Thursday, June 22, 2006

USA 1 - Ghana 2

Kwaku, one of my coworkers and former Ghanaian U-21 international, is in a pretty good mood right now. And rightfully so. Ghana put in a performance that, while not nearly of the caliber of their win against the Czechs, was still good enough to see off a spirited but somewhat inept American squad. There's tons to say about the game and US effort and the coaching. You may have heard or read already how ESPN commentator Eric Wynalda commented that coach Bruce Arena "screwed up this World Cup". I'll start here.

While I do not believe that wins and losses are often a coach's fault, Arena did his underdog squad no favors this time around. Where his approach in 2002 was to come out guns blazing against Portugal -- a sort of electroshock method when World Cup openers are often more likely a small cup of room temperature water being doused on the face, in 2006 his team frankly looked scared and nervous. Rather than paying attention to the press at home hailing them as a new force on the international soccer seen, they perhaps should've been reading the press abroad (more knowledgeable, at any rate) that saw them as a longshot to challenge the Czechs. Without a doubt, motivation was a question in that first game.

And then the tactics. In contrast to that magical opening game in 2002, we never really looked like a dangerous team. Donovan had one or two flashes of promising attacking play, but -- and if one stat is telling it is this -- failed to register a single shot on goal. Consider that. Is there a team in the tournament whose best attacking player does not have a single shot on goal? Is there a team in the tournament whose best three players do not have a single shot on goal? After two full games of soccer, the Americans were averaging a tournament low 0.5 shots on goal per half. If I were permitted to ask Arena one question, it would be that: why wasn't the team able to create more shots on goal? Quick...name a save we forced the keeper to make. Yeah, I can't either. You don't score on the best two keepers in the world without shooting (although, poor Kasey Keller, 6 goals allowed in the 3 games is a harsh return for such a classy goalkeeper). Isolating McBride, repeatedly and without any degree of success, shows a surprising lack of flexibility in contrast to what we've seen from Arena in the past.

There were some bright spots for the team. Jimmy Conrad -- who knew? -- is a quality center back. Playing against much, much faster players, his positioning was excellent. He organized well and made a number of crucial blocks and clearances. Perhaps Pope's poor form in the early MLS season should've been a warning sign. Likewise, Onyewu will be a center back to count on for the next five years. He gets a lot of fouls called on him simply because he's huge, but the guy's a force and should only get better through a move to Middlesborough (let's hope that still goes through).

Ultimately, this was not a game we deserved to win. We were not, on the whole of the three games, one of the best three teams in the group. To have a claim to that spot, we would've had to come out and soundly defeat at least one other team, something we never even threatened to do. I would've loved to see us take a crack at Brazil, but if it's got to be someone else, I'm happy it's Ghana. The best news of all this? No Yanks on my fantasy squad.

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