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Conceivably the Best 2-Nil Lead in Fußball

Important Disclosure: I (and many, many other fans) were unable to watch and/or record the Bayern Munich v. Arsenal game yesterday because it was not featured on Fox Soccer, but rather on Fox Sports 2. This channel, unfortunately, is pay-per-view. It’s one thing for a Bundesliga match to be pay-per-view, but a Champions League clash between two giant clubs when past tournament matches have been shown for free?

Not cool Fox Soccer…not cool.

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A question was asked in “The Relentless Journey of a Champion” regarding whether or not remaining on 4th and even 5th gear would be sustainable and ultimately rewarding for Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich squad heading into its Champions League clash with Arsenal at Emirates Stadium? This game also came after a German Cup match and a Bundesliga match (both solid victories with its top talent) just this past week.

The answer?

Yes.

It appears to be just that simple.

Even without the dynamic services of the injured Franck Ribéry and Xherdan Shaqiri, plus the recovering manager in the middle Bastian Schweinsteiger, Bayern Munich did not miss a beat as they handled a flurry of dangerous offensive opportunities from the Gunners throughout the first half and then absolutely dominated Arsenal in the second half for a convincing 2-nil victory with stunning goals from Toni Kroos and Thomas Müller (or so I read).

This win was also the first for Pep in Emirates Stadium.

A relieved and joyful check for the Munich manager.

It does need to be stated that there was a shockingly surreal occurrence with two missed penalties by a devastated player from each team in Mesut Özil and David Alaba (a fast right arm and a pesky left post), a red card for the Arsenal goalkeeper minutes before halftime, a few yellow cards and a sidewinder beauty tucked inside the top near post from Bayern’s Toni Kroos.

(Fortunately, somebody posted a free highlight video on YouTube yesterday evening)

What does this all prove?

It’s validation that “Pep’s Boys” (just made that up!) are intelligently and relentlessly preparing, working and reacting the right way in their weekly training sessions and during the all-important games. The team’s that think too much on-and-off the field tend to think a lot after the game about what went wrong.

When you can trust everything you’re doing, that’s one hell of an advantage over any opponent, regardless of the venue. Bayern Munich is playing its brand of fußballing chess and are moving themselves and their opponents with direct force, as well as with a passive aggressive nature that is paying big dividends at the right moments.

Plus, they are quite good at imitating the checkers move of jumping their opponent’s back line with an overwhelming effect when that moment presents itself.

Some could argue that’s a championship advantage.

When Arsenal travels to Allianz Arena in Munich on March 11th for the second leg, expect nothing short of a top-shelf lineup and effort from “Pep’s Boys.”

Anything less wouldn’t qualify as a championship effort.

The Relentless Journey of a Champion

There are multitudinous differences between Major League Soccer (MLS) and the prominent European leagues. Speed, style, talent, history, fan culture and culture in general, scheduling for the season and club priorities, to only name a few. The latter provides a fascinating insight into one of the core distinctions between the soccer/footballing mentality of the best clubs from these two land masses separated by the massive Atlantic Ocean.

Exhibit A: Bayern Munich.

On Tuesday, February 12th, Bayern Munich lined-up against Hamburger SV in a German Cup quarterfinal match. FC Hollywood has been dominant to say the least this season (again) and a victory could have been secured with a bevy of bench players (though all are borderline world-class). But did Pep Guardiola pursue such a lackadaisical strategy? No. Why? Because he’s a championship coach and he doesn’t accept anything less than a championship effort.

The starting lineup for Bayern Munich looked like one a fan or analyst would and should come to expect for a top Bundesliga or Champions League clash. The result? A 5-nil drubbing by Guardiola’s men.

It was a championship statement by a championship team.

Next Wednesday will see Bayern Munich travel to Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal for a UEFA Champions League clash. With a weekend Bundesliga match to play a few days prior, the Bavarians should again enter the opening kickoff with a familiar, confident rhythm from all players and coaches.

Time will tell if remaining on 4th and 5th gear will pay off for Guardiola & Co.

Exhibit B: The Columbus Crew (as just one MLS example).

Conversely, the Columbus Crew has, on numerous occasions, chosen to rest a few of its top players for MLS games only. This has, sadly, resulted in unexpected losses in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup by a less talented opponent from an inferior American league or by an MLS team they should have defeated.

2012: The Crew 1-2 Dayton Dutch Lions in Columbus Crew Stadium.

For the Crew, it seems like the mindset is that the Open Cup is nice, but it’s not as prestigious as the MLS Cup. And perhaps this is a big problem. Why? Because championship teams want to win championships. All of them. Period. No excuses. If the coach wants to get more players quality time on the pitch, then a more suitable strategy may be to mix them in as substitutes and even starters (1 or 2 in a game here and there) throughout the MLS season. In other words, the team dynamic should not be an A-Team and a B-Team, but rather one team that can rotate players from the bench/reserves without much disruption in the style of play for the individual and team as a whole. This could help alleviate some of the exhaustion during extremely hot summer conditions in Texas or a busy week or two straight of competition without missing much of a beat in quality or achieving positive results.

This post is not an effort to necessarily hail Bayern Munich and Europe and criticize the Columbus Crew and MLS, but to shine a bright light on the reality of how a championship team is built, how it evolves and then how it capitalizes on every opportunity for glory. The Crew won MLS Cup in 2008, but that comprehensive drive for achieving all titles each season seems to be lacking and it seems to be contagious among its fellow MLS teams.

For the media’s part, not all competitions are viewed through the same lens of importance as the MLS Cup. There are some legitimate reasons for that. However, soccer coverage in the United States is still limited. Yes, that’s a disappointing fact, but it’s getting better. Regardless, the MLS season is not just about the MLS Cup. While it is the best title and the crown jewel of the league, it’s not the only title (Supporters’ Shield, U.S. Open Cup & CONCACAF Champions League).

There is an intense sense of urgency in Munich right now (as there was last year as well) where any single loss or instances of complacency in motivation or effort is felt, scrutinized and immediately corrected from within.

The best tend to do that.

Acclaim Through Addition

Jupp Heynckes and Pep Guardiola.

These two football coaches have and do pace the sidelines with their own brand of suave, seriousness, calmness, intention and ingenious planning. Heynckes and Guardiola are different men from different countries with different styles and strategy, but are perfectly united by the same ambition and records of epic proportions, past and present.

But what precisely defines a global footballing/soccer champion in the modern era?

This is a fascinating, complex question to ponder, specifically regarding the perception of European football when compared to soccer in the United States. In Major League Soccer (MLS), the four championships/trophies competed for each season are perceived more so as individual conquests than as an all-or-nothing pursuit. It is not unusual for one team to win the Supporters’ Shield and another team to win the MLS Cup. Is it peculiar for one club to hoist the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy, but not the CONCACAF Champions League trophy? No.

Winning the Supporters’ Shield for the most points in the regular season and the MLS Cup is a tremendous achievement (6 times/TBD 18 years), but it is not the expected protocol. As a result, it is greatly celebrated when this occurs. In Europe, though, a legendary feat consists of winning at least three to four trophies, depending on certain qualifications for certain clubs. This could involve the German Cup, the Spanish Super Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the FIFA Club World Cup, etc. Then, of course, there is the UEFA Champions League. For Europeans and fans around the world, this is their “grandaddy of them all” for club football/soccer.

Remaining in Europe, specifically Munich, Germany, the journey for another record-breaking season is well under way. The pressure is palpable. Fortunately for Guardiola and his men, the 2013/2014 campaign has been victorious with the injection of new formations and style of play. It even bears a striking resemblance to the 2012/2013 club in the standings.

14 games into the 34-game Bundesliga season, Bayern Munich (under Guardiola) is 12-2-0 (W-D-L) with 38 points and a positive goal differential of 25. At the conclusion of the 2012/2013 campaign, Bayern Munich (guided by Heynckes) had earned 91 points from a 29-4-1 record with an insane positive goal differential of 80. A quick calculation postulates a realistic replication of Bundesliga glory for Hollywood FC, considering the fact the team is playing more comfortably and confidently under its new management and head coach with each victory in all of its competitions, most notably the Champions League.

And the latter part of the last paragraph is the key phrase: “…in all competitions.” It seems like, in today’s football/soccer universe, that winning a top league in the world is not complete unless there is a sweeping of all competitions. There exists little oxygen for a league champion or champion of a single tournament to receive the appropriate congratulations and acclaim, unless it’s a one-in-a-million league or tournament kind of run.

In Europe, the requirements (not preferences) for true greatness are the league title, the country’s home tournament/Cup, their version of a Super Cup and the UEFA Champions League. This formula is structured on addition, not +/-. Is this fair? That’s debatable. However, while the standards are extraordinary, the opportunities are equally extraordinary. That’s a reality that’s not all bad for one magnificently unforgettable campaign.

One record-breaking/amazing/storybook/legendary season can elevate a club to eternal glory and prominence of epic proportions. Imagine if this happens two years in a row…or more. But make no mistake about it, it is extremely difficult to achieve such success in a season. The results on (and off) the field need to resemble virtual perfection.

Will Bayern Munich, through the leadership of Pep Guardiola, cap another unforgettable season with arms full of trophies?

That is still several months away from being determined and the challenges looming ahead are undeniably massive and treacherous. However, if they can continue to show an improving expertise in moving 11 men in wonderfully successful fashion and synchronization, then adding a few more prestigious titles to their shelves will seem academic.

Champions do tend to make the extraordinary look easy.

And it’s only at this point when the simple addition of multiple trophies becomes proof of something epic.

The New 5-Second Rule

There have been recent reports that the MLS brass is strongly considering flipping the American soccer fan’s world upside down by switching the MLS schedule to sync with the European leagues: From March-November to August-May. While on the surface it may seem like the natural progression to make, think about how much you really like cold weather. Let me clarify: how much do you like sitting in cold weather for 2-2 1/2 hours during the American Winter season?

The reception to this proposition is likely to be more than just chilly (yes, that just happened).

Snow coupled with bone-chillingly cold winds will sweep into several of the MLS stadiums (Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Colorado, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Chicago, Columbus, Montreal, D.C., Philadelphia, New York/New Jersey, Boston/Foxborough, Toronto) during what will be critical matches early on, where 3 points, impressive performances and late game heroics will be needed. Will this weather be conducive to coach’s and player’s expectations on the field for a significant and vital portion of the season?

Oh, and let’s not forget the fans. MLS, though growing, is still not Europe and will not automatically sell-out games, especially in frigidly cold weather. It’s also important to note that the Winter season in North America is more intense than the Winter season in much of Europe. Granted, Europe takes a month long break, ranging from part of December-part of January. Still, the first few months of the new year in North America is always cold.

At this point, there appears to be too many risky variables involved. While it would be cool to play games on the same schedule as the best leagues in the world, reality must also be considered. Currently, Summer in America mostly consists of soccer and baseball. That’s a good situation for MLS.

If there should be any changes to MLS, the top priority should be to bring back the Shootout: 5 seconds to score on a breakaway from 35 yards out. However, the starting spot should be moved to 25 yards out from goal to allow for slightly more time for the attacking player to be creative.

Bottom line: the shootout was always exciting!

With all the world class talent in Europe, could you imagine if those leagues adopted this measure? If you remember how exhilarating it was to watch MLS players participate in this overtime thrill ride, just think about Messi, Ronaldo, Robben, Özil, Van Persie, Iniesta, Rooney and Torres using their best tricks at pace on Neuer, Casillas and Buffon in a must-score/must-save situation!?

Now that would bring heat and electricity to “the beautiful game” in even the coldest weather.