Editorial – If you follow a USL team and they’re winning, do you care how? Is 1-0 every game to the Championship Final perfectly acceptable, or is a more cavalier ‘they score 3, so we’ll try and score 4’ attitude more to your liking? The latter approach certainly provides more excitement, but it doesn’t always – in fact, will all too rarely – translate in to trophies. But as a fan do you really care about the style of play, the way that the team is set up, the margin of victory?
Colorado Springs Switchbacks Struggle to Balance Style and Substance in St. Louis
I had the pleasure of guesting on the ‘St Louis Report’ podcast earlier this week during which the host, Phill Grooms, posed a variation of that question. He was expanding on the suggestion that one of the major contributing factors to Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC largely wretched 2017 campaign was the coach’s well documented desire to change how the team played. Blue-collar, grit, and grind was so 2015/16. The 2017 Switchbacks were going to be more expansive, play with more flair, and be altogether more entertaining.
Strangely, Saint Louis FC were at the same time going through something similar. With Preki at the helm, the focus was on players becoming more technically adroit, more tactically savvy, more – and here’s that word again – entertaining. St. Louis fared about as well as the Switchbacks did in those efforts. Preki gave up and moved on. Steve Trittschuh decided to stick around and rebuild the Switchbacks, with recruitment seemingly geared towards identifying hard-working, amenable, like-minded players. Generally speaking, so far the 2018 team does look better for it.
The Switchbacks and St Louis aren’t the only examples of USL teams trying to change up their DNA. Some clubs have been more successful than others, but in large part those experiments have yielded very little success. So why do teams bother? Why don’t they continue doing more of the same, especially in those instances where they’ve already experienced some measure of success, as was the case for the Switchbacks early days?
Are demanding fans influencing these efforts? I don’t think so. It may not even be the coaches or the owners. It might be the players. As the USL continues to improve in quality, drawing closer to the MLS and drawing in recruits from all four corners of the globe, players are beginning to see new opportunities. One successful season can lead to a MLS call-up. One encouraging stretch of games can lead to an international call-up.
As players broaden their knowledge of the game, the scope of their footballing horizon broadens, too. Players technical, tactical, mental, and physical development is accelerated playing in different systems, under different coaches, with different team mates from a wide range of backgrounds. Whether USL fans want to admit or not, we’re ultimately a ‘farm league’ with most players’ ambitions extending beyond the second division.
Entertainment was sadly at a premium on Saturday night, when two USL teams in the process of reestablishing their respective identities met on the dangerously high banks of the Meramec River. Several days of heavy rain threatened flooding, but mercifully St Louis’ Soccer Park stadium was spared. By the final whistle, the Switchbacks might have wished otherwise. A dour game more defined by mistakes than moments of magic, ended in defeat for the traveling team. An error of judgement by keeper Steward Ceus just four minutes into the match was difference the between opponents.
The visitors from Colorado did work exceptionally hard, especially in the second half, as they tried to find a way back in to the game. It was not to be, though. Work ethic and sheer determination were not enough on this occasion. Maybe there is something to that flair stuff after all?