Saturday, June 24, 2006

World Cup: US post-mortem

I said before the World Cup that the US was NOT #5 in the World Cup despite what FIFA's moronic rankings said. I also said the US was going to have a hard time getting out of its group, much less repeat its quarterfinal feat of four years ago. Yet, if you'd told US players before the tournament, that they'd be able to advance with a win in its last group stage game vs Ghana, I'm sure they would've taken it. The US look flat in its 2-1 loss to the African newcomers.

I am not surprised the US was eliminated in the first round. Italy and the Czech Republic are considered two of the best teams in Europe, and thus the world. Ghana were a great unknown going into the tournament.

What was most bitterly disappointing about this World Cup for the US was not the results, but the performances. If we'd played our best and been eliminated, it would've been easier to accept. But except against the Italians, we did not come anywhere close to play our best. Not just in terms of execution, but in terms of effort.

Against the Czechs, we put in the worst US performance in any match of the last decade. Flat, uninspired, the players looked like they hadn't played in months.

Against the Italians, the US looked fantastic in the first half. Chemistry was good. Energy was fantastic. We outplayed the Italians, even before the Azzurri's red card. Two dubious red cards (well, they'd be dubious in any other World Cup) to the Americans forced the Yanks to play defensively in the second half to preserve a precious point. They did well under difficult circumstances.

Against Ghana, we had our moments in the first half but the second half was poor and uninspired.

Are you noticing a trend?

For much of the 2nd half against both the Czechs and the Ghanaians, we needed two goals. Yet in both matches, the US players casually, lazily passed the ball around in the back. Everything was laid back and casual despite needing two goals in relatively short order. There was no sense of urgency. There was no inspiration. The World Cup is the height of a soccer player's career, what he works toward for at least four years. To lack a sense of urgency when you're losing, to lack inspiration, is utterly inexcusable. If you don't have those things, you should pack your bags and go home.

Simply put, the US team is not as skilled as the Brazilians or the Spaniards. For the US team to have any chance of success, they must play hard and work hard and run their socks off and press the issue. I'm sorry to say they simply did not do this nearly enough in two of the three games.

We were not eliminated due to bad luck or poor officiating. We weren't even eliminated because of great opposing performances. None of our opponents played like world beaters, though the Czechs and Ghanaians were extremely efficient with their limited chances. We were eliminated because we played poorly. We were eliminated because we deserved to be.

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. The main difference is that if it gets results, you call it genius. US boss Bruce Arena made some quirky decisions in each of the last two World Cups. The main difference is that in 2002, his quirky decisions worked so everyone called him a genius. In 2006, his quirky decisions didn't work, so everyone's calling for his head.

I've always respected Bruce and given him the benefit of the doubt. His record deserves nothing less. But I'm sorry to say that he blew it this World Cup.

The US played a 4-5-1 formation only once in qualifying: away to Mexico. The team got down 0-2 and could barely do anything so he switched to a more familiar 4-4-2 in the 2nd half and the team clawed its way back into the game.

So how can anyone explain Arena's decision to start with a 4-5-1 in all three World Cup games? Certainly after the first game where the US generated absolutely zero offense vs the Czechs, he should've changed. After the first two games, the US only had one shot on goal total (and that one hit the post), yet Arena starts with one forward yet again vs Ghana. The only consistently dangerous attacking player was Eddie Johnson and he was brought on way too late in both the Czech and Ghana games and was inexplicably left on the bench completely vs Italy. Brian McBride's game is to win headers and flick them on to a forward running off him. He's not suited to be a lone forward.

I blame Arena slightly for even trying the unfamiliar one forward formation; I blame him completely for sticking with it all three matches even though it so obviously wasn't working. The final verdicts: the US scored only one goal of its own accord in three games and only generated four shots on goal (three of which were in the last match). Hey Bruce, if it's broke, you should've fixed it!

Simply put, the US did not play its game against the Czechs or Ghanaians. We did not play quickly. We did not take it to them. We were not aggressive winning balls in the midfield or up front. It's almost as though we were so worried about the other team that we forgot to do all the good things that go us there in the first place.

But while Bruce certainly deserves much of the blame, ultimately it's down to the players. Simply put, the US' best players didn't show up. I've already commented on the shocking lack of intensity. But the US' most dangerous player, Landon Donovan, was invisible.

I've always said, I don't care if Donovan plays domestic soccer in Mongolia so long as he performs with the national team. He's already proven he can smoke the Haitis and Grenadas of the world. He's shown he can perform well on the world stage when he was really young, nothing was expected of him and no one knew who he was. This was his chance to prove his worth against the best teams in the world, teams who were preparing for him. He failed miserably. Maybe, as commentator Ives Galarcep opines, Donovan just can't handle the pressure. Maybe US soccer needs to find someone else who can lead them to the next level. He does NOT deserve to be named captain, now that Claudio Reyna's retiring.

But Donovan wasn't the only player who failed showed up. DaMarcus Beasley was non-existent in the first game and then he shot his mouth off. He had his moments against the Italians and Ghanaians but just like Donovan, the moments were too few and far between.

Reyna was probably the only attacking player who consistently played well (aside from the vastly underutilized Johnson). But his inexplicable giveaway against Ghana gave the African side an undeserved lead and great confidence.

I can't say McBride didn't show up. He did the best he could in a role he wasn't suited for. And as always, he gave blood and guts to try to make something happen. It just didn't work out.

Bobby Convey got up and down the wing fairly well but the quality of his crosses was disappointing for someone who'd been in excellent form.

I've always said, "Never underestimate the value of being underestimated." The US team has always performed well on the world stage when they were underestimated. In 1994, we were considered a joke and got a few surprise results that carried us to the 2nd round. In 1998, we had raised expectations from '94 and ended up finishing with the worst record of the 32 finalists. In 2002, we had no expectations again thanks to the debacle of '98 and that helped us shock Portugal in our opening match; if not for a controversial non-call, we might've made the semifinal. In 2006, we had expectations again thanks to the '02 quarterfinal run and the players looked like they were feeling the weight of the pressure.

And there certainly is pressure. It's a very different kind of pressure than other countries. In Italy or Argentina, if the team performs poorly, they will be vilified at home. This isn't fun and is very intense, but it's a straight forward kind of pressure. Generally speaking, if you do well, the criticism will stop. Just ask Jurgen Klinsmann.

US players, on the other hand, have to fight a double battle: against the opposing teams and on behalf of soccer's place in America's sporting heart. No other country's players have to answer questions like, "If your team is eliminated in the first round, do you think the domestic league will collapse?" No other country's players have to deal with assinine (and logic-devoid) comments like, "The US were eliminated without winning a game. Doesn't this just prove that soccer will never be big in the US?"

US soccer fans have to defend the sport and the team against two enemies: people who think US soccer is crap so they support foreign teams/leagues instead (rather than in addition to) AND people who hate soccer entirely and use decades-old lazy cliches to bash the sport. US soccer players are unwitting warriors advance the sport's future in the country, whether they like it or not.

Soccer as a spectator sport has exploded in popularity in the last 12 years. It may never be as big as baseball or the sport we call football even though you almost never use your feet. But soccer will continue to grow in popularity and that will only make the soccer-bashers even more obnoxious and shrill. American soccer fans need to grow a thicker skin. You should like the sport for what it is, not because it's "cool" in the sports media establishment. The Jim Romes of this world are irrelevant anyways, even more so when they yammer on about soccer. These yahoos thrive on controversy. The most insulting thing you can do is ignore them.

Many American fans commented even before the World Cup that some of the players seemed to believe their own hype. I'm sure none of the players believed that the US was really the fifth best team in the world. But they seemed to think they were still a world class team that could ease to victory with anything less than top effort. As the old cliche goes, the US team is not skilled enough to win on skill alone. Even the pre-Cup friendlies were uninspiring and lacking in cohesion. The warning signs were there. Sometimes, the pre-Cup tour seemed more designed as one giant Nike advertisement than proper preparation for the World Cup. Given Bruce Arena's opinion of the federation's bureaucrats, I suspect this circus was because of US Soccer, not the coaching staff. But it harmed the US' preparation.

On the other hand, US players looked scared and tentative against the Czechs. Maybe they quickly concluded that the emperor had no clothes. Maybe they realized all the hype was b.s. Maybe they were feeling the weight of expectations, something they didn't have in 2002. Maybe they found out that the Czechs didn't underestimate them like they may have been counting on. So who knows.

The US was on the wrong end of a few controversial refereeing decisions. The questionable red cards against Italy. The completely bogus penalty awarded to Ghana. First off, these were NOT expressions of anti-Americanism as some morons have suggested. There are controversial calls in every game but I've never heard any other fan say, "The ref cheated because he's anti-Korean." Refs screw up just like the players and the coaches. That doesn't mean they should be immune from criticism and it doesn't mean they are corrupt, it just means they are human. And for the record, regardless of the officiating decisions, the US did not play well enough over the course of 270 minutes to merit advancing to the 2nd round. Their elimination was due to poor play, not the officials.

New coach: Bruce Arena is not only the most successful coach the national team has ever had. He's the best. He transformed the team from a unit that hoped for the lucky draw against big teams to one that (at least in 2002) expected to beat the big boys and were disappointed when they didn't. Regardless of what the outside expectations are, successful teams need to expect a lot of themselves. And Arena instilled those expectations into his teams.

He also proved that an American coach, or at least one with tons of experience working with the American soccer player, should be in charge of the US national team. The last two US coaches have been American and they achieved far more than the multitude of smarty pants foreign coaches that preceded them, particularly in change perceptions and expectations of the players.

But I think Bruce's time has run its course. Eight years is a long time in charge of the national team. I think it's time to move on. I think he should be succeeded by his assistant Glenn Myernick or by former youth national team coach Sigi Schmid.

Schedule more matches against top European and African sides: The US needs to schedule more friendlies against good European teams, especially away. The US is very accustomed to the Latin American style, which is patient and based largely on short passing on the ground. Also, Latin American players tend to be much smaller than European and African players. The US can play well against the Latin American style because American players can use their speed and athleticism more effectively and can gain an advantage by playing quickly. Against top European teams, the US has a size disadvantage... especially our forwards against European defenders. This limits our effectiveness of high crosses from the wings. We need to at least be able to play another way, if necessary. European and African sides are more physical than Latin American sides and we have trouble adapting to this as well.

Participate in the Copa America: The Copa America is the South American continental championship, but they invite two teams from the US' region as guests. The US participated in '93 and '95 but have declined ever since. Which is too bad since the US were semifinalists in '95, thrashing Argentina and narrowly losing to Brazil along the way. The Copa America isn't quite what it used to be but it's still the most prestigious, highest quality competition the US can participate in besides the World Cup. US players need that experience of playing high quality teams in meaningful games. The CONCACAF Gold Cup (North American championship) simply isn't enough; Costa Rica and Mexico are the only other decent teams in the competition and even they don't always send top teams to the tournament.

Make MLS games more meaningful: Regular season games in Major League Soccer aren't very meaningful. Last year, Los Angeles finished with the 9th best regular season record of the 12 teams and ludicrously ended up as league "champions." What does this say about the importance of the regular season. A good chunk of national team players come from MLS. As a result, many of the players are regularly playing in games that don't matter very much. This hurts their sharpness. Last year, Bruce Arena cited this as a serious problem that MLS should address. US Soccer should pressure MLS to make their regular season more meaningful. Business-wise, MLS is unlikely to ever go to promotion-relegation and are not going to eliminate playoffs entirely. But MLS should slash the number of teams who make the playoffs from 8 of 12 down to no more than 4, preferably 2. They should offer a major financial incentive for teams who win the Supporters Shield (regular season championship). Additionally, the Supporters Shield winner should get a berth in the CONCACAF (club) Champions Cup; as it stands now, that second bid goes undeservedly to the MLS Cup playoff runner up.

Limit the influence of sponsors: Sponsors are important. Specifically, their money. Nike's cash has been a big boon to US Soccer as a whole and to the national team in general. But ultimate control of national team preparations needs to belong to the national team coach. If he's going to be judged solely on his results, he needs to have the authority to achieve those results. World Cup preparations should be solely about getting the team ready for the World Cup, not a bread-and-circus designed to sell Nike's crap.

Update: It's been suggested that current German boss Jurgen Klinsmann be considered to succeed Arena. He's the only foreigner I'd consider. He lives in Southern California and seems familiar with how US soccer works. He's also high on soccer in the US and wouldn't be coming in with a snob complex. And he got the Germans to play exciting soccer which alone makes him a miracle worker. Though if he wins the World Cup with Germany, I'm not sure he'd leave his current job. Especially with the upcoming European championships being held in neighboring Austria and Switzerland.

2nd update: Regarding my earlier criticisms of Donovan, now the Golden Boy admits that "for too many periods throughout the game, [he] wasn’t tuned in enough." And that sums up why Donovan can not be the next captain of the team. The US best player playing in the most important soccer tournament any player can play in. And he "wasn't tuned in enough." Sorry Landon, but it's no longer sufficient to be tuned in only when you're playing Latvia or Barbados.

3rd update: It's also been argued you have to play abroad in order to be a decent player at the highest level. However, the two most dangerous players on the team were MLS' players (the vastly underused) Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey. The two players who made fatal errors in the game against Ghana were Claudio Reyna and Carlos Bocanegra... both of whom play in the vaunted English Premier League.

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