Now, how is it that so many proven MLS squads can go into matches against lower division teams and wind up getting shown a clinic, many on their home turf? We can claim the sorry old excuse of “congested schedules”, or even injury plagues to top players, or players being unavailable due to national team duty. And maybe these are real factors in some way, but none are what I think is the real issue: MLS teams aren’t taking it seriously.
Yes, people have said this numerous times over the last few years — MLS teams need to give due respect to USOC. After all, the winner of the tourney gets a berth into CONCACAF Champions League. And this argument seems to be gaining more converts after every round. But I must emphasize this lack of seriousness because I see an epidemic being perpetuated in the American soccer world.
Bear with me…
What I mean is that I see many teams and coaches paying lip service to the media by claiming to adore the Open Cup, but turning around and acting (for the most part) as if it didn’t matter at all. Proof of this is in the words of Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis, who I know the best of any MLS team/coach. Since 2011, Kreis has said that he sees USOC as the path of least resistance for his squad to get back into CONCACAF again. No doubt their foray into the regional tournament in 2010-2011 proved to be quite the experience. In 2011, Kreis dispatched the Wilmington Hammerheads of the USL in SLC before going to Frisco, Texas and falling to FC Dallas. This year, they failed to even get that far, bowing out to a hungry Minnesota team at home.
I take issue with Kreis’ statements because fielding a B-team in a match like this is the most apparent symptom of the epidemic I’m talking about. Two starters (Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando) were away at national team camp. Three of their starting defenders were in the lineup, as well as Ned Grabavoy in midfield. All the others were bench or reserve players: Reynish (GK), Tanaka (LB), Alvarez (DM), Johnny Steele (RW), Luis Gil (AM), Paulo Jr (F), Emiliano Bonfigli (F); full list here. Both Tanaka and Olave had horrible games against Minnesota, the former was eventually subbed for Tony Beltran, a player that I thought should’ve gotten the start. Paulo Jr was up to his usual sub par performance, taking too much time on the ball and not letting shots off when he had the chance to. Bonfigli was almost a non-factor, only getting maybe two real chances at goal, both of which were unsuccessful.
Further, Kreis saw he needed to adjust to Minnesota’s pedal-to-the-metal attack, and so subbed Beltran on for the underwhelming Tanaka after the half. Seeking to solidify the midfield (Kreis said later that Minnesota did a great job of clogging the middle third) and boost the attack, Velasquez was subbed on for Alvarez in the 53rd. This seemed to do little to live up to the intent. Then, after having Espindola warm up on the sideline, decided against his first choice and instead chose Cody Arnoux, a solid reserve player, to come in for Paulo Jr. Kreis knew his original plan was not performing how he thought, but it seems a long shot to me that a coach of Kreis’ status can make a mistake of this magnitude in the lineup. Beltran should’ve started. Period. And a look at the RSL bench clearly shows that they were ill-stocked at the forward position to deal out much punishment to the opponent.
A look at the bigger picture: RSL’s next game is on June 16th due to the break for international duties. As Brian Dunseth made mention during the broadcast (and Kreis alluded to in the post-game interview), going into a two and half week break off a loss from a 2nd division team is going to test the morale like nothing else. Why Kreis made the lineup changes he did at the 11th hour reeked of indecision and self-doubt. He clearly saw that his starters were not pulling their weight especially on defense, and decided to adjust. What’s more is the reason he gave for Espindola not getting the minutes because of the “risk to injury” he could’ve faced. I don’t buy it. Not only was their highest scoring striker not starting, but an injured player was sitting on the bench in a tournament that you say you want to win. This either calls into question the true depth of RSL’s squad, or it plays into my thought that Kreis really doesn’t want to put too much effort into the Open Cup.
To expand on that though, I get the feeling that not only Kreis, but several other coach around the league, are using USOC play to rest their starters and give minutes to younger players — another example of how to not take it seriously. As I mentioned above, you’re going on an extended break in league play. Most teams won’t see action again until the second week of June. Resting players seems silly to me at this point in a major tournament.
Now, not all the issues with RSL can be chalked up to the coaching staff. As Kreis mentioned in his post-game, the players looked non-cohesive and sluggish. A commenter on another forum said it looked like they “had a kegger last night and then got in a bro fight with each other and never made up”. Valid point. When a former defender of the year (Olave) is having trouble with relegated MLS players on a 2nd division side, you know there’s a lack of effort or focus. The problems abound on every side of the field… except maybe ownership.
RSL isn’t the only team that looked half-assed. Houston’s Dom Kinnear claimed a similar commitment to the Cup, but failed to produce. Jay Heaps sent only half of his starters to Harrisburg, resting his leading goal scorer (Saer Sene) and midfield general (Shalrie Joseph). Bruce Arena fielded a lackluster squad that was arguably of a C+ rating, and the Chicago Fire and Columbus Crew couldn’t manage to dispatch either of their foes with a predominantly starting lineup. Something’s amiss…
This is dangerous behavior coming from America’s top flight because it’s saying not only to USSF and the rest of the American Soccer Pyramid that they’re not paying homage to the longest-running sports tournament in the nation, but outsiders are basing their critique of the once-hokey MLS on each performance. Every bit of evidence that can be used against the league and the “American version” of the sport will be jumped on. MLS is still vying for their spot in the international hierarchy of football. Not taking a tournament that is rewarded with a berth into Champions League seriously casts a dim light on the league as a whole.
And, because of the rewards that can be gotten from such a tournament, it begs the question that has been gone over before: are MLS teams still not taking CCL seriously as well?
England’s FA Cup sees “Giant-killing” all the time. Lower division clubs and even non-league clubs can scalp premier league sides in that tournament. But I have doubts that what’s going on in MLS is giant-killing. Resting so many key players in the midst of the competition tells me that there’s a lack of respect for lower division sides.
Or, coming off this last point, perhaps the question should be raised if the lower tiers of American soccer are getting the respect they seemingly deserve after so many scalpings this year. And, in this case, it says a lot about the status of American football at those lower levels. The 17,000 fans at Rio Tinto Stadium last night were certainly gutted by their loss to Minnesota, but perhaps the quality of play by second- and third-division clubs is better news for the sport in the US than things like the continued importation of 35 year old European studs.
The last two third round games are tonight. We’ll see if 7th division side Cal FC can knock off the struggling Timbers, or if buying home field advantage will prove successful for either Cascadia team. Seattle hosts Atlanta (NASL) at 10PM EDT; Portland hosts Cal FC (USASA) at 10:30PM EDT.