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American soccer's unnecessary roughness on display at tourney

Soccer's beauty disappeared, at times, Tuesday at the US Youth Soccer Far West Regional Championships at the Simplot Sports Complex.

Desperate teams, tired players and a demand for fewer red cards left the beautiful game in tatters Tuesday.

No one was expecting the second coming of Ronaldinho. No one, however, was expecting a close relation to rugby.

What the American youth game needs is more skill and less brute. It demands more flair and artistry and finesse and less football without pads.

In all of our American sports, we have a tendency to equate toughness with rough play. Nowhere is that less appealing than in youth soccer as evidenced at times Tuesday in Southeast Boise.

Since the nation's truly elite athletes rarely end up in soccer, the domestic game has resorted to physical play as a way to compete against superior talent. It's not unlike fouling LeBron James each time he beats a defender off the dribble or mugging Marvin Harrison as he comes off the line of scrimmage.

Ugly, but effective.

"We just don't have enough good athletes playing. If we put Reggie Bush and Vince Young in a soccer uniform, I think we'd do a lot better," said Steve Brent, coach of the Boise Nationals U-19 boys team. "We have to be a little more physical to even it up."

While the thought of someone trying to stop Bush or Young without being allowed to tackle them is certainly appealing, it's not likely that football and basketball stars are suddenly going to abandon those sports for soccer.

But what we can do with those who choose soccer is promote skills. Encourage creativity and flair. Abandon sheer force as a winning strategy.

Other sports — and I know how soccer afficionados cringe when their game is compared to more American games — have shown the benefit of unleashing stars.

Football tightened its rules against defensive backs clutching and grabbing, allowing wide receivers to flourish. The NBA enjoyed a mini-renaissance during its playoffs because of heavier emphasis against mugging defenses employed for much of the last decade. Hockey — you still remember that sport played on ice? — drastically altered its rules to produce more space for its most talented skaters and scorers.

Though those changes increased scoring in all three sports, the moves were made to free talented players.

And the stars shined.

Soccer games don't necessarily need higher scores. What they do need — at the level being played in Boise at least — is more emphasis of skillful play.

It needs stars shining.

During Tuesday's U-19 games, skillful play took a backseat to rough play. There was no shortage of talented players on the pitch — nearly all team members play college soccer. But with teams playing on the second of back-to-back days and needing victories to secure spots in the quarterfinals, the games sometimes resembled lacrosse without the sticks.

There were plenty of body checks and elbows. And far fewer crisp passes and artistry.

"The further they go in the tournament, the more they need a win, so definitely everyone is going to give it everything they have," said Boise referee Robert Burnett, who officiated the rough-and-tumble match between FC Arsenal (California South) and Real Colorado National.

Further complicating matters was a harsh Monday night meeting at which tournament officials told the referees to cease and desist with red cards. Apparently, officials felt too many had been handed out during Monday's action.

And if no one is getting tossed — or even carded — for overly physical play, then it surely will continue.

"You just play how you're taught to play and be physical right back," Boise Nationals U-19 forward Zachary Crim said Tuesday after scoring two goals in a physical victory against the Coeur d'Alene Strikers.

Play in the older groups tends to be the most physical, a product of size and speed.

"Players are continually getting bigger and the pitches aren't exactly getting bigger, so there's less space out there," Burnett said.

Younger players watch — and emulate. Brent disagrees that the game needs far less physicality. He encourages his team to be physical.

"As long as it's not flagrant, it's a good thing. Sometimes you get teams that are more physical without playing soccer," he said. "As long as it's skillful, I don't have a problem with it."

Far too often, however, the physical snuffs out the skillful.

Bring back the beauty — and limit the beasts.