Mark the Calendar: We Agree with Paul Gardner

The veteran Soccer America scribe and Curmudgeon-in-Chief wrote an interesting column yesterday in which he republished a piece he’d written for the New York Times in 1976. He then drew an all-too-apt parallel between the contents of his 34-year-old article and the state of MLS today.

The 1976 piece (you can read both here) decried the physical style of the NASL, kicking off with a description of a New York Cosmos–Miami Toros game that was broadcast on national TV.

Viewers of that game, Gardner wrote,saw something that I—and, I am sure, the people who run the North American Soccer League—would rather they had not seen.”

“They saw Pele running full speed past the ball and launching himself at the legs of a Miami defender. An ugly and dangerous foul, one for which Pele should surely have been cautioned, if not ejected from the game.

Yet, had he been ordered off, travesty would have been added to tragedy because Pele’s assault was the almost inevitable climax to an afternoon in which he had been repeatedly kicked and knocked down. It was, in short, retaliation for almost 90 minutes of cynically brutal play by the Miami defenders, all of it taking place under the inexplicably lenient eye of referee Gordon Hill.”

Gardner went on to argue that the problem was one of imbalance: the Peles, George Bests, Rodney Marshes and Bobby Moores at the high end of the NASL skill spectrum caused the many more players at the low end to resort to rough play to keep up.

Major League Soccer doesn’t have exactly the same problem—Thierry Henry has scarcely been fouled during his time in the league, and the talent gap is not as great as it was in the NASL.

But given recent injuries to four of its most skillful players due to reckless tackles, the league does have a problem with physical play, as Gardner rightly points out.

Even the games this past Wednesday bore this out. There were no injuries, but all three matches—Los Angeles at Philadelphia, Toronto at FC Dallas, and San Jose at Vancouver—had a similar quality. They were hectic, edgy, and full of very athletic players high-pressuring one another all over the field.

The result, across the board, was a lack of sustained possession and flow, and a sense that the most skilled players were forever leaping and/or getting the ball of their feet quickly to avoid heavy tackles.

Or not avoiding them: Late in the first half of the Dallas-Toronto game, new Reds defender Richard Eckersley (on loan from rough-and-tumble Burnley) absolutely plowed into Dallas midfielder Brek Shea, with no chance, and seemingly no intention, of playing the ball.

We thought the body-block would yield a straight red, especially as Shea was slow to rise after the collision. Perhaps it would have if Shea had been seriously hurt (or embellished it, which brings up a corollary problem to this issue, but that’s another post).

But the lanky midfielder eventually got up, and Eckersley was shown a yellow. The ref would have been well within Don Garber‘s preseason mandate of protecting skill players—Shea was Dallas’s most effective offensive player on the night—if he had shown a red. And he should have.

This was just the most striking example of the physical play that held sway on Wednesday night. All three games had a little menace to them.

This is a real problem for MLS this year, and with four of its most spectator-friendly players already gone for all or most of the season, the league needs to take a more pro-active stance than simply handing out harsh, re-active suspensions for rough play.

MLS needs to work closely with its players, coaches, and—especially—its referees, to implement changes on this issue, and get all three factions to raise their collective game.

MLS Sees 60 Cards—Eight of them Red—In NHL-Style Week 4

After opening his column this morning with a nice account of how U.S.-based coaches Thomas Rongen, Bruce Arena, and Steve Nicol behaved like stand-up guys in the wake of recent losses, veteran Soccer America scribe Paul Gardner moves on to bemoan the “physical” style of MLS.

He writes that commissioner Don Garber’s preseason mandate for referees to protect skill players and encourage attacking soccer is not being adhered to:

“Even though I am in total agreement with what Garber is seeking–a more attack-oriented, goalscoring game–I remarked at the time that it would be difficult to get the referees to comply. And so far–17 games into the season–I’ve seen absolutely no convincing evidence of any change in referees’ attitudes.”

The odd thing about this—apart from it being entirely incorrect, down to the number of games played so far this season—is that Gardner clearly watched some MLS games this weekend.

From that experience, he should have noticed that referees have indeed changed their attitudes: Two weeks after issuing 40 cards in a weekend, they doled out 60 this time around, eight of them red.

They handed a penalty to D.C. striker Charlie Davies after he made a decisive move in the box and got a whisper of contact from L.A. defender Omar Gonzalez. They’re even dutifully using the spray paint to mark ten yards from the ball on free kicks, and making teams’ walls stay there, to the benefit of would-be goal-scorers. (They’re also the only refs—on the planet—currently using the spray paint, so far as we know.)

In short, they’re following Garber’s mandate pretty much to the letter. It’s the players who must now adjust to get the game closer to where the commish, and most fans, want it.

Click here to read our entire recap of a very edgy Week 4 in MLS.

MLS Roundup: El Pescadito Returns; Playoffs Revamped

On Tuesday, the Philadelphia Union announced the signing of well-traveled 31-year-old Guatemalan striker Carlos Ruiz, who had been training with the club in presesason.

Ruiz comes to Philly on loan from Greek club Aris, and if he can recapture even 50% of his 2002 form with the Los Angeles Galaxy, he’ll be great value for the Union.

That season, El Pescadito scored a blazing 24 goals in 26 regular-season games, then added an MLS playoff-record eight goals and two assists in the postseason to lead the Galaxy to the final against New England. LA won the title game 1-0 with Ruiz scoring the goal in overtime.

His MLS Cup–winner is not on the InterWebs for some reason (the Backpost intern couldn’t find it anyway), but here’s Ruiz scoring a hat-trick for the Galaxy in a 2008 exhibition against Shanghai, with the first one coming off an effortless, inch-perfect chip from David Beckham:

That was from Ruiz’s second stint with Los Angeles; his first one ended in 2005, after which he went to FC Dallas for three years.

His return to Los Angeles was hampered by a knee injury, and the Galaxy traded him to Toronto FC in August of 2008. The Reds released him at the end of that season, and he’s since had stints with Olimpia Asuncion of Paraguay, Mexican side Puebla, and Aris.

On Wednesday, MLS unveiled its expanded playoff format, which looks like this:

The top three teams in each conference will get automatic bids to the postseason, and then the next four best teams—regardless of conference affiliation—will play one-game, wild-card play-in matches (seven-seed vs ten; eight vs nine). The wild cards will then get re-seeded, if necessary, so that the lowest surviving seed meets the Supporters’ Shield winner (top overall seed) in the conference semifinals.

Got that?

As before, the conference semifinals will be home-and-away aggregate series, and the conference finals and MLS Cup will be one-game battles.

Many, many people have a huge problem with the new format and with the MLS playoffs in general. We don’t. Until MLS gets promotion-relegation (and perhaps another extra-league competition beyond the CONCACAF Champions League), playoffs are the way to go. Otherwise you risk loads of meaningless games late in the season.

Soccer America‘s Paul Gardner makes a nice case for what’s right and what’s wrong about the MLS playoffs right here.

We don’t often agree with Gardner—whose columns sometimes read like a series of “harrumph, harrumph harrumphs” to us—but we think he nailed it on this one, especially regarding the arbitrary geographic designations of the conferences.

Worried that an Eastern team might win the Western Conference title due to the quirky nature of the MLS playoffs? Rename the conferences, sans geography, and … problem solved.

In other MLS news, the league is reviewing the incident that got New England players Shalrie Joseph and Kevin Alston sent home from training camp last weekend. Apparently, Joseph was arrested for trespassing at the team hotel. Details remain scarce, but the plot thickens slightly.

Arena Defends Bradley; Gardner Bashes Both

Last week, Bruce Arena came out in defense of his old friend and former assistant Bob Bradley in the wake of Bradley’s contract saga with the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Among other things, Arena said that Bradley did not get the support he deserved from U.S. Soccer, and that the USMNT needs an American coach, someone “who understands the American way.”

He wrapped up his remarks with the following:

“Bob can put 11 players on the field as well as anyone and get the best out of them. I will tell you now: We are not winning the World Cup in 2014, whoever is in charge.

“People need to be realistic. The best thing [the critics] can do is shut up. A bunch of people get on the internet and start stirring things up and it snowballs. Just let him do his job.”

That last volley got to Soccer America writer Paul Gardner—who, by the way, was in the same recent U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame class as Arena.

Gardner rightly points out that, compared to national-team coaching jobs elsewhere in the world, the U.S. post is practically criticism-free. He then casts doubt on the need for an American coach of the USMNT, and takes Bradley to task for his evasive (and boring) style at press conferences.

But when he launches what is, as far as we can tell, his primary criticism of the Bradley regime, he stumbles.

Here it is: 

“Bradley, an intelligent man, must surely … see that if he doesn’t become a good deal more adventurous in his selection of players, then he will preside over another four-year span of average performances followed by a disappointing World Cup.”

Become a good deal more adventurous in his selection of players’—really, Paul? What does that mean?

Bradley looked at 92 players in his first four-year cycle. Which ones did he miss? 

Is there some vast untapped pipeline of U.S. talent out there? Please, do U.S. Soccer a favor and identify its whereabouts.

You want adventure? Bradley took Robbie Findley to South Africa (and got criticized for this outside-the-box, adventurous selection). He held the door open as long as possible for Charlie Davies and Jermaine Jones.

He also, at various times, called in Marcus Tracy, Frank Simek, and Jeremiah White (who is plying his trade in Poland right now).

He also stuck with—and got two good World Cup games out of—the much-maligned Jonathan Bornstein.

The default criticism here is that Hispanic-American players aren’t given enough of a look by U.S. Soccer. Bradley looked at Edgar Castillo, Alejandro BedoyaJose Francisco Torres, and Herculez Gomez this cycle, with the latter two making the trip to South Africa. Michael Orozco was called in for a 2008 qualifier.

No, we don’t think the conservative-player-selection charge holds water. Bradley did not leave a stone unturned.

It’s true that no coach is above criticism, and that Bradley tends to circle the wagons when facing the press.

It’s also true that he came in for more than his share of heat from the soccer nation before, during, and after the 2010 World Cup.

Grading the Games: Opening Weekend

The opening round of World Cup group play usually yields some cautious, tepid affairs, and this year has been no exception. While there have been a few lively encounters, most of what we’ve seen through eight games has been battened down, low-scoring, and cagey.

Let’s take a look (ratings on a scale of 1-10—with 10 being West-Germany-v-France, 1982 semifinals, and 1 being Germany-v-Austria, group play in that same tournament):

South Africa 1, Mexico 1

This was an excellent opener, with great atmosphere, wide-open attacking play, lots of chances, one great goal and one good one. And South Africa nearly stole it, hitting the post in the dying moments. Rating: 7

France 0, Uruguay 0

France started well, but then settled into a lifeless, ambition-free mode—a malaise, if you will—while overmatched Uruguay scrapped and scraped its way to a point. Rating: 3

South Korea 2, Greece 0

Did Greece really win Euro 2004? Or was that a collective nightmare of negative soccer that we all somehow shared? Wow, were they bad. Not to take anything away from Korea, but … Greece was terrible. Rating: 4

Argentina 1, Nigeria 0

Did anyone notice the Argentine bear-hug put on the would-be defender to Gabriel Heinze‘s wide-open header for this game’s only goal? The guy was simply wrapped up at the top of the six, giving Heinze free rein. This one opened up gradually; Nigeria keeper was huge. Rating: 5.

England 1, U.S. 1

The anvil-heavy weight of anticipation saddled this one with an almost surreal quality—just ask Robert Green. The U.S. nearly snatched a (somewhat unlikely) winner on Jozy Altidore’s powerful run. Tim Howard okay with Jabulani ball so far. Rating: 6.5

Slovenia 1, Algeria 0

This snoozefest featured the second Group C goalkeeping disgrace of the weekend: Algeria’s Fawzi Chaouchi waving—“volleyball-style” as Ruud Gullit put it—at Robert Koren’s soft shot to the far post. Was this really a World Cup game? Rating: 2

Ghana 1, Serbia 0

Ghana is a tough team to play against, as an experienced and rugged Serbian squad found out. The Black Stars are super athletic, and the way they closed this one out—and nearly made it 2-0 in stoppage time—should give the rest of Group D pause. Fashionable darkhorse Serbia now up against it with Germany calling on Friday. Rating: 6

Germany 4, Australia 0

We tried not to read too much into the U.S.’s 3-1 tuneup win over Australia last Saturday, but maybe we could have: Australia got thoroughly outclassed by Die Mannschaft yesterday—even before Tim Cahill‘s red, which leaves the Socceroos without their best player for the Ghana game. In other words, they’re done. Rating: 7

Average: 5.1

Goals per game: 1.6

Yes, the tournament is off to a slow start. But apart from nerves and general cautiousness, it turns out there’s a very specific reason for these “we’re playing not to lose” types of opening-round games: It’s Paul Gardner of Soccer America. Take it away, Paul:

“My guilt started four years ago, after the USA had lost 3-0 to the Czech Republic in its first game of the 2006 World Cup. I worked on the stats (this was brave of me, because stats tend to give me a headache) and discovered that of the 23 teams that had lost their first game in the previous two World Cups, only one had survived to get into the second round. In other words, the USA was as good as dead. 

“These were new stats, I do believe—certainly I hadn’t seen them before. But coaches being the slow-witted species that they are, failed to cotton on. I repeated the stats—now fortified by the 2006 results (36 losers, of whom only 3 qualified)—in this column 10 days ago—and now I find these dismal stats and percentages are all over the place. 
The news has even reached the hallowed ground of our ESPN experts. ….

“Sadly, it seems that the news has also reached the coaches. It is evidently now acknowledged that a tie in the first game is a good result; but whatever you do, don’t lose that game—or you’re out. ”

Click here for the full article, and take heart: The Netherlands got going today, and Brazil and Spain are still to come. The games are bound to get better.