Saturday, June 24, 2006

A More Timely Obituary

In some ways, I was too early in writing off the U.S. team at this year's World Cup. As bad as the team looked in its 3-0 opening loss, so did the Ukraine in the 4-0 drubbing it took from Spain. Yet the Ukraine made it out of its group, thanks in part to a weaker group, but also to the fact that it came to play. After its impressive draw against Italy despite playing a man down for almost the entire second half, the U.S., amazingly enough, could have advanced had it beaten Ghana. Instead, the team fell 2-1, as numerous things went wrong, most notably the phantom penalty call that led to Ghana's winning goal. But that was only the final straw, when in reality the team wasn't up to the considerable challenge it faced in a group that included the best team in Europe, the best team in Africa, and a 3-time World Cup champion. The U.S. looked good in its game against Italy, but there's no reason it should have come out flat in the opener, or passive in its must-win game against Ghana.

I'm a big fan of Coach Bruce Arena, and have been since before he became the National Team coach, when he was leading D.C. United to multiple championships. But this tournament showed that it's time for him to move on. What was he thinking when he started only one striker (again!) in a game that the team needed to win? We needed offense and instead Arena went with a conservative line up. I could see why he might have decided to do this in the first two games, but it still was in stark contrast to the bold style that he used in the 2002 World Cup to stun Portugal. In many ways, his approach in this tournament was eerily similar to that of his predecessor, who for the 1998 World Cup decided that the team wasn't good enough to play attacking soccer, and so switched to a 1-striker line-up.

In 2002, when the team advanced to the quarterfinals, Arena turned to untested players and they shone. Here Arena refused to call on young players unless he felt it was absolutely necessary -- for the most part he stuck with players even when they weren't producing. There were exceptions -- Oguchi Onyewu displayed the composure to anchor the central defense, despite the questionable call against him in the Ghana game. Also, Clint Dempsey, the only U.S. goal scorer, showed that he's up for the challenge of international soccer, and could be a mainstay at right midfield in the coming years.

Despite the way the team flamed out, Arena's lasting legacy should be, even more than the team's run to the quarterfinals in 2002, that he turned the team into a fixture at the World Cup. For the three World Cups before Arena showed up, the U.S. barely qualified for the 1990 World Cup (for the first time in 40 years), was automatically entered in the 1994 World Cup as the host nation, and got hot late in qualifying to make it in 1998. But in 2002 and 2006, the teams qualified with ease, and given how weak the region is and how much the team has developed under Arena, there appears to be no reason why such success can't continue into the future.

(Acknowledgements to my friend Barrett for having a discussion with me on this matter, where certain of my thoughts crystallized and where he imparted other thoughts that influenced my opinions -- I can't pretend to separate them here, so I'll simply say that I didn't think of all the things in this post on my own).