From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

Some Plastic Bullets Across The Bow Regarding Shalrie’s Knees; plus an Interview with Nico Colaluca

Posted by tonybiscaia on August 23, 2009


After yet another marvelous match of graft, grit and game-winning goal scoring who could doubt that Shalrie Joseph is the engine, heart and soul of the New England Revolution. The English like to say that soccer “asks questions” of players and if this is the case the Grenadian tyro has more useful responses than even Google on a good day.

It might be pulling at straws but my reaction to the U.S. Nats going down once again in the Azteca was that the seeds of the defeat were sown five summers ago when Joseph decided to play for his native Grenada in what was a mostly symbolic pair of World Cup qualifiers.

Think of it, had a fully mobile, full-dreaded Shalrie been patrolling the middle of the park against El Tri last Wednesday-week the gringos just might have been able to muster the modicum of possession that would have spared their collective tired legs, the latter certainly contributing to the opportunistic match-winning roofer struck by late substitute Miguel Sabah after Landon Donovan (imagine) was beaten for pace on the outside.

You know something is wrong when the latter happens, to say nothing of Charlie Davies cramping and Clint Dempsey going more or less walkabout. The Yanks were exhausted, confused and on their heels after a quarter of a hour, despite leading and it was painfully obvious that the pressing, harrying, challenging style that worked so well in mid-winter South Africa wasn’t going to pan out at 7,500 feet against a team playing for their collective salvation with the backing of 104,500 out of 105,000 of those present. Had Bob Bradley been able to field a player of Joseph’s quality to win, protect and move the ball in the very part of the pitch where his team consistently went missing on the day, the U.S. might well have left the D.F. with a point and possibly even three. While the National Team is definitely getting better they still are woefully short in controlling a game, as well as threatening on the flanks along the lines of what Dos Santos and Vela do for Mexico. I seriously doubt that the Revolution number 21 would have allowed Blanco the time to poke the ball across what amounted to a lawn’s worth of empty space to set up Castro’s laser strike and later, as the game slowed down, he would have begun to probe the Mexican perimeter and eighteen-yard box. In the meantime, at least a few of his green-clad counterparts would have been subjected to teeth-rattling challenges and step-ins that would have inspired the likes of Bradley, Feilhaber & Co. to move forward and begin to bother the opposition backline.

But this is all musing, born of frustration; where the rubber meets the road is when the perennial MLS All-Star’s now fragile knee keeps banging away at that bane of modern sport, Field Turf. Watching the normally sure-footed Matt Reis go ass over teakettle while making an innocuous punt up field may be mildly amusing but the grinding going on in Joseph’s joints while he plays his wide-body game in places like New York, Seattle, Toronto and, of course, at least fifteen times at home in Foxborough elicits the kind of reaction usually associated with fingernails dragged across chalkboards. One seriously doubts if the suspension on Big Bobby’s Bentley would get subjected to an comparably bad surface on Route 1 but he seems to be quite happy to allow his stable of athletes to disport on what is clearly not better living through chemistry and in the case of Shalrie’s knees, the shock absorbers can’t possibly make up for the paucity of protection that even the best of plastic fails to provide.

While Quest Field puts paid to the notion that a big NFL-type stadium sucks any atmosphere from soccer, you just have to have some fans in the seats, like maybe half full, the surface is a joke and any sort of surface slickness immediately causes the standard of play to deteriorate markedly. Both the Revs and Sounders seemed to want to play a proper game but the Field Turf emphasized their collective inability to cope with the conditions and it made for a sorry show, which was only watchable because of the added melodrama of a bad referee, bouncing fans and coaches and great arguments. If plastic hurts both the football and the footballers, get rid of it, yet another building block towards MLS becoming truly major league.

In a recent article in Phys Ed magazine Gretchen Reynolds wrote that “… a British study … found that nearly half of middle-aged, former top level soccer players had severe, even crippling bone-on bone arthritis in at least one knee.”

She went to say that while it has been found that straightforward straight running actually helps build up protective cartilage and muscle to buffer the knee from stress, any injury to the joint tends to compound itself like “an unbalanced tire,” leading to even greater degeneration and, ultimately, end of career and miserable middle-aged arthritic hobbling. She further reports that while targeted strengthening of support muscles, etc. will help maintain the lubricant, so to speak, compensation can work in the short run but gets you into trouble in the end. Again, looking at those enormous upper thigh and leg muscles that most soccer players carry, to say nothing of the pot-bellies on some of the Patriots, it is hard to fathom why grass can be laid down for the Milanese millionaires but not for the Brady Bunch and their poor cousins, the Revolution. This is, of course, an old argument but one brought into sharp focus by the painful sight of perhaps the greatest gamer currently cashing a paycheck from Kraft Sports, Inc. slowly losing the long term battle while helping to win the short term war, or at least qualify for the playoffs.

Last May, in a straight swap of Generation adidas players, Coventry, Rhode Island native Nico Colaluca came home. While he played sparingly with only four appearances while in Colorado, he has always been considered a top MLS prospect and there was much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth when he went 6th in the 2007 MLS Superdraft. Since coming to the Revolution the 5 foot 9 skillful and speedy midfielder has been vying for playing time with the large group of twenty-something’s that is fast becoming the majority on the senior squad. I spoke with Colaluca as he was about to be mobbed by a team of ‘tweeners who had been watching training.

JIM: What I’m particularly interested in learning are some of the adjustments that you have had to make coming into the professional game, now two years into your career…
NICO: Third, this is my third year actually, I was in Colorado for two years and then got traded here my third season.

JIM: My bad, so you have adjusted by now to the long season and all that kind of stuff but what are some of the things that have been the biggest surprise for you coming in as a professional?

NICO: I (think) taking it as your job, you know that you are going to wake up every day and that this is what you have to do, you know that you are not going to school any more and then playing sports afterwards, you are waking up to play soccer. You just have to come in every day with the right mentality and work hard.

JIM: I remember Michael Parkhurst saying that the hardest adjustment for him, besides the obvious rise in the level of play, was having all that time on his hands, is this an issue for you as well?

NICO: Yes, (especially) when I was in Colorado… I was out there by myself, so it was tough to find things to do with my free time, you’re done (training) at one or two o’clock every day and you go back home and there’s not much to do. Now I’m home, I have my family and friends and I’m staying busy and all that stuff, so it‘s good.

JIM: What do you see as the differences, if any, between the two teams you have played with, the Rapids and the Revs, they seem to me, at least, to have a different style of playing and, of course, in quite different conditions, grass at altitude versus turf at sea level and so forth.

NICO: The styles are different, over here we have fast guys on the wings and we try to get them out and down the side (and) we have big bodies in the middle, Colorado was a little bit different but you know overall it is still the same game.

JIM: So it really doesn’t change that much from team to team but how about the makeup of the team itself. As you say, it must have been really tough to go out to Denver, there you are by yourself in a new city, does the team become the social center for the young players, if they don’t know other people in the town?

NICO: Yeah, definitely, you’re with those guys every day so you find your friends on the team who you like to hang out with and stuff and then it is pretty much… you hang out with the guys every day, whatever you do after practice is pretty much with the guys.

JIM: You grew up in a strong soccer environment with your family as well as club, school and national teams, a lot of the younger players on this team have told me that they grew up watching soccer on television, whereas for the older players, like Steve Ralston or Jay Heaps, when they were coming along there were maybe, maybe one or two games a week, but now it never stops. How much of an influence has that been on you as you have been developing as a player?

NICO: It’s been huge to be able to see what’s out there and to watch the great players from everywhere in the world play, what they are doing and how they are playing, the style that each team is playing. Then you have the big games, the Champions League games are great to watch, to see that many great players playing, (then) the World Cup, so definitely soccer is getting more popular on TV, becoming a social thing for people to watch, it’s growing a lot and it’s making the players in this country better.

JIM: Who are some of the players whose style of play you feel dovetails with what you are trying to achieve?

NICO: I’ve always liked the Italian players, Francesco Totti and Del Piero, all those Italians and also I loved watching when I was growing up the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, Ronaldo from Brazil, they’re all great and they are all different in their own ways and it’s just great to watch.

JIM: People always say that MLS is a physical league but speaking as a person who has followed soccer for almost thirty years, the physicality here in the States seems to be much more of a kind of straightforward, U.S. style, for lack of a better word. Players certainly bash each other and the tackles come flying in but there is less of the kicking, gouging and gamesmanship that you saw yesterday, for example, in the US/Mexico game. It that an adjustment that you had to make moving from the youth National, club and college teams to MLS?

NICO: Yes, it is a physical league, not dirty as you were saying but is a physical league where guys are battling hard and the tackles are tough and, you know, I’m not as big as a lot of the guys, so my speed definitely helps me out a lot, in a way it gets me out of a bunch of those tackles and (some of the rough) stuff.

JIM: And for you, as a player with speed and skill, what is the difference in playing on a good grass surface like the training pitch here or on the fake turf in the stadium? Which is to say, that each of these surfaces rewards certain things and penalizes certain things. What sort of adjustments do you have to make?

NICO: When the grass isn’t wet (as it is today) it slows the game down and it gets a little bit tougher to dribble and play quick. On the turf the ball moves quick and in a way, a lot of guys don’t like to play on it but in a way it benefits some guys because (of) the quick surface.

JIM: So players who can use the ball carefully and take care of it and move it quickly are rewarded on turf?

NICO: Yes.

JIM: One of the things that is always said about the game here in the States is that the players move very quickly but the ball not where in the rest of the world the ball moves from player to layer very fast but the players sometimes don’t run around much. How do you see that, especially as someone who grew up watching Italian football, where the latter is certainly the case?

NICO: I wouldn’t say necessarily that that is true, yeah in other parts of the world they play one and two touch, you know each team is different, Stevie (Nicol) wants us playing quickly, one or two touch, get it in, get it out but also some guys strength is being able to dribble down the line, take somebody on one on one, so it just depends.

JIM: It is interesting that a Scot and two Brits coach this team yet they have a system that stresses playing it on the deck where possible, sort of contrary to the conventional wisdom about guys who came of age in the old English First Division. Of course being from this area you knew their reputation before coming to the Revolution, what influence have Nicol and Mariner had on you, with their track records as players and coaches?

NICO: With them coaching me, they always want me to get it in, get it out, they are always telling me to play (the ball) faster, just little things that we always do, passing (drills) in the morning (in training) they concentrate a lot (on that), they like the ball on the deck and to have it moving around.

JIM: Where would you ideally play on the field, what do you feel is your best position and the best formation for your skills?

NICO: Stevie’s been playing me right behind the forwards and I love playing there, I also love wide right, either way suits me.

JIM And a 4-4-2 or 3-5-2, doesn’t matter?

NICO: No it doesn’t.


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