Signs of making MLS even more physical

By Paul Gardner

What do you suppose clubs and coaches -- and general managers -- look for when they’re signing new players? What comes first? It’s worth pondering, for the answer may well tell us what sort of soccer a team wants to play. Or conversely, what sort of soccer a team has given up trying to play.

A couple of recent MLS signings underline the point: D.C. United has brought in Danny Allsopp, an Australian, and the Seattle Sounders signed Switzerland’s Blaise Nkufo. There are similarities: both players are far from young (Allsopp is 31, Nkufo is 34), and both are goalscorers. It can’t be the age that has attracted the clubs, so is it the goalscoring skill?

You’d think so. But the introductory words of the clubs concerned leave room for considerable doubt, because they focus on another similarity. Announcing the coming of Allsopp, D.C. United’s general manager Dave Kasper told us in a press release that the Australian “has shown an ability to score goals” and immediately characterized Allsopp as "an athletic forward.” The quality is evidently considered the main Allsopp attraction -- if it isn’t, then why mention it first? Well, I say “first” -- in fact Kasper didn’t mention any soccer qualities at all. Just general athleticism.

The same thing, only more so, applies to the remarks made by Seattle general manager Adrian Hanauer to describe Nkufo: “He’s big, strong, powerful ...” The only conclusion to be drawn from the comments of both Kasper and Hanauer is that both Allsopp and Nkufo were signed primarily because of their physical qualities. Size and athleticism.

Reading that takes me back over 30 years to a New York press conference at which the then President of the U.S. Soccer Federation, Gene Edwards, was extolling the virtues of the American team that was about to depart for a youth tournament in Monaco. “Our boys are big, fast, strong, intelligent and so competitive. What they lack in skill they make up in heart.” Quite -- but big, fast, and strong came first. In Monaco the U.S. boys played four games, and lost all four. Big, fast, and strong was not enough.

But that particular lesson -- that when you play soccer it really ought to be the soccer skills that come first -- has always been under challenge from those who want an overtly physical game.

To say that the recent remarks about Allsopp and Nkufo are not promising is putting it very mildly. D.C. United has always been a team that has treasured soccer skills. While the Sounders, last year, frequently delighted with their skillful play. We will be told, of course, that nothing will change, that the skill will continue, the attractive play will maybe get even more attractive. And I shall not believe it until I see it.

Signing large-size forwards is rarely a good move for a team that wants to use soccer skills and guile and artistry. And we’re talking about big guys here: Allsopp is 6-foot-1, Nkufo is 6-2. What inevitably happens with that sort of player is that they become target men. A British phrase, of course, but a suitably banal one to describe the banal play that uses target men -- basically long balls from almost anywhere on the field, Hail Mary “passes” that the big guy will, with any luck, latch on to, and with a lot more luck, be able to do something constructive with.

The big guys can also be relied upon to use their size to create physical confrontations with defenders. None of that is delightful to watch. Well, it may be to some people, those who want their soccer to resemble football, I suppose. If that style takes over, you can forget about playing to the feet of smaller, more skillful players. There’s not really much place for them.

To make way for the formidable Allsopp, D.C. United have got rid of their Brazilian Luciano Emilio, who can only offer a 5-10 frame. A logical move. Now we have to see what will happen to Fredy Montero at the Sounders. Hanauer has already given an oblique hint about that, vouching that Nkufo is “slightly different than some of our guys today.” Indeed. And the player he is most different from -- by those physical criteria cited by Hanauer -- is Montero.

It would be a pity to see Montero depart, but that looks a likely outcome. MLS is a league that has trouble hanging on to its gifted players -- particularly when they are Hispanic. So we’ve said goodbye prematurely to Luciano Emilio, Claudio Lopez, Marcelo Gallardo, Hercules Gomez, Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Carlos Ruiz, Amado Guevara, Joselito Vaca, Jose Cancela and Jorge Campos.

This is also a league that is repeatedly described, by players and coaches, as a “physical league.” They mean that as a compliment, of course. I, for one, do not understand why, and I deplore any signs of making this, quite intentionally, an even more physical league.

11 comments about "Signs of making MLS even more physical".
  1. Jerry Treat, March 5, 2010 at 9:36 a.m.

    Maradona would never have been drafted by an MLS team...he was too small.

  2. Thomas Hosier, March 5, 2010 at 10:03 a.m.

    “Our boys are big, fast, strong, intelligent and so competitive. What they lack in skill they make up in heart." ... says US Soccer Federation Pres 30 years ago ... seems like only yesterday ... hey it was almost only yesterday as the Dutchmen from the Netherlands passed Team USA silly, while the "big, fast, strong, intelligent and so competitive" Team USA played "boom ball" for most of the match when they went down to defeat to the Dutchmen. How far will "big,fast, strong, and intelligent take Team USA in the World Cup?

  3. Brian Kraft, March 5, 2010 at 10:34 a.m.

    Hogwash. Monstrous US athletes play other sports. I wish more of them played soccer, but there it is. So tiny guys - think LD, DMB, Adu, Richie Williams - have always had a place in MLS.

    The bruisers you speak of aren't that big, and they are forwards. The beautiful game isn't all that beautiful until the net ripples. The talent can knock the ball around marvelously for 90 minutes, but to what end? Life in front of any goalmouth is rough. There's room on every roster for a rough-and-tumble striker who can take a hit and who focuses on one simple task - putting the ball in the net.

    Ah, we do miss having Raul Diaz Arce here in DC. He was a man whose soccer talents were gloriously limited.

  4. Justin Wright, March 5, 2010 at 11:29 a.m.

    Not to dispute your point in the article, but thinking about the Sounders signing you have to consider that a physical target man was something the Sounders really we lacking. Nate Jaqua played that role at times last year, but it may not have been the best fit for him. And with his injury keeping him out of training, I wonder if we'll even have him this season. While using a target man for long-ball play cannot be your only tactic it's certainly an option you'd like to have in your squad.

  5. Scott Nelson, March 5, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.

    I can't speak for the situation in DC, but as far as Seattle goes, I don't see any ominous double speak in Hannauer's comments about N'Kufo being "slightly different" from the other Sounders forwards. Nate Jaqua is 6'4" but contributes much more with his feet than with his head. Montero, Ljungberg, and Zakuani are all quick and skillful but not physically imposing. Ljungberg and Montero were #1 and #2 in fouls suffered last season, but what the stats don't show is the number of times both players were bundled off the ball as the ref merrily waved "play on". A player with more physical presence CAN be used as a route one battering ram, but he can also be used to hold the ball up top and help bring the quick skillful players into the game. From what I've heard, N'Kufo is more than skillful enough for MLS.

  6. Brian Herbert, March 5, 2010 at 1:51 p.m.

    I do think that this is a big reason why many just don't take the MLS seriously. I know me and my friends follow EPL, La Liga, Italian Serie A, but really don't pay attention to MLS.
    Why? Because anyone who follows the sport a bit, even youth players, see that college and pro soccer in the USA is just played at a lower skill level and with more reliance on physicality than you see in pro leagues in other counties. EPL may be the closest, but they look to be takng steps to change.
    If this is really a trend and not just two random draft choices, it doesn't bode well for the popularity of the MLS or for the success of US players internationally.

  7. Abe Carranza, March 5, 2010 at 1:59 p.m.

    I think again MLS is possibly trying to reach some sort of parody to the EPL where it is undoubtedly very physical yet the skill level on and off the ball is extraordinary...I love MLS and forever my side LA Galaxy but I won't begin to try to reason or figure out most of the decision making in this league. Sometimes we think MlS takes two steps forward and then take them right back before we can have anytime to feel proud of the first two.
    example: Soccer Specific stadiums being built for most MLS teams, Great!, players still getting stiffed by the league all around and not given universal footballer rights, Awful!

  8. Eric R., March 5, 2010 at 3:15 p.m.

    I think this grossly overstates MLS pursuing larger players. MLS has a hard time retaining hispanic players because of $$$, not because MLS seeks less-skilled players. As a DC United fan, I can tell you I won't miss Luciano Emilio on the field. After 20 goals in his 1st season, he scored only 14 (total) in the last season, despite earning more that all except 1 other player. The departure of Fred is also welcome; so much wasted/unreliable potential. Instead we have a strong forward who will work well in this league and Christian Castillo-a possible star someday.

    I too prefer a version of the beautiful game that is based on skill, to one based solely on power. But until the day that MLS clubs can compete with the world's greatest (Inter, Barcelona or even Boca Juniors or Club America), I will continue to watch MLS grow and improve...

  9. James Froehlich, March 5, 2010 at 3:23 p.m.

    As usual, I am in agreement with the thrust of Mr. Gardner's comments however I believe he may be over estimating the impact of these two signings, Nkufo's signing especially. The Sounders have an established skill player in Freddy Ljundberg and I don't see this as changing the Sounders, or his style of play. The DC signing is a bit more problematic in that they have a new coach who isn't exactly known for his imaginative style of play. Need to watch how this develops!
    However, on a more positive note, Paul needs to take a look at Chicago Fire's selection of Carlos de los Cobos and the Fire's increasingly close ties with the Mexican premier league. Chicago's increased emphasis on Hispanic players and coaches seems to be just what he has long advocated -- why no comments??

  10. jake brown, March 5, 2010 at 4:06 p.m.

    If the coaches are first looking at physicality and athleticism instead of comfort on the ball, technical ability and vision; what more can be said about the miniscule number of quality players in the U.S. system. Perhaps such comments are steered in the direction of soccer converts who can tune into such discourse.

  11. Jeff Ramsdale, March 7, 2010 at 3:20 a.m.

    This article is rubbish. Sigi's concern over last year's team getting pushed off the ball is well-documented in Sounders media (official and otherwise). It's also well documented that the teams that succeeded against the Sounders did so via either rough play, physicality (in the legal muscling-off-the-ball type) or, usually, both. Therefore, Sounders concerns about physicality are not unfounded. Strike 1 - lack of research, Mr. Gardner.

    "The only conclusion to be drawn from the comments..." Let's skip the other numerous logical fallacies of the first 3 paragraphs and address just this one. Mr. Hanauer described Mr. Nkufo using numerous specific characteristics, describing his leadership and character, among others. Also, it's highly likely Mr. Nkufo, a player of World Cup quality (Swiss national team), was obtained at a relatively reduced (e.g. non-DP) rate due to his family's having settled in nearby Vancouver. Was Mr. Nkufo signed to be a Target Man? Absolutely--he's a classic Center Forward (whatever the author's confused ideas about English misuse of the position). But in no fashion does that suggest he should (or will) be given service from random positions on the field. Strike 2 - logical nonsense

    Even prior to First Kick 2009 Sounders FC did not lacked ambition. They want to be a world soccer power. World. Soccer. Power. Blessed, as they are, to play in MLS, they can't succeed worldwide if they can't win their own league and eventually CONCACAF and (as is Mr. Hanauer's goal) participate in the FIFA Club World Cup. Therefore, they need to find a way to win with their stylish play against the more thuggish play Mr. Gardner so clearly reviles and that some MLS teams are prone to. The answer to this problem is that they need to keep the ball away from the other team (short passing game--an area of high concentration this pre-season) and they need to not lose the ball if they are caught with it. The latter calls for physicality. This means small players bulking up a bit as well as bringing in players who are able to keep a ball under physical pressure. DaMarcus Beasley doesn't get pushed off the ball as much since he filled out--a few of the Sounders needed to do the same. As well, the team lacked a guy who could draw and sustain physical pressure while the faster guys moved into position. Hence the signing of Mr. Nkufo, whom I believe is a fantastic signing not only for his own scoring prowess and personal character, but who by absorbing pressure and delivering passes will allow the Sounders to play more of their sweet game, not less. Strike 3 - underestimating Sounders FC and their leadership

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