Early Promise Collides With Present Pragmatism, So What Will Happen Next? Plus an interview with Florian Lechner
Posted by tonybiscaia on July 21, 2012
A VIEW FROM THE FORT by Jim Dow
Back in the day, way, way back in the day it used to be said that all Gaul was divided into three parts. More recently, far more recently as the New England Revolution began the 2012 season under new coach Jay Heaps with a number of freshly signed and apparently talented players in the fold many opined that the coming campaign might be separated in similar fashion; to wit an early and uncertain feeling-out period with poor to mixed results followed by mid-season coming together in both style and efficacy and ending with a glorious peaking in harmony with the foliage as summer waned and fall waxed and a pell-mell, ultimately successful, playoff push ensued.
Some of this optimism was based on the MLS schedule, specifically that the team could bond on the road and the training ground with two early bye-weeks and learn much about one another’s ways through both practicing and playing together. This would then be followed by a series of June and July home matches against weaker opposition; a chance to build up points while continuing to come to grips with the team’s newfound emphasis on possession through the ground game. Then, with everything in place, including a couple of key additions in the summer transfer window, the freshly minted Revs would roll towards the playoffs, or at the least challenge for the fifth spot in a supposedly weak Eastern Conference.
The key in the evolution from potential to fulfillment would be the week of 14 to 21 July when the team would face the two supposedly sad sack Canadian clubs, Toronto and Montreal, followed by a visit to division leading Kansas City. Optimists predicted seven points, two wins and a draw, pessimists six and an honorable defeat in the most beautiful proper football facility north of the Azteca.
Thus far New England have certainly kept themselves in every game and, as of this writing, have yet to be blown out by superior opposition. At the same time, they have clearly thrown points away, getting draws when they should have gotten wins, giving up goals through inattention to the sort of defensive details that experienced, settled sides take for granted and wasting any number of chances obtained through clever passing and ball movement. The causes in both cases have yet to be clarified, it may be inexperience, it might be ineptitude but it has presently put a kibosh on the season, at least as far as the playoffs are concerned.
Worse, the freshly minted style has started to run into strategic adjustments as witness the way old friend Paul Mariner got his leg-weary TFC charges to pressure the fresher, supposedly more talented Revs into getting tons of possession that yielded nothing, a kind of ineffective footballing foreplay on the part of a team that is, at least as far as grinding out results, well, virginal.
It was interesting to visit with the Toronto supremo before his team carried out their most effective game plan. He talked about how young his team is and how the academy system in place in Ontario draws on a stupendously multi-national population of over twelve million (Note: the Greater Toronto Area had a population of 6,054,191 in the 2011 Census but the catchment area for Toronto FC is much larger). He anticipates a surge in MLS-level talent coming through and hopes to be able to develop it, much in the way he and Stevie Nicol did in New England before age, injury and better offers led to an exodus that was never adequately replaced, at least until now.
And development is the key here, the ability to build on what has already been done. Everyone got excited when New England finally signed an early mid-career DP with a track record, the Honduran Jerry Bengston but this needs to be followed by signing of similar, if not better quality at other positions through every means at hand; allocation, the draft, scouting, the transfer market. This support was never there for the Ayrshire/Lancashire coaching combo, what they achieved was with who fell into their hands. Not that they didn’t try to find players, the famous twenty names on the list from an Argentina scouting trip was actually forty but not a one put pen to paper.
Can Revolution supporters count on a continued procession of high quality prospects? Will the ownership continue to sink cash into a team when barely 12K turn up for a crucial mid-season clash? Hard to predict but as MLS franchises increase in value like housing stock in the 1990’s, one has to wonder, it is said that buying into the league now costs at least 60 million dollars.
What does it take to get Boston fans to turn up to watch the beautiful game live: Liverpool/Rome, Milan/Olimpia? A sad comment if it does, other than the crowds themselves those games won’t be half as interesting to watch as what we are currently seeing with the Revs.
In every professional sport the defining period in the development of a new player is when early season success comes up against experienced opposition the second time around the league. A classic example is the current situation in which Saer Sene finds himself. Everyone has now seen the tape: no right foot, not much upper body strength and a disinclination to take the hard foul. Practice, the gym and an infusion of good old gringo go-ahead might do wonders when combined with his marvelous unpredictable flair, foot skills with the ball and speed, the question is can the improvement on the frustrating former be grafted onto the laudable latter to make a finished MLS-level star and does the Heaps administration have the coaching nous to do it?
That said the team is light years ahead of where it has been recently. It is fun to go to the stadium again and whatever frustrations manifest themselves there is an excitement in watching the whole project evolve. The attrition of age aside, most of the players on the team seem to be improving, if only in their understanding of one another. It may take more than this season and more significant roster moves but there does seem to be a real will on the part of those in charge to do better.
If only more folks would show up at the stadium to build on the noisy and infectious enthusiasm of those who do. Maybe the miking is different but the crowd noise at the Morgue has definitely increased and that can only be a good sign, perhaps the numbers will follow when August, September and October come.
Watching the quality of Florian Lechner’s crosses makes one wish that Dr. Frankenstein might swoop down and graft his fast twitch muscles and foot/eye accuracy onto the legs and into the synapses of some of his younger defensive colleagues. Maybe, just maybe over the perhaps hundred and fifty training sessions some of that will rub off, if only through repetition, again and again and again.
When I caught up with the well-spoken German it was on a particularly hot day where he had stayed late after training to work on trapping high punts with a fellow defender. The media folks had warned me that he usually is one of the last to leave the field and when he finally came off we sought shade in the belly of Gillette Stadium, near where they store the empty kegs of Bud and Coors. En route he told me that he has played his senior football mostly with St. Pauli, the second team in Hamburg that is always yo-yoing between divisions but has a very strong identity with the neighborhood it represents and is the team of the young people and the students in the city. Of course the area is also where the famous St. Pauli girl brewery is located, so it seemed funny to be talking as forklifts bearing barrels of truly bad beer clunked by us.
While he was talking about his former club and the neighborhood culture I couldn’t help but imagine a similar situation in Somerville, with packed stands full of twenty and thirty-something’s and maybe Harpoon and Sam Adams on tap throughout the stadium.
One can dream…
JIM: You played a number of years in Germany in different divisions and my impression of German football at club level is that it has to be the most well-organized set of leagues in the world, Despite there being a great deal of money and super rich clubs like Bayern Munich, there is a great deal of parity among the teams and that allows for a level of competition, top to bottom, that you don’t see in Spain or England, for example, where there is such a disparity between the so-called big teams and the others.
Are those fair observations?
FLO: Yeah, that’s right, I think that you are right. In the last ten years we had a couple of seasons where Bayern Munich was the whole time at the top but for two or three years, with Bayer Leverkusen and Schalke, Borussia Dortmund and another three or four teams (all) could have won the title, the championship.
Yes, it’s good because (it brings) a lot of fans going to the stadiums.
JIM: There is huge attendance, right?
FLO: Yeah, yeah, I think every game is maybe between forty and sixty thousand people there and it is the most popular sport in Germany.
JIM: And with the development of young players in Germany, is there a kind of national playing style; as say in Holland, or does it vary from team to team?
FLO: I think (that) ten years ago, when I was young, there were more experienced players, more foreign players, more older players (in the Bundesliga) and now, you are right, it is more younger players but I don’t think that it is a nation(alistic) thing, I think that because we have a lot of youth academies that are doing a very good job and you see it on the National Team with Kroos and Gotze and Schurrie, a lot of good players, they are young and they are very good.
(Now it doesn’t matter) how old a player is, we have new coaches and they like the new style and the new teams and new players and for the new coaches it doesn’t matter how old a player is, when he is good, he plays.
JIM: I started following German football in the late 1970’s, there was a weekly show here called “Soccer Made In Germany” that was a highlight show that featured the best matches, I don’t think it was even called the Bundesliga then and then watching over the subsequent years how the characteristic of the German player and German teams, from the Mannschaft on down has always been never, never, ever give up which, interestingly, turning to the Revs seems to have become a characteristic of this particular edition of the team.
What for you have been the biggest differences and or similarities moving from German football to football here, in MLS in the States?
FLO: In Germany it is more tactical, a lot more tactical, here it is more physical and, I think, sometimes they play smarter soccer in Germany and the European leagues. I think that maybe in five or ten years America will be a great soccer nation and the MLS will be a very good league.
Yes, it is…one part, the physical and technical thing and another part is that here (in the States) there are no leagues under the MLS, (no pyramid with relegation and promotion) and I think that is a big problem. When you have leagues down (below you) you have more pressure to get up, or stay up in the second league, or in the third league, or (even) the fourth league and (so) you have more competition (and pressure).
Here you have more youth academies with kids starting to play soccer and I think that maybe in five or ten years hopefully the system will change and when it does I think you will see some changes (for the better but) I do think that MLS is a good league.
JIM: Germany is well known at club level for having a bonus system, which really puts an edge on every single player, first to make the senior squad, then to start and play well and also to win. There are bonuses in place for all of this, above the individual contract for each player. Do you think that would be a good idea here, in the States?
FLO: Right, definitely.
JIM: And do you think that bonuses create a tension among the players on a team or is it more a group kind of pressure?
FLO: It is more of a group kind of thing and a part of every player, not the whole group, When you get bonuses and stuff like that every time the group, the team, wins the championship, you win as a team, nobody can win the game alone and that is the whole key to soccer, that you play as a unit. Yes, I think it would help.
JIM: A number of players who come to MLS from other countries have a difficult time adjusting to the travel, sometimes five, six hours on an airplane, changing two, three time zones, the equivalent of going say from Munich to western Siberia. Has that made a difficulty for you, or have you yet to experience it?
FLO: No, for me it isn’t a problem because we travel in Germany sometimes on the train four or five, or six hours sometimes you take the plane and drive then two or three hours on the bus. The time zones, OK, in the first two or three weeks it is different and maybe a problem but when you are here and the jet lag is over, it isn’t a problem.
JIM: It is what it is, as they say…
JIM: Well, how about the heat, now that the summer is here, how does that feel? Have you trained and played football in this kind of weather?
FLO: Yeah, I played seven years in St. Pauli and that is in the north part of Germany and I played ten years in Stuttgart with the youth academy there and in the summer in the south of Germany we have the same heat but here it is more humid, in Germany it is more dry.
JIM: What were the factors behind your decision to come here, to play in MLS and for the Revolution? For a lot of players it is a huge shift in their way of life, in the stature of the sport, etc. You speak English very, very well so I assume that isn’t a factor in adjusting but what has been culturally the most interesting thing for you?
FLO: Culturally I think that here in America the people are more likely to be direct, to offer to help to others while in Germany it is more, well it is hard to explain, but…
JIM: Perhaps, private?
FLO: Yes, I think that is a good word for it. And the other part, for me, I played my whole life in Germany and I’m thirty-one, I have maybe three of four more years to play soccer (professionally) and I don’t want to spend my whole life in Germany with soccer because you can play soccer (professionally) all over the world and I got the chance and I took the chance and that is why I’m here.
JIM: So really you are using your skills and your ability as a way to see and experience the world and different things.
FLO: Right, I want to play, I want to play all over the world but there’s not enough time now (laughing). No I had a really, really good time at St. Pauli, with the fans…
JIM: Yes, I know that the club has a terrific tradition of a supporter’s culture…
FLO: Right, right, and the fans and the club are located in a district of Hamburg that is a very social part and very liberal (part of the city), and the (St. Pauli) club is a good organization to help out some guys who might be living on the street or kids that have problems in school and, yes, they are very social(ly concerned) and there are a lot of players in St. Pauli that identify with the club. For St. Pauli (fans) if you work hard when you play, if your heart is in the right place it doesn’t matter if you win or lose (they are with you) it’s good.
JIM: You seem to be something of a coach here, in that you bring so much experience as a defender to a group of young defenders, is that that you are helping to teach some of the players?
FLO: Yes, definitely, that’s the point, I’m thirty-one, I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve played in three different divisions and I did things, I made mistakes in the past and I try to help the young players, we have a lot of good young players (here) and sometimes it is better to help them (rather than) not say anything, if I give them some help it is good for me and it is good for them (I hope) and it is good for us, as a team.