During a recent match between Bowie and High Point high schools' boys soccer teams, the action was fast-paced and physical. Teams were solid along the backline and produced dynamic midfield play.
It seemed, however, that they simply were missing one key piece: an elite striker.
The Bulldogs and Eagles played to a scoreless draw in 100 minutes of action and neither side was able to generate a standout scoring chance. Players rolled the ball wide, mis-hit when they approached the box or mistimed their runs and were called offsides.
The match serves as one example of a larger trend as the Prince George's County schedule hits full stride: A number of coaches are seeing fewer top-quality strikers playing in the league.
“I definitely have seen, in the games that we've played, they don't have one single solid striker that's out there scoring all the goals for the team,” Bowie coach Richard Kirkland said.
The one name among public school coaches, however, that kept popping up was High Point's Edwin Claros. He has 16 goals this season, but for a majority of the campaign, he's played a midfield position with Eagles coach Michael Holt only recently shifting him up top. DeMatha Catholic, a national soccer powerhouse, of course is a big exception to this as both Sean Cowdrey and Chris Odoi-Atsem are remarkable forwards.
“Finishing is low-quality in this league. I see a lot of very talented central midfield players. I see a lot of iffy center backs and they would be really exposed if teams had more talented forwards,” Bladensburg coach Avinash Chandran said. “Finishing comes from having a plan while shooting is just making contact with the ball. At best, if you take one in three chances, you get to the next level. I see no player in this county who takes one in three chances.”
Whether that lack of prowess is a direct result of the U.S. Soccer Academy rule that prevents Academy players from participating on their high school side remains up for debate, but what is certain is that the United States, at every level, is pressing to develop more capable forwards from a young age.
“We lost two strikers to the Academy and that hurt,” Kirkland said. “That's a void because it's hard to make a striker.”
With Claros, his skill set is obvious. He's strong on the ball, displays an adequate touch and can make smart runs when necessary. But Holt said other teams in the county have keyed in on his senior captain so heavily, it makes it hard for him to be creative.
“He needs help. He can't do it by himself. The teams in the county know about him. He can't beat four or five players,” Holt said. “From the games that I've watched, I haven't really seen any other striker of his caliber in the county.”
Perhaps another reason for the recent dip in quality could be the condition of the fields. Against High Point, Bowie's Melvin Otoo chipped a ball over goalkeeper Jonathan Claros, who came well off his line. On most any surface, the ball likely would have bounced into the net, but on a very hard, dry field, it hopped over the crossbar.
“We're playing on cow pastures in our county. We're not playing on surfaces where the touches are going to be true,” Chandran said. “What can I say? I was in the same spot [when I played]. I used to throw up my hands and say, 'What can I do?'”
Chandran recently shifted his midfield playmaker, Michael Johnson, onto his backline out of necessity. The Mustangs were, as he put it, “leaking goals,” and he needed more support in the back third.
Across the county, many formations are geared toward emphasizing midfield play as well, with teams deploying a 4-5-1 or 4-4-2. Very few play a 4-3-3 or apply high pressure throughout the match.
“It's understanding what a position entails. That's the biggest challenge at this level,” Chandran said. “As a striker, you're going to run about 6 miles in a match and you'll get two balls that you'll have chances on? How many kids in this county are going to put those balls away?”
Striker always has been a coveted position in soccer. The skills are so unique. The player must possess numbing speed, a deft touch, knowledge of where and when to make runs, strength to hold the ball, and, of course, the ability to finish. All while frequently facing the opposite way of the other players on the field.
It's the finishing quality and pace that truly separates the greats. And it's why, worldwide, strikers tend to garner the most lucrative contracts.
This summer, Ligue 1 club Paris Saint-Germain agreed to acquire striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic from A.C. Milan for a record transfer fee of $25.8 million with an annual three-year contract of roughly $18.1 million. He joins Manchester United's Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi and Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (whose transfer was worth roughly $128.8 million) on the list of world-class, well-paid strikers.
This all isn't to say that teams can't be good or effective without a striker. Or that powerful strikers — Brian Graham and Joshua Patterson, to name a few — haven't come out of the county. Simply that currently, the quality appears down.
“It's not as pretty a sport as it used to be,” Kirkland said. “And this year is a far cry from the last couple years.”