Rich here: just wanted to introduce Stephen’s fabulous post from Dallas – when I found out he was going to go I asked if he’d mind writing something up, and was overjoyed when he said yes. A real privilege to have something from the ground, as it were. Enjoy!
Fulham was in Dallas last week, or at least the U-19’s were. I was also in Dallas.
As a Pittsburgh-based Fulham supporter for – shockingly, when I think about it – about a decade, I couldn’t resist an opportunity to catch the U-19’s participate in the 35th incarnation of the Dallas Cup, America’s (firmly, indisputably) most prestigious international youth tournament.
Squads sent from clubs such as Anderlecht, Eintracht Frankfurt, River Plate, Fluminese, the Los Angeles Galaxy, the U.S. U-20’s and, most importantly of all, mighty, mighty Fulham entered teams in upper-most of several age and skill-based divisions.
The top team in each of the Jago Super Group’s brackets, along with one wild card, advance to the knockout stage.
Fulham won the tournament last year, no easy feat, and looked to have an opportunity to do so again. Through two of their three group games, the Whites had dispatched Bracket A foes FC Dallas (4-0) and impeccably Swedish IF Brommapojkarna (2-1).
Brazillian club Coritiba FC, Fulham’s final group opponent, enjoyed the same undefeated success against the same opposition, setting up a showdown between the two sides on April 16 for a spot in the knockout round. A draw held little-to-no certitude of advancement.
Games were played either in the Cotton Bowl, an aged, American football stadium that can pack in over 90,000 humans at a time, or amid a tapestry of Adidas-emblazoned fields spread across Richland College, a vividly nondescript collegiate setting nestled into a random, suburban patch of Dallas.
The largest spectator structure at Richland College, where Fulham met Coritiba, could seat maybe 200-300 spectators. Maybe.
Thus was the setting when Coritiba blew past a disappointingly flat Fulham squad 3-0, ending the English club’s dreams of a repeat with incisive passing, a fire-at-will mindset and occasional outbursts of Portugese cursing. Some of it was skill, some of it was luck, and some of it was wind.
The wind came first.
Winds of Change
One of the first things people tell me they notice when they drive through Pennsylvania for the first time are the mountains and hills. Aged, cracked roads dotted with pot holes and signage intersected by myriad rivers, all struggling for space in the midst of the Allegheny Mountains’ jolting topography and plentiful trees.
It’s stark to those newly introduced to the area. It’s cramped, and space isn’t plentiful. It must be carved out.
It’s a far cry from other places in the U.S. like, say, Dallas.
Conversely, one of the first things I notice each time I land deep in the heart of Texas is how damn flat it is. And the number of new churches. But it’s mostly the flatness.
All of those hills? Not there. Nor the foliage. It’s all really flat, mostly brown, and roads typically aren’t at the mercy of the Earth. Straight, logical, unbroken, fresh, and easy to drive really fast on.
(spot a mountain in the distance, I dare you)
The lack of land obtrusion leads to another phenomena my home state isn’t at the constant mercy of – bastard gusts of wind. They’re frequent and can last for minutes at a time.
Even standing in the middle of a warm, sun-drenched landscape, as was on display at Richland College right before kickoff, provides no protection. A gust can suddenly hit, sending a prolonged chill up your spine. Because the wind doesn’t end in a reasonable amount of time, the chill has time to go back down again for the hell of it. And then back up.
These gusts, rampant and frequent, were the first and definitely not the last thing Coritiba made use of to exploit the Fulham back line.
Let me take a step back first and dig a little into what Fulham didn’t give its opposition.
The Londoners were well-organized, and especially firm in midfield. Though the official website described the Cottagers as lining up in a 4-3-3, it seemed to operate more like a 4-5-1 in action, or at the very least a defensive 4-3-3. The wings did spend a lot of time out wide on their own, but midfield was packed tightly in center and outside support was readily available when the ball was lost.
When a Fulham player gained possession, a teammate usually did well to show a safe passing option. Combinations across the field were orchestrated with precision. The defensive line was high, backs were on-hand for support. It wasn’t a BAD shape and the squad – outside of the back line – showed impressive technical ability on the ball.
But that high line eventually showed cracks.
Both sides shared possession pretty evenly early on, few clear cut chances were had. Then Coritiba’s goalkeeper appeared to suddenly realize a massive wind was at his back and started to unload booming kicks from his box that consistently landed in the vicinity of Fulham goalkeeper Marek Rodak’s box.
With the Cottagers deploying a pretty high line, Liam Donnelly and Cameron Burgess in central defense began to get exploited by opposition strikers in foot races. It was a quickly noticeable trend. Why breakdown a tight midfield when you can go over it? Blitzkreig football.
Eventually one of these chances led to a corner. The in-swinger flew near-post with perfect height and impressive velocity. With a snap of the head, the 93rd incarnation of Juninho directed it in and the Coxa was (were? Was? I’m at a loss) up. Unstoppable chance.
The first-half punts continued from Coritiba, Fulham couldn’t generate half the distance from its own goal kicks. Like I said, bastard wind. That was the difference at first.
On the ground there were issues too, and this may begin to sound culturally stereotypical, but here it goes: Coritiba wanted to score goals, Fulham didn’t want to lose the ball. Flair met precision. Flair won.
Did Coritiba look better in passing technically? No, not really. But they took far more chances when they had possession. Their runs were livlier, their passes more ambitious. Fulham’s were safe. While the Whites advanced in inches, Coritiba moved in meters.
In the second half, the imbalance of play became pronounced. This onlooker, along with a newly-made friend that also wandered to the game alone for the love of youth soccer and sunshine, agreed that the wind being at Fulham’s back could give it a similar advantage to what Coritiba had enjoyed in the opening frame.
Fulham hadn’t been played off the field at that point. It was maybe a slight advantage to Coritiba in terms of the score and flow, but neither side found an edge beyond punts and gusts initially.
But freed by its lead or sensing weakness or for some other half-guessed-at reasoning, Coritiba became more bold as the match progressed. Attacking movements appeared with increasing frequency from the Brazilians, while Fulham’s attack looked listless.
Occasionally, a Coritiban attacker would sky a chance from outside of the box and be met with derision from EVERY OTHER TEAMMATE ON THE FIELD. Just a chorus of hand-gestures and what I’m assuming by tone were Portuguese curse words and/or clear indications of displeasure.
I’d never heard a thing like it. Typical on-field chatter as players called for the ball and shouted discussions, normal noise level, a missed shot, and then a sudden barrage of verbal critique.
But, really, the Coxa players must’ve sensed the game was there for the taking and that the chances generated weren’t up to snuff.
Some bad defensive passing led to one of what seemed to be an alarmingly high number of unforced turnovers from the Fulham back line being intercepted by Coritiba. The counter was on, bingo-bango 2-0.
Fulham decided to press. It was an interesting decision because it led to chances. Actual shots were taken lending one to imagine the Whites may manage to score. It left one to wander what might’ve been had the boys not been so vested in neutrality.
The Fulham line pressed higher. Another turnover, another counter and, with seeming inevitability, another clean chance came to the Coxa in the box. Rodak, who really did impress throughout, had no chance. Again. 3-0 and it was academic from there.
A pair of goals around the 80th minute put Fulham in its place: out of the tournament.
The end of things
It wasn’t too disappointing – you don’t get quite the demanding thirst for results when you’re watching youth players have at it. You enjoy things like technique and vision at an advanced level for a player’s age. I cover a lot of high school soccer in Western Pennsylvania, so it was a treat to be able to see hand-picked athletes of a similar age weave together intricate movements and passes.
You run into several Aha! moments about vision and speed – not actual pace, but the pace at which a player can make a correct decision. The big change between a player simply being physically advanced and mentally advanced.
In a purely personal sense, I got to see a Fulham squad in action for the first time, for better or worse. Mostly for the better. A lower-end personal goal achieved.
But the game was at least mildly disappointing in the sense that the result didn’t seem to match what the squad was likely capable of.
It feels like attitude was the flaw. Maybe some missing positivity or a desire to create offense. But that’s reactionary.
It could just as easily, perhaps more aptly, be blamed on tactics. It’s hard to imagine a team could prove so adept at supporting each other and passing with technical ability and fail to ask almost any questions of the opposition’s defense for about 75 minutes.
Blame it on Moussa Dembele, the lone forward? Maybe. Expectations were a bit higher for him, but I’d misidentified him as playing on the wing earlier. I left thinking he’d put in a fine shift, but apparently my praise should’ve been directed at Ange-Freddy Plumain.
Not only is he hard to pick out of the Moussa Dembeles of the world, but apparently he’s just as difficult to pick out in a crowd.
After the end of things
When the 90th minute hit, the clearly-dejected Fulham squad began wandering over towards its bench. The now likely-identified Dembele’s shirt went up and over his head in disgust.
As I wandered away from the bleachers, I passed the players still on the field. They sat in a circle while getting an earful –clearly without anger, mind you – from the coaching staff as Anderlecht readied for play in the foreground.
They were very young professional footballers for Fulham, but it wasn’t what you imagine a professional moment as. It was clearly a teaching moment. Can you imagine Felix Magath encircling Scott Parker, Giorgos Karagounis and company for a post-game lesson?
That feeling was never far away. The crowd was there to enjoy soccer, and they were able to. A handful of teens dressed in Brazillian gear had a grand time, a cadre of red Fulham track jackets to my left appeared to be a mix of players’ parents and technical staff. Their time wasn’t so grand.
Everyone else really just wanted to enjoy a soccer game. They were able to. So was I.
Most importantly, with the game over, I was able to get in my car and get the hell out of the wind.
It was hard to identify a number of players specifically, as there were no names on any jerseys, but I was able to discern a few with some certainty. Here’s the positives. The negatives are now lost in space, time, and the generalizations of the above rambling prose:
Emerson Hyndman was notable for playing a quick, smart game and for clearly being the smallest player on the field. His touches were decisive and he rarely seemed to make a wrong step in possession. Set pieces were a different story, but he was good. My new friend pointed him out early, I caught on and agreed after a few minutes of watching him.
Maybe it isn’t so surprising he felt comfortable playing in his hometown, where his grandfather coached locally for over two decades at Southern Methodist University and, later, had a good spell at FC Dallas.
Soloman Sambou wasn’t perfect, but he was the most physically impressive player on the field. The physique is very mature. That’s all solely from the eye test – he looks the role of a defensive midfielder. For the most part, he played it well too.
Plumain was the most dangerous Fulham player on the ball, namely on the dribble. But he couldn’t generate much in the way of chances once he found a seam. That’s generally wasn’t on him, however.
As mentioned, I had misidentified him to the other lonely, random spectator as Dembele, but looking at the lineup, it appears that it was him isolated on the wing.
Rodak was good. In the second half, despite the score line, he was very, very good. Distribution? He wasn’t able to take advantage of the elements in the way that his counterpart did, but on pure shot-stopping merit he was excellent.
Lasse Christensen seemed to be the lone player eager to join into attacking movements, but I can’t remember him getting on the end of, or creating, much when he did show up.