Over the Memorial Day weekend I had the chance to attend two soccer matches at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park just outside of Denver, Colorado. This was part of my super soccer weekend as along with watching the Champions League final, I attended the MLS match between the Colorado Rapids and Philadelphia Union on Saturday night and an international friendly between Brazil and Panama on Sunday night. Both nights were fun and entertaining in their own way but stark differences could be seen between the two nights in terms of the style of play and the crowd which made it seem I was in two different world’s each night even though I was sitting just sections apart.
The MLS match was a more suburban crowd while the International game was a more diverse and eclectic group. Both nights had about 11,000 in attendance but the vibe and feeling around the stadium was much different than the night before. You could tell the Brazil – Panama crowd understood the game better and reacted to all significant plays on the pitch not just those that resulted in scoring chances. This is just part of the soccer evolution here in the United States and as the game matures and people become more familiar with it they will learn the nuances of it and understand the game at all levels as the general public does with American football.
On the field is where the differences between these two nights were the most noticeable. MLS loves them a long ball and on the very first kick of the night to open the Rapids and Union match, Philadelphia needlessly hoofed the ball down the pitch into the arms of the Colorado goalkeeper. While in the Brazil and Panama match the Latin style of play was in full effect with the ball being played on the ground. The only time the ball was in the air was on corners, deep crosses and when fullbacks were switching the flank. This is where the US based player needs to improve greatly if the United States is ever to truly compete at the highest international level. Brazilian and Panamanian players are comfortable receiving the ball in space or under pressure on virtually every spot of the field. Too often MLS players will hoof the ball to no one in particular when under any amount of pressure.
This all goes back to individual training, coaching and youth development. The Unites States and MLS need to increase their ability to improve players in these areas if they want to have a more nuanced and tactical style of game and player. That is the exact style of player USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann wants but this process (as we know) does not happen overnight. It will take a significant amount of effort and time for the US to improve in these areas. I’m not saying the US and MLS needs to emulate exactly the style of other leagues around the world to be successful. Soccer is the beautiful game because there are a multitude of paths to success and the sport would be boring if everyone approached things the same way as we often see in American professional sports. It is clear though the level of on the ball skill for both teams and players needs to improve in order for MLS and the USMNT to take the steps forward we all want.