One can hope that a vital aftermath of Alan Gordon’s remarkable airborne volley in the Quakes-Crew game last weekend is some proper respect for the
downtrodden big striker.
As players grow bigger and stronger and faster, as if those are negative attributes in a game of extreme physical demands, more and more smaller players like that Lionel Messi character run off with all the plaudits and admiration, leaving their larger, heftier counterparts banished to some dark, fearsome place. Buzzing through and past flailing opponents, bewildering them with abrupt changes of direction and insidious touches is all well and good, but when a person of larger persuasion pulls off a flying golazo, well, where’s the love?
Gordon’s goal, as well as Eric Hassli’s remarkable strike that was named MLS Goal of the Year for 2011, is indicative of what some -- certainly not all -- large-size forwards can produce. Most of today's big forwards are far more nimble and nuanced than the lurching hulks of previous eras, such as Ian Ormondroyd, a 6-foot-7 English striker once immortalized in an early edition of the fanzine devoted to such pithy appreciations of the game, When Saturday Comes.
The ‘zine ran an item entitled “The Uses of Ian Ormondroyd,” one of which depicted a colossus-like figure towering above a grandstand, with a gigantic miner’s lamp affixed to his forehead casting its light upon the playing field. Ormondroyd may not have been as tall as the light standards used to illuminate night matches, but he certainly wasn’t any more mobile. The very thought of him attempting a kick such as executed by Gordon invokes a sickening, ground-shaking thud and a very large man in a very large hospital bed attached to those levers and pulleys reserved for patients destined to spend months in traction.
For decades, one of the most common scenes photographed at English soccer matches was a huge, powerful man flinging himself forward to head a ball at goal. Most of them were strong and fearless but, to use one popular metaphor, were cursed by “the turning radius of a cross-channel ferry.” In other words, very stationary once they got into the box.
That stereotype persists, which might explain why a truly elegant goal scored by another tall striker, Peter Crouch, evokes far more disbelief than admiration. But what can you expect from an audience that uses words like “giraffe” to describe a big man who can’t match Messi’s mesmerizing magic? Not until Jan Koller, another 6-foot-7 striker, starting banging in goals with both feet as well as his shaved head for Borussia Dortmund and Czech Republic did some attitudes begin to change.
In March, playing for Stoke City, Crouch nodded a long goal kick to teammate Jermaine Pennant and when the ball was headed in his direction, Crouch juggled it with his right foot and then volleyed it into the top far corner from about 30 yards out. This wasn’t some desperate, hit-and-hope stab in the dark; Crouch clearly used the few available nanoseconds to devise a method of getting off a shot, and executed it with remarkable skill.
Sometimes a spectacular goal, like Hassli’s -- which resulted from an Oswaldo Alonso turnover and also involved a preliminary touch prior to a final strike -- seems to be more by luck than design. There’s always a bit of good fortune involved, yet in both cases that first touch and the strike are products of instinct and thousands of repetitions on the training field. Forwards spent a lot of time hitting balls played to them at all angles and speeds to get a sense and a feel of just how to hit a shot on frame given the circumstances. One of the highest compliments to a forward is that simple but telling phrase, “He puts the ball on frame.”
In Gordon’s case, he’d nearly squandered a great scoring chance by firing a left-footed, first-time shot from a Chris Wondolowski feed off the crossbar. An opportunity squandered became an instant classic when Gordon flung himself at the rebound to smack a right-footed side volley a foot or so inside the post. I can see a lot of MLS forwards attempting that shot but not many making solid contact, much less actually driving the ball into the net.
Hassli and Gordon are both a few inches shorter than Crouch (same height as Ormondroyd), but any big forward -- just ask 6-foot-3 Kenny Cooper -- who tries to play soccer rather than just bludgeon the ball into the net is a ripe target for being ripped. In the case of Crouch, who has bounced from team to team despite netting more than 100 league goals and 22 (in 42 appearances) for England, he never seems do enough to get as much credit as criticism. He’s far from great player, but maybe he tries to be too much of a soccer player in systems that need a battering ram.
Cooper departed Portland supposedly because he wouldn’t or couldn’t play the big-target role as preferred by head coach John Spencer, yet he also cooled off after a hot start and scored a respectable but hardly impressive eight goals. This season, he already has 10 for the Red Bulls, who seem quite happy with the way he’s playing as well as the stats. Forwards, regardless of heft or temperament, have to threaten the opposing goal.
Gordon has bounced around MLS -- Galaxy, Chivas USA, Toronto and now San Jose -- to moderate success. His horizontal howitzer provided the Quakes with a last-ditch 1-1 tie and replicated the result, if not the spectacle, of a classic header the week before that did the same against Chivas USA.
Soccer appeals globally because it can’t routinely be dominated by size and power, though those elements are certainly taking on a greater importance. And the small player can not only survive but flourish with skill and thought and talent.
But if a big player can score big goals, that’s when size does matter.