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Thoughtful Olympic rehash: So much style, but what of substance?

Mar 27, 2012, 12:36 PM EDT

Brek Shea

Hipsters, models and fashion mavens step over one another to set the next trend in clothing style. Kids kick it “street style.”  Weather may dictate seasonal style. And lest we forget that fashion fades, but style is eternal. Or so I hear.

At the end of the day, of course, we’re really just talking about composites and material to protect ourselves from sun, from the nasty elements and from strangers seeing our tummies. At some point, it’s not “style,” it’s just essential coverage.

It’s a good thing to remember about our soccer, too, this pursuit of “style.” Especially on the “mourning after.”

Did the U.S. under-23 soccer team, along with the rest of us, lose the plot along the way, paying a little too much attention to style while paying improper heed to time-tested tenets of athletic competition?

Perhaps. Maybe it’s just a learning curve as the U.S. search for its soccer style slogs inexorably forward – whatever that means to everyone individually.

There’s really no problem with these discussions, nothing misguided about scouring the lands in search of our passing-and-trapping brand, so long as this elusive fox hunt remains rooted in a simple concept:

Style is a means to an end … not the finish line itself.

Anyone think maybe that simple notion got misplaced along the way to Nashville?

In domestic soccer circles, talk of style became de rigueur as Jurgen Klinsmann inherited the top U.S. post eight months back. Klinsmann never imagined we would “style” our way to soccer’s promised land; he’s no dummy that way. But he did want to influence a better way forward, a methodology with a further view up the field, so to speak. (Never mind that his biggest win, last month in Italy, tilted smartly back toward a pragmatic approach.)

So it was with Caleb Porter’s 4-3-3, stylistic and dynamic as it was for his under-23s. And it was so pretty to watch!  So very Ajax-in-the-day. Especially against Cuba in the American Group A opener. The geometric triangles inspired by the great Dutch sides under Rinus Michels were being drawn up like so much chalk talk in the locker room.

But Cuba, defensively disheveled and chronically unfocussed, was never a barometer. Then came the crushers, which were. Barometers, that is.

While some of us debated merits of “style,” Canada and El Salvador (big credit to both, by the way) reminded everyone that so much of the game is about desire and passion. It’s about leadership and chemistry. It’s about roster balance, with a few technically competent mudders who don’t give a hoot about style so long as they get to leave a mark here and there.

It’s about identifying the men who can rise to the moment (young men though they are).

I like and appreciate an attractive match as much as the next guy. It is the “beautiful game,” after all. These are important discussions in U.S. soccer circles, about playing a better brand, etc. – but the talks always deserve rooting in a foundation of something bigger.

Style in itself can never win a match – and at some point that’s what it’s all about.

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