When I was growing up, learning the basics of the beautiful game, there were a couple of golden rules.
- Never pass the ball across your own penalty area.
- Never turn your back on the ball.
“Back and face, back and face,” were the orders constantly yelled through practice and from the sidelines during matches.
In other words, at a re-start, back away but face the play. Never take your eye off the ball.
The year was 1979. I was eight years old, and playing for Crawley Raiders as a U9.
Fast-forward 34 years, and on Sunday the Colorado Rapids were guilty of shattering one of soccer’s most basic golden rules.
Goal: Portland takes advantage of quick re-start
It was always going to be a tough encounter at Portland Timbers, against a team which had kept a clean sheet in their previous five home games and were unbeaten in 14.
The Rapids’ resolve would be tested, off the back of two defeats and without the creative midfield mind of Martin Rivero.
And the team’s character would be under scrutiny in front of a national television audience, following those aforementioned losses.
So what you don’t want to do is dominate for ten minutes and then commit one of soccer’s cardinal sins to hand the initiative back to your in-form opponents.
That is exactly what the Rapids did in Portland, on their way to a 3-0 beating. And it could’ve been even worse, had Rodney Wallace’s goal not been wrongly disallowed for offside.
The reaction to the awarding of a Portland free kick after 12 minutes will have flummoxed Oscar Pareja and his coaching staff. NBC Sports highlighted the Rapids defensive response at half-time, by which stage the visitors were 2-0 adrift.
An NBC graphic circled 4-5 Rapids players striding towards their own goal WITH BACKS TO THE BALL!
Goal: Johnson with great finish
Not only that, but nobody thought to stand over the ball – as cynical as it is – to delay a quick free-kick being taken.
For a split second I was dumb-struck that seasoned pros could let down their collective guard so spectacularly.
The second goal came about when two players went for the same ball, collided and – not for the first time during the recent poor run – were duly punished.
Portland’s third was as a result of poor distribution out of the back, gifting the Timbers possession deep in Rapids territory.
Three avoidable goals, given up by the Rapids on the way to their heaviest defeat since October 6 last year, when thumped 4-1 at home by San Jose Earthquakes.
This sorry slide started with a 2-1 home loss to the Quakes, and was followed by a 2-1 reversal at Chicago Fire. How important do those defeats appear now?
There was always a risk that the Portland fixture would end in tears, even before the back-to-back 2-1 losses, which placed even greater emphasis on getting positive results against San Jose and Chicago.
Hindsight is a wonderful gift, but it was crucial that the team came through the previous two games relatively unscathed, in order to face Portland on something of a high and with the added assurance of points in the bag.
As it was, they arrived in Oregon having suffered two defeats, confidence having taken a pounding and staring into the determined, confident and focused eyes of a Timbers outfit on a roll.
Pareja post-game used a word I’ve heard a few times in the last week or so … ‘naive’.
He was referring to the actions of his team defensively.
But, at the other end, creativity was lacking as was – for the most part – a ruthless, cutting edge in the final third.
The Rapids' struggle in front of goal has become even more of an issue, as the side is now leaking more frequently at the back. Before, the poor finishing was the difference between a draw and a win. Now, it’s deciding between a draw or a defeat.
One point from a possible 12, with nine goals conceded. How many of those were of the Rapids’ own making?
Pareja and his players will be working extra hard this week to break this worrying run. They’re better than this, and they know it. They’ll work on finishing, which continues to be a massive problem.
I’m sure they’ll also look at improving concentration and communication, because we’ve seen players running into the same space, or going for the same ball. We’ve had players ball-watching, focused on the man in possession and totally unaware of the player they’re supposed to be tracking. And, of course, we’ve now witnessed a defensive unit turn its back on a free-kick 25 yards from goal.
So, work all you like on set pieces, tone your trickery, fiddle with fancy formations and conjure-up cunning game plans. The modern game relies on preparing to the nth degree, using charts and computer data.
It’s a long way from Crawley Raiders in 1979. So much has changed, but some things stay the same … the basics of what is, after all, a very simple game.