By Paul Gardner
I would have thought that it was by now blindingly obvious that goals are, in the soccer sense, an endangered species. They occur much less frequently than they have ever done in the 150-year history of the sport, and the chances of there being a sudden surge in scoring I can confidently predict at absolute zero.
And that's the only prediction that's worth making about goals. Not only are they a rare occurrence, they are also frustratingly elusive to pin down. And anyone who starts predicting goals is almost bound to make an ass of himself. I have here some splendid examples of people -- experts, actually -- falling flat on their face, or maybe the other end, by declaring that they can tell us in advance when goals will be scored.
We have, for a start, the new coach of D.C. United, Curt Onalfo. His message, in an interview with Fox Soccer Channel’s Kevin Costigan, was that "We want to play a certain way and score a lot of goals." Well, that's great -- except that my heart, instead of soaring at the sound of such brave words, sank with a plop. Goals, having been scorned into rarity by a sport that ought to know better, are now shy creatures. They do not respond to that sort of naive encouragement. To prove that point, I have the results of D.C. United's three preseason games against MLS teams, which show that United has not scored even one goal so far. I refuse to count these absurd games that MLS teams play against college and lower division opposition -- the scores of all those games should probably be at least 4-0 ... but come on, those are not real goals!
Next, I have a press report from a couple of months back that is headed "Goals Galore Expected," which already makes you wonder what the guy was on when he wrote it. He's referring to the Champions League series between CSKA Moscow and Sevilla, declaring that the two games "may well be the most open, expansive encounter in recent CL history." So once again, the goals fled. We've had the first leg, in Moscow, which was anything but open and expansive -- closed and constipated was more like it -- with Sevilla scoring early and trying to protect that 1-0 lead. It took a superb strike from CSKA's Chilean midfielder Mark Gonzalez to level the score at 1-1. Goals galore? Maybe in the second leg.
Steve Nicol, the New England Revs coach is next up. On a recent ESPN telecast Nicol discussed an upcoming game between Tottenham and Aston Villa. Oh yes, said Nicol, "I think there'll be goals in this game ... it's got goals written all over it for me." And yes, of course, it finished 0-0.
Each one of those predictions, of course, was backed up by logical reasoning. Onalfo had got rid of Brazilian Luciano Emilio the club’s top scorer but replaced him with an Australian, Danny Allsopp, who’s supposed to rattle in goals like you wouldn't believe (actually, now I come to look at that, you can forget that bit about logical reasoning). Nicol based his prediction on the abundance of attacking players on both Spurs and Villa - he listed them, “Defoe, Crouch, Agbonlahor, Young, Carew ..." And you can't really argue with Nicol's reasoning. Except that you have to know -- and surely Nicol knows -- that soccer rarely works that way.
And one of the main reasons it doesn’t is because of coaches. Both Onalfo and Nicol are talking about goals, but both of them know damn well that if their own teams have to face up to another team with a lot of goalscoring talent, the first thing on their mind will be to suffocate that talent. Onalfo, in that same interview, explained that his "Priority number one was to get a consistent goalkeeper."
Fact is, high-scoring games scare the hell out of coaches -- even when it's their own team doing the scoring. Giving up a lot of goals means even more emphasis on defense, scoring a lot of goals reveals another fear: that goalscoring is bound to be limited, and that scoring too many in one game means that when goals are needed in later games, they somehow won't be available -- "We should have saved some of those for later," is the thought.
The 2008 Galaxy was the highest-scoring team in MLS, and an exciting team to watch. But they gave up too many goals, so Bruce Arena put a stop to the scoring antics, and managed the almost incredible feat of turning a team containing Landon Donovan and David Beckham into a stodgy bore. And, scoring just 1.2 goals per game, the 2009 Galaxy came within a PK shootout of winning it all. I mean, who needs goals?
Well, MLS, I should have thought. Last year's per game average of just over 2.5 was pretty pathetic, the league's lowest ever. But the MLS preseason games present a gloomy scene. Until the New York Red Bulls (of all people) scored four goals this past weekend, there had been 10 games featuring all-MLS matchups, which had resulted in 10 goals. One goal per game!
Meaning that the 2010 horizon is not a glittering one for MLS, I'm afraid. The clouds of strong defensive play and coaching phrases like "well-organized" and "difficult to beat" and the fatuous “defense wins championships” will do their best to shut out the sunshine that goals bring.
There now, dammit, I’ve been and gone and made a prediction about goalscoring. But it's a negative prediction about the non-scoring of goals, and those, sad to say, have a pretty good chance of being correct. I shall be delighted if I'm wrong, and if the MLS season is a riot of goalscoring, and the hell with water-tight defenses and consistent goalkeepers. Who am I kidding?