[MY GAME] Let's begin by thinking about U.S. soccer. Americans have called it soccer, not football, since the 1920s, to distinguish the foreign sport from the sport played with a ball made out of pigskin. If soccer is an import, maybe the U.S. style of soccer should also be learned from overseas. Acquiring German coach Jurgen Klinsmann is a good start. But a more ambitious and perhaps advantageous search for foreign tactics might begin with Brazil, a country that's pretty amazing at the sport called futébol.
Playing and watching soccer in the United States, I came to understand two styles of play: the passing game and the dribbling game. The passing game was about possession. Circulate the ball with easy passes, control the game and make the last pass into the back of the net. Many coaches focused on the passing game. Maybe because it was easy to coach or it was proven to work. Barcelona plays possession, after all. Then there was the dribbling game, for players with fancy footwork. Teams with stellar dribblers scored when a player would make a great run with the ball passed the keeper and into the goal.
I saw a combination of both styles and more when the Brazilian national team was on TV. Not only did Brazilians pass well and dribble every defender, they also made it look easy and fun. I always wanted to learn the Brazilian style, so after college, I set out for Pele’s homeland.
I found work at an English-language institute, Speaking Club, in Espera Feliz, a tiny town 10 hours north of Rio de Janeiro. Across the street from the institute was the town's soccer gymnasium, or quadra. The quadra was concrete except for a metal roof. It featured a concrete indoor soccer court, slightly smaller than a basketball court, with 6-by-8-foot goals. After six months of playing Brazilian indoor at the quadra, a small enclosure compared to an 11-on-11 field, I understood the vision behind the beautiful style. And it started with space.
I made one too many through ball passes before my teammate freaked out at me. Pickup soccer in Brazil is very similar to pickup basketball in the United States -- some guys take it too seriously. I'd slotted a pass between two defenders to my teammate who was near the goal. But the guy didn’t run for the pass. Instead threw his hands in the air with frustration and yelled something at me.
A minute later, we had a two-on-one against the goalie. Instead of passing, which had just frustrated my teammate, I took on the keeper with some dribbling. I fainted the pass, shook the keeper and scored. Still my teammate cursed and scolded me in Portuguese. He complained to his friend on the sideline when we eventually lost and had to step off the court.
I figured out my mistake while I watched the next pickup game. It wasn't about the goal, but the best opportunity to score a goal. When I'd passed to my teammate, I'd had the opportunity to simply dribble ahead and take an easy shot. But I'd passed to my teammate who had to make a more difficult one-touch finish by his defender and the keeper. When I'd dribbled instead of passed in the two-on-one, I could have just passed and my teammate would have had an open net.
In both situations, I'd been closing the space to score a goal, rather opening it. Even if I was being generous with the ball on the pass play, I'd made the window to score smaller than it would have been if I had dribbled into open space for a shot. Similarly, by taking on the goalkeeper one-on-one with a dribble, I'd closed space between the ball and the last defender and made the possibility of a goal less likely. If I'd passed off to my teammate, the window would have been wide open.
The secret behind the mystique of beautiful Brazilian soccer is to always look for the opportunity to score with the highest probability. Assuming players have a better probability of scoring when they have more space, the goal is simply to get the ball to the player with the most space. Players must be able to dribble any defender on the field and have the ability to make passes into space, not to specific players.
The move that players would try every game (and I only managed to do once in six months of playing soccer in Brazil) was what I call the reverse nutmeg. The ball handler would face one direction, pretending to be oblivious to a defender at his back. But when his defender would come at him from behind, the ball handler would gently roll the ball with the bottom of his cleat, shoe, or foot in reverse, through the legs of the defender. He’d spin around the oncoming challenger to meet the ball in the space behind the earnest challenge. This was the ultimate embarrassment for a defender and triumph for a dribbler, who gave himself ample space for the best chance to score.
American players shouldn’t focus on dribbling or possession. They need to think like Brazilians. Get the ball into space for the best chance to score, and shoot.