J.R. and Henry: Searching for more than a victory against Ghana.
We are now well into the third week of the World Cup. The United States stands at a somewhat respectable 0-1-1 after a tough 1-1 draw with Italy on Saturday. With one match left in pool play, the United States must defeat Ghana and hope that Italy defeats the Czech Republic (there are other scenarios where the U.S. could advance with an Italian loss, but trust us, pull for Italy). Ghana, who dismantled the slow and tired Czechs last week, will be a tough team for this beleaguered U.S. squad to handle.
First, the Ghanaians are fast. Real fast. Cheetah fast. Team speed was supposed to be the silver bullet for the United States, but the slow, methodical play the Czechs demonstrated the U.S. speed could easily be neutralized. Second, the Ghanaians are fearless. What they lack in overall skill they more than make up for in heart – something several of the U.S. players could try and emulate.
In the United States’ opening match against the Czech Republic, head coach Bruce Arena went with a conservative lineup inserting five midfielders and four defensemen. It was clear in the early minutes that the strategy was misguided as the Czechs scored with ease and dominated from thereon.
After the game, evidence of a rift between Arena and Sports Illustrated cover boy DeMarcus Beasley surfaced and Beasley, Landon Donovan and other players were publicly berated by Arena for their poor play (Beasley was benched until the 62nd minute of the Italy match). Arena made other changes in the lineup as well. He benched Eddie Lewis in favor of Carlos Bocanegra as well, hoping to spark some life into the lifeless U.S. offense.
It was clear that the attitude of the United States changed dramatically in the days after the loss to the Czechs. Unlike the horrible strategy employed in their first match, the U.S. tried to strike early by pressuring the Italians and using Donovan as an outside attacker, where he is strongest. Starting Clint Dempsey, a heralded young Texan, had to be encouraging and he played well during most of the match. Bruce Arena is known for never using the same lineup in back-to-back games. The changes he made were necessary, and we are anxious to see what he does against Ghana.
In order to beat Ghana, the United States is going to have to play with the same intensity it demonstrated against the Italians. While the Americans have failed to score a goal (the goal against Italy was posted by one of its own players), such luck, although often in Arena’s favor, cannot be relied upon on Thursday.
The U.S. squad will be without Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope who were given red cards against Italy and will be forced to sit out the match against Ghana. It will be interesting to see how Arena handles this situation. Will he continue the aggressive play, even without two of his strongest defenders? Or will he employ the Czechs strategy, hoping to neutralize the Ghanaians team speed?
But Arena has other issues facing him and the Americans. Notably, what kind of impact will a U.S. loss have on the state of American soccer? After the loss to the Czech Republic, the United States was considered by many to be on the same path it traveled in 1998 – straight to a last-place finish in the World Cup. After a remarkable run in 1994, such a setback could have been devastating for U.S. soccer, but thanks to remarkable play in 2002, soccer was considered to be on the rise in America.
While the tie against Italy ensured that the Americans will not finish last in the 2006 World Cup, a win against Ghana and a little help from the Italians would insure advancement out of arguably the most difficult Group in the entire tournament.
That would be a victory for American soccer and for the future of the sport here at home.
Here’s to hoping it happens. Traga-o no Brasil.
J.R. and Henry blog this sports column at Little Rocking twice weekly.