On Creativity

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 15: Eight-year-old Barcelona youth player Xavi Simons is possibly that Creative Attacking Midfielder that Colorado needs? (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)


This issue comes up again and again: The Rapids have no "creativity". While in a previous article,  I addressed the concern that Colorado is among the league’s dirtiest teams. The "dirty team" meme, while persistent, has lost much of the teeth it once had—hard tackles from Brian Mullan aside. However, the Rapids still haven’t gotten much respect around the league.

Granted, they are not winning right now, and that’s a fair and valid point: unless a team is winning, and winning consistently and convincingly, it’s not going to deserve respect from around the league. Colorado simply isn’t playing well right now, and that’s also a fair and valid point. I’ll grant that to anyone. But what about when they are playing well? If the Rapids were consistently winning, and playing a winning game, then do they get as much respect as any other team who does so?

The answer, and the reason for writing this story (and others), is an emphatic "no". And what I’ve noticed about the criticism of the Rapids, apart from the obviously and objectively false notion that they are a "dirty" team, is that they are "not creative" or "not the prettiest of teams" or that "no one would accuse them of playing ‘beautiful football’" or...

Look you’ve heard it all before, and I somewhat addressed it in my incredibly long rant on the haters who popped up after the Rapids won the MLS Cup. But this bit about creativity is particularly interesting because, in all honesty, this is not a criticism levied at the Rapids just from the haters. This is a criticism that has gone from the haters, thence boring its way into the minds of respectable commentators, and resulting in the accusation that Colorado possesses no creativity.

Now, I can say with some certainty that right now: Colorado is in a drought of creativity. Absolutely. But I can also say with some certainty that there is such a thing as a ‘creative’ Colorado. Now, what do I mean by that, exactly, and how am I defining creativity? Also, what do other people define as creativity and why don’t the Rapids seem to fall under that definition?

What is creativity? To me, creativity with regards to soccer is different than any other kind of creativity, and it is a measurable metric. Other people may define it differently, but usually that results in a metric that is entirely subjective. Some might say it has to do with style: a free-flowing attacking game of well-done square passes. But that’s not really ‘creative’ unless it leads to the actual ‘creation’ of something. Passing around the ball toca-toca style or doing a samba isn’t creativity; it may look pretty, but it’s not creating anything at all. So that’s not creativity, that’s style, and it’s important not to get the two confused.

I prefer to think of creativity by a measurable metric: good scoring chances.  The object of creativity in soccer is a good goal scoring chance. Just like in music the object is to produce a song, and in painting the object is to produce a painting. There is an object to the creative act; it isn’t merely "creative". One would be hard pressed to call me a creative writer if I never actually wrote anything at all.

John Cleese once said that the wonderful thing about football was how creative it all is. So, let’s take him at is word and say that when football is creative, it is producing goal-scoring chances. I interpret this as being "Shots on Goal". Usually that’s an indicator of a scoring opportunity when other statistics are unavailable. I’ll do a bit of comparison here and compare the season in 2010 with what we’ve seen so far in 2011 (as far as SOG’s are concerned) and then I’ll take a look at some of the latest matches.   I’ll be comparing the Rapids with teams that are seen as being "creative", like our rivals FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake.

Here are the three numbers we’re going to start with: 141 (Rapids), 141 (FC Dallas), and 135 (Real Salt Lake). Those are the numbers of Shots on Goal for the 2010 season, which I am going to take as a number of good scoring chances. Now, we take that number and divide it by the number of games played over the course of that season, and we’ll come up with the number of good scoring chances that a team has created per game. The Rapids (viewed as a profoundly un-creative team) and FC Dallas (viewed as an incredibly creative team by some commentators) are dead even at 4.7 SOG’s per game. Real Salt Lake (having been called the "Barcelona of MLS") fares a little worse: 4.5 SOG’s per game. All in all, there’s not too much separating these teams in terms of their prolific ability to create good goal-scoring chances.

And yet, if you buy the narrative: Colorado is not a creative team, whereas Real Salt Lake and FC Dallas are creative teams. Colorado also needs a creative attacking midfielder, so that they can be more creative like FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake. But looking at the numbers, there seems to be no need for such a player; Colorado does just fine with regards to production and thus with creativity.

Of course, we could do with a little bit of counter-point here: that was 2010, this is 2011, and how is Colorado faring in the 2011 season. The answer, especially with regards to creativity, is: poorly. Dallas is pulling down 4.3 SOG’s per game, Salt Lake is putting up a respectable 3.6 SOG’s per game, and Colorado is sitting somewhere in the basement with 3 SOG’s per game. That’s more than a whole number less than the previous season. Dallas seems to be the only team that pulled off any consistency with regard to their previous season’s numbers.

Looking at Colorado over the past few games since that fateful day in Dallas, it’s clear to see that they are on a bad run of form—and the amount of goal scoring chances created are a direct reflection of that poor run of form. But it’s important to understand that it indeed is a poor run of form and, from looking at last season’s numbers, not indicative of the kind of potential for creativity that the Rapids have.

   

So why is it so hard for people to see that Colorado is a creative team? It could be that it’s difficult for fans and the media in America to see how a team can be creative without that talismanic Number 10 player, and I’d agree with that assessment. Americans are conditioned to understand things like Quarterbacks, Wide Receivers, Pitchers, and Second Basemen—sportsmen with specific jobs to do. The Number 10 (the Creative Attacking Midfielder) fits this mold quite well: they are seen as performing a particular job, just like a Quarterback.

It’s difficult to break this mold when watching soccer. Americans tend to focus on one or two particular players as opposed to the movement or sequences of whole teams. Let’s face it: soccer is a relatively new thing here, and while it’s catching on, it’s still translating itself through our more dominant sports cultures. Naturally, some things will get lost in translation: like understanding what "creativity" means.

One writer at at MLSsoccer.com, Steve Davis, has the right of it: Colorado’s creativity comes from whole team movement, not from the unpredictable awesomeness of one amazing player. Colorado moves together and creates opportunities from that movement. He says it’s not pretty, and I suppose we will have to agree to disagree on that.  But in spite of his assertion that Colorado doesn’t play pretty, he cannot deny that Colorado is a prolifically creative team at their best.

There is no such thing as a soccer team that scores goals without being creative, and if there is, I’ve yet to meet them. There are some teams that create more than others, and some players on some teams that are required to be the source of that creativity (like FC Dallas' David Ferreira or RSL's Javi Morales)—while other teams may rely on playing through various combinations of well-rehearsed sequences (like Colorado).  The opinion that any kind of creativity is not really creativity is simply incorrect and based on a misapprehension of the term "creativity".

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