DP Indicts MLS Over Hard Truths on Soft TacticsNew Montreal Impact DP Marco Di Vaio suggests MLS needs a tactical overhaul
by Ken Sweda | Wednesday, July 18, 2012
The recent acquisition of aging Italian star Marco Di Vaio by the Montreal Impact, the first DP signing of their inaugural MLS season, represented a fairly typical move for the league. If slightly less well-known than many previous foreign Designated Players, Di Vaio was still in the same mold—a former standout, past his prime, but with some tread left on the tires.
What was different, however, were the recent comments Di Vaio recently shared with noted Italian sports publication Gazzetta Dello Sport.
In the interview, Di Vaio noted a lack of tactical sophistication in MLS, and suggested that this side of the game needed improving if the league wanted to move forward.
Said Di Vaio: “In MLS the players are real animals, and they run like crazy. But tactically they have to improve. To make the jump in quality the league needs other European players, but especially coaches that can bring different ideas.”
It’s something I and others who struggle with the limitations of MLS have been saying for ages.
Fundamentally, MLS was founded on the “kick and chase” ethos of the entire North American developmental philosophy. Physically mature players are moved up the chain more readily than technically sound and tactically astute players. The need to win – as the only measure of success for a less-than-sophisticated soccer population – forces those decisions literally as early as the first traveling club ages (U8) in many cases. The issue is further exacerbated through the rest of the club experience and into high school and college ranks as the focus on producing winning teams, instead of skilled players, becomes entrenched.
MLS survives, and, it must be said, thrives (at least financially speaking) with this kind of player. Indeed, the spending limits and compulsion to produce parity requires the continued reliance on these players and reinforces the system that produces them.
What Di Vaio has quickly noticed and expressed mere weeks into his experience here is commendable for its honesty and bravery. I don’t recall David Beckham ever uttering such words. The only player who has come close has been Rafa Marquez at RBNY, disruptive and ham-handed as his attempts may have been. His teammate Thierry Henry has had moments of exasperation as well, but he has been somewhat better about understanding the reasons and trying to live with them.
So the reality is that the majority of MLS teams generally can’t play more sophisticated soccer if the bulk of their player pool were never trained that way. The majority of players who make it to college on a scholarship, and then get drafted into the league, are the very kind of players that were promoted through the levels more often for their physical qualities, toughness and attitude.
As to the details of Di Vaio’s comments on MLS players being “real animals” that “run like crazy”, he’s exactly right. But in what way and why is this important? Let’s just say these are backhanded compliments at best.
Take a look at the words he uses in the context of his general message; he is describing players that are not versed in the nuances of the game. They’ve always “won” this way, and been rewarded for it. There is no impetus for change – certainly not in a league that relies on them simply because that’s all it wants to shell out for.
American attacking players generally use one quality to the exclusion of many others: pace. Not change of pace, as in a Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, but pure pace, as in Robbie Findley or Robbie Rogers (note to Jurgen Klinsmann: stay away from players named Robbie) And yes, I realize both Robbies are now playing in England, but ask yourself how many ball masters England has produced beyond Paul Scholes and Joe Cole lately. England suffers from many of the same issues that we do in our developmental philosophy. Indeed, it was England who introduced them to us in the first wave of English coaches who came in the late 60’s and early 70’s.
Why do we produce so many attacking players with pace and little else? Again, because those players generally never had to be responsible for learning anything else, and instead were praised for it by producing winning soccer over less physically-gifted opponents. Consequently they don’t have the ball mastery skills to vary their individual approach and as a result, the tactical options of the team, full of similar players, become severely limited as Di Vaio has duly noted.
On the other side of the ball, why are individual defending players so quick to pursue attackers and flash in for a potential steal? Why are buildups so easy to identify and negate? In individual battles the defender knows the attacker will falter under pressure, as they lack the simple, composed ball-management skills needed to maintain possession. Beginning at the youngest ages, we teach players not to “fly in” or “dive in” at the ball, but merely to hold their ground (first, second and third defenders are taught their roles as follows: pressure, cover, balance.) And yet, MLS players and teams break these rules on a regular basis because they can get away with it. In group buildup play, as limited as it is in MLS (long flighted or through balls being the chosen route), the patterns are simple but still not well-executed, and they are easily defeated by simple aggressive (not clever) defending.
And the thing that reinforces all of this is the idea of the counterattack. So many fundamental mistakes happen in MLS that the counterattack becomes the predominant weapon. Balls are easily won and lost, launching endless counterattacks, each at an increasingly uncontrolled pace.
Perhaps the biggest and most relevant example of what Di Vaio is getting at is Andrea Pirlo, Di Vaio’s countryman and a mythical figure in club and international soccer for the last 15 years. At the recent Euros, even at age 33, he reminded the world of his wizardry. His talents are exceptional, but they fall into a category that other nations are able to produce because they value it, look for it, train for it and appreciate it – he is simply near the top of the heap. In the US, those players usually find their way onto another heap: the scrap heap.
What else makes Pirlo exceptional, however? He may well be among the slowest players on the planet.
He is not an animal and doesn’t run around like crazy. And yet, how often do players take a flyer at him in an attempt to win the ball? Almost never, because he can control the ball with aggravating ease and knows exactly what to do with it next. Technical superiority, tactical genius.
There is a Spanish term for what a player like this gives his team: “La Pausa”. American youth players, and, by extension, many American professional players that find their way into MLS, generally don’t have any notion of what this is. The idea of “the pause” is the antithesis of continual roughshod running. Often times in America, the players treat everything in soccer like it has to be done immediately and at 100 mph. They don’t understand the idea of letting the game breathe, of letting a better tactical option reveal itself. These things go hand-in-hand, however, and again are self-referential and self-fulfilling. Without better skill and tactical awareness, pausing for a different option that usually never comes is meaningless, so off again we go to the races. It is this cycle that reveals itself in individual games, as the back-and-forth, tactically shallow play that we often see in MLS. But the cycle is broader than that. It is the very cycle of poor training, misguided focus and misidentification of talent that is broken.
Di Vaio is right in another regard: the need for more sophisticated coaching. Only coaches familiar with this mindset of “footballer” over athlete, coaches who have devised systems and training methods around them, can move the game forward in MLS. While there are a few outliers such as Jason Kreis, Caleb Porter, and yes, perhaps even Eric Wynalda, the hordes of recycled coaches who only know the North American way are holding the game back.
So how can we break the self-defeating cycle we find ourselves in? By attacking it at both ends. MLS needs to raise its level of expectation and responsibility to the development of the game. With this comes the necessity of offering a reason and a place for better technical and tactical players to come (read: show them the money, and back off the marketing-driven, summer carnival, foreign-retiree/vacationer approach.)
On the other side, youth coaches need to dispense with the team-focus and “winning first” mentality, and really commit to a development-driven, player-production attitude. If the result is that we start producing players whose talents are surplus to MLS’s requirements, then so be it. Maybe that will be the thing that finally makes MLS realize the issue it has. Di Vaio’s comments should be heard and reckoned with, certainly, but hearing (and finally acknowledging) similar comments from within our own coaching community truly cannot be ignored, or we will know that willful ignorance is at play.