LOS ANGELES -- Hours before Sunday night's 2011 MLS Cup final, Major League Soccer has announced major changes in its format for the 2012 season.
By and large, the changes are positive, and many of them had been advocated for in this space earlier this month.
The unbalanced schedule:
With the Montreal Impact joining the Eastern Conference as MLS's 19th team, the league will once again have an odd number of franchises. Consequently, it will return to an unbalanced schedule, whereby Western Conference teams will play each other three times during the regular season and their Eastern Conference foes once. In the Eastern Conference, teams will play seven opponents three times and two teams twice in addition to their out-of-conference games. (The schedules are reversed or rotated season to season, to ensure equal games against all clubs.) Of the changes, this is the only unappealing one to me. Yes, an unbalanced schedule favors local rivalries and saves on costly and draining travel, but the fairest of all would be for every team to play each other twice a year -- once away and once at home. Because even though schedules are reversed, not all teams are equally strong every year. Some will benefit; some will suffer. While a tidier balanced schedule would increase the number of games from 34 to 36, there is likely sufficient interest to sustain those added games, as evidenced by this year's uptick in attendance after the regular season went from 30 to 34 games.
The death of the wild card and crossover:
As of 2012, there will be no more wild card. Previously, the top two or three teams in each conference qualified automatically and the remaining playoff spots -- four in 2010 and before and six in 2011 -- were given to the teams with the best record across both conferences. In 2012, the five best teams in each conference will qualify automatically with the lower two playing a single knockout game. The wild card and conference crossover was confusing. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, a team from the opposite conference won the playoff bracket of that conference, which is how, rather embarrassingly, a Western Conference team twice (Real Salt Lake in 2009 and the Colorado Rapids in 2010) got to hoist an Eastern Conference championship banner in its stadium, while the opposite occurred once (the New York Red Bulls in 2008). This format will look tidier and more logical.
Two-leg conference finals:
The league had long preferred a winner-takes-all conference final, perhaps to give it more cachet and to make it feel like a true final. That said, it was far too fickle and prone to upsets to be fair. In one game in soccer, as we all know, anything can happen. In 2012, the conference finals, like the conference semifinals, will consist of two home-and-home games, which is more likely to see the more deserving team through to the final.
The finalist with the best record will host the MLS Cup final:
As evidenced by the awareness of this year's MLS Cup final in Los Angeles, it pays to have the local team playing in the championship game. Logistically, it made sense for MLS to stage the final in predetermined venues for as long as it did. But now that traveling away fans are supporting their teams on the road in droves, and that the league has built up sufficient attention among media, it can support a final stage at no more than two weeks' notice. Simply put, it will make for a better atmosphere without sacrificing attention.
Great sporting matchups are underpinned by sharp juxtapositions. And they garner even more poignancy when their differences are borne from circumstances that are essentially the same.
Take Tuesday night's MLS affair between the Los Angeles Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls. The two clubs, the mid-growth spurt giants of a budding league, share a great many similarities. They are the most expensively assembled teams in the league's history. Between David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane on the Pacific side and Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez on the Atlantic, they have a near-monopoly on the league's star wattage. They play in state-of-the-art stadiums, paradigms of the American game, paid for by mighty multinational ownerships -- AEG in the Galaxy's case and Red Bull for the eponymous New York club. They're commanded by big-time coaches, the Galaxy's Bruce Arena and Red Bulls' Hans Backe. And between them, they employ the five best-paid players in league history, making a combined $22.4 million in guaranteed annual compensation when the salary cap is still only $2.67 million per team (with designated players like the aforementioned five only counting against the cap for $335,000 each). They are the defending Eastern and Western Conference regular-season champions and when they last met five months ago, playing to a 1-1 tie at the Galaxy's Home Depot Center, were first and second overall in the league.
Yet they contrast markedly in the product they deliver on the pitch.
Under Arena's steady hand, the Galaxy has been solid through and through this year, sitting at or very near to the top of the West. Beckham has turned in the sort of season the club expected in the fifth and final year of his contract, leading the league with 15 assists. Donovan has picked up his team when in need, scoring clutch goals, and 12 in all. Keane has looked like a good late-summer acquisition. And the carefully assembled supporting cast has been effective, especially the defense, which has conceded 23 goals, nine fewer than any other team.
And then there's New York, peon to Backe's incessant tinkering. After occupying first place a few months into the season, the Red Bulls dove headlong into a spectacular free fall. For all the calm exuded by the Galaxy, New York comes off as a cauldron of irritability and neuroses. Henry has been productive, scoring 13 times, but grumpy. Marquez has been a flop, responsible for far more goals conceded than scored. Battling a shambolic defense, rampant underperformance, a revolving door in midfield and a mercurial attack, which is inexplicably tied for second in the league in goals scored with 47, the Red Bulls won only twice between April 30 and Sept. 17, a 20-game span, both times against last-place New England Revolution.
The Red Bulls have since rebounded somewhat, taking two wins and a draw from their past four games. But since the Galaxy kept up their speedy point accumulation throughout the Red Bulls' epic swoon, the two teams have diverged to the point where the Galaxy has long since clinched its automatic playoff berth. If it beats the Red Bulls, in fact, it will clinch its second consecutive Supporters' Shield too and confirm its status among the favorites for the MLS Cup. New York, meanwhile, is a favorite only to miss out on the playoffs and become the league's biggest bust of all time. It clings on to the fourth and final wild card berth -- which will qualify its holder for a play-in game to the playoffs -- for which it is tied on points with the Portland Timbers. New York's saving grace: it holds a better head-to-head record. D.C. United, meanwhile, is two points behind but has a game in hand, making the three points up for grabs in the showdown with Los Angeles, re-scheduled from its original Aug. 27 date on account of Hurricane Irene, essential to the Red Bulls.
The protagonists, therefore, have every motivation to make this game a memorable one -- to confirm glory and stave off disaster, respectively.
At the heart of the Bob Bradley saga -- the will-they or won't-they surrounding a soccer federation that refused to relieve a head coach despite of a fiercely oppositional public for several years until Thursday -- was an impossible dichotomy.
Here was a coach who was widely loathed by a fan base that skewered him daily in a variety of obsessive soccer forums for picking the same core of players again and again, for selecting his son, Michael, as his starting central midfielder, and for superimposing unimaginative tactics on his squad.
Yet what was Bradley to do?
The man found himself in charge of an irreparably mediocre band of players. The best of them play for semi-big clubs in Europe. And there was a steep drop-off in ability once he'd put his top eight or so players on the field. His son, for that matter, was one his best midfielders yet was forever anointed the beneficiary of nepotism. But was Bradley supposed to have left his son at home in favor of a player not as suitable to his system just to improve his public image?
The team's supporting cast was predictable, but that was mostly because it had the necessary experience, making its repeat selection a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why call up a like-for-like player who had less experience?
And yes, Bradley's tactics were bland. Yes, they showed little flair for absorbing opponents' strengths or even capitalizing on their weaknesses. Yes, they didn't exactly help the U.S. forwards score -- forever a weak spot -- or help steady the back to avoid conceding early goals. But they were probably realistic, too, given the material at hand.
Bradley was forever negotiating these pitfalls.
Admittedly, Bradley's second term, starting after his contract was extended following the 2010 World Cup, confirmed what we already knew: A follow-up World Cup cycle is too long a tenure for one coach. Like in Bruce Arena's second turn at the helm from 2002 to 2006, things got increasingly stale.
Nevertheless, you must concede what most U.S. fans won't want to hear: Considering the means at his disposal, Bob Bradley didn't at all do a bad job.
After three weeks of bad soccer on worse fields, the 2011 Copa America has mercifully come to an end. After beating Paraguay 3-0 in the final, Uruguay stood tall after 12 teams contested 25 games, with medals around their necks to match star striker Diego Forlan's flowing mane -- and without the Helping Hand of Luis Suarez, this time.
It was educational. Here's what we learned:
1. What Uruguay accomplished is quite extraordinary.
Of the 12 countries in Copa America, Uruguay has by far the smallest population. At 3.5 million people, the Uruguayans are dwarfed in number by Brazil (191 million) and Argentina (40 million). Only Paraguay -- the other finalist -- comes close at just less than 7 million. Yet for the second consecutive major tournament, the other being the 2010 World Cup, Uruguay was the last of those teams standing. Given its small population and profoundly positive tactics, what Uruguay has managed to do these past two summers has to be applauded. It is punching well above its weight.
2. This tournament was hugely disappointing.
Rather than a beacon of the South American soccer style and spirit that we look forward to every two, three or four years -- or whenever the continent gets around to staging another tournament -- this Copa wasn't even the most interesting tournament of the summer. While the Women's World Cup offered us improbable drama (on the field), numerous breakout performances and Cinderella runs, the Copa gave us dull games, 11 draws (five 0-0s!) and a shade more than two goals per game. Worse still, there was no Samba versus Tango; no great and long-overdue redemption of Argentina on its home soil; no glorious homecoming for Lionel Messi; no Brazil, Chile, Argentina or Colombia past the quarterfinals; nothing worth watching from Brazil; and just a lone good half from Argentina. Only Uruguay played pleasing soccer. Major bummer.
3. The Copa should be moved back a year.
Now that the Copa seems to have finally settled into a regular quadrennial schedule after going back and forth between playing every four, two and three years since 1989, it should consider playing two summers after the World Cup, rather than one. (This won't happen anytime soon, since the 2015 Copa has already been awarded to Brazil and the 2019 edition to Chile.) During this tournament, all the teams that had played in the World Cup -- save for Uruguay -- looked tired. And who can blame them, since they've not had a rest since the summer of 2009. Club seasons now end in late May and start in July, so the Copa would benefit from giving its teams a summer off after the World Cup.
4. The stakes could stand to be increased.
And if the Copa can't be moved back a year, why not increase the stakes? Argentina, for all the pressure it faced to win it, could easily have been mistaken for disinterested. Maybe that's unfair, but adding a little fuel to the fire could nevertheless help stoke the passions to lift the Copa. Perhaps the winner of the Copa is automatically given one of CONMEBOL's four and a half berths to the next World Cup. Extreme yes, but all in the interest of staging a watchable tournament.
5. So could the number of substitutions.
Again, if the tournament can't be moved -- and I concede that it probably can't -- why not give players a breather when possible? Why not increase the number of substitutions teams can make during this tournament? More fresh legs will make for better soccer. It's unconventional, but there's no good reason not to do this.
6. Golden and silver goals are due for a comeback.
Somehow, the drab Paraguayans wrangled silver medals from this tournament without winning a single game. That'll never do. By virtue of the aforementioned draws, four of the seven games in the knockout round went to extra time. And three of those four went to penalties. Favorites Brazil and Argentina were both knocked out on those cosmically unfair spot kicks. And so Paraguay squeaked through to the final on back-to-back penalty triumphs over Brazil and Venezuela. Golden and silver goals increase the incentive to keep attacking during extra time, rather than ride out the clock until penalties. It might not work, because it also incentivizes defending more, to avoid giving up a game-ending goal, but it's worth a try. Anything to avoid another tournament decided mostly from the spot.
7. Brazil is now in full-on rebuilding mode.
If you're the Selecao, you know there's something very wrong when your defense is your biggest asset. This is a moment that doesn't come along very often -- I can't really remember another one -- but Brazil is now in full-on rebuilding mode. There is some young promise, but until it learns to play efficiently and cohesively, Brazil could face a few years of austerity. And this with the World Cup on home soil on the horizon.
The new FIFA World Rankings came out Wednesday in that parallel universe that soccer's world governing body occupies, where accountability is a futuristic concept and results have no bearing on standings.
It behooved the fabulously complicated point system -- which is used to decide on seeding ahead of qualification for World Cups and the like -- to bump England up to fourth place. This came on the back of a disastrous World Cup and a paltry 2-2 tie with Switzerland in a recent Euro 2012 qualifier, in which the Three Lions twice had to overcome a deficit. Before that, they had drawn Ghana and beaten Wales 1-0.
And this while Brazil has dropped to fifth place and Argentina has sunk to 10th.
The U.S., meanwhile, fell two spots, to 24th, continuing its slide from 11th place after finishing second at the 2009 Confederations Cup and having spent the past two years in the teens. What's striking about this is that the U.S. won four competitive games this month in a major continental tournament -- or something so designated by FIFA, anyway -- and reached the final of the Gold Cup. That very tournament was responsible for Mexico's rocketing up the standings from 28 to 9 after El Tri lifted the trophy in Pasadena.
Perhaps this is what they call the "new math."
Even though Mexico beat the U.S. and won all of its games -- and taking into account that the U.S. got no credit for beating Guadeloupe, which FIFA doesn't recognize -- it's hard to explain how Mexico gained 205 points and the U.S. lost 56. Since totals are tabulated for the past four years' worth of results for each team, the United States' 2011 Gold Cup results replaced those of the 2007 Gold Cup, which the U.S. won. Even so, Mexico came second in that tournament, failing to shed a light on its spectacular point gain and the United States' big loss.
It's been a bad spring for despots, strongmen and kleptocrats.
All over the world, some have fallen quickly and unceremoniously from power while others cling on desperately. Almost all are beleaguered in one way or another, as waves of violent and pacifist revolutions have shaken up the world's political landscape.
But one authoritarian regime seems impervious to revolution, criticism and public ridicule. One stands by its propaganda of everything being just fine no matter how indefensible. We're talking about FIFA, as if you needed any more hints.
For weeks, FIFA's presidential candidates -- the incumbent, Sepp Blatter, and the challenger, Mohammed bin Hammam -- have been accused of corruption. Bin Hammam was said to have tried to bribe CONCACAF members. Blatter has been accused of ignoring his duty to report such malfeasance. On Sunday, FIFA's self-appointed ethics committee ended up suspending corruption charges on bin Hammam, who pulled out of the race, and CONCACAF president Jack Warner. But bin Hammam had already pulled out of the race the day before. Blatter, now running unopposed for the global game's throne, was acquitted. Meanwhile, the still-roaring wrath of the snubbed English bid to stage the 2018 World Cup burns on. Former FA and 2018 bid chief Lord Triesman has accused several FIFA executive committee members of taking bribes in the bidding process and the FA has called for the postponement of the presidential election.
Through it all, Blatter has maintained that FIFA isn't in crisis, thus denying that he's pushed the organization over the brink of respectability. Amid the firestorm, the tiny septuagenarian Swiss leader has made it clear that FIFA shouldn't play by ordinary rules or be held accountable to anything or anyone.
This was never more obvious than when Blatter got fed up with questions from a hungry pack of journalists in a press conference Monday. "I will not answer this question," he said in response to a question about Warner. "I am the president of FIFA, you cannot question me." When the assembly was rightly outraged, he admonished it for a lack of respect for him and FIFA. And after taking a few more hard questions, he stormed off the stage, citing a lack of respect once more.
Yet the sad, sad truth of the matter is that there really is no questioning the president of FIFA. This regime still stands. The organization has leveraged its residency in Switzerland -- that long-time (ahem) taker of stands -- into a judicial impunity. And any interference from foreign governments will result in a suspension for its national and club teams in international play, the way Nigeria briefly was after the World Cup when its government interfered; and the way FIFA threatened to suspend France when president Nicolas Sarkozy got involved.
The organization has deftly maneuvered itself into a position of political independence. It can do as it pleases, meting out its own brand of justice internally -- slaps on the wrist, brief suspensions and, at worst, expulsions from the club. FIFA has absolute power with no responsibility. And there's nothing we can do about it.
So if you don't like it, you can go off and start your own club.
There's an idea.
As it does every year, the Major League Soccer Players' Union has released the salaries of every player on the books in MLS. And, as usual, there were plenty of surprises.
So here are ESPN.com's 2011 10 most underpaid and overpaid players, in no particular order:
(Salaries are base salaries plus guaranteed compensation for 2011 season.)
Omar Bravo, F, KC, $170,000
Bravo makes a fairly hefty salary for MLS standards, but considering what other international-caliber players make in this league, he is a bargain. And he scored twice in his debut before getting injured in his second game.
Diego Chaves, F, CHI, $45,000
After a solid career in Uruguay and Mexico, the Fire snapped Chaves up for a shade over minimum wage. He rewarded them with a goal in each of his first three starts and another in his sixth.
Omar Cummings, F, COL, $89,188
The Jamaican striker was the best forward in the league last season, leading the Rapids to the title. He has yet to get going this year, but his salary is still only a fraction of his worth.
Fabian Espindola, F, RSL, $75,000
The lively forward has proven himself as a quality MLS player.
George John, D, DAL, $42,000
For the moment, John is best-known as the man to score the own goal that lost his team the 2010 MLS Cup. That was an unfortunate moment, as he's one of the league's better defenders.
Kosuke Kimura, D, COL, $63,525
Kimura, like Cummings, has yet to get his payday, as he was drafted by the Rapids when his career was a long shot. He has emerged as one of the league's elite right backs -- for backup-player money.
Joel Lindpere, M, NY, $125,000
The little-known Lindpere didn't take long to announce himself to MLS last year, when he was the Red Bulls' well-deserved MVP. In spite of the star power assembled around him, he is still one of the most important players on the team.
Sanna Nyassi, M, COL, $42,000A right winger who has twice overcome malaria, Nyassi is one of the better wide players around.
Tim Ream, D, NY, $62,625
In a much-heralded rookie class of 2010, Ream was the best defender by some distance. Now he is one of the best center backs in the league.
Mauro Rosales, M, SEA, $42,000
In the early 2000s, he was one of the world's most promising right wingers, having won the U-20 World Cup and Olympics with Argentina. The Sounders managed to snap him up for the league minimum. He paid quick dividends, getting three assists in his first four starts.
Joe Cannon, GK, VAN, $209,756
The hugely experienced Cannon was supposed to fortify the expansion team's defense. Instead, he rides the bench.
Julian de Guzman, M, TOR, $1,910,746
After a good career in the Bundesliga and La Liga, Guzman commanded an enormous salary from Toronto. But he has offered almost nothing in return.
Dilly Duka, M, CLB, $223,000
Columbus was excited about drafting Duka in 2010. But he has shown very little so far.
Emmanuel Ekpo, M, CLB, $222,250
With the departure of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the burden fell on Ekpo to supply the Crew's offense this year. So far: zero assists and zero goals.
Alvaro Fernandez, M, SEA, $366,666
Although Fernandez is finally showing his ability this year, his salary and the hefty transfer sum the Sounders paid for him are still way out of proportion.
Caleb Folan, F, COL, $203,374
Other than one two-goal game, the Englishman has yet to justify his price tag.
Fred, M, DC, $157,750
In his fifth season, the Brazilian enigma has yet to reveal himself as a reliable asset.
Dejan Jakovic, D, DC, $201,643
They don't come much more gaffe-prone than Jakovic.
Nate Jaqua, F, SEA, $211,000
Jaqua had a good 2009 for Seattle, but has contributed little since.
Kei Kamara, F, KC, $202,500
The king of misses has amused us with blunders such as these. Kansas City doesn't look much better, given what it pays him.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
Kenny Cooper's disallowed header in Portland's match against Chicago was just another example of poor officiating in MLS.
Refereeing is now officially a problem for MLS.
True, the men with the whistles and the flags, sent down by the U.S. Soccer Federation, had never exactly been a strong asset to a league still finding its feet. But on Thursday night, it went from weakness to blight.
It was a beautiful evening of soccer in Portland, Ore., in one of the few towns truly clamoring for Major League Soccer. The Timbers faced the Chicago Fire in the first game in revamped Jeld-Wen Field. In the streaming rain, the Timbers Army gave a deeply moving rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," as the Timbers had wisely foregone leaving it up to a D-list teenybopper, the way other clubs often do.
On the quickly saturated plastic sod, two teams trudged on, trying to move a ball through puddles and into the other's goal. It wasn't pretty. But then again, it was soccer at its most beautiful and romantic.
In the 11th minute, Portland won a corner. Striker Kenny Cooper went entirely unmarked and christened the stadium with its first goal by nodding the ball home far too easily. Nobody had been near him, least of all Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who was unfashionably late to the party. For a few seconds, all that was bad and difficult for the expansion club went away -- the rain, the winless start to the season, the struggle to compete. In their place: a delirious sort of mayhem.
Ricardo Salazar blew the whistle. Inexplicably, he called off a clean goal. What was he thinking? It seemed at first a foul had been called on Cooper. Then there was word that the goal was disallowed because the corner had gone behind the back line on its way to the goal mouth. There was no foul on Cooper, and there was no clear evidence that the ball went out of play.
After weeks of penalties and goals wrongfully awarded and denied, red and yellow cards rained down like confetti and control lost of both games and credibility, the corps of refs regulating MLS suffered perhaps its most unsightly error yet. A beautiful moment was wrongfully stricken from the record.
That the Timbers won 4-2 anyway, cemented by a final goal helped by an uncalled hand ball by Cooper, was karmically just.
But a transcendent moment for a sport desperate for ascent was lost to an overzealous man and his whistle.
What a shame.
In soccer, coaches come and go. Some will do well and others will fail. And some who have done spectacularly well in one place will fail just as spectacularly in others. This makes it all the harder to say which coaches are good at their job.
And this is true for all sports.
In statistics-nutty baseball, for example, research has concluded that managers influence the outcome of slightly more than 1 percent of games with their decisions. And these managers -- through things such as pitching changes and pinch hitters -- play a bigger role than soccer managers do. Much of what is accredited to a manager, therefore, is down to either luck or things beyond their control.
But during Inter's 7-3 aggregate battering at the hands of Schalke 04 in the Champions League quarterfinals, which wrapped up its second leg on Wednesday, we did get that rare kernel of tangible proof of one coach's superior ability. And the proof, curiously, lay in Inter's dismantling.
Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty ImagesLeonardo has done a good job at Inter, but he's no Special One.
Last year, Inter won the Champions League title, even outmaneuvering a seemingly unbeatable Barcelona in the semifinals. This year, the squad is virtually the same, with very little turnover other than Mario Balotelli's departure and the addition of a handful of players for depth. Yet whereas the 2009-10 Inter brand of soccer was defined by control and confidence, this year's version of it seems no better than a cheap knockoff that has stumbled frequently, and, especially on Wednesday, has fallen hard.
There was one notable difference, though: Jose Mourinho, Inter's coach in 2009-10, was no longer there.
Under Mourinho's replacements -- Rafa Benitez and, after his firing, Leonardo -- Inter has not looked like treble-winning world beaters but chronic underperformers. But when these two men fielded more or less the exact same players Mourinho did, in the same formation and with the same tactical instructions, they have fallen flat.
So what makes Mourinho, whose Real Madrid strolled into the Champions League semifinals on the same day, different? What makes this manager a certifiably great one? Sorry, make that Special One.
While the game has gotten increasingly complex over the past couple of decades, Mourinho's model seems to suggest that the success of the manager still comes down to a few painfully simple factors:
1. Do your players like you?
If appearances don't deceive, Mourinho has been wildly popular with his players no matter where he has managed. Inter playmaker Wesley Sneijder tellingly used his moment in the sun, when he was being named one of the world's 11 best players for the 2009-10 season during the FIFA Ballon d'Or award show this past January, to announce that Mourinho was the best coach in the world, visibly moving the silvery-haired Portuguese to tears. This devotion has always produced teams that, over the long span of a season, fight harder and want it more than their opponents.
2. Do your players like each other?
Soccer author Simon Kuper has written that Dutch coach Guus Hiddink, who masterminded South Korea's improbable run to the semifinals of the 2002 World Cup, has a finely tuned ability to allow for male bonding and foster brotherhood among men. Mourinho has this people skill, too. He knows how to bring a group of strange, spoiled and touchy men together and get them to respect and defer to each other, yielding a harmonious collective.
3. Do you look the part?
Dutch national team manager Bert van Marwijk once said it's impossible to command the respect of a locker room if you don't dress well, if your sense of style leaves you open to ridicule. This sounds silly, but it proved very true for van Marwijk's successor at Feyenoord, Gertjan Verbeek, whose peasant-like clothing -- he worked on his own farm in his spare time -- and uncool demeanor caused him to be mocked. He was out of the club in a matter of months. Mourinho, to put it mildly, isn't prone to being accused of not being in touch with his inner fashionista.
This all suggests that the manager's job is less complicated than is assumed, at least in soccer. The effect of tactical acumen appears overblown, since many managers have been successful without seeming to have any grasp of the game's finer points. The manager's calling is straightforward -- keep your players motivated, happy and without reason to deride you, the way Mourinho does.
But achieving all this can't possibly be as simple as it sounds, for there is only one Jose Mourinho. And he isn't with Inter anymore.
Olivier Morin/AFP/Getty ImagesInter's Wesley Sneijder looks on as Schalke celebrates.
The story of Inter-Schalke was that of a rollicking affair punctuated by a frenetic exchange of chances, a plot twist on every page and with no fewer than seven goals as exclamation marks.
After Inter went ahead on a marvelous Dejan Stankovic volley from the halfway line before the first minute was out, capitalizing on Schalke goalie Manuel Neuer's foray out of his box to clean up after his defenders, you would have been forgiven for assuming the Nerazzurri would have a straightforward night at their San Siro home. Yet by halftime, it was 2-2; by the 75th minute, it was 5-2 to Schalke, and that's how it would end.
It was a result that was amazing to watch to those who have seen Inter dominate in Europe in the past year and a half, winning the tournament last season and making an incredible comeback against Bayern Munich as recently as the last round of this edition. So destructive to the status quo was the outcome that it might simply be remembered as an aberration.
But that would mean ignoring the remarkable upshot of this game.
Schalke was the lowest-seeded team remaining in the tournament. The German club was more than happy to have made it this far, given that it had fired a manager and brought in another one just three weeks ago. Schalke, in short, had nothing to lose. And it played like it. Rather than hope to limit the damage and just get on the score sheet away and pray for a clean sheet at home, it attacked unabashedly.
In so doing, Schalke reminded us of the fun that is to be had when a team knows that failure is a perfectly acceptable outcome at this late stage of the tournament. Competing without fear -- it's a beautiful thing.
Schalke's game plan was almost dastardly simple: play a high line and attack whenever you get the chance. It simply refused to settle down when it got hold of the ball, pushed forward relentlessly and showed no interest whatsoever in holding on to possession.
This was deeply unsettling to Inter, which could muster no control over the game. The Italian side simply didn't know what to do when its usual modus operandi of gradually squeezing the oxygen out of its opponents no longer was an option.
Today's soccer juggernauts are so accustomed to dominating clubs of smaller budgets that they are ill-equipped to deal with an inferior opponent that doesn't play according to its stature. Schalke's brashness threw Inter for a loop. Inter looked so unaccustomed to playing on what turned out to be a very slow back foot that its defenders cracked under the pressure. One was sent off, one slid in an own goal, one held Raul onside for the go-ahead 3-2 goal and on all other chances, the laborious Schalke attackers, Edu and Jefferson Farfan, had much more space to operate in than they should have had, which also accounted for Joel Matip's opening goal.
Perhaps Schalke's strategy spoke of a new technique for giant-killing, too. The way Arsenal had when it beat Barcelona in the first leg of its round of 16 matchup, Schalke traded in the prudence built into the modern game for a happy-go-lucky, run-and-gun approach that its opponents were unprepared for. It is, in many ways, the antidote to today's "pragmatism," that awful word describing negative tactics justified by the guise of realism and financial interests.
And for that you can do but one thing: Stand up and applaud Schalke for a gutsy and masterful display, which should yield a well-deserved place among the best four clubs in Europe after the second leg next Wednesday.