The Earthquakes have a week off and it will likely be a week in which they will want to take a good, hard look at how things are going so far. Early days in the 2015 season shows a team winning some, losing some, while struggling to find it shape. Whereas this is a frustrating experience for players and fans alike, it can also be seen as an opportunity, as the potential birth of a great team. Players, coaching staff, and fans, whether it be from the stands or out on the field, all share in the struggle to make this so. So let’s dispense with criticism for the moment and take a look at the balancing act San Jose are attempting to pull off.
Since the turn of this century soccer has increasingly become a matter of managing the individual within the context of the team. The rise of superstar players with extraterrestrial skill levels has presented a set of challenges that can offset the value their individuality brings to the collective of the team performance.
Make no mistake, this phenomenon is happening in US soccer every bit as much as it has in the European and South American super teams, and it’s not due to the influx of this year’s crop of fading stars from across the water either. As they develop and mature, homegrown players like the Quakes’ own Tommy Thompson, Los Angeles Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, and Chicago Fire’s Harry Shipp will be adding their contribution to the mystery of the equation: Individual skill + Team runner = Winning side.
So why is managing the characteristics of the individual such a problem? Surely if you have a strong-willed enough coach he will whip these super egos into line. But it’s on the field not the locker room or in tactical meetings where the problem exists; after all talk is talk, and walk is walk. So in MLS are we seeing an increase in the number of specialists? Has the individual trumped the collective?
How many times do we hear commentators say "it’s going to take a moment of individual brilliance to win this game" or even worse "it’s going to take a mistake by someone to lose this game." Add to this the fact that commentators now see a team generated goal as something worthy of special mention. Forgive me for being a naïve old fool, but I’ve always thought the whole point of soccer was for the team to move the ball down the field and into the opponent's net.
Indeed, in the United States the use of college soccer with its bizarre and limited substitution rule to feed MLS is a situation ripe for the generation of the specialist, the sub who runs a particular channel for ten or fifteen minutes plying his limited skill set as he goes. The problem lies in that specialized skill set, for it brings with it an unbalanced, unrounded player. If an attacking midfielder has awesome skills when going forward, like Zidane at Real Madrid in 2004-5 season, but is known not to be able to track back, you have to put a player in front of the back four to defend. That’s reactionary soccer; it doesn’t multiply the players on the team’s qualities exponentially. Surely the whole point of tactics is to achieve a multiplying effect, not a subtraction or division within the team.
Another complicating factor is that, whereas we’re all familiar with the old college try and with the whole team pulling together, the struggle and triumph of the individual is at the very heart and soul of being American.
You may say, okay then, if it’s team effort that we need, how come collective societies like China aren’t ruling the soccer world? In a word it’s a question of balance, the single key to practically every aspect of the game, in this instance the balance of the individual maestro with the team runners.
Something witnessed in the Earthquakes 1-0 victory over the Whitecaps, in which San Jose didn’t allow Vancouver a single shot on goal during the first half, came about because of the understanding between two defenders who, although experienced, are hardly right up there with the very top players in the world. Victor Bernardez and Clarence Goodson are excellent individual defenders. That’s just the point, when they defend individually there has been the potential for catastrophe. But when they joined forces and communicated against The Whitecaps, that joint effort produced something remarkable.
So, who will save the Earthquakes’ season? Simple: Eleven men from a squad of twenty-six.