By Paul Gardner
I'm not sure how long the various MLS coaches and clubs expect their fans to put up with this. I'm talking of the decidedly scrappy soccer that the league
served up over the weekend. That's an impression, of course -- my impression -- but I'll go with it.
And were I in a position to demand an explanation from said coaches, I already know
what would be the most frequent excuse. I would be told that things are getting serious now, that the battle for playoff berths is heating up. No time now for ... well, no time for what? No time for
No, it wouldn't exactly be put that way, but that would be the covert message. We are told, again and again, by coaches from all around the world, at every level, that all
that matters in these "serious" situations is getting the points.
That attitude seems to be totally acceptable -- as is the inevitable accompaniment to it: that the games look less and
less like soccer, and more and more like tedious trials of strength and fortitude.
In the current MLS situation, then, the vital thing is simply to qualify for the playoffs. If that means
a boring 1-0 win, so be it. That is actually considered to be good thing in many coaching eyes.
There were many experts who cast their beady eyes over last year's Los Angeles Galaxy and
discovered that the team had, with 55 goals, actually been the league's top scorer. Alas, the team had also let in a league-leading 62 goals.
Now that doesn't sound like too bad a
starting point. Obviously you've got a potent attack going, and everyone, even most coaches, agrees that attacking play -- i.e. scoring goals -- is the most difficult part of the sport. So, all
incoming Coach Bruce Arena had to do was bolster the defense. But it evidently needed a lot of bolstering. Even assuming the prolific goalscoring could continue, at least 20 goals would have to come
off that goals-against total of 62.
The Galaxy's early results showed promise by those criteria. The TV experts were heard saying that the team was now much more solid; a series of four
consecutive (and remarkably dull) 1-1 ties in May apparently proved the point. But the real proof that Arena had turned things around came a few games later, when the Galaxy reeled off three 1-0 wins.
That apparently, was a bit more like it. Now -- and I heard this more than once -- the Galaxy had learned how to "grind out" 1-0 wins. Maybe. But it was desperate stuff ... and this was a team
featuring Landon Donovan, the league's most sparkling player (to say nothing, after July 16, of wonder boy David Beckham).
When medals are handed out to the grinders, it becomes
absolutely pointless to talk of things like style and excitement and entertainment. Forget it. The stats now tell the tale. Admittedly, goalscoring has slumped quite a bit -- down from 1.83 a game to
1.50. But that is not a concern. The really exciting news is what "grinding out" results has done at the other end of the field. That awful average of giving up more than 2 goals-per game has been
vastly improved. Now it's only 1 per game. And the Galaxy sits in second place in the Western standings with a playoff place virtually guaranteed.
Assuming you don't give a damn about the
quality of the soccer, that's a pretty sunny picture, for sure. Or it was -- until Saturday evening when FC Dallas tromped all over the Galaxy to the tune of 6-3 -- the Galaxy's worst-ever
What happened? According to Arena "We were awful from the opening kickoff and deserved everything we got," which is straight-talking, but hardly an explanation.
Let me offer two explanations. The first being that the Galaxy, with an over-rated defense of far-too-slow old-timers (particularly Greg Berhalter) and inexperienced rookies (Omar Gonzalez)
was found out by a wonderfully speedy and skillful performance from Jeff Cunningham and by a team that kept the pedal down the whole game.
My second explanation builds somewhat on that.
There's some wishful thinking here, too. It seems that in modern soccer -- certainly under modern coaches -- defense cannot be strengthened without weakening offense. Here we have a team that scored
two goals per game last year. It is now down to 1.3 per game. That is a triumph?
This is not a criticism of Arena's way of setting about that task. I can't think of any coach who would
have adopted a different approach. Defense became the No. 1 priority. And I wonder about that. Is it really beyond the modern coaching brains to fashion teams that are defensively sound, but are
free-scoring as well? This season the Galaxy are still among the highest scorers -- even though it averaging half a goal a game less than last year. Someone has lowered the bar.
course, at this time of the year, ambitions get lowered as well. Winning is all that matters, grind 'em out. Just so long as we make the playoffs. Once that's been accomplished, then we'll get
something known as "playoff soccer" -- which, I should warn you (as if you didn't already know) can also be pretty dire stuff.