The Commissioner Shoots the Messenger

By Paul Gardner

I see that D.C. United President Kevin Payne has upset MLS Commissioner Don Garber by uttering some uncomfortable truths about the league.

This being the country of free speech and all that, it is therefore definitely disappointing to see that Payne has been told to shut up -- silenced, in fact -- fined $5,000 and made to issue an abject apology to the league and the clubs that, in short, he accused of playing a brand of soccer that isn't worth watching.

This is not the first time this season that Payne has been critical of his fellow clubs. He didn't think much of what Seattle GM Adrian Hanauer was saying about the choice of D.C. as the venue for the Open Cup final, and let fly at Hanauer with a salvo that said, in effect, who the hell is Seattle, a club with a less than one year history, to be telling the highly experienced D.C. United what to do?

OK. You can, should you so wish, decide that Payne is feeling the heat of another poor season for his club. Frustration is setting in, and he's leveling accusations at other clubs in the league to disguise D.C.'s lack of success.

Quite possible -- but I don't think his tirades should be looked at in that way. Particularly this latest effort. You could argue that he was wrong to single out New England, Colorado and Real Salt Lake as being dourly defensive teams -- maybe he should have chosen other examples. But by drawing attention to the fact that there is too much tritely defensive soccer in MLS, and that this is highly damaging to the league, Payne is spot on.

Which makes Garber's response over-sensitive. He's doing what is never a good idea -- shooting the messenger who brings the bad news, instead of facing up to the bad news.

Payne proceeds: "There are a lot of games in our league that I can't watch. The problem in our league isn't who is or isn't in the playoffs; it's that not enough people want to watch our league yet, and we have to convince them that our league is worth watching."

Can Garber or any of the owners contradict that? I don't think so. Can any of them contradict Payne's assertion that it is negative soccer that is the problem? "I don't think [playing conservatively] is the way to do it. I recognize there is more than one way to skin a cat. . . ." [Speaking as a rabid pro-cat person, I can tell you Kevin, that if I were Commissioner you'd get a much heavier punishment for that remark -- something really vicious like being forced to listen to 10 non-stop hours of Brian Dunseth analyzing the sport.]

"I'm not saying that everyone has to play an attacking style ..." says Payne. Nonetheless, this would be a much more entertaining league if everyone did play that way. Which is not going to happen. Playing cautiously is the way that coaches hang on to their jobs; they feel that it works, that their chances of not getting fired are better with a basically defensive team.

That Payne's comments come at playoff time is, I assume, no accident. This is when we start to hear, parroted by coaches and players alike, the ugly brainless phrase "Defense wins championships." Well, does it? Has anyone any proof to offer? Maybe there is incontrovertible proof in baseball or football, I wouldn't know. But in soccer -- is it always the strongest defense that wins? And even if that turns out to be the case, is it not possible that the winning team also has the strongest offense?

Brazil has not built the most successful record in world soccer -- by far the best record -- by playing defensive soccer. A wonderfully attractive -- and therefore attacking -- Spanish team won Euro 2008. Yes, they had a strong defensive record, giving up only three goals. But they also had a good goalscoring average of nearly two goals per game -- 11 goals in six games. In the first round that tournament, the best defensive teams were the Netherlands and Croatia, each of which surrendered only one goal in its three games. But both the Netherlands and Croatia were knocked out in the quarterfinals.

There is every bit as much evidence favoring goalscoring as a winning strategy as there is favoring defense. That coaches should opt for the easier option, cautious defense, is understandable. That Commissioner Garber should, at least publicly, knock down someone who is willing to decry that approach and to wish for something better is not encouraging.

We've had four playoff games now, and we're averaging two goals per game. Which is below this year's regular-season average of 2.54, which happened to be the worst in MLS's history (pause, while I wonder if there might actually be people out there who would rate that 2.54 figure as the best yet).

Only one of the playoff games so far could be called entertaining -- the 2-2 tie between the Galaxy and Chivas USA. The wonderful crowd that turned up in Seattle got a badly refereed half-event of a game. They deserved better. No-risk Columbus tried to sneak out of Salt Lake with an un-honorable tie, but a lovely late goal from Robbie Findley made them pay for their caution. And the Revs and the Fire produced their usual no-frills battle in which the real sport barely gets a look in.

In short, not a great deal that was memorable happened in these games. This is not the way to start the playoffs. We can hope that the do-or-die return games will bring more excitement. It was explained to me once why MLS rejects the notion of away goals counting double -- a system used by virtually all the rest of the world. Frankly, I've forgotten the reasoning (though I do recall that it seemed to have some merit) -- but whatever it is, it looks like it's time for a rethink.

13 comments about "The Commissioner Shoots the Messenger".
  1. David Hardt, November 2, 2009 at 9:25 a.m.

    Careful what you post here, if it is true, you might be a fine!

  2. Bob Quinnell, November 2, 2009 at 9:35 a.m.

    Why was Garber so thin-skinned about these particular remarks? Of course the MLS needs to improve its level of play and offer more attractive soccer more often. Obviously the refereeing needs to improve and be less tolerant of rough play so clubs can play more skillful players and bench their hackers. It will take the clubs and the referees working together to produce a more attractive product. Why fine Payne for stating the obvious?

  3. Adam Burrows, November 2, 2009 at 9:56 a.m.

    While there may be an element of truth to Garber's comments, Gardner is wrong to cite yesterday's NE-Chicago match as supporting evidence. Both teams attacked, play was open, fans were lively. It was probably the most enjoyable game of the year at Gillette, with the Revs putting together an engaging display of heart and skill. No-frills? Maybe, but there was plenty of "real sport" for this soccer fan.

  4. Kenneth Cabral, November 2, 2009 at 10:01 a.m.

    If the MLS played soccer as agressively as Payne has complained, perhaps game attendance and media coveraqge would improve. No doubt that American soccer is much too conservative. One of my biggest complaints is backwards passing - overdone. Four defenders, four or five midfielders and one or two forwards, a scoring team it does not make. Fans want excitement and you don't get it by bassing the ball backwards and not attacking the goal. If MLS is going to be successful it MUST play more agressive football!!

  5. Dragos Axinte, November 2, 2009 at 11:28 a.m.

    Seems that Don Garber continues to take his role of Dictator Extraordinaire very seriously. I grew up in a communist country and learned that in order for all the citizens (in this case the clubs) to remain equal, they must be marginalized by very untouchable rulers, who have supreme power to squelch any disagreement with force. That's the MLS for you. Boy, I think Jose Mourinho would be expelled after 1 week in the MLS!

    I'm a Sounder fan so the name Kevin Payne naturally irks me a little bit, but after reading his comments about the MLS, I almost liked the guy. I think it'd be great if some of the other clubs would show some support - not necessarily to his accusations, but to the basic rights that they all value, like freedom of speech and freedom to sign whomever they want, for however much they want to pay. As the new player's bargaining agreement is being renegotiated with the league, this would be a great time to step up and yell a little.

  6. Kenneth Cabral, November 2, 2009 at 11:44 a.m.

    I'm a Revolution fan and I agree with Adam Burrows that yesterday's NE/Chicago game was fairly well played. The best game yet this season was NE/Seattle. Verry agressive-non-stop action. That's how soccer should be played!

  7. beautiful game, November 2, 2009 at 12:28 p.m.

    Kevin Payne has a lot of common sense and Commissioner Garber has to face facts. Most MLS league games tend to be yawners which is evident by the fact that the top offensive team did not average more than 1.65 goals/game. The referees do a below average job in letting the players play, enforce the game laws and they lose sight of the advantage rule. The playoff format should give field advantage to the higher cede and there should be knockout rounds instead of a two game series which in most cases turns out to be bigger yawns. When it comes to quality on the pitch, it seldom happens.

  8. David Bash, November 2, 2009 at 1:33 p.m.

    As a fan of the FC Barcelona and of the EPL, I am used to a much more elegant soccer product than what I get in a typical MLS match. I am writing to state emphatically that DC United is one of the few MLS teams that consistantly provides what I have become accustomed to with my steady European diet of top flight teams.

    Thanks for this article and the commentary - just wished you mentioned FC Barcelona treble which was won with some serious defensive question marks. The lesson learned from FCBarcelona's success - if you are controlling the ball offensively well - it is hard for the opponent to score alot of goals. Send that out to the MLS coaches!

  9. A j Kearney, November 2, 2009 at 1:49 p.m.

    Geez! I wrote Garber a letter earlier this year making basically the sam point as Kevin Payne. Glad I didn't enclose my bank account information.

  10. Kevin Lash, November 2, 2009 at 3 p.m.

    The point is, Payne is squirming under pressure and DC haven't exactly been stellar this year.
    RSL has played beautiful soccer at home this year-- as good as anyone. Look at the home record and the goal differential. Garth Lagerwey could have singled out DC as playing horrible, defensive soccer in their one appearance at Rio Tinto this year, because they did. But he didn't because it would be stupid and classless.
    Payne broke the understood decorum by singling out other teams. It's the same in any profession, and he should have been fined. His GENERAL idea about putting out more attractive soccer is dead on, and he should start with his own team.

  11. Jacob Wang, November 2, 2009 at 4:23 p.m.

    If he had been more tactful with his tone, I would have said: "You go, Kevin Payne!" I wonder if defensive soccer is the REAL reason the soccer-specific stadiums have such a small capacity. It's your brand, Mr. Garber.

  12. Bob Quinnell, November 2, 2009 at 5:16 p.m.

    For more attractive play two things need to happen at the same time. The refs need to punish the excessive physicality and the clubs need to field more skillful players. The coaches can't start a skillful guy the size of Messi if he's going to get pounded into the turf all day by hackers who go unpunished. So they choose a "tough tackling midfielder" instead. Conversely the refs can't call a tight game played by two skilled players and twenty gorillas or they'll end up with an excessive number of red and yellow cards and no flow. Garber needs to work with the clubs and the referees together to improve and encourage skilful play.

  13. Jeffrey c Tufts, November 3, 2009 at 1:01 p.m.


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