Rongen, Nicol & Arena -- the coaches tell it like it is

By Paul Gardner

Definitely, it's time for some praise for a couple of coaches whose teams I've never much admired -- but my opinion of their preferred playing style is not at issue here (I'll deal with that shortly). It's their honesty in assessing their own team's performance -- and their willingness to grant praise to their opponents -- that is getting to me at the moment.

Listen to Thomas Rongen after his U-20 U.S. national team lost to Guatemala -- a brutal defeat, one that no one expected, and one that could -- probably should -- cost Rongen his job. This is what Rongen had to say: “Obviously we are extremely disappointed by this result. If you look at the game, you have to take your hat off to Guatemala. The home team came to play. They had a good game plan ... but today wasn't our day. It was a good host team and our team wasn’t able to click on all cylinders.”

Straightforward, dignified, respectful -- and how often do we see that today, particularly at the top level of the sport?

Three days later, after his New England Revs had been beaten 2-0 by Real Salt Lake, Steve Nicol didn’t mince his words about his team’s performance: “There’s no hiding behind it -- we weren’t good ... we should have played better than we did, and we didn't ... we got what we deserved tonight.”

Equally refreshing in criticism of their own teams, neither Rongen nor Nicol rolled out the usual excuses -- the referee, the travel, the injuries that kept key players off the field, and so on.

OK, the final step of admitting personal responsibility for the defeats was missing, but a week or two back we did get that far. From a coach whose teams I have much admired in the past (though not so much lately). It was Bruce Arena who held up his hand as the man to be blamed for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s lousy play against Real Salt Lake (the Galaxy took a 4-1 pounding in the Home Depot Center): “We were completely outplayed in the first half and were punished properly. ... Obviously I point the finger at the coach when the team played the way we played in the first 15 minutes of the game.”

Yes, and I’m well aware that’s only taking in the first 15 minutes, but that will do. All three statements I’ve quoted are highly welcome -- they show a strength of character that would appear to be rather lacking elsewhere -- I’m thinking of the recent behavior and pronouncements of two of the world’s top coaches -- ManU’s Alex Ferguson and Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger.

There are obvious differences in the three situations I have quoted. Rongen’s defeat was no doubt the hardest to take, because losing to Guatemala is virtually in the unthinkable category, for no better reason -- as far as I’ve been able to make out -- than that Guatemala is a very tiny country and the USA is a very big one.

It would be pretty daft, I suppose, to tell Rongen that his team should have played like Guatemala. But it would not be so silly to ask Rongen, and the entire personnel of the U.S. Soccer coaching coterie -- and, yes, that very much includes Bob Bradley -- to take a long, hard, humble look at Mexico -- which won the under-20 tournament. An average-sized team with skilled players in every position, a team with class and style, a team that was a pleasure to watch. And the jolting thought occurs: has it ever been true to say that of any U.S. national team, at any age level?

The Mexicans evidently do have something to teach us, MLS clubs finding it mighty difficult to beat Mexican teams. Right now, Real Salt Lake may be in the process of puncturing that jinx, having just reached the Concacaf Champions League final, in which it will play Mexico’s Monterrey.

It was precisely defeats by RSL that drew the self-flagellating remarks from Steve Nicol and Bruce Arena. In this case, I do think there is something to be learned. Namely that a skillful passing game can win things in this league, and against the Mexicans as well.

Nicol openly admits, boasts would not be too strong a verb, that he favors a physical game. There is never very much in the way of artistry to be seen on a Nicol team, and his efforts to avoid signing Latin American players have become almost comical to watch. Yes, I think he should take a look at RSL -- and in particular at its No. 10, the Argentine Javier Morales. But I say that knowing that nothing of the sort will happen.

I would be much more hopeful with Arena, whose best-ever team -- the 1996-98 D.C. United -- was built around a Latin No. 10, Marco Etcheverry. The 1998 team was good enough to beat the Mexicans of Toluca and win the Concacaf Champions Cup. Which makes it totally bewildering to see a player as crude as Chris Birchall starting regularly for the current team.

Nicol will no doubt have nodded in agreement at the words of Toronto’s Alan Gordon, who spelled things out after his team’s 1-1 tie with San Jose on Saturday: “That's what this league is, this league is physical. If we want to compete in this league, we're going to have to be physical.” There is no indication that Gordon finds that regrettable -- and why should he, he’s a big (6-foot-3) physical player.

The San Jose-Toronto game was, I suppose, a physical game -- it featured 30 fouls, which is a lot, one mass brawl, and eight yellow cards, four of them for rough play. It had its moments, but there is surely at least one important person who could not have been happy with that game, or with Gordon’s credo. I mean MLS Commissioner Don Garber who, on the eve of the current season, announced his plan to have referees be more strict in protecting skillful players, and in cutting down on violent tackles and other forms of physical play.

Even though I am in total agreement with what Garber is seeking -- a more attack-oriented, goalscoring game -- I remarked at the time that it would be difficult to get the referees to comply. And so far -- 17 games into the season -- I’ve seen absolutely no convincing evidence of any change in referees’ attitudes.

The league will continue to be a physical league until the coaches have the patience to look for more skilled players, and the courage to bring them in. Until that happens across the board, Gordon will have his physical league (maybe his physical team, too -- Toronto has a lot of very large players on its roster). And we shall still have to put up with the time-honored conventional wisdom that the way to beat the Mexicans is not to challenge them by playing skillful, stylish soccer, but to out-muscle them.

20 comments about "Rongen, Nicol & Arena -- the coaches tell it like it is".
  1. Walt Pericciuoli, April 11, 2011 at 9:24 a.m.

    With one phrase, Paul hits the nail on he head. "skilled players in every position, a team with class and style, a team that was a pleasure to watch. And the jolting thought occurs: has it ever been true to say that of any U.S. national team, at any age level?" I truly believe the US fan wants to say that about our teams both at the national levels and the MLS. It won't happen at the national level until the entire US staff and administration is replaced.

  2. Bob Escobar, April 11, 2011 at 10:05 a.m.

    Amen Paul!!!! I've been saying it all along, in the US teams (Pro, college, high schools and most youth teams) don't have or don't play with a #10....teams opt to play physical to compensate for their lack of skills. I always play with one or two #10s (Barcelona does with Xavi and Iniesta...add Messi when he comes back for the ball in youth teams at least try to play an attractive style of futbol (win or lose), but every team we play, play one way only....DIRECT!!!! long balls after long balls and they pray to score on a defensive mistake. So kudos for Mr Gardner, you are one of the few, if not the most vocal supportive of "modern skill futbol"...the only decent knowledgeable soccer writer with class, dignity and common sense....Thank you!!!

  3. Brian Something, April 11, 2011 at 10:10 a.m.

    It's no coincidence that nearly every MLS team in history that's been enjoyable to watch (and as a Revs' fan, I don't count my team among them except for 2005... when they had a certain Cancela) has a Latin American #10 pulling the strings. Current teams like FC Dallas (Ferreira) and RSL (Morales). Schelloto's Columbus. Etcheverry's DC. Cienfuegos' LA. The only exceptions were Preki's KC and DeRosario's SJ/Houston, who weren't Latin American but who were creative #10s. Creative players are what make the game enjoyable to watch and easier to sell.

  4. Mark Edge, April 11, 2011 at 10:15 a.m.

    Player development has lost it's way in this country. Too many individuals pulling in different directions. Academy league has made Bradenton redundant, and there seems to be no programs or player development curriculum in place, as they do in the European and South American countries. Some of the country play small sided up until thirteen years old, others start at eleven. We may be the victims of the sheer size of the country. Identifying talent is a massive task. The cost of joining clubs is prohibitive for many talented players in this country.We need to find Klinnsman, pay him what he wants and put him in charge of all levels.
    P.S. Ferguson and Wenger lack character? They are the antithesis of Gardner's point and always put themselves between their players and criticism. Seems to work pretty well for them. But then it wouldn't be a Gardner article if he didn't take a pop at the EPL. I challenge him to write three articles in a row without mentioning some strange back handed criticism of all things British.

  5. Daniel Clifton, April 11, 2011 at 10:20 a.m.

    I find myself again agreeing wholeheartedly with Walt Perriciuoli. Paul Gardner definitely "hits the nail on the head." Why is it that so many Americans in leadership positions defer to the British style of play. Apparently the British have been so ingrained in the roots of the sport in the US that we just can't seem to pull them out easily. Until our National Team Management changes, and our coaches in MLS change to a more creative style of playing we are going to continue to lose to these Central and South American teams (plus Mexico). Thank God MLS has a team like RSL with a coach like Jason Kreis. Why isn't this style of play spreading to the other franchises? How difficult is it to figure out? USA fans for the most part want to see a more creative style of play, which means using Mexican-Americans, and playing a more south of the border type of style. I am getting to the point I don't even want to watch the Men's National Team. I feel like I am supporting the obvious stupidity of the management team.

  6. Daniel Clifton, April 11, 2011 at 10:24 a.m.

    I just want to add that I was recently talking to a gentleman who has a high school age daughter who happens to be a very good soccer player and plays on a local regional team. He was complaining about the British style of play used by the coach. His comment to me during our conversation was something like: "I would like to see a more South American or Hispanic style of play." This is a guy who never played soccer and only knows about soccer through watching his daughter play for years.

  7. Tyler Dennis, April 11, 2011 at 11:25 a.m.

    I recently had my daughter go play with a coach from El Salvador, rather than an English coach because of the style of play. I recently learned the makeup now of the old team and it seems he added very tall and physical forwards... very necessary when you play direct, physical soccer and the only thing the kids know to do is set and kick.

    We need to stop the green card tsunami for young english coaches so we can stop "dumb" soccer.

    Maybe set a system up where the coaches pick from a group of well known players and if they pick a bunch of 6' plus average skilled players (the English team), they are shown their way to the boat back to England.

  8. Albert Harris, April 11, 2011 at 11:47 a.m.

    Cabrera for U-20 coach? I agree with Paul about the need for skillful #10 types be they Latin or European. My only quibble would be his shot at Birchall. Even when Arena was using El Diablo to pull the strings at DC United, he has the ankle biting munchkin of death Ritchie Williams sweeping in front of the back 4. Richie was hardly a skilled player but he performed a needed function. The problem is not with having a d-mid on your team, it is with not balancing this with an attacking mid with skills.

  9. John Soares, April 11, 2011 at 12:38 p.m.

    Ric... If only you had stopped with your first statement.
    A historical "FIRST". Positive statement from Ranting Ric.

  10. James Froehlich, April 11, 2011 at 2:57 p.m.

    John S.-- Being a ranter myself, I would like to say a word in favor of all ranters, Ric F included. For those who love the GAME far more than any individual team, but still have the appropriate warm feelings for one's own country, it is exceedingly difficult to watch how it is being promoted and developed in the US without going a little nuts!! Soccer in the US is somewhat of an artificial construct. At the top it has developed through importing coaches(English primarrily) and players; at the bottom it has developed as a money-making and baby-sitting project. The number of people who truly love the game itself, for its real beauty is minuscule. People of this type have never really been a part of the development project -- the movers and shakers have been and are primarily the money people (amongst whom I include coaches and soccer camp promoters) and the youth soccer bureaucrats. Neither of these groups has had any motivation in the past to promote the skillful aspects of the game since "winning" at all ages has been sufficient for the amateur and physical-play fans. The only hope I see today is MLS (surprised??). The reason is that in this case the "money-men" have become concerned about their "product" which is definitely not up to world standards.
    Given all this it has been hard not to be a "ranter". It's either that or start drinking heavily. While Ric F may opt for the former, I lean toward the latter.

  11. W Miller, April 11, 2011 at 4:19 p.m.

    Has anyone else noticed that Wilmer Cabrera's Under-17 squad plays exciting and successful soccer? I would really like to see him given a chance to coach the USA Men's Team. I guarantee the style of play would improve!

  12. Mark Edge, April 11, 2011 at 4:40 p.m.

    Will someone explain to me the English style of play. Maybe they last saw a game from the seventies when the surface dictated the long ball. Clearly that style was born out of neccesity, but as far as I can see, Arsenal, Chelsea, Man Utd, Tottenham, Liverpool Man City et al seem to put the ball on the ground and mix it with the occasional penetrating 40 yard cross field pass onto a dime. And then find themselves in the 1/4 finals of the Champions league every year.

  13. Brian Something, April 11, 2011 at 4:59 p.m.

    Mark: it's no coindence that the top teams have hardly any English attacking players. Of the present top four, the only ones who get any time are Lampard and Rooney... and occasionally Walcott as a sub. English attacking players aren't good enough for Champions League so that's why the top teams go for foreigners.

  14. Brian Something, April 11, 2011 at 5 p.m.

    So what IS the typical English style of play? Watch Stoke City or Blackburn or Birmingham or the lower divisions.

  15. David Crowther, April 11, 2011 at 5:30 p.m.

    Your point is certainly well taken when it comes to the U20’s. I couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast between the way the US played Guatemala in the quarters and Costa Rica played Guatemala in the semis. While this Costa Rica team does depend on strong fast forwards (tournament top scorer Campbell is someone to keep your eyes on), they also preferred to keep the ball on the ground and build up with quick passes around the box and darting runs. I counted and the Ticos hit exactly one aimless cross during the entire first hour of the game, while building up an easy 2-0 lead that should have been a lot more had the ref not waved off three clear penalties (not to mention two posts and a ball cleared off the line). Contrast that with the US, which seemed to spend 90 minutes of Route 1 soccer with numerous aimless crosses that were easily handled by the rather mediocre Guatemalan defense. Things only got tough for the Ticos in second half when the clearly intimidated Canadian ref started allowing Guatemala to kick, hack, grab, tackle and otherwise wreck havoc with complete impunity (I’m not exaggerating, there was one 30 second stretch where the Guatemalan’s committed 3 brutal clear-cut red card worthy fouls in a row and the ref just kept waving play on). And the thing is, this Costa Rica side proved no match yesterday for the classy and very impressive Mexicans. I guess we can only dream about the day when the US can play like that.

  16. Mark Edge, April 11, 2011 at 6:08 p.m.

    Brian- Dig a little deeper, i think you'll find the assistant coaching staff are mostly English and Scottish. Not doubting the technical abilities of foreign players, but the British contingent are right with them (Bale, Gerrard, Lampard, Johnson, Rooney, Barry etc) but I think you'll find that their style of play, formations etc are from the UK.The besy of which are Scottish i believe.

  17. James Froehlich, April 11, 2011 at 7:11 p.m.

    Mark -- the best way to see the difference is to watch some la liga games and then watch EPL. For me it comes down to skill on the ball and in the passing. La Liga players are much more skillful than the average EPL player -- I'm specifically referring to trapping, shielding, passing***, and dribbling. That's at the player level at the team/game level EPL is decidedly more physical as played and as refereed. Since your post seemed to be coming from a skeptical direction, I'm guessing that you won't be buying into any of this!!!

  18. Kevin Leahy, April 11, 2011 at 8:40 p.m.

    MLS play is not as pleasing to the eye as it was in the early years because it has become a physical league. It is not the way to sell your product. I know that it takes skill to play the way Barcelona plays but, it is also is a mindset. Winning means nothing to them @ the younger level. Skill developement comes first. Soccer America does not help when they honor some of the clubs in this country as being the best when, they are just the ones winning the most. I pray for a true visionary like Cruyff!

  19. Vincent Barbato, April 12, 2011 at 10:50 a.m.

    Rongen must go! At this point and at this level we should not be taking a loss to Guatemala. We were supposed to win the World Cup in 2010 and that was a disaster!
    If our U-20's are losing to Guatemala now it will take another twenty years to be where we should be now. It's not that Guatemala had a good game plan, it's because we had a lousy one and our U-20's are poorly coached!

  20. Richard Romer, April 12, 2011 at 12:58 p.m.

    I am relatively new to soccer(futbol) having played Football, Baseball, and Lacrosse all of my life. Now having watched numerous world cups, EPL games, and champions league games,(as well as playing indoor and outdoor soccer) I realize that futbol is truly the beautiful game when played skillfully, and with wonderful coordination among the teammates. The physical game will not bring fans to the game. That is why we yearn for a national team that can match up with the greats. I daresay that the game that Barcelona plays, with undersized players, would nine times out of ten, beat any team in the MLS. Enough said.

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