Saturday Evening Nightmares in Foxborough and Dallas, plus an Interview with Rajko Lekic
Posted by tonybiscaia on June 7, 2011
A VIEW FROM THE FORT By Jim Dow
This past Saturday offered graphic illustrations of the gaps that exist between the US National Team and top-level seleccionnes and the similar yawning chasm currently between the Revolution and the top half of MLS opposition. Watching both alleged contests made the mutual strengths and shortcomings of the participants crystalline. The question going forward is what can be done about them.
The utter simplicity of the way the Spanish National Team plays football belies the fact that to achieve what they do is of such a subtle complexity that most of the 64,000 people in attendance would have never have put their finger on it had they been given twenty questions to figure it out.
The complete inadequacy of the manner with which the New England Revolution presently pass the ball belies the fact that what they fail to do in support of one another seems so obvious that the ten people who watched the TV broadcast from Dallas, myself included, were all screaming at the set, “make space, run for each other, please talk to each other!”
Admittedly it was hot in the Big D, 97 infernal degrees at kickoff, while the heat in the Morgue back home was generated by the speed at which the Spanish players moved the ball and themselves with the opposition providing eleven points of reference and little else.
Each player for La Roja constantly moves to space when they are without the ball, using a system developed at La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy where every kid is taught the intricacies of what has come to be called “tiki-taka,” a whirl of constant interchange of short, precise passes delivered under pressure that requires a sequence of on and off the ball movements described as “receive, pass, offer,” repeated again, again and again, often in spaces no bigger than the proverbial, now practically extinct, telephone booth.
Watching from an elevated, diagonal position, it was a total mismatch not only in the score line but, more importantly, in field sense. The World Champions moved up and down the pitch as a unit, often only a few yards from one another while the US Nats were spread all over the lot, in futile pursuit of the ball, completely unable to utilize space, reacting after the fact rather than controlling the tempo; always, always, always too late in the pass, run or tackle.
Indeed the lack of competitive spectacle was such that the woman behind me spent much of the match alternately reading a book and searching for her cell phone, only once looking up to scream “INIESTA!!!!!!” with the sort of fervor one might hear in a film from the Valley. Then she returned to her tome, the title of which I failed to note.
On a far less elevated level the New England Revolution are in the midst of an embarrassingly similar run of form, playing Team USA to the likes of Los Angeles and Dallas in league contests. If Bob Bradley’s charges served as traffic cones to Del Bosque’s finely tuned racing cars, Steve Nicol’s boyz offer equally pedestrian opposition; they often seem to posses no understanding or willingness to move for one another without the ball.
Both Bradley and Nicol are in charge of players whose abilities are limited relative to the much of the opposition; therefore it becomes necessary to make pragmatic choices in order to gain results. The criticism is that some of those players have been chosen, selected or pursued over others that might be, or have been available. For Princeton Bob the test will be against the likes of Canada, Costa Rica and, hopefully, Mexico. For Ayrshire Stevie LA, Dallas and Salt Lake have already tested his team and found them wanting. New York is next and for the moment, the future looks bleak.
At the same time there are certain mitigating circumstances in both cases. In Bradley’s situation, he is about to start a regional tournament that will go a long way to determining if there is a competitive future for his current group of players, leading to qualification for the Confederations and World Cups. There was no point in playing the one way that might upset the skillful Spaniards, which would have been to harry, press and kick them to death. It worked in South Africa but it would exhaust his best players with a more important match on Tuesday against a rising regional foe, Canada at the beginning of a three-week slog.
In Steve Nicol’s case he has been grinding near results on a weekly basis, losing one-nil, drawing without scoring while playing an almost unwatchable 4-5-1. With the players he has at his disposal a more open formation might result in giving up a bunch of goals with no chance at all of obtaining a result. While his captain’s decision to stay with the team for the Gold Cup is a significant plus, the loss of Marko Perovic and Benny Feilhaber and the unfortunate lack of positive influence from both Dabo and Domi has meant that the 2011, mid-season Revs are at about the same level as the 2010 edition, indeed 2008/9 begin to look like the good old days.
In an interview with Frank Dell’Apa in the run-up to the Spain match former Rev, now EPL star Clint Dempsey fondly recalled his New England teammates Ralston, Joseph, Dorman, Twellman, Noonan, Heaps and Reis, offering the opinion that a number of them might have made it in Europe. If you accept Duce’s assessment of that group, could one honestly say the same about any of the current squad?
Back in the real good, old days practically every Revs player improved in the period between 2003 and 2007. Was that more a matter of a dynamic peer group that challenged itself or of good, sound developmental coaching, or both? Does the current team have the potential, or the guidance to improve? Can the tiki-taka of La Masia be translated from Catalan and Spanish to Scottish or, on a national level, into a New Jersey twang?
Until someone(s), somehow, puts the pressure on US Soccer and the Revolution to learn to play real football, from bottom to top, from academies to senior teams, and not the current combo platter of brawn, grit and lack of imagination presently shown by both the Nats and the Revs, fans of the proper game will need to resort to bigger and better cable packages and possibly forego paying for what is on offer on the Foxborough turf, phony or otherwise. 64,000 fans saw a stinker Saturday afternoon; another 50 witnessed an equal travesty that evening. In both cases serious deficiencies need to be addressed and quickly to salvage a season and/or win a tournament.
When Rajko Lekic came to New England he was valued at one million Euros down from a high of 1.75 million in May of 2010. But regardless of how one calculates it the intense Dane with the shaved head arrived in Foxborough with a significant pedigree for scoring goals. Since his debut against the Dynamo on April 17, Lekic has played in nine matches with only one tally to show for his troubles. For much of the time he has, as the English say, “been plowing a lone furrow,” up front with no partner and little support from the flanks.
I spoke to him one day after training.
JIM: You come from Denmark, which has a very long and successful soccer tradition and the country is sort of wedged between Germany which has one way of playing, the Netherlands, which has another and the Scandinavian countries which are quite different as well. How would you describe the Danish style that you grew up with and played in the Superliga?
RAJKO: I think that is a really difficult question but I think the Danish style is more tactical, very strong tactically and technical also, so (those) are maybe the two things (that) they are stronger in than here in the States, I think.
JIM: And did that surprise you when you came here to play in MLS, or were you aware of the differences beforehand?
RAJKO: No, I saw maybe two or three games before I came here, so I knew, more or less, how the style of playing soccer here was but the big difference is that…the players are stronger here and faster, you know and the ref(s) let them do more, do you know what I mean?
JIM: Yes, I do.
RAJKO: So I have to get used to that because in Denmark you also have strong players but if they (grab) your shirt (for example), that’s a free kick, but that is OK, I just have to get used to it and then use my body also, you know.
JIM: So for a striker, particularly in your case, because you are playing alone, up front, without a regular partner, how do you adjust? Do you have to watch the other players constantly, plus watch the ball, or are you able to just concentrate on the ball, because it is such a difficult thing to balance between those two.
RAJKO: Yes… it is difficult because the problem is that all the players (on our team) have to know me, 100%, how I’m running, how I’m playing, how I like to have the ball, you know it is the important (thing)… So (my teammates have to learn how I play and I have to learn how they play football and that is not only one, two or three games, it is maybe four, five or six games, so I think now I’m learning more every game, every training (session), you know and I see now, for example, how Charlie (Shalrie) likes to play, how Benny likes to play and Zach and Chris and all the players like to play and it is going to be easier and easier for me… The start is always tough for a player. I’m a long way from home, you know, my family just came yesterday (from Denmark)…
JIM: Oh, that’s great…
RAJKO: Yeah, that is really great…
JIM: And they will be staying here?
RAJKO: Yeah, they are going to be staying here, so it is going to be easier and easier for me, for sure.
JIM: A striker is a little bit like a gunslinger in a Western movie, you know, you have a style, it is unique to you, unique to each player, and scoring goals is possibly the hardest thing in team sports, it is a very lonely position and I know from looking at your record in your time in Denmark, you have had periods where you score a lot of goals, then you have had periods where you don’t; how do you deal with that mentally?
RAJKO: Well, for a striker it is normal (to go up and down), it is confidence, it is all about confidence, and you have to score goals all the time to have that confidence. And when you are in a period where you don’t score goals, then sometimes I try to see a DVD with some old goals and, you know, to smile a little bit and see that you actually can score goals, you know what I mean?
RAJKO: And just keep playing soccer as you are used to because you cannot change because you aren’t scoring goals (for) two or three games, you have to keep on, keep on, you know and that is the main thing, it is trust in yourself and that is what I am trying to do now.
JIM: Over your career have you played in a variety of different formations with and without partners, etc? And do you have a preference as to how you play tactically?
RAJKO: No, I don’t really but I try to play alone and I try to play with a partner also, and for me, I don’t know why, I don’t prefer playing with a partner or prefer playing alone, it is the same for me. I just want the team to stay together, (to keep its’ shape), to be close, because if we are staying close and we are staying together, then it is also easier for me, when I get the ball I have maybe one or two players close to me, so that is the main thing I think, so it really doesn’t matter if you are playing one, two or three at the front, you know, the main thing is to stay close (to one another and in contact).
JIM: I don’t know if you have seen any videos of this team when they were winning a lot a few years ago…
JIM: …Well, this team was very, very good with the ball, a lot of good passing and possession and then players retired, got hurt, left for other clubs and leagues and now the team is being reconfigured with an eye towards playing well with the ball again and there have certainly been passages when Dabo was playing, when you were playing, with Benny, Shalrie, Domi, Perovic when the ball moves beautifully…
RAJKO: Yeah, yeah…
JIM: And, I would assume, that is the goal with this group of players.
RAJKO: Yes, yes it is and that is what we are trying to do now and that is what I’m trying to explain to some of the players, we don’t have to score goals in two, three, four minutes; the main thing is to keep the ball…
At this point A.J. SOARES walked by and leaned in to say, “…This is Rajko Lekic, a superstar and we are very lucky to have him…”
JIM: I thought you were the upcoming media superstar?
RAJKO: No trust me, A.J. is the superstar, trust me!
A.J: “No, no, the goal scoring prowess… he’s a physical specimen…” then walked away, laughing…
RAJKO: (also cracking up) No, no, like I was telling you, the main thing is to hold the ball, (to possess it) and after that the goals are coming because it’s normal, the other team cannot score if we have the ball, so that is the main thing in my head, just keeping the ball, take it easy, make twenty, thirty, forty passes maybe and then suddenly, you see (an opportunity for a) goal and then you try to do something.
JIM: And that is what I have been seeing with these little passages of skillful play where that happens.
RAJKO: Yes, and that is why it is beautiful to play, for example, with Benny now and Dabo also, they are wonderful, they are good, good players with the ball, they are calm with the ball and you know that is the kind of player that we need now, that is good and strong on the ball.
JIM: Thinking about playing with the ball, do you find it more difficult to do that on the fake turf as opposed to playing on grass?
RAJKO: No, I don’t think it is more difficult but it is different and when we are going in one week from playing on normal grass and then the other weekend playing on the turf, it is (an adjustment)… I don’t know. I like to play on turf because the ball isn’t bouncing all the time and it is easier (for ball control) I think but it is really tough for the body but, you know, I like to play on it.
JIM: Because of the nature of being a striker, particularly when you are up front by yourself, you are playing with your back to the goal a lot. In the rest of the world, at least in the leagues I know about, the referees protect that position and here, well, they don’t…
RAJKO: No…that’s right…
JIM: That must be such a change for you as a mid-career player, to not be able to be confident that you are going to get some degree of protection from the officials.
RAJKO: Yeah, you are right, what can I say, like I told you, I just have to get used to it because that is the way it is here and I’m playing here now, you know, so I just have to be aware of that and just be stronger as a player because in Denmark, like I told you, they (the refs) will give you the foul sometimes but here, almost never. So you have to get used to it (and) adjust (by) using my arms and my body more and be stronger because it is legal here, if you want to say it like that, you know, so it isn’t a problem for me, I just have to get used to it and I’m almost (smiling) used to it now.
JIM: As a striker, who do you pattern yourself after? Were there any players that you watched closely when you were growing up and thought, yes, that is the way I want to play?
RAJKO: Oh yes, there are many good players, yes, many good players, I don’t think Messi, (for example) is a typical striker, not for me, he’s a player that can dribble (past) four, five, six, seven guys and then score goals (but) a typical striker for me, is a guy who is almost waiting for the ball at the box and then scoring from there. My favorite player, (from) many years ago, was Romario for Brazil; I loved to see him play. He was a wonderful finisher and loved to chip the ball also, and I also love to chip the ball. I hope to score a goal like that…
JIM: Those are such beautiful goals, where the ball just bounces softly and rolls slowly across…
RAJKO: Like the goal Benny scored, it was called offside, but O.K, (it was beautiful and) we got three points and that was the most important thing.
JIM: Well, you got three points but, perhaps more important in the long run, you all found out that you can play that way, with some style, possession, etc.
RAJKO: Yes, yes…