Back in the 1970s I recall watching a soccer panel on English TV. They were discussing an important upcoming game -- maybe it was the FA Cup final. Both of the teams who would feature in that game had just had big wins and had scored a lot of goals. The moderator asked the two panel members -- both of them coaches --- what that meant for the upcoming final.
There was not a moment’s hesitation. Both replied instantly -- “Nil-nil!” It sounded like one voice. Both were laughing, but they were not joking. They had ventured into one of those difficult truths where the awkwardness is best disguised by laughter.
The truth being that coaches are scared of goals. They tremble at high scores. When asked for comment after their team has just scored seven goals, they’re quite likely to reply, “I wish we could have saved some of them for the next game.”
And if they’re about to meet a team that has just scored seven, their practice sessions will be even more defense-oriented than usual.
Hence the nil-nil prediction. Better that than a harrowing 5-4 nail-biter. We had one of those recently in England, when Bob Bradley’s Swansea City got their first win, against Crystal Palace. The game, it was generally agreed in the press, was a “crazy” game.
In MLS we’ve just had that 7-5 aggregate score between Toronto and Montreal. Another feast of goals -- providing, of course, plenty of material for the TV pundits to tell us -- as they always do when virtually any goals are scored -- how awful the defending was.
What they are less likely to tell us is how entertaining those games were. This past weekend, in the English Premier League we got Bournemouth 4 Liverpool 3. A terrific game, plenty of good soccer, plus some quite lousy soccer, too -- but that’s a combination that tends to generate excitement.
To see “little” Bournemouth score four second-half goals to beat powerhouse Liverpool, with the winner coming in the 94th minute was riveting stuff.
But after all that excitement and all that craziness, after Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp had delivered a very generous tribute to Bournemouth, we were quickly back in the studio. Where pundit Robbie Earle wasted no time before puncturing the euphoria by explaining that Bournemouth had gifted first-half goals to Liverpool, and that Liverpool, by letting in those four second-half goals, had demonstrated that they weren’t “serious” and did not know how to close a game out.
Meaning that Liverpool, leading 2-0 and comfortably in charge, should have shut up shop in the second half. Not quite bunkering in, but not venturing out much. That’s being serious. But Klopp doesn’t think that way. Liverpool continued to play attacking soccer and therefore, it seems, paid the price and lost.
Bad enough, but Earle’s comments made matters much, much worse. The game, said Earle “was too entertaining,” and Liverpool’s lack of seriousness had passed largely unnoticed because “we were enjoying the game too much.”
What’s this? Soccer too entertaining? Too enjoyable? Well, angels and ministers of grace defend us! We can’t have that, now can we? Let’s get serious -- and that’s how it so often is when the pundits get going. The excitement drains from the game, and the (supposedly) superior tones of rational analysis take over. Playing attractive soccer becomes not something you get praised for, it is something you get accused of.
This was particularly disappointing, because Earle can usually be relied on to be sensible in his comments. Not this time -- simply too many goals, too much entertainment for him to cope with.
This fear of goalscoring (even of your own team’s excessive scoring) looms as a factor in this weekend’s MLS Cup final. Toronto put five past Montreal in the semi. Seattle, while not so prolific, did show in that short three-goal blitz against Dallas, that it has offensive power. Will the response to that be a nil-nil, 0-0 final, then, with overtime and a shootout?
The natural atmosphere in an important soccer final these days is caution. No risk-taking -- certainly not early in the game. It’s not exactly defensive soccer, but you’ll notice defenders a hell of a lot more than you will forwards. Which would inevitably mean, if not 0-0, then surely a low-scoring game.
That would be a pity, because there is outstanding attacking talent on both Toronto and Seattle. Jozy Altidore is in great form, while Jordan Morris has matured from tentative rookie to canny goalscorer in just a few months. Quite an achievement.
Nonetheless, the real strength of both teams is in midfield, where Michael Bradley rules for Toronto, and Nicolas Lodeiro runs the show for Seattle.
I’d give Toronto an advantage there, because in Sebastian Giovinco they have a scintillating midfield playmaker who is also a prolific goal-scoring forward. Seattle have no one to match that - in fact, no other MLS team can match Giovinco.
There is another factor that haunts this game. Both teams have had to live with years of bitter frustration, neither of them having got as far as this before. Possibly the fear of failing yet again -- this time with the trophy almost within grasp -- will give another nudge towards caution.
I think not -- not if the Toronto fans have any say in the matter. And their voice will heard loudly throughout. Possibly that will help Toronto, possibly it will intimidate Seattle. More importantly, will referee Alan Kelly be intimidated? Doubtful, I’d say, he’s too experienced for that (but there are other reasons why I wouldn’t want Kelly, or his fourth official Allen Chapman, anywhere near a climactic game).
This year’s MLS final, more than any other that I can remember, has all the elements for a memorable game. I’m looking for a final that’s not too serious, a bit crazy, in fact. And (pace Robbie Earle) I’d like it to be entertaining and enjoyable, too. The party-pooping punditry and the analytics can come later.