From the halls of Foxboro Stadium…

No Country For Old Men, Or Is It? Plus An Interview with Ousmane Dabo

Posted by tonybiscaia on May 17, 2011

A View From The Fort

By Jim Dow

The grumbling by many hard core Revolution fans has recently reached a crescendo, often resembling a mantra; “Nicol only signs over the hill crocks,” “The Revs get players who are cheap and old,” “What, another old guy!” etc. And certainly if you recite Nicol-era names Jose Manuel Abundis, Cory Gibbs, Steve Howey, Edgaras Jankauskas, Jim Rooney, Ilija Stolica and Jorge Vasquez they form a group that were older, slow, ineffective, oft-injured and ate and eat up precious cap space.

Of course then there was the ultimate oldster, Carlos Llamosa, who glided around his own 18 yard box with elegance and efficiency, plus some decent players of a certain age, like Preston Burpo, who did themselves proud on the wrong side of 35, or Steve Ralston who grew old so gracefully that it was impossible to tell if he was more effective at 33 than he was at 26 but then his joints got brittle, perhaps a touch inspired by the turf.

And when Coach Nicol signed up the French Connection of Ousmane Dabo, late (quite late) of Lazio and Didier Domi via Olympiakos eyebrows were raised, leading to the cluck, cluck, cluck of “I told you so” when the former turned up hurt in pre-season and then again, after one appearance with the senior side and the latter recently limped off with a quad strain. Indeed, when the Revolution took the field against Vancouver three of their projected starting lineup, Dabo, Domi as well as the relatively youthful Marko Perovic were on the sidelines.

Of course the last three years have featured an almost endless perusal of the injury list, with stalwarts like Twellman reduced to statistics and hopes for improvement dashed by actuarial realities, exacerbated by the notorious and unforgiving Field Turf. The result of all of this is that whenever the brain trust signs someone on the wrong side of 30 there is a negative, knee jerk reaction on the part of the faithful born of significant past disappointment.

While camera angles can be tricky and memory can play tricks, it seems safe to say that MLS play is significantly faster, more athletic and pressured than ever before. The pace of the game, at least in cooler weather, is terminally intense and while the players still move faster than the ball, a certain sign of lack of tactical and technical nous, the level of play continues to progress and, league-wide, the ball is moved about with far more purpose than in the past.

Which brings us to the present situation in New England. With the not so gradual dissolution of the 2003-2007-era team the quality of play, to say nothing of the results, have slipped dramatically. If attending a baseball game can be compared to watching grass grow or paint dry (sorry to offend), watching the 2008-2010 Revolution was more akin to mowing brambles barefoot or standing hatless on a scaffold, brush in hand, under the noonday summer sun. Both chores were doable but only just, given that the team’s ball movement was often akin to a barnyard chicken’s death agony, if the doomed creature were trying to play ping-pong.

When Steve Nicol patrolled the Anfield sod for Liverpool FC there was one basic tenet drilled into every single player who donned the sacred strip with the Liver birds rampant on the crest; never, ever, under any circumstances give the ball away. So, in the past three years it is easy to imagine Mrs. Nicol, hearing strange noises in the dead of night, to come down the stairs to see the carrot-topped gaffer lighting candles in the kitchen to invoke the gods of Shankly, Paisley and Dalglish, asking them to give him some possession on the park.

And, after a million incantations, what happened? Well, first Ousmane Dabo came available and then Benny Feilhaber dropped out of the skies to land in feckless Foxborough. In both cases these are players who use the ball, in the best sense of the word.

Dabo is able to execute the thing that every single soccer pundit, from Uncle Joe who coaches U-10 through Jose Mourinho, stresses to their charges, “make the simple pass.” Dabo does just that with an eloquence that evokes the straightforwardness of Hemingway; the ball arrives at the target with a pace that grandma could put a touch on while balancing in her walker. Against Portland I watched him closely, it was a masterful display; again and again, under pressure, he gave the ball in better condition than he received it. Had he played against Vancouver, the Revs might have had the ball 70% of the time instead of 55% and Benny, Shalrie and Psycho would have run rampant, to say nothing of Saint Marko. Can he stand the gaff of MLS play on a carpet worthy of Motel 6? A question worth asking but his skill, combined with Feilhaber, Joseph, Lekic and Perovic may make this team ultimately as much fun to watch as Twellman, Ralston, Dempsey, etc. in their pomp, if only for a short time, a small window.

One important thing about real football, aside from the gorilla version it is the only professional sport in this country where players train more than they play. Since it also depends on a level of teamwork and anticipation that rivals, even exceeds, Poppa K’s other professional sports squad, then it stands to reason that this bunch can only benefit from hours on the practice field, working on their blind runs, timing and movement. If a serious DP drops into the mix, with the improving defense, the sky is the limit and coach Nicol may just get to sleep at night by counting the number of completed passes while the crowd serenades, “ole… ole… ole!”

Earlier this season I spoke with Ousmane Dabo after training. Cultured, assured, thoughtful; he projects the same sort of worldly presence as his teammate, Didier Domi. When confronted with this bilingual, multilingual sophistication one can only feel at least a little bit inadequate, or at least apologetic for my schooling.

JIM: You are a player who is very well known for being able to control the tempo of the game in the middle of the park. Was that a skill that you were born with, or did you develop it, were you taught it?

OUSMANE: Yes, I developed it because I had the qualities to do it, but you always have to improve and from when I was young I was always trying to do this job, you know, so now I’m thirty-four, so I’ve got a lot of experience behind me (laughing) and fortunately, because it is nearly the end but I am trying to do this job (here) as well (as I can).

JIM: And what are the qualities that are particular to that skill, what do you need to deal with the fact that the game is played at such a high rate of speed in this country, here the players try to move faster than the ball…

OUSMANE: Ah, yes, I understand…

JIM: In the rest of the world, the ball moves faster than the players…

OUSMANE: It is true.

JIM: So, how does that get built into your operating system, to recognize how to protect the ball and move it?

OUSMANE: Yeah, well, I played in England, so I think I will get used to it because it is high tempo as well in England, so I don’t think I will have so many problems and the team has to improve (as far as) possession because we saw (for example) in L.A. (early on) the team played well but we could improve this part of the game because the Galaxy, for example, they have good possession.

JIM: So, when you speak to your teammates about that, do you encourage people to watch and anticipate or to make runs so that you can then pass. A lot of players in this country seem to watch and then make the run, whereas in the rest of the world, players instinctively move to space…

OUSMANE: It’s true, it’s true but I will get along with my teammates, I haven’t had the chance to speak with them already because I had an injury, unfortunately but from now on I will try to speak with them and to get along with every teammate and will try to do a good job.

JIM: And you have played in Italy and in England, which are very, very different styles…

OUSMANE: Yes, very different…

JIM: How much did you have to adjust?

OUSMANE: Yes, it is very, very different because the referees in England they don’t protect the players, so you have more tempo in the game, they don’t always (blow the) whistle, whereas in Italy it is the opposite, it is much more tactical, so the game is very different but I learned a lot from both of these (styles) of games, I learned a lot, so it was a very good experience.

JIM: How would you characterize the way the game is played here?

OUSMANE: I have seen a very good level, I (have seen) very good games, I think here in America, all the teams they try to go and win the game, they don’t wait, so it is a good mentality I think, because in Europe sometimes you find some teams come and try to keep 9everything defensive) so they stay back.

JIM: But, of course, in Europe, the pressure is not to lose is so great, whereas here, if you lose, well OK, you’ll come back next week, it is a very different thing.

OUSMANE: No, it is a good thing, because in America you know you can lose, one team loses, the other wins, (but) you know in Italy, for example, the fans are very, very demanding and if you lose you can have problems, you know?

JIM: Yes, your car get scratched, your house gets vandalized…

OUSMANE: Yes, yes, it is a different mentality but I like this one too, I like this, the mentality in America.

JIM: And where did you start in France?

OUSMANE: I started with Rennes, in Brittany, in the west of France and I stayed there from when I was 13 until I was 21 year old.

JIM: And is the club well known for developing young players?

OUSMANE: Yes, yes very well known, there are a lot of good players, even iin the French national team, now currently like Anthony Reveillere, Yoann Gourcuff, they are all from Rennes, and Yann M’Vila who plays for Lyon, no it is a very well known school (for developing players).

JIM: France has traditionally not known for soccer, for rugby, tennis, etc, until the 1998 World Cup and yet if you look at the great players from France they are primarily players who are sons, or in some cases, first generation immigrants. Do you think that is why France is such a great power, because, like the United States, it is a multi-cultural, multi-racial country?

OUSMANE: Yeah, yeah, I think so, yes. It is a mix of everything but in France, you know, in the rough areas there are more people from immigrant (cultures) and they all play football, it is a way to get money, it is a way to get a good job, so that is why we have a lot of black people, or Arabic people in France (who want) to succeed in football. They are born in France, so they are French, so they are helpful for (building the national team).

JIM: One of the things that I think that many people in this country don’t understand is that here, football, soccer, is essentially a middle-class sport, in the rest of the world, it isn’t…

OUSMANE: No, it isn’t…

JIM: And it is such an interesting cultural difference and yet the players who come here from other countries, like yourself, are, in a way, so much more sophisticated because you have made this decision to travel, you have made the decision to go outside the normal way of doing things in football. What were the influences for you to decide to come here to the States?

OUSMANE: I wanted to discover another league, completely different than what you can find in Europe because I have been in Italy, France, England so I know now Europe, I wanted a new thing and, you know, in Europe we are (greatly) influenced by American culture, so I love America. I love American films, I love American hip hop, you know I love the music, everything, so, you know, it is like home here, you know, so I wanted to discover it, living here and playing my football and, hopefully, do well here.

JIM: Many people say that Boston is the most European city in the United States, except we are out here, in Foxborough, in the middle of the woods, has it been strange for you coming from Rome, from Manchester, now you are here, are you out in the country, the sticks?

OUSMANE: Yes, I’m living in the city, in Brookline; I wanted to live in the city.

JIM: I know that when you travel with the team, you are really just with the team, focusing on the game, but do you intend to travel to some other parts of the States?

OUSMANE: Yeah, yeah, I know already Las Vegas, Miami, New York, I have been to San Francisco, so I know the States (pretty) well.

JIM: Well, I just got back from Louisiana, New Orleans and you must go there…

OUSMANE: Yes, yes…

JIM: Because, it is the only French speaking part of the States and, even better, the music and totally different, so please, do go while you are here.

OUSMANE: Yes, I’m told it is great.

JIM: Finally, do you notice any difference for your style of play, the careful possession game, with he artificial turf?

OUSMANE: It is a bit different, you have to be careful because on some movements you can get injured, so it is not like grass, you know, slipping, you don’t slip, on the turf, if you do like that, I don’t know how to explain (he pivots his body)…

JIM: It catches, grabs you…

OUSMANE: Yes, you have to be careful but it is a good way as well to play good football because you have no rebounds with the ball so it is good for possession.

JIM: But for a player like yourself, or Joseph, of Feilhaber, who is always cutting back and forth, moving from side to side, I would imagine that would be something that you would have to watch out for on the turf.

OUSMANE: Yes, it is quite different, so you have to be careful but I like it (actually).


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