Ed. note: As we continue to march through the crushing heat of mid-summer, I am continuing with my broad-themed Grinder series. After beginning with a look in on Wondo's goal-mouth prowess (did you see his set-up on Lenhart's tying goal this weekend?) and moving to Martin Rennie's shrewd tactical maneuvers last week, we move on to another biggie this week: the league's forever-morphing identity. The Grinder will travel back to its breakdown format once the playoff race begins to take a more defined shape in a few weeks. Until then...
Every league in the world, for reasons more in line with history than anything else, has developed within itself a moniker, a title to which they have become intrinsically linked. For the Italians, it is the cynical, bone-crunching Catenaccio with the metronomic offenses and low-scoring results. The EPL's reputation grew from the English propensity to boot and chase, an unfeeling strategy with no room for the timid or the actively elegant. The Spanish of course all play keep-away tiki taka and score strictly through rabonas, rainbows and roll heels. How else would you play Barca than through Barca's style? How else would Liverpool play other than through Route 1?
This is all a convenient lie. We so often fall back on these tropes because they make us comfortable, because we can pull them out of shallow water at the bar over a pint and the guy next to us will nod demurely and mumble something about those damn all-frills Spaniards. It is easy to package vast sweeps of humanity into neat stacks because it soothes our need to understand and shoves under the rug the vapid, threatening wastes of the unknown. To say the Italians don't play Catenaccio (and this informed style still has a home in Serie A to some extent) would acknowledge that they play something else, and that something else is altogether nebulous and frankly a little frightening. What the hell is it then, we ask, that they do play? Do we dare step over that ledge in a genuine quest to figure out?
MLS has never fallen into a similarly neat category, but its detractors and proponents have both had their say on what makes MLS, well, MLS. At a distance the league is merely the EPL with less technically able bodies. It is a free-for-all mess, they posit, with a healthy contingent of shin-kicking goons with ankles to break and workmanlike goals to spit out. Link-up play is an arcane art replaced lustily by over-the-top balls and the worst kind of pump-it-into-the-box mentality on the planet. Injury rashes like the one we had to Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira and Javier Morales in early 2011 only reinforces the prejudice that the league is policed by a roving goon squad. People see what they want to see, and if somebody wants to see MLS as a league that rewards ugly-but-effective play, I can't stop them.
Doesn't mean I won't try, though. Welcome to the Thunderdome, doubters.
The fact of the matter, for those who want to see it, is we're now entering a new epoch for what could earnestly be termed "The Beautiful Game" in MLS. Allow me to borrow a visual from fourth grade nature class to explain what I mean. Every insect goes through some form of pre-birth maturation that involves something called a chrysalis stage, the point at which the insect is cocooned in a hardened pupal case before it emerges in its final form. Its incubation period in this form can last days, months or years depending on a variety of conditions, but it is in its final stage before, say, the butterfly cracks the case and emerges. It had to meet a number of preexisting conditions to get to the chrysalis stage, but its close, so close to emerging in some kind of polished format. This, I submit, is where MLS is right now. It is incubating in front of our eyes, and it is a lot further along than its detractors would like to admit. Let me show you why.
Examples, you say? Easy. There are so many, in fact, that I won't bother flooding this space with most of them, so I could keep it to just this weekend. And I'll still fall short. Saer Sene's goal on Sunday night could easily be Exhibit A. The problem with this of course is that it's hard to accurately depict a wholesale maturation without looking primarily at the big picture. We're talking build-ups, runs behind the ball, holistic attacking movements, intricate defensive webbing... catching stuff requires time spent conscientiously digesting MLS games, preferably in a seated position with both eyes carefully trained on the action. With that in mind, it's hard for me to accurately chart exactly how much more fluid, dynamic, cohesive and just generally watchable MLS has gotten without just telling you to watch the games with a practiced eye. If you've spent any time at all doing that this year (and something tells me you have if you've made it here), you'd see exactly what I do — that the league, in all its forms, is consolidating its power, drawing all its limbs inward for more power punches than ever before.
Thankfully, we have access to the MLS replay vaults, so breaking down these feathered moves is easier than ever. I'd like to pick through the entrails of one these scoring moves from the backlogs to show you MLS offenses aren't only scoring from headers and garbage tap-ins. To do it (and I promised you something from this week), this is the second goal from streaking Houston's 2-0 win over TFC on the road Saturday.
The main reason I like what you're about to see? Houston ground up 35 yards and scored a goal in three touches. This is textbook offense with a dash of flair thrown in for good measure. Set aside for a moment TFC's out-of-position defenders and appreciate Houston's movement and the Dynamo's ability to pull Aaron Maund and Richard Eckersley from the middle of the box. A practiced, efficient offense will always make an elastic defense snap.
That took four seconds.
This is something you you'd expect to see on a typical sun-washed Spanish Saturday afternoon, Xavi casually playing through Iniesta, who, pulling a pair of respectful defenders wide, calmly leads in David Villa for a high-roof put away. Here, Boniek Garcia, one of the many flair-informed players representing the new guard in MLS wins a contested ball knocked high by his defender, only to casually one-touch a through pass to a charging Brad Davis, who as you can see in this prelude to our first picture above has not only recognized Garcia's plight but has already begun charging hard into space. This is an arresting piece of anticipation from Davis.
What we see next is Garcia's first actual touch, brilliant in its simplicity and economy, which sprung Davis into clean space. Davis lets the ball run onto his natural left and plays that splicing back touch to Brian Ching, who does what he's done his entire career — find space, latch onto passes with an adroit move and finish hard, strong and clean.
What I want to impress upon you is something MLS teams are now doing so routinely that this moment very likely seems odd to you that I'd take time to point this out: they are finally punishing risky defense. I can't tell you how many times defensive gambits used to pay off in this league by virtue of attacking moves dying off without any exploitation. If we're being honest, it was down to technical link-up play like this that, while it may seem routine, is the titanium backbone of any successful club. If you really watch Barca's key movements (I know, groan, another Barca reference), they rarely do more than this, but they do it so well and so fluidly that it becomes this resplendent celebration of simple soccer. MLS will forever have its own identity apart from this. The league will never escape its big-boned speed — nor should it — but the potential here is mighty. If the league can continue to pair this kind of linkage with the straight-line power it has developed over the years, MLS has a very unique niche to fill in the world soccer landscape. With the mixture of European graft, Latin flair and American work-rate, the product could be something so unique as to *gasp* allow the league to threaten its European grandfathers' sacrosanct status as The Untouchables. One day, anyway.
It seems like a small thing, perhaps, but this is one of those evolutionary pieces to the puzzle that will help grow the league from that chrysalis to a fully formed butterfly. It's a long haul and not one likely to see any kind of massive cathartic moment in the near future. But this much is undeniable, as ironclad as the USS Monitor herself: we're getting there.
- Will Parchman