In the immediate aftermath of the University of Virginia men’s soccer team’s national championship celebration, Jorge Salcedo’s criticism of the Cavaliers’conservative tactics was questionable. As others have pointed out, the best course of action for the UCLA coach may have been to credit the winner and blame himself for his inability to figure out U.Va. coach George Gelnovatch’s strategy, no matter how much Salcedo disagreed with it. In fact, given the talent disparity between the two teams in the title game, I’d be shocked if Salcedo didn’t have a premonition this could happen. The pack-it-in-your-own-box tactic is, after all, the oldest underdog trick in “Coaching Elite Soccer for Dummies,” if there was such a title.
Salcedo shouldn’t have been the one making this point. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong. He brings up a dilemma that’s been had before in sports, and is particularly pertinent in American soccer: Is winning ugly worth the cost?
The obvious answer seems to be yes. But let’s consider what “cost” really means. Soccer is a sport that is trying desperately to gain popularity in the U.S., and the biggest obstacle is that Americans find it boring. It’s not just a lack of scoring; it’s a lack of action. Beyond the ball rarely finding the net, it’s is often not even in anyone’s possession.
This is particularly true of American soccer. In more soccer-savvy countries, the sport is much more watchable. There is up-and-down action, with creative footwork and passing on nearly every possession. And these possessions, compared to U.S. soccer, are less transient. You don’t see Gelnovatch’s tactic employed to nearly the same degree, because opposing offenses are simply too creative for such a deeply defensive approach to pay dividends.
In the U.S., boring tactics can win – but does this hurt soccer’s popularity?
In other words, how much are the leaders of American soccer responsible for improving the sport’s aesthetics? Do prominent leaders of U.S. soccer, such as the coach of a leading college program like Gelnovatch, have a responsibility to play the game in an exciting way to help the sport grow?
Let’s put this another way. Other than UVA fans, did anyone truly enjoy the flow of the game between the two teams? Soccer purists surely didn’t, as evident from the comments from Salcedo and the in-game commentary from ESPNU analyst Taylor Twellman, who was practically seething over UVA’s unwillingness to attack before finally acknowledging in the final minutes that Gelnovatch’s yawn-inducing plan had worked. And for soccer critics, many of their preexisting reasons for their distaste – no scoring, no action – could only have been confirmed by the game. There may have even been disgust with a sport in which a team could win a national title while hardly trying to score.
Gelnovatch’s tactic was advertised on national TV, and it surely fed the negative American stereotypes of the sport. And not only that; success breeds copycats. The more often this strategy works, the more it will be employed by other coaches, thus perpetuating the stereotypes even further.
That this tactic could spread is doubtless the fear of every believer in the power of youth soccer. The way that the U.S. can compete with the elite countries, the common logic goes, is by allowing our young, developing players the same creative leash that the Europeans give theirs. But if bunker-in-and-wait strategy gains popularity, it could have the opposite effect, discouraging development of the attacking creativity that the U.S. lacks on the international stage.
Reasonable arguments against “winning at all costs”have been tested before in more popular arenas. Remember the old criticisms of 1990s Duke men’s basketball by North Carolina fans? Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Tar Heels would point out, doesn’t ready his players for the pros like Dean Smith. His tactics, UNC fans would charge, might be conducive to winning, but less so for developing talent. That’s why a higher proportion of Michael Jordans and Vince Carters (NBA stars) came out of UNC, while more Trajan Langdons and Christian Laettners (NBA busts) went to Duke.
A decade-plus earlier, it was Smith taking heat for using the “Four Corners” offense to stall away wins with his team in the lead. That may have been the biggest reason why, in 1985, the NCAA instituted a shot clock.
Gelnovatch would likely see this as a point in his favor; we are, after all, talking about hall-of-fame basketball coaches.
But is soccer, given its need for growth, a different animal?
Of course, for any coach, winning is the top priority. But, I believe it’s reasonable to say, style points can be relevant – particularly as U.S. soccer leaders try to raise the sport’s national profile, which I imagine Gelnovatch must care about to some degree.
So, is Gelnovatch’s attitude of “win at all costs” the right one? Or is Salcedo’s desire to “blast” Virginia’s tactics, while ill-advised in coming from the losing coach, a valid argument?
In a pivotal period for the popularity of American soccer, this is a topic worthy of discussion.
Paul Montana is a former sports writer, including as a student covering men's soccer at the University of Virginia, where he graduated in 2010. He is now a graduate student in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com