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WORLD CUP: Last beating of the U.S. dead horse
June 28th, 2006 12:03PM

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By Ridge Mahoney

in Hamburg

(This will the final installment regarding the U.S. performance in Germany, replete with references to criticisms, valid and otherwise.)

FORMATION. The 4-5-1 formation used primarily by Bruce Arena took a lot of abuse, of course, since a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction is to deride it as defensive.

Well, it ain't. With the outside players pushed up as wingers, the formation resembles a 4-3-3 used by many teams out to score goals. If the midfielders are deployed in two lines and use the middle third effectively, the formation can be solid defensively yet still spring attacks. And with the wide players piercing the flanks on either side, the opponents' defensive shape is disrupted.

The system is dependent on wide players breaching the flanks, the lone forward being mobile and tough, the attacking mid finding space to play through balls and go for goal himself, and the central mids coming forward when possible. For Chelsea, if wide midfielders Arjen Robben and Joe Cole are beating defenders and either getting to the byline to deliver crosses or knifing into the middle, they are threats to score, as are Didier Drogba up front and Frank Lampard and Michael Essien moving up from midfield. If the wide players and attacking mid are stifled, attacks bog down, as the USA quite vividly demonstrated.

Final word on the 4-5-1: the Czechs used it to tear apart the U.S., and they also played it against Ghana, which ran through them nearly at will. Arena isn't the first coach to point out that players, not systems, win games. Application supersedes formation.

LEADERSHIP. This team had none. Arena's benign, resigned sideline demeanor didn't inspire, yet who among the players cajoled, badgered or threatened his teammates to get their heads and hearts into it? The team that said it was good enough seldom looked like it cared enough and in this tough group anything less than three good, solid performances was destined to fail. Yet the USA didn't just falter, it fell way, way short.

Whatever effort the Americans produced was blind and thoughtless, predictable and staid. Coaches can wave and shout all they want and draw up new diagrams at halftime, but players need to adapt and adjust, with the experienced ones in charge of charting course. In the case of Claudio Reyna, DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Pope, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan, the voices of experience went mighty quiet.

PERSONNEL. Arena had alternatives and simply declined to use them, with the result being a lot of dead weight carried on the 23-man roster.

In his final press conference he mentioned he probably should have used Brian Ching. Well, when? A good time would have been late against the Czechs, not to rescue the game, but to get him a taste of the tournament in case he was needed to spell McBride in games two or three. Otherwise, why bring him along?

The craftiness and skill of John O'Brien was desperately needed when Reyna went off against Ghana, but Arena inserted Ben Olsen instead. After O'Brien played the second half against the Czechs, he sat the rest of the way and didn't seem too happy about it. If he was injured, it remained a secret. His deft chips and incisive short balls were ideally suited to getting players in behind the Ghanaian back four. Powerful and speedy opponents would have tested him, surely, but needing at least two goals, it was time to gamble.

Eddie Johnson's stock plummeted further during the tournament and clearly indicated why Arena preferred to either pair McBride with Donovan or go with one up top. Eddie wasn't ready and off this showing he may never be. Taking Johnson was worth the gamble but it didn't pay off.

At some point, rather than the fluid, pressuring game Arena had used during much of his tenure, he elected to pump balls forward more often than not. But McBride isn't Jan Koller, and many second balls went unclaimed. The U.S. rarely got into a rhythm and seldom did we see the intricate stitching of runs and passes characteristic of its best moments.

Arena lauded Josh Wolff prior to the World Cup and hardly used him once it started. Yes, he can certainly squander chances, but he also creates opportunities by linking teammates, and an attack that frequently lacked the proper final pass needed something more than a timid Donovan, lackluster Beasley, and bewildered Johnson.

DONOVAN. After proclaiming himself ready to be ''the man,'' Donovan proved he's not.

A stint in Europe might imbue the steel and fight he needs, but U.S. Soccer can't count on this happening. It needs to look elsewhere, to Clint Dempsey, perhaps, for boldness; to Lee Nguyen for daring and skill; to Michael Bradley, Sasha Kljestan or Jonathan Spector for poise and confidence.

Being reunited with Coach Frank Yallop can only help, but the MLS level of competition won't escalate in time to battle-harden its best players for the 2010 World Cup. MLS is like prep school; it moves you along the path but each tier - college, graduate school -- is a steep step up regardless. And at the World Cup, where doctorates are checked at the door, preppies are out of their element.

When he was 20, Donovan still had room to grow in MLS. At 24, he needs much more than the Colorado Rapids and an occasional trip to Mexico City. Field players peak in their mid-to-late 20s, when the physical tools have yet to erode and the lessons of experience are deeply ingrained. He won't progress in MLS and could even regress, in relative terms. At the very least, he has to go on loan for as long as possible. Perhaps Yallop can get him three or four months in the EPL.

Donovan in MLS can still be a regular with the national team. But he can't be the man, not on his present path.

DIRECTION. If Arena does leave, the major questions are not simply who replaces him, but what will his replacement be asked to do in addition to coaching the national team?

More competitive matches against better national teams is a no-brainer, but already federation president Sunil Gulati has snubbed a return to the Copa America, because of MLS conflicts. Absurd. Sending a squad comprised of one player per MLS team and a few of the younger European players who need additional seasoning won't knock the earth out of its orbit. Anybody who thinks a few weeks in South America wouldn't toughen up Eddie Gaven isn't paying attention. And it's no coincidence that Mexico's impressive record against the world's top teams stems from playing in the Copa America as well as club competitions like the Libertadores Cup.

Broadening and deeping the player pool requires commitment and investment in player development from the MLS teams. The money, thanks to adidas, is there, and with teams getting their own stadiums some of the facility problems are solved. Rather than 12 reserve games, the backups should play twice as many. And the sooner some sort of youth feeder system can be implemented, the better.

For decades, U.S. Soccer has brought over foreign coaches to advise and consult. Every MLS team needs input, but not from old buddies invited by coaches for a few days of golf and barbeques. The coaches should be hired by MLS to watch training sessions, observe games and write insightful reports on the skill levels, use of tactics, etc. that they observe. A bit of bluntness could be beneficial and balance the endless blast of rah-rah cranked out by the league office.



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