As Bad As It Has Ever Gotten: The USA and the World Cup
I consider myself an avid follower of the US Men’s National Team. No, I don’t follow the team around like Sams Army, but I have watched just about every meaningful game for our national team since we qualified for the 1990 World Cup, the first of five consecutive qualifications. In 1990 we were rightly considered an inferior soccer nation by the world press and expectations were low. Qualifying itself was a major accomplishment after 40 years in the wilderness and the American public had no idea that the USA were even participating in Italia 90. We lost all 3 games in 1990, but did gain valuable experience and Football savvy that would serve us well in the upcoming years. After advancing to the second round in the 1994 World Cup and making the semifinals of Copa America in 1995, expectations were high in 1998. As most know France 1998 was a disaster, but we rebounded with a quarterfinal run in 2002, and quite frankly we were unlucky to not make the semifinals.
Against that backdrop Soccer has become more mainstream than ever. the Sports media, long contemptuous of Soccer began paying attention after the magical run in 2002 and this 2006 World Cup would be the first with the American media and public fully engaged. This interest probably lasted five grand minutes. As somebody who watched the 1990 and 1998 American teams who were run off the pitch by superior quality and skill I am embarrassed to say that given the talent and expectations, Monday’s match easily ranks as the worst US World Cup performance of the modern era.
In 1990, we took a bunch of college kids to play against three European sides filled with world class players. Our guys scrapped and fought but lost 3 straight games. However a foundation was laid for 1994, when as the host nation we advanced to the knock out stage. In 1998, we opened versus Germany and played the superior Germans toe to toe for 36 minutes until a flukish goal snuck by defender Mike Burns. We began the 2nd half by controlling play for about 15 minutes. A diving save by Oliver Kahn on a Frankie Hedjuk header thwarted an excellent chance. We lost 2-0, but we scrapped and fought for all 90 minutes. We didn’t win a game in 1998, but on a team racked with internal dissention, and what was essentially a lame duck coach, several players continued to scrap and fight against the odds. These players helped to form the core of the 2002 team that did US Soccer so proud. Monday, despite having equal talent with the Czech’s and a #5 world ranking, the majority of our players simply quit on the match when the going got bad. They didn’t fight hard for 50-50 balls, and the energy level was subpar to say the least. Soccer has become more mainstream here in the USA, and several of our players seem to basking in the glow of the media attention and the magazine covers, and they forgot what brought American soccer this far- discipline, organization and mental toughness.
Monday’s performance was a total disgrace. Our midfield was disorganized and the effort level was completely lacking. Particularly distressing was the play of both DeMarcus Beasley who was nothing short of awful, playing out of position on the right side and Steve Cherundolo who missed the 2002 World Cup with injury and looked completely lost in his belated cup debut. Landon Donovan who has been anoited America’s first great international player hardly got any meaningful touches on the ball, and Kasey Keller simply proved that Bruce Arena made the right decision by starting Brad Friedel four years ago. It’s not that Keller is a bad goalkeeper, but he doesn’t seem to be vocal enough to keep his backline organized. Friedel was a screamer but with the sloppy man marking and loose defending that characterized Monday’s match, his leadership was sorely missed. Eddie Lewis also proved that while he is an excellent crosser of the ball off of his left foot, he cannot play on the back line, period. Bruce Arena needs to call upon Carlos Bocanegra to take his place in the next match. Brian McBride is worker in the box, but if he gets inadequate service from the midfield he is totally useless. With such poor midfield play we need to look to Eddie Johnson to create chances from up front in the next match, and perhaps start clint Dempsey on the right side of midfield.
The United States will not advance to the knock out stages of this World Cup. After 2002, that may seem like regression, but if the team can show some toughness and character in these next two matches, perhaps this World Cup can continue as a building block for the future. After all Landon Donovan has two maybe three World Cups left in him.