Having partially recovered from my shock and horror evinced by the crushing defeat of Team USA on Monday by a very good Czech side, I feel that I can once again write about the World Cup without weeping uncontrollably into my Balmenach.
Waiting 4 years to watch an American side that could finally compete on the world’s biggest sports stage with the cream of European football only to see Team USA play little better than a bunch of drunk frat rats who wandered on to the pitch by mistake was the greatest sports shock I’ve had since watching the American hockey team upset the Russians in the 1980 Olympics. I expected defeat. I did not expect annihilation. And the timidity, the hesitation, and most of all, the curious and unconscionable lack of urgency and fire in the American attack made the defeat all the more disheartening.
I don’t hold any hope for a win against Italy. The Azzurri looked awesome against Ghana, toying with the Africans like a bored cat playing with a doomed mouse. Their smothering defense handled the vaunted Black Star’s attacking midfielders while putting enormous pressure on the African’s back line with long, deadly accurate crosses and gorgeous runs.
For the US to stay in the game and make a respectable showing (losing 2-1 or 1-0), there’s nothing for it but to challenge every single ball at midfield, winning enough of them to maintain some kind of offensive momentum. Otherwise, the match will be a brutal replay of the USA-Czech disaster that saw Rosicky and Nedved consistently being allowed to run wild without much in the way of opposition from their American counterparts.
Coach Bruce Arena singled out several players for harsh criticism following the loss, most notably DeMarcus Beasley (who, in turn, criticized Arena for underutilizing him in the second half) and Landon Donovan, In truth, Arena could have dressed down every player on the field who started the game, so lackadaisical was the play by the Americans. But the coach’s criticisms aside, one wonders who he will start in the game this afternoon against the Italians?
As has been shown time and again during the tournament, it only takes one or two defensive breakdowns for the best teams in the world to beat you. With that in mind, does Arena power up his defense by starting 3 defensemen and a defensive-minded midfield? If that were going to be the case, look for Beasley and perhaps Convey to be benched in favor of Carlos Bocanegra and John O’Brien who played reasonably well as a second half sub against the Czechs.
However, from what we’ve seen of Bruce Arena over the last 8 years, I fully expect him to put his best offensive side on the field, slotting Eddie Johnson along side Brian McBride up front, benching Beasley in favor of sparkplug Clint Dempsey, and moving Landon Donovan to an attacking midfielder position. Monday’s starter Pablo Mastroeni would be replaced by John O’Brien as well. But O’Brien, despite all the positive talk before the tournament, does not really appear to be match fit and would be unable to go a full 90 minutes – especially in the kind of game that I expect the Americans to play.
It will be a chippy, foul-laden contest with the Americans contesting every ball. The problem with that strategy is the probability that a rash of yellow cards will result thus blunting the effectiveness of our best defensive players (two yellow cards in a match gets you tossed). There could be nothing worse for the Americans than to go down a player for any length of time in the match.
But the USA has very little choice. They must find a way to slow down the Azzuri’s attack. And if that means tackling hard and often, they will do so.
For Team USA, they must find a way to improve their first touch. They must realize they are not playing in the MLS where the marking is sometimes less than professional and where defenders are not as big or possessing the skills of the world class players on the top teams in Germany. Time and again against the Czechs, the Americans would receive decent passes only to lose possession because of a sloppy or indifferent first touch. If that aspect of their game doesn’t change, expect a Czech repeat.
Given the strength of the Italian defense, I expect the Americans to get no more than 2 or three decent chances to score during the match. And if the Italians get a lead, watch them sit back 8 in the box daring the Americans to try and beat them by breaking them down. That won’t happen.
Is there any way the Americans can win? Only if the Americans score first and play a possession game that would frustrate the Azzurri causing them to lose focus. That won’t happen either given the immense talent and experience on the Italian side. But it could keep the score close and partially redeem the American side from their historically embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Czechs.
UPDATE: GHANA SHOCKER
Final score: Ghana 2 – Czechs 0.
Team USA must be kicking itself right about now. Ghana played the kind of game that the US is capable of playing but didn’t. They attacked beautifully on the wings while pressuring the ball at midfield. The two saves made by the Ghanaian keeper at the end of the game was the kind of goalkeeping the US expected out of Keller. And the Black Star’s midfield (by tackling hard and painfully) kept Rosicky and Nedved from getting too comfortable.
Perhaps the Czechs were looking past the Ghanaians to their match against the Italians. Perhaps they missed their 6’8” striker Koller. Perhaps the Czechs simply took the Africans too lightly. Whatever the reason, because of the Ghanaian victory, the US will not be eliminated today even if they lose to the Italians.
One fascinating result of the upset is goal differential. The Czechs are at +1 while the Ghanaians are even. If the US can get a result against the Italians – assuming they win by one goal – that would put the Italians also at +1 setting up all four teams for a final preliminary match tied in the won-loss column at 1-1 while the probability of both the European sides moving on to the second round almost nil.
While the US would not technically be eliminated with a loss today, they may as well pack it up given their potential goal differential. So the US side must have been heartened by the Ghanaians shocking victory.
As I surmised, it looks like Coach Arena will be going with a 3-5-1, starting Bocanegra on the back line and Dempsey in the midfield. It also appears that he will hold O’Brien out for the first half again. Beasely and Eddie Lewis will apparently sit.
Watch Dempsey. His energy and intelligence on offense will probably provide a spark but his defense is quite suspect. So it looks like Arena split the difference between having a more offensive side by starting the third defenseman, a sound move that won’t mean anything unless Reyna and Donovan get it in gear.
UPDATE II: USA -1 – Azzurri -1
Wonder where these guys have been.
It’s almost as if the team that was on the field against the Czech’s on Monday was from a totally different universe. The side that is flying around midfield, challenging ferociously, outmanning and outplaying the Italians at every turn (even before the Azzurri went down a man thanks to a red card issued for a vicious elbow thrown by De Rossi that opened a gash on McBride’s face) can’t be the same team that lay down and died against the Czechs, can it?
The red card given Mastroeni was a joke. And Eddie Pope, playing with a yellow card himself, better be aware the the referee has decided it is he who will determine the outcome of the game. One more yellow and Eddie sits too, giving the Italians what they need most – an advantage against a team that made them look like they were sleepwalking that first half.
The overlapping by our half backs is working beautifully, although now that we’re playing a man down, look for Bocanegra and Cherundolo to choose their spots to jump into the play carefully. Dempsey is a tiger in the midfield, winning almost every ball that comes his way while Reyna looks much more in charge, sending several beautiful balls into Donovan at the top of the box.
The Americans look dangerous. And if they can keep up the intensity for another half, they may surprise. But the Italians are far from through. Even if the Italians win, the Americans have redeemed themselves as far as I’m concerned.
UPDATE III: FINAL: KISS YOUR SISTER
Team USA played a courageous game. As I warned above, Eddie Pope got his second yellow less than 3 minutes into the second half taking the US side down to 8 men. Arena substituted intelligently, especially his bringing DeMarcus Beasley into the game. Beasley put the ball in the net but interference from McBride negated his splendid shot. Otherwise he played passably well.
The result was disappointing because the American’s were clearly outplaying the Azzurri for the first 20 minutes of the game. In fact, most of the first half, the US side had much the better play – that is, until the referee decided to insert himself into the game and decide the outcome.
As Andy points out in the comments, thus Uruguayan ref was suspended from the 2002 World Cup for “irregularities” in his calls. I wonder if anyone will make a connection between the Italian match-fixing scandal and this game? It would be tempting to ascribe the abysmal performance of the ref to some kind of crookedness. But such things don’t happen in the World Cup, do they? Besides, the scandal involved players, not refs. Let’s just put the ref’s calls down to pure incompetence and leave it at that.
I thought that Donovan and Reyna both had an outstanding game as did Bocanegra and Cherundolo who continuously jumped into the play giving the US some outstanding chances. There was vast improvement in all areas for Team USA but I particularly liked their ferociousness in going for the ball in the midfield. They consistently had two men on the ball (before the ref tossed two of their players) flummoxing the vaunted Italian playmakers. Unlike the Czech game, Reyna played the entire first half on the offensive side of the center line, receiving the ball and driving forward consistently, dishing to the wings and at times finding Donovan open in the middle of the field.
Defense was tough and relentless. Onyewu was a bulldog for the entire game, being extraordinarily aggressive, causing the Italian forwards to look where he was before receiving the ball. And at the end of the game, I thought the Americans looked a lot fresher as the Italians couldn’t get the ball into the middle thanks to Team USA’s great play.
There are two ways the US can now advance, both requiring a win against Ghana on Thursday and both depend on the outcome of the Italian-Czech game played at the same time as USA-Ghana to prevent the advantage of a team knowing the outcome of the other game. If the Italians and USA win, they advance. And if the Italians and Czech’s tie, the US would have to score 4 more goals than Ghana in order to move on. Clearly, we’re rooting for an Italian victory, a real possibility given that the Italians were probably stung by this tie with the lowly Americans.
It should be a wild early afternoon on Thursday.