And very, very disappointing piffle at that.
Atlanta, with its original signing of coach Gerardo Martino opted for a South American style for their team. A brave and visionary move in the unimaginative world of MLS coaching. But a move that paid off almost instantly -- with a team that played the most exciting soccer in the league and that won the championship in just its second year of existence. Not to mention those enormous crowds at the home games.
Yet here we have Atlanta abandoning the Latin American theme, opting instead for a Dutch coach. Something has gone badly wrong with the Atlanta thinking. Can it be that they have failed to understand what made Martino so special? For a start, Martino is an Argentine with a deep knowledge and understanding of the Latino game. Beyond that, he has many important contacts in South America. He knows the players, too. He could immediately find, for Atlanta, a small group of some of the best players MLS has ever seen, and convince them -- which probably wasn’t easy -- that Atlanta, USA was where they should be playing.
Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Hector Villalba, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Franco Escobar, Yamil Asad (and the one who got away, who was lured to China at the last minute, who would probably have been the most spectacular of all of them, Oscar Romero). These were the guys who got Atlanta off to that sizzling start in 2017.
Such young players have always been available to MLS clubs, should those clubs have been interested. But of course, they have shown little interest. Anyway, Martino must have proved clearly to his Atlanta bosses that there is what amounts to a rule in global soccer: when you sign a foreign coach, you’re also signing on with a foreign soccer culture. Martino brought Latinos -- an English coach would bring English players and attitudes, a German brings the German approach. And a Dutch coach will bring Dutch influence.
Dutch influence seems to be on the rise in the USA at the moment, particularly at the Federation. Just why that should be so is quite beyond me. The Dutch failure to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup surely underlined that the Dutch game is in trouble. It is quite a while since the Dutch had a team worth watching. After its disgraceful performance at the 2010 World Cup final, Dutch soccer -- once personified by the sublime Johann Cruyff -- sunk closer to the level of the dreadful Nigel de Jong.
From the general decline in the caliber of Dutch soccer, to the specific talents of Frank de Boer. This is what Atlanta president Darren Eales (greatly admired around here for bringing in Martino) had to say about him: “Frank de Boer has a distinguished background, both as manager and player, and we’re ecstatic to welcome him to our club.”
No argument that de Boer’s playing record was distinguished -- but to apply that adjective to his coaching career is a stretch too far. Yes, he won four consecutive Dutch titles (2011-14) with Ajax, but that is a feat considerably vitiated by the fact that the Dutch league was by then no big deal. When de Boer took his team into European competition, for those four consecutive years, it never once got out of the first round of play in the Champions League.
Leaving Ajax in 2016, de Boer signed as coach of Inter Milan later that year. That did not go at all well, and de Boer was sacked three months later. In 2017 de Boer tried England, signing on at Crystal Palace, where he lasted only 77 days before being fired. De Boer was taking on the look of a coach who was going to find it difficult to get a top job in Europe.
Now de Boer is in the USA, joining MLS. There’s not much experience of Dutch coaches here. Ruud Gullit took over the L.A. Galaxy for the 2008 season but lasted only four months. Thomas Rongen has been around a bit -- he won the MLS title with D.C. United in 1999. But the most relevant Rongen memory is from 2005 when he -- a Dutchman -- was appointed coach of the supposedly Latino Chivas USA. A disaster -- after just 10 games, Rongen was fired, with a 1-8-1 record. It certainly had all the appearance of a soccer culture clash.
None of that background, of course, appears Darren Eales’s statement. But this does: “When we began our search, we were determined to find someone who fit all of our criteria. In addition to meeting our club’s core values, Frank’s philosophical views for how to play unequivocally aligns with ours.”
Which is what I mean by piffle. If we assume that the amazingly successful Martino met all the club’s “core values” (I mean, how could he not have?), and that de Boer also conforms, we are saying that there is no difference in the Latin and the Dutch approach.
Which is piffle-issimo. So too is the revelation that de Boer’s “philosophical views” on playing style agree totally with Atlanta’s. Well, I guess they would, wouldn’t they? -- that must have been an intriguing part of the job interview.
I read that de Boer will be bringing Total Soccer to Atlanta. And that this means fluidity. A word on that: Total Soccer took the soccer world by storm in the early 1970s, supposedly replacing “rigid” tactics. But it was only the European soccer world that marveled.
The South Americans had already shown us, with the wonderfully free movement of Brazil in 1958 and 1962, and that superb 1970 team -- World Cup winners, all three -- all we really needed to know about the basic tenets of Total Soccer. But the Europeans had failed to pay attention, so Total Soccer was treated as something startlingly new. It was not, and it is not now. The Dutch never won anything with it at its apex, and the Europeans, including the Dutch themselves, have moved on.
Nevertheless, if you do consider Total Soccer a Dutch, or a European, innovation then you will acknowledge that it did have an exceptional quality: it represented an attacking approach. Virtually every other European tactical system is based on strengthening defensive play (the Italian catenaccio, still very much alive when Total Soccer arrived, being the classic example).
But Atlanta has tasted the real thing: Latin American individuality and improvisation as a natural part of a player’s soccer personality, not as something imposed by a system. Why would Atlanta need the artificiality of an out-of-date Total Soccer? It does not -- just so long as Atlanta keeps the faith with its Latino start.
Eales seems to be under the impression that Atlanta is doing just that. Really? When all is said and done, how can Martino and de Boer -- from such diverse soccer backgrounds, Martino an Argentine who played as an attacking midfielder, De Boer a Dutch defender -- turn out, according to the Atlanta yardsticks, to be almost the same person? How likely is that?
I have used the word disappointing, and it is certainly that to see Atlanta, having just emphatically and most excitingly proved that a Latin coach and the Latin game can flourish in MLS, lose its nerve and revert to a trustworthy but standard European coach. Disappointing yes, but it strikes deeper. The hiring of de Boer smacks of betrayal.