20 June 2007

The Exaltation of Juan Pablo Angel

Pop Quiz: Who has more goals this year, Juan Pablo Angel, or the rest of the New York Red Bulls combined? The correct answer is the latter, but I'll forgive you if you thought it was the former. Angel has nine goals for the Red Bulls, and the remainder of the team has fifteen (Mathis with 5, Altidore with 3, and Kovalenko with 2 lead the pack). Yet there has been an emerging trend recently, the idea that Juan Pablo Angel is "tearing the rest of the league up." Let's think about why so much is being made of one player...

That Angel has made a difference is undeniable, and he certainly deserves much credit for providing a great deal of offensive punch for a team that was mediocre in scoring in 2006 (7th in terms of goals scored). Yet one can't help but detect a certain degree of Eurocentric snobbery in some of the praise he is receiving. The idea being advanced by a certain type of soccer commentator is that Angel is simply at a different level than the rest of MLS, and that your typical MLS defender is simply no match for what Angel brings to the field. One example is here, but there are others that you might read, or hear, from various people. These pundits simply believe that most MLS Defenses should just sit down on the pitch with their beverage of choice and appreciate the brilliance of Angel's play, since it is clearly impossible to mark the man given our stumbling, incoherent talent.

Has Angel been brilliant? Certainly he's had great moments, and done exactly what a designated player acquisition is supposed to do: Make an immediate, high level impact for your team. And for many of these commentators, it's an easy choice to make to praise Angel. They'd be uncomfortable making the same noises about Beckham, it would sound too much like they had become the giggling schoolgirls they detest. But Angel is a different story. He comes from West Ham, and that's Academy of Football! Aston Villa. You have to respect a player from that club. To boot, he was rarely more than mediocre there, clearly an indictment of the MLS level of play if a mediocre player can have such an effect here. Angel confirms and conforms to the natural prejudices of such writers, so all credit for the Red Bulls goes to him. It's such a lovely image, it's a shame to spoil it.

The facts that argue against Angel as the savior of New York are simple. The Red Bulls were resurgent even before he suited up to them for the first time. They had a respectable 3-2-2 record before Angel scored his first league goal against Columbus. They were clearly better than they had shown previously. The resurrection of Clint Mathis predates Angel, and while Angel certainly gives Mathis an easier time, Clint had already shown his form was better than we had seen in years.

Since joining the Bulls, it's not as though no team has figured out how to defend Angel either. United denied him service and would quickly deny him space when he did receive the ball, surrendering only a garbage goal after the game had been decided. And while I love United, it's not exactly a defensive line that I'd call "elite" at the moment. So clearly an average defense can hold Angel in check, and even better backlines may present rough going. How will Angel fair against New England, whose backline excels at neutralizing obvious scoring threats?

It also does a disservice to the many other players that are helping New York. We've mentioned Mathis, but credit should also been given to Dema Kovalenko, who fights for that team and provides a spirit they've rarely seen, and to Dave Van Den Berg, who has quietly put together a strong resume as someone who brings vision to the field. Further, the pundits are completely ignoring Bruce Arena. Some of this, no doubt, is because media personalities find Bruce somewhat distressing. He doesn't make their lives easy. Yet Bruce Arena is the one primarily responsible for remaking that team. He has gotten New York to play a game that accentuates their strengths and plays away from their weaknesses. They do have weaknesses, and injury problems in the back have certainly exacerbated them, but what Arena has done this year is remarkable. He knows what problems his team has, and he plays around them. The defense was problematic, but he had gotten New York to defend as a team, even if it means stranding Angel up top. When transitioning from defense to attack, the team never breaks pell-mell, but rather plays a controlled system designed to minimize potential countering opportunities to their opponents. That's Arena, bringing in players to execute his plans and training them well enough to do it. Look at the team's home/away splits (to borrow a baseball term). Arena has that team playing well in the Meadowlands, because he knows what to do to take advantage of the turf and environment. The result is the paltry 4 home goals conceded to date, second best only to Chivas USA, and that's with a below average defense for most games. However, Arena was the scape-goat of 2006, even I was disappointed with his choices, but I can recognize when he deserves credit as well. But giving him credit may be a bit much for his detractors, though much of the success in New York belongs to him.

It's a slightly more complicated story than "Angel dominates MLS," but it's the one I think has more basis in reality. And it certainly will make New York harder for other teams to deal with. Marking Angel out of a game is one challenge, but it is not the entire challenge.

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At 20 June, 2007 13:28, Anonymous Nick said...

Angel played with Aston Villa, not West Ham. As for him dominating MLS, he has never really been a "dominating" type player in terms of controlling a game or being a focal point of a team. But if you consider scoring goals at will from all over the field "dominating," then I would certainly expect him to dominate MLS.
He absolutely dominated the Argentinean league in the late 90's--at a time when the Argentine league was one of the strongest in the world. Just to give you an idea, he played on a River team his last season that included Saviola, Aimar, and Ortega. Moreover, he had a season for Villa where he scored 23 goals if I'm not mistaken--which is pretty dominant.
The point is, if he has had success in Argentina and England, it would be surprising for him not to do at least equally well in MLS. After all, he is one of the greatest goal scorers in River history--and that is saying alot. The eurosnobbery is clearly off the mark, as you said, but Angel's track record in Argentina speaks for itself...

At 20 June, 2007 13:42, Blogger D said...

Well argued on all points, and I have no idea why I had it fixed in my head that he was with Hammers as opposed to Aston Villa. Inexcusable on my part. My apologies.

As for the rest, I don't disagree a bit. As I wrote, I think Angel is doing exactly what he brought in to do. I have no complaint with Angel's talent or effort. He is worthy of praise. My issue, as I wrote, is much more with those that have condensed MLS 2007 Season to Date as "Juan Pablo Angel arrives, teaches Yanks about real soccer, makes them look foolish." I linked to one such example, but listening to Steven Cohen or Gazza Richards and you'll hear much the same. Has Angel delivered? Damn straight. But is that all there is? I think not.

At 20 June, 2007 16:02, Anonymous Nick said...

A follow up: As for the English footballing royalty's comments about JPA teaching us americans a thing or two about footy, one thing is for damned sure: Any lessons JPA has to teach us certainly did not come from his days at "footballing powerhouse Villa". Those lessons came from Medellin and Buenos Aires, and the Eurosnobs are delusioned if they think otherwise...

At 20 June, 2007 16:31, Anonymous jeffResistor said...

"[...] I have no idea why I had it fixed in my head that he was with Hammers as opposed to Aston Villa."

I know why. It's because their jerseys are nearly identical.

At 20 June, 2007 17:35, Blogger The Manly Ferry said...

I come at the Juan Pablo question from a totally different angle: I was worried about him pulling "a Matteus." Further, I spent the first few weeks grudgingly acknowledging a good goal here or there before finally giving up and admitting the man can play - and, to this point, at a level that is consistently higher than any striker/forward in MLS. If nothing else, the numbers tell it in the form of an impressive scoring streak - one that doesn't look like it's about to dry up any time soon.

So where am I going with this? Angel's streak is a pretty cool thing. I don't get the feeling you're too far from that notion, but I also think it is fair to say that, at present, Angel is tearing up the league; he's tied for the scoring lead and nearing the record for the most goals scored in consecutive games. His goals, even his overall contribution, have unquestionably made Red Bull a better team. To me, that's dominant. But it's not because he played in Europe (though that probably didn't hurt), or that MLS defenders can't defend him, but because he has shown that he has more tricks up the sleeve, more ways to score, than the typical MLS striker.

Regarding that streak, though, Ryan Hunt's weekly MLS column for SI did a run on former MLS players who have equalled it; two names in there - Raul Diaz Arce and Carlos Ruiz - became the talk of the league around the respective hot streaks. The other, Wolde Harris, not so much (but it was a hell of a streak).

It's possible Angel's goals will dry up much like Diaz Arce's did; the man couldn't buy them after a while. Ruiz certainly hasn't looked himself this year, either. Till they do, though, he's looking like a good buy.

At 20 June, 2007 20:49, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thing that might enter into this is something in baseball like the first time around - meaning that a new player, hitter or pitcher - goes on a tear until everybody gets a look at him, determines the weakness, the tendencies, the hitches and begin making compensations. Usually the player cools down, sometimes right out of town. Right now defenses are getting their first look at Angel, the second or third times through he's going to find it rougher to run rough-shod. Defenders are going to figure out how to play him.

Secondly, once one coach comes up with a stop or even a slow-down on JPA, every other coach in the league is going to adapt what worked to their own game plan. Whether it be denial of service, grabbing his shirt or blowing in his ear, once word gets around everybody is going to be doing it.

Third, goal scorers are streaky creatures. Success is usually a two or three week period, sometimes a month, of an above average strike rate. Any forward is just a scuffed toe or missed sitter from being a laughing stock, usually for a couple of weeks before things heat up again.

JPA should probably continue as an above average player in MLS, maybe even superior. But I would imagine things will grow considerably more difficult in upcoming matches. The 25-30 strikes wouldn't be surprising, but then again 10-15 wouldn't either.


At 21 June, 2007 08:22, Anonymous Joanna said...

Why the big deal about Angel? I think perhaps it is because he is A CUTIE! Especially now that he's cut his hair. I think that some random guy from Red Bull needs to start up a blog ala bobbyboswell.com so that we can have video of Angel singing shirtless in the locker room.

Of course he's impotent against DC United; that goes without saying.

But he is still ABSOLUTELY YUMMY and when he's playing against any other team he's a joy to watch in all senses of the word.

Also, he's kind of hot. :-)

At 21 June, 2007 10:22, Blogger I-66 said...

To hell with this streak.

I guarantee he won't score this week.


wait for it...

At 21 June, 2007 17:05, Anonymous Joanna said...

You mean on the field, or?

At 21 June, 2007 17:12, Anonymous J. Dunn said...

I think if Angel (or any of the other high-profile imports) shows up any sort of weakness in the quality of the MLS, it's more of a negative-space sort of thing. There is and has been a definite lack of really consistently creative offensive talent in the league, and so someone like Angel who comes in and is in good form is definitely going to stand out, by virtue of having that ability, but perhaps more importantly, because defenses aren't used to having to plan for or deal with that kind of ability. It'll be interesting to see how he does the second time around the league, once some adjustments have been made by opponents.


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