Sunday, March 24, 2013

Give Em Something to Talk About

I loved Brian Straus's terrific story for Sporting News on dissension within the U.S. men's national team regarding Jurgen Klinsmann's leadership.  I loved it even as a huge fan of Klinsmann's philosophy and approach and a totally over-the-top, unfair, irrational critic of Bob Bradley's regime.

In substance, Straus's reporting communicated exactly what I want to hear:  the U.S. players are being challenged to be more than automatons meant to execute strategic orders.  They are, instead, professional footballers responsible for forming a cohesive whole based on a loose structure, their own aptitude, and creative chaos.

That this challenge is being made in the wake of former conservative management of tight control and preparation is all the more perfect.  Straus's narrative walks off the silver screen of the fictionalized account of Brian Clough's doomed attempt to replace Don Revie at Leeds.  After The Damn United establishes Revie's obsessive scouting and game preparation, the film portrays his former wards directly challenging Clough at Elland Road for his failure to brief them in advance of a match against Rangers.  Clough's response?

You're professional footballers.

Stop Stan Bowles.

That's all you need to know about QPR.

And I don't have justify myself to you . . . not how or when I conduct training . . .
Of course, things didn't exactly go swimmingly for Clough in West Yorkshire.  And there is a substantial risk that Klinsmann's revolution will leave the U.S. without an invitation to the party in Brazil. 

Straus's story ignited a national conversation.  Much of it is unhelpful -- it doesn't matter who talked or why they talked and, as Greg Seltzer notes, attacking Mr. Straus's journalistic integrity is completely inappropriate.  But all American soccer fans should be talking about the culture of domestic soccer.  Klinsmann, by both word and deed, is mounting a powerful challenge to conventional wisdom.  Let the kids play.  Let them have fun.  They'll figure it out.  It's ludicrously naive and impractical.  It's also thrilling.

You can get results by industry.  The athletic gifts and talent of the elite American footballer are enough to stay on the field with the globe's powers.  But discipline and execution do not create a platform for evolution.  Creation is reined in for the sake of cohesion.  It is also miserable to watch.

D.C. United drew over 17,000 for its opening home match against Real Salt Lake.  After managing a single goal in three matches played with a mind-numbingly tedious game plan of useless possession, only 11,000 showed up for home game number two against the Columbus Crew.   That's twenty percent below last year's average attendance during the regular season (13,846).  In fact, only three out of the seventeen home matches last season had less fans in the seats -- and everyone of those games was a midweek (Wednesday night) fixture.  I was out of town and could not attend, but found three takers in my absence.  The other four season tickets in our group went unused despite being offered to any taker gratis.

United supporters and the club can keep pretending that it is the decaying stadium, the weather, or a college basketball tournament that's keeping seats freely available, but the games have made for miserable viewing (whether live or on the television).  We can also continue to endure excuses about purported failures to execute, but that's not going to convince anyone that there is an interesting product at RFK.  It is particularly hard to argue against unleashing the talent on the roster when there is little functional difference between losing matches 2-1 or 2-0 and losing them 5-4 or 6-3.

We are, nevertheless, where we are.  U.S. soccer is rigid and mechanical.  Klinsmann's critique has not been met by supportive voices amongst the coaches of the MLS.

One of the other things that makes the story great is the identity of the person who penned it.  Because the story was authored by Brian Straus and not, say, Grant Wahl, the focus is more on football than on personalities.  It is not a gossip piece.  It is reporting.  And that bodes well for the future of the sport in this country as too much of what is written about the game is short on giving fans greater insight into what they are seeing or why things unfolded in a particular way on the pitch.

Well done Brian.  Good job out of you.  

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