Gold Cup: A destination too far

Elimination deprived the U.S. of valuable experience

MIAMI - The new-look U.S. no longer is a new commodity. Its success in the first full year of Coach Bruce Arena's reign brought attention and scrutiny, and opponents once again regard the U.S. seriously. Arena's second competitive tournament at this level brought none of the success the Americans enjoyed in the Confederations Cup last summer. A longer run in the Gold Cup had been expected, and with more games there might have come more answers and solutions to the issues facing Arena less than six months prior to the start of World Cup qualifying. The major issues include the following: The young brigade. After the U.S. lost its penalty-kick tiebreaker to Colombia in the Gold Cup quarterfinals Feb. 19, Ben Olsen slumped deeply into his seat on the U.S. team bus. Many of his teammates bantered and talked, but Olsen stared straight ahead. His lively work on the flanks for D.C. United earned him MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 1998, and he's won spots on the U.S. under-23 and national teams. His success - along with other promising youngsters, such as Eddie Lewis - manifests the growth and hope of American soccer. He'd replaced Cobi Jones in the 77th minute and had far less impact than Colombian subs John Wilmar Lopez and Edwin Congo. Coupled with the replacement of Brian McBride by C.J. Brown four minutes later, Arena's moves robbed the U.S. attack of its most effective players as well as two of its better penalty takers. Olsen was the last of four Americans to fail from the spot, joining Eric Wynalda (over the bar), Claudio Reyna (hit the bar) and Chris Armas (saved). "I don't think Ben did a particularly good job in the game, and we also put cover on the right side of the field with C.J. Brown, and yet [Gerardo Bedoya] scores the goal," said Arena. "So that troubles me." Young players such as Olsen should expect to hit turbulence as they ascend. As first choice to back up Jones on the flank, Olsen needs stronger showings to keep that status when the qualifiers commence, for Tony Sanneh also can play on the right. Dependence on flank play. The U.S. had to battle Peru through a scoreless first half and rode the goalkeeping of Brad Friedel to hold its 1-0 lead after Jones headed his goal - on a fine Lewis cutback and cross from the left wing - in the 59th minute. Heavy pressure in midfield often turned back U.S. buildups in the first half, and not until the U.S. played early balls out wide did it carve cracks in the Peruvian defense. In several games last year, combination play split open opposing defenses right down the middle. Nearly every goal from the run of play this year has come from the flanks, although a more assertive Jovan Kirovski and continued maturation from McBride can shore up the central attack. McBride's prowess in the air cannot be ignored. He tired noticeably against Peru after missing four days of training and the Haiti match, but he won balls in the air and displayed greater upper-body strength thanks to vigorous offseason work. "I was four days doing nothing," he said of his run-up to the Peru game. "Anytime you do that, you're not going to be sharp at this level." The Kirovski conundrum. Coaches come and go, but the puzzlement over how to classify and utilize Kirovski persists. Former coach Steve Sampson could never decide where to play Kirovski. Arena's comments echo similar concerns. A headed goal against Haiti set against a plain backdrop of deft touches and few bold moves didn't provide answers. "He's what I call a tweener," said Arena. "He's half-forward, half-midfielder, and whether there's a right way of balancing that with our team remains to be seen. "He's a good player. He's 23 years old. We need to think about there's an upside to his game. He's taking baby steps. He needs to think, act and smell like a forward." Back-line boogaloo. A minute after Brown came on to form a four-man back line against Colombia, the U.S. lost possession in its own third, and Bedoya slammed home a spectacular equalizer after brushing past Chris Armas. Said Colombia head coach Luis Garcia: "When the United States substituted Cobi Jones for a fourth defender, we decided to pressure them in their defensive third, and we instructed several players to push up, because we felt we could keep the ball in their defensive third." Arena started two different sets of three-man back lines against Haiti and Peru, then opted to deploy Jeff Agoos (left), Robin Fraser (center) and Eddie Pope (right) against Colombia. "I think we did a pretty good job of moving and sliding and covering each other, even with even numbers sometimes," said Fraser. "We don't necessarily try to play with a free player. We don't mind going even [numbers] in the back if we can get pressure on the ball." Colombia burst through the U.S. midfield on several occasions, and Peru's best opportunity resulted when Abel Lobaton cut inside Brown, playing right back in a four-man back line, and fired a low shot that Brad Friedel stretched to save. Brown plays man-marker for the Fire and has yet to gain the experience to play in a zonal system for the national team. Greg Vanney, blessed with good speed and a strong left foot, is progressing steadily but slowly. The Westlake Village boys. Once again, Jones was pressed into service at forward in the Gold Cup, and he responded with a fine breakaway goal against Haiti. From the right flank, he knifed into the middle to head home the goal versus Peru. And he caused the most danger in the finale with Colombia. He sharpened his touches from game to game, and he has scored three superb goals this year with crisp finishes. His first 119 internationals produced only eight goals. "Cobi's been pretty good for us the year and a half I've been on the job," said Arena. "His best position is probably out on the right. He's very fit and confident right now." His childhood buddy, Wynalda, slogged through his first two Gold Cup games, then displayed a few flashes against Colombia by linking smartly with Lewis. "I was able to help us today because I do have some experience in games like this, and I know what to do and how to react. "But I need to get my speed back and I've just got to start playing better." Said Arena: "I was very happy with Wynalda today. He turned a corner." As a team, though, the U.S. broke down short of its destination, with a bus full of passengers anxious for their next trip. by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney
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