eddie pope 55

The Cheap Seats: Long and short of it

a.k.a. the nectar of the godless -- and start serving blonde ale handcrafted by Trappist monks.

What’s the specific problem? Simple: Long balls. I don’t know when it happened, but for some reason, no one in MLS wants to strike a ball farther than 20 yards anymore. Instead, every pass is 10 yards, 15 yards, 20 yards tops. It’s all so safe and easy, as if everyone out there is just playing to not screw up rather than to really grab the game by the cojones. And it’s predictable: Knock the ball around the back a few times, pass it into the midfield, maybe back to the fullback, then out to the wing midfield, then into a center mid, then up to a forward’s feet, back to the center mid, maybe a 1-2 with a forward, then back to the midfield and ... eventually you lose the ball and the other team begins their version of the same thing. No wonder there are so few goals and so many ties.

Last weekend at Giants Stadium, my buddy Kraemer, who knows next to nothing about soccer, turned to me midway through the Metrostars vs. Wiz sleeper and asked, “Why don’t they ever just kick the ball real far?”

Now, mind you, Kraemer is an intellectual type who spends his days contemplating the politics of Kazakhstan, studying Farsi, and listening to early ’80s hardcore bands like 7 Seconds and the Descendents. (Needless to say, he’s a big hit at parties.) If he can figure this out, certainly Nick Garcia and Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope can figure it out. Every now and then a team needs to send a long ball over the top to a streaking midfielder running from a deep position or needs to stretch a game by drilling a 40-yard ball into a forward’s feet. That just doesn’t happen enough in MLS these days.

“Kick the ball real far!?!” the Total Football snobs retort. “How silly! How naïve! How gauche! No, no, no, kicking the ball real far is for under-8 house leagues, for over-30 beer-belly teams, for Scottish Premier League clubs that aren’t Celtic or Rangers. That might be how it’s done in Kazakhstan, Mr. Kraemer, but here in the upper echelons of American soccer we play 1-2s in the midfield, many square balls, many backpasses. We Play To Feet.”

In other words, we are Belgian. And if you watched any game last week -- except the latest episode of the “Andreas Herzog Show,” taped live in L.A. -- you know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t have exact numbers, but during the Columbus-San Jose game, I think roughly five long balls (over 40 yards) were struck on purpose. (I discounted those desperate defensive clearances that happened to come down near Jamil Walker.) Of those five, I’d say two met their target.

There are plenty of MLS naysayers who will question whether MLSers have the skill to “kick it real far.” Absurd. Of course, they do. Well, except maybe Joey Franchino, but he makes up for it by kicking opponents real far. No, that’s not true. Even Joey can do it. The problem is Americans have been programmed -- Belgianized! -- to do the opposite.

(Warning: BS theory dead ahead)

About 15 years ago or so -- right around the same time that Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten led the Dutch to the European championship, Paul Gascoigne was teaching the English about “cheeky” on-the-ball flair, and videos like “Tor! Total Football” started circulating in the soccerista underground -- we in the USA got it into our head that the long ball was a one-way ticket to soccer purgatory. I remember spending countless hours being preached to by some overpaid know-it-all coach whose only qualification was a foreign accent about the imperative of playing to feet. If we dared hit a long ball, he’d swear in his native language and then screech, “Vhat are you doink?”

Maybe it was a necessary correction to cure our evil long ball ways. I don’t know. Just a guess. After all, 15 years ago, I was a 16-year-old punk more infatuated with a flaxen-haired minx named Stephanie Sorensen than with my ability to strike a 40-yard ball. But I do know that now we’ve gone overboard. It’s like when Nirvana led the anti-hair metal flannel grunge thing and inexplicably Bush (the band, not the president) got a recording contract. Someone was smoking something wacky when that one went down.

Wednesday night at the the U.S. vs. Honduras game, I had the pleasure of seeing Steve Cherundolo and Claudio Reyna spray the ball all over the place. Cherundolo fearlessly whacks the ball over the top or across the field, skipping the entire midfield, which just slows the attack down anyway. And it was Claudio’s driven diagonal ball over the top to a racing DaMarcus Beasley that resulted in the game’s first real scoring chance. (Quick aside: A big Cheap Seats shout out to Claud for his 100th cap.) All of this stretched the Honduran team, putting their defense on their heels. After that, no matter how loudly the Honduran fans at Foxboro cursed McBride’s madre, it was “Adios, los catrachos!” (What is a catracho?)

The English have traditionally gotten their arse handed to them for supposedly playing kick-and-run footie. I’m not sure you can say that anymore considering the glorious game that Arsenal and Chelsea play. Either way, at least it’s exciting. Thrilling, even.

And that’s all I ask. Please, please, please, somebody, hit a damn long ball. Go ahead: Kick it real far. It’ll open up the game, create space for the midfielders to work in, and most importantly, help repel those pesky Belgians.

Mortal Lock: Yet again, the Crew vanquished the invading horde and yours truly extended his commanding lead in the MLSnet.com Fifth Column League. This week, it’s all about the Firemen: Chicago over D.C.

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 MLSnet.com.

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