Friday, June 16, 2006

Soccer takes Center Stage

I admit it, I'm a soccer guy. I played it in high school and in the Navy, and was horrible in both settings. But I love the game. I remember watching the hour long highlight shows from England and Germany on PBS on Sunday Nights back in the '70s. I have come to see the beauty in a perfect banana free kick from England's David Beckham, that curves and dips like a Phil Niekro knuckleball. I can appreciate the efforts of a top class goal keeper like a Kasey Keller of the USA as he lunges across the yawning chasm of the goalmouth to punch away a rifle shot from 20 yards out at the last second. I can marvel at the different styles of play by the various national teams; from the Samba based, ball-control, dribbling magic of the Brazilians, to the long pass dump and run style of the Brits; to the precise, laser-like effficiency of the Germans. I can understand why the rest of the world goes crazy over what soccer legend Pele called "the beautiful game" and this time every four years, the whole soccer universe gathers from near and far to take in the ultimate gathering of the clans: The World Cup.

This year, Germany has the honor of hosting the biggest prize in soccer and possibly in international sport. Over a third of the world's population will tune into the World Cup on TV, Radio, print media and the Internet. 32 of the world's best teams endure a two year qualification period to get to this point, a month long soccer orgy to decide who will win the most coveted trophy in sports. For the titans of the sport, the Englands, Germanys, Italys and Brazils, this is the time to add to their legend, and to try and placate their demanding and occasionally unreasonable fans. For those in the second tier, like Mexico, the USA, and Sweden, this is a golden opportunity to gain entry to that exclusive club of elites. For the outsiders on the fringe, like Iran, Togo, Trinidad and Tobago, the World Cup is a chance to steal a win from the big boys and make their players into national heroes. Every country has a chance to fulfill their destiny, and for one moment, the big and little, the small and the great, the rich and the poor are all even, 0-0.

My focus for this blog article concerns the USA National Team. Currently ranked 6th in the latest FIFA rankings, the USA team came into this tournament as one of the hottest and brightest stars on the international soccer scene. With a record number of players playing on top level sides in some of the most grueling leagues in the world, plus up and comers from the MLS, the US squad was looking to improve on its 2002 results and to prove that said results were not a fluke. This was to be the last go round for established players like Eddie Pope, Brian McBride and team captain Claudio Reyna. It was also to be the time for the young guns of US Soccer like DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan to take the place amongst the greats.

Perhaps the most telling sign of what was to come was when the USA was placed into Group E for pool play with powerhouse Italy, the physical Czech Republic, and Ghana. Soccer pundits immediately labeled this group the "group of death" ,which is the commonly used expression that indicates the group whose winner will have the toughest road to the knockout round. A dubious honor to be sure. In all the World Cups the US has qualified, they have never won a game on European soil. All three of these games would be brutal physical affairs that would test the USA's ability to create scoring opportunities while defending against battle hardened scorers.

In the World Cup, the ability to get out front early is paramount. In a tournament with the greatest teams in the world, 4-2, 3-2 outcomes are rare. Most WC games end up either at 1-0, 2-1, or 2-0. Goalless draws in pool play are common. Up to this point in the tournament as this piece is being written ( the start of the quarterfinals) only twice has a team come back to win after giving up the first goal. The US would have to get their big guns out early to succeed. In their first game against the Czech Republic, the US team would find out in a hurry how important that first goal is. The Czechs scored the first goal 5 minutes into the game off a header by Jan Koller. That early goal set the stage for the rest of the match, and pretty much the rest of the USA's run in this World Cup. The Czechs would then score two more goals in the 36th and 76th minutes while holding the USA scoreless on 6 shots to win 3-0.

Things would not get easier for the US because the next game was against traditional World Cup power Italy who has hoisted World Cup hardware three times and has played in every World Cup since its inception. The US team played significantly better against the Italian squad despite being outshot 10-8, and losing two players to red cards. US Goalie Kasey Keller proved to be the man of the match making two acrobatic saves that frustrated the Italians, while the Americans got plenty of scoring opportunities including one goal that was called back due to an offsides infraction, but they had to settle for an own goal when Italian Christian Zaccardo attempted to clear a US free kick and the ball sliced off his foot and into the Italian goal. That and a goal by Italy's Alberto Gilardino in the 22nd minute were all the scoring in the 1-1 draw. This draw did prove that the Americans were not afraid nor intimidated by the Italians, but it pointed out the glaring lack of offense from the top scorers on the American side.

The draw with Italy put the US in a must-win situation against Ghana. For the US to advance to the knockout round, they would have to beat Ghana and hope for a loss by the Czechs to Italy. Well, the Czech's did their job, but the USA's offensive woes continued against a Ghanian squad ranked 48th in the world. For the third straight match, the opposition got on the board first, in this case Ghana's Haminu Draman in the 22nd minute. The Americans finally got their first and last goal of the tournament off a hard DaMarcus Beasley shot in the 43rd minute to draw even 1-1. Two minutes later, the tone of the game turned against the Americans when Ouguchi Onyewu was penalized for pushing Ghana's Rezak Pimpong in the penalty area which some would say was a ticky tack foul, but Stephen Appiah converted the penalty shot to put the Black Stars ahead for good 2-1. Despite all efforts by the US to tie the game, they are not able to get past the Ghanaian defense, and the game ended with the USA being eliminated having only earned one point in pool play and scoring one goal in three games.

This early and unexpected departure from World Cup competition raises a bunch of questions for the US Soccer program. What went wrong? Did the players not have the heart to play at their highest? Did Coach Arena make mistakes in player selection and tactics? How much did the officiating, which has come under extreme criticism from the media and the President of the German Organizing Committee, legendary German striker Franz Beckenbauer as being too quick with the issuing of yellow and red cards, affect the American failure? Will Bruce Arena, the architect of the rise of American soccer on the international stage retire? If so, who is waiting in the wings to take over? Was the USA's 2002 march into the quarterfinals a fluke, and did the Americans really deserve their top 5 FIFA ranking?

These and many other questions will be answered in days and weeks to come, and I tend to think that the US was victim to bad officiating, a brutal grouping, and maybe a little bit of the big head on the player's part. If there is anything that can be taken away from all this, it is that at least the US team, by their efforts against Italy, showed that they deserve to be on the same field as the elite teams, but they need to have the one big star like a Beckham, or a Ronaldo, or a Klose that they can build around, and the elite athletes in America are not playing on the soccer pitch. Still, the MLS is producing better talent all the time, US Soccer has gotten much better at finding good players and nuturing them, more and more kids are discovering and playing soccer, our elite players continue to attract attention from top European teams. America is slowly starting to see soccer as the great game it is. It will never have the status of baseball, football, and basketball in this country, but soccer has never been more alive in the United States, and I'm hoping that I live long enough to see the symbol of international soccer supremacy sitting in our Trophy case.

Match Reports:

USA vs Czech Republic

USA vs Italy

USA vs Ghana

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