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Long-distance lessons for the USA
by Ridge Mahoney, September 11th, 2009 7AM

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[U.S. SOCCER] After Mexico beat the USA, 2-1, at Azteca Stadium last month, Landon Donovan grumbled about Israel Castro's equalizer, a searing strike from well outside the penalty area that tied the game in the 19th minute.

"[Castro] hits an absolute dream goal," he said of a powerful hit that glanced off the underside of the crossbar. "You give that guy a thousand shots like that, he's not going to score that goal."

Either Donovan was being very disparaging of Castro's shooting ability, or referring to the luck of a ball nicking the bottom of the bar rather than bouncing off it back into play, or he was in denial about goals scored from the center of the field in the range of 25-30 yards. They may not be common, but neither are they rare, as the USA's Ricardo Clark proved by banging one in from about the same spot to beat Trinidad & Tobago, 1-0, Wednesday in Port of Spain.

Carlos Costly scored for Honduras against the USA with just such a shot at Soldier Field June 6, though the USA rallied to win, 2-1.

Remember Monas Chery? He was the Haitian - that's right, Haitian - who blasted one into the U.S. net from long range during the Gold Cup.

The point of all this isn't Donovan's perceptions, or misconceptions, of scoring such goals. Not for the first time against a Concacaf foe and not just in the Hexagonal, American players seemed surprised at the commitment and abilities of their opponents. For long periods on Wednesday the T&T players, despite their lowly spot at the bottom of the Concacaf standings and rather modest club resumes, matched if not surpassed the Americans in determination, spirit, and guile.

Ironically, one aspect of attacking T&T flubbed was its long-range shooting. It put a few close-range headers on frame, and Trent Noel hit a nasty free kick that Tim Howard turned away with an excellent save, but it rarely hit the target from distance. As a unit, the U.S. midfielders turned in a mediocre performance, but at least they harried and hounded their opponents when a shot seemed imminent.

The odds of scoring increase substantially if a player - assuming said player can shoot with reasonable power and precision from 20-plus yards -- is given the time and space to line up the shot and strike it well, as Jozy Altidore did in the first half after launching a powerful dribble from the midfield line. Unchallenged during his run, he looked up, liked what he saw, and belted a shot keeper Clayton Ince had to fight off with both fists. Shooting from distance is hardly Altidore's greatest attribute, but that's what the situation called for. Charlie Davies and Donovan hit much weaker shots from long range before Clark, with enough room to operate, uncorked his belter.

Going back to the 2006 World Cup, was Tomas Rosicky's goal for the Czech Republic an amazing strike? Most certainly. Was there some divine fortune at work? Probably. He also burst into yards of space and encountered no pressure to smash the ball home. Given the opportunity, he showcased his talent.

Just about any player representing a country aspires to do the same, as Costa Rica found out Wednesday as well when it lost, 1-0, in San Salvador to a stoppage-time goal. Like their T&T counterparts, the Salvadoran players ignored the standings and slim chances of advancement. And at the Confederations Cup, that's how the Americans stunned Egypt and earned the opportunity for a spectacular defeat of Spain.

In every game the USA had better be ready for opponents who, in the right moment, can hit great crosses, nail lethal shots, pull off excellent saves, deliver punishing tackles, etc. Regardless of how good or fit or confident they may feel themselves, the Americans aren't nearly talented enough to win on talent alone, and on a given day against a decent team, can be made to look second best.

 



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