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If Rich Guys Finish First, Stand By for a Dreadful Final
by Paul Gardner, March 13th, 2012 2:55PM
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TAGS:  fc dallas, los angeles galaxy, mls, new york red bulls, real salt lake


By Paul Gardner

Admittedly, it’s a bit early in the season to be talking about this year’s MLS Cup winner. But ... given that the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls are the two MLS clubs that have spent the most money, the two that get the most publicity, that they have a total of five Designated Players between them, and that the Galaxy is the current MLS champion ... given all of that, plus their splendid stadiums, it seems a reasonable conjecture that one of these two will be the next MLS champion.

In fact, adhering to the capitalist maxim that Rich Guys Finish First, things ought to work out so that the final features both teams. And what sort of a final would that be? On the evidence of each team’s first game ... dreadful.

Both teams lost, which is not the recommended way to start a season, but it was the manner of their losses that was much more dismal.

Both the Galaxy and the Bulls gave inchoate, at times chaotic, performances. Style? Flow? Rhythm? Purposeful possession? Incisive passing? Dangerous play in or around the opposing penalty area? Brief sightings, yes (notably, one lovely first-half sequence from the Galaxy), but these were forlorn little moments in the morass of mediocrity that engulfed them.

The Galaxy, we’re told, was tired and unlucky. Possibly. It was also inept and thoroughly disjointed. Landon Donovan, still the brightest star on the USA’s homegrown player horizon, produced flashes of brilliance, without ever looking as though he and his teammates were capable of any clever interplay. Robbie Keane? Another player who seemed to be trying to work things out on his own. I saw no sign of any understanding developing between him and Edson Buddle.

As for David Beckham, we got what we got last season -- an aging player, well past his best -- still capable of delivering a magic cross or two, but little else other than petulant arguing with the referee.

Defensively, the Galaxy looked naive -- no doubt the loss of Omar Gonzalez is going to hurt them -- but the Tommy Meyer-A.J. DeLaGarza combination tried here looked embarrassingly naive. Add in the obvious fact that Sean Franklin simply had a game to forget, and there you have it -- Bruce Arena has a lot of work to do before the Galaxy even looks like a team, never mind wins anything. Last season Arena’s Galaxy won 23 games -- 11 of them, not quite half, were by 1-0 scorelines, which reveals an enormous reliance on the defense to make a single goal stand up. The defense on view on Saturday will be lucky to make two or even three goals stand up -- it is to be hoped that Arena will choose to augment his team’s fire power rather than go the negative defensive route again.

Red Bull coach Hans Backe has already done some work on his team (much needed work -- after all, the Bulls were the No. 1 El Floppo last season). We saw some of it in action on Sunday, in the shape of a cumbersome Swede, Markus Holgersson, brought in to replace Tim Ream at center back. Whatever talents Holgersson may have, comfort on the ball is not one of them.

For the rest, this was largely the Red Bulls who screwed up so badly last season, and nothing has changed. Just where the brain of this team is supposed to be, who is supposed to be in charge, is a well kept secret. I suppose it ought to be Thierry Henry, but it needs saying that there are, in every game that Henry plays for the Red Bulls, lengthy periods when he appears to be not much interested in what’s going on around him. Which just might be OK if he were to produce three or four of those incredible Henry scoring moments that decorated his Arsenal career. So far, nothing.

For this outing, Backe did a clumsy U-turn and -- having largely ignored Juan Agudelo last year -- started him “alongside” Henry. I say “alongside” because there were precious few occasions when the two seemed to even recognize each other’s presence. One begins to wonder whether Henry can, or wants to, combine with his teammates.

But what sort of service can Henry expect from a bluest of blue-collar midfield pairing like that of Dax McCarty and Teemu Tainio? So, already, even without the services of the rustic Luke Rogers (detained in England with visa problems -- something the Red Bulls do not want to talk about), the Bulls look like what they were, so unsuccessfully, last year: a crude smash-and-grab gang.

It’s worth remembering that this is the team that, under the guidance of GM Erik Soler, got rid of Dwayne De Rosario so that it could bring in a goalkeeper -- as a Designated Player, if you please. The goalkeeper, one Frank Rost, did absolutely nothing for the team. Nothing. While DeRo went to D.C. United and became the league’s top scorer and its MVP. Way to go, Hans and Erik.

Backe has promised us a more physical team, so McCarty claiming a yellow card for a physical foul only five minutes into the game, followed by Tainio and Victor Palsson also seeing yellow for being physical can be viewed as some sort of success, I imagine.

A tactical note. The MLS guys now give us an interesting stat labeled “Open play crosses.” As I have maintained for years, and backed up my opinion with withering stats of my own, that crosses are just about the least successful path to goalscoring, it’s interesting to note that the Red Bulls had 22 crosses and 9 corners; their goal did not come from any of those. The Galaxy had similar totals -- 21 crosses and 7 corners. Their goal came from a long Beckham ball into the box, which I suppose could be classed as a cross, though I would prefer to class it as a long forward pass.

Aside from not being greatly effective, crosses have another failing: watching the ball being aimlessly pumped into “the mixer” and simply headed out by massed defenders can surely not be anyone’s idea of the beautiful game?

On that consideration alone, watching enjoyable soccer, a final between these two teams -- playing the sort of soccer they presented this past weekend -- would be a fiasco.

The silver lining is that the teams that beat them -- Dallas and Real Salt Lake -- both played much more attractive soccer. While employing many fewer crosses: Dallas 10, and RSL 14.

If we can assume that RSL’s Javier Morales and Dallas’ David Ferreira, both of whom were seriously injured by violent fouls last season, will not receive similar treatment this season (and I’m afraid we cannot assume that) then the idea of a Dallas vs. RSL final looks good.

  1. Fire Paul Gardner Now
    commented on: March 13, 2012 at 4:44 p.m.
    Same pointless garbage recycled week after week, column after dreadful column. SA- please fire this clown now!
  1. Fire Paul Gardner Now
    commented on: March 13, 2012 at 5:27 p.m.
    Now we have a censor on this site? When did this start?
  1. Millwall America
    commented on: March 13, 2012 at 7:21 p.m.
    Count me as someone who likes the excitement and white-knuckle "will they put it in?" intensity of a cross into "the mix". A big, powerful forward who can command his space, go aerial and head a cross into the net is just as legitimate a player as a nimble, talented trickster who weaves through the defense and puts the ball in with his foot. And the headed goal counts just as much on the scoreline. You can prefer the Barcelona style (as Paul clearly does), but whether it is more exciting or more representative of a "beautiful" game is purely a matter of opinion.
  1. Bill Ford
    commented on: March 13, 2012 at 7:35 p.m.
    it's recycled but not pointless, MLS needs a lot of work to be a respectable league.
  1. Bill Ford
    commented on: March 13, 2012 at 7:36 p.m.
    Millwall...your American soccer is showing.
  1. Andrew Rice
    commented on: March 13, 2012 at 8:29 p.m.
    Regardless of how good a game it would be, Dallas v. RSL can't be the MLS finals anymore, only than the the conference finals.
  1. Saverio Colantonio
    commented on: March 13, 2012 at 9:36 p.m.
    Even with their pitiful defence, I preferred watching the Whitecaps loose with their counter attacking style prior to Thordarson getting fired to watching the Galaxy or Red Bulls. Whatever the level of soccer, I agree with Gardner, the long cross is such a low percentage play and teams that consistently use it as their main tactic are a bore to watch.
  1. Albert Harris
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 8:54 a.m.
    Interesting to see that Super Man has changed his handle to Fire Paul Gardner Now. Don't know why he's now fulminating about censorship though since I'm certainly seeing his negative comments (Paul isn't the only bastion of negativity on this board). So far as the actual column is concerned, I have hopes for the Galaxy since Arena has proven over the years that he knows a thing or two about management. I have zero hopes for the Torro Rosso with Backe managing. One man's opinion only, of course.
  1. Kent James
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 8:58 a.m.
    While aimless crosses "into the mixer" can be pointless (though even then, in the closing minutes of a close game they can be exciting), good modern teams don't do so much of that, they pick out players and hit accurate passes (the difference between an aimless defensive clearance "get it out" and a penetrating counter-attacking pass). The Bayern Munich display against Basel is a good example of some excellent crosses that were turned into beautiful goals (I think even PG would have to admit that). So as with a lot of things, it's not what you do it, but how.
  1. Millwall America
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 10:47 a.m.
    Bill Ford, it's actually my English Football League soccer showing (and a fair bit of the Premier League). There's nothing wrong (and a lot right) with the long ball and the cross into the box so long as, per Kent James, it's done intelligently and with purpose. I'll admit I'm not a fan of teams who play the soccer equivalent of the Hail Mary -- i.e. crossing the ball aimlessly and hoping they'll get lucky. But "aimlessly" is the key word here.
  1. Jack Niner
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 10:52 a.m.
    Spot on Mr Gardner!!! As for the Galaxy being aimless or simple minded in their play, I look no further than Bruce Arena, one of the games great hucksters. Also, I'm not sure what Buddle was cut out for in life, but it's not soccer. There is hope though - I thought the Portland Timbers - Philidelphia Union game was resonably well played with a fair bit of possession, and entertaining in spite of a torrential rain. I was very pleseantly suprised. Perhaps their needs to be a possesion stat along with wins and loses for all the MLS?
  1. Barry Thomas
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 10:54 a.m.
    "One begins to wonder whether Henry can, or wants to, combine with his teammates." I can almost say the same thing about Keane. From the first goal he scored for LA last year (in which he seemed to receive his teammates cangratulatory swarming with disdain and avoidance) to his frustrated body language Saturday night, he seems to hold most MLS players in contempt. Granted, the MLS is not the EPL, but teammates are teammates. Hey, I have an idea! If Keane would respect Henry more than he does Buddle or Magee, maybe we could swap him for Agudelo. At least then, Juan could begin developing some chemistry with Donovan for national team duty.
  1. Daniel Clifton
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 11:55 a.m.
    I have to agree with the comments about the aimed crosses and long balls. Mr Gardner obviously prefers the Barcelona style of play. I like it too but I also recognize there are other ways to play the game that are also attractive. In a game that is so defensive as futbal is what is the problem with a 1-0 score line. There is nothing wrong and alot right with good defense. I agree with PG's criticism of rought play. I don't agree with his dismissal of teams that concentrate on good defense. I think some of the most exciting teams to watch are counter attacking teams. Beyond those issues I am still trying to figure out why Backe is employed in NY. The results speak for themselves and his lack of development of Agudelo is difficult to understand. I don't see the criticisms of Bruce Arena as carrying alot of weight Arena's record speaks for itself.
  1. Gak Foodsource
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 12:06 p.m.
    I don't agree that these are necessarily the best two teams in MLS. But if they are, it will definitely pose questions to the single entity MLS model. I'd love to hear Garber discuss the next 5 years, and the future of single entity, in a more transparent way. If the league continues to operate so insularly, what mechanisms are in place to ensure that when the chains of single entity are ready to be broken, the league's decision makers won't be corrupted by self-interest? I think the fans of MLS are entitled to league and team wide financial disclosures. It would be a huge first step.
  1. frank passalaqua
    commented on: March 14, 2012 at 12:08 p.m.
    "As for David Beckham, we got what we got last season -- an aging player, well past his best -- still capable of delivering a magic cross or two, but little else other than petulant arguing with the referee." I am sorry but most of the time when he touches the ball I personally feel it has purpose. Yea he is not going in hard tackling etc, but he deserves alot more credit than what you wrote. He still has lots of magic, lots. As For Henry, I saw alot of yelling at teammates, hands on hips and overall body language that I would not want my son's, teammates, or players to emulate. My respectful humble opinion.
  1. Jogo Bonito
    commented on: March 17, 2012 at 6:55 p.m.
    Paul Gardner is the ONLY reason I log on to SoccerAmerica (with all due respect to the rest of the staff) .... His writings are always insightful and often I agree and enjoy his opinions. He's clearly the best soccer writer in US Soccer history in my eyes. I have read his books and they are fantastic. The comments that readers leave are interesting too. Except when idiots that call themselves names like "SuperMan" or "Fire Paul Gardner Now " post stupidity that is always negative without a trace of intelligent thought or even a counter argument. Maybe I'm getting to upset about some idiots (or maybe just one idiot) but I thought I'd speak up for the majority that thoroughly enjoy and appreciate Mr. Gardner's great contribution to our sport. I firmly believe PG has open many eyes to a new way of looking at how see this game and has stood up for the scores of people that share his views.

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