Sunshine and I agree about a lot of things with regard to football, but we disagree about a lot of things too. That probably provides a good deal of the entertainment value of this page, to the extent that it has any. One thing that is certainly true is that we have very different temperaments. Regular readers will have guessed that sunshine is very much a Red Queen, “off with their heads” sort of fellow. Now, admittedly, I did send him a text in the later stages of the Cal FC match that went something like “everyone involved in this event [I didn’t use quite such polite terms] should be executed,” but that was really just the heat of the moment.
In fact, I am a much more forgiving sort of person. It didn’t take me long after the match to start feeling for the players a bit. Clearly, that was not a very good performance, and the player ratings that I doled out a couple of days ago reflect that. I stand by those ratings 100%, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have sympathy for those involved.
First of all, I think it should be said that Cal FC’s players and coaching staff deserve a full measure of credit for the result. In the vast majority of cases in which lower level teams defeat those from leagues several steps higher, it is because the lower level side comes in with a definite plan, sticks to it, and plays good football. This is what Cal FC did the other night. They pressed very high on the pitch, making it very difficult for the Timbers to play out of defense and not allowing them to develop and passing rhythm. More importantly, they came to the game with the mindset that they were going to boss things in midfield, and that is exactly what they did. Every time Chará, or Nagbe, or Alhassan got the ball anywhere near the center circle, they were immediately confronted in numbers by Cal FC’s midfielders.
It is worth noting that our guys abetted this strategy in a number of ways. First of all, although Kris Boyd was about a foot taller than anyone guarding him, the wide players repeatedly put in crosses that were headed away before they got anywhere near him. Secondly, when under heavy pressure in midfield, it is vital to move the ball quickly. High tempo passing causes the defense to have to constantly reorient itself and keeps opposing defenders running and thus expending energy. With apologies for a slightly inappropriate comparison, I will say that anyone who has watched Barcelona play in the last few years will have noted to the effect of this approach. This interesting thing is that it’s not terribly important that the passes be incisive or even positive in most instances, although in the case of Barcelona the quality of the athletes that they have on staff means that they very often are. Rather, there is value to just moving the ball for its own sake.
I’m reminded in this context of a match that I watched between South Korea and Portugal in the 2002 World Cup. Portugal was, as you might expect, heavily favored, but the Koreans managed to hang with them. (As a caveat I will note that the Portuguese had Pinto sent off with a straight red for a grim tackle on Park Ji-sung about half way through the first half). Anyway, the primary commentator (it was an American but I forget who) was going on and about how amazing it was that the Koreans were making such a good showing. After about twenty minutes, the color commentator Tommy Smyth cut in and said, “Look, these Korean lads can play a bit of football.”
This was meant as a big complement, and so it was. This was a northern European football pundit giving (well deserved) props to the Koreans for having shown that they understood something fundamental about the game: if you pass quickly, move positively, and play with belief, you can often negate the superior skills and physical talents of your opposition. And, in fact, South Korea went on to win that match…and then to beat Italy and Spain in the knock out rounds.
The difference in talent levels between Korea and Portugal was not quite that between the Timbers and Cal FC. True, with the exception of Seol Ki-hyeon (who played for Anderlecht), South Korea’s players were all drawn from their own domestic league, which was (and is) not up to the quality of sides like Lazio, Real Madrid, and Internazionale, from with the Portuguese were drawn. Still, these guys were full on pros, playing in a very competitive professional league week in and week out. The real point here is that effort and approach count for a lot.
After that match, I heard several people calling for Spencer to be fired and replaced by Eric Wynalda. With all due respect to the latter and to the efforts of the side that he put out on the night, I haven’t really seen anything that would convince me that he (Wynalda) has what it takes to be a week in and week out manager in a real professional league. I think anybody who has watched Warren Barton repeatedly setting him straight on Fox Soccer will know what I mean. Moreover, although Portland really got caught with their pants down, I tend to be kind of skeptical about the positive effects of replacing the manager.
Sometimes it is clear that a manager has to go, either because they are making absurdly bad decisions or because they have lost the dressing room. I don’t know that this is what has happened here. I think that this was more about the jaded approach taken by the playing staff. You can look at that and say, well, the manager should have had them up for this. Ultimately, these guys are professional footballers. They need to be able to do the job without getting the Knut Rockne treatment night in and night out.
I’d like to think that this match is a one off, and that it will be the kind of mortifying event that will galvanize this team. They will have a long time to think about this and to focus on getting it right the next time. Spencer needs to convey the following message. That was a horrible, humiliating experience for players and for fans. Somebody has to pay for that. That somebody needs to be the LA Galaxy. More on this later.