By Andrew Winner
I’d like to revisit the final line in my previous entry – mostly that England soccer players simply aren’t that good. Despite the rampant idolatry and hero worship of the English Premier League, it’s hard to argue that point in the face of their destruction.
Although the shame of missing out on Euro 2008 surely stings, the players will benefit both personally and professionally from the break. Currently a top soccer player can only expect two or three weeks vacation during the offseason before starting to train again. How can a player find time to take a real holiday with his wife and children under these constraints?
Following that argument, one has to wonder if the England soccer players care that they won’t be playing next summer? With the exception of Crouchie and Beckham, I didn’t feel as though any of the England players showed the sense of urgency necessary in a game of that magnitude. Some are quick to blame Steve McLaren, which I can understand with his mismatched pairings of tactics and personnel, but at the end of the day the players didn’t show the desire one would expect.
In England’s failure, I am reminded me of the recent struggles of USA basketball in three ways:
1) Both teams appeared sluggish in big games, and as a result fans and media could not help but question the desire of the multi-millionaire athletes. It appeared as though the players needed more incentive than just the colors on their jerseys – the main difference between those teams and their opponents.
2) For both sides, the unique style of play in their domestic league hampered them internationally. (For example, in England when a wing pushes the ball past a defender and intentionally clatters into him, it is always a foul and usually a yellow card. International referees do not always reward this tactic.) This is similar to the refereeing differences between the NBA (the lax rules regarding traveling, for example) and FIBA competition.
3) Technically, their flaws were exposed on the international level. Croatia was the better team on the night, that much is sure – the way they passed the ball out of trouble in the back was nothing short of beautiful. Team USA was exposed in similar fashion by Argentina in the 2002 FIBA World Championships. Afterwards, the reaction from the players wasn’t so much anger and frustration, but a pompous disbelief that an ‘inferior team’ could defeat them. Example: Michael Owen’s recent comments.
With that said, I believe that the English players (and by proxy, the LA Galaxy) will benefit from taking a summer off. As more and more international competitions and club tours fill the summer months, players are getting less time off to rest their bodies. As a result, we’re starting to see an influx of injuries that can easily be attributed to overuse. A player indispensable to club and country like Steven Gerrard can be expected to play upwards of fifty matches in a calendar year. Even the strongest frame simply cannot stand up to that amount of abuse without time off to recuperate, especially with the physical nature of the English game.
Add to that the fact that the EPL does not take a Christmas break (imagine late December fixtures in frigid Newcastle or Bolton!) and it’s a recipe for burnout. (See: last year’s World Cup.)
The end result: England plays below their potential. With all those players rested, healthy, and working in unison, surely the team’s ceiling – the Platonic Three Lions, if you will – would be much higher. But as Donald Rumsfeld so famously said, “You go to war with the Army you have.”
So although the English won’t be playing in Austria and Switzerland next season, perhaps it’s for the best. They could use the break. Not only will the players themselves benefit, but I believe you’ll also see the results on the field during England’s World Cup campaign.
A few months ago, I did piece on Clint Mathis for ESPN.com. In it, I described his renewed commitment to offseason training. He also talked about how he enjoyed the structure of New York – he liked having old friends around like Claudio Reyna, Richie Williams, and Bruce Arena. I believe his good season, especially the beginning, was him repaying those guys for their belief in him. Clint thrives on a positive environment.
Now he’s been traded to the Galaxy. His departure was almost certainly a cost-cutting move from the Red Bulls, who didn’t have the playoff income to balance out their high payroll. Although he did have a good year, netting six times in 19 starts, he will likely take a pay cut from his 150k salary in 2007.
I don’t think Los Angeles will be an ideal place for him in terms of atmosphere. However, I think he is mature enough now to stay focused on soccer and continue to contribute offensively.
Another problem will be playing time – his preferred position is an attacking midfielder, similar to David Beckham. Mathis certainly won’t displace Becks, so they’ll have to throw him up front with Donovan or leave him on the pine. Based on some of the hacks that see time for LA, though, I’m sure Gullit will find room for Mathis somewhere.
He is not likely to get the understanding he needs from the Dutchman Ruud Gullit. Mathis may move further west to play – word is FC Sydney took a look at him during the Galaxy’s recent trip to Australia.
I’m perfect in my predictions so far, so I’ll go ever bolder still: Peter Crouch and Liverpool will make the knockout stage of the Champions League.
Andrew Winner is a freelance soccer writer based in Seattle, Washington. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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