Topic: US National Team
The question for the U.S. in the World Cup is always the same: are we close to arriving as a soccer nation? The 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic suggests a definitive answer: no, not yet. However, the reaction to that loss - as recorded in the press, blogs, and soccer message boards - suggests that the U.S. may be approaching parity with our European and South American counterparts in another area: hyperbolic overreaction to a poor performance. This is encouraging.
When the U.S. lost to Czechoslovakia 5-1 in the first game of the 1990 World Cup, few in the media instantly turned on head coach Bob Gansler. Very few pundits who had previously ignored soccer completely devoted air time and column space to drumming up a controversy between the coach and his players. And, though the internet didn't exist at the time, I doubt that many fans took to their ham radios to express dismay over coaching decisions that were so obviously neglegent (thought they all seem to have waited until after the game to make their displeasure known).
Now, admittedly, U.S. Soccer has a long way to go when it comes to overreacting and second-guessing. The Brazilians - who always set the standards for international soccer - have already turned on their 2002 World Cup star, with their President actually going so far as to call Ronaldo - and my Portuguese translation might be slightly lacking here - a "fat, flabby donkey turd." The English press have proved that even a victory in their first game won't impede their relentlessly negative coverage. And the French, after drawing 0-0 against a good Swiss team, already seem ready to surrender (old habits die hard - zing!). So, though our irrationalism, second-guessing, and fickleness are improving, we clearly aren't yet up to European and South American standards.
Personally, I think that the criticism of Bruce Arena is completely misplaced. I'll go on record: the lineup that he put on the field is the same one that I would have fielded. That seems to have been a bad decision, but I don't know anyone - in person or in the media - who had a significantly different lineup in mind before the game. And as for our game plan, it is widely known that we wanted to get out of the gates quickly and put them on the defensive, much like we did against Portugal in 2002. Well, that game plan got shot to hell in the fifth minute. If anything, our urgency to attack cost us in the opening minutes, as Keller's overly-ambitious attempt to spring Bobby Convey led to the first goal. And yet criticism of Arena is almost entirely based on the premise that he played too cautiously and didn't tell his team to attack. I think that he did tell his team to attack; we just didn't have any success.
I think that, had we gotten a couple of lucky breaks, things could have been very different. Don't get me wrong: we were thoroughly outplayed, and we were bad as much as the Czechs were good (and the Czechs were very, very good). But we were also unlucky.
Games are often decided by small advantages that multiply themselves. In this game, the snowball began to build with a simple bad clearance. Had Keller made a better clearance (which he usually does), the Czech Republic wouldn't have gotten that first goal.
Getting the first goal is a huge advantage. Look at how many times in this World Cup alone games have been decided by a good team getting an early goal and then packing in the defense for the rest of the game: England-Paraguay, Netherlands-Serbia & Montenegro, and Portugal-Angola. Trinidad & Tabago successfully implemented this strategy without going through the preliminary step of scoring a goal. Greece won Euro 2004 using this tactic. The U.S. beat Portugal in 2002 mostly because we got the first goal (plus the ever-handy fluke own-goal, which eventually led to the third goal on a counterattack). It is just a reality of soccer: it is difficult to score goals, especially if the other team has made defense a priority.
This is doubly true for the U.S. Our main advantage is speed, and we have no opportunity to use our speed if the other team adopts a good defensive position for the whole game. We were called for offsides exactly zero times; that gives you an indication of just how much the Czech defense was laying back. Anyone who watched the U.S.-Morocco game before the World Cup knows that we just don't have the skill, size, or creativity to breakdown a team playing competent defense (and the Czech defense was more than competent).
It's easy to forget that we were the better team between the first and second goals. It's true; I watched the replay on Monday night. We weren't spectacular, but we had a 65-35 advantage in possession and had a shot hit the post. I don't know if we ever would have gotten that goal back (my guess is no), but we certainly had a chance, untill...
Rosicky's awesome first goal. That was a piece of brilliance, and it was also a dagger in our hearts. Rosicky is an awesome player, and he shouldn't have been given that much space, but it's still true that he probably only converts that strike from that spot one time in twenty. But he did it when it counted, which is all that matters.
After that, we had to take risks, thus the substitutions and the 3-5-2. We also continued to try to trap them offsides with a high back line. It mostly worked (we caught them offsides 11 times), but the twelveth time it failed, which led to the third goal. That's why it's risky.
My point is this: we got beat by a better team, but I don't think we're nearly as bad as we played on Monday. Everything snowballed pretty quickly, and had we got a couple of breaks early on, things might not have looked so bad. I haven't even mentioned the psychological impact of going down a goal in the first five minutes, then going down 2-0 right before halftime (as they always say: "the worst time to give up a goal"). I think that psychological factors were responsible for our apathetic offensive performance in the second half, which is the only thing that I am really upset about. If we get a goal against Italy, then our mentality will do an immediate 180, and we could very well get momentum going in the other direction. So I'm holding out hope for the Italy game. I'd give us a 1 in 10 shot of winning. I'll take that.
Incidentally, I'd gives us better odds of winning if it weren't for this fact: there hasn't been a single upset so far in this World Cup. No, Ecuador beating Poland doesn't count, as Ecuador seems to be a bit better than we expected and Poland seems to be a bit worse. If this were the NCAA tournament, that's the equivalent of a 10 beating a 7: no big deal. And T&T tying Sweden is a bit surprising, but that's mostly a victory for FIFA's stubborn insistence on trying every batshit idea to increase scoring except for the obvious step of making the fucking goals bigger (I'll write a blog about that some other time).
Other than that, no upsets so far. Compare that to 2002, when you had the U.S., South Korea, Senegal, Turkey, Paraguay, Japan, and Sweden all pulling significant upsets and getting into the second round. Argentina and defending champions France didn't make it out of the group stage. I don't see anything like that happening in this World Cup. Every top seed has won so far except for France (who drew), and they'll probably still get through their pathetic group. It's also been disappointing for the African teams, who are 0-4-1 so far, with Tunisia earning the only draw against lowly Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the best two African teams, Ivory Coast and Ghana, are in the two toughest groups. This could be the World Cup that is remembered for having all of the world powers still around in the knockout stage.