Ruud Gullit had it right all along: Sexy football is what the people want.
Of course, the Dutch legend – who coined the term 16 years ago – never actually uttered the phrase during his easily forgotten tenure in Major League Soccer. (Maybe we media types should take some blame there.)
But even more ironically, his old LA Galaxy aren’t playing sexy football, either. They may have the stars, but it’s the non-sexy teams – or at least the ones from non-sexy markets – who are off and running early in the 2012 season with the kind of up-tempo, pass-happy football that should be making the highlight reels.
Case in point are the undefeated Colorado Rapids who, at 2-0-0, are off to arguably the most surprising start in the entire league. Oscar Pareja hasn’t reinvented the wheel in Commerce City, but he has revamped much of the roster around some of the old reliable parts. And thus far, the Rapids have been a joy to watch.
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They’ve been running an interesting variation of Gary Smith’s old 4-4-2 – now morphed into more of a 4-2-3-1 – that makes the most of the veteran spine of the team, yet pushes forward with creativity and agility. Pablo Mastroeni and Jeff Larentowicz still make up the solid midfield, as they have for the past two seasons.
But instead of two wide midfielders flanking them, Tony Cascio (pictured above) and Brian Mullan have more freedom to go forward, almost as wingers. And in the absence of the incumbent Conor Casey-Omar Cummings strike duo, Colombian newcomer Jaime Castrillón has occupied a spot in the hole, further from goal so he can create and draw space for Cummings alone up top.
It’s provided some fun moments for Pareja’s crew, as the tempo has been completely different than in the Smith tenure. The unpredictable ball movement and emphasis on attacking have seen Cascio and substitute Quincy Amarikwa strike a pair of highlight-reel goals, while Castrillón poached himself a sweet one off a Zac MacMath error – a crowning moment for the veteran after occupying literally the entire field over the 90 minutes.
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Meanwhile, Colorado’s Rocky Mountain rivals are up to their same old tricks. Real Salt Lake have also jumped out to a 2-0-0 record thanks to back-to-back wins over LA and New York, the clubs that are supposed to be MLS’ glamour teams.
RSL have made their reputation over the past few seasons as a dynamic, possession-oriented team that favors passing and movement. And though their victory against the Galaxy was as much being in the right place at the right time for the winning goals, it still had that RSL stamp: out-possessing their opponents and out-passing them with more accuracy.
Against the Red Bulls, Jason Kreis’ men had their game flowing much more effectively, spurred on by a home crowd and some horrendous New York defending. Still, they were also a joy to watch, especially during Luis Gil’s 58th-minute goal to stretch RSL’s lead to 2-0.
Again, like Castrillón in Philadelphia, Gil wasn’t the intended recipient of the scoring play. He poached the rebound off Fabián Espíndola’s effort, which RBNY ‘keeper Ryan Meara was well-positioned to block. But if you watch the replay carefully, beginning with Ned Grabavoy taking the ball inside New York’s half, you’ll notice the ball changes feet eight times before it winds up in the net.
It’s a stunning example of how patience can unlock an opponent’s defense – however shoddy – and reminds me in a tiny way of Argentina’s stunning goal on Serbia and Montenegro at the 2006 World Cup in which the ball was passed 25 times before Esteban Cambiasso deposited it in goal.
And before you write this off as early hype for the first of three Rocky Mountain Cup clashes this season, beginning in two short weeks at Rio Tinto Stadium, other swarming teams are getting results, too: Sporting Kansas City and Vancouver – both of whom run variations of up-tempo, pass-happy attacks, are also out to 2-0-0 starts.
Of course it should be noted that the fifth 2-0-0 team in MLS heading into Week 3 is perhaps the opposite of all of this: the always underappreciated Houston Dynamo. Dominic Kinnear rarely wavers from his traditional 4-4-2, and for good reason – it works.
The Men in Orange have toughed out two fantastic results on the road by identical 1-0 scorelines. Neither was pretty, neither was convincing. And it doesn’t matter. Kinnear will gladly take a championship season without any mention of the word “sexy.” There was nothing sexy about how the Dynamo reached the MLS Cup final last fall, and that’s fine with them.
But if we’re going by early examples, it’s a breath of fresh air to see four attacking teams be the first out of the gates early. Nothing like giving the people what they want. Bedankt, Ruud.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.