The Beautiful Game lights up Yankee Stadium

By Paul Gardner

That the expected, hyped, awaited, delayed, announced and finally postponed debut of Frank Lampard with NYC FC didn’t happen during Sunday’s game against Toronto was no doubt a disappointment to many.

But something else did happen which may turn out to be of more significance for NYC. Simply that the sport of soccer took over Yankee Stadium and gave us a game to remember, a thoroughly invigorating 90 minutes of the sport at its glittering best. It ended 4-4, which seemed to me a fair result.

Yes, we got no fewer than eight goals. Before I go beyond that, please, please, do not listen to the analysts who’ll be downgrading those goals, belittling them with their post facto charts and their diagrams, to explain to us -- we who do not understand, that is -- why the goals shouldn’t have been scored, why they were all due to defensive screw-ups and so on. And thus is the spontaneous enjoyment, the delight, of this sport reduced to dry theory. Please, please -- forget those guys.

The joy of the game, its real pulse and blood was thriving and throbbing at full blast on the field and in the stands at Yankee Stadium. No Lampard? No ... but there was another Designated Player on view, Toronto’s Sebastian Giovinco, and what a game he had.

With his first-half hat trick he not only ensured his own team a share of the points, but he gave NYC something that has been lacking so far in their games. That is genuine, rather than marketing-hyped, excitement.

This was precisely the sort of game that MLS needs more of, many more. For NYC, the much-marketed local-rivalry games against the Red Bulls have not even come close to the drama and sheer joy that this wonderful game produced. An early 2-0 lead for NYC. Only for an astonishing and quite brilliant nine-minute hat trick from Giovinco to give Toronto a 3-2 lead at half time. A determined NYC got the tying goal 20 minutes into the second half from a David Villa penalty kick. Only for Marco Delgado -- with a precious assist from Giovinco -- to make it 3-4. At 84 minutes Patrick Mullins had the home fans on their feet as he tied it for NYC. 4-4. The way things were going, there was still time for more goals. The chances were there for both sides, the level of breath-baited excitement remained at its highest. Maybe goal-exhaustion (a rather rare affliction these days) set in, but there was no more scoring.

Who could make that up? Perfect choreography for drama and entertainment. And again I hear those killjoy analysts pedantically explaining why drama and entertainment should not be taken into account, why tactics and making the right runs and not making “silly” errors are all that matter.

Bah. On this Sunday afternoon we got a glorious game in which both teams played their part. But in which there can be no denying that, at the center of all the wonderment, was the wee figure of Giovinco.

To say that he looked like Lionel Messi is praise indeed, but nothing less than the truth. Or part of it -- for Giovinco also played like Messi. With Messi standing at only 5-foot-7, how could one ever talk of a mini-Messi? But maybe that’s OK for Giovinco, a wee man of 5-5. Both players are 28 years old.

On Sunday we saw repeated glimpses of Messi from Giovinco -- the immediate and easy control of the ball, the close dribbling, those short bursts of acceleration, just enough to get away from tacklers, the precise short passing (that terrific assist on Delgado’s goal), and the decisive finishing. The calm, masterful way that he lifted the ball over goalkeeper Josh Saunders for his third goal was sheer, majestic Messi. What more could one desire? (To which Giovinco himself would no doubt answer “Two more goals” -- for he had the clear chances to score a couple more).

Even so, there was more. A lot of hidden benefits came with this Giovinco masterclass. Thus:

* A display that might -- only might, I’m afraid -- just shut up those who insist that size is necessary to be a soccer player. Giovinco has suffered from that slur -- his career in Italy was always shadowed by the suggestion that he “wasn’t big enough.”

* A clear signal that selecting your Designated Players carefully is worth the bother, and that goalscoring and dynamic offensive play should be the first consideration. Robbie Keane has already underlined that point. Here, we got Giovinco’s hat trick, but the fireworks were also greatly helped by two goals from NYC’s DP David Villa.

* I’m less confident on this one, but here goes anyway: We got an example of just how entertaining the sport, left to itself, can be. A reminder that great games are rarely the result of hype. Rather the opposite, hype usually creates disappointing let-downs. Is it too much to ask that MLS concentrates more on getting the right coaches on the benches and the right players on the field, and less on marketing maneuvers?

* This tremendous outburst of joyous soccer will have worked wonders for NYC. Not quite what the quicksilver Giovinco or Toronto would have had in mind, but that’s the perverse way that things often turn out. NYC needs to find a way to re-run this sort of game, and the tremendous atmosphere that it created. Easy to say, but the perversity of the sport makes it difficult to arrange. Whether Lampard and Andrea Pirlo might turn out to be the secret ingredients, is yet to be discovered.

* Goals. Back to those damn analysts. Don’t let them or anyone tell you that goals are not that important. They are all important. Especially in MLS, a league still trying to convince Mr. and Mrs. USA that soccer is a sport worth watching. So NYC and Toronto tied their game. The same result that we got recently in the Copa America final. But there is a world of difference between a 4-4 scoreline, and the 0-0 of the Copa final. The difference between soccer that is robustly, enjoyably vibrant, and soccer that seems intent on strangling itself into inertia. (I shall have more to say about that 0-0 Copa game shortly).

* Refereeing. There is no doubt that referee Ted Unkel deserves praise. He helped Sunday’s game along by awarding four penalty kicks. A record number for an MLS game, they tell me. But justified. The reluctance of referees to call a PK -- and to make matters worse by inventing an absurd diving call to cover their cop-out -- has long sent the wrong message, i.e. that defenders can expect to get away with dodgy tackles in their own penalty area.

I would like to think that Sunday’s NYC vs Toronto game marks a critical point in the maturing of MLS. A game in which genuine soccer values burst through the marketing miasma to make it clear that the sport itself can provide its own hype.

MLS, and NYC have a lot to thank Giovinco for. And he has given them plenty to think about.

11 comments about "The Beautiful Game lights up Yankee Stadium".
  1. Allan Lindh, July 13, 2015 at 3:14 p.m.

    Well done Mr. Gardner. Refs enforce the laws of the game, it's a better game. But calling penalties isn't enough. Yellow cards for "tactical fouls", red cards for brutal tackles intended to intimidate or eliminate skill players, just enforce the laws for a few months, and more beautiful games will break out. And skill players will be more inclined to come to MLS.

  2. Kenneth Barr, July 13, 2015 at 3:27 p.m.

    Typical Gardner. He raves about high priced talent, forgets the mission of MLS is to develop American and Canadian players instead of giving a showcase to overseas nationals like the old No American Soccer League did in the 1970s and raves about a team that is no more than a nursery club for a lodsa dosh English Premier side. Paul, your time came and went 25 years ago. Stop already. The game has passed you by.

  3. Phil Hardy, July 13, 2015 at 5:03 p.m.

    I can't believe it. The day has finally come when I agree with a PK editorial. Goals are what the people come to see and did they ever! At first I had forgotten Toronto would be shorn of its stars and wondered if I should watch. I'm glad I did. It was fun! Giovinco is the Messi of MLS. I don't care what his nationality is. I want American kids to be able to see a player in his prime in our league. Let it inspire them. Spot on Paul.

  4. beautiful game, July 13, 2015 at 5:17 p.m.

    MLS can provide pulsating games; however, they are too sporadic. Phil H., Giovinco had a memorable game, but comparing him to 'MLS Messi' is a bit of a fantasy. Just about every MLS player receives a 'great' kudo from the winded TV commentators. As for Ken B's comment; the MLS mission was never to develop quality home grown players; that's improbable with the amateur system in place.

  5. R2 Dad, July 13, 2015 at 6:40 p.m.

    re: PKs. I'd love to hear what those coaches have to say about the penalties given. Those defenders are going to have to recalibrate what a fair tackle in the box is going to mean, judging from their lame attempts yesterday. Unfortunately, these are exactly the kinds of defenders MLS has been growing for the past decade--glad to see the laws finally being enforced.

  6. Joe Linzner, July 13, 2015 at 9:26 p.m.

    The article is certainly an endorsement of soccer's pulsing movement and constant action. It is always a moving chess game, 11 versus 11, searching for advantage and probing of weakness. 90% of all games are lost due to a weakness, a defensive error, a giveaway error. For me it is not only the goals but also the intricate interplay between the teams, the players and the individual. zero to zero is OK with me as long as skills of both teams are on display. Just listening to waning and waxing of the spectators' voices give proof that this game involves them to the fullest, Dang, have loved this game 65 years, from Europe and now here in the US. The long soccer desert of the 50s and 60s was a heartache for me, even though I played in the semipro greater-LA league with good clubs. The NASL brought pro play to the US but still broadcast games outside the US rarely were found excepting small notes at the bottoms and backs of a LA times sport page.. Finally Soccer is going Mainline excepting in the LA times which still list soccer under OTHER SPORTS and even there on the bottom of that section.... Ridiculous.. Good article Mr Kennedy.

  7. Stevie G, July 13, 2015 at 11:16 p.m.

    If it's Mr. and Mrs. USA that you're going after perhaps the MLS should adopt. 6 points per goal rule. Instantly more appealing.

  8. Miguel Dedo, July 14, 2015 at 11 a.m.

    Amen on the praise for referee Ted Unkel. had he not had the courage to call
    the PKs the game would have been so much less.

  9. Kent James, July 15, 2015 at 4:01 p.m.

    I was amused by the commentators criticism of the first penalty; "yeah, he grabbed him but as soon as he got past, he let him go". I guess if you only hold him back a little, it's not really a foul. To me, this exactly the sort of foul that should be called; the defender consciously chose to violate the rules to gain an advantage, and tried to avoid getting caught by letting go. I hope the PK awarded will make him think twice before doing it again (okay, that one probably won't, but if refs keep calling the fouls, sooner or later, the players will adjust...).

  10. Santiago 1314, July 17, 2015 at 12:35 p.m.

    Ouch Kenneth... That Passion is below your usual insightful, Analytical posts... But, I guess we all have our Hot Buttons, PG is defiantly one of yours. ..Your point about MLS as a Developer League is correct, but probably No longer viable. .. Americans Want The Best!!! NBA, NHL, MLB (NFL??)... All the Best Players in the World are here... If the Sponsor/TV money continues to grow, it will Overwhelm the Single-Entity Structure and then it will be "Katy Bar The Door"...Old NASL Redux... Hopefully, better managed this time... But right now, we are heading towards La Liga de Dos, como en España...Los Galaxativos(VL) and NY"F"ingCity, Seem To be able to sign who ever they want, when ever they want, for what ever Cost they want... Not seeing much difference to Cosmos Pele era and today...

  11. Fire Paul Gardner Now, July 22, 2015 at 1:15 p.m.

    Paul's a simple man - who cares about tactics, skill, technique etc. Just give him goals! That's the only thing that in soccer of any interest whatsoever to Paul. to him, 4-4 is always better than 2-2 and gee whiz 6-6 would be even better!

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