Seattle's win raises coaching conundrum

By Paul Gardner

This sort of thing happens far too often, I'm afraid. At least, it does so here in the States. Some visitors from Europe were in town over the weekend -- soccer people, as it happened, and they thought they'd like to take a look at an MLS game. Perfect -- the Red Bulls were in town, playing against Seattle.

So off we went ... to be treated to a game that left the visitors with the impression that MLS soccer was quite simply not worth watching. Not that they were exactly saying that -- but the diplomacy they employed while not saying it spoke loudly and eloquently enough.

Before the game I had explained that we were going to see two teams that were both coming off humiliating 4-0 losses, so we could expect to see ... well what? Two teams very anxious not to lose, for sure. I said it would work out like this: that the Red Bulls would come out with attacking, goalscoring soccer as their main priority; and that the Seattle Sounders, playing away from home, would be more cautious, but would still present an attacking face ... because I’ve not noticed them, under Coach Sigi Schmid, to be a particularly defensive team, and because they have one of the best attacking players in the league in Fredy Montero, surely always capable of winning a game single-handedly, or footedly.

Mostly, I got that all wrong. For a start, the pre-game news was that Montero was on the bench. What?. Up front, instead, was a modest, average player, a midfielder at that, Brad Evans. That, in addition to being a blow to my prediction activities, was also a big disappointment. How many players with Montero’s goalscoring artistry, with his sneaky-skillful attacking moves do we have in this league? Pitifully few. To find one of those few benched to make way for a decidedly pedestrian replacement was not encouraging.

A further disappointment was to find that Hans Backe, the Red Bulls coach, was persisting with midfielder Carl Robinson, a midfielder of limited range and ability, who spends most of each game voraciously patrolling the center-circle while waving his arms up and down and far and wide in frantic efforts to tell everyone else how to play. Exactly what he adds to the team to justify his center-circle exertions, I fail to see.

What followed for the next 78 minutes was an exercise in futility, boredom, exasperation and ugliness. Passing? Almost non-existent. Coordinated attacking therefore almost totally absent. Miskicks, aimless headers, high balls and clumsy (though not all that violent) tackling were the mainstays of this travesty of the sport.

After the game Backe, who never seeks to hide his views of matters, did try, though not too hard, to make things sound like a soccer game, but finally admitted that the game rated just “average” (a wild overestimate, I’d say), and that maybe it wasn’t a soccer game at all, more of “a battle.” His body language and his facial expressions told the story more clearly, I thought: He was not delighted with the way things had gone. OK -- his team had lost the game, the first time they’d dropped any points at home. But they had done absolutely nothing to merit a win here. This was an utterly threadbare performance that never posed a serious threat to the Seattle goal.

Seattle coach Schmid, as articulate as ever, was obviously in a much more upbeat mood. As were his players -- the roaring and singing escaping from the Seattle locker room sounded like they’d just won the championship.

This was -- statistically at least -- a very good win, and Schmid let us know that. Fair enough. But the win contained one of those coaching contradictions that I always feel cry out for an explanation, and which always seem (to me, that is) to end up reflecting praise on the coach, when that might not be the truth of the matter.

The conundrum is this: was it a stroke of coaching genius to keep Montero on the bench for 78 minutes, then to have him come on to score a brilliant winning goal; or was it simply a dumb move not start him and maybe have him score a first-half hat trick?

Schmid was defensive about this. It was a coach’s choice, etc. Read, a disciplinary measure. So was Montero, in some coach sort of way, being held responsible for that 4-0 loss to Los Angeles? No, said Schmid, not at all. But ... and soon enough it became clear that the trouble with Montero was that he hadn’t been working hard enough. “Fredy just got into a habit where he wasn’t quite active enough. The talent is always there; the ability is always there. He just wasn’t getting into the box where he can be most dangerous.”

Schmid pointed out that the winning goal against the Red Bulls was the first goal that Montero had scored -- from open play -- since I forget when. Now the bench treatment had done the job. “I told him yesterday, you’re not starting, but the minutes you do play are going to be the most important minutes of the game, and you can impact the game,” said Schmid.

Well, there’s certainly more than one way of trying to make sense out of that. Why would an experienced coach like Schmid find it necessary to bench a player for what sounds like a tactical failing? And are we really expected to believe that Montero deliberately puts himself into positions where he cannot do what he does best -- score goals?

And now that Schmid’s move -- on shaky post hoc reasoning -- seems to have worked, can we now expect that to have proved that the best way to use Montero’s massive talent is to leave him on the bench until the final 15 minutes of each game?

Coaching logic, a flimsy exercise, demands such tortured questions, I’m afraid.

10 comments about "Seattle's win raises coaching conundrum".
  1. Paul Cox, May 17, 2010 at 9:33 a.m.

    Unfortunately, your column reflects the viewpoint of someone who isn't familiar with both the Sounders in general, and Montero in particular.

    Montero has, as you rightly point out, some sneaky, awesome moves.

    He also drives us Seattle fans nuts because he's lazy.

    That's what Sigi was getting at. He put it gently, but we went through this last year; Montero started hotter than blazes, got lazy, and after some dressing-down and public butt-kicking by Sigi, Montero cranked it up again later in the season.

    When you can only see the games on TV, you miss a lot of the off-ball action. You don't see who's making runs into space and providing solid alternatives, who's scrambling to get back to help out on D when appropriate, who's giving as well as he gets when there's the typical mini-scrum going on away from the ball while preparing for a set piece or corner.

    Seeing the game in person, though, you see those things- and Montero doesn't do them.

    Brad Evans does. He works his tail off the full 90. And after the lack of heart against LA, Sigi wanted and needed some guys to fight harder.

    I am not personally a believer in the "just give me 11 guys with huge hearts and an incurable desire to win" school of thought. If you're building a team, you'd still rather have 11 studs with superb skills than 11 "scrappers" who might not be able to kick with their off-foot, but who will "battle" ferociously.

    Still... the reality is that the difference between Evans and Montero, or the rest of Seattle's striker types, isn't so great that the skilled player gets a pass for being a slacker.

    And that's all it amounted to. Evans started because for the overall season- not just the one Seattle game that Paul Gardner and his Euro guests happened to drop in on- for the overall season, the Sounders needed Sigi to do this.

    They needed a Montero who not only brings his skills, but a little embarrassment at being a reserve. A Montero who runs into space or follows up a shot on the off chance that there's a rebound or loose ball for some reason (and with Coundoul, that's certainly always a possibility). A Montero who plays the REST of the Sounders games with some fire in his belly and a desire to apply his superior skills.

    In other words, if sitting Montero for one game provides a better Montero for another 20ish games, and starting him (for Columnist Paul Gardner and his Euro Guests) provides a lesser Montero for the rest of the season, SSFC fans are delighted to stick with Sigi's plan.

    Plainly it's your job as a columnist to second-guess coaches and speculate and challenge... but it's Sigi's job to coach and get results.

    And we flew home with three more points than we had.

    You can call it "post-hoc" reasoning, but it was clearly a decision that Sigi made prior to the game (he hinted at it in post-game comments after LA a week ago, and through the week during training) and most importantly, IT WORKED.

    Sigi Sigi Sigi! Oi oi oi!

  2. Juan R, May 17, 2010 at 10:58 a.m.

    Mr. Paul Gardner... Just because a player is talented does not mean that player should receive carte blanche and play all the time. There should be repercussions for playing lazy, like sitting on the bench. You are overreacting by suggesting that Montero will always come on for the last 15 minutes. If he plays hard, he will start more... if not then he will sit on the bench more. That's why Jozy sat on the bench at Hull according to Dowie. You have to show commitment not only on the field but in practice. Great comments Paul Cox! I want more fun MLS games, but MLS will provide so many mediocre games until we have enough teams for two divisions so we can have relegation. Maybe by the time we host the 2022 Cup?

  3. Bill Smith, May 17, 2010 at 11:31 a.m.

    All of us in Washington State want to see Mr. Montero fill the sort of role you paint for him here. The guy we've seen the last few weeks - before the stint as substitute - just didn't seem to care that much. If the benching means a revitalized Fredy, then your Euro friends being unimpressed and a bit bored was well worth it.

  4. bgix , May 17, 2010 at 12:42 p.m.

    Unfortunately, Mr Gardener, it seems to me that you did some pretty poor research on this match before attempting to "educate" your guests on what to expect. Because in Seattle, we very much did expect to see something like this. I don't think we knew exactly what, but we would have been very unhappy had we gone with the status quo, and it resulted in another loss. The result in this case was very welcome of course, but even if it had not gone as well, the shake-up is exactly what was called for.

    But you go ahead and second guess Sigi. I think you are just embarrassed that you were shown up in front of your guests.

  5. Scott Nelson, May 17, 2010 at 4:01 p.m.

    Paul, you do have it completely wrong this time. While I applaud that you've been a champion for diversity in American soccer, over the years you've gone from championing the merits of hispanic players to blatant bias towards hispanic players and discrimination against the European and American players. As all these other posters have correctly pointed out, Montero is a brilliant finisher who absolutely will not move off the ball or make any effort at all to make a run into space or behind the defense under any circumstances. Whether it's being tactically naive, lazy, or a combination of both, he was maddeningly inconsistent last year and has been totally ineffective this year. He does not get into goalscoring positions nearly enough for a player who is supposed to be the team's main goalscoring threat, and spends lots of his time wandering well away from the box looking for and subsequently losing the ball (It's not just a case of the Sounders incompetent American team mates being unable to find him, though feel free to level the charge against Ljungberg, who has been just as awful this year). Your argument Montero is a better player than any of Siggi's alternatives simply because he is Hispanic is patently ridiculous. In fact, from watching the team as a season ticket holder it's safe to say that Schimd's preference for a midfielder who plays fullback for the US National Team shows just how desperate the team is for something different up front. Well, the game in NY suggests that Montero's lack of running is more a function of WON'T than CAN'T. The run that preceded the brilliant finish was spot on, and of course Montero must have had to make some brilliant adjustments to make use of a pass from the "modest, average" Brad Evans. If benching Montero gets him to perform, I say bench him. I can only hope the other Freddie is next.

  6. Ted Westervelt, May 17, 2010 at 6:40 p.m.

    Paul, you get the award for drawing the ire of the .0245 American soccer supporters who leap to the defense of MLS whenever a well thought out critique is presented. A few jabs at Sigi, for sure, but in the promotionless, relegationless playoffs-for-all MLS games can and are taken for granted. Our imposed mediocrity, randomized match outcome, single entity MLS is an embarassment. When will we stop letting this league soil the our long and rich soccer history?

  7. Dave Wright, May 17, 2010 at 9:34 p.m.

    I was at the game and totally agree that it was hard to watch and barely entertaining. I think the only thing worth applauding for was Jozy making an apperance at halftime. As for Montero, I think Schmid should have benched him for the entire game - make a real point (and maybe give the Red bulls one).

  8. I w Nowozeniuk, May 17, 2010 at 9:40 p.m.

    One need not wonder why Montero's Colombian club was not keen on keeping him. A talented young player whose mental approach to the game has not matured. Sigi did the right thing by benching him. Montero should take a close hard look at his colleagu Fred L. who has a lot of talent and a superb work ethic. As for the NYRB, on the night, their effort was truly unbecoming.

  9. Chaz Worthy, May 18, 2010 at 10:24 a.m.

    Here’s the note I send a friend in the UK…Kinda relates to Paul’s (way more sophisticated) take on the match (didn’t know he was a NYer too).

    I watched the FA Cup final in the morning. Wish Portsmouth had hit the penalty; I mean it was such a lousy attempt. Chelsea’s had a great year but they seemed flat and how big a deal is the FA Cup anyway?
    I think I recall Man U playing their reserves in an earlier stage.
    It’s all beyond me as a newly-minted football fanatic.

    Later on I was able to trek out to our shiny new Red Bulls Arena to watch my New York team play Seattle who have been lame so far… whereas the Bulls had 15 points in just seven matches.

    But talk about flat, our star striker Juan Pablo Angel looked sleepy… although our defense managed quite well until they let up a lovely goal around the 87th minute.

    I tried to compare the play of the EPL sides I watched in the morning versus the MLS action. I’m no expert but I would say the midfield play seems to be a glaring difference. The MLS players don’t seem to have that awesome skill when it comes to maintaining possession of the ball with the crisp passes you see all the time in the EPL. There seemed to be more, I dunno, wild clearances and just hope for the best. I know EPL players are utterly elite and not to mention the La Liga teams I watch all the time. But I wonder how the Red Bulls or the LA Galaxy would fare against, say, a mid-table Football League side? Probably not well, if they played like they did against Seattle…

  10. Roberto Avey, May 18, 2010 at 2:18 p.m.

    Well, as I feel you have hit some fairly accurate points regarding "passing" and "technique" not only with Saunders but throughout the rest of the league.

    We can't always necessarily blame coaches etc. all the time. Because there might be many reasons a certain player doesn't play.

    However, we must view and accept this is American style soccer in general.

    Barcelona does NOT have the most physical or FAST team, but they have the the MOST technique and position oriented team in the WORLD period.

    Xavi and Inesta are not NEAR as physically fit and strong as Kaka, Drenthe or C. Ronaldo, but their imprint on the game are equal, and sometimes greater.

    MLS is one of the fastest leagues in the world, because of physical attributes, but not the quickest.

    Being "Quick" and being "Fast" are two different things.

    As a result of the fastness and strength of the players, technique, tactics and strategy is what "Sometimes" suffers.

    It is awful to watch when a team can't make 3 passes.

    However, I tend to stand by the coaches decision most of the time, same here with the Saunders.

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