There are aspects of the world's game that can seem like smoke and mirrors to Americans not afflicted with the sport; it's hard to understand the idea of slowing the game down, for instance, how that comes to happen - don't both sides have to sort of agree? Or talking about space, the use of space, the negative run - isn't everyone just sort of running? There's this stubborn reductionism among many fans of traditional American sports, this refusal to accept the superfluidity of the moment in football; either we're winning or we ain't, right? Play harder!
Full credit, then, to Peter Vermes, whose comportment and ethos I commented upon earlier in this space. Whatever his failings, his tactical choices have created a form of football that resonates in the heartland. And the template he chose is called, in the German where it was birthed, "gegenpressing."
Gegenpressing means, according to the Google Translate on my phone (research! I do it), "against pressing," which is pretty close to what I'd always heard it described as: counter-pressing. The combination of the two terms is perfectly descriptive: counter-pressing incorporates the salient features of two systems, the frantic, full-team pressure of a pressing team flash-welded to the sprinting, fast-break football of the counter.
Traditionally, countering meant sitting deep in defense, allowing opponents some freedom to keep the ball while waiting to spring lightning attacks into the space behind. Fans of the USA have seen this basic template carry the team to essentially every important triumph of the last 15 years - two solid banks of defenders, and opportunistic attackers who can really run. Problem is, as a one-off cheering for underdogs, it's fine; but Americans want dominance from their local team. Countering, to fans more accustomed to the rhythms of the gridiron or the gym, looks a lot like just getting pummelled and trying to make the best of it.
Pressing's prevalence, mapped against time, would show some mild perturbations at a low number until about 1995, when it would rise and rise steadily until today. Throughout the history of the game, experience has shown that pressing exacted too great a toll on the bodies of the players to be a consistent strategy - run your forwards into the ground defending, the conventional wisdom said, and they won't have any sharpness or sparkle in the golden moment when it's needed. Modern sports medicine changed things; now players can get precise measurements of their lung capacity, muscle fatigue and recovery time. It's possible for top athletes in top condition to do something no one thought possible 30 years ago: Press and run with total commitment for damned near 90 full minutes. In the last decade, pressing was primarily used by proponents of the slow-tempo, ball-control approach known in Spain as tiki-taka, and was in some ways cover for the defensive frailties introduced by prioritizing ball control over hind-brain pragmatism in the defensive line - recover the ball in the opponent's half and just start passing.
Gegenpressing refuses to mix urgency with either pragmatism or cuteness; it is the uncut article, pressure crossed with pressure, cooked under pressure, and served with pressure sauce. It proposes that urgency is the main ingredient in success, not technique, not anything so strange as use of space or mastery of tempo. The players swarm forward in packs to win the ball, then stream directly at goal once it is won. Gegenpressing says "Go!", then "Go!", then "GO!", then "GOOOOO!" It is not a hard sell in middle America - its aggression is palpable, and the effort it demands of players creates sympathies in a culture that fetishizes ‘hard work' above ‘inspiration.'
Jurgen Klopp, whose Dortmund teams popularized the style in the last three years, insists that what matters most about a team is its passion, its emotion; he challenges the players to challenge each other on the field, and makes of effort a sort of emotional performance by the players - they leave it all on the field, palpably, and the fans love them for it. And it's a measure of Vermes' understanding of both football and middle America that he's built this team around these ideas. Here in America, he may not have access to many players whose touch or awareness rise to world class, but we do produce athletically useful, psychotically fit young men by the ton; that same culture produces people who will scream their lungs out for hard-working players who don't get pushed around.
In the end, though, the players make the history, which is where the judgement of Vermes has its highest marks. Besides developing Graham Zusi and Matt Besler into starters for the USA, Sporting has completely overhauled the center of its midfield to be more of a distribution center and less of a whirling abbatoir of broken shins and unhappiness. Most startling was the sight of Benny Feilhaber - notoriously fickle in exertion throughout his career - making a 90-yard recovery run in the dying minutes of the conference final. This, after providing the kind of magical quality going forward he'd always been known for. If you want to know what Vermes has built, there it was: A team so committed that even apostates believe.