By Paul Gardner
It was the best of weekends, it was the worst of weekends for MLS. On the bright side, the league gave us that rarity in pro sports these days, a much-hyped game that came close to living up to its billing. On the gloomy side, there was the sight of Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales -- certainly one of the best players in the league -- being stretchered off the field with a serious injury.
The two events, though they occupy opposite ends of the emotional spectrum from joy to despair, though they took place some 600 miles apart, are not unconnected. The soccer played during the Galaxy vs. Red Bulls game may not have been world class, but it had a heavy dose of all the necessary ingredients -- skill, commitment, energy, attacking action -- to make it constantly enthralling. But equally important was what the game did not feature: we saw very little crude play, almost no clumsy tackles -- in short, an absence of the sort of reckless play that has been the scourge of MLS games recently, a scourge that has sidelined four of the league’s star players.
Of course this game had its stars -- more than any other MLS matchup can muster -- but it was the supporting cast that allowed the action to flow and to maintain an agreeably high level throughout, to be good entertainment.
Of the stars -- the big-buck earners, that is, Landon Donovan, David Beckham, Rafa Marquez, Juan Pablo Angel and Thierry Henry -- I’d say that Marquez had the most effective game. But he’s now a full-time defender, and we need to look elsewhere for the spectacular stuff. Actually, the game never gave us anything downright spectacular, but there were plenty of moments of memorable skill from Donovan and Henry (including both goals). Plus one or two from Beckham -- but not nearly as many as ESPN commentators Glenn Davis and John Harkes would have us believe. [Hey, Glenn -- Beckham does not have “eyes in the back of his head,” nor did he need them to make the meaningless cross-field pass that had you in a swoon.]
Henry got things going after only three minutes with a very classy bit of finishing, and after that there was never a dull moment -- or so it seemed. No doubt there were lulls in the action, but never long enough to register.
Credit to both teams -- and both coaches -- for keeping their attacking game in top gear. The sad thing is that the scoreline was only 1-1, when 2-2 or even 3-3 would have been a truer reflection of this all-action game.
From the admirable lesser-paid ranks, I’d single out A.J. DeLaGarza and Juninho of the Galaxy, and Mehdi Ballouchy for the Red Bulls -- three players who gave us fluent soccer with class and style. I’ll add a fourth -- the Red Bulls’ Joel Lindpere, plenty of skill, but lacking in style and smoothness -- a difficult-to-classify player whose on-the-ball work often looks herky-jerky, but whose effectiveness is beyond dispute.
Add in a packed, noisy stadium -- a soccer stadium -- and you have just about everything that MLS could wish for at this stage of the league’s development.
Well, now. The Galaxy and the Red Bulls being the two biggest spenders among MLS teams -- on players and stadiums -- does that mean that money is what counts if you want to produce good soccer? Yes ... and no.
Obviously, besides money you need good judgment in player signings, and you need coaches willing to play an attacking style. Yet Real Salt Lake -- way behind the Galaxy and the Red Bulls on the spending scale -- manages to play soccer that is as good as, often better, than anything either of those teams produces. At least, it was ... and we arrive back at the Morales injury.
Quickly, let’s get the obvious out of the way. Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser -- an admirable player in his day -- has expressed his regret and said his player Marcos Mondaini -- whose tackle maimed Morales -- is a wonderful guy who did not mean any harm. I accept all of that. But of course, we’ve heard it all before, we hear it very time one of these shocking “accidents” occurs ... and it is largely irrelevant.
In the past two weeks, MLS has lost four top players to serious, even career-threatening -- injuries -- Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira, Branko Boskovic and now Javier Morales. Is it -- can it be -- just a coincidence that these are all skillful attacking players? Two of them in fact, are Designated Players.
No, of course not. These are players who see a lot of ball, who like to caress it and hold it -- they are, in a sense, vulnerable to tackles. Usually their skill will get them out of trouble -- Lionel Messi is currently the best example of that.
The trouble comes from the tackles. They do not have to be malicious -- but when they are poorly performed or mistimed, by players who are not skillful enough to do any better, or when they are reckless, they can be dangerous.
That is what we are seeing. Players who are tackling recklessly and dangerously. Nobody is saying that these players are out there to deliberately injure opponents. We can go a bit further -- this succession of rash tackles does need an explanation, and it can only be provided by looking at the way soccer is played in MLS. Too physical, too many players who are frankly not good enough to give us, consistently, the sort of game that the Galaxy and the Red Bulls presented on Saturday night.
Defenders -- and therefore tacklers -- will no doubt be offended at the accusation that they have failed to learn their craft -- but that is an accusation that must be made. Too many tackles are being made that are simply crude and lazy ... and, repeat, dangerous.
Better defenders are needed then -- but are we expected to believe that the coaches aren’t aware of this? Why do they keep putting on the field players who they must know are a serious menace to opponents? That is meant to be a serious question, though the answer, I suppose, immediately suggests itself.
A related problem is the modern tactical idea -- much beloved of coaches -- that every player on the field has defensive duties. Thus, Chivas forward Mondaini ends up, deep in his own half, trying to tackle Morales, with a disastrous result. However one may define the skill of clean tackling (a skill that is not seen too often these days), Mondaini manifestly hasn’t a clue. His tackle was utterly amateurish. Which makes it sound laughable -- but there was nothing to laugh at here, because the tackle involved an almost criminal recklessness.
MLS has a problem. Partly caused by the tight financial reins that it imposes, and partly by the permissive attitude that prevails in the league with respect to incompetent defending. The second part of that problem can be tackled quickly by the league making it clear -- to both referees and coaches -- that there is to be zero tolerance for reckless tackling.
Even from a business point of view, it makes no sense to encourage clubs to spend more money in acquiring DPs -- and to require those players to risk life and limb trying to dodge clumsy or reckless -- and certainly dangerous -- tackles.
But one would hope that the human cost -- the thought of the crippled players -- would be enough to effect a rejection of the currently dominant physical approach.