The Revs Shut Down Atlas, Shouldn’t The Nats Have Done The Same? An Appraisal, plus An Interview with Michael Videira.
Posted by tonybiscaia on July 6, 2009
A VIEW FROM THE FORT
By Jim Dow
This past Sunday produced two absorbing soccer dramas; one acted out on the world stage, the other an international affair as well but with strictly local interest, or was it the other way around?
While the U.S. Nats were absorbing an emotionally cruel but likely invaluable lesson on a skanky pitch in Johannesburg Stevie Nicol’s Baby Revs gave their youthful Atlas opposites an educated tutorial in how to milk a lead, resist provocation and run the clock out, something that their new-to-prime-time international betters were unfortunately unable to bring off.
When one looks at either game objectively neither result was much of a surprise; the difficulties were, as they should be, in the unfolding of the matches themselves. Any soccer pundit worth their unblended Scotch will tell you that a two-nil lead is the hardest to defend and being one up with 50-plus minutes to play isn’t a whole lot easier but if you look at the four teams involved in the two contests, the particulars come sharply into focus.
Against Spain the United States were distinctly superior on three counts; foot speed at forward, challenging for and winning loose balls in the midfield and an almost complete dominance in the air in their own eighteen-yard box. All this, plus Tim Howard’s excellent goal-keeping and distribution meant that the number one side in the world could ping the ball around as pretty as they might but that any and all penetrating balls or runs were blunted by superbly efficient U.S. heading and tackling. So, given a couple of timely and well-taken goals, the result wasn’t really as huge an upset as it seemed, since the increasingly confident U.S. defenders consistently stymied the stylish Spaniards, not at their own game but with an assertive, even creative physicality that was completely missing in the last World Cup other than in the draw against Italy. Spain had the bulk of the ball but if there were a FIFA statistic exists for threatening possession the numbers would have been far closer, Spain really was beautifully blunted.
Against Brazil, even in an historic first half featuring the attacking speed of Altidore and Donovan that put the giant Brazilian backliners on their heels it was clear that the Selecao was far better in the air than Spain and almost never gave the ball away in midfield despite tenacious challenges and marking by the U.S. So, while the second half crash was difficult and emotionally painful to watch, it was also predictable and gives Coach Bradley and the technical staff a series of absolutely clear specifics to work on for South Africa 2010. Of course this all presumes that the U.S. qualifies but if they don’t, given their now demonstrable potential, it would be criminal in the funfest that is CONCACAF, indeed, the rallying cry should now be a first victory in the Azteca, truthfully no less is acceptable at this point.
As for the Revs, consider the players down and/or out for and from Tuesday’s Open Cup match; Heaps, Alston, Albright, Castro, Joseph, Ralston, Videria, Dube, Twellman, that is well over one third of the roster and at least six of the most dependable senior players, starters all (Heaps, Alston, Albright, Ralston, Joseph and Twellman). Name me a manager who could be down some 33% of his senior squad, including six, maybe seven of his projected starters and still bring off a victory against a top level Mexican reserve squad, preseason or no. Imagine Fergie or The Special One operating under such restrictive conditions, this is rocket science or better even in the weird, wacky world of MLS, where near minimum salary youngsters become more important than overpaid imports, think Larentowicz vs, Beckham, for example. Certainly Nicol took a gamble that crashed and burned big time re. the Open Cup but if three points are taken in Los Angeles the debacle vs. City in Connecticut will disappear in the rear view mirror in a faster than Mitt Romney’s dog. At the end of the day, the cash and glory are in MLS and the SuperLiga and until U.S. Soccer comes up with a worthy pay packet for the Open Cup, why risk exhaustion and injury for little or no profit?
With the Revs currently lying 12th in the table after twelve games played at 4W-4L-4D for 16 points out of a possible 36 and eight points out of a playoff spot, the likelihood of a second half relegation battle looms large, the MLS equivalent of relegation being the humiliation of not making the playoffs, a sure sign of soccer incompetence. The bottom third of the MLS table is, indeed, a measuring stick if not a doorway to the second division. While the enormity of the injury situation can certainly be offered as an explanation, if not excuse, the fact is that the games in hand can only get the boyz back into a competitive position, they then have to maintain a winning pace through the dog days of August and then well past the turning and subsequent turning of the leaves, not an easy prospect even with a fully healthy roster. And now they go into the Home Depot Center with a call-up, injury and suspension list that includes at least five, if not six likely starters; Albright, Castro, Heaps, Joseph, Osei, Ralston and Twellman. At the same time a recent study by Peter Hirdt of Elias Sports Bureau, published on the MLS.net website seems to indicate that early season success drains the top players for the home stretch. What may come out of all these first half woes is that the supposed lower portion of the playing staff has now been well blooded, between MLS matches and ill tempered Mexican competition and if the anointed big boys can slot in alongside over the next few weeks a post season slot may still be a possibility. Regardless of the outcome, this offers an edge for the remaining eighteen that could combat the usual midsummer slough of torpor that is on offer in many MLS stadiums. One can hope.
Michael Videira has been a local Boston area bright light since he was a hot prospect playing for the Boston Bolts. In my first interview with Paul Mariner, in preseason 2004, he held the then Duke midfielder as a standard against which young U.S. professional prospects might be measured. Now, five years later done with college and after trialing in Europe he is back on familiar ground under the tutelage of Nicol and Mariner and is beginning to assert himself against MLS and Mexican competition. While injuries and red cards have meant that his time on the field has been truncated, there have been flashes of skill, bite in possession and accuracy with the simple pass that could go a long way towards bringing back New England dominance in the middle of the park.
JIM: I’ve been thinking that under the 19 that you wear on your shirt there seems to be a number 10 emerging. You grew up here, in the Boston area but I’m presuming that like a lot of the younger players now, you followed world soccer pretty closely. Who were some of the players that you patterened yourself after?
MICHAEL: You mean some of my favorite players?
JIM: Yes, favorites but also role models, shall we say.
MICHAEL: Well, when I was really young I watched a lot of Portuguese soccer with my dad so guys like Joao Pinto and Rui Costa, guys like that growing up and then, obviously, Zidane is just a role model for everybody and I really enjoyed watching him play. In terms of my game, right now I guess my favorite player would be (Marcos) Senna (the Brazilian born, naturalized Spanish and Villareal midfielder), I just like the way he plays, it’s really simple, he’s a deeper midfielder of course and I’m not playing that right now but just in general I like the way he plays. He’s always calm on the ball and composed.
JIM: If you could put yourself on the field wherever you wanted to be, where would it be?
MICHAEL: I like playing around the middle of the field, I like being very involved, right now, even when I’m playing up top there’s still a lot of involvement because I’m more of the withdrawn guy, so like anywhere from the defensive to the attacking midfield role is where I’d like to be.
JIM: I’ve noticed in your play when you have the ball at your feet, holding possession and moving forward, there is kind of a side step, almost crab-like motion that you see a lot in Portuguese and Latin American soccer that you don’t see much in, shall we put it bluntly, gringo players and you have that move, where did it come from?
MICHAEL: I couldn’t tell you where it comes from; I randomly do things that I don’t notice. Guys tell me in training that I have this trademark type of move but I honestly don’t know where it really comes from, probably from watching a lot of Portuguese league games.
JIM: Well, the thing is a lot of U.S. players don’t have moves that come naturally to them, things that take place instinctively, here it is kind of a mechanical game and one of the things I’ve noticed is that is doesn’t seem to be that for you. You are starting out your professional career, etc. but it seems to be the case. You’ve played in three MLS games, counting the SuperLiga match against Kansas City, you’ve played against Santos, you’ve trialed and trained in a lot of different places, how would you characterize some of the differences between countries and cultures, not so much in the level of play but the style in different places that you’ve played and seen?
MICHAEL: You mean playing in MLS?
JIM: Yes, in MLS but also trialing and playing against different kinds of opposition. Playing against Santos, for example, or training with Hamilton is a whole different prospect than, say, Kansas City.
MICHAEL: the difference between Santos and Kansas City (for example) would be that it is more physical against Kansas City, just honest physical play with the intensity a lot higher. When we are playing Santos, they possess well but it’s (that) they are not too much of a threat when they are possessing, exactly, we’re able to sit in a little more and catch our breath and (then) attack them more whereas when you are playing against Kansas City you always have to be extremely honest defensively because the game is very fast paced and if you aren’t honest, you’ll get beaten.
JIM: I’ve noticed that in the U.S. and MLS games, for the most part, the players move faster than the ball whereas in the Mexican League games, for example, the ball moves more quickly than the players. In the Mexican League games, and I’ve seen a number of matches live in Mexico, all the physical contesting and challenging seems to take place in the final third of the field, whereas in MLS games it is going on everywhere.
JIM: How do you manage to maintain that pace when the weather gets hot?
MICHAEL: Well fortunately for us we haven’t had to face that problem as yet, I know it is going to be pretty difficult when we have Houston in the third week of July, there will be some hot games coming up, so I don’t know how it is going to be because I haven’t played in this type and style of play (in warm conditions). I’m used to when I played over in Scotland and every day it was 50 degrees and raining, so we’ll see what happens, I’m sure that is very, very difficult and we’re going to need a lot of guys to be back and healthy.
JIM: Watching the Scottish Premier League, when you get beyond Celtic and Rangers, it doesn’t seem lie there’s much difference between the teams and certainly between those teams and the quality here.
MICHAEL: I think it is very similar, there’s a few different things, when I was out there it seemed like guys did what they needed to do and they did it well, they had very simple roles but they did their roles very, very well in terms of, say, a forward, if he was a holdup guy, with the job of holding it up and dropping it off, he could do that every single time, so they are very, very particular about the things that they had to do correctly and there was obviously less room for creativity in that league, other than the top teams but they worked really hard and made sure that they did the things they needed to do correctly.
JIM: Thinking about that development as a professional, one of the things that is the benchmark of a really seasoned pro is that they are very self-aware and critical, they know exactly what they can and can’t do and, as you say, they can repeat it under any conditions. How does someone who is learning about their game and moving into the professional game, how much are you encouraged to experiment and try things and how much are you encouraged to concentrate only on those things that you do well?
MICHAEL: A lot of it comes in training, you really want to, more than anything, just keep the ball, that is the most important thing, just to keep the ball for your team, so in trying to keep the ball you have to be extremely simple and you will do that and in time you feel like you can do a little bit more, you try it, but other than that just keep it simple, keep the ball, there’s no need to impress anyone as long as you are keeping the ball you’re doing the right thing for your team.
JIM: So the ball does have a dollar sign on it…
MICHAEL: Exactly, so holding onto it is the most important thing and I think that’s what…the coaches want to happen, they really want you to take care of the ball more than anything else and take care of each other on the field, it’s not so much who is doing what moves and what is so flashy, if you keep the ball you really do control everything.
JIM: for a lot of players coming out of college and you came out a while ago what with trialing and so forth, so you’ve been kind of used to it but thirty-plus games spread over nine months is a long, long season, what do you do to prepare for it?
MICHAEL: We obviously rest a lot and (the Revolution) rest more so than most teams, days after games are off and we usually go light (in training) at the beginning of the week. I haven’t been here a whole season but I’ve heard from other guys that it’s such a long season and with the traveling, it takes a lot out of you, so the coaches are very aware of this and make sure that we get the proper rest that we need, as much as we can.
JIM: You, in a way, while not necessarily the heir apparent, have a lot in common with Steve Ralston, being somewhat similar players in what you bring to the game. While it would be wonderful to have you both in the lineup, that is another thing. What do you glean from his game, both from watching and playing with him?
MICHAEL: Well Ralston is just always in the right spots, and when he is in the right spot he is very smart about what he is doing. He is one of those guys who just is aware of everybody around him and he might just take a regular touch but he knows exactly why he is making that touch and just from watching him I’ve noticed that he does a lot more work off the ball than I think most people realize and he’s part of almost every play just based on his off the ball runs and everything, so ideally I’d like to be playing exactly like him and be able to provide opportunities for other people based on off the ball running and just doing all the work (that he does).
JIM: He talks about looking for pockets or seams in the defense…
MICHAEL: He’s always looking for little pockets in the middle, right between the midfield and defenders and that is like what I’m trying to do as much as possible, just get into the little spaces and get behind the midfield line if you get the ball to feet you know you will be able to get more guys into the attack.
JIM: How much of that is a recognition thing as opposed to a pattern thing?
MICHAEL: I think it is a recognition thing more than anything else, you’ve just got to sense where the defenders are going to be headed and where the pocket is about to open up. He (Ralston) is always there right when it opens up.
JIM: In gorilla ball, U.S. football, they talk about reading tendencies and so this, to some degree, would be knowing and understanding the specific players that you are playing against, understanding their tendencies to do things at particular moments or situations in the game.
MICHAEL: So when you are out there, as with Kansas City the other night, you know that some defenders tendency is to drop off while when we were playing Santos a lot of the tendencies of their defenders were not to challenge for head balls which allowed for myself and the other forwards to bring the ball down off our chests whereas when you are playing Kansas City they are all going up for the ball, trying to compete for the header. So it is just based on what team you are playing against.
JIM: It seems like both games that the Revolution have played against Santos over a year’s time, the Santos defenders have no idea how to deal with Mansally and Nyassi and yet the Mexicans play in a league that features outside speed.
MICHAEL: It is a little different though in that their speed is a speed of passing and everything and suddenly they’ve got these guys coming at them with tremendous speed and on the ball movement so, if I saw Nyassi coming at me, dribbling like that, I don’t know if they know just to drop off or to step in or what but I’m sure it is a little different with the buildup while those guys (Mansally and Nyassi) are just blazing speed down the line so I’m sure it is different for them.
JIM: You sit out the next Superliga game (against Atlas) but then there is a long stretch of a lot of games and the team is carrying a lot of injuries, so I would presume that you would be playing a fair amount. Would you prefer to play up front or in the midfield and does your position just fluctuate according to the day?
MICHAEL: Right now I’m just like a fill in guy wherever I’m needed at this point. I can play both and wherever the coaches end up needing me in the upcoming games is where I’m going to be, I really don’t mind either way, I enjoy playing both positions, they are obviously very different but at the same time I like both.
JIM: As a player who has followed international soccer and has been overseas and seen all sorts of stuff, do you consider the U.S. victory over Spain a triumph for a certain kind of system and organization or just that we are getting better?
MICHAEL: I thought we played extremely well (against Spain) and obviously I think a lot of people underestimated us, especially going into the Egypt game of course and we have a very strong team with a lot of talent and (while) Spain is the number one team in the world it shows that we can absolutely compete and in that game it seemed like we did have a strategy going in, we got a couple of good goals ahead of them and then did bunker down a little bit and try and hold them off but great teams have to do that.
JIM: And every ball that came into the U.S. eighteen was accounted for and taken care of.
MICHEAL: We were able to play it…
JIM: It is interesting that we have reached a point in the evolution of the U.S. team where the older, former players, like Wynalda and Lalas and so forth are getting upset at the younger players on the team, saying these guys have so much more talent but they’re not putting out, etc. So it is a kind of interesting evolution that the game is certainly getting better here.
MICHAEL: Right, absolutely, I think now people are taking notice for sure, even other teams, I mean Spain loses (to us) and it is like people are going to mark down on their calendar that the U.S. is coming up and I think we definitely have a position where we have a good hold on the competition now and we belong in there.