It is finally here, the long summer of our discontent made glorious autumn – soon enough, anyway – by the fall of teams I will be rooting against with all my heart.
That is one of my two planks for this 2018 World Cup. Please understand that the US failure to qualify has devastated me, but also freed me. It means that I can go into this tournament unshackled from the soul-crushing worry over "my" team; the impotent fury at coaching malpractice; the utter despair at in-the-moment, on-field mistakes; the numb resignation when it all inevitably comes crashing down and breathes its last.
I don't think I'll miss that. I think I'll enjoy watching a World Cup without a mental countdown clock tracking the hours, minutes and seconds between now and "When do we play next and oh, God, what if we lose?"
Now I get to think about what other teams do when they lose. I like that more.
And that leads me to plank No. 2: Misery leads to innovation. Fear of failure leads to innovation. Desperation leads to innovation. I'm trying to get through this paragraph without typing "Necessity is the mother of invention," but I'm just not gonna be able to do it, so there we are.
Amongst the things I love most about our game are the tactical tweaks – some big, some little – teams and coaches make from game-to-game, and sometimes in the run of play itself. The way we think about soccer is always evolving, so it makes sense that the way the game is played is always evolving, and that keeps the sport fresh and new pretty much no matter who's playing.
Of course, the best tactical tweaks and inventions are ones born of a solid, fundamental and consistent structure in the first place. If you have that underlying, thoroughly understood identity then you're positioned to make meaningful (if incremental) progress, and that's the type of thing that wins.
If you don't ...
JCO's Wild Ride
Juan Carlos Osorio guided a good New York Red Bulls team to an appearance in the 2008 MLS Cup final, doing so with a relatively young and promising squad. As most coaches would do he ... actually no, as very few coaches would do, he didn't build on that. Osorio blew it all up in 2009 and went back to his tinkering ways. The same RBNY team that had made MLS Cup in 2008 went 2-16-4 in 2009, he was fired, and they went 3-3-2 down the stretch with an interim coach. They have not missed the playoffs since his departure.
Osorio's predecessor and successor had better records with RBNY than he did. His predecessor and successor had better records at Puebla than he did, at Atletico Nacional than he did, and at Sao Paolo than he did, and it's because he can not stop tinkering. His motto appears to be "If it ain't broke, take it apart and find out why not."
Osorio is currently doing the same thing to Mexico. Ask 100 El Tri fans what the team's best lineup is and you will get 100 different answers, and chances are that actual lineup will have gotten some playing time together.
"Great!" you think, "That's a manager who's willing to try new things!"
"Yes," I reply, "but the one truly new thing he needs to try is building cohesion and team chemistry, which he's not done."
For non-Spanish speakers out there, the translation of that tweet is "Oh, my god, we're going to get killed by Germany if this man does not pick a lineup that works together and then stick with it."
And Mexico fans know what's up because they got slaughtered 4-1 by Germany in last year's Confederations Cup. And they got worked by Chile, 7-0, in the previous summer's Copa America. Osorio's overall record with El Tri is 31-9-8, but in three tournaments there've been three colossally disappointing showings. Here's what I wrote about his tenure heading into last summer's Concacaf Gold Cup (which indeed goes down as one of those colossally disappointing showings):
Mexico are probably a top 8-ish team in the entire world in terms of their raw talent, which is why they win most of their games. But they have continually struggled against top-tier competition (7-0 vs. Chile, 4-1 vs. Germany, a draw and a loss vs. a Portuguese team that is a cut below those two) because they are constantly, bafflingly, rotating players and lineups and formations and roles and responsibilities.
And so you get a team that gets bounced from the Copa America because they have no idea how to handle a simple cross-field switch, or how to stop a breakaway. And then you have the same team bounced from the Confederations Cup 12 months later for the exact same reasons. Juan Carlos Osorio just does not believe in the power of reps.
...I do wonder if Mexico will stop being a pieced-together Frankenstein's Monster and start looking like a contiguous whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.
One way or another this is the end for JCO with Mexico. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll get to see whether his experiments were meant to culminate in something, or if they were just an endless, pointless excuse for more experiments.
Choose Your Underdog
Or, actually, don't. I understand why people were charmed by the likes of Iceland in the 2016 Euros and how great it is for the country of Panama to be making their debuts. I hope all the players play well and get paid, because careers are short and World Cup glory is long. I wish none of them any ill.
But I'm not going to root for them. They play ugly, destructive soccer – against, not with the ball – and honestly, no thanks.
Know what I'm charmed by? Passing. Those little moments of magic where two or three or four or all 11 players are working in sync to disorient and destroy the opposition, to create angles and channels and goals.
If you're gonna root for someone, don't choose David. Choose Goliath.
Ride or Die
To that end, I will be supporting (such as it was) Lionel Messi and Argentina. Messi is the greatest soccer player who's ever lived – he is impossible – and I would appreciate the cosmic justice of him finally being on the right side of the scoreline in a final for his country.
He doesn't and shouldn't need that to cement his status as the GOAT. Just look at this:
I'll also admit that I still love the 4-4-2 diamond and am pleased that Argentina are playing a version of it (though Jorge Sampaoli insists it's a 2-3-3-2). Yes, I'm rooting for a formation.
The Next 5-4-1
Let's stay on the topic of formations. Costa Rica are a particularly miserable team to play against because 1) they're talented; 2) usually well-coached; and 3) utterly aware of their strengths and weaknesses. And their strength boils down to thinking along these lines: "When we play compact, we are almost impossible to break down, and that means our opponent will get frustrated, and that means we can hit them on the counter."
That's how the Ticos got to the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup.
But the surprise factor of the 5-4-1 was part of it as well. It's a formation few had seen much of, globally, to that point, but one that's come into vogue and has been a favorite of underdogs worldwide ever since. Each weekend you can see a handful of MLS teams attempting it (the Colorado Rapids tried and failed in Houston on Saturday), and while a formation is not tactics, formations and tactics work hand-in-hand.
Four years ago, Costa Rica's formation worked to flummox Uruguay, Italy and England. Now it's gone global.
Will something similar happen this tournament? I kind of hope so, though I'd rather see an aggressive, attacking formation steal the spotlight. (How about a 3-3-4 with a No. 9 who drops in off the frontline to turn and play runners through?)
Time To Shop
The Secondary Transfer Window opens July 10, and runs through August 8, providing a time of renewed hope and great expectations. MLS teams have more money than they've ever had before. You do the math.
Here's a few players I hope coaches here are watching:
- Gaston Silva, LB/LCB, Uruguay/Independiente (24 years old)
- Ismael Diaz, FW/W, Panama/Deportivo B (20 years old)
- William Troost-Ekong, CB, Nigeria/Bursaspor (24 years old)
- Miguel Borja, FW, Colombia/Palmeiras (25 years old)
Let me know who you're keeping an eye on, too.