USA in Germany

By Ridge Mahoney
Senior Editor, Soccer America Magazine

U.S. Soccer is in the midst of a critical self-examination following the national team's first-round ouster at the World Cup. It has much more to ponder than simply what happened during three games in June.

The forlorn faces strewn through the plazas and streets of Nuremberg the night of June 22 starkly revealed the confirmed fears of many U.S. fans: We're not good enough.

Landon Donovan had declared the U.S. good enough to compete, even against tough European teams like the Czech Republic and Italy and African debutant Ghana, whose prowess at youth levels had finally translated into a World Cup appearance.

Thousands of Americans had traveled to Germany to follow the team, which had been expensively and extensively prepared by U.S. Soccer. The largest U.S. media contingent, by far, accompanied the team to Hamburg. The primary objective, advancing to the round of 16, while daunting, seemed doable.

The net result was one point and a blistering barrage of critiques and recriminations: American players are too small, the squad is too old, the USA played too defensively, the USA should have bunkered in and played for counters like in 2002, MLS doesn't prepare players for the World Cup, U.S. Soccer isn't developing enough good players fast enough, Bruce Arena is an idiot.

Even Arena got a chuckle out of the last one, stating it straight-out at a final press conference the day after losing to Ghana. Also on hand was midfielder Claudio Reyna to officially close down his long, storied and misunderstood U.S. career.

Much went wrong in Germany, and within the Reyna-Arena relationship can be found a few germinations of why this happened.

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.

In the case of veterans Reyna, Eddie Pope and Brian McBride and young players like DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, the voices of experience went mighty quiet.

Contrast this to the constant shouting among the French players on the field and as they left the locker room after halftime as they brought themselves back into the tournament. Three times in the first half of the Portugal semifinals, veteran players admonished 23-year-old Franck Ribery to get him into the match as fiercely as they were. Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira weren't nattering amiably. They were jawing at each other. That's what competitors do.

Prior to the tournament, Donovan said everyone had to take responsibility.

''The thing we don't have that we did four years ago is as many clear leaders,'' he said. ''That's one issue that will probably sort itself out.''

But it didn't.

Aside from a spirited half against Italy, in which the Americans proved they can indeed compete with the best players, even while a man down, 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.

As team captain, Reyna commanded great respect. To a man, his teammates cited him as their best player. When things went sour and nobody else stepped forth, his job was to do so, despite lacking the personality to scream and swear, cajole and carp. His team needed a larger, louder, more forceful presence when times went bad, and once it was clear the younger guys weren't up to the task, O captain, where art thou?

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. A few players who did play turned out to be dead weight, too.

In his final press conference, Arena 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 later. Otherwise, why bring him along?

Arena gambled on taking John O'Brien but only used him for 45 minutes against the Czechs. O'Brien's craftiness and skill were desperately needed when Reyna went off against Ghana, but Arena inserted Ben Olsen instead. And Olsen hustled and worked, as he always does. But something else was needed.

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. Johnson wasn't ready, and off this showing he may never be. Taking Johnson was worth the gamble, but it didn't pay off.

The tournament can be seen as a microcosm of what has befallen him. Inserted as a sub for the second half against the Czech Republic, Johnson threatened a few times and took a pair of good shots. Reviews of his effort were favorable.

Yet he didn't get on the field against Italy. Certainly, conditions were chaotic with three players sent off, but despite a lengthy warm-up Arena elected not to use him. Arena then left it very late to use Johnson against Ghana, and he did zilch.

Cynics may say Johnson's impressive start to his national team career - eight goals in his first eight games - was borne of weak competition. Yet he's been watched by European scouts for several years. They've seen strength, speed and a hunger to score goals. Those elements aren't guarantees of success at the top level, yet they are certainly prerequisites as teams shop for that prized acquisition who can stick balls into the net.

Maybe MLS erred by signing him to a lucrative contract that has dulled his ambition. His personal life, never a tranquil one, has been complicated by the birth of his child. A lackluster tournament probably snuffed a permanent European move for now, since his price is high and his value is low, but he can build his stock back up once the MLS season is over. With the next World Cup so far away, he has a prime opportunity to go on loan.

Finally, there's the case of Donovan. He wasn't exactly dead weight, but neither was he ''the man'' he proclaimed himself ready to be. A stint in Europe might imbue the steel and fight he needs, but U.S. Soccer can't count on this happening.

At 24, he needs much more than the Colorado Rapids and an occasional trip to Mexico City. He wasn't bold enough at the 2006 World Cup. Where were the looping runs of a few years ago that got in behind defenders, or the bursts to take on an outside back? A slalom here, a one-two there, but no shots on goal in the entire tournament.

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

TACTICS. Arena's 4-5-1 formation took a lot of abuse, of course, since a knee-jerk reaction is to deride it as defensive. Well, the Czechs used it to tear through the Americans. Italy's goalscoring increased when it began playing with Luca Toni alone up top, and Portugal's use of the formation enabled it to send Luis Figo, Deco and Cristiano Ronaldo into the attack simultaneously. With the outside players pushed up high, the formation resembles a 4-3-3.

Arena isn't the first coach to point out that players, not systems, win games. Application supersedes formation. If the wide players and attacking midfielder are stifled, attacks bog down, as the USA quite tepidly demonstrated.

The USA rarely got into a rhythm and seldom did we see the intricate stitching of runs and passes characteristic of its best moments. The cold fact is Arena, who had tried myriad formations in the Gold Cup, CONCACAF qualifiers, friendlies and warm-up matches, went to the formation not out of stubborn preconceptions but rather by his prime directive to put the best 11 players on the field.

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?

''We've got to do a better job and try to develop our elite players early, get them in better soccer environments, demanding that the leagues play an important role in developing our young players and not to just wait for them to arrive after college,'' says Arena. ''That's part of professional soccer, professional clubs. There are models, they're all over the world. We don't have that model yet. We have to develop that model in the U.S.''

A staggering amount of work needs to be done, and it may be beyond one man to handle it. A technical director, working closely not only with the national team coach but all coaches in MLS and U.S. Soccer, makes sense.

The topic of scheduling matches is complex. Next year, the Copa America falls right after the Gold Cup, the regional competition unmatched for melding fiasco with frippery. U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati is already citing the need for European-based players to rest after the Gold Cup, which is step one toward scuttling any Copa America participation.

It's not unusual for South American teams to send a young team, such as its under-23 squad, to the Copa America, and that's what the federation can do as it looks ahead to qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

The USA didn't qualify for the 2004 Olympics, and the stagnation of many young U.S. players since they competed at the 2003 Under-20 World Championship is reason enough to give this serious thought.

Anybody who thinks a few weeks in South America wouldn't toughen up Eddie Gaven, not to mention Santino Quaranta and a half-dozen others, isn't paying attention.

The USA needs more games against top teams, and if this is in the format of the old U.S. Cup tournaments, great. Yet much of U.S. Soccer's match scheduling is tied to television coverage and sometimes TV programming decisions override competitive issues.

Scheduling European teams must be done many months, if not years, in advance, and midweek games in Europe air in the United States during the daytime. But a surprising 0.63 rating for the Champions League final on ESPN2 last May shows that even a bad time slot can produce a decent rating if the match is a good one.

With the TV networks taking a more prominent role in the sport, its executives will want juicy telecasts against real teams, not CONCACAF re-runs. The USA needs to play more games in Europe and entice the top countries - or club teams? - to play on this side of the Atlantic, but the international calendar for friendly games is shrinking rather than expanding.

The new four-year cycle has already started and as the World Cup showed, in the USA it needs a kick-start.

(This article originally appeared in the August 2006 issue of Soccer America Magazine.)

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