenge them by playing skillful, stylish soccer, but to out-muscle them.