Monday, June 12, 2006

Back to the Future
By Ben Valentine

One thought comes to mind after watching the USA get completely dismantled by the Czech Republic 3-0 in their opening round match of the World Cup. Or more specifically, one number.

1998.

In that World Cup, which would be won by the host country France, the US came in with high hopes after a very solid showing in 1994, going out in the second round 1-0 to the eventual champions Brazil. But instead, the US crashed out, finishing 32nd out of 32 teams. It was a team of aging veterans and supposed decent young players that was the future of US soccer. Instead it set the program back where it was pre- 94’.

I can’t help but fear this US team is about to do the same thing. While part of the problem was luck; they were put in one of the hardest groups with the best team as their first opponent, the other part of the problem was simply the team itself.

The key stat in the game; the US had zero offsides.

Wait a second, why is that a bad thing? You don’t want to be offsides right?

Well that’s correct; you don’t want to be offsides. But offsides are usually the result of runs which were off by a second or two. In other words, players are making attempts at getting free in space, often down the wings but occasionally in the center. The Czechs were offsides ten times and it indicated they were trying to make runs to break past the US defense. It worked. The Czechs scored because they were able to make space for their players to create, whether it was great crosses into the box or rocket shots by Tomas Rosicky. The US didn’t because their players hung with the defenders instead of trying to time runs and get the speed advantage. With a player like DaMarcus Beasley on your squad, that type of play is simply unacceptable.

The US also seemed to be completely lost as to what their strategy was. Should they attempt to use wing play, bring it up the center through precision passing or play long ball and try to out jump and out muscle the Czechs? In the end, they did a lot of the latter and little of the first two, which lead to their down fall. Why? Well even if you are good in the air, you have to do something with the ball when it’s on the ground. The US had no idea how to finish or to set themselves up to do so. Again the issue of runs comes up. After you gain control of the header, you either will have your back to the net with a defender on you or be a fair ways away. That’s the time someone needs to breaking towards the goal to get something going. The US failed to do that most of the time today.

Was it the coaching or the players? As has been the case with most US defeats in the past four years, Beasley and Landon Donovan were MIA most of the time. The latter certainly gave tantalizing hints as to why he’s so highly thought of, but in the end also showed why he is such an enigma. Donovan had about three nice runs in the game and did little else; simply not enough if you are going to compete with the likes of the Czechs. Beasley looked lost for most of the game; perhaps because the Czechs were able to bottle him up. He is probably the US’ fastest player and we rarely saw him pushing the ball up the wing. But then, who did push the ball for the US? It was get it to the midfield, lob it in and pray something good happens.

Claudio Reyna hit the post. Unlucky. But then Rosicky hit a crossbar too. Can someone tell me why he was allowed to get in so much space?

Oh I know the reason. The Czechs managed to draw the defense away with quick passes and well timed runs. Thus it created space for the man of the match, in my opinion, to do his work.

Meanwhile the US played station to station. Stand there, ball comes, wait, look, send it to another stationary player. Station to station works in baseball. It can work against the weaker sisters of CONCACAF. But it will not work on the big stage.

It looked as though the US had finally moved past that style of play; the play that doomed them to embarrassment in 1998. But today it once again reared it’s ugly head and the results were just as pretty.

What can they do? Eddie Johnson getting into the starting XI would be a good beginning, but one man can’t change the US fortunes. The US needs to re-instill some creativity into their guys and fast, because Italy is up next and another performance like this will set the US back to where they were before Korea, 2002.

Then it really will be like 1998 all over again.

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