Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Those Things We Say

It's that time of year again. Major League Soccer's season is winding down and the last spots in the playoffs are being decided. There is one thing about this time of year that really bothers me though, the cliched statement about peaking too soon.

I don't have an issue with cliches as a whole. They're often useful in us having a common language to describe what is going on. For example if I told you that a striker was often coming back looking for the ball, you would understand that the striker literally did not have problems seeing the ball. You would know that they weren't having the ball passed to them and getting touches (another cliche we use for that is "seeing the ball"). So they start playing further back to try to get involved. We can say the player's coming back looking for the ball and we know what is meant.

The cliche that bothers me this time of year is that of referring to teams peaking too soon. To me it implies that there is some science to how teams play. There is some pre-allocated amount of wins, good play, accurate passes, and goals that each team gets for the entire season including the playoffs and they better use them well less they use them all up before they win the MLS Cup.

Team's don't have some predetermined number of wins, losses, good play, bad play or any of that. Any given game is determined by what they do on they accomplish on the pitch. A team could go 30-0-0 if they can get the job done in each and every game. They could play really well at the beginning of the season, guarantee a play-off spot and close out the season with a string of losses and still win the MLS Cup.

That aspect of the saying peaking too soon isn't so bad in itself. It also has the connotation that the season is a marathon and you don't want to wear yourself out too soon or go into the playoffs missing a couple starters. What really bothers me is the context in which it gets used.

The real problem with the ol' saying is that it's used to imply that some team that hasn't clinched a playoff spot yet is somehow doing something smart. The earlier a team clinches a spot, the more wiggle room a team has in how they use their players. They have the luxury of resting a player with a niggling injury. Or they may give a rookie a chance at getting some time to have them better prepared in case they're needed during the playoff run. And there also is the mental aspect of being able to relax going into a game knowing that a loss or a tie isn't going to ruin things; you can just worry about making sure you play well both as individuals and a team.

On the other hand a team that isn't peaking too soon tends to find themselves struggling to make the playoffs. They have to take risks to try to take maximum points. An example of this is when the Colorado Rapids played Chivas USA on September 16th. They started Mike Petke despite a nasty stomach flu. The result of that was not only an early substitution out in the 23rd minute but, I would assert, Facundo Erpen getting a deserved red card in the 14th minute. Petke was lost in no man's land (not something he's prone to do especially this year). It left a seam for Laurent Merlin to run down after a errant Rapids pass turned the ball over. Erpen wasn't able to catch up to Merlin until he was in the box. Why Erpen felt compelled to take Merlin down instead of letting Bouna Coundoul, arguably the most athletic keeper in the league, handle the situation is another matter (would it be Erpen if he didn't do one or three dumb things each game?). The point being the Rapids had to take risks to try to take points. Instead of walking away with 3 points from a home win, they squeked out a late goal for a point. What's the gap between them and the last playoff spot right now? It's just 2 points.

There are many other examples like this. I'd love to for you to share them in the comments. Do you remember a time late in the season when your team was forced to play an injured player only for him to make the injury worse? Were key players in need a rest after a string of club and international games but with the team apparently trying to peak at just the right moment, they were still played and at that looked absent?

I'd love to see the pundits stop using this phrase about a team peaking too soon. The beautiful game isn't some dry form of accounting with a ball and grass. There isn't some ceiling in place for a maximum amount of good play. Soccer is a classic case of chaos theory at work in the world. Encourage teams to go out there and get the job done. And please, please don't use this phrase to excuse a team that's procrastinating. They can't turn on and off good play as though it's regulated by a switch. If they haven't shored up a playoff spot, it's because they've made mistakes earlier in the season.

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