Topic: US National Team
This picture says it all:
So close. So, so close.
In the post-game press conference, Arena was asked how this team would be remembered. I don't remember what he said, but the answer has to be this: this team will (or at least should) be remembered as the unluckiest team the U.S. has ever brought to the World Cup. True, they didn't play as well as they could have, and they're just not talented enough to overcome bad luck and mediocre play, but the fact that we're out and Mexico is moving on is evidence that luck is a major factor.
Here are our bad breaks, in chronological order:
1. FIFA deciding to seed only the top 8 teams in the tournament, instead of all 32.
2. Being drawn into arguably the toughest group
3. Playing the Czech Republic on what was by far their best day of the tournament (which included a ridiculous Rosicky strike and Jan Koeller's only appearance)
4. Mastreoni's red card (though this is at least debatable)
5. Pope's red card (sorry; this really isn't)
6. The general gullability of the ref in the Italy game
7. Yesterday's penalty kick
I didn't include injuries on this list because, though Gibbs, Hejduk, and (as it turned out) O'Brien were injured, that's just par for the course in a World Cup. I also didn't include shots that hit the post or other near misses, because - though small margins in difference produce wide variances in outcomes in such instances - those things are within our control. The seven things listed above were not.
In fairness, we did get one very good break: the own goal against Italy. But, on the balance, we were unlucky.
It's a shame that we couldn't add an comeback in the Ghana game to the memorable, gutsy performance in the Italy game (which, because it now stands on its own, is suddenly a lot less memorable). That would have been a nice narrative. And it really looked possible after the Dempsey goal. But that penalty kick really did change things, and, as I noted above, small changes sometimes have huge effects.
Had that penalty kick not been called, it's very possible that the U.S. soccer community would be praising Bruce Arena's remarkable ability to pull one out of the fire instead of calling for his head. As of 10:44 yesterday, he was still a genius. But now, I'll be surprised if he lasts until the end of the week.
Let me say this: I think that much (though not all) of the criticism of Bruce is unfair. Clearly, a number of the decisions he made didn't work out, but the only valid criticisms are those that were made before everything went wrong.
For example, if you think that moving Eddie Lewis to left back was a bad idea, you may have a case. BUT, you'd better be able to show that you felt this way before the Czech game, and it would certainly be nice if you vocally opposed this plan when it was hatched in mid-2005, at which point Pope and Gibbs were hurt (meaning Bocanegra would be needed in the middle), Onyewu, Conrad, and Jonathan Spector were largely unknown, Heath Pearce hadn't been called into a single camp, and Greg Vanney clearly sucked. Furthermore, if you oppose playing guys out of position as a general principle, then presumably you not only oppose the Lewis-at-left-back and Beasley-at-right-mid experiments that went poorly at this World Cup, but also the Tony Sanneh-at-right-back and Frankie Hejduk-at-left-back experiments that went unbelievably well at the last World Cup (funny; I don't seem to remember reading a lot of articles along those lines). Likewise, if you don't like Donovan at striker now, then you probably also didn't like him there in 2002, when he scored three goals. Finally, if you think Clint Dempsey should have been a sure-fire starter, then hopefully you didn't write one of the "Who's Going to Fill the Massive Hole at Right Mid?" articles that clogged the soccer media immediately before the tournament. My point: there are valid criticisms to be made, but the accuser has no standing if he or she is operating merely out of hindsight.
That being said, I think that it might be time for Arena to go. Not for tactical reasons; while I've got my disagreements (I wanted two strikers in the Ghana game and I think we adopted too defensive of a posture in general), he's hit more often than he missed with tactical decisions, and I can't prove that things would have gone any better had he done what I would have done. He may need to go now simply to restore confidence in the program. There's a tremendous buildup to a World Cup, and getting very little payoff is a crushing psychological letdown. We may need to make a change simply to give the players, sponsors, and fans the sense that the 2006 era is over and a new one is beginning.
A few other random thoughts on the World Cup:
- When our offense was struggling game after game after game, starting in the warmup matches, did anyone else ever start to think this: how did everything end up going so wrong with Clint Mathis? The player that Clint Mathis was supposed to be in 2006 would have been awfully handy to have.
- One that topic, if I had guessed immediately after 2002 which guys would be back, I probably would have guessed Mathis, McBride, Donovan, Beasley, O'Brien, Mastreoni, Sanneh, Reyna, Lewis, probably Friedel, probably Pope, maybe Keller. And you'd think that Chris Armas probably would have come back from injury to make the team. So it's pretty hard to guess. From this group, I would guess that Onyewu, Cherundolo, Dempsey, Beasley (if he gets things turned around), Donovan, Howard, Johnson (again, though: he needs to get back on track), probably Gibbs, maybe O'Brien, maybe Mastreoni, maybe Ching.
- I am pretty high on the following players for 2006: Marvell Wynne, Heath Pearce, Chris Rolfe, Freddy Adu, Nate Jacqua, Brad Guzan, Jonathan Spector, Conor Casey, Lee Nguynn, Kyle Nakazawa, Bobby Boswell, Chad Marshall. Let me say Chris Rolfe's name again; I think that he might be the pick of the bunch. And, of course, there's Freddy, who's ceiling is extremely high. One problem: a multitude of speedy little guys up top (Rolfe, Freddy, Landon). Let's hope that Jacqua or Casey develop into good target guys.
- Danny's idea that anyone carried off on a stretcher has to stay off for ten minutes is a pretty good one, but there's a problem: they use the stretcher in soccer to speed the game along. The player doesn't call for the stretcher; they just bring it out so that they can get him the hell off of the field whether he's hurt or not and get things moving again. And ten minutes is maybe a little much. But I might consider this: if you're down for one minute or more, you have to stay out for five minutes. And it would also help if injury time were actually real instead of made up. I'll address these and other issues in a future blog that I will call: Make the Fucking Goals Bigger.
- If there's one unequivocally good thing to come out of this World Cup, it's this: DC United's Ben Olsen played in a World Cup. Awesome job, Benny (he probably reads my blog); well deserved. Ben was projected as a national team star of the future until he suffered multiple ankle injuries that robbed him of all of his speed. But he made the team and got on the field (and played well) on his sport's biggest stage. That officially counts as coming all the way back.