Good Soccer: I Know It When I See ItDefining good soccer might be even more elusive than getting a chance to see it
by Chris Enger | Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Sunday morning the twitterverse was in an agitated state when Alexi Lalas tweeted:
“A massive argument has broken out in our @ESPN soccer production meeting. Who plays ‘good soccer’ in @MLS?”
What followed were answers from Lalas’s podcast co-host Taylor Twellman, Best Soccer Show host Jared Dubois and of course a former US Mens National team player and current Fox Soccer host weighed in as well.
It was a semi spirited discussion (it’s difficult to get too heated when only using 140 characters), but the points were valid. The question remains and will always be present when discussing good soccer: how is it defined? Is good soccer simply winning or is there more to it?
What is consistent is that good soccer is defined differently by everyone. Best Soccer Show’s Jared Dubois gave my favorite answer:
“[Good soccer is defined by] whoever is at top of the table.”
He has a point.
Although Eric Wynalda followed up with Lalas, “people who are demanding entertainment could give a crap who actually wins – they paid to be “entertained” – no emotions attached.” It is an extremely rare occurrence watching RSL win ugly and hearing “I know we won, but I would prefer to look good losing than to play ugly winning.”
What has me really pondering these questions is the recent lack of form by the once hot Vancouver Whitecaps as well as some recent comments by Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando after their draw with Philadelphia last Friday.
I’m especially intrigued by the Whitecaps because of the comments by their former player and current coach/ambassador Carl Valentine, on their official blog on August 4th:
“Martin Rennie would like his team to win every game playing an attractive style of soccer, but that is not realistic. But what is attainable is to try and put in a performance every single match, to try and outwork the other team and give the fans a team they can be proud of.”
In a little over a month’s time, Vancouver has reshaped a once promising technical MLS team into a more physical themed side with an odd Scottish backbone. They gave up creative playmakers in Lee Nguyen, Davide Chiumiento, Sebastian Le Toux and Eric Hassli to make room for Scottish implants as well as Dane Richards (who is likely off to another league starting in 2013).
What was once a promising season for Vancouver looks to appear to have hit a major roadblock. The team is beginning to struggle as new pieces try and work together and a more physical side is implemented. Can the releases of the more technical players be the cause for this skid? Time will tell, but they haven’t looked like the same creative side that started the season, they stopped playing “good” soccer, and have stopped winning.
Over the last couple of months, Real Salt Lake has also hit a rough patch as far as their results show. A big part of that can be blamed on injuries and international call-ups, which stops RSL from playing their style of game, which many regard as attractive soccer.
Friday in Philadelphia, RSL was able to grind out a 0–0 result in what could only be described as a chippy affair. During a postgame interview on NBC Sports, Nick Rimando said these ominously cynical words:
“We need to start playing the soccer we know how to play, again it’s hard when the boys feel it a little in the legs and we can’t play that attractive soccer that we want to play, we battled and sometimes it’s ugly.”
Even though his team grinded out a difficult result, Rimando was able to differentiate from the style of soccer they’re accustomed to playing versus the style they played Friday night.
It brings us back to the original question, what is good soccer?
In the immortal words of William Jefferson Clinton, “it depends what the definition of ‘is’ is.” What’s the definition of good? Is it only winning games, or the overall package?
Critics of poor play were vocal when Colorado won the MLS Cup in 2010, but their fans couldn’t care less. Look at them now though, after another year of playing “bad” soccer and this time losing soccer as well, they have a mostly revamped coaching staff and lineup and are still struggling while stating their intention at the beginning of the season to play good soccer.
It is so easy to take the discussion out of Major League Soccer and look internationally. The English couldn’t care less how their local clubs play. All they want is to win and that’s the style that is permeating all leagues at the moment.
Surely you get the occasional clubs like Arsenal and Swansea City, teams which are known for playing the game how it is supposed to be played, but Liverpool will be a great measuring stick to see how much leeway fans in England give coaches wanting to implement what many would define as “good soccer.”
In Spain, fans show their resentment to teams who do not play good soccer, even showing disdain for their own teams if the team isn’t playing how they feel they should be.
Did Chelsea fans feel like their club didn’t play good soccer as they waltzed defensively through to a Champions League title? Universally Chelsea was criticized for “parking the bus,” but that group of players will be immortalized in London nonetheless.
Ultimately, good soccer is in the eye of the beholder. Paul Gardner’s definition won’t be the same as Alexi Lalas’s opinion and that’s a good thought. Hundreds of millions of viewers will catch the big matches internationally and each of them will see the match differently. It’s the beauty of the sport.
By the end of the day before he was called to do his duties on ESPN, Alexi tweeted out this gem, “the argument is over. Seems ‘good soccer’ is like pornography, can’t define it but know it when you see it.” And most of the time, it would seem good soccer is defined as who is winning.
Do soccer fans have to choose one over the other when it comes to “good” soccer or winning? Of course not. In fact, teams who truly implement what critics would describe as good soccer, short one-touch passing with possession, creativity and attacking flair - eventually see more wins than losses. The offense becomes the best defense. Most fans of soccer would agree that Barcelona, RSL and Swansea play soccer attractively while New England and Stoke do not.
I believe “good” soccer can be the combination of skillful play that would coincide with winning when done with the right players and the right system. Anything else should be considered bad soccer, but that’s just my opinion.