Sunday, June 13, 2004

Random Soccer Thoughts

My apologies to my loyal readers, who can probably be counted on one hand, for the absence of posting the last couple days. Saturday, I was away in Richmond, attending the A-League Eastern Conference matchup between Richmond Kickers and Charleston Battery. The A-League, for those who might not be familiar with it, is the second tier professional soccer league in the US, behind Major League Soccer. A rough equivalent would be the International Hockey League or AAA baseball.

Tonight's game was a mixed bag. Large stretches of lackluster play, mixed with a few moments of entertaining action. Richmond pulled out a 1-0 victory, on an 87th minute goal. The Kickers, after missing the A-League playoffs last year, have retooled and are back in form. The defense is solid and well organized. The midfield still lacks creativity, but David Hayes is a dangerous presence on the left, and longtime DC United man Richie Williams is a stabilizing influence. Up front, rookie Matthew Delicate is a quality target forward, while fellow Virginia Commonwealth product McColm Cephas adds speed and skill off the bench.

As for the Battery, last year's A-League champions are struggling badly this year. The team's traditional English long ball approach is mind-numbingly predictable and easy to defend. In this game, the Battery completely lacked imagination and creativity in attack. Their approach depends on having fast, skilled flank midfielders who can deliver quality crosses. Unfortunately, no such players were in the Battery lineup tonight.

Which leads me to the rather puzzling team selection made by coach Chris Ramsey. Three of the team's best players, Michael Green, Ted Chronopolous, and Chris Goos, weren't even on the bench tonight. Ramsey's substitution patterns or lack thereof, were equally curious. The A-League, due to its compressed playing schedule, allows for up to 5 substitutions per game. Yet Ramsey used only two, both after the 75th minute. It was obvious late in the game that the Charleston midfield and defense were tiring. Henrik Jensen and Ivan McKinley, both veteran defenders capable of pushing forward and joining the attack, were on the substitutes' bench. Incredibly, both stayed there. Greg Simmonds, a striker of limited ability, was left in the game for 75 minutes, while MLS caliber forward Wolde Harris never saw the field.

All in all, not a terrible game but far from a great one. The skill level, in particular the quality of the crossing, was good. However both teams, especially Charleston, were too predictable and unimaginative in their play. The one goal was created by a nice piece of individual skill by McColm Cephas. The main problem wasn't the physical speed of the players, or even their skill level. It was speed of thought and tactical awareness; in other words, knowing just what to do and when to do it. This is the main difference between MLS and the A-League.

While this post sounds negative, I do like the A-League. It's an important element in developing the professional game in the US. Plus, it's a chance to see professional soccer at an affordable price in a relatively intimate setting, as long as you're not surrounded by too many annoying kids. When I go to an A-League game, I know full well that I won't be seeing Man. United v. Arsenal, or even DC United v. Chicago Fire. I have indeed attended A-League matches that were well played and entertaining. Unfortunately, this game wasn't quite one of them.


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