Part 2: Soccer in the Balance

Last time, I explained my reasons for criticizing soccer as a sport that has failed to instill a balance between attacking and defensive play.

The result of that neglect is that soccer has become a sport with a decided tilt toward defensive dominance.

I dealt only with what I called the strategic level of the sport — the rarefied area of FIFA and IFAB, where the rules are laid down and are adjusted when necessary. From that impersonal atmosphere, we’ll now descend to the hustle and bustle of the playing field where we can find out what effect this pro-defense bias has on the people involved in game action — referees, coaches and players.

Of all the groups involved in soccer — from club owners through coaches and players to fans and journalists — I would rank referees as the group with the highest IQ. I have no back-up proof for that statement, it is an opinion formed from my own experience.

But, much to my disappointment, it is an opinion sorely tested by their attitude to this bias problem. I would hope that referee decisions would be relatively free of bias either way. That is not what we get. Far from softening the bias, the referees have significantly bolstered it by their insistence that whenever a referee has genuine doubt about a decision, he should resolve it by making the call in favor of the defenders.

Anyone in the USA who might have doubted such thinking was set right in November 2012 by Peter Walton, the English referee appointed to head the newly formed PRO (Professional Referees Organization). It was Walton’s first public appearance in the USA. Attempting to justify a poor call by one of his referees, he told TV viewers that it was unclear exactly what had happened in the incident, and that whenever there was genuine doubt “the benefit of the doubt would go to the defending team.”

Later, I asked Walton why that should be so, and got the same answer that I’d been getting for years from other referees, that it was “accepted practice.” Why that should be so, I have no idea. There is nothing in the rulebook that requires such thinking, and I have never found a referee who can reveal its origins to me. Referees, in fact, seem perfectly happy to enforce this custom without questioning whether it makes any sense or not.

This is curious. Can there be any doubt that referees, by siding with defensive play, are making a hefty contribution toward making soccer a low-scoring sport? Indeed, it seems to me that soccer is the lowest-scoring of all the major sports.

That is something that very definitely does impact the referee’s task. Low-scoring games (the most common 1-0 or 2-1 scorelines), are decided by a single goal margin. Referees — by allowing, or by not allowing, that single goal — will always be burdened by the thought that they will be accused of “deciding the game.” An accusation no referee cherishes and one that would be much less likely if a scoreline read 4-3 instead of 1-0. Same result, same single goal advantage, but a different game. A less onerous one for the referee, and a more exciting one for the spectators.

Time to hear from the coaches. By now it will be clear that Defense is the name of the game. Everything points the coach to the big D. He’s well aware that planning offensive play is not at all easy. But he can organize and chart his defense. And he quickly finds that the sport’s rules offer him considerable help on the defensive front, and referees regularly and reliably award him the benefit of doubt.

Those (myself included) who are critical of soccer coaches as too defense-oriented have to allow that the game’s rules and its referees facilitate, almost encourage, that approach. Attacking play and attacking players do not get much support from the rule book.

It can be no surprise then, that so many, virtually all, formations and systems have a heavily defensive flavor. Post-World War II, soccer formations have gone from 3-3-4 to 3-5-2, to formations that feature only one forward.

The withering away of attacking play is even worse than it looks. Those players who nowadays feature as forwards in the neat formations are quite likely to be something less than all-out attacking players. Their attacking spirit is now compromised by the thought of tracking back and the defensive responsibilities that have been added to their duties.

When the Brazilian goalscorer Giovane Elber joined the German club Bayern Munich in 1977, he was dismayed by what his new club expected of him. Asked to define his new role, he replied tartly “Defensive striker.”

To end this dissertation on balance, I want to humanize the topic, to reduce it to the personal skill that every athlete needs. To reduce it, in fact, to just one player. England’s Stanley Matthews. This was the man who, in the 1940s, first sparked my interest in soccer.

An out-and-out forward, a winger mostly, known for his ability to bamboozle opponents with his dazzling dribbling. I had never seen him play, but I was intrigued by the descriptions of his exploits and by the black-and-white photos of him dancing away with the ball, leaving a befuddled defender — sometimes more than one — stretched out on the ground. Luckily for me, Matthews’ career was a long one (he played First Division soccer until he was age 50) so I was to get plenty of opportunities to study his skills.

I decided that his secret was simply his amazing balance. Well, it wasn’t a secret, of course, everyone could see it ... but there was something magical about it.

How could one believe it? But there he was, Matthews, with the ball at his feet, tapping it forward and leaning to his right as he neared an opponent ... leaning to his right  ... leaning more to his right ... then impossibly more  ... until he must simply fall over . . . but Stan never even stumbled. His superb balance kept him on his feet. Then, in a flash his body was upright and there he was, moving off — to his left now. And — those early photos hadn’t lied —there sprawling on the grass lay a thoroughly bewildered opponent.

And these were good, experienced defenders who knew about Matthews, who knew what to expect. In 1956 it was the turn of Nilton Santos, dumped on the Wembley turf by the 42-year-old Matthews. Two years later Santos was part of Brazil’s World Cup winning team.

Matthews made it all look too easy. Made it look unfair, even. He made the point: If attacking skill is to assert an advantage it has to be almost impossibly good. There was only one Matthews — the other lesser mortals were, still are, hindered by the sport’s pro-defense bias.

Simply because soccer is a game where an individual’s ability to keep their balance is repeatedly under challenge. Forwards, particularly, when dribbling, or changing direction suddenly, or avoiding tackles are always likely to be off-balance. Most tackles are made against such a swiftly moving, off-balance target. It doesn’t take much contact to bring such a target to earth. Something to bear in mind next time you hear a TV commentator (who always seem to be ex-defenders — more bias?) condemn a forward for “going down too easily.”

No doubt a good deal more can be said on the topic of balance. But I don’t think there’s anything to alter the situation that I have been describing. That soccer has adopted — whether by choice or default is irrelevant — a pro-defense approach. A position that cannot be justified, one that by seriously reducing goalscoring has an adverse effect on the game, making it less exciting and less entertaining.

Part 1Soccer in the Balance

28 comments about "Part 2: Soccer in the Balance".
  1. frank schoon, September 17, 2022 at 4:34 p.m.

    Soccer has adopted a pro-defense attitude because those coaches involved in soccer lack attacking imagination. Do you think if all coaches who had been great players ,a la Pele, a la Cruyff,etc  would have made soccer more of a defensive game?
    What I"m saying is that coaches who never played or have some playing experience or have been former defenders which seems to be the case with most of the coaches tend to be more organizational oriented, team oriented, very conservative, don't take risk and want their players show lots of fight and sweat.

    Look at the American experience,  the large majority of youth coaches youth  defender types if they played, not creative ,don't take risk types. Their focus is on TEAM soccer , not on Individuality. Have you ever heard terms yelled along the sidelines from the coaches , 'get rid of the ball, one-touch it, don't be a ballhog, pass it, don't try to be fancy'. NEVER, EVER, were the youth confronted in my street soccer days with garbage like that. It was all about technique and beating your opponent employing technical skills; FORTUNATELY we didn't have coaches in the streets , not even at Ajax, yelling at us trying to stop our creativity. Coaches at Ajax were former players who like a kid showing his stuff ,even if it was overdone, inefficient at that moment, for they remembered when they were young doing the same thing.

    Instead,today we have licensed youth coaches who know the game (LOL), who try to teach the youth to be EFFICIENT in their passing and movement. In other words they try to bring how the professionals play, all the theories and dogma of how soccer should be played an then apply as much as possible to the youth. That was never done in my days, especially, playing street soccer where it was about YOU, the ball, and your opponent and forgot about all Team oriented garbage and organiziation. The kids were free to EXPERIMENT, copying other ,better players. 

    Street soccer was TOTALLY set up for the youth to become as good as possible as an individual. But  today, that stage is skipped, and the youth immediately follows team concepts. Our youth are never given the chance to grow as an Individual resulting later on to lack of offense.
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  2. frank schoon, September 17, 2022 at 5:07 p.m.

    PG mentioned Stanley Matthews, the best English player ever. He was a WING. To me the wing position is the most exciting position. Cruyff stated all the great 1v1 action, begins at the flanks by wings. Look at all the exciting players that played wing over the years. Cruyff states that he would always play with WINGS, that's a must. Watch some clips on youtube,of the Brazilian ,Antonee of Ajax who's now at ManUtd. Watch Garrincha, Jimmy Johnstone, George Best, Piet Keizer, Cruyff, Rensenbrink, Dzajic, Figo, Ronaldo,  and many, many more...Why do we see so few wingers today when at one time there were so many of them...

    It began with coaches who wanted to play 4-4-2 a defensive system, instead of 433. Two strikers up front and foam on the mouth outside halfbacks to do the jobs of a wing. This is one of the main reason why there are less and less wingers, DEFENSIVE COACHES, who are more concerned about stopping goals, rather than making goals. 

    WINGERS are the LIFEBLOOD of ATTACKING, OFFENSIVE soccer.!!!! Why??? They are SPACE CREATORS first. They force the backline to spread out horizontally, creating space for attacking midfielders. They create space when they beat an opponent 1v1, forcing another opponent to leave his position, forcing the backline to shift and most importantly once the winger beats his opponent he creates a 1v2 situation, next.  It follows than the wing once he beats his opponent, leaves as result his teammate #9 in a 1v1 situation and according to Ajax philosphy of play the front line must be capable of beating the defender in 1v1 situation.

    The wing position is so important to good offensive soccer. How come we don't have in Developmental Academies for our youth ,a SCHOOL for WINGERS!!!  Then hire retired players who played wing to teach. Realize when having learned to play wing, it can also be stepping stone to other positions. Look at Beckenbauer who began as a wing, the as midfielder and ended up as greatest libero ever...If he started as libero first ,he would never have achieved what he has become. 

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  3. frank schoon, September 17, 2022 at 6:33 p.m.

    Youth coaches today, have no clue about former greats and how it can tie in with their players' abilities. The way a youth moves with the ball, my mind Rolodex of wingers can associate right way what kind of winger he reminds me of and what we could work on. With that mind a coach could suggest for the youth to try certain moves , DEMONSTRATE them , let him watch  youtube of the player(s). But you have to realize the youth coaches many aren't even familiar with the wingers of yesteryear. This is why at the coaching academy they need have a course on wingers of the past and present , what was their specialty with the ball, how he moved with the ball, etc...In other words a 'history of wingers' needs to be taught.

    Cruyff once mentioned that licensed coaches are an anathema to youth development, they impede creativity, and individuality. Licensed coaches are not necessary to development of youth most even have difficulty demonstrating technique and I don't mean simple inside of the foot pass.

    Soccer association should not be hiring coaches who were former defenders, with all due respect they are more useful when youth reach the age of  about 16 or so. Up to that time coaches should be former attackers, creative players. It is much easier to teach defense than individuality with the ball and high level skills. OFFENSE should be first and foremost. Always play with wingers. 

    As coach, you want to raise the confidence of the players and that is NOT by telling them to get rid of the ball, but instead tell to take your man on, don''t be afraid to put it between his legs and don't worry if it doesn't work but it try again later. Confidence must be build and that is let your player(s) know you support their creative effort even if it fails. He might look at you and you smile and tell him to try it again, next time. This is something that is missing in player development that kids in the street soccer never worried about failure. 

    If you look at players today, they rather would pass the ball off and feel more comfortable that way, for no mistake was made, but as a result over the years of their development they lack creativity and will power to want to dominate. Look at a George Best, or David Ginola, notice how superior they feel to their opponent when having the ball

  4. Ben Myers, September 18, 2022 at 2:31 p.m.

    There are two major problems in the US regarding player development.  Maybe more, but let me focus on two.  Kids in this country are not encouraged to dribble well, exactly as Frank says.

    Just as important, finishing skills are taught poorly.  It's all well and good for kids to see how to shoot when the ball is stationary, but how often does that happen in a match?  PKs, free kicks and corners, that's about it. Otherwise, players need to learn how to take a shot on goal when the ball is moving, either at their feet on the dribble (back to lack of dribbling skills again!) or when served up from various angles, cutbacks, balls played square across the box, early balls, and receiving with back to the goal, either volleyed or trap to place the ball for a shot.

    Getting back to dead ball situations, yes there are proven ways to help players learn to place a dead ball well, and, these too, need their own emphasis in the development of players. It bothers me no end to see a highly paid EPL or Champions League pro hit an absolutely awful corner or free kick. Sharp focus is absolutely essential in findinmg the best spot to contact on the ball, and these require a disciplined approach and regular practice by those who want to become highly competent at it. 

    Many results oriented club and academy coaches stifle this development in favor of team-oriented coaching to organize well defensively.

    How easy is teaching defense?  Over 30 years, I have rarely spent more that 10% of a training session on defensive technique, unhampered by win-at-all-cost club soccer. 

  5. frank schoon replied, September 18, 2022 at 3:17 p.m.

    Ben, what kid goes home and wants to practice defense,LOL, at home, instead of working with the ball. You're right I didn't spend much time on defense either. As I remember ,I would tell them when they are young is not to run like a crazy man towards the opponent with the ball, unless he's got his back facing you and needs to turn, then don't give him time. As they got older, I told them as you approach a player first look behind you so that you always block a passing lane to an opponent behind you. How often do you see our guys on the NT even do that.It is all about moving a few feet to the left or right ,forwards or backwards to stop a pass. 

    There is so much more a youth has to learn when it comes to the ball....How often have you seen
    an attacker positioned wide open standing just outside of penalty facing the goal and his teammate is on the same line to his right. The ball is passed on the ground and he immediately shoots with his right and the ball travel high in the air over the goal, because he kicks it with  leftinside of his instep....The problem is that players have difficulty shooting a ball that comes square to him...They never positioned ahead for that pass.

    How 'bout volley shots going every which way but to the goal.... My nephew who played for the Ajax C-team which is two steps below the A-team, was practicing volleyshots that after the first bounce , as it comes down, you kick the ball on the instep or right below the highest part of the instep, in a way that the ball would dip under the crossbar. 

  6. Mark Landefeld, September 18, 2022 at 6:26 p.m.

    A moment for defense that begins with the ethic to "hunt the ball" -- which I belive started with Ajax.  That is defensive behavior IN SUPPORT of attacking behavior the get the requisite possession of the ball. 

    "Parking the bus" is larely detestable and is not affirming of getting tha ball to attack, but if you want more creative, attacking play, expand the practical attacking area -- do away with offside. That structural rule does more to inhibit attacking play than anything else.  If you can't do away with it, we could experiement with lacrosse-type limits on numbers in the attacking half (which was also a girls basketball rule decades ago).  Or a blue-line rule like hockey instead of offside.  The Cambrdige Rules did not anticpate the numbers in defense we now see.  We need some environments for experimentation!

  7. Richard Crow, September 18, 2022 at 6:58 p.m.

    Teams that play a 0-0 match in league games or during group play in a tournament should receive zero points instead of one. Score a goal, or a few and your team is guaranteed a point if the game ends up in draw. Essentially a 0-0 draw would be as bad as a loss because your team receives a deserved punishment for not scoring. 


    The beauty of 0-0 = Zero points is that it the laws (rules) can be left intact, while only the positive incentives for scoring and negative consequences for not scoring change. It seems logical that if coaches need attacking players to get points, the need to develop such players could ripple throughout all levels of the game. 


    Why is there no worldwide movement zero points for zero goals? Why is there not even a serious discussion among fans, coaches, players and other stakeholders in the game? This initiative would be so easy to implement.

  8. Kevin Leahy, September 18, 2022 at 11:13 p.m.

    It is sad to see coaches that choke the life out of the game. Tuchel comes to mind along with Marsch. They make it so difficult to play it's joyless. It takes special players or coaches to unlock these teams. Referees that view the game from a defensive point of view are no better. Watch how many teams where, every player on the field is so compact there is, more open real estate than covered real estate. It is ugly and shows no creativity!

  9. frank schoon replied, September 19, 2022 at 7:44 a.m.

    Kevin, you're being way too nice to these types.....What scares me that there are AMERICAN youth coaches who admire these two...

  10. R2 Dad, September 19, 2022 at 12:21 a.m.

    I always find it interesting that youth coaches don't often stipulate the type of soccer their teams are to play. Either you're going to be a possession-style team, or counter-attacking, in order to take advantage of the players you have. I'm not a huge fan of youth teams parking the bus and counterattacking, but it can be very effective given your team's shortcomings, in, say, tournament play. I just wouldn't want my child's team playing that way.

  11. frank schoon replied, September 19, 2022 at 7:51 a.m.

    R2, notice how these coaches talk in terms of ball possession style, counter-attacking and other 'professional' concepts to kids. This is why I say these licenced youth coaches are teaching professional type of dogma, game theries to kids who are at a totally different stage of development than a professional...

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, September 19, 2022 at 3:59 p.m.

    Yeah Frank. I call it focusing on team tactics instead of fundamentals. Sacrificing player development for team development just to win meaningless youth matches. 

    Once a player is past the prime time for motor skill development they will never catch up to players who surpassed them in their ball skills. So many parents (and coaches who should know better) mistake early puberty for athletic talent. How can someone be a youth coach and not understand physical and mental development?

  13. frank schoon replied, September 19, 2022 at 4:36 p.m.

    Bob, Ajax like Barcelona when it comes to youth development, winning is not important with the youth , but LEARNING , learning how to play well, making yourself ready to play for the top. Whereas here winning beating other teams is a sign of success and, unfortunately many judge that  to as a good coach....this,unfortunately, is the problem with our player development. Everything successful is somehow cued in by team success....

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, September 19, 2022 at 4:46 p.m.

    Frank, I found watching a few Ajax and Barca 7v7 youth matches very instructive. Some of the children were moving much better than the adults I had played with. And I am not belittling the adults!

  15. frank schoon replied, September 19, 2022 at 7:25 p.m.

    Bob, enjoy. Bergkamp when he was vs Jonk

    1 tegen 1: Wim Jonk vs Dennis Bergkamp - YouTube

  16. Bob Ashpole replied, September 20, 2022 at 7:32 p.m.

    LOL. Proof that soccer is an attacking game.

  17. Donald Lee, September 19, 2022 at 10:30 a.m.

    A. Few players can develop the skills of Pele or Cruyff. Anyone can learn to defend if your athletic enough.   It is just easier to defend than attack.

    B. This fact is what makes soccer so great. It is what makes it the beautiful game.  Only in soccer is it soooo hard to score.  Goals matter.  In the 1st minute or the 94th minute.  Goals matter.  This is only because the game is so defensive oriented.  



  18. Bob Ashpole replied, September 19, 2022 at 4:12 p.m.

    I respectfully disagree. IMO it is coaches that are defensive oriented not the game and certainly not players. It is the adults that teach players to be afraid of failure. They destroy creativity and confidence at the same time.

    US conventional coaching wisdom is wrong in its approach. It divides up the game into 4 "moments" and divides the teams into attacking and defending blocks. A coach or player cannot appreciate positional play with that hoary viewpoint as a starting premise.  

    In the most fundamental sense positional play is tactical quicker because the team never takes time to "transition" between the non-existent "phases". The phases are limitations from thinking inside a box.

  19. Philip Carragher, September 19, 2022 at 11:52 a.m.

    One good reason for youth coaches to play less D and play more offense is because the risks of getting scored on are so low, even on breakaways. Most kids can't finish. Plus, it opens the game up for both teams. You'll get more offensive opportunities as will your opponent. A win-win.

  20. beautiful game replied, September 19, 2022 at 1:16 p.m.

    Best observation in this blog PC

  21. Bob Ashpole replied, September 19, 2022 at 4:42 p.m.

    While I like where your head is at, we see the game and development entirely differently. The entire team should be always playing offense and defense. 

    The way I managed matches for U-Littles was to use a high pressure zone defense to win the ball and attack directly using combination passing. This reinforced fundamentals.

    Your reference to "less D and more offense" I think is comparable to my adjusting the line of confrontation. By delaying confrontation, my team would win the ball in the middle third rather than the final third. The opposite result from raising the line of confrontation. I would never instruct players to deliberately play poorly. I see no development advantage to it. I would adjust conditions, but the players were still expected to play good soccer.

    My objective in adjusting the line of confrontation was to open up the field enough so that my team would have opportunities to create, deny, and exploit space. I don't see any development benefit from promoting an end-to-end track race of a match.

    None of this is cut and dried because both teams are substituting players constantly. So the dynamics of play change alot. My players would be rotated through 2-3 different lines each game. (My way of similating interchange between lines.)

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, September 19, 2022 at 4:42 p.m.

    While I like where your head is at, we see the game and development entirely differently. The entire team should be always playing offense and defense. 

    The way I managed matches for U-Littles was to use a high pressure zone defense to win the ball and attack directly using combination passing. This reinforced fundamentals.

    Your reference to "less D and more offense" I think is comparable to my adjusting the line of confrontation. By delaying confrontation, my team would win the ball in the middle third rather than the final third. The opposite result from raising the line of confrontation. I would never instruct players to deliberately play poorly. I see no development advantage to it. I would adjust conditions, but the players were still expected to play good soccer.

    My objective in adjusting the line of confrontation was to open up the field enough so that my team would have opportunities to create, deny, and exploit space. I don't see any development benefit from promoting an end-to-end track race of a match.

    None of this is cut and dried because both teams are substituting players constantly. So the dynamics of play change alot. My players would be rotated through 2-3 different lines each game. (My way of similating interchange between lines.)

  23. Philip Carragher, September 20, 2022 at 10:07 a.m.

    Thanks Bob. Great information. Whether I'm coaching rec, travel, or school soccer, the beginning point is whether they can keep the ball and that often requires keeping the shape. Most of my game instruction is telling defenders to push up, past some point that most coaches tell them not to cross. By doing so, they become part of the shape and support that aids our primary team goal of maintaining possession.

  24. Bob Ashpole replied, September 20, 2022 at 7:28 p.m.

    Nice. Staying more compact than typical is a hallmark of Dutch Style principles of play. It is good soccer.

  25. humble 1, September 21, 2022 at 3:25 p.m.

    To be fair to youth coaches, it is very difficutl to develop players when you coach more than one team.  You have 40 to 50 players if you have two teams, many youth clubs give more than two and a coach could have 75 or even 100 players for whom he/she is the only soccer coach and 100% of these players development is supposed to happen with that one coach. Please.  Not possible. Most soccer here is, using Franks term, turbo soccer, win the ball and go forward.  There really is no thought given to defense, beyond the assignment of the three or four or five players that will play defense.  This is not a defense oriented context.  That we have very little free play or playground soccer, before kids play organized soccer is the largest contributor to the lack of creativity.  It is harder to master dribbling a soccer ball than it is a basketball, then the pitch being larger and having more players gives more options so there are more movements to master in dribbling a soccer ball.  Would you put your kid on a basketball team if he/she did not know how to dribble?  When you did put your kid on the basketball team, would you expect your kid to leran to shot at practice, or should they practice shooting the ball on their own at home a bit too?  This is the same for soccer, striking the ball is like shooting a basketball.  Your best friend is the wall.  Lots of good comments above, I cannot agree that the context here is defensive, since all I have ever seen in 10 years of my son playing soccer for defensive work is assigning the defenders.  I've rarely see them work on defense, expecting a brief period where there was a Mexican coach, who actually trained the kids on the positions they played, often critiquing players in front of their peers, not always being even in his critiques, on Monday's after weekend games, and the parents all complained!!!   Ha ha!  This is the way it is here. Developign a real soccer player is done not in this system, rather, in-spite-of the system.   

  26. Bob Ashpole replied, September 21, 2022 at 8:05 p.m.

    At the beginning of the player development process it is a lot simpler. Mainly because you don't need individual training plans. At the fundamental stage, one plan fits all. In execution you have to tailor things to fit the individual players, but that is fairly easy using the popular small sided groups approach. I liked having assistants for each group, but I could handle 3 groups if I had to. You design the exercises to do the teaching for you. Keep the pyschology working for you (positive reinforcement). The team sizes I dealt with (11-a-side) were about 17-18 players. If you are coaching rec, than you never really leave the fundamental stage.

  27. Richard Crow, September 21, 2022 at 4:14 p.m.

    No one commented on my suggestion that 0-0 draws result in zero points for each team instead of one. I always enjoy reading SA posts about player development and approaches to playing, but I think it's also important to discuss changes to the point system that will reward attacking play and discourage park-the-bus approaches. I'm sure zero points for zero goals would alter how players are currently trained and selected. Since 0-0 scorelines will continue to disappont fans, 0-0 = zero points can always be brought up (and hopefully pursued) at another time.

  28. Steve Rustige replied, September 21, 2022 at 5:47 p.m.

    Richard, I think your idea is great - a simple way to encourage more offense without having to change the laws.  The other point I would make for youth development is having smaller fields and smaller sides.  I think we are there now, but this only started a dozen or so years ago.  Great comments all around!

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