By Paul Gardner
If MLS adhered, more or less, to what are regarded as the "standard" regulations for playing a soccer season. And if the MLS season were to be finished right now ... then we just had the final this past weekend.
In this “adjusted final,” we saw the Los Angeles Galaxy, the best in the West, defeat the Columbus Crew, the top team in the East, by a 3-1 scoreline.
Bruce Arena and Landon Donovan would be crowned champions and David Beckham would have captured a small sliver of the glory for his 20 minutes on the field.
So we can thank heavens for the playoff system that rules that out. We may still get the Galaxy as champions, of course, but for the moment we are spared that ordeal.
Saturday’s game was hardly one that would have gone down as a memorable MLS Cup event. I’d hoped for something a lot better, for this reason: We are used to grand finals falling short of the hype.
There’s no doubt that the expectations and feverish buildup also raise disappointment levels when things don’t go according to plan. Yet here was a final that wasn’t -- yet -- a final, with two teams who weren’t -- yet -- finalists. Almost like a pressure-free rehearsal for a final. A game that should have been unaffected by over-publicity and nervousness, a game that should have given us a lot of open play and plenty of good soccer.
Not quite. The soccer was certainly fast-paced, but it was never flowing. Why would that be? Not least because both teams rely substantially on the destructive ability of their midfield rottweilers -- Dema Kovalenko and Chris Birchall for the Galaxy, Adam Moffat and Brian Carroll for the Crew (who were missing Danny O’Rourke, another formidable contributor to that sort of thing).
Tackling, ball-winning, sudden turnovers, quick-fire counterattacks were what we got. Which inevitably meant a lot of midfield battles and a hiccuppy succession of staccato attacking plays, first this way, then that way and, mostly, going nowhere.
The Galaxy is pretty good at that sort of thing, certainly too good for the Crew. The foul count is a good way of measuring a team’s proficiency at rottweilering and the Galaxy won that contest by a country mile, with 15 fouls and 2 yellow cards, against the Crew’s paltry total of 6 fouls. What that style, imposed on the game by both teams, meant was that we didn’t see nearly enough of the two most skillful players, Landon Donovan and Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Edson Buddle had his moment with a beautifully neat finish for the first Galaxy goal, while Donovan’s quick, eagle-eyed pass through traffic gave Kovalenko the opportunity to make a rare positive contribution to a game with the second goal.
Otherwise, run, run, run, with the occasional physical confrontation and a spat or two with the referee. If this were a tryout for a staging of the final, both teams would be told “Don’t call us ...”
At the moment, we would unquestionably get a much better final from the second-place teams. A New York Red Bulls vs. Real Salt Lake matchup would surely offer a much better chance of seeing a game based on skill and the ability to move the ball through concerted passing and intelligent team play.
Real showed last season that they can do this. In Javier Morales they have a superb orchestrator, with Andy Williams another creative midfield force. Kyle Beckerman could be said to play the rottweiler role, but he does so with a skill that allows him to play a creative role at the same time.
Add in tricky, talented forwards like Robbie Findley, Alvaro Saborio and Fabian Espindola and the good soccer starts to roll.
As for the Red Bulls, things are beginning to look good -- as, with Juan Pablo Angel, Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez on the team they damn well ought to do. This weekend’s 3-1 win over the Colorado Rapids gave signs that a sharp, intuitive understanding between the players -- and without that, you can forget about flowing soccer -- is beginning to develop.
Oddly, the one worry in that area is a continued lack of interplay between Angel and Henry, the very two who should be producing all sorts of designated-player-fireworks. The Red Bulls problem is that the team is top heavy. With nearly half of its salary cap money swallowed up by three players, there are inevitably deficiencies in the supporting cast.
Defensively, rookie Tim Ream continues his solid play, but the occasional error lurks, as it does with his partner Carlos Mendes. This weakness has led to Marquez playing deeper than would be ideal.
Tony Tchani plays a key midfield role of tidying things up and distributing the ball. This is a big part for a rookie to play, but Tchani is learning quickly -- his refusal to panic or to hurry his play is a precocious maturity that serves him well. Should the Bulls decide that they need midfield rottweilerisms, there is always Seth Stammler. Mostly, coach Hans Backe has eschewed that route, looking for something more stylish.
Playoff soccer, bringing whatever that entails, is still some six weeks away. It is quite likely that little will have changed in the meantime, and that MLS Cup will feature two of the four clubs discussed above. Well, we’ve had a preview of a Galaxy vs. Crew final, and it didn’t look so hot. The best way of warming things up on a chilly November 21 up in Toronto will be a final featuring the Red Bulls and Real Salt Lake.
Come on Americans know soccer better than Europeans. We change the rules and settings all the time to suit us. We play better and know better than a bunch of foreigners. After all, didn't we invent soccer? I much rather see a high school or college game end when the clock runs down and in high school where, in some states, a 2nd yellow results in a "pink" card. Player is sent off but gets to be replaced. There you go, Americans improving the game. No team penalty for rough play so rugby on.
David--WTF? I'll bet your local junior college has a course in logic you could take.
DH likes the h.s. and college games?...imagine having substitutes on a red card violation in pro leagues...take out the two best players on the opposition and victory is guaranteed.
Sorry if I was not "tongue in check" enough. I hate the Americanization of soccer. The "pink" card as we call the substantiation red for two yellows is in effect now. If a h. s. coach wanted to he could send in a couple of thugs to wipe out quality players without really any penalty. Oh and I do so love the end of college games where they count down the last 10 seconds. Soccer at its best!!! ;-)
It's become tiresome and boring to always read about the lack of skill in American soccer (oops, I mean futbol, of course). Various combinations of skill, power and athleticism are factors in all sports, and an emphasis on skill doesn't always carry the day. We've all seen the skillful Brazilians, Argentines, Italians and most recently the Dutch abandon their skilluflness in favor of thuggery. And many of us find the current Spanish team skillful but boring. Heresy, I know.
Mike: that's the point, the object lesson. Those wonderfully skillful sides (don't forget the Germans!) abadonned their skill for thuggery and/or hypercaution at some point in the World Cup... precisely the point where they were knocked it.
And Paul’s also pointing out that there ARE American teams that shun the typical American OVERreliance on speed and athleticism, a style which can take you to a certain point but is inherently limiting. The new-look Red Bulls play attractive soccer. RSL, which contains mostly American players and is managed by an American, play even nicer soccer. It is possible for American teams with American coaches and mostly American players to play good soccer and be successful at it... if it’s made a priority. I agree with Paul: it needs to be made a priority throughout soccer in the US.
So the point is to play pretty win or lose? I don't think that will fly very far. Is it that playing pretty is the highest goal? That will decimate rosters around the globe. Is it that the prettiest teams will also be the winningest? I think Spain's 2010 WC victory was exceptional, not inevitable.
Perhaps we should stop keeping score and switch to awarding style points -- soccer as figure skating. Yawn.
Rafa Marquez and beautiful soccer? Yes, he does score the occasional goal. But he is one of the dirtiest players in the world. He approaches Mark van Bommel depths of cynical. If he is not diving to win a foul he is scything someone down and feigning innocence. As a Barcelona fan, I cringed every time he went for a tackle. His raking of Tim Howard's leg in WCQ in Columbus in 2009 is vintage Marquez. The permissive referees of MLS are perfect partners in crime for him.
Mike: teams like Barcelona and Spain prove that you can play pretty football and be highly successful. You want to yawn, watch "European Champions" Inter Milan.
If you are a neutral or a casual fan (and that’s who Gardner’s talking about since that’s who MLS needs to hook) and you could watch a successful team playing attractive soccer or a successful team playing ugly soccer, why would anyone choose the latter?