The classic sports story is of an unheralded player becoming a hero in the championship game. But these stories are rare. More often than not, the best players decide the big games.
And that should be the case Sunday when the Cosmos and Fort Lauderdale Strikers meet at RFK Stadium in Soccer Bowl 80. For the Cosmos, there are four key players: Giorgio Chinaglia, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto and goalkeeper Hubert Birkenmeier. Fort Lauderdale's chances center on Gerd Mueller, Teofilo Cubillas, Ray Hudson and goalkeeper Jan van Beveren.
The goalies automatically make this list because there will be so much offensive talent on the field that both teams will have chances to score. It may well be that the goalie who comes up hottest will be the winner. Soccer is much like hockey in that a team can be outplayed and still win if its goalie is having an excellent day.
But most soccer games are decided in the midfield. That is especially true in the North American Soccer League, where the 35-yard line makes the midfield a much larger area. "It changes your tactics completely," Strikers Coach Cor van der Hart said. "Three men in the midfield just aren't enough."
As a result, no matter how they are introduced, most NASL teams use four men at midfield. And those are the men who decide 90 percent of the games. One way to tell who is controlling a game is to pick out the four midfield players on a team and see how much time they are spending on the other team's side of the field. If the midfielders are controlling the ball and attacking, most times their team is winning or about to score.
This is where players like Beckenbauer and Cubillas can dominate. Both have superb skills and are capable of lifting the level of play of those around them. How? The way Johan Cruyff does for the Diplomats.
When Beckenbauer or Cubillas make a Cruyff-like run, the defense must eventually come to meet them. That creates open spaces for the other players. eAnd that is when Beckenbauer and Cubillas can be at their best, when they create the space to set plays for teammates. Neither is likely to score often, but both can be responsible for their team scoring. While the midfield play is vital, it is not necessarily the bottom line. Again, the Dips provide an excellent example. All year, due in large part to Cruyff, they dominated the midfield. But often they dominated the midfield and lost anyway. In their playoff game in Los Angeles, Cruyff and company were on the attack all night. But the Dips could not finish up front what the midfield had started. Thus, they lost.
Both teams in the Soccer Bowl have players who can finish an attack if their midfielders start it for them. Chinaglia, with his incredible playoff statistics, is the prime example. But Mueller has always been a big game player and Hudson has had a wonderful season as a link between the midfield and the front line.
Defensively, Fort Lauderdale's key matchup is against Chinaglia. Van der Hart could go with John Pot or Ken Fogarty, if he is healthy, or even Arsene Auguste, who has the quickness. But August is an outside defender who might have problems with Chinaglia's strength in the box.
But in marking Chinaglia, the Strikers must not go to sleep on Julio Romero, Francois Van der Elst or Angelo DiBernardo. All of them look first to set up Chinaglia but are very capable of scoring themselves. Two years ago in the Soccer Bowl the Tampa Bay Rowdies set out to stop Chinaglia. They did. But Dennis Tueart, left alone, scored two goals and the Cosmos won, 3-1.
The Cosmos, on the other hand, must not get careless and put Birkenmeier in a shooting gallery, as they have done at times this season. They must not let Cubillas run wild.
But, for the Strikers to win they must stop the midfield, especially Beckenbauer, from getting into position to set up Chinaglia and the other front line players. When he wants to be, even at 35, Franz Beckenbauer is as good a midfielder as there is. This is his last NASL game. He should be the difference.