College Cup serves up more bland brew

By Paul Gardner

After several years of boringly vapid finals it can be safely said that the College Cup is now firmly established as the sport’s most over-rated annual event.

The warning that the final game was going to be a bore was sounded loud and clear in the two semifinals. At least the matchups held some interest. Two veteran teams, UVa and UCLA against two teams, University of Maryland Baltimore County and Providence, appearing for the first time.

But a deeper difference was apparent. The new teams were livelier, more adventurous, sometimes even fun to watch. While UVa and UCLA seemed to coast arrogantly along, relying on their superior pedigree to make the difference.

That was, more or less, the way it panned out, though both teams were lucky to win. Providence took UCLA to overtime, where the Bruins triumphed thanks to a horrendous own-goal from Providence. While Virginia got an early goal and made it stand up for the rest of the game with a lot of solid defensive play.

It seemed to me that the wrong teams had triumphed. UMBC and Providence, the teams that had tried to play enterprising soccer, had lost. So there loomed a final that promised little more than the standard college fair -- energy, commitment, work rate, defense -- a game that would be low on just about all the qualities that you can rely on to spice up a soccer game.

So it proved. No goals, pitifully few shots, so not much goalmouth action. The big culprit was UVa, which spent most of this overtime game playing with everyone behind the ball. If you admire relentless defensive soccer, then this was for you.

If, on the other hand, you despair to see soccer in which players are so chained to defensive play that they not only stifle their opponents but destroy their own enterprise at the same time, then this was a game to forget.

Advance notices and much chatter from the TV commentators told us that UCLA’s German midfielder Leo Stolz was the guy to watch. So I did, and was not impressed. There was so little in this final that resembled good soccer. Both coaches, George Gelnovatch at UVa and Jorge Salcedo at UCLA are experienced guys who know what real soccer is, so how on earth can they be satisfied with the threadbare imitation that was on display in this game?

Is college soccer ever going to get its act in order? Will it ever stop relying so heavily on athletic prowess? Will the day ever come when we can watch a soccer final that features soccer subtlety, skill and artistry -- from both teams?

The feeling persists that a UMBC-Providence final would have been much more interesting, much livelier. If UVa and UCLA gave us all they’re capable of, then my hope would be that we’ve just seen the swan song of the traditional college powers, and that fresher challengers -- like UMBC and Providence -- are ready to have their say. New teams that might, at long last, be able to transform college soccer into a sport that not only looks like real soccer, but is played by teams whose players accurately reflect the talent -- all of it -- that is available in this country.

I suppose that is grasping at straws, but what else is one to do when confronted, year after year, with a sport that seems incapable of improving itself, or of simply moving with the times?

It remains to offer some sympathy to the TV guys, Glenn Davis and Taylor Twellman, who struggled along, trying to inject some life into an inert experience. Twellman let his guard slip once -- when Davis announced that highlights were coming up, Twellman asked “Do we have any?”

But neither commentator seemed aware of the statistical study that has been done on shootouts showing something like a 60-40 winning advantage for the team that kicks first. Presumably Virginia won the toss (we didn’t get any shots of that). They kicked first. And they won. A suitably synthetic ending to a largely unreal game.

No doubt some of these players will turn up in the MLS SuperDraft in January, and that is a sobering thought. I suppose a few defenders will be considered good enough for the pros, but the players who really matter, the creative players, where were they?

Once again, college soccer has shown us that it does not -- and after all these years, that presumably means cannot -- produce creative players.

19 comments about "College Cup serves up more bland brew".
  1. Alan Crow, December 15, 2014 at 2:44 a.m.

    When coaches know that PK's are on option to settle a game, and they feel that they don't have the talent to successfully attack and/or that they have some advantage in goalkeeping ability, then there is every incentive for them to fall into the mentality displayed by Gelnovatch. Implement an alternative to PK's that settles a game on the field, and UVA would actually have had to play soccer. So UVA wins a national championship in PK's, but no one who watched the game outside of Charlottesville thinks of them as soccer champs after that sad performance.

  2. Joseph Pratt, December 15, 2014 at 9:28 a.m.

    College soccer will be more about speed and effort than skill and smarts as long as unlimited substitutions are allowed. When players can run themselves to exhaustion, knowing they will be subbed out for "fresh legs," that's what coaches will have them do. Everything changes if the rules change to limit subs.

  3. Didi P, December 15, 2014 at 10:05 a.m.

    Hey, look at bright side: you just discovered American "the special one", who can replace the dour German many yanks despise with passion

  4. Kirsten Allen, December 15, 2014 at 11:40 a.m.

    This is the current state of college soccer where coaches coach to keep their jobs (wins and losses) rather than developing talent. With the number of scholarships and the unwillingness to take on promising talent, you are left with speed, no touches and no creativity in the college game. This is why my son has decided to attend college and play soccer in Leeds, England for Richmond International Academic and Soccer Academy. It is gratifying to see others recognize the lack of beauty in the American college soccer game.

  5. Stan P1, December 15, 2014 at 12:40 p.m.

    It is amazing to see pompous, arrogant fans and writers such as Paul Garnder and Alan Crow write about the game of soccer and how it should be played. For Garnder, if you come from anywhere north of the Rio Grande you can't play soccer. Anyone that reads his column understands his one-sided viewpoint, and knows that he will never like college soccer. His columns read like a broken record. He just changes the date line and repeats the same article. The object of the game is to win. George Gelnovatch exemplifies what good coaches do: take the talent you have and design a system that best fits the players.
    I love Arsenal, but Jose Mourinho wins championships with defensive minded teams. College soccer is not professional soccer. Students do have a purpose other than soccer. So you college soccer bashers need to understand the college game. If you don't like, just don't watch it. I guess you could watch the MLS, but the MLS is very similar to the college game. It is a physical play, with athletic players, generally with a direct style of play.
    As for Alan Gordon the last time I looked, FIFA endorses PK's to win championships (world cup), so don't expect a change in the rules for college soccer.

  6. Kirsten Allen, December 15, 2014 at 1:27 p.m.

    Lighten up Francis. All we said was college soccer leaves a lot to be desired when compared to other levels outside the US. I think you can agree to that.

  7. Rick Estupinan, December 15, 2014 at 2:33 p.m.

    KA,bravo!,your son is doing the right thing.If he really loves the game and wants to get better at it,then he has to get away from the College Soccer atmosphere in the great USA.Unfortunately,this guys have to play play year after year in front of National tv.This game was so poor in quality,that I am upset when my American friends tease me about it.

  8. Stan P1, December 15, 2014 at 4:52 p.m.

    Good luck on your son playing in Leeds. But you are wrong regarding coaches taking on talent. Coaches will take talent where they find it. Note the foreign players on Providence, UVA and Germany. Getting more scholarships will allow teams to take a chance on players who are not a physically developed as others.
    I am amazed that people think that playing overseas will make their kids professional players. Only a handful of players make it professionally and only a fraction of those players will make enough money to be set. Work rules in many countries restrict foreign players and there is a bias against foreign players in most countries.
    College soccer comes in many forms. The main point is that it allows kids to continue playing the sport they love, grow up and get a college education. There are terrific D3 universities in the north east and great conferences such as the ACC.
    People watch a college playoff game and base an opinion about a program. Playoff soccer is far different than the regular season. Playoffs are about winning. I have been watching college soccer for 20 years, and find it far more exciting than the MLS because of the players passion for playing.

  9. BJ Genovese, December 16, 2014 at 1:06 a.m.

    Can somebody provide a solid road map on what college programs are doing a good job trying to modernize its game. We need to know! PG follow up this article with some advice.

  10. Alan Crow, December 16, 2014 at 4 a.m.

    Stan, I'm glad you think PK's are a good way to settle a game. Perhaps I am being arrogant again, but I think most players and fans would disagree with you. UVA certainly did not appear to be playing with the passion that you find exciting to watch. If playing to go to penalty kicks becomes the norm, because that is "good strategy" then it will turn off fans and future players alike.

  11. Frank Fonte, December 16, 2014 at 11:20 a.m.

    lets look at the ' other' college final; the women's uva v florida state. 1-0. tight game. good action. up and down the field. both teams trying to go forward and score. good players on both sides. i remember seeing bruce areana's uva teams; fun to watch,. tried to score and win. uva and gelnovitch will get its ' karma" down the road. hopefully; they wont appear in a college final for a very long time. just a bunch of crap to watch. very disappointing. definitely wont help ratings for college soccer. but gelnovitch isnt concerned with that.

  12. Joy Hottington, December 16, 2014 at 12:50 p.m.

    Gelnovatch absolutely wasn't concerned with ratings. Nor should he be.
    What karma should Gelnovatch face? I'm not sure I get it. Anyone who is a soccer tactician should watch that game. It wasn't exciting. UCLA wasn't able to get anything going inside the UVA box despite the heavy possession advantage. I'd be more upset with that than UVA playing to its strengths in this game. I hope some of the college soccer rules change to align with the international game, but until they do, you play with the rules you are dealt...

  13. John Colley, December 16, 2014 at 1:59 p.m.

    I have no idea why Frank thinks UVA and Gelnovatch "won't appear in a college final for a very long time." UVA has been in 8 over the last 30 yrs, winning 7. They only appeared in this one because Gelnovatch coached to his team's strengths, and not to a style of play that soccer gurus find more exciting (I.e., wide-open up-and-down the pitch attacking soccer). It's bewildering to see Gelnovatch criticized for actually coaching a young, over-achieving bunch of boys to a national championship. Maybe Gardner, Fonte et al. need to follow Barcelona and forget about college soccer if it's too pedantic for their tastes.

  14. beautiful game, December 16, 2014 at 5:57 p.m.

    This game was played like 'let's not lose' and the overall soccer IQ on both sides was lees than mediocre. It's about win the game above all else, even if dominated in possession. Besides, playing the semi and final in 2 1/2 days is too demanding.

  15. John Colley, December 16, 2014 at 10:20 p.m.

    No doubt everyone rooting for "real soccer" would have preferred UVa not bunker down but go toe-to-toe with UCLA instead. With its captain/leading scorer Eric Bird nursing a bad groin pull, UVa would've stood little/no chance of outscoring UCLA, and their coach knew that. To be commended by the pundits for playing "real soccer" on Monday would be scant consolation to his players. This whole conversation is ridiculous, give the Cavaliers credit for implementing a game plan and overcoming a very talented ucla squad.

  16. Ramon Creager, December 17, 2014 at 9:21 a.m.

    "Do we have any?" I've always enjoyed Taylor Twellman as an announcer (and as a player too).

  17. Ramon Creager, December 17, 2014 at 9:28 a.m.

    I think we have to stop counting on college soccer to produce any skilled players. College soccer's goals are not to produce talented players, but to win. That is going to be the prevailing coaching mentality. And they get their players from high school, which has similar issues. And when you're unwilling to develop the talent, you instead focus on strategies that keep you from losing: physical, strong defensive play. When MLS teams have established serious academy programs this problem will diminish somewhat. The problem remains that we don't have the deep feeder system that is in place in other countries. (And also in use by Baseball in this country, so this concept isn't entirely foreign...)

  18. beautiful game, December 17, 2014 at 10:31 a.m.

    It's not about the players, it's about the coaches who on the most part have very few, if any, top quality players. They design their tactics to win the game and nothing else matters. So, if anyone thinks that college soccer is the future of development for the pros, get real and face the reality; never.

  19. R2 Dad, December 18, 2014 at 3:33 a.m.

    What was needed was an early UCLA goal to force UVA to open up. Without that, zzzzzzzzz. So UVA wins a title. But isn't this proof that college coaches have no business managing professionally? Since no one would pay to watch paint dry?

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