Archive for Thursday, June 29, 2006

Opinion: What went wrong at Cup?

June 29, 2006

By the time this goes to print I should be about done wiping the egg off of my face.

Three weeks ago I was singing the praises of a national soccer team that appeared to be the best ever assembled. Last week, I was watching in stunned silence (aside from the occasional expletive), as that team was dumped from the World Cup by Ghana. Since then the blame for the meltdown has been shifting from the uninspired players to the stubborn coach, Bruce Arena, to the referees. In actuality they all deserve part of the blame.

I've always believed that players have to take most of the responsibility for wins and losses and this team is no exception. American soccer teams have done far more with less talent in the past. Between the ages of 20 and 24 something seems to have changed DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan from fearless whirlwinds of creativity into timid observers, content to make the safe pass backwards, rather than risk using their skill to push forward.

With the exception of Beasley's pinpoint assist against Ghana, the star midfielder was nearly invisible. Donovan was even more disappointing. He's counted on to be the future leader of US soccer, but the way he disappeared at this Cup his status for the next one might actually be in doubt. Perhaps a change of venue will help Donovan regain his magic, as Germany has always been a rough place for him. While completely dominant in Major League Soccer, his two short stints in Germany's top pro league were forgettable. That, along with this year's Cup, have spurred Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl to cleverly dub him the "inverse David Hasselhoff;" a big star in America, but little more than a joke in Germany.

Of course, Arena didn't put Donovan and Beasley in the best position to succeed. The coach stuck Beasley, a left-footed player, on the right side, where he has never looked comfortable, and his conservative one-forward formation didn't leave Donovan with many places to play the ball up the field. Arena should have recognized that Eddie Johnson was his best player in the opening game and inserted him in the starting lineup as a second forward the rest of the way. But Arena's biggest failure was that he let his team blame everything on the referees.

The two red cards the Americans received against Italy were questionable, but by blasting the referees and implying afterwards that they would have won with better officiating, Arena took his team's destiny out of its hands. Team USA had just come off its best game of the tournament, and what Arena should have said is that even after the two red cards his team could have won if it had played its best. The three teams the USA played were all quality opponents and to beat those teams you have to believe you have the talent and heart to win, no matter the circumstances beyond your control.

Team USA gained a lot of that confidence against Italy and showed it in the first half against Ghana. Then, suddenly a bad call by the ref at the end of the half, and it all came crashing down. Ghana got a penalty kick and scored and Team USA wasn't the same afterwards. Suddenly the refs were against them again and all they wanted to do was pout. If the Americans had the confidence that no matter what injustices were done to them by the officials they could still win, maybe they would have come back. Hopefully they can bring that confidence to South Africa four years from now.

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