View from the Booth: no place for the elbow in soccer

Soccer is a physical sport, where bodies collide. I would never like to see that spirited and competitive element lost to the game. But there’s a line, a line which – if you cross – takes you into completely new territory, and that line was most definitely crossed by San Jose on Saturday.

Most observers knew what to expect from the Quakes, a side still seeking their first win of the season and one which arrived at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park desperate to put that right. They’re physical, direct and not particularly pretty to watch. But in the 0-0 draw with the Colorado Rapids, it got downright ugly.

Before he limped off, Quakes striker Alan Gordon should’ve been sent off. Fortunately, his off-the-ball elbow to the face of Shane O’Neill did little lasting damage. Rapids skipper Drew Moor was quoted as saying afterwards: “And even Gordon was basically saying ‘I didn’t mean it’ so obviously there was something there but I did not see it."

Didn’t mean it? (sigh) Alan, Alan, Alan …

If you’re looking to afford yourself a little space between you and a defender, you have a variety of options:

  1. Don’t run toward the player you want space between. Instead, run away from him.
  2. If you do feel the need for bodily contact (and who doesn’t on occasions), then shoulder-to-shoulder is acceptable. Elbow to face is frowned upon.

And one only has to look at O’Neill’s reaction, as Gordon attempted to smooth things over in the aftermath. The young Rapids defender was having none of it, and rightly so. And, to think, I'd actually suggested in the first half that Gordon was often unfairly labeled.

Adam Jahn, the replacement for Gordon, then did what his predecessor couldn’t manage, and got himself dismissed. Jahn’s was a straight red, despite the whimpering and bleating I've heard since. A shoulder to the side of the head, late, is not the kind of challenge we like to see in the game. Those who think otherwise should spend a few minutes in the company of Dillon Powers discussing concussion.

Granted, it was an ugly game, not made any more attractive by the antics of some of those already named. What concerned me from a Rapids perspective was the inability to break down this one-dimensional team.

Yes, the Quakes are masters of unsettling sides, antagonizing key players and constantly chipping away at you physically and mentally. I accept that they had a game plan, and that was to make the field narrow, create congestion, draw the Rapids into a brawl and look to land a knockout blow (though some took that metaphor too literally). They also sat deep, got bodies behind the ball and generally sought to drain any life out of the game. To be fair, their role wasn’t to make life easy for the home team.

So, knowing exactly what the Quakes were up to, it was frustrating to see such slow build-up play from the Rapids. Speed of movement was the key to unlocking the visitors. I appreciate the Quakes crowded the midfield, yet too often the passing was sideways and backwards, rather than forwards.

The Rapids dominated possession, but little of that was in areas of the field which could truly hurt San Jose. And, so labored was the build-up, that when the Rapids did enter the final third, they were met with eight or nine Quakes players, who had comfortably been able to get back behind the ball.

Defensively, apart from Gordon and Wondolowski being granted too much space in the box and a free header in the early stages, and a dangerous delivery late on from Yannick Djaló, there was really not too much concern at the back.

It’s at the other end where it’s yet to fully click. Of the eight goals scored this season, five have come as the result of penalties, there were the two quality strikes from José Mari and the most recent effort from Edson Buddle in Toronto. Against San Jose, ten corners produced little threat on Jon Busch’s goal. Nine shots delivered by the Rapids, with just one on target. That’s not good enough, particularly at home.

Positives include a third game unbeaten, a second successive clean sheet (and the third of the season), and rookie ‘find’ Jared Watts. In difficult conditions, against an awkward side, Watts more than held his own. The introduction of Dillon Serna was a special moment. Not only was it his home debut, but it also meant there were two Homegrown Players on the field for a home game for the first time in Rapids history.

Six games gone and 11 points gained. A missed opportunity against San Jose? Maybe. Disappointing not to get all three points? Clearly. But maybe that’s a sign, even at this early stage of the campaign, of how life under Pablo Mastroeni has elevated our expectations.