Steve Nicol gets tangled up in the physical game

By Paul Gardner

I see that the Revs' Steve Nicol is complaining about rough play. Specifically, he believes that his player, Sainey Nyassi, is being fouled way too much, and that referees are not punishing the offenders.

To the extent that he is right -- and that may well be 100 percent -- I sympathize with him. Skillful players who try to play the real game of soccer, who try to employ difficult ball skills, deserve protection from the referees. Not special protection, but the protection that is provided when the rules are properly enforced. Nothing more than that.

And that, if I understand Nicol correctly, is what he is saying about Nyassi: “Game after game, he's getting kicked, pushed, shoved, you name it and nothing's going on. He's going to be badly injured soon if the referees don't take care of him.”

So far so good. But my 100 percent agreement fades rather quickly when Nicol gets into details: “We encourage our players to stay on their feet, be strong and go about it the right way." Nicol says, “It's really not getting us anywhere ... Half the problem is that our guys are too honest. They want to stay on their feet and they want to keep playing. They aren't being rewarded with what they should be.”

There is a petulant air of injured righteousness about all that, which makes it difficult to listen to. Nicol has got himself into a tangle here -- simply because he is complaining forcefully against something that he himself at least half believes in.

Over the years Nicol’s Revs have featured players like Joey Franchino, Jim Rooney, Rusty Pierce, James Riley, Pat Phelan, Jeff Larentowicz and Shalrie Joseph -- to say nothing of the delightful goalkeeper Matt Reis who likes to crash into players leading with his raised knee. None of these players qualifies as little Lord Fauntleroy.

To be fair: Nicol has also included Michael Parkhurst and Steve Ralston, two of the least physical players. But there is no doubt in my mind that Nicol prefers players who put it about.

You do not have to take my word for that -- you can get it from Nicol himself. Back in February, ESPN invited Steve Nicol to the studio to make comments on the Everton vs. Liverpool game. Which turned out to be an ugly, physical game with plenty of dangerous tackling and two red cards.

Same story -- it left Nicol trying to both condemn and excuse the violence. But his key comment was this: “As much as I like the physical game ...” No half measures there. Except that Nicol obviously thought things had got out of hand and he admitted that “they’d taken it to a different level.” So Nicol fell into further contradictions. First of all, he blamed the referee for not pouncing on some hefty tackles early in the game. But when asked to comment on specific fouls, Nicol found most of them not worth even calling, and he derided the second red card, saying the referee should have shown “common sense” and not given it.

The repeated contradictions should not be taken as proving that Nicol can’t think straight. They are inevitable. All coaches -- and anyone else -- who make a point of emphasizing, or encouraging “the physical game” end up trying to defend the indefensible.

Their problem arises because there is no clear dividing line between what is “acceptable” roughness, and something that is totally unacceptable. Physical play must always -- if it is to have the desired effect -- be played close to that line, and will inevitably, and frequently, overlap it. If Team A is dominating Team B with a physical game, Team B is likely to respond by being a bit more physical. And the escalation to Nicol’s “different level” begins.

Let me be clear about Nicol’s Revs. I have never seen them as a dirty team (apart from Reis’ brutal assaults). But certainly physical, which is what Nicol wants. Though if I were an opposing coach, I might see things a bit differently.

“The physical game” so admired by Nicol is very much in the eye of the beholder. Just as the distinction between a physical and a dirty player is likely to depend on the color of the shirt he’s wearing. It’s worth mentioning that Nicol’s complaints about the fouls on Nyassi followed a loss to the Colorado Rapids -- a team that included two ex-Revs, one of them the rustic Larentowicz.

Nicol, I think, does not recognize fouls unless they are clearly physical. Back in 2003 I suggested to him that he must be concerned that his playmaker (he actually had one in those days, a Hispanic even!) Jose Cancela was the most-fouled player in the league. Nicol smiled, “Oh, it’s not that they’re bad fouls,” he replied.

That sort of thinking leads directly to Nicol’s notion that his players must attempt at all costs to stay on their feet. An honorable and macho way to behave, no doubt, but a pretty stupid one when confronted with dangerous tackles.

Nicol wants it both ways. His teams will play the admired “physical game” and I’m sure that in Nicol’s mind they will hardly ever trespass over the line into the area of dirty play. So any opponent who goes down under a Revs’ tackle is probably diving.

But when opponents rough-tackle Nyassi, a rather different outlook prevails. Nyassi complains that he’s “getting beat up all the time.” That could be -- I haven’t seen enough of him this season to know. If it is true, then he should get the calls. But Steve Nicol is one of the least convincing people I can think of to make an appeal for a clamp-down on heavy tackling.

7 comments about "Steve Nicol gets tangled up in the physical game".
  1. Paul Lorinczi, April 30, 2010 at 8:22 a.m.

    If you are trying to brand Nicol a hypocrite - I am sure we can find other Managers accused of doing the same thing.

    He is just trying to protect his player. The games I have seen, opposing defenses are slowing Nyassi down with physical play. They are not technical enough to stop him, they foul him. The referees are not protecting him.

    Which leads to a bigger problem. Our players are not technical enough to defend without holding, pushing or tripping players.

    It's the English influence in our game here that physical play is rewarded by referees even though players are breaking the laws of the game.

    Small wonder that Jimmy Conrad received yellow cards in an international, or Jonathan Bornstein takes down Wesley Snyder in the box. Or, Ricardo Clark gets a red card in the Confederations Cup. That behavior is tolerated in MLS while International matches, those fouls get called.

  2. Joe Hosack, April 30, 2010 at 9:02 a.m.

    Having taken an American youth team to Europe, you witness a very peculiar thing, the Americans WANT to stay on their feet
    (and comment about sissy dives/falls) and the European locals are as well coached in diving as they are at everything else. If you want a shoving and tackeling match go watch Rugby or American Football, we would be very silly to not promote/highlight what makes our game different, skill with a ball in the air and at the feet.
    What made Pele, Pele? Why is Messi a joy to watch. Isn't it really this simple? I'm always amazed at how many tackles from behind are "passed over" as many are fouls of biblical proportion. Follow the rules with a conservative interpretation PLEASE!

  3. beautiful game, April 30, 2010 at 11:33 a.m.

    MLS have been delinquent in the past with they are not enforcing the laws of the game and not protecting's so obvious that the chief of officials is running a dysfunctional group of referees when there is no consistency in their calls.

  4. Phil Loomis, April 30, 2010 at 3:06 p.m.

    This is generally a good topic for discussion. As the previous commenter pointed out MLS officials seem to have decided that the "no blood no foul" rule applies.

    Interesting that you choose incidents that fit your story and leave out those that don't. Did Nicol complain at all about Steve Chronin's blow to the head that's kept Twellman out for most of two years? He didn't that I know of, just as he wouldn't find Reis wrong in doing what keepers are taught to do when he collided with Eskandarian.

  5. Ted Westervelt, April 30, 2010 at 4:23 p.m.

    Would it surprise anyone that MLS's NFL guardians would push the limits of physical play in order to cater to their perceptions of American consumers, especially if it helped expand their grip on a unique, tightly controlled low cost single entity model? By carving a niche for themselves in which the contributions of higher priced skill players are negated by physical play - they save money. Who needs Messi in a league that would not afford him the level of protection under which he can ply his trade? It's not a coaching problem. In a league that imposes mediocrity to produce parity, MLS coaches are left to claw over the scraps in their quest for every possible advantage. It's easy to see this spirit in action when it comes to another Kraft coach. Love him or hate him - Bill Belichick epitomizes that spirit. He pushes the limits of advantage seeking to the limit. It is just another example of a league trying to scratch out a place for a backward model that features fiscal prudence over football prowess. Another in a long line of reminders that what works for the NFL rarely works for soccer. With victims like Esky and Twellman lining up, why would Pires and Henry bother?

  6. beautiful game, April 30, 2010 at 6:37 p.m.

    Physicality in the MLS will be a standard until quality players begin to dominate the rosters. The coaches have no choice but to field the 'enforcers' who lack the basic football instincts.

  7. Lenin Merchan, May 2, 2010 at 6:22 p.m.

    I think physicality should stay apart of our game. It is true that the refs need to be consistent. Also that a foul is a foul regardless of the player. Some of these players go down too easy that makes the ref blow his whistle on a play that otherwise he would not. Later he sees the slow motion highlight of a game altering "dive" they hold that player suspect from there on. It is tough but MLS players should be.

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