Again, a provocative title, and yet again, I’m writing abut something more broad–seems to be a pattern for me. The reference in the title, is, of course, to the now-infamous ponytail-pulling former-New Mexico player Elizabeth Lambert, whose violent and blatant displays of rage (and passion) have sent the sports media into a collective buzz. But let’s not go there yet.
This column isn’t to defend this kind of blatant, hurtful play in the most beautiful sport in the world; or to defend Elizabeth Lambert herself (the sexist discussion of “violence” in women’s sports that resulted from the Lambert incident is ridiculous and embarrassing, but I’ll leave that to feminist commentators like Linda Robertson or Laura Pappano, who make the case better than I ever could). Nope. I’m writing about what’s wrong with American (yeah, I’m singling us out) soccer.
The creation of an American soccer player begins, and ends, at the same point: a wholeheartedly absurd marriage of player to position. I’ll give an example from my life: as soon as I turned 6 and began to understand the game, coaches told me I should play midfield because I could pass. Then, I was told that I was “a midfielder,” and I eventually became “a forward” when it became clear that my head (physically, that is) was my greatest asset. I was in love with the idea that I could be put into a category that included some of my favorite players, Raúl Gonzalez, Ronaldo, Pedja Mijatovic, and Fernando Morientes.
Then I went to live in Spain. Instead of being typecast as a forward or a mid, or even (gasp!) a defender, I was told to play everything. I learned how to see the field from the eyes of each position–when you play with a total of 5 people, using trees, or fire hydrants or a fence as goalposts, you don’t have the luxury of playing a position. Improvisational in nature, this kind of street soccer is the way people learn how to play in Spain (and I’m going to go ahead and suggest that this is true all over Europe and South America).
This is exactly what we don’t have in American soccer. It breeds an ability to see the game from more diverse viewpoints, a tactical mentality that allows for the kind of beautiful, flowing, improvisational soccer that characterizes so many of the great powers. Even in Italy or England, where a huge amount of attention is paid to the rigidity and organization of the formation (who’s playing CAM? Who’s CDM?), their players all grew up with this background. Fabio Cannavaro, the great Italian central defender grew up playing on the streets of Naples; David Beckham kicked around with his friends outside his house in Chingford; and I don’t even need to mention Pelé.
This openness, this beauty that comes from understanding the game is why soccer can be so beautiful. It’s why Real Madrid fired former coach Fabio Capello the same season that he won the Liga Championship–because the team didn’t play pretty enough. Results aren’t the be-all end-all of this sport; win or lose, the way a team plays is almost as significant. This spirit brings passion with it–a passion that can be channeled into a never-ending quest to find the best possible soccer. It’s what drives teams to come up with new strategies, like the Dutch “total football” of the 1970’s, or the Capello/Lippi “anti-football” of the 2006 Italian World Cup champs (or Euro 2004 Greece).
Boxing our players into roles in formations hasn’t just hurt our chances of winning any major cups; it’s actually hurt us at every single level of the soccer world. Whether it’s Elizabeth Lambert kicking, elbowing, punching, and ponytail-tugging or the NCAA keeper who did cartwheels to try to stop a penalty-kick, the box that we put our players in creates a results-first mentality that’s bad for the development of the players themselves.
The passion that Elizabeth Lambert showed, though, is actually good. I don’t applaud her individual actions, but I do think that we need people to see what this sport means to people who watch or play it. Her aggression is interesting to me because it’s a dilemma: is she reacting like this because she wants to win at all costs and her job is to be an “enforcer” (a CDM), or is she reacting like this because she cares so much about the game? I’m not sure (and it might be both). But for the sake of my argument, I’m going to say that it’s because her “role” had provided too narrow a box for her passion–taking the best and the worst of soccer and mixing them. Her passion is a good thing; that it had to come out like this is not–she embarrassed herself, and American soccer, just like the keeper I mentioned earlier.
It’d be naïve to say that just allowing our kids to play soccer in the park will fix everything (I don’t agree with Fabio Capello, who said this about American soccer). Nope. This article is meant to try to diagnose, not prescribe. I’ll leave the latter part up to you.