"Push Forward!"

Is it the battle cry of entertaining soccer, or merely the mating call of the vanquished?


Note:    This page is still taking shape, so don't expect any real answers quite yet.


In the raising of children, the parent attempts to encourage respect for authority ("Don't you talk back to me!") while at the same time fostering in their children both independence and the ability to confidently speak up for themselves and their teams ("Did you remind 'Coach' that you're left footed when he put you at right wing?").  Go too far in one direction and you've got an adult who can't decide on their new car's color without consulting others, while excess in the other direction yields an adult who will likely abuse police officers over the issuance of a totally justified traffic ticket.

That said, I'm concerned that far too many of us American soccer fans are taking too serious the following 'gag order' issued by MLS commissioner Don Garber.

Image Credit:  Article by Paul Gardner for World Soccer Magazine December 2005 issue, page 23.  Quoting MLS commissioner Don Garber.

While I haven't spoken with Mr. Garber for exact clarification, I don't think we have to worry that Commissioner Garber would regard a spirited discussion on what constitutes "pushing forward" as yet another example of 'soccer-bashing.'

Sure, there are many purists who genuinely embrace the belief:

Why discuss improving that which is already perfect?

But I'm hoping that even those who feel the game played by the players should never be changed might one day soon look positively on alterations which might encourage coaches (enjoying a 1-0 lead...away...playing a man down...in a championship determining match) to advise their players to attack instead of dropping back into the ole '22 legs in the box' for the match's remaining 80 minutes.

In soccer the term 'push forward' means to move toward the opponent's goal.  You'd think that it would be a foundation to offensive success in soccer.

I only life were so simple.

Sadly, in soccer today, the only absolute is that "push forward" is most commonly used to describe what a team must do once they have surrendered the lead to their opponents.  Otherwise, a team could go a whole season without ever pushing forward, just as long as they don't screw up and have the "scoring responsibility" on their shoulders.


What the hell are we talking about here?

Back in the mid-80's, I worked with an older gentleman named Russ Greer.  Rush was a very successful computer salesman who once responded to my attempt at education with the question:

"Mike, what's the difference between ignorance and apathy?"

I responded with a puzzled look and a shrug.  Rush grinned, then turned, started walking away, and shouted back:

"I don't know, and I don't care!"   

Such is the attitude I'm faced with whenever I attempt to discuss "pushing forward."  The subject seems to have as much appeal as a discussion of a trip to the DMV to get my driver's license renewed.

But why?  For me, "pushing forward" brings to mind the sweet smell of soccer success.  When I hear "push forward" or "push up", I'm taken to a happy place where my son or daughter have just pulled down a shot on goal, and are confidently striding forward shouting commands to their teams.  From my sidelines seat I'm applauding and sharing satisfied looks with my team's other parents.  Life is good.

If you think I'm being silly here, look over the following for a documentation of the fact that I'm the father of 2 goalkeepers...

The Missouri Valley Conference 2nd Team All Conference Team for Womens Soccer for the 2003 season.

...so at least 50% of the soccer matches I've watched have been with my folding chair placed on the 18 yard line.  From this vantage point, it's all too clear to me that when my daughter or son started yelling "push forward" or "push up", it had little to do with goal scoring, and much to do with getting the opposing strikers in an off-sides position so they'd be of little threat.

So it's clear now that I've only myself to blame, since in the minds of most soccer players "pushing forward" is far more psychologically linked to defensive success (and to the voice of a moody goalkeeper's obnoxious barkings) than it is to any positive aspect of offensive play.  How do you talk about something in a positive fashion when for decades it has been relegated in importance to "Something you have to do when you're loosing."

And if you feel this is a cynical view of the subject, you obviously don't have a handle on today's soccer's reality.  I only wish you could share my experience of watching youth league soccer, when coaches would often pull their best goal scorer back to play at sweeper once a one goal lead was established.  Talk about a cynical statement about the value of "pushing forward"!!!  If you haven't had the benefit of this type of real soccer education, then you can't really appreciate what's going on in the minds of the typical recreational soccer player.  And frankly, recreational players are the only soccer players I currently have access to.  If I could converse with professional soccer players I might get a little more interested response, but I doubt it, simply because you start getting into more fanatical and advanced tactical thinking such as is presented by DJ Domino of www.polishsoccer.com in the following:

"Most scoring chances come off counter attacks, and if you have the ball at your back line the other team is in no position to counter attack. So how do you score goals if you don't expect to score with the majority of possession? You let the opposition, when they have possession at the back, attack you. They will get anxious and push forward and you catch them on the counter. This is where the two deep midfielders come in.

If you subscribe to the theory that lots of possession is mainly a defensive idea (and many don't), then having two holding midfielders is the key to offense. Winning the ball back is important no matter what your philosophy, but where you win it back and what you do with it once you win it back is even more paramount. Having two defensive midfielders lets the midfield line move forward a good 5-10 yards, meaning you have a good 5-10 yard headstart when attacking. Winning the ball in an advantageous position is only half the battle though, distribution is the second half, and the more key one."

And while I'm not trying to find fault Mr. Domino's thinking, those two paragraphs should make it clear that the concept of pushing forward needs some serious analysis if it's to ever become the battle cry of winning soccer. 


My Not-So-Hidden Agenda:  Going into this page, I'd already decided that pushing forward needed to be defined so that it could be recognized and possibly even rewarded.


February 6, 2006 - Permit me to quote from the wisdom of the poet Bob Dylan:

The axe fell for me last Friday, when I was let go at the prestigious car dealership where I'd worked for the past year.  For me it was the first pink slip I'd ever received, so it was a blow to my ego.  It took about 6 hours for me to realize that they'd actually done me a favor, as it was a reality which kept me from visiting friends and family outside the DFW area for way too long.  Part of the problem is my location, as on the way to work I drove by the big DFW Airport, so there wasn't a Saturday that passed when the obvious benefits of having both days of the weekend off didn't cross my mind.  That's not a good sign for a car salesperson, since Saturday is supposed to be the week's big sales opportunity.

But is there a real lesson to be learned here?  Well, my allegiance to the manager who'd brought me into the department had me in a position where I couldn't request a transfer within the organization without appearing disloyal.  But that just gave me an excuse for keeping quiet.  So I played the hand I was dealt, knowing that this sales thing wasn't my optimum calling.  Which brings up the real issue here...I really wasn't very good at this sales thing.

While we're quoting from the wisdom of the masters, how about a pearl from Cheech 'n Chong:

In the fall of 1974 I took a standardized test called the ACT.  From my overall performance and feedback it provided this career guidance:

Looking over the above, the Oracle of ACT was predicting that I was roughly 16.5 times more likely to achieve success and happiness by focusing on the 'detail' aspects of business over the 'contact' aspects of business.

(Now Entering:  Regret City)  There it was, in black and white and green.  But did I listen......NNOOOOOOO.  Well, maybe I listened just a little.  I did initially pursue a degree in engineering, but moved over to general business when I hit the first little bump in the road.  DOH!  (You're now leaving Regret City, have a happy day!)

So it should come as no surprise that I've chosen a hobby which involves detailed analysis and the creating of spreadsheets.  While most are looking over my work thinking "Dude, you need to get a life!", they don't realize that many decades ago it was predicted by a higher authority that I'd probably need to be doing this sort of activity in order to find true peace and happiness.

Luckily, being freed of the oppression of employment allowed me to spend last Saturday any way I please.  So I ventured over to Dallas' Trinity Hall Pub to watch my Gunners take on Middlesboro in what I was hoping would be a repeat of "My Favorite Soccer Match Ever."

Early into the 2nd half of last Saturday's match, The Gunners went down 0-1 via PK, after a red card took them down to 10 men.  Since Arsenal is the planet's most successful employer of the soccer system called 'Total Soccer', they stayed true to that game plan and brought the match even, where it finished at 1-1.

So being unemployed provided the opportunity to come to grips with this matter of finding the formula for "pushing forward" in the simplest of terms.

Total Soccer is the fly in the ointment.  In a perfect world, all field players would have equal skill and hunger, and the only system which could work in such a perfect reality is...you know what's coming...TOTAL SOCCER.  That said, it's impossible to create a formula for pushing forward which involves the positions the players are at.  If a team is employing total soccer, you might run into a situation where the defenders have pushed forward, but 4 midfielders may have rotated back to take their positions.

So as I see it, all the officials have to do to set the standard for gauging "pushing forward" is to agree on a particular number of players across a particular line on the field at a particular point in time.  And those determinations could likely be different for the offense and the defense.

Before you say that it's stupid to come up with different "pushing forward" determinations, don't you agree that it's always easier for a team to keep goals out of their net when they pull all 11 men back behind the ball?  So there we have two justification for two different standards for "pushing forward."

Where I'd like to focus from here on is on just one of the 3 dimensions of pushing forward.  The line on the field and the number of players over that line is simply so obvious, that to spend a sentence would have to be seen as talking down to my reader.  The time dimension, however, is far from obvious.

The Time has come!

While the knee jerk assumption is to assume that the prime moment in time is the instant that the ball crosses into the goal, this encourages two types of play which I find undesirable and totally inconsistent with more entertaining soccer:

1.  Dump and run soccer.  I don't like it, and if the time consideration is only focused on the moment the ball crosses into the goal, then it might fail to foster a true attitude of pushing forward.  Think about it.  I can see coaches viewing this as business as usual, 22 legs in the box, and then everyone sprints forward at the change of possession in order to reap the rewards of pushing forward...whatever they may be.  Today, the defenders jog forward in an effort to immediately place the strikers in an off-sides position.  Reward pushing forward based on the player's position on the field and that jog will quickly become a full sprint, which will only encourage the concern of fouls away from the ball.

2.  Fouls away from the ball will greatly increase.  If discouraged from immediately running back to get behind the ball, the defending team's players which are left behind will soon discover that there time is best spent hindering the progress of the defensive players from pushing forward.  Such activity will distinguish the great strikers from that position's journeyman performers.  If a player is too important to risk a personal foul, he will not move to hinder the opponent.  However, if the player can be easily replaced with an equally talented player, then hindering the advance of the opponents after the change in possession will likely be an important part of that player's job description as defined by his coach.

Now the interesting question is whether this type of cynical obstruction could be dealt with as some sort of professional foul.

What a joke.  Fact is that the equation simply cannot be made too complex, so it has to be measured at the moment the ball crosses into the goal.  Nothing else really matters, but the bottom line here is that I don't want any other moment to be more important than the critical moment.

Now that we've settled that matter in what, 300 words or less, let's turn our attentions back to the other 2 dimensions.

While I realize that to do so might be an insult to my reader's intelligence, my fear is that midfield line would be chosen as the partition for pushing forward, without even considering other options.

The fact is there's already plenty to encourage the defense to push up to the midfield line just as soon as possible.  By saying that off-sides begins at midfield, the defense is already compelled to get their butts up to there pronto.  This being the fact, the formula for pushing forward needs to be further into the offensive half, but practically speaking it can't be that much further forward.  I'm thinking that the orange lines in the image below should present a reasonable next step for coaches to encourage their players to cross over if expecting to reap the rewards of "pushing forward."

In my mind the reason for defining "pushing forward" is to be able to be in a position to encourage it by rewarding it.  It's a risk vs. reward balance which will ultimately need to be determined in order for us to use it to open up the game for some interesting offensive play.

And, to those who are thinking:

"Mike, here's an idea.  Let's just go to 10 v. 10.  That would fix everything, and if it didn't, then 9 v. 9 certainly would.  Right!?!"

Image credit:  World Soccer Magazine, July 2003. Champions League semi-final and final results.

The problem with that thinking is that it simply doesn't promise more entertaining soccer, or even more scoring for that matter.  Look to the image at right for documentation that winning is what matters to soccer coaches at the highest levels of the game, and the fans be damned.  The odds are that 2 years down the road we'll realize that winning soccer coaches are using the 4-4-1 with 10 men, or under 9 men probably a wingless 3-4-1 with a 'diamond' midfield, and we'd be right where we are now, except that we'd obviously have to change the substitution rules under 9 v. 9 because being down a man for the 5 minutes it might take to attend to a minor injury on the sidelines would be giving the opposition way too much of an advantage, which would force the down team to pull back into a more defensive posture during that time, and we don't want that.  So that said, go to 10 v. 10 or 9 v. 9 and get ready to revamp the rules books in a big way.


Title above:     "Winning Soccer, circa 2003"

Source:  World Soccer Magazine, July 2003

Let's take a second to consider the writings of the venerable Paul Gardner, from his masterpiece entitled "The Simplest Game-The Intelligent Fan's Guide to the World of Soccer" (c. 1976, 1994, 1996 by Paul Gardner.)  From the very end of the "tactics" section of Mr. Gardner's book, you'll find a sentence which says it all.  So from page 226 I quote:

"The challenge for the sport's leaders was to devise new rules that would change that defensive mentality-that would ensure that risk-taking, entertaining soccer could also be winning soccer."

Getting back on track, the only way to insure that coaches embrace entertaining soccer over 22-legs-in-the-box is to REWARD the risk taking.  Here's a couple of ideas on the subject:

1.  Corner kicks are earned through entertaining play.  Both teams begin the match with clean sheets.  Then, when a team scores a goal, the determination is made as to whether each team was embracing "offensive oriented" soccer at the time the goal was scored.  If either or both of the teams was NOT "pushing forward" then they cannot take corner kicks, but are instead awarded throw-ins, until a goal is scored where one or both teams are found to be pushing forward.  Frankly, I think this idea is inadequate for the task at hand since, what with corner kicks scoring at what, maybe a 5% rate at best, it's too much stick and not enough carrot.  Or maybe it's too much carrot and not enough stick, but either way, it's not nearly enough advantage to be considered much of a reward.  Many high school players can throw the ball into the 6 yard box from the sideline.  But at least we're thinking here.  Now let's get to the heart of the matter.

2.  Go with an alternative soccer score keeping system as follows:

Behind door #2 is an answer to the problem which professional soccer faces today.  If a coach wants to play with all his players behind the ball, fine, but he's giving an extra point to his opponent if they happen to score.  If that coach wants to pick up 2 points with a goal, fine, he just has to motivate his troops to get their butts forward so that only the goalkeeper is behind the "push-line" when his team scores.


Fortunately, the World Cup final of 2006 between France and Italy is fresh in all of our minds.  If it isn't, let me remind you that Italy started the match by trying to take Henry and Vierra out of the match in the match's first 5 minutes, then when that plan didn't succeed, they took 5 total shots during the matches remaining 115 minutes, hoping that their superior height would allow them the advantage to win the match via corner kicks.



Yes indeed, the fly in the ointment here is corner kicks, isn't it.  After the 2006 World Cup it takes no imagination at all to picture a league team molded in the image of Team Italy, focusing on the corner kick if it allows them to pick up 3 points on all goals scored directly off of corner kicks.  Think about it, all the offensive team is pushed up as far as possible, and all the defenders are packed in the box to match the presence of the challenging team.  That's 3 points.

And don't think I'm giving to much credit to the players, as anyone can do the math on 3 fingers.  The example here says it all.  Italy's down so the have the responsibility of attack on their shoulders.  Grosso's running the wing, and he realizes that in that situation Italy's defense is likely not able to get forward, and his brisk pace has insured that France has sufficient players remaining down field to keep Italy from contributing a point to an unlikely goal from a cross.  So it's 1 point if he dishes up a beautiful cross and it scores, but it's 3 points if he kicks one off the French defender and they score off the corner kick.  Hey, even in this example it's obvious that he chose to kick off the defender, and that with the corner only earning a single point.

OK, let me make clear that my problems with corner kicks are numerous.

  1. They destroy the continuity of the game to a much greater extent than they contribute.
  2. They aren't as entertaining as goals scored from open field play.
  3. It offers excessive scoring by defenders, which wouldn't be a problem in a 5-3 match, but it's all we can expect in today's 1-1 reality.
  4. The penalty area turns into a mosh pit on corners, resulting in offensive oriented soccer in it's ugliest form.

So, since this change might greatly increase the importance of corner kicks, I might need to give some more thought to the subject...


.....more to come......




Image Credit:  Champions magazine, December/January 2007 issue, page 58, article by Paul Simpson "The Statistical Breakdown"


Source:  Associated Press/Dallas Morning News, July 20, 2003, P. 5cc

Source:  Associated Press/Dallas Morning News, July 20, 2003, P. 5cc





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4 Man Back Line


3 Man Back Line










When asking for contributions from members of America's Soccer Press in my page A_Plea_4_Leadership, it's now so obvious to me that I screwed up big time by encouraging thought on the critical issue of "pushing forward."  I was thinking that the opportunity to be the origin of the foundation of the most important element in what is to become the modern game of soccer...well that might be too tempting to pass up.  And for me it is.

I'm just hoping that the reality behind the silence is that the sportswriters are seeing this as the perfect opportunity to write that book on soccer which they've been planning.  But it had better be a good effort, as there will be many books written in many languages on this special happening in soccer's history which I call 'The Third Struggle for Soccer's Soul.'


??? Good place for NASCAR vs. Formula 1 Analogy ???            use "Rubbing is Racing" bumper sticker


'Soul Man' Mike Kimbro

or   Mike's Home Page    


Image Credit:  Sports Illustatred, from an article by Grant Wahl from page 57 of the June 12, 2006 issue.