Watching an all-world striker like Brazil’s Ronaldo or the French superstar Thierry Henry, you begin to truly appreciate the fine art involved in putting the ball in the back of the net on a consistent basis. Creativity, guile, a mystical ability to will the ball to beat the keeper along with the instincts of an assassin makes the true striker such a rarity. These qualities are what separates the great goal scorers from the merely gifted and is a factor that will determine which teams advance and which will watch succeeding rounds of the Cup on television.
For Team USA, there is enormous talent and potential but to date, none of our strikers have stepped forward and proven that they belong in that elite class of “finishers” whose mere presence on the field strikes terror into the hearts of defenders. And in order for the US team to advance, we must find a “goto” guy, someone who can put the game on his foot and take the team to the next level.
To be sure, the team has talent galore. At 33, striker Brian McBride has plenty of international experience, this being his third run at the Cup for the US national team. He is an accomplished scorer for Fulham of the English Premier League and is the second leading scorer in US national team history behind Eric Wynalda.
He is considered the best American player ever in the air. At 6’0, McBride’s leaping ability and an uncanny sense of timing allows him to make contact with the ball at the height of his jump, flicking the ball expertly toward the goal with a nod of his head. It is an ability the US team will need during their Cup run because many if not most goals will be scored off set piece plays like free kicks and corners. Having a player with McBride’s ability will come in handy once the tournament starts.
But McBride has not shown that he has that extra level of ability that allows him to maneuver in the extraordinarily tight spaces inside the box in order to beat that last defender and send the ball past the keeper. Of course, few players have it which is why the genuine striker is such a huge weapon. For that kind of other-worldly ability, the US must turn to a babe in the woods with all the talent in the world but whose consistency and experience is lacking.
Eddie Johnson is the future of US soccer. He has shown jaw dropping potential, scoring 7 goals in his first 7 international matches in 2004-05. Then, the injury bug bit and the 22 year old youngster seemed to lose confidence – both his own and that of coach Bruce Arena. Recently, he has shown flashes of his former brilliance and there’s a good chance that Arena will gamble and start him against the Czechs.
Johnson’s speed and athleticism places him talent wise in the rarefied upper atmosphere of world class strikers. But as in any sport, potential doesn’t mean much unless you produce. And while it may be unfair to place such a burden on the young man, it is clear that for the US to advance, Eddie must grow up in a hurry and become a goal scoring machine for the US side. The likelihood of a nil-nil result against either the Czechs or Italians is very remote. Both of those European powerhouses can score goals in bunches and for the US to have a chance, they must be able to put the ball in the net.
Other Team USA strikers who will see action are also gifted athletes but unproven finishers as well. Brian Ching has some experience and, like McBride, is very good in the air. And Josh Wolff is another experienced hand who may get the call to provide some offensive spark if the team finds itself down in the second half to either the Czechs or Italians.
Overall, they’re the best that the US has ever had at the position. But all the talent in the world won’t help if you haven’t demonstrated the knack of putting the ball past the keeper. And if there is a weakness to be found on the US side, it is up front.
What the US lacks in bona fide strikers, it makes up for with several high-powered offensive midfielders whose speed and passing ability will go a long way toward giving our forwards chances to score.
Team USA Captain Claudio Reyna is an established international star, having played with the famed Glasgow Rangers of the Scottish Premier League and currently with Manchester United. Considered the best American field player ever, Reyna has been hobbled by injury and is just now getting back to match fitness. In the 2002 Cup where the Americans made it to the quarters, his brilliant, composed play helped the US side to withstand the tremendous defensive pressure of both Mexico, a second round win, and Germany, a close loss of 1-0 where some observers believed that the US played well enough to win. His crisp, accurate passes will allow the US to maneuver through the midfield, where the marking will be very tight and his long balls, feeding the American’s speedy wingers will open the field to some decent scoring chances.
But the heart of the midfield belongs to 24 year old Landon Donovan. Possessing the best offensive skills on the club, Donovan will be relied upon to make that final, crucial pass that can send the forward alone in on goal. Much depends on where Coach Arena decides to play the youngster. He may decide to pair him off with McBride at forward. Or, he could use the speedy Donavon as a right winger, exploiting what some observers see as a weakness on the part of the Czechs. The kid’s versatility notwithstanding, what Arena wants out of Donavon is to create scoring chances no matter where he plays. In that, Donavon will probably not disappoint.
Next time, I will deal with Coach Arena’s huge dilemma on what kind of formation to use against the Czechs and how that will affect Team USA’s starting lineup.
Paul Mirengoff has a decidedly more sober and realistic look at Team USA than my rather amatuerish and enthusiastic take. He’s making a good case for a more conservative lineup against the Czechs playing what sounds more like a 4-5-1; a formation that Arena used against Mexico in Mexico City and which generated virtually no offense whatsoever.
That said, the US side didn’t have Reyna or O’Brien for that match which led to enormous difficulties in our offense trying to get through midfield with any kind of momentum. Coach Arena walked into that venue – one of the toughest in the world – hoping for the result. What he got was Mexico swarming all over the US for 90 minutes and a 2-0 loss.
Paul also points out that the Czechs are getting a little long in the tooth (especially in the back) and that the Italians sometimes have trouble in the big tourneys due to enormously high expecations. He still doesn’t give the US much chance getting out of Group E and reluctantly, I am forced to agree with him.
NOTE: Actually, Paul appears to be advocating a more traditional 4-4-2 with Donovan paired up front with McBride and Mastroeni playing on the shoulder of the back line rather than a true winger position. That may help slow down Rosicky a bit and give some support to Eddie Lewis who has the speed and toughness but not much experience at left half.
And by the way, for all of you who think that soccer is a wussy Euro-weenie sport…The motto of Team USA is “DON”T TREAD ON ME.”