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.

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.