Monday, June 12, 2006

USA 0 - Czech Republic 3

As massive Czech forward Jan Koller wheeled away from the goal five minutes into today's game with arms stretched in triumph, you could've been forgiven for having a bit of deja vu. The last time the United States was handed this demanding a draw in the World Cup, they gave up an easy, close range headed goal in the first ten minutes off some suspiciously slack defending. On that occasion, German midfielder Andy Moeller gratefully accepted the gift, albeit with less power and punch than Koller's smashing header five minutes into the game.

And that effectively set the tone. It was always going to be difficult to score, and goals like that tend to deflate young, inexperienced underdogs pretty easily. But the Yanks admirably took possession afterwards, controlling most of the ball in the first half. They looked baffled by a very organized Czech backline that was unspectacular -- they are the type of defenders who prefer to hoof the ball out of the back and let their quick and savvy midfielders chase it down and initiate the attack from there -- but always surefooted. US captain Claudio Reyna came close, hitting the left post with a low shot, but most US attacks ended in weak crossing attempts.

1-0 at halftime would've been one thing -- adjust, gather some steam, go at them -- but Tomas Rosicky's brilliant 25 yard strike put the Czechs up 2-0 and pretty much out of reach. A cross from Nedved was cleared by Onyewu but only as far as Rosicky who had plenty of time to take a touch and line up his shot.

Arena's second half changes were aggressive and attacking, but ultimately proved fruitless. Cherundolo came off for Johnson and Mastroeni was subbed out for John O' Brien as Eddie Pope moved to right back in a 3-5-2 formation, but with the formation change the Americans' possession advantage was lost. The second half saw more of the same: short on ideas, the US could only penetrate as far as 25 yards on each wing and was left to serve hopeful balls into the penalty area. When Nedved took possession just inside the US half in the 75th minute with the American backline pushed up high and flat, a third Czech goal was a mere formality. Nedved laid the ball into space ahead of Rosicky and the new Arsenal signee's first touch took him in the clear. His outside-of-the-foot finish was effortless and a thorough drubbing of the Americans was ensured.

That's more or less how it went down. During the post-game -- I spared myself the pandering of Marcelo Balboa and watched the game on Setanta Sports -- ESPN commentator Eric Wynalda railed on the team's lack of effort and urgency. And he was exactly right. But this was a performance that had you wondering how in the world Wynalda (and others as well) could have possibly picked the US to top the group with ease (I specifically recall Wynalda suggesting we would defeat the Czechs). ESPN Soccernet said it appropriately:

Bruce Arena's Team USA were taught a footballing lesson by the Czech Republic on Monday as they ran out convincing 3-0 winners. Jan Koller opened the scoring after just 5 minutes, but the star of the show was Tomas Rosicky who scored two stunning goals either side of halftime to put the result beyond doubt.

And yes, the score was harsh for all the possession the Americans had. But what of our big players? While Reyna was solid and effective as a distributor, Donovan did very little and McBride was, to put it mildly, atrocious. Convey was poor and Beasley couldn't have been worse. On top of that, Arena's changes didn't offer much, and, I would argue, the 3-5-2 hurt our possession and failed to change the game at all.

But it would be a shame to ruin such a wonderful thing as the World Cup so early in the campaign, so here's the good news. Eddie Johnson looked like he might just be ready for this level. It's a shame he didn't score because even a consolation goal would've done wonders for him going into the next match (which he really should start). I didn't think the back four were bad at all. Onyewu was terrific in the air, though still slow on the ground and called for too many fouls. Lewis was adequate at left back. Save four shots -- three of which went in -- Keller had little to do. The other good news is that now there is officially no pressure. We have nothing to lose at this point and we can't really get a worse result than this. Let's hope Ghana holds Italy to a tie.

Player ratings:
Keller - 4.5. Didn't really have much to do. Might've had a chance on the third goal, but not really at fault. Still, didn't look as authoritative as Cech in claiming crosses and high balls.
Cherundolo - 4. Struggled with Nedved. Poor service from the right flank.
Onyewu - 5. Would've been higher but had a number of needless fouls and lack of quickness let Rosicky through for the third.
Pope - 4.5. Clearly not accustomed to the kind of accurate delivery and clever movement Koller showed for the first goal.
Lewis - 5. Defended well. Didn't get forward very often, and isn't much use as a left back in a three back system.
Mastroeni - 5. Don't really remember him doing too much, which might be a good thing for a D-mid. Probably should've been more aware of Rosicky on the second goal.
Reyna - 6. Best US player. Sharp touches, good passing, kept possession and found feet. Unlucky to get a card, unlucky not to score.
Convey - 3.5. Out of ten crosses, only one threatened at all.
Beasley - 3. Looked scared.
Donovan - 4.5. Good turn in the first half and run at the D won a free kick (subsequently wasted by a poor Beasley touch) and one good run and layoff in the second. How many shots on goal? Zero?
McBride - 3. Maybe a 2.5. Really awful. Really really awful.

Subs:
O Brien - 5. Fine. Didn't do too much but his passing and patience are a nice addition.
Johnson - 6. Wanted to score. Tried to score. Shot the ball. Made hard runs in the box. More than can be said for any of the other attackers.
Wolff - (no score). Fifteen fairly inconsequential minutes.

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