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Thursday, April 19, 2007

American-Based Soccer Writer Looks at QPR and Compares to MLS

Plenderleith: MLS Beats the English Style
By Ian Plenderleith

USSoccerPlayers (April 19, 2007) -- At what level could Major League Soccer teams compete in England? The lower Premier League? The second or third division?

Having grown up in England, but lived in the US for almost a decade, it's a question I'm often asked, but now dread to hear. It's almost like asking how the Lakers would fare against the Red Sox.

Having just spent a short time in the UK, however, the inclination to compare the soccer in MLS with what I witnessed at three professional games in England has become impossible to resist. But it's not the perceived difference in standard that interests me. It's the difference in style.

In terms of atmosphere, tradition, passion and wit, attending a game in England, in the lower leagues at least, continues to be a more exciting and enjoyable game-day experience than it is in most MLS stadiums. But these established staples can not paper over the fact that many of these games are horrible to watch.

On March 31, I was at Queens Park Rangers versus West Bromwich Albion, in "The Championship" (that is, division two). QPR were just above the relegation zone, while West Brom were looking to enter the playoffs, with hopes of regaining the Premier League spot they lost last season. So with both teams having something to play for, I was expecting a reasonably good game for my $44 (the cheapest ticket, just three rows up from the touchline).

The first half yielded no goals, and little action, with the two sides hammering long balls forward, which were either dealt with easily by the central defenders, or bounced into touch. It may have been the jetlag, or it may have been the tactics, but I briefly fell asleep in a football stadium for the first time in my life. At halftime I declared to my two friends it was the worst half of soccer I'd ever seen, and they looked surprised. Maybe they're used to it.

With both sides needing points, perhaps halftime would see a change in approach. Indeed, West Brom tried the revolutionary doctrine of passing the ball along the ground, and scored. Rangers responded with more long balls and high crosses. They brought on striker Dexter Blackstock, who responded by heading a cross home with his first touch. See, if you just bang the ball in enough times, eventually someone will get on the end of one. This was broadly the philosophy of former England manager Graham Taylor, who found that what worked well at club level, didn't pan out in the international game.

Encouraged by a suddenly animated crowd, QPR then won a penalty, which they missed. Albion, continuing to attempt some fluent football through their midfielders Jason Koumas and Jonathan Greening, scored a deserved, and nicely worked, game-winner with four minutes to go. QPR fans, however, felt they'd been desperately unlucky -- if only we'd scored that penalty, we might have won! They applauded their team generously at the end. Way too generously, in my view, but then I'm not a QPR fan. And I appreciate that it was preferable to booing them off the pitch. They did, after all, run and run and run.

But what about the technique? The game was extremely fast, and the players so fit that they barely had the time or the space to do anything with the ball other than hurriedly whack it upfield. Footballing philosophies have not kept pace with advances in body training and diet. And such is the financial pressure on clubs nowadays, that results have become way more important than entertainment. While the same top four teams, fat on Champions League and other revenues, dominate the top positions in the Premier League season after season, the rest of the professional sphere struggles just to keep them within sight, both financially and on the field.

A week later I had the misfortune to see a game two tiers lower -- Lincoln City against Stockport County in "League 2" (that is, fourth division, at a slightly less extortionate $34). Even with each side having a player red-carded early on (a tall centerback and a tall center forward, giving me false hope that space would open up, and high balls would be abandoned), it was the same formula as the week before.

Lincoln has a small, skilful striker called Jamie Forrester, who spent the whole game, until he was substituted, trying to reach balls aimed over his head. The much taller defender behind him won the ball every single time. His replacement, a young loan player called Junior Mendes, showed some nice skill on the ball right after coming on, and was then clattered by a Stockport defender for his troubles. The defender was only cautioned, while Mendes limped around ineffectively for the rest of the game. Score: 0-0.

Now, I realize I might have been unlucky in seeing two poor games (and a third two days later, but I'll spare you the details), and I'm not about to deny that there are matches up and down England every week with variant thrill levels. But if you've watched coverage of non-Premier League games on Setanta Sports, you'll know that the tedious, long ball game is far from an unusual event in soccer's self-appointed home. Frankly, I'd choose MLS ahead of this nihilistic dross any day of the week.

It astounds me that so many US-based fans still revere English soccer and turn their noses up at MLS as a somehow inferior product. It's not that I necessarily believe that, kick for kick, MLS offers a better standard of play compared with most English teams. But at least it's here, and either in your city or coming to a city near you (or the suburb of a city near you). Instead of moaning about it without watching it, get down to the stadium and moan about it there. At least you'll be making some noise.

I swooned at Manchester United's performance against Roma on TV last week as much as the next armchair fan, but Manchester United are no longer what English soccer is about (even if I saw couple of Stockport players encouragingly, but clumsily, try to execute Cristiano Ronaldo-style stepovers). For every nine-man passing move at Old Trafford, there are a thousand wasted punts at Loftus Road, Sincil Bank and all the other grounds of the country's four pro divisions.

So returning to MLS, and all the problems it still encounters on a weekly basis in providing a spectacle that will attract fans to its grounds, it's at least nice, in general, to see teams whose goalkeepers mostly roll the ball out on the ground, and who try to build play from the back with the old twin virtues of pass and move.

As West Brom found, patience can pay off.

Ian Plenderleith is MLS Editor of USSoccerPlayers.com. Contact him at: iplenderleith@usnstpa.com Article

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