Gilbert's feigned aches give Blast foes a pain

Defender fools teammates often as a tactical matter

Pro Soccer

February 12, 2005|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

The soccer ball flew off the side of Blast defender Neil Gilbert's right ankle into the crowd with 4:38 left in the first quarter against the St. Louis Steamers last Saturday, and anyone watching Gilbert could see him calculating:

The Blast was leading 1-0, but St. Louis was on the attack. Did he and his team need a breather to regroup?

As the referee retrieved the ball and walked toward Gilbert to set up the restart of play, Gilbert, an Argentine, suddenly grabbed his knee and tumbled to the carpet.

"You saw me thinking," said Gilbert, in his lyrical Spanish accent, smiling. "Should I or shouldn't I? That time, I needed a break. My choice: I can give the other team the advantage by playing tired, or go down and let everyone be fresh on the field. So ..."

Gilbert comes from a country where every player takes every advantage. He comes from a country passionate about winning. And so, he, too, is passionate about winning, and that means taking every advantage.

In the Major Indoor Soccer League, timeouts are precious. Teams are allowed three a game, no more than two in a half.

Thus, if the Blast is in the midst of a two-minute penalty kill, having trouble getting a line change or facing a team that has created some momentum, Gilbert may decide to crumple to the carpet and grab a body part in what looks like obvious pain.

In nearly every case, the game official will stop play and wave on Blast trainer Randy Toth. Each time, the Blast defense is able to regroup.

Gilbert, a master of his craft, plays near-death scenes that could win an Oscar. Not since the old days of the original MISL, when the Blast's Stan Stamenkovic and Steve Zungul, a six-time league Most Valuable Player who played for several franchises, took tumbles in the offensive zone to give their teams dangerous scoring chances on free kicks or power plays, have fans seen such performances.

In the early 1980s, an astute organist in Chicago would launch into "The Great Pretender" every time Stamenkovic went down and grabbed an ankle as if he'd never walk again.

Then the league installed what was known as "The Zungul Rule." It said, Blast general manager Kevin Healey recalled, "If the trainer comes on the field, the player being tended has to leave until the next stoppage of play."

These days, those who play with Gilbert appreciate his acting.

"The things he does in the game, there's a reason," said Blast midfielder Allen Eller. "If he sees guys need a break, he gets us one. If they're coming at us real hard, he looks injured as a way to relax the pressure on us. And when we see him down, we don't worry too much."

Gilbert, 34, is in his 10th indoor season, and though the MISL loves to keep stats, it has none on make-believe injury timeouts. A reason could be, they're not illegal.

"Today, a ref can't allow a player to go down without being hit by another player or the ball," Healey said. "But once he's hit ..."

Gilbert is not just the Blast's designated creator of timeouts. He is also a rugged defender, someone teammate David Bascome, who played against him years ago, said, "can put fear in your eyes."

Over his career, Gilbert has averaged just 6.2 goals a season while finding other ways -- creating timeouts and hard hitting among them -- to help his team.

"I want to try to be a friend of the referee and then make as many enemies among opposing players as possible for 60 minutes," he said. "My teammates tell me I scare people.

"I don't go out to scare nobody. I respect everybody ... but players talk trash and kick me all the time, so OK, I'm going to help my team by making them mad. If they overreact, get a yellow or red card, we have an advantage."

Only Toth, the trainer, is usually not taken in, but even he can be.

"Because of my training, I know before I go out if there has been an injury," Toth said. "But some days at practice, he drags himself around the carpet and I think it's really bad, and I get out there and he starts laughing.

"He's always joking -- it's his nature. He's just really enjoying playing soccer and the company he's in."

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