Commentary

MLS Cup: Contrasting midfields and the importance of strict refereeing

By Paul Gardner

I'm thinking that a Galaxy-Revs MLS final is the best matchup we could have expected from the four semifinalists. In truth, there was little to choose between three of them -- Red Bulls, Seattle and Revs. All three are hectic teams, somewhat short of brain-power, but with plenty of over-charged midfielders. A combination that can make for exciting games -- not least because such teams are rarely, if ever, capable of controlling a game and keeping it under their control.

The play of such teams is predominantly impulsive, and inevitably erratic. There is little consistency. Spells -- short -- of good, maybe brilliant, play nestle amid much longer periods of plain dullness. Awful mistakes are made, leads are allowed to slip away -- such teams always make their own life difficult.

To enjoy the occasional brilliance of Thierry Henry for the Red Bulls, one had to endure the relentless ordinariness of Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander and the empty physicality of Tim Cahill.

It’s true to say that the Red Bulls scraped their way through to the Eastern Conference final -- nothing is ever easy for the hectic teams. But the Red Bulls did get a lot of help from the goalscoring form of Bradley Wright-Phillips. Time and again it was his goals -- usually they were workmanlike rather than outstanding -- that kept the Red Bulls alive. And then, when his presence was most urgently needed, he was suspended. More accurately, he got himself suspended for a brainless foul. A totally self-inflicted hammer blow for the Bulls.

In all probability a fatal one. Because there was really nothing to choose between the Bulls and the Revs. The Bulls, for sure, lacked any sort of influential or inspirational play from midfield. But the Revs were no better. Their rising star in that area was Lee Nguyen, of whom much was expected. But little appeared. He, like every other midfielder on both teams, was a subsidiary presence, certainly useful in providing energy and grit, but of little value in pulling a team together, in producing a coherent game.

As was to be expected, both teams applied themselves with unrestrained feverishness, everyone left his heart (or is it shirt? I’m not sure) on the field. But all that frantic energy had to be translated into something up front. The Bulls were without their supreme translator, BWP. The Revs got enough out of theirs, Charlie Davies, to make the difference. And maybe the simple fact of playing that final game at home gave the Revs the slightest of edges.

Things were a bit different out West. Compare the East and the West coaches, for a start. All four are Americans, all of them with a college background. But the college experience of Mike Petke and Jay Heaps was exclusively on the playing field, whereas Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid had both progressed to being highly successful college coaches before moving to the pros. Evidently, though college soccer has enormous difficulties producing outstanding players (and none of these guys, not Arena nor Schmid nor Petke nor Heaps, could claim that honor), it can give us top level coaches. Something that is worth more thought.

The Sounders have had success in the Open Cup in their short life, but they’ve yet to win MLS Cup. That means failure. So Sigi Schmid -- lucky, of course, to retain his job -- has, over the past two years recast the Sounders. From a team that seemed to want a skillful approach to the game -- the presence of the Colombian Fredy Montero, as talented a forward as has ever played in MLS, indicated that -- to a more industrial quality squad. Montero was replaced by Obafemi Martins, who got his goals by smash-and-grab methods -- a very effective player, for sure, but a far cry from Montero.

The departure of Montero emphasized a changed Sounders. Alvaro Fernandez and Mauro Rosales, two skilled Latin American midfielders, were tried and let go. The Sounders midfield took on a more combative air, became an area more suited to the physical exertions of Brad Evans and Osvaldo Alonso. Andy Rose, Shalrie Joseph, and Adam Moffat fit right in there, too.

Clint Dempsey arrived, but surely he wasn’t expected to organize midfield? With his aggressive forward running and his urgent search for goalscoring chances, he is surely more of a forward than a midfielder.

So the Sounders reached the Western final in much the same array as the Bulls and the Revs. A bustling, all-action, non-stop team without much of a midfield. That mode of play had worked well for them. Sadly for the Sounders, they ran into the one team -- Bruce Arena’s Galaxy -- among the semifinalists that did understand the importance of a midfield that could play skillful soccer, could impose a style, and could therefore inspire some confidence that it knew how to deal with the rapidly changing fortunes of the playoffs.

And the key to that Galaxy midfield is, of course, Landon Donovan. A complete player, an experienced player, a superb player, with the ability to impose calm and rationality where rampant chaos is far too likely to reign.

True, Donovan was not at his best in the games against Seattle, but he still looked like someone very different from any other player involved. Always dangerous, always applying intelligence to his play, always someone who needed to be watched. A lurking reliable menace.

So that is what awaits us next Sunday. A contrast of midfields, in which Donovan looms as the deciding factor. Jay Heaps and the Revs will have thought about that. With their thoughts no doubt focusing on using the abrasive Jermaine Jones as their anti-Donovan weapon.

And so we arrive at an inescapable fact of playoff life. The importance of refereeing. Last year, Sporting Kansas City was greatly helped on their way to victory by referee Hilario Grajeda’s unpardonable refusal to eject Aurelien Collin. We have already seen that same desperation to keep 22 players on the field in the current playoffs, with referee Kevin Stott’s ludicrous leniency to Seattle’s Zach Scott in the first Galaxy-Sounders game.

Mark Geiger will be the referee on Sunday. He was, at one time, unquestionably the best of the American referees ... until PRO boss Peter Walton started his campaign to have MLS referees call fewer fouls. That stupidity has had its effect on Geiger. One must hope that it will have no effect on the final.

3 comments about "MLS Cup: Contrasting midfields and the importance of strict refereeing ".
  1. Jack Patton, December 1, 2014 at 7:31 p.m.

    The players can't help themselves. All those years of club, high school, ODP and college coaches wanting big strong fast players who could "kick" the ball realllllly far. Skills???? don't need no stinking skills just hit it and hope. Just thinking of how many times I hear coaches whine,,, I need bigger players, tougher players, never once having the idea of "I need to teach the things necessary assist kids in their future development"

  2. Lou vulovich, December 2, 2014 at 6:33 a.m.

    I watched both games and I have come to the conclusion that it is not the lack of skill that MLS players poses or the quality of MLS coaching that is a problem. It is the MLS refereeing that dictates the type of soccer which is played in the MLS and ultimately that decision is up to the league. Paul what good would 5 Xavi's do you with the type of refereeing currently displayed no coach in his right mind would try to put out a more technical or skillful team as they each know they would have no chance of playing that style and winning with current MLS referees.
    There are plenty of skillful players in the league and I bet most coaches would like to play a more attractive skillful game, including Arena and Schmid but how can you play that style when there is a foul committed every 5 second but the whistle is blown every 5 minutes.
    It is what the MLS want obviously and NHL brand of MLS. So don't blame the players or coaches.
    The REFEREE dictates the style of game and that is the responsibility of the MLS.

  3. Ginger Peeler, December 3, 2014 at 9:23 a.m.

    Ric, I don't think PG was selling Schmidt or Arena short on their time played on the field while in college. He noted that both of them "progressed" from college players to college coaches...and becoming very good coaches, at that (before continuing their careers as pro coaches). He was only noting that Petke and Heap went directly from playing in college to playing in the pros before becoming pro coaches. Thanks for the insight on Schmidt...it's always nice to learn about our players' and coaches' backgrounds and what helped make them who and what are today.

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