By Paul Gardner
The usual touches of sadness and gladness, accompanied by the glow of excitement and the groans of disappointment come back to me from the soccer year that was 2011. There were occasions ...
To be saddened by ... The sadness was acute with the sudden, unthinkable death of Roy Rees, a wonderful man, an original coach -- original, therefore a maverick, which made his life difficult, but these were difficulties that he thrived on. Oh, for a few more Rees-cloned maverick coaches!
To regret, with a smile ... A different sort of sadness -- a smiling sadness, really -- came with the news of a couple of retirements -- another coach, Manny Schellscheidt, and a journalist, Grahame Jones. Two lovely guys I seem to have known for ever. Manny, ever the thinker about the game, full of ways, sensible ways -- mostly! -- of improving the training of young players. Manny can talk your ears off with his observations and thoughts on the game. He very nearly did just that for me, some years ago now -- I was watching a game -- college, or youth, I don’t remember -- with Manny alongside. At halftime I wandered off, found another friend and decided to spend the second half with him -- explaining that Manny had worn me out with his non-stop analysis. After the game, in the parking lot, a smiling Manny came up to me: “So you think I talk too much?” My words had gotten back to him, I probably stammered out a lame apology -- but it wasn’t necessary, Manny was not in the least offended ... and took up where I’d left him at halftime, with a careful analysis of the game. He is, like Roy Rees was, a coach with a head-full of not-necessarily PC things to say about the sport and -- retirement or no retirement -- I’m certain that’s not going to change.
Grahame worked for the Los Angeles Times -- a soccer writer on a major newspaper! It gets better, for Grahame is someone who knows his soccer. His writing -- whether game reports or more discursive articles on how the sport was managed or mismanaged -- was always suffused with soccer intelligence. And it was always alive with humor. Grahame had the gift of writing about serious subjects, but with a light touch that made everything readable and enjoyable without sliding into mere frivolity. A memory? Yes, one that emphasizes what I’ve just written: The year was 1988, we were in St Louis and had just finished watching the USA clobber Jamaica 5-1 -- a comprehensive scoreline that disguised a rather poor performance by the USA. On the press bus, Grahame was pondering the lead to his game report. He asked me, with smiling bemusement, “Can you struggle to a 5-1 win?”
To have had enough of ... The ongoing soap opera that is David Beckham. In five years, Beckham has done very little for American soccer. Now we are supposed to keep on groveling while he brazenly works out where he can gather more glory or make more money -- both presumably would be ideal -- and the hell with the Galaxy and MLS. Of course, the marketeers, who have far too much, way too much, influence in the sport, will paint a different picture ... as though the health of the sport itself can be measured solely in the financial figures of sponsors and shirt sales. With any luck, Beckham will be gone to rich pastures new. If he, poor soul, is forced to return to the Galaxy, then it'll be another season of scraping violins as the aging martyr pluckily plays on. And so on. The bad news is that, whatever happens, we'll still have to put up with the marketing block heads.
To wonder why ... MLS does not speak with a much louder, much more stinging voice, on the matter of violent play. The entire 2011 season was overshadowed, and to a considerable extent distorted, by the series of appalling injuries that the opening weeks featured -- immediately after Commissioner Don Garber had issued a reasoned appeal for less violent play, and more protection for skilled players. So Dallas had to do without David Ferreira, Real Salt Lake without Javier Morales, D.C. United without Branko Boskovic, Seattle without Steve Zakuani and, later in the season, Mauro Rosales. As I said, a distorted season.
But where was the outcry, the outrage? Did anyone -- I’m thinking of Garber, and then the coaches -- have anything to say about this? I don’t mean the coaches whose players suffered, I mean MLS coaches in general. A meeting of coaches to express concern, maybe? A vow to clean things up? Nothing.
The situation has been made considerably worse by MLS itself, with its campaign to “upgrade” refereeing. This borders on the intolerable. There is not that much wrong with MLS refereeing. Like every other pro league in the world, it has its good refs and its not so good, and they, in turn have their good days and their poor days.
But of course, no one can criticize an innocent-sounding plea by MLS that it is only trying to make things better. Maybe so, but this can also be interpreted as a glaring example of trying to fix something that ain’t broke. An unproductive pursuit that permits MLS to conveniently overlook the true cause of the problem: the fact that MLS is dominated by coaches who prefer a physical game, and who recruit their players accordingly.
Those players come in two groups -- the foreigners, who are selected by the coaches, and the college draftees, who the coaches are more or less obliged to select, and who arrive used only to the athletic crudities of college soccer.
When the Red Bull coach, Hans Backe, in the middle of a pathetically mis-managed season, can openly proclaim that his team needs to play “a bit dirty,” and not be instantly reprimanded and fined by Garber, then it’s difficult to take Garber’s anti-violence appeal seriously.
In fact, Garber’s appeal did lack conviction, at least among the coaches to whom it should have been addressed (it was aimed mostly at referees). This a fundamental problem, Garber’s Achilles’ heel. He is not a soccer man. To his credit, he has never, as far as I know, tried to pose as one, as someone who really understands the nuances of the game.
Not knowing about soccer is a serious fault for the man who runs a pro soccer league. It means that he cannot speak with authority about the playing side of the sport. Garber has done a terrific job with the admin and financial side of the league, but he is not the man to address the league’s shortcomings on the field. When he -- reasonably -- attempts to do so, he is ignored because too many people will be asking themselves “What the hell does he know about it?”
Garber’s comments or criticisms or appeals about the game itself will always lack authority. The soccer voice at MLS right now belongs to Nelson Rodriguez, but does he want the job, does he want the prominent role of the man who reads the riot act to the coaches?
I think not. It is not encouraging to see that Rodriguez is leading the misguided MLS moves to “improve” its refereeing -- which has involved Rodriguez in consultations with British referees, a highly questionable source of “improving” information about officiating.
To be encouraged by ... the steady building, by MLS clubs, of their own soccer-specific stadiums. Again, this represents the immensely positive side of Garber’s reign. Nearly three-quarters of MLS clubs now have a stadium to call home, something that represents a tremendous plus for the sport.
To be not quite so encouraged by ... those ridiculous sideline seats and tables -- seen at Toronto and Kansas City and possibly elsewhere. Sooner or later a fan -- or are they all marketing groupies down there? -- is going to get splattered, along with his drinks and snacks, by a violently hit ball. The Red Bulls’ Luke Rodgers very nearly made the point in spectacular fashion at the Home Depot, when he petulantly slammed the ball into touch and came within inches of decapitating a lady sitting calmly just behind the advertising boards. I am told she was an employee of the Galaxy. But if a fan gets hurt? A good area for the lawyers, I’d say.
To stare aghast at ... the almost unbelievable mess that the Red Bulls made of their season. A high-spending bunch who, eventually, just managed to squeeze into the playoffs. But all you need to know about the ingenious way in which the Bulls were almost comically mismanaged is their adventure with Dwayne De Rosario. They signed him from Toronto -- on April 1, so maybe we should have sensed that this was going to be a joke. Three months later, the Bulls traded him to D.C. United, ostensibly so that they could free up salary money to bring in a goalkeeper, Frank Rost, from Europe. Rost arrived, and did absolutely nothing, neither good nor bad for the Red Bulls. The other player to arrive, from D.C., was midfielder Dax McCarty, who also did nothing for the Bulls. In the meantime, with D.C., DeRo won two major awards -- as league MVP, and as the league’s top scorer. Way to go, Red Bulls.
To be pondered ... Jurgen Klinsmann. After a few games during which he seemed to be genuinely seeking fresh American talent, Klinsmann -- evidently worried by poor results -- has now opted to bring in his German discoveries. The comments offered by young Preston Zimmerman about “fake Americans -- guys who are really Germans, who know they've got no chance of playing for Germany so they'll settle with the US" do not seem out of order.
We know what Klinsmann is being paid for his efforts: $2.5 million a year as his base -- never mind substantial bonuses. Now, $2.5 million a year -- that means that Klinsmann is earning $6,849 a day. For doing what? Very little, I’d suggest. What is there for a national team coach to do most of the time? Study the tapes? Of course Klinsmann is wildly overpaid, but those are the going rates for big-name coaches. If Sunil Gulati was convinced that the USA had to have a big name, the whopping price tag was inevitable.
Should Bob Bradley be feeling embittered, I’d say he has every right to feel that way.
To shrug one’s shoulders at ... the continued feebleness of college soccer. Same old thing, year after year. A totally unsuitable arena for nurturing future pro players.
To not be surprised by ... the lack of action by MLS with respect to the college game. Everyone at MLS and its clubs who knows anything about the sport, knows full well that college soccer is a joke. A very damaging joke. MLS with various programs -- most prominently, Generation adidas -- is making attempts to steer youngsters away from college soccer (though not from college, it needs to be stressed).
Given that the NCAA is doing, and has always done, absolutely nothing to help MLS, or soccer in general, why not confront the NCAA administrators? A joint MLS and USSF attack on the NCAA’s double standards (comparing soccer to football and basketball) and on its highly dubious financial involvement in the “amateur” ports it claims to organize, would likely shake things up. The USYS is probably supplying more “student athletes” to college than any other sports group. It should be allowed a say on what happens to those teens and their sport in the colleges.
Could the NCAA be strong-armed -- or, more likely, shamed -- into giving soccer the same sort of privileges it grants football and basketball? Worth a try, I’d say.
The sheer uselessness of the college game when it comes to player development was there, down in Florida earlier this month, when the USA’s under-17s took on Turkey, France and Brazil. The USA won the tournament, it took care of Brazil 3-1, largely thanks to a brilliant display from its No. 10, Junior Flores. The question poses itself: What on earth could the colleges -- any college -- do for Flores? Apart from wreck his game completely, that is.
Flores looks like a very special talent -- he will need special and sympathetic nurturing. It should not be necessary to say that. It should go without saying. But the development of highly skillful, playmaking midfielders has never been a strength of American soccer. Thanks largely to college soccer itself, and its baleful influence on the youth game in general.
So where will Flores end up? Maybe with an MLS club? It had better be the right one. Certainly not the Red Bulls, where the treatment of Juan Agudelo this year has been contemptible.
And so, to a 2011 moment never to be forgotten ... and the hero of this moment is Julio Gomez. Probably the name will mean little to you. Never mind. I’ll explain. On July 7 in the Mexican city of Torreon. Mexico was playing Germany in a semifinal of the Under-17 World Cup. Julio had already excited the crowd after only two minutes by scoring with a strange header that the German goalkeeper simply watched as it bounced into the net. The Germans, as Germans will, fought back strongly. With only 15 minutes left in the game, they were leading 2-1. Then, from a Mexican corner kick, Jorge Espericueta curled the ball directly into the goal -- a wonderful gol olimpico to tie the game. But on the play, Julio, racing in to try to head the ball, had been involved in a tremendous head clash with a German player. The game was delayed for over four minutes as Julio was treated on the field and then taken off on a stretcher, his head covered in blood-soaked bandages.
That seemed to be it for Julio, but four minutes later he appeared on the sidelines, his head wrapped in an enormous amount of white bandaging. Wearing this gigantic, bulging toque, he was allowed back on by the referee. Six minutes later, with only seconds remaining in regulation time, a Mexican corner kick was flicked on at the near post -- it traveled to the far side of the six-yard box, where Julio had to move away from the goal to meet it; with his back now to the goal, with German defenders closing in, Julio needed to act quickly. A rapid swirl of movement, of legs pumping in the air, of that white toque rising and falling, and Julio, with a magical overhead kick had won the game for Mexico.
Does it, can it, get any more exciting, any more emotional, any more skillful, any more climactic, any more beautiful, than that?
Then, later, when the joy and the heart-pounding had subsided, it was time for a serious question: should Julio even have been on the field when he scored that sensational goal? That is ...
Something to be faced ... that soccer has a developing problem with concussion injuries. It is something that the soccer authorities have so far, to their shame, refused to take seriously. But the evidence that, at the very least, this is an area that needs careful attention and much research, is growing. Maybe heading per se is a problem; maybe it’s not so much the heading as the head-clashes; maybe any damage is long term, slow to develop. Maybe. We have very few answers, but the questions are growing.