It was 16 years ago that the Americans faced a Czech team in the World Cup finals. Coach Bruce Arena was sitting in the stands watching as the US team of eager college kids and international knock-abouts were thrashed 5-1. Arena says he saw at that point just how far the US was behind the rest of the world.
Four years later, many of those same kids shocked the world when they advanced past the preliminary round by beating a powerful Columbian team thanks to an own goal by Columbia’s stellar defender AndrÃ©s Escobar (who was gunned down a few days later outside a bar in a suburb of Medillion) and then giving eventual Cup champions Brazil all they could handle for 90 minutes, losing 1-0.
Entering the 1998 competition with high hopes, the US team was embarrassed, losing to not only powerhouse Germany but also a solid team from Yugoslavia and suffering a humiliating shutout by the Iranians.
Enter Coach Arena and a brand new philosophy that emphasized speed and defense, a recipe for success in 2002 as Team USA moved on to the quarterfinals losing to a fine Germany team 1-0. But Arena’s primary contribution to America’s success was in creating an attitude; it was no longer good enough simply to be “competitive.” From here on out, American soccer players expected to win against any team anywhere. Gone were the days when a 1-0 loss to Brazil would be seen as a “moral victory.” In Arena’s vocabulary, there was no such term. A win was a win and a loss was a loss and by God, if you want to play for the United States of America, you damn well better expect to be victorious.
This philosophy will be tested as never before during the 2006 Cup run. Drawing two of the best European teams in the preliminary rounds – Italy and the Czech Republic – Team USA has forced the world to judge them by international standards of excellence by announcing to one and all that they expect to beat the best that the world has to offer each and every time they take the pitch.
Most observers believe that they cannot accomplish this task, that both the Azzurri and the Czechs will make hash of the American’s bold statements. One suspects that most of the world wishes this devoutly as the Americans cockiness has rubbed some of the stuffed shirts at FIFA and in Europe the wrong way. So be it, say the Americans. If this be the price for gaining full and final respect for American soccer, they are willing to pay it.
And the bill starts coming due today. The USA-Czech matchup features several intriguing elements that will make this game perhaps the most important in the history of American soccer. While the Czechs are not considered a frontrunner for Cup glory, they are certainly in the mix of those teams who are capable of making a run for the gold. In that respect, the US will try to derail the Czech hopes by pressuring a slightly aging but still formidable defense with their tremendous speed while keeping the world class Czech offense from getting organized by putting constant pressure on the ball.
In order to accomplish this feat, Coach Arena must decide on a starting lineup that will allow the Americans to accomplish these goals.
A NUMBERS GAME
Arena will not name his starting lineup nor his formation until he absolutely has to – probably about an hour before game time. But since he is blessed with a myriad of options thanks to the tremendous talent he has assembled, we can make some intelligent speculation based on past experience.
The back line appears set with Eddie Pope and potential breakout star Oguchi Onyewu anchoring a defense that must stop one of the most intimidating forwards in the world, 6’8” Jan Koller. Another probable is Steve Cherundolo at right half, a sold if unspectacular performer.
Left half is open to question but it appears that Arena will give the nod to veteran Eddie Lewis. Possessed with speed and toughness, Lewis lacks size which may spell trouble as the fleet footed Czech winger Karel Poborsky is known for being able to muscle his way into the box against smaller defenders.
The center midfield also appears to be set with team Captain Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien spearheading the attack. And one forward will definitely be Brian McBride who will need to play well with his back to the goal as well as demonstrating his usual spectacular aerial ability.
But the other three positions (Kasey Keller will be a fixture at keeper) are up in the air and will probably depend on what kind of formation Arena will employ.
Will he want to maximize his strengths on offense by starting speedy wingers Steve Convey and DeMarcus Beasley? Or will he go for toughness and start a veteran Clint Dempsey while playing versatile swingman Pablo Mastroeni on the shoulder of the defense in order to slow down the dazzling Czech midfield duo of Nedved and Rosicky? Perhaps he will even go so far as start a third man on the back line in which case expect Carlos Bocanegra to perhaps get the nod. And where to put his most versatile offensive player Landon Donovan. Common sense would have Donovan playing alongside McBride but Arena has used the young man everywhere at midfield including the wings in order to free his talented goal scorer and utilize his speed and skills.
My personal feeling is that Arena will go with a modified 3-5-2, playing Josh Wolff up front with McBride and starting both Dempsey and Mastroeni at midfield.
If all of this has your head spinning think of what it’s doing to veteran coach Karel Bruckner. The canny old tactician, a veteran of the European Cup wars, will have some aces up his own sleeve I’m sure. Look for the wandering Czechs Nedved and Rosicky to end up on the flanks more than usual due to US pressuring the middle of the field effectively. And look for Bruckner to employ a 4-5-1, depending on his backs to start their deadly counter-attacking offense and constantly overlapping to pressure the American backline.
With both teams depending on the counterattack to create chances, look for a tough, physical defensive game that will be won or lost at midfield. This is entirely to the Czechs advantage. Nedved and Rosicky are too good, too capable of offensive explosion for our small but talented midfield to effectively counter.
That said, the longer that Team USA can keep the score nil-nil, the more pressure devolves to the Czech side. One of the biggest intangibles in this tournament for the Americans is that no one expects them to get a result against the Czechs or Italians. The longer the game goes on without a score, the more the Czechs will feel the weight of expectations clamp down on their shoulders. In such cases, teams have been known to make mistakes.
I think the best the US can hope for against this talented Czech team is a tie. That will keep them alive going into their match against the Azzurri on June 17th.
Out of their league.
Despite the best team we’ve been able to field in American history, the Czechs are proving too much so far.
The Czech’s midfield play is dazzling, moving through effortlessly and placing a lot of pressure on Lewis and Cherundolo.
In contrast, our midfield play is tentative, sloppy, and leading to turnovers that have given the Czechs some quick counters.
Starting Mastroeni was the right move but Pablo hasn’t contributed jack. And Donovan may have touched the ball three times in the entire half.
In short, the Americans look flat, uninspired, and slow as molasses. Their one decent chance was a shot from the top of the box by Reyna that hit the post flush. But Beasley is playing a horrible game. His first touches are getting away from him (something that could be said for our entire midfield with the exception of Reyna). McBride hasn’t seen the ball either.
Hard to see how they can come back. Maybe subbing O’Brien for Mastroeni and Dempsey for Convey will light a fire under our guys and at least make the second half competitive. As it is, they looked like our “98 squad out there.