A VIEW FROM THE FORT: Growing Pains; Would It Be Best To Bite The Bullet And Make Do With What We’ve Got? Plus An Interview With Matt Reis.
Posted by tonybiscaia on June 23, 2009
By Jim Dow
What a difference a day makes, particularly if it is 1.) The first day of summer, 2.) Father’s Day, 3.) An unlikely second round Confederations Cup qualification for the U.S. Nats and, best of all, 4.) A full scale, come from behind thumping of the louts from the lake by what amounted to, in the end, the Baby Revs.
Up to Sunday morning it was time to bury the US National Team, or at least not to praise them; against Italy they showed early promise but finished stupid and slow, against Brazil, they just sucked. Full marks to Harkes and Lalas for going ballistic, their generation was nowhere near as talented, nor as rich, but they gave it all they had and then some.
During the first two matches against Italy and Brazil they just gave it away and the players, plus the coach, were shamed. The vaunted Euro players got an average 4.1 rating against Brazil while their supposedly poor MLS brothers merited a close 3.75 and question was, money aside, what is the competitive merit in riding the pine in Portugal or Spain for the big money vs. playing every day in the States? Do Bornstein, Kljestan and Wynne have more chances to grow and mature as footballers than Adu, Altidore and Fielhaber; generally speaking, an emphatic yes. Certainly many of the best U.S. players talent wise are cashing their checks in Euros but would they be better players by being the go to guys, constantly being called upon here in MLS as opposed to being marginal in Europe? I, for one, think so, or at least that was the wisdom gleaned before the gringos thrashed the Pharaohs and set up a Wednesday one off against, gulp, Spain. On the other hand, imagine how Gooch’s stock may rise if he manages to shut out the rampant rubio, Fernando Torres.
When I discovered that Shalrie Joseph was in New York this past week getting his U.S. citizenship while Bradley’s underachievers were getting their clocks cleaned in Pretoria, I set to wondering what might have happened if the Revolution tyro was playing where Clark, Kljestan and Feilhaber were performing their particular 2009 brand of incompetence. The score might have been respectable, if not better than that. Clint Dempsey may be a regular starter at a reasonable Premiership side but is he really any better at the international level than he was in 2006, even with his significant but one-off fine performance against Egypt. Great players bring it every day, no matter the opposition. Certainly he faces some of the best teams and individuals in the world on a weekly basis while playing for Fulham and, at least, he is a regular starter but many of the Euro based Nats perform only intermittently for and against teams that aren’t that much better than the top sides here in the States. Think Belgium, Denmark and Sweden for starters. Atrophy to entropy might both be applied to the current situation and while money talks, lack of serious playing time does as well. Time is fleeting and sitting on the bench does no one any good, other than in the wallet.
Maybe, just maybe Sunil Gulati will justify one of his paychecks (in full disclosure, he may be a great lecturer at Columbia), bite the bullet and bring in Klinsman to run a reality check on some of the fat headed Yanks and get them back to being the hungry scramblers of the Harkes and Lalas days, but with more ability and better chances to succeed. What we have now is often an embarrassment and really requires more consistency to be taken seriously. The question is, can Bradley manage to sustain the intensity and quality of performance required for this group of players to fulfill whatever their collective potential may be? Three matches, one flawed, one a horror and one good aren’t enough at this point to keep the National side’s fortunes on the uptick.
With all this in mind I rewound the tape of last season’s game vs. Santos Laguna who happed to be playing in Foxborough this past Sunday for a rematch of last year’s hotly contested SuperLiga opener. A look at the 2008 starting lineup was illuminating, given that the missing players for the 2009 rematch were Albright and Joseph (injured), Parkhurst (Denmark) and Smith (Red Bulls or God knows where). Everyone else was playing, to wit; Heaps, Igwe, Ralston, Larentowicz, Nyassi, Thompson, Phelan, Thompson, Mansally and Dube, plus new boys Alston, Barnes, Osei and Videra. And, funnily enough the quality of the passing, the urgency of play, the competitive bite and edge and, of course, the positive result of June 2008 was repeated and then some in 2009 and great fun in the bargain. Have the Revs really lost that much in 12 months, or is it a matter of complacency exacerbated by a leveling out, or maybe even backsliding for some, if not all of the younger players? I can’t be sure but it is there on the tape, the same players played really well in mid-June 2008 and they did it again now, with even more newbies and less veteran support, to a point where one has to wonder. The bottom line, just as it is with the national side, maybe a collective kick in the arse, an awakening to the fact that being good requires belief in same and constant consistency applied every week, in every match, i.e. professionalism.
To make it even more of a sticky wicket, there is absolutely no reason to believe that the upper echelon at Rev Central has the nous or the understanding to pony up the dosh to bring in anyone better than what we have now other than a currently trialing, long in the tooth Lithuanian legend. Further, on the one hand, it is clear that the New England team responds with heart and style when Twellman is in the lineup but it is also clear that he is possibly done, sadly, even tragically but a quite reasonable projection given the current circumstances. So what next, it may be that Dube has to do, although based on Sunday’s performance, both the goalazo and the holding up of the ball, he just might and perhaps even better if Mr. Jankauskas is playing next to him.
All this remains to be seen but the bottom line is for both the National and locals sides, intermittent flashes of competence, even brilliance are no longer enough. There needs to be a steely consistency against both the best and the lesser opposition for either team to be taken seriously. Sunday’s proceedings allowed fans of both sides a glimpse of what might be; the trick is to move that potential forward against an unlikely but tricky parlay, Spain and Kansas City.
One place where the 2009 Revolution seems to have reliable depth is in goal, between the sticks. When Matt Reis was down, earlier this year, Brad Knighton showed considerable potential and played well. While Reis has returned to assume his starting role and perform effectively, the competition between the two players, youngster and veteran, has been good for both and makes new England that much better at the back. For the past four seasons the Revolution number one has played his signature brand of “sweeper/keeper” behind a classic sweeper in Michael Parkhurst and the understanding between these two perennial All-Stars formed the spine of the terrific New England teams from 2005 through 2008 before the latter scampered off for a payday in Denmark, with an eye towards moving up.
So now, at the age of 34, the comedic Californian faces the task of getting used to an almost completely new backline, both in makeup and formation. While he has Chris Albright and Jay Heaps to help with the transition, playing behind new teammates, Kevin Alston, Darrius Barnes and Emmanuel Osei requires learning a whole new gamut of tendencies and habits and all under the pressure of a dog fight for a playoff spot.
I spoke with Reis after a Foxborough training session prior to the Santos Laguna SuperLiga match.
JIM: It seems that the team that the Revolution put on the field these days is made up of veterans and kids, with practically no mid-career players for leavening, perhaps a couple from time to time but mostly new or inexperienced guys. How does that affect you, particularly as the guy who has the entire team in front of him?
MATT: It’s inevitable, it’s going to happen, every day I get a little bit older and every year they keep on bringing younger and younger kids in, so in this situation you have to deal with the mistakes and you have to learn from them and, hopefully, we’re making (the) big mistakes on the practice field when we are playing 11 v. 11 and that, in games you’re going to have to learn from different situations and, hopefully, it only takes once to learn from that. With as many young kids as we have now we have to get out there and learn on the fly and hopefully that’s going to help us in the long run getting these guys a lot of situations and a lot of experience.
JIM: My observation, which may be completely wrong, from watching all sorts of different professional sports but particularly soccer, is that as you become older and more experienced the mistakes tend to become physical ones, not mental, something just happens, a bad bounce, a slip, whatever and it happens to everyone but with the younger players it seems to be more mental lapses, not covering, not switching, not reading their teammates.
MATT: Well, a lot of it (is) when you are younger, your legs are there, maybe as a kid you’ve been faster than everybody else, so mentally you don’t have to be in the exact right spot, you can be a little bit off but your youth and exuberance makes up for it whereas as you get older, you get into those better spots because you’ve been in all those situations, you get into those better spots and you don’t have to do as much work. In goalkeeping that is especially true, you see it with these young guys who can just fly around, it doesn’t hurt them that much hitting the ground anymore and then they are having to make spectacular saves where a guy like Pat Onstad, who has played for so many years really doesn’t have to dive all that much because he is always in such a good spot and he doesn’t really dive out of the way and he doesn’t have to fly as much, so I think it is true, you have more mental mistakes for the younger kids but it is just all a matter of learning and getting guys into those game situations. You can recreate it as much as much as you can here (on the training field) but it’s not always going to be the same.
JIM: With a team like the 2009 Revolution, where you now have players from all points of the globe and we may have more and with a distinctly MLS culture in the style and physicality of the game as played in the league, I’ve noticed that Emmanuel Osei, for example, seems to play with a quality of being right at the edge of what might be called or carded, he gives as good as he gets and perhaps a little more, is there a learning curve for people who come here in terms of the way the game is played here and is refereed here?
MATT: Absolutely…every league is unique and MLS is definitely unique in the fact that it is usually played at a high rate of speed and is usually kind of helter skelter going (forward) as fast as you can get the ball forward and let’s try and go as fast as you can, (there) isn’t really that much passing and possession and keeping the ball, I think a lot of it is more a hundred miles an hour so guys have to realize that and it is very physical and there is a lot of bumping and hitting and grabbing and stuff off the ball. And people (coming in) they do realize that and you see it with a lot of foreigners that maybe they don’t fit in so well because they’re not expecting that when they come here. In terms of the referees, yeah, it’s an adventure, every game is an adventure and sometimes the call is a foul, sometimes it’s not, sometimes that same call is a yellow card, sometimes not, sometimes that same foul is a red card and sometimes it’s not, so you really have to kind of take it with a grain of salt, the more you look into it, the more you let it affect you the worse off you are as a player, so you’ve just got to know that that could happen and you’ve just got to kind of roll with the punches.
JIM: On a different subject, I don’t know if you remember the Champions League final this year, they changed the ball just before the final…
MATT: They do it all the time…
JIM: What the hell is going on?
MATT: You’ll have to talk to the marketing people about that, I know, they did it in our final two years ago, yeah you get a (new) ball right before (the game), it is different, sure, it’s round. It is a ball it is the same exact thing but balls have different feels and touches, different coatings on them, sometimes they are faster, so it is different and you can see now in watching these games and everybody is saying, “oh, the goalie, what is he doing?” but if you watch the panels of the ball move and it is going back to forward and all of a sudden it switches and as a goalie it is all about weight and balance and as soon as your weight gets off you are unbalanced and it is hard to make a save, so we’ve all had them, last year I had one go through my hands against Chicago, the further out they hit it from them the more action the ball has on it. I think it is just to sell balls, so…
JIM: If you think of any other sport, changing the fundamental component before the biggest game of the year.
MATT: Basketball tried to do it with a different (design) of ball but they did it in the beginning of the season, just imagine them going into the (NBA) finals and switching the ball? Yeah, who knows, it’s always something, like (I said), you’ve just got to roll with it.
JIM: Now you are going to play for two and a half weeks in the SuperLiga and Open Cup, against Mexican, MLS and US1 teams. Now, as opposed to last year, where you came into the tournaments leading the league, you are facing a scramble for a playoff spot, how does that change long term planning. Plus, you’ve got all the injuries leaving you with maybe 13 or 14 guys who can play at this point.
MATT: No, that’s the big thing, even last year you could see how the SuperLiga affected us in terms of the whole squad. We had guys like (Chris) Tierney playing in his first games and Pat Phelan getting in a playing huge minutes and guys like that, Amaechi (Igwe), we had to lean on everybody, right now I don’t know how many guys we’ve got left to lean on, it’s a lot of games in a short amount of time, the games are always intense, when you are playing foreign competition there’s always a little bit more at stake…
JIM: And they were terrific games, last year’s SuperLiga…
MATT: Yes, absolutely, last year along with all the stuff off the field with trying to get those players that we thought we deserved for laying in the tournament, I think it took a huge toll on us and very much might happen again this year… It is all about managing minutes and managing players and making sure that we have something left in the tank to get a playoff spot.
JIM: We are standing here at the practice field, it is June, late June and it is 60 degrees but the heat is coming, inevitably, how does that effect you guys playing for two, maybe three months in everything from tropical to high desert conditions?
MATT: The other night in Kansas City it was actually kind of nice and kind of warm, I don’t know who I was talking to but I said this is the first time that we’ve really been into some warm weather (but) it does, it effects you, it just drains you quicker, you just have to maintain your hydration and make sure you take care of yourself off the field because when it gets into the 90’s and you’ve got the humidity coming up it makes it that much more difficult to come back and play again. We are playing these three games in a week, which is going to be tough in itself and if the heat starts coming up, I think in the next two or three months we have a ton of games and the Open Cup coming up, it is always a tough stretch and hopefully we are up to the task.
JIM: It is ironic that MLS is a high tempo league that plays a significant part of its’ schedule in semi-equatorial conditions for a third of the season and some of the teams play in hot weather pretty much all year.
MATT: It is, and that is a lot of the foreigners’ (difficulty), they don’t realize that either and the travel is a huge thing and the heat, you know, you’ve got to travel six hours, two or three time zones and you are playing a game in the middle of the day in Dallas and it’s 90 degrees or 100 degrees, so it definitely has it’s nuances and it is definitely an interesting league and an interesting dynamic, you’ve got tournaments in the middle of the season, you got a bunch of other stuff going on, but it’s a great job!