This is the way the World Cup ends
Not with a bang, but with a whistle
The United States wasn’t playing a great game, but they were playing well enough to give themselves a chance. Like they did in each of their first two games, they controlled possession for most of the first half, but produced only a few good scoring chances. Claudio Reyna made an awful mistake on the back line and it put the US in an early 1-0 hole. But the boys had recently struck back to make it 1-1 and were starting to show the life that would be necessary to beat the dynamic and dangerous Ghanaians. Meanwhile, Italy had taken a 1-0 lead over the Czech Republic. Amazingly and improbably, the pieces were falling into place.
With one horrendous decision by the referee, the United States was vanquished. He awarded Ghana a penalty kick on a play that not only wasn’t worthy of a PK, it wasn’t even a foul. That goal made it 2-1 with just a few minutes to go until the half. Stunned, our team stumbled into the locker room down one. In the other locker room, Ghana set their final strategy. With Italy beating the Czechs 1-0 and playing 11 on 10 after Jan Polak was sent off, Ghana knew they were in good shape. No team in the world is better than the Azzurri at holding a lead, so it was a very safe bet that they’d maintain their lead over the depleted and dejected Czechs. With a Czech loss, all Ghana needed was a tie to move on to the knockout round. It’s not too hard to fashion a strategy in a game where a tie is as good as a win and you already have a one goal lead. Pack your men behind the ball and just look for quick counterattacks against a pressing US side. So that’s what Ghana did. And it worked.
To the US’ discredit, they didn’t come out in the second half with the fire they needed. The spark they showed just before and after Clint Dempsey’s sensation first-half goal never came back. Sure, they had a few flurries and Eddie Johnson seemed to make Ghana nervous in the back, but they just never looked like a desperate, dangerous team. And that’s the real reason why they are headed home after just three games. Mistakes, bad luck and bad calls can and do happen to every team. The best teams rise above and get the results they need anyway, but our boys never did.
It’s hard to explain just what went wrong. The early punching bag is coach Bruce Arena who stubbornly stuck to his 4-5-1 alignment and kept the dangerous Eddie Johnson on the bench for too long. It didn’t take long after the game for many US soccer fans to declare that it was time for a new face at the helm of the national team.
Other worthy targets are the young, supposed-stars DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan. The two good friends were sensational four years ago and produced a hopefulness and even cockiness never seen before in US fans. What happened? Donovan fizzled out in Europe – twice – since then, but has starred for the US and the MLS. For some reason, he just never seemed to be into these WC games. It’s hard to remember a single play that he made. Beasley did manage to hold on, barely, in Europe, but he was even worse than Donovan in this Cup. Today, even though he had a beautiful assist for our only goal, Beasley was meek and erratic. Probably 2/3 of his touches resulted in turnovers. I don’t know what happened to our two prodigies, but somehow they are less capable now at 24-years-old than they were at 20.
What does this mean for soccer in the United States? Many felt that a good showing at this World Cup would be yet another enormous log on the fire of fan interest in this country. If that was true, does a poor showing mean a bucket of water has been poured? Will fans turn away? I say no. Surely there are many potential fans who will have been lost, but one thing that the coverage of this year’s games has shown me is that interest in this country is much greater than I realized. ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC have been getting very respectable ratings for the live, daytime games and I’ve heard many reports of crowds in bars and at workplaces following games that don’t even involve the US. It may be that the interest is there and growing despite our team’s poor performance. Perhaps soccer – at least high-level, World Cup-quality soccer – is palatable to US fans after all. Maybe our relative lack of interest is not so much because soccer sucks, but because we are so rarely exposed to great soccer. It hadn’t dawned on my why I just can’t get into MLS games very often until I watched these games. The difference in the level of play between the MLS and the world’s top players is stunning. And soccer at the highest level – just watch this goal from Argentina – is awesome.
So what next for the US? I don’t claim to know enough to have the answers, but one thing that is clear to me now is that we need more players playing in the top leagues. I think our guys just seemed a bit stunned on the big stage, surrounded by so many elite players. A few of our guys, like Claudio Reyna, Kasey Keller and Brian McBride, have experience in top leagues and those guys are the ones that seemed to keep their composure. We need more of that. We also need to develop a few world-class strikers. We had no one out there who stuck fear in the defense, who seemed like they could score at any time and from any distance. Our whole offense seemed to be floating balls in McBride’s general direction and hoping that he’d get his head on one. That may work in CONCACAF, but it doesn’t cut it against the top teams in the world.
All that said, despite the severe disappointment of this year’s performance, I’m still very hopeful about soccer’s future in this country, both in terms of fans of the game and in our national team’s performance. We just have too many great athletes to not produce a few elite, world-class players. They will come and when they do, the United States – team and fans – will be ready to move on to the next level. Until then, we’ll just have to be content to enjoy the wonderful play of teams like Argentina, Brazil and The Netherlands.
Let’s just hope the refs get better.