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Looking for art in United States soccer

By web

Section: Sports

September 2, 2011

Speaking of British middleweight Herol Graham, trainer Eddie Shaw once quipped, “He has turned defensive boxing into a poetic art. Trouble is, nobody ever knocked anybody out with a poem.” Surely, Muhammad Ali would disagree; the champ made a habit of composing poetry to mock his opponents (“This kid’s got a left, this kid’s got a right / If he hit you once, you’re asleep for the night”), and who can argue with his record of success? Graham himself recorded 28 knockouts en route to a 48-6 lifetime record, so perhaps Eddie Shaw underestimated the punch of a well-constructed couplet.

Shaw was correct, however, in drawing a connection between boxing and art—one which he could have extended to any sporting event. Michael Jordan changed the game of basketball, not just because he dominated, but because he looked good while doing it. He drove to the basket with the creativity of a master and we held our breath as he displayed another new technique to outwit the defender. Like a dancer, he used his body as a canvas, and the control and precision with which he wielded it would make Baryshnikov envious. His mighty slam dunk was an object of beauty; why else was each dunk replayed endlessly on ESPN, captivating the awestruck fan base that swelled as the NBA reached its height of popularity?

Yes, the average sports fan is an aesthete, though he may try to deny it. The Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz drew an 18.7 television rating in the 1998 NBA finals, in which Jordan won his final title; in comparison, the 2003 match-up between the San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets bottomed out at 5.2. The reason for the decline was easy to see—the dominant teams of the mid-2000s (particularly the Spurs and Detroit Pistons) valued defense and fundamentals, leading to games with slower pacing, less hang time and lower scoring. The NBA accordingly fell into a ratings doldrums, showing signs of life only now that the dominant superstars are Jordan-style slashers (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose) and passers who run quick offenses (Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Deron Williams).

It’s not only basketball that has seen this progression; as advanced statistics and computer models have revealed the hidden science of sport, the strategies they imply for success threaten to siphon the art from the games. The New Jersey Devils dominated the NHL from 1994 to 2004 with the neutral zone trap, which won three Stanley Cups and five division titles but slowed the game so much that the league almost went bankrupt. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees play four-hour games as their OBP-conscious hitters take pitch after pitch, wearing out pitchers’ arms and viewers’ patience.

Perhaps this is the curse of sports in the 21st century. The real competition, for the eyes, hearts and pocketbooks of the public, has moved off the field and into the office. On one side are the general managers and coaches, who strive to discover the formula for success, turning each game into a variation of the same optimally-successful but predictable and boring chess match. Opposing them are the league administrators, who alter rulebooks to encourage more offense, or merely to introduce a new variable that the ever-quicker computers have yet to account for. We’re already taking steps down this path; both the NHL and the NBA came out of their slumps only after changing some long-standing rules. This vision of the future is bleak for sports fans, and if one thing about it is certain, it is that this new competition allows for no poems.

There is at least one sport in which artistry and success still exist side-by-side and “skill” and “creativity” are used almost interchangeably. The reigning champions of international and club soccer, Spain and FC Barcelona, share more than a country of origin—they also employ the same basic strategy of quick passing, deliberate attack, and lots of ball and player movement called “tiki-taka.” Tiki-taka emphasizes action, dispensing with cautious, back-and-forth long balls in favor of rapid team play designed to confuse the defense. But it also allows for individual freedom. It expects players to shift position in response to the gradual evolution of an attack and when its greatest executor, Barcelona forward Lionel Messi, has an open pitch and a full head of steam, he becomes as dangerous and exciting as Michael Jordan ever was. The name “tiki-taka” comes from the sound of a ball quickly passing from boot to boot; Arsenal manager Arsène Wagner has described it as “football that is like art.”

Unfortunately, fans of tiki-taka would find little to like in the recent play of the U.S. national team—just as little, in fact, that fans of the team would find in its recent results. In the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. needed a last-minute goal against unimposing Algeria to advance out of its weak first-round group. The team was promptly eliminated by Ghana in the round of 16. Facing only North American competition in the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the team dropped an inexcusable match to Panama, looked listless as it dragged its way through inferior opponents to the final, and surrendered four consecutive goals to give the trophy to rival Mexico. As a U.S. supporter, I found it infuriating to watch these matches. The team was prone to silly mistakes and its offense was stale and ineffective. Midfielders rarely joined the attack, and forwards would take the path of least resistance by working the ball to the corners of the pitch, then sending high crosses into the box that the more numerous defenders would inevitably clear to safety. Fans called for the removal of manager Bob Bradley, and I heartily agreed.

To soccer die-hards, practitioners of cautious play, or “anti-football,” deserve a special place in Hell. Because of the uniquely vast dimensions of a soccer pitch, defensive-minded teams force their opponents to cover large amounts of territory every time the ball is cleared, making the game dreadfully slow. At the same time, the defensive team lacks the manpower away from their goal to launch even a feeble attack of their own. The result is a boring game, either ending in a scoreless tie or decided by a single mistake—the kind of unsatisfying results that Americans use to caricature the sport. Defensive strategies do have their time and place; I’ll never forget the David-slays-Goliath tie that Trinidad and Tobago earned against Sweden in the 2006 Cup by dropping all their players to their own end, and North Korea played a surprisingly close Cup match against superpower Brazil in 2010. These were both inferior teams, however, for whom playing defensively was the only conceivable path to victory. In general, accusing a team of playing “anti-football” is just as insulting as accusing it of playing poorly.

Against teams like Algeria and Panama, the United States should aim for more than the coin flip of defensive play. Our national team has incredible physical skill—we can run and jump with any team in the world. What we lack is the creativity and artistry that players from Spain and Brazil possess, the skills that are developed by playing in elite soccer academies from childhood. They are required for success at the highest level of the sport, and we can never hope to succeed at that level without a manager who is committed to developing that dimension of the team. Perhaps we don’t have the skill to institute a full tiki-taka system, but when we completely abandon artistic soccer, we effectively abandon soccer in general.

After the Gold Cup debacle, the U.S. Soccer Federation had seen enough to agree. Bob Bradley was dismissed from his position on July 28, replaced by former star player and German national manager Jürgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann led Germany to a third-place finish in the 2006 Cup; promisingly, he wants to focus on building the U.S. youth soccer system and closing the talent gap that begins at a young age. The team’s first test under the new regime came Aug. 10 in an international friendly against Mexico. Despite the support of 30,000 fans in Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, the United States picked up exactly where it left off, playing bland football and allowing Mexico to control the possession and the tempo. Mexican striker Oribe Peralta scored a tremendous goal in the 17th minute, wrapping his leg around a defender to bury a cross from Andrés Guardado. By halftime, I found myself making excuses for the team (“It’s not our full squad” or “It’s Klinsmann’s first game”) and abandoning my wild dreams of a quick fix to a deep-seeded problem.

Around the 60th minute, however, the tide began to turn. Spurred on by the energy of young substitutes Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo, the United States began taking the game to the Mexican end, controlling the ball and finding holes in the tired Mexican defense. In the 73rd minute, Shea took the ball off a throw-in, cut to the Mexican end-line, then threaded a pass through three defenders that found winger Robbie Rogers with yards of open net. Nobody celebrated the goal more eagerly than Jürgen Klinsmann, who leaped and pumped both fists; clearly, this was no ordinary off-season exhibition. The States continued to attack for the rest of the game, sending several excellent chances just wide of the net. The final score was 1-1 but it represented a decisive moral victory to me.

The team will continue its slate of friendlies against lesser competition, playing Costa Rica in California on Sept. 2, Belgium in Belgium on Sept. 6 and Ecuador in Connecticut on Oct. 12. While the results have no significance, I’ll be watching to see how the team plays and hoping for a continuation of the best-played half-hour of U.S. soccer in years. I’m very excited for the future of the team; Brek Shea looks like our next great star, and Klinsmann has the experience and vision to lead the United States into the top tier of international soccer. Perhaps an exhibition tie against a Mexican team resting several starters doesn’t qualify as “art,” but this beholder sees beauty in these first few tentative brushstrokes.

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