Thursday, June 22, 2006

Judgement Day: USA v. Ghana

Hopefully the majority of you will be able to tune in at 10 am this morning (hell, hopefully I will be able to tune in) to watch the United States play Ghana in a deciding group match. I've said it before and I'll say it again: a win in this game would constitute a very positive tournament for us, regardless of whether we advance or not.

The media in this country is chomping at the bit for soccer to finally break through. ESPN seems to have really boosted its advertising for games -- especially Mexico's games, rightly sensing changes in the market -- and our success at the last World Cup has raised expectations. But we have to be realistic: until our entire roster is capable of starting in the Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, or Premier League, we will always be at a disadvantage. I am confident that this time will arrive. If all goes according to plan, we may have as many as seven or eight potential starters in the Premier League next year -- McBride and Bocanegra with Fulham, Bobby Convey and GK Marcus Hahnemann with Reading, Claudio Reyna with Manchester City, Tim Howard with Everton, and possibly Oguchi Onyewu with Middlesborough and maybe even and Eddie Lewis transfer into the top flight. That's impressive. Add to that Beasley playing for Dutch champions PSV Eindhoven, Kasey Keller firmly entrenched in the Bundesliga. Conor Casey -- not on the roster -- has been started for a Bundesliga team, as has Steve Cherundolo.

On top of that, the MLS is improving. Anyone with a soccer brain knows it and can see it. It has developed players to compete at a much higher level than ever before, and it has replaced the faltering college soccer system in improving our young players. However, look at the US lineup and it's weakest spots. Eddie Pope -- while not disastrous -- cost his team dearly in two games by leaving Koller for the Czechs first goal and getting ejected from the Italy game. Landon Donovan came out against the Czechs looking like he thought he was playing against Chivas USA, not a true European power. Additionally, Mastroeni's red -- while undeserved -- showed a noticeable lack of savvy (something I've often mentioned here) that the Italians and Czechs had in spades. I'm not suggesting the MLS players are the problem (Beasley and McBride were two of the worst in the opening game), but, I think, on the whole, they're missing the experience and composure that comes with playing at the highest level on regular basis.

But I digress. A win today would be a significant step for the USA. 1-1-1 in maybe the toughest group of the tournament, with a 9 man draw against Italy, is, much like that draw itself, a very acceptable if not totally gratifying result. What I'd really like to see is our boys to come out and take care of the little things. I want to see them show that they've learned how to mark a goalscorer in the box -- see Czech Goal 1 and Italy goal. I want to see someone shoot from long range to keep the defense honest. I want to see a dangerous set piece. I want to see Onyewu mark a good forward without shoving him from behind. I would like to see the team switch the ball quickly enough to find Beasley, 1 v 1, where he can simply push it by his man and get to the line. I want to see Donovan get some shots on target. I want us to prove we won't be manhandled by what appears to be a faster, more athletic midfield. I want Kasey Keller to get his first World Cup clean sheet. He deserves it. If these things happen, we will probably win.

But I'll be honest: I'd rather just have a win. Mark people, don't mark people. Score beautiful goals, or settle for undeserved penalties and own goals. It makes no difference. I'd rather just win and advance.

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