The Will to Win- A Tale of Two Games

Even The Soccer Yoda takes a vacation now and then, but I am back and two particular games that have been played in the last couple weeks stand out to me as examples of how the desire to win manifests itself in soccer and how, unfortunately,  sometimes it doesn’t.

The United States national men’s team rode an 11 game winning streak into Sarajevo to battle a Bosnian team that was on a 9 game win streak itself. Now, lets be honest, this was a friendly, an exhibition, a game which had no effect other than to each teams pride and possibly to some movement in FIFA’s national team ranking- which is notoriously inaccurate yet referred to often as a measure of strength among teams representing their countries. Bosnia stood proudly at number 13 on the list while the USA was 19. How the teams got there , though, told a story that indicated a wide gap in comparative ability level. The Bosnians have been playing in their World Cup qualifying group and leading it. Their results include a convincing 3-1 win over Greece, a team which can be very good on occasion. While the Americans have had a series of good results in their group also, world soccer common sense says that teams like Greece and Slovakia are much stronger than Honduras or Jamaica. Recently the US had a strong showing in the Gold Cup, but again this was against supposedly weak competition and many of the teams, including the USA, used second string lineups. The Bosnians were not using a second team and they were playing at home where they would want to showcase their new-found strength. Meanwhile, the Americans were short of players toiling in the MLS at home which included Oscar Gonzales, a defender who performed well in the spring qualifiers and ( much more notably) Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Dempsey had just moved to the Seattle Sounders from Tottenham, which greatly increased his pocketbook if not his reputation as a world class player. In addition, the last time the Americans played a European first string that was leading it’s World Cup qualifying group, Belgium whipped up on the Red White and Blue 4-2. So everything indicated that the Americans were in for a tough time.

In the first half those indications were born out, The Bosnians showed a high level of control and poise while the Americans looked nervous and perhaps out of their league. A giveaway by Eddie Johnson, who was playing as a wide midfielder in Klinsman’s 4-2-3-1 setup created a bad situation for the American defense and Edin Dzeko found a way to put the ball past Tim Howard and into the goal. Later in the half the Bosnians scored again and the game appeared over. However, there were a couple of indicators all was not settled. One was Josie Altidore. The Bosnian defense was having a tough time dealing with him and resorted to knocking him around as their only means of coping. This produced a free kick near their goal which Altidore took ,brimming with confidence. He barely missed but a sharp observer would have noticed that he wanted that kick and was very disappointed that he missed. The other indicator was that toward the end of the half, the game turned as the USA settled down so that at halftime there was some optimism that the second half could be different; but being down 2-0 in international soccer typically means defeat.

Michael Bradley played well, as usual.

Michael Bradley played well, as usual.

At the half, coach Klinsman made an important tactical change. He took Eddie Johnson and put him up front with Altidore. Johnson had a very strong Gold Cup as a forward and perhaps his threat would give Altidore more room to work. When the second half began, the play of the Americans indicated that they didn’t think the matter was settled even if most observers and apparently, the Bosnians ,thought otherwise. The Bosnians made a couple changes at the half, but the players brought on were not a big step down. Sure enough, only 10 minutes into the half, Michael Bradley found Altidore running with some space. Josie showed great skill and composure by settling the ball and slipping it to Johnson who was all alone since Altidore has drawn the defense. Eddie calmly put the ball into an open goal and it was a new game. Only 4 minutes later Altidore again got the ball close to the Bosnian goal. But, unlike the first half, he had some space to beat his defender.He took a wide touch, did a half turn and fired a left-footed rocket into the far corner of the goal. The game was even, the USA was proving something to the spectators both in the stadium and on TV, and Jurgen Klinsman – again- was looking like a genius. The Bosnians attempted to take back control but the American defense, consisting of players who had not played together before, was learning on the run. Late in the game ,Altidore gained another direct kick near the Bosnian goal. Again, he immediately indicated that he was going to take it, again he struck it with confidence and then we found out why he was so confident…the ball just cleared the wall and curled into the upper near corner of the net. A world-class free kick from a world-class forward. Amazingly enough, the Americans still weren’t done and just a couple minutes later Bradly ran 30 yds through open space and slipped the ball to Altidore who couldn’t miss. The Bosnians did get a late late goal to make the last couple minutes interesting, but overall the shocked crowd was treated to a display of the increasing competitiveness of the USA team and of their will to win even when they appeared to be overmatched and the game appeared to be over.

Altidore taking his goal-scoring free kick

Altidore taking his goal-scoring free kick

On the other hand……yesterday Manchester United played Chelsea in the seasons first BIG English Premier League matchup. Both teams had won their games leading up to this one and with both teams having new coaches, it seemed to be a great opportunity for those leaders to establish themselves. Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho has a team that simply cannot play “Chelsea football”. The traditional strong speedy forward or two combined with the rock-solid defense so typical of past Chelsea teams has been replaced by a myriad of midfield-types. Good control, some tricky dribbling ,good passing….the Blues have over a dozen of these guys and just spent $50 million on Willian, one who is just like the other ones. So Mourinho is installing a more possession oriented style and while showing flashes of quality, overall the team has looked uncomfortable with holding the ball and looking for support. Meanwhile Manchester United, the defending champions showed that Robin van Persie is a great offensive threat ( which everybody knows) in defeating Swansea 4-0 in their opener. But , if it is possible to look bad while winning by such a margin, they did it. David Moyes is their new coach, replacing Sir Alex Ferguson who coached the Red Devils for 27 years. His job is to change nothing and keep winning. The lack of activity on the transfer market so far indicates that he has the “change nothing” part down , yesterdays game should have been his chance to show that  the “keep winning” part is also in good hands.

Both teams displayed patience on offense and numbers on defense. This is typical at the beginning of games and especially when two new coaches are facing each other, attempting to see what the other guy is doing before committing to a course of action. The problem is that the “feeling out” period never seemed to end. Neither team truly went on the offensive, neither team was willing to sacrifice a defender to go forward to help, both seemed content to sit back. Chelsea didn’t even start with a forward, using Andre Schurrle as a fake forward ( known as a false nine to the soccer world). Messi plays the same role for Barcelona. Schurrle is not a Messi, and the rest of Chelsea isn’t a Barcelona. While the defensive nature of the Blues might be excused given their new style, what about Man U? Yes, they hoped that Van Persie could work some magic and Wayne Rooney played like he 1) really wanted to win 2) really wants to stay with United and not go elsewhere (like Chelsea). But unfortunately Rooney was the exception. As the television commentator explained in exasperation,” neither side is willing to take a chance to win”. Any American viewer new to the game, tuning in to see what the fuss is all about, is still wondering. Some 0-0 draws can be exciting. Teams attempting to find ways through the defense, keepers making fabulous saves, shots just missing or hitting the woodwork…. this had none of that. Look, when the biggest moment of the game is an appeal for a questionable handball, the game just stinks. As representatives of arguably the best league in the world, Chelsea and Manchester United increased the arguing yesterday. The Soccer Yoda cannot imagine Real Madrid and Barca, or Bayern Munich and Dortmund putting on such a display. The game last night was a disservice to the GAME, as well as to the respective teams.

The most exciting moment of the Chelsea- Manchester United game

The most exciting moment of the Chelsea- Manchester United game

When one compares the two games, the difference really stands out. Yes, Chelsea and Manchester were playing the standings game, each gaining a point which might make a difference next May. The USA- Bosnia game had nothing at stake except pride. But , that’s the rub, isn’t it? The friendly could have easily been played for a draw, who would care? The match up between rivals at the top of a important league had much more at stake. So, they played scared? Two new coaches had a chance to show themselves. Well, neutral soccer fans and certainly fans of the teams themselves have to hope that what they saw was not indicative of the future. As for fans of the USA, the will to win, shown by the both the coach and the players gives great hope for the future and especially for next year in Brazil.

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