Didier Drogba and the Qi of MLS

We have a problem. MLS has a problem. It’s our qi (氣). The qi of the American player and team are all out of whack. In ancient China, it was taught that optimal health is achieved by balancing the five elements of life’s energy in the body: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Balance is similarly crucial to achieving optimal soccer. The LA Galaxy’s game against the Montreal Impact, and specifically the presence of Didier Drogba in MLS, shows us why this is true.

To clarify, Didier Drogba himself is not the problem. One would be hard-pressed to find a football fan who, when her team is not facing Drogba, dislikes the Ivoirian. In his prime Drogba was perhaps the most frightening and complete center forward in world football. Watching Drogba defend on set pieces summons to my mind the classic Johan Cruyff aphorism, “In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker is the first defender.”

More significant than his contributions to Chelsea, though, one would be hard pressed to identify a footballer who has contributed more to the global political and humanitarian landscape than Didier Drogba. It was Drogba who, after qualifying the Côte d’Ivoire national team for the 2006 World Cup in 2005, fell to his knees on national television and pleaded for peace between the warring rebel-held Muslim north and government-held Christian south of the Côte d’Ivoire. No footballer other than Drogba can lay claim to having ended a civil war. So Drogba is not our problem – he simply illuminates our problem like a canary in a coalmine.

The LA Galaxy drew against the Montreal Impact (0-0) on Saturday night. Putting aside the fact that the LA Galaxy drawing at home triggers stabbing twisting pain in my chest, it was a pretty enjoyable game. This was not a dire nil-nil game. Ample chances were created on both sides and, for the first time I can remember in an MLS game, both sides produced exemplary defensive performances. Prior to the game, I predicted a high-scoring outcome:

I was wrong, but I was not the only one who made this prediction. Taking into consideration the Galaxy’s home record over the past two months (5-1 against Philadelphia, 5-0 against Portland, 4-0 against Toronto, 5-2 against San Jose, 3-1 against Seattle, and 5-1 against New York City), the possibility of the G’s posting a score more commonly seen in the NFL was not an unreasonable expectation.

My prediction was bolstered by Drogba’s recent hat trick against Chicago. Honestly, watching Chicago Fire defenders crumple to the ground after colliding with Drogba gave me the same sinking feeling one gets watching a lion charge a jackrabbit in a National Geographic documentary. Part of you wants the rabbit to escape but the other part knows what’s coming.

So it was reasonable to conclude that both sides would be scoring goals. After all, Montreal’s ability to crow at watching its Ivoirian lion devour the innards of his foe last week was mitigated by the fact that the Impact let in three goals by Chicago in that game. The Impact, too, had jackrabbits ripe for ravaging.

I also predicted that Omar Gonzalez’ match-up against Drogba would be key to the LA Galaxy getting a positive result.

Putting aside the fact that we did not get a positive result, I was still right in one sense. Though prone to lapses in focus and not as positionally sound as the criminally underrated AJ DeLaGarza, Omar is 6’5”, extremely strong, very aggressive and can be a true aerial threat. He is one of the only centerbacks in MLS with a prayer of matching Drogba physically. And on Saturday night, Gonzalez had his strongest defensive performance of the year, personally besting Drogba at least a half-dozen times (both in the air and on the ground).

Omar’s performance was perhaps only exceeded by that of his counterpart, DeLaGarza, who in the 85th minute put in an absolutely stunning tackle to stop a Drogba counterattack. Though DeLaGarza is only 5’9”, there are times when he defends in such a way that he appears 6’2” – I don’t know how he does it but he does.

The Galaxy also prudently switched Gerrard and Juninho from their usual roles and had Gerrard play the No. 6 role, thereby enabling the Englishman (who is both taller and stronger than Juninho and perhaps better suited to challenge Drogba), to break up Montreal’s numerous counterattacks.

Even David Romney, in only his second start for the Galaxy, defended well, which is no small feat when you’re a first year professional player lining up against Didier Drogba.

Credit also goes to Montreal for cleverly defending against the most potent offensive line in MLS. From my vantage point, it seemed that Montreal decided to wall off Robbie Keane from service: every time my gaze landed on the Irishman, he was surrounded by two or three Montreal players. Ordinarily this would open up opportunities for Gyasi Zardes, Giovani dos Santos and Sebastian Lletget to score. Unfortunately, Lletget was subbed off early as was dos Santos (for groin tenderness), which left Zardes to shoulder the burden of scoring. Zardes, who has played an inhuman number of soccer minutes this year, did have the ball at his feet often during the game, yet he finished several chances from distance poorly. It was just one of those games where wastefulness in front of goal cost the Galaxy two points.

Though it is always wretched and painful losing points at home, I still found the game refreshing in the sense that it was genuinely interesting from a defensive perspective. As I walked back to my car, I thought about when the last time was that I had watched an MLS game where both teams defended really well. I could not summon one to mind. This brings me back to our problem, our qi.

It is common in world football for goal-scorers to command higher transfer fees and wages than defenders or goalkeepers. Due to the designated player rule, this trend is more pronounced in MLS. The designated player rule forces MLS teams to invest a disproportionate share of their resources on very few players, which generates vastly disparate salaries within teams. Like most leagues, MLS focuses its resources on goal-scorers. Consequently, the attacking lines of numerous MLS teams would compete quite well in Europe. FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps, Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, LA Galaxy – there are so many teams in MLS that are potent in the attack. Does anyone doubt that a final third comprised of Giovani Dos Santos, Robbie Keane, Gyasi Zardes and Sebastian Lletget (receiving service from Steven Gerrard and Juninho) wouldn’t bang in goals in Europe? And let’s be honest – take Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins away from Seattle and what are you left with? A bad team. Yes, MLS is the Maserati of world football – pretty from the front but a big old mess in the back.

Which is precisely why Didier Drogba was able to score a hat trick for Montreal in his first MLS start. MLS fans can take precious little comfort from the fact that Drogba has been terrorizing teams the world over for a dozen years.  After all, Drogba is 37-years-old.  Further, outward evidence suggests Drogba is not exactly devoted to the MLS cause.  He initially refused to speak to media after games, which is consistent with EPL practice but contrary to American sports’ custom. There have been murmurs that he doesn’t want to travel, he doesn’t want to play on turf, etc.   One could be tempted to conclude that Drogba falls into the category of former EPL players who see MLS as little more than a vacation with a bit of soccer on the side. It’s been a depressing week for MLS fans who’ve been inundated by endless ridicule from the foreign press on Don Garber’s comments last week about MLS’ ambition to one day compete with the great leagues of Europe and also being forced to endure Steven Gerrard waxing poetic in his new memoir about how he longs to still be playing in the EPL after having experienced MLS’ pitiful crowds, listless supporters and inferior players.

Of course, the really ego-bruising part for MLS fans is that even a half-assed effort from Drogba is still potentially good enough to decimate most MLS backlines. So my first thought on bringing some balance to MLS’ qi is that we need to work on our defending. I wouldn’t mind seeing more than one game a year where both teams perform well in defense.

The second imbalance in MLS is in American players themselves. Soccer coaches teach that there are four components to a soccer player: tactical, physical, technical and psychological. The abilities of America’s players are distributed unevenly in this regard as well.

On the physical side, we’re quite good. The American sports landscape is predicated on athletic excellence. Developing players with outstanding strength, speed, size and stamina is what Americans do well. Further, sports science in the United States is second to none so developing a player pool with outstanding fitness is no sweat.

The psychology of the American player is both a strength and weakness. When American soccer teams prevail in international competition, our teamwork, solidarity, determination and positivity usually play a role in the game’s outcome. A number of international team coaches would love to deal with locker rooms as tightly knit as those of the U.S. national teams. However, soccer coaching requires teaching a certain self-centeredness in players to facilitate the development of individual excellence, potentially at the cost of team spirit. Some of the earliest lessons taught to children playing sports in America are sharing the ball, being humble, being generous with one’s teammates and gracious in defeat. These are lessons that contribute greatly to the development of well-adjusted and kind human beings who contribute to society. They do not contribute to the specialized development of a Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. However, in order to avoid developing a cadre of self-important and entitled soccer players as role models for our youth, I would be willing to sacrifice a bit on the psychological side of American soccer development. So it’s unclear how to proceed on this front.

The technical, i.e., how a player manages the ball, dribbles, passes, receives the ball in traffic, his first touch, 1v1 and 2v2 play, etc. We’re not terrible technically but there’s loads of room for improvement. On Saturday night, if we’d had just a bit more clinical finishing, the Galaxy would have won the game.

The tactical. Lionel Messi has never scored a goal in the first two minutes of any game in which he’s played. Not once, not ever. That’s because Messi spends the first two minutes of every game walking the pitch and evaluating the formation of the opposing team. He watches them play to see what they are doing, to determine their strengths and weaknesses, and decide how his opposition can be broken down. The tactical is our Achilles heel. Everything that imbues the genius of Pirlo, Messi and Xavi is where American players come up short.

In no way is the American player responsible for this imbalance. From my perspective, America does not have a crisis among its players but rather among its coaches. Currently, America’s best coaches are in the adult ranks when they should be coaching our youth teams.

Historically, American players compensate in competition by being the more athletic and determined team. David Villa and Andrea Pirlo, geniuses that they are, can be dominated physically, and are in MLS.  But what can we do when we encounter a player we cannot outmatch physically?  This once again brings me back to Didier Drogba. Not only is Drogba technically superb, mentally tough and keenly smart, he’s also blessed with phenomenal strength and size. It is unclear that we’ve developed a player pool that can match him physically with any regularity.  Until our players are developed in a more balanced fashion, the Didier Drogba’s of world football will prove a quandary for us.