In my previous Soccerlens column, I touched on the quality of soccer/football in the top domestic US league called MLS (Major League Soccer). Clearly, the subject isn’t an entirely comfortable one for the fans of the league and most home grown American soccer fans do tend to follow it.
I follow it as well, sometimes with excitement, sometimes in bewilderment, occasionally in shame. While can provide glimpses of delightful football, it can also be the ugliest soccer on the planet.
But, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then what makes the American soccer such a frequently tepid affair? In this piece, I tend to touch on some contentious subjects that hopefully will stimulate further debate. I hope that I can be critical and fair without using the British tabloid dismissive of the 2007 LA Galaxy as a “pub team”.
Disclaimer One – These are generalities. There are indeed thumping shots, incisive passes and cheeky dribbles in the league. But an average player on an average day is what I am writing about.
Disclaimer Two – MLS is an extremely fast league, whose refereeing is usually very lax. That adds to the chaotic nature of the games. When faced against smaller, slower competitors with a lot more space on the pitch, MLS teams have been known to show reasonable brand of soccer. But this is about the MLS itself, not as it plays against other teams in various official and unofficial events.
And so, as it appears to a naked eye, these are some of the things that MLS teams don’t do as well as they should be done and as they are taught by the top tier European, African and South American teams.
Perhaps the most obvious personal failure of a general American soccer upbringing is its lack of emphasis on the work with the ball. That produces an appalling quality from even the experienced MLS players in their 20’s. Instead of being able to settle or trap the ball with one’s foot, chest, thigh or head, the ball ricochets five to ten yards away from the player and leaves him with few options from that moment on.
One may well continue from above. Simply put, the US doesn’t produce any dribblers worth a farthing. The only exception is Chicago Fire’s Justin Mapp. Ask a US forward – forget about a fullback or a winger – to take his marker off the dribble or turn him around for a shot in a tight space and you will likely to get a blank stare in return. Forget Cristiano Ronaldo’s blazing runs. Forget Gerd Müller’s “turn inside four men in a phone booth”. Forget Raul’s sidewinders. When the US forward gets into a one-on-one situation, he will do one thing more than others – he will pass back.
“He’ll do what?”, a football fan will shriek in horror. Pass back? Without a dribble? Without taking a shot?
And this brings us to –
Yes, another blank stare. The US players don’t shoot on goal. Maybe they can and choose not to. But they don’t. They – you guessed it – will pass back. In the 2006 World Cup, the US national team had three (!!!) shots on goal. Not in one half. Not in one match. In the entire tournament.
By comparison, I recall Louis Saha putting nine shots on goal all by himself in last year’s Manchester United Champions League match against FC Copenhagen. And that was before Alex Ferguson subbed him out of the game.
These statistics are not incidental. They are symptomatic of the US approach to the game.
Virtually regardless whether off the run of play or set pieces, American players have an amazing difficulty delivering a precise cross to a desired spot with pace and accuracy. The ironic part of this shortcoming is that MLS has perhaps the best crosser in the world in David Beckham. The gap between his serves and that of an average MLS “specialist” is a gap between a hot-dog vendor and a four-star restaurant in Paris.
Faced with what would be considered incompetence by any European league higher than pub, the MLS coaches reacted appropriately – they dumbed down their game plans, so a player without a dribbling/shooting/passing/crossing ability would fit right in.
The first thing they did was to make sure that each MLS player could run. And run they can. They can run fast and they can run long. They do it so well, it took AC Milan’s Carlo Ancelotti well into second half to figure out what to do with a trifling Chicago Fire squad during a friendly several summers ago because Milan was getting overrun on pure speed.
But the dumbing down of American soccer has negative effects. Players who end up auditioning with European clubs are often ridiculed for their tactical naivete.
And this is why:
On the whole, MLS passes are short and lateral and, if long and vertical, they are often off target. Most MLS coaches loathe long passes. If you saw them land in the fifth row, you would too. But slow lateral safe passes don’t exactly make a European scout salivate.
When one’s second option on every play is to pass the ball backward, most of the daring factor has been taken out of an MLS game. Sometimes this gets comical results when a forward retrieves the ball in the deep offensive zone toward, only to stop and pass it forty yards back to one of his fullbacks … who then promptly turns around and passes it back to his own goalkeeper. With his team trailing by two goals late in the game.
It doesn’t exist. When a player has the ball, his team mates make an eye contact and wait for a pass. Whoever is open gets that pass. Naturally, the only person open for a pass is behind the play. A tic-tac-toe movement that copies Arsenal or Brazil is not something that an MLS coach ever saw and liked.
You may see Tottenham or Everton go from a deep turnover near own penalty box to the other box in 8-10 seconds. A quick outlet pass from a defender to a midfielder that is followed by a long pass to a forward in space is virtually an unheard of practice in MLS. Often an MLS team will take half a minute to cross a half-field line … a top MLS team.
Switch of play
Another tactics that MLS teams simply don’t do. You often see players locked in a semi-circle make short passes into traffic while their teammate is open 40 yards away to no avail.
After reading all this, a reader may ask himself – but how do these guys score? I’ve seen the results on the Internet. MLS games don’t all end in scoreless draws.
And the simplest reply is that way too many MLS goals are scored off someone’s mistake. Often it’s mental – an inability to track a runner or to take a proper position. Sometimes, it’s physical – a bungled cross, a fumbled save, a typical garbage goal.
Of course, MLS is not all skill bereft. Its owners are importing an occasional quality player and nowadays some quality coaches. Better American players learn from these imports, be they Juan Pablo Angel, Guillermo Barros Schelotto or David Beckham. But the rank-n-file does not.
And the above factors often turn MLS into a gang that couldn’t shoot – or cross – straight.