Friday, June 23, 2006

USA Soccer: Change the guard

After the US failure in the World Cup, the time is right for a definite change of direction, attitude and leadership.

This is the second time in a row that the US has played miserably and failed to make a dent in the World Cup hosted in Europe. The 1998 team is and will forever be an embarrassment: manhandled by Germany, beaten in humiliating fashion by Iran, flaccid against Yugoslavia. The coach, Steve Sampson, had devised a clever 3-6-1 formation (six midfielders) but played head games with the players and fiddled ceaselessly with the roster. By the time the Cup games started, the momentum from a highly successful set of international friendlies had been squandered and the team was a shambles.

This year, Bruce Arena spent time experimenting with personnel placement (most notably putting DaMarcus Beasley on the right side where he was uncomfortable), relying on questionable veterans, and emasculating the US offense than actually doing anything useful. The team came in fatally unprepared and listless against the Czechs, placing the squad firmly behind the eight-ball for the whole tournament. The US had all of one shot on goal in the first two matches. The 4-5-1 formation Arena used left Brian McBride alone to battle four defenders (which he did valiantly) and the US's defense-first philosophy strangled the offensive drive of its best attackers: Donovan, Beasley, Dempsey.

ESPN's most honest critic of the team, Eric Wynalda (still the US all-time leading scorer in international play), tore Arena to shreds this morning on the radio. Wynalda ripped Arena's lack of class (failing to shake hands with the Ghana coach, whinging about the poor officiating), lack of strategy (how the 4-5-1 sucked the life out of the US attack), and lack of drive (sitting Eddie Johnson against Italy when McBride was spent, etc.).

Worse yet is the team's biggest omission. Every soccer "expert" knew the US would be short of finishers (goalscoring ability). But Arena still left Taylor Twellman off the team. Twellman was simply the team's best playmaker and finisher in the 2006 friendlies and was fully "on form".

To add to the misery, here's the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the US World Cup 2006 experience.

The Good: Keller's two excellent late saves against Italy; Beasley's pass to Dempsey that led to the goal against Ghana; McBride's grit; Onyewu's defense against Italy.

The Bad: Arena's strategy (why so much overlap down the sidelines against Ghana's weak MIDDLE defense?), Onyewu against the Czechs, Eddie Pope, the lost Landon Donovan, the midfielders in general

The Ugly: McBride's face after the red card foul by the Italians, the calls that got Mastroeni sent off against Italy and that gave Ghana a penalty, the offense (4 shots on goal in three games!), Claudio Reyna getting stripped in the open field against Ghana -- which led to the Ghanaians' first goal.

This is the last World Cup for Kasey Keller and Claudio Reyna, and that's good. Both I and a buddy who knows soccer much better than The Monk are Reyna detractors. He is a 33 rpm record in a 45 rpm game -- too slow, too calculating, too restrained when an advantage is present. He slows the game for a US team that had great speed and quickness (Beasley, Donovan, Johnson). Reyna's international career has been at best mediocre: in 1998, he was a lost little boy in a man's game against the Germans, and completely useless in the tournament; in 2002, he was solid but Donovan, Sanneh and McBride did the real leading; in 2006, Reyna was uninspired. He helped lead the US to qualify for three-straight Cups for the first time ever, but his legacy will be best summed up in that strip-and-goal the Ghanaian midfielder pulled off him yesterday.

Keller is a decent 'keeper in general. But it's no coincidence that the best US performance in the Cup came in 2002 when he was beaten out by Brad Friedel for the starting job. Friedel kept the US alive against S. Korea, he blanked Mexico, and he played very well. Keller made a couple of decent saves, was completely fried by his defense about 4-5 times in this Cup (neither goal yesterday was his fault - the second was a penalty, the first was a breakaway and the attacker should score when he's got 192 square feet of goalmouth to shoot for and only the 'keeper in front of him) and was not a big reason for the US failure, unlike 1998 when he was a complete flop.

Where do we go from here? First, US needs a new coach. Guus Hiddink, the manager of PSV Eindhoven (two-time defending Dutch Eredivisie champs) and the Australian Soccerroos should top the list. Hiddink has taken a different country to the knockout stages of each of the last three Cups: Croatia, S. Korea and now the Aussies. The US has lots of internationally tested talent (like the Aussies) so the post should be attractive to him.

Second, a new 'keeper. Keller is 36, Friedel is 38 and retired. Marcus Hahnemann is 33 and helped his club team, Reading, dominate the English Championship League -- England's #2 league, which is better than MLS and most TOP national soccer leagues -- and he'll play in the English Premiership this year. Tim Howard is 27 and will get a chance to start in the EPL as well.

Third, a new captain. If Reyna is done, as he should be, the US will need a new and better leader.

Fourth, new blood. The US needs Freddy Adu to mature, Ben Olson to improve (he's an excellent passer -- dead on with his crosses), Taylor Twellman to get a spot on the team.

So there's hope. But the US needs Hiddink or another superior quality coach.

P.S. -- Congrats to the socceroos for getting past the Croats and into the next round. Good on ya!

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