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Sunday, June 27, 2010

U.S. fans, you’re free to resume hating soccer.

Wherein I give another exhausting look at the game I love.

So yeah, ratings aside, I’m sure, everyone rooting for the U.S. against Ghana just LOVES the game. A day after watching that madness, and after watching Germany dismantle my sluggish mates the Brits, I’m off the ledge. Watching the U.S. underscored what I said in my recent rant on why the game has trouble being adopted:

The way we play the game at an international level presents a different set of problems than the problems the sport in general faces in making it more acceptable at a grassroots level.

I won’t rehash the latter save for the mention of the bandwagon fans who will always get behind the U.S. against (insert country of choosing) in (insert sport of choosing). I believe the sport can actually withstand their temporary support every four years. Even if by chance we made it through to the finals and won? They would’ve cheered while the world wrote it off as a fluke, with hardcore fans cautious in their optimism, knowing that the U.S. game will have truly arrived when they can win at that level consistently every four years.

I was on Twitter joking after the game that I didn’t want to hear any soccer mom slash conciliatory speak that parents throw out to kids after a loss. Stuff like “That’s okay, you did your best—let’s go get ice cream.” I wasn’t trying to be harsh, rather, my point is that one of the ways you know a sport has arrived and been widely accepted among fans is the ability to level criticism at your team.

Pick a sport and any team in it, and its fans second-guess coaching decisions, draft picks and player salaries. We need to do that with soccer. If you think I’m off here, compare the *love* the U.K. is showing their boys with the apathy of U.S. media.

In other words, tough love, you sumbitches. So here’s mine:

We need to drastically change our style of play. I questioned if how we play the game as children is affecting our style all the way up to the national team. Not in terms of individual ability or footwork, but overall game strategy. I really think our approach is being affected by the mentality of the other sports America plays. Huh?

Shhh. Lemme explain.

Soccer is a not just a game of possession, but a game of creativity. You hear it often but what it really is a game of is choice and options which leads to creativity. While teams start from fixed formations like a 4-4-2 or 5-2-3, the combinations and player alignments that can develop out of those are insane, and often change by the second depending on the scenario a player finds himself in. E.g., if a forward has a teammate on either side of him, he has options. If he’s facing the goalie on a breakaway himself, the options become more about shot selection and location. And so on.

The rest of our sports though rely on repetition and consistency in their formations to work. It’s what teams drill on over and over and...

The pulling guard on a running play in the other football doesn’t suddenly decide he’s going to cut up field on his own. Baseball has a set of formations for dealing with different hitting scenarios. It’s the basis for the game: A single to right or double to left and the infield all know where they’re supposed to go, and so on. Creativity is not an option in these scenarios.

(Where I’ll grant that creativity comes in however, is with the role of the coach or manager and the various game decision scenarios they face. Bottom of the ninth, one man on, two out, lefty at the plate, etc., and who do I pitch, my money closer on three days rest or the guy who owns lefties with only one.)

Watch the game at the pro level versus any other sport and see how it’s very much a player’s game because the coach is almost silent. It’s in the players’ hands on the field because they know what they need to do and there’s nothing more he can do for them. Win-loss record aside, that’s the main thing I look at with coaches: How much they do or don’t yell.

Young multi-sport players are not used to nor are they encouraged to think for themselves because of the structure ingrained in them from other sports. This is in no small part due to coaches who don’t teach a creative or fluid approach to the game—because they themselves don’t think this way, either at the youth level or high school. I’ve often seen less progressive programs where the football or basketball coach is charged with coaching the soccer team.

The result? Unfortunately the same as what you still see at the rec, AYSO or travel level: fastest kids up front, big and slow back on D, with healthy dose of yelling at players to *stay* in their position.


All of that was the setup to what happened against Ghana. (I’m not saying we have the fattest kid back on D. These are all professionals in top condition at the height of their game. But if youth soccer is our farm team, our minor league for growing future talent so to speak, it’s relevant to the discussion.) As such, we came out in the first half with a predictable style of play. In the second half though?

Night and day as the team arguably played its best half of soccer in the tournament.

They were attacking in smaller formations with more players, and playing what I call small ball the way other teams do. (Short, clever through passes in small spaces to keep teams on their heels.) The first half was typical U.S. though: three players wide trying to pass the ball with precision from too far away. That’s fine when you’re Brazil and can handle the ball equally well in the air or on the ground.* But ya better control the ball. When precision’s out the door and you’re not on your game, three against six is futile.

To that point of doing the little things, the key to Donovan’s follow-up goal the game before wasn’t his speed—although it helped—it was goalie Tim Howard quickly reading the situation and throwing the ball wide to him. Big kicks by goalies look impressive on TV and in youth soccer, but the little stuff that alters the dynamic like catching a defense napping is often more effective. (Punting often results in loss of position on 50-50 balls between two players on the receiving end, and if you turn the ball over to a team that knows how to control it, you’re beating yourself.)

I liken our love for the big play in soccer to a baseball team always trying to win games with a home run each time up rather than winning by doing the little things like just getting hits. Early in the second half, we gave ourselves more of those *smaller* chances, but later on, fell back into old habits.

We need to play together more consistently. We can’t keep switching lineups every few months, let alone in games to *try and shake things up*. Ugh. We have no unity when we have no consistency, and you won’t get that treating the national team as an afterthought when player commitments to Major league Soccer or club play overseas takes precedent. This is a problem for a league and U.S. Soccer who, in their mind, see a greater good in MLS promoting the game here. I say define your greater good: Success at the international level, or growth among soccer moms.

We need a different coach. That’s less harsh than I mean it, because it almost goes hand in hand with the first idea up top, in that we need to change how we attack. I’m willing to watch Bob Bradley continue on as coach, if there can be more of what we saw in the second half Saturday. But the rest of the games though looked like Bruce Arena 2.0. Play it back, switch fields, lay off the attack, kill momentum, drive a deep ball in with nobody there to receive. Sound familiar?

As I went on ad nauseum about creativity, here’s where I wonder if an international coach wouldn’t be a different way to go to shake off some of those American sports cobwebs. Before you go no way, look at how many countries have foreign nationals from other countries coaching their teams. A lot.

Agree, disagree? Let me know. This is just one fan’s opinion.

Time to enjoy the rest of the World Cup free of American late-game desperation as I stick pins in my Maradona doll. As for Landon and the rest of the fellas, let’s go get ice cream and we’ll get those bitches in 2014, okay?


*Teams from countries that play on uneven or rocky, dry pitches are better able to handle errant passes or bounces because they’re used to them already from a young age. #Anecdotal factoid from Mr. Brazilian coach.

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