When Innocent Emeghara signed on January 31 this year as the San Jose Earthquakes' fourth-ever designated player he was pretty much an unknown quantity to fans and pundits alike. Three games into the season Emeghara has already shown not only vision but also the skill to execute that vision.
They say first impressions last, so what are the first impressions of this young European player thrown headfirst into MLS? What’s it like to suddenly find yourself in yet another country, in a Major League Soccer team that has a brand new stadium, a new coach, and pretty much a new team?
Prior to coming to San Jose, Emeghara played in Italy and France, with short spells in Germany and Azerbaijan, so you’d be forgiven for thinking he was quite used to culture changes. Indeed he was born in Lagos, Nigeria and moved to Switzerland when he was 13. He apparently started playing soccer as a means of dealing with the language barrier and the cold weather; soccer to the rescue!
After his Ayava Stadium home debut victory, when asked about the differences between the game here, compared to where he’s played before, he said:
"It’s different, I think tactically also physically. Like in Italy I played more tactically. You don’t play very small like in English football. And in France you play more physically and technically. But here it is something like Premier League, the game is fast, and they don’t play much tactically. But I think the level is very good."
Okay, it’s just a few sentences and easy enough to gloss over as some sort of generic statement typical of an exhausted player who gets a microphone shoved in his face while he’s trying to put on his street shoes. But this is a cultured, educated man, a man who’s played a lot of soccer in a lot of different places.
So first off he’s saying MLS is different tactically and physically than Europe. Italian soccer is based more in tactics (e.g. Andrea Pirlo), while French soccer will clobber you while displaying great technical skills (e.g. Eric Cantona). There’s something of a contradiction in his description of MLS not being "small" (small amount of time and space on the ball, perhaps) as it is in England, but he then says that the game here is fast, like Premier League, but without being too tactically constructed. Then again, if you ask me, English soccer has always been a mish-mash of contradictions.
In terms of pace, the US game has definitely become faster, certainly more so than it was 10 years ago. However, while watching the USMNT team lose 3-2 to Denmark today, something occurred to me: US soccer wants to be fast paced but it also still wants the same amount of time and space on the ball that it used to enjoy when the game was slower. Still too many forward moves are pressured backwards, often all the way to the goalkeeper.
That American soccer is developing its own modern style and culture is as it should be, but how much information exchange is there between coaches here with coaches abroad?
In 2013 MLS announced a partnership with the French Football Federation. One representative from each MLS club’s coaching staff went to France for a 16 month course (The Elite Formation Coaching License) which culminated in June of 2014. After their initial time in France, coaches split to spend time with academies at Real Madrid, Athletico Bilbao, Stuttgart, PSG, and Lyon. Houston Dynamo Academy Director James Clarkson described it as a "major, major step forward by MLS … a real commitment to player development."
This sounds better than coaching conducted behind closed doors, seeking the secret of transmuting players with feet of lead into the golden booted superstars of tomorrow. This is, after all, the San Jose Earthquakes, not the San Jose Alchemists!
Perhaps we pundits tend to read too much into statements made by exhausted players who get microphones shoved into their faces and are asked daft questions. Wonder what his favorite American food is?