Goals win championships!

MLS Commissioner Don Garber was looking rather pleased with himself. The 13th MLS Cup final had passed into history only a couple of hours ago, the Columbus Crew was the new champion and Garber declared that it had been "a satisfactory afternoon. A good afternoon for soccer in America."

A fair judgment, unless you happened to be of the Red Bull persuasion -- from that viewpoint, things weren't so rosy. Even so, the final 3-1 scoreline could not be described as a shock -- it was probably close to what most people would have predicted. But the course of the game did not develop as expected.

All of Juan Carlos Osorio's coach-talk before the kickoff had been stressing the importance of defense. And the Red Bulls had certainly done their best to give truth to his words during the 1-0 victory over Real Salt Lake. But coaches are mysterious people, given to enigmatic pronouncements.

The day before the game, Osorio was asked about his apparent pleasure in being classified as a defensive coach. No confirmation, no denial, just a smile and "Is that what I am?"

Well, it's what you yourself said, he was told. "I like to think that I am a well-balanced coach," said Osorio. Difficult to argue with a middle-of-the-road position like that, but I, for one, was not about to believe it. So I asked -- "What happens to your tactics, your play, tomorrow, if Columbus scores the first goal?" Osorio suddenly looked quite serious, "It will be tough," he said. And we left it at that.

As it happened, Columbus did score first -- but it hardly deserved to. Against all predictions, against everything that we had seen so far in the playoffs, it was the Red Bulls who took over the game, and dominated the first half. And it was the Red Bulls who ought to have opened the scoring.

"We came out and attacked, and I think that surprised them," said Osorio. Yes, we had Alejandro Moreno's word for that, he admitted that the Red Bull's aggressive play "had set us back a little."

It was good stuff from the Bulls -- explosive running (but poor passing) from Dane Richards, and a series of menacing crosses from Dave van den Bergh that caused some alarm for the Columbus defenders -- not least when Danny O'Rourke made a mess of trying to clear Angel's cross and goalkeeper Will Hesmer had to dive at John Wolyniec's feet.

Good soccer, better than the Crew's, definitely. It deserved a goal. But we all know that soccer doesn't work like that. All it took was momentary lapse of concentration from van den Bergh ... and what had been such a promising afternoon for the Red Bulls began to darken.

Van den Bergh was particularly unlucky that his lapse happened with Guillermo Barros Schelotto lurking nearby -- because Schelotto thinks as quickly as anyone in MLS. Or maybe there is no thinking process, how can there be, there's no time for it, it's all instant instinct. As van den Bergh paused to allow the ball to roll into touch, Schelotto pounced, kept it in play and swept it forward to Moreno who raced on to score.

A word about that goal: there was much talk about goalkeeper Danny Cepero being at fault in his positioning. Really? He got a hand to the ball, which only just entered the goal near the far post. He was beaten, in fact, by a perfectly placed shot -- and Moreno had to hit that ball hard and straight with a space of not much more than two feet to aim at.

But it is typical of today's defense-obsessed soccer that eyes should focus upon a supposed goalkeeper error rather than upon the high attacking skills of Schelotto and Moreno.

The Bulls had conceded the first goal, and as Osorio had said, it was tough. There was, early in the second half, an emphatic reply -- again, the defensive frailties, if there were any don't concern me -- it was the trickery of Richards and the timely opportunism of Wolyniec, the attacking skills, that created the Bulls' tying goal.

At that moment we seemed headed for a heck of a game, but the promise lasted barely two minutes, until Chad Marshall headed the Crew into a 2-1 lead. And this goal was surely about a defensive breakdown. Because it came from a set play, a corner kick, and we'd watched the Red Bulls practice defending corner kicks the previous day. That part of the session was supposed to be closed, but we watched anyway -- and I for one could see nothing so precious, so secret, that no outsider should be allowed to see it. Evidently, there was nothing worth hiding. Because Columbus defender Chad Marshall, a known threat, already the scorer of a vital corner-kick goal against Chicago, was allowed to stroll forward and head home the winning goal.

Osorio spoke calmly about that goal, but one sensed a storm raging beneath the calm, his despair that Diego Jimenez should have conceded, unnecessarily, the corner kick, and that Kevin Goldthwaite should then have so badly misplayed his marking assignment on Marshall.

That was really the end of a remarkable run for the Red Bulls. Schelotto took over, and fashioned a third goal with a stylish chipped pass that Frankie Hejduk finished with an anything but stylish header.

And so MLS Cup 2008 tapered off to a tame finish. But the game had not, in the final analysis, been about defense. The nonsense earlier spouted by Osorio and by van den Bergh and Juan Pablo Angel had not exactly been proved wrong, it had turned out to be irrelevant because the Red Bulls played what I suppose Osorio could describe as a "well-balanced" game. They lost to Columbus, not because Columbus was better defensively, but because it had the superior offense.

How absolutely right then that the MVP award should go to Schelotto, the dominant figure on the field, a player of tremendous skill and guile, of tremendous attacking skill and guile. He assisted on all three Columbus goals, tempting me to scream out loud "Goals win championships!" Indeed they do -- as much as defense. Both maxims contain much truth. But to emphasize one over the other suggests a failure to appreciate that the sport of soccer is badly distorted when it is broken up into distinct compartments. But if such dissections must be made, then "Goals win championships!" is much the more attractive route to take. And, if I want to insist that it's true, I'll point to the decisive influence of Schelotto in MLS Cup 2008.


6 comments about "Goals win championships!".
  1. Paul Dueker, November 24, 2008 at 8:16 a.m.

    Young GK Cepero has a very bright future but was soooo far out of position on that equalizer it was almost criminal.

    It was much more his fault than teammate van den Bergh's.

    Combined with the angle of the shooter and because the shot was VERY WEAKLY hit it should have been a comfortable save for the young keeper-- had he not been grotesquely hugging the near post.

  2. Ian Plenderleith, November 24, 2008 at 8:45 a.m.

    The error was threefold - van den Bergh's sloppiness, the full-back's failure to close down Moreno, and Cepero for showing too much of his far post. But the shot was harder than it looked - it only trickled in because Cepero got a hand on it and that weird HDC grass seemed to slow it down too. Good final, right result.

  3. Gus Keri, November 24, 2008 at 10:28 a.m.

    "Goals win championships" only true if the opposing team's defense doesn't show up. Yesterday, New York's defense stayed home.
    One more thing: Their luck ran out, too.

  4. Frank Cebul, November 24, 2008 at 7:10 p.m.

    I have to add my voice to Paul Gardner's--I think he gets it right 100%. I thought that the MLS Cup was a very entertaining game to watch because both teams seemed like they came to score. After all that I had read about the Red Bulls I was happily surprised when they came out attacking, though I suppose that if they had scored first they would have bunkered down into boring soccer. I think all 4 goals in that game are better viewed as the result of superior attacking desire, skill, speed, and teamwork rather than defensive breakdowns. Even Chad Marshall's goal had to involve a deceptive, well-timed run and a perfect corner kick--and how often do you see that rare combination?

    The one defensive coup that I have not seen anyone comment about is the disappearance of Van den Berg as a force in the second half. Though he dominated his side in the first half with multiple dangerous crosses, the Crew (was it Eddie Gaven?) made him a non-entity in the second half as NY went repeatedly to Dane Richards on the other wing. This occurred even as defender Frankie Heydik was still able to make attacking runs up that side.

    I really think that this was one of the most entertaining MLS Cup finals I have seen. It's worth watching it again.

  5. Paul Denu, November 24, 2008 at 11:35 p.m.

    And now we can only hope that the Crew can keep the nucleus of this team together. I look forward to a team as well rounded and talented as the Crew representing MLS in the "international" tournaments next year. I think with their depth they can make a much better showing than some of the recent teams who, when they rested their starters, were exposed as shells. The Crew had 4 or 5 players on their bench who could have started for the Red Bulls and have improved their team. Keep Sigi, keep Rogers, keep Gaven, keep Schelloto, etc. etc. The Crew have seldom been gifted with "designated players" of superior talent and reputation as some of the wonderful MLS showcase teams have. But they have collected a great assortment of diverse talent that deserves to remain assembled for more than one year.

    Go Crew! Just don't go away yet.

  6. Kent James, November 25, 2008 at 1:34 p.m.

    It was nice to see attacking soccer rewarded. Although NY had the better of play in the first part of the game (Van den Berg, Angel and Richards were all dangerous), it wasn't because the Crew were sitting back and defending. The Crew actually had a lot of possession in the NY end, but did little with it. And part of the reason NY was so successful is the Crew gave them too much space. Additionally, Schelotto barely touched the ball, which demonstrates that a good offense can be a good defense by denying the other team the ball. But Schelotto's quality did show in the quick counter. Although Cepero was out of position, it was the speed of the counter and the quality shot that exposed it and got Columbus the goal. Although NY was unfortunate to go a goal down, and it did change the game, I think Columbus deserved the win. But both teams played well.

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