Lalas: You're killing me

each playing at home, no less -- blew one-goal leads in the final minute. In D.C., United gave up a silly PK to the still-hapless Columbus Crew; and San Jose surrendered that pretzel-legged heel-flick from the Metro's Cornell Glen at the death of that extraordinary 5-5 match. (Not to mention Kansas City's capitulation to the Fire with eight minutes to go.)

This inability to close the deal is heartbreaking (and sometimes TV-breaking if you have a cleat handy), especially for any guy with blood pumping in his nether regions.

Does this sound familiar? You meet a girl. You buy her a Bud Light ("I'm watching my carbs."). You play the college name game. You do some tequila shots together ("Screw the carbs!"). She laughs at your jokes. She doesn't mention a boyfriend. She even remembers your name when she introduces her to her friend. You're so in there, it's ridiculous. All that's left is the final whistle. Three points.

Then your internal-monologue firewall goes haywire (Blast you, Jose Cuervo!). You say something stupid like, "Hey, I've got tickets to White Lion on Friday night," and before you can say "Wait! Wait! I never had a chance without you!" she scampers away, leaving you with the bill and this Homeric feeling of emptiness.

That's pretty much how it felt watching last week's games. And I sure hope that's how every player on United and the Quakes felt sitting in the locker room afterward. They blew it, and in a league so beset with parity, that's unforgivable. Wins mean more in MLS because no game is a gimme -- not even Dallas anymore. National team coach Bruce Arena preaches the gospel of putting games away, of discipline in the final 10 minutes. "Kill the game," people like to say these days. As far as I can tell, this past weekend, everyone forgot their bags of tricks.

Finish 'em off

Obviously, the easiest way to kill a game is to finish your chances. How, in the name of Freddy Adu, did D.C. not win, 3-0? Jaime Moreno hit the post. Dema Kovalenko rose like a salmon but couldn't put Ryan Nelsen's cross away. Of course, considering they were playing Columbus, D.C. could be forgiven for thinking that one goal would be enough.

In San Jose, three words: Brian Mullan sitter. He has to finish that. End of discussion. Coach Dominic Kinnear should fine Mullan for that choke. If players get bonuses for stats, shouldn't they be docked when they muck things up?

Lords of Discipline

Italians are good at many things, but four stand out: sipping cappuccino, wearing bikinis, building sports cars and defending one-goal leads. They have unbelievable defensive discipline. Italian teams could score in the first minute and then happily play defense for 89 minutes. Sometimes this even qualifies as a game strategy in the Serie A. Sure, it's ugly, it's negative, it's "cynical soccer," but as my colleague Waldo wrote last week, results matter more than entertainment, especially in the final 10 minutes when you're up a goal. They also expect their field marshals -- typically a no-nonsense been-there-done-that veteran, such as Italy's legendary Franco Baresi or "Billy" Costacurta -- to enforce on-the-field discipline and keep the young whippersnappers from doing stupid things.

This is where the much-ballyhooed "veteran leadership" is supposed to pay off. But, for example, D.C.'s Brandon Prideaux was caught alone and on his heels in the box against Frankie Hejduk? Shouldn't he have known he had help behind him in Nelsen? Or, in San Jose, shouldn't we question how the MetroStars' Eddie Gaven -- a 17-year-old -- was able to slip free 35 yards from goal and how the aforementioned Glen was allowed to run free in the box among the most veteran central defense in the league, Jeff Agoos and Troy Dayak?

Extra defender, anybody?

This is a gimme, isn't it? USSF "D" coaching license stuff, right? You're up a goal, 10 minutes to go, you take off an attacker and put in a defensive-minded player, someone more inclined to give his body for the cause and less inclined to take off on a 1-on-4 counterattack. D.C., which has now blown three second-half leads this season, ended the game with Mike Petke on the bench and a substitution in hand. The Quakes had Wes Hart and one sub in hand.

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap

This is from the textbook of "Kill a Game 101":

1. If you get fouled, go down and roll around like a dog that's just been shot. Maybe have the trainer come out and zap you with magic spray.

2. When there's even a whiff of danger in the final third, clear the ball not only out of the area, but out of stadium.

3. When you're all alone, go to the damn corner. Play keepaway. It's actually fun. You'll either get fouled or you'll earn a corner kick. Either way, the time keeps ticking away.

4. Lollygag! Stroll to the ball on throw-ins. Set up goal kicks four or five times (Jonny Walker is a master at this one, which is a result of his time in Chile, I assume). You have to be careful not to irk the ref, because the men in black also know that lollygagging is the greatest trick of them all. It's the soccer equivalent of going to the watercooler during a meeting or of talking about the weather on a date with that ditz you asked out in a moment of fermented weakness.

These tricks, of course, make a lot of folks in the United States cringe (especially the suits trying to sell the game's "non-stop excitement"), because they take place in the gray area between the letter of the law and the spirit of the game. We in the USA are never comfortable with the gray area, which is why we get all worked up whenever we watch a U.S. game played in Central America; the Mexicans and Costa Ricans, et al., are perfectly at home in the gray area. We, on the other hand, believe in liberty and justice for all, giving a fair shake and all that other crap.

But soccer games are won and lost in the gray area. And ultimately, the game is about winning and losing. Thirty years from now, no one will remember how D.C. or San Jose played, only that they both blew last-minute leads. It would be good for some of MLS' players to remember all of this the next time they're up a goal with 10 minutes to go.

It would also be better for my TV.

***

Mortal lock: Now that I'm in the lead of the MLSnet.com columnist league, I'm going out on a limb. Ready for this one? Columbus over New England.

Greg Lalas played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny and the New England Revolution in 1996 and 1997. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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