J.R. and Henry: Nice work, Bruce.
What is it with American soccer? Just a few days ago, we posted a column enthusiastic about the tie with Italy and the potential for victory over Ghana. After all, Ghana was playing without two of its top scorers. Why shouldn’t the United States have fared well?
After watching the match this morning, there is little doubt that the United States national team was as poorly coached as any national team in the tournament. To start off World Cup play, Bruce Arena put his team in a hole when he employed a 4-5-1 strategy against the Czech Republic. What? A strategy that favors very conservative play, strong midfield defense and very little offense resulted in a 3-0 defeat for the listless Americans.
Unfortunately, the simple truth is that Arena failed to capitalize on the one asset the Americans had: speed. Instead, he relied on the play of slow and tired veterans coupled with a lack of general cohesion among the young players. Wasn’t it DeMarcus Beasley who remarked that he thought the team didn’t know the game plan? Apparently no one did against the Czechs.
Yet, miraculously the Americans stormed back against the Italians. Even with two players ejected with red cards, the U.S. team hung on for a gutsy tie and a chance to advance to the knockout round. All that had to happen was (a) the United States had to defeat Ghana and (b) the Italians had to defeat the Czech Republic.
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Raise your hand if you thought the Czech Republic had any chance at all to beat the Italians? They didn’t and on Thursday morning Italy proved that they were the stronger team, taking down the Czechs with relative ease. All that remained was the United States beating Ghana.
As we were sitting and admiring the crystal clear reception of ESPN HD, the announcers read the lineup. Another 4-5-1! We almost exploded out of our seats. In our column last week, we asked, “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?”
This was a rhetorical question, of course. One could not presume that Arena would be dumb enough to employ the same strategy against Ghana as he did against the Czechs. After all, the U.S. had to win the game against Ghana. A Ghana team that was weak and undisciplined on defense. Instead, Arena did exactly that, and in doing so he failed to take advantage of his opponent’s weakness.
To hell with speed. What about karma? This pitiful strategy did exactly the opposite of what the U.S. needed. Rather than force the tempo and pressure the defense, the Americans sat back for more than 20 minutes until Claudio Reyna choked beyond belief when he failed to clear the ball and had it picked clean, resulting in Ghana’s first goal of the game, although Reyna went to the ground with an apparent injury.
Speaking of Reyna, we don’t care that he was named to the 2002 All-World Cup team or that he was the first American ever to be named to an All-World Cup team. His effort in the 22 minute coupled with his collapse to the ground as if he had broken his leg (he “strained” his knee, supposedly) was absolutely pathetic. And as an aside, we like soccer. We were into it this morning. But Reyna’s error and then flop are part of the reason that Americans don’t get into soccer. Sure, you have to sell the penalty. But it’s hard to take watching grown men go down in a heap like they’ve been shot every time they get kicked in the shin guard. And the expressions of pain. Are they giving birth? Seriously, be a man. It’s like watching 11 little Charles Thomases running around trying to take charges on every play.
And speaking of pathetic, Landon Donovan, arguably the best player on this American squad, had a free kick just outside the18-yard box deep into the second half. A solid ball could have resulted in a tie game, giving the U.S. some serious momentum in the final 10 minutes. But what happened? Donovan kicked it nowhere in the vicinity of the goal, much less any American player.
Donovan locked up the “I deserve to play in MLS” award today. No player entered the World Cup more hyped to explode on the international scene, except maybe Ronaldinho, and Brazil won its group with ease (Ronaldinho had two assists).
But back to Arena. We’ll agree with him on one point: the penalty kick was total bollocks. But the refs call the penalties on the field and, unlike the NFL, there’s no instant replay. Still, entering the second half down 2-1, why did he stick with a 4-5-1 set-up? It was almost 15 minutes into the second half before Eddie Johnson, who most pundits believed should have played the entire game, came onto the field. Johnson was cold (sitting on the bench against Italy could not have helped). His timing on long balls was clearly off and he never really gained his touch in the 30 minutes of time he was on the field. Imagine what it would have been like had he been in the entire game and Reyna had been sitting on the bench?
While the knockout rounds will be watched by millions around the world , we doubt too many in the U.S. will care who wins. (Did anybody catch the shot of Times Square in New York at the beginning of Thursday’s game? Maybe 50 people were watching the big screen.) It’s a shame, because four years ago, the U.S. team gave Americans a reason to care.
Today, all we can think about is a loss and how it reminds us of being in Fayetteville in 1992 watching The Citadel beat the Razorbacks. We expect Arena’s fate to be the same as, what was that coach’s name again?
J.R. and Henry blog this sports column on Little Rocking twice a week.