Thursday, October 29, 2015

Effort, Some of the Time

"Most people only try as hard as they have to most of the time." - Bob Knight... I think. It could have been Dick Vitale, Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith, Jim Valvano or one of the other coaching greats that I was fortunate to hear during my summers spent playing basketball as a youth. Thinking back, all of them likely said similar, just used different words in an attempt to communicate what makes a player special from the rest.

I've been thinking about that quote a lot as the MLS Cup playoffs get underway. A lot of good players last night that had been in "regular season" mode were having to play at a higher effort level. I'm not talking about players like Taylor Kemp for DC United or New England's Keyln Rowe. It's more about guys like Jermaine Jones, Gio dos Santos, Steven Gerrard and even Chris Rolfe.

The opening night of the playoffs were as much chaotic as they were exciting. Some of the midrange guys were out there toiling away on wary late season legs, while the stars were trying to crank up cold engines.

Cynically put, it's the real start of the MLS season. Games that have meaning and consequence are finally here.

The DC vs. New England match had more of a messy midweek MLS match feel for most of it, but there were moments late in the match where the players finally locked in and said, "Okay, let's play the kind of game that we know will get us a win." Then realize they didn't know what the hell that was because they were talented enough to not have to play at full speed for most of the previous eight months.

"Regular Seasons," as we know them in the United States, are breeding grounds of mediocrity where less talented players are pouring their guts out while the top players on big contracts offer varying degrees of effort that is required to get the team into the playoffs. Not ALL of the top guys are doing that, of course. Nor does it mean that regular seasons aren't fun.

It takes special player to give their everything all the time, but if you've watched MLS the past few seasons (outside of your own local team) you know who the guys that do and don't. One could even float the theory that the Supporters' Sheild winning teams often aren't the teams with massive wage bills and star players precisely because they are filled with players still working their way up. The mid-range to upper mid range guys. Dax McCarty, Felipe Martins, Conner Lade types that can't afford to take a night off, because if they do, they get benched.

The low wattage regular season efforts contributed to the chaotic first 20 minutes of the Seattle, LA match last night. It looked like the first game of the season for these two star-heavy teams. Defensive mistakes, communication errors, players making runs they hadn't all season. The hard surface at CenturyLink only highlighted these things.

Soccer doesn't have the flashing lights, timeouts, commercial breaks, loud music and other shiny things that keep fans mesmerized during bad NFL, NBA or NHL games. No place to hide in soccer. No subbing out to cool your head or rest. From the owners of the organization to the players, you stand there naked, 45 minutes at a time. It's a giant playing surface out there. The sport needs consequence and pressure to bring out effort, and therefore, greatness. Effort not just from players, but from the top of the organization. MLS team investors like Andrew Hauptman in Chicago or Robert Kraft in New England need real consequence to perform.

We've got two more knockout MLS games to go tonight. Win or go home. The Montreal / Toronto match might be the chaotic match tonight while the KC / Portland will be the more measured of the two. We'll, see. Regardless the quality, it will be refreshing to see most of the players putting forth max effort, most of the time.

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