French Lessons

Learning can be a painful process, and much of what the U.S. players were taught at the Confederations Cup they gleaned at a psychologi cal and physical price.

They scored one goal, conceded three, and didnÆt get much help from circumstance or luck playing every other day against Turkey, Brazil and Cameroon in stifling heat.

Five years after the U.S. floundered to three straight losses at the 1998 World Cup, including a crushing 2-1 defeat to Iran in the same Gerland Stadium it played Brazil and Cameroon, this crop of Americans came up short but not chagrined.

ôItÆs definitely stepped up a level playing here on European soil,ö said defender Carlos Bocanegra, who played solidly in the last two matches. ôThere was definitely a difference in the level of play from the Gold Cup last year, which was my biggest tournament until here.ö

The U.S. seldom looked the match of a Turkish team comprised mostly of younger reserves. Against Brazil, it held the ball for promising sequences and defended reasonably well, yet created only a couple of real chances. Cameroon, resting nine starters, kept a lot of players back but conjured the better opportunities, which were either squandered by Joseph-Desire Job or saved by Tim Howard, who snuffed several one-on-one showdowns and commanded action in the penalty area.

A flying save to deflect a Ronaldinho free kick bound for the top corner and a superb low dive to tip away a drive by Alex in the Brazil game typified the goalkeeper Howard has become at the ripe young age of 24.

That the U.S. has yet another in a string of fine keepers is comforting. Who can fill many of the other 10 slots in 2006 is far fuzzier.

DEFENSIVE REDESIGN. U.S. coach Bruce Arena places his primary emphasis on rebuilding the back line, which hardly dazzled at the 2002 World Cup and sprung more than a few leaks last month in France.

Tony SannehÆs age (31) and back problems open the door at right back. Eddie Pope, dean of the central defenders, will be 33 in 2006; more worrying is his lengthening list of injury layoffs. Auditions at left back continue.

Arena gave each of his seven defenders playing time. Only Greg Vanney came away with less than 90 minutes.

ôWe need to improve in the back,ö said Arena, mindful that even with Brad FriedelÆs heroics the U.S. conceded seven goals at the 2002 World Cup. ôThereÆs no question about it, and we need to look at those guys. Maybe theyÆre our future in the back. Some of our better defenders are a little old, a little injured, so we need to prepare these young guys for qualifying.ö

Against Brazil and Cameroon, two defenders upped their international value. BocanegraÆs ruggedness, aerial prowess, and pace were evident; Steve Cherundolo played with a zeal and confidence that was missing in the run-up to the 2002 World Cup. CherundoloÆs size (5-foot-6, 145 pounds) and inability to prevail in physical duels was cited by Arena last year as a shortcoming.

Faced with opponents taller and wider at the Confederations Cup, Cherundolo won a few fierce duels. Against Brazil he flighted two perfect crossfield balls to Eddie Lewis and provided Landon Donovan with a great chance by lobbing a ball over the back line.

ôThe more games you get at this level the more confident you feel,ö said Cherundolo, who earned his 13th and 14th caps. ôI definitely have more confidence and am able to take more risks.ö

Dan Califf had a rough outing against Turkey yet improved somewhat in the Cameroon game. A rash tackle on Turkish forward Okan Yilmaz underscored his inexperience. Yilmaz was already past him, and Califf had no chance of reaching the ball when he lunged as Frankie Hejduk cut across to help. When CaliffÆs foot jabbed YilmazÆs leg and the forward tumbled, HejdukÆs saving clearance was rendered moot. Yilmaz put away the penalty and just three minutes after taking the lead, the U.S. was tied, 1-1.

Just as galling to the Americans was the fact Yilmaz had brought the ball down with his upper arm before driving toward goal. It was one of several borderline calls during the tournament that went against the U.S.

ôI thought it was clearly a handball,ö said Califf. ôI think he was planning to go down from the very outset. I donÆt think it was a good call, but those happen all the time in soccer. It was a tough game. It was an initiation for a lot of us. ItÆs the first time IÆve ever played an international in Europe, and it was a little bit of a lesson. But I think weÆre the better for it, and thatÆs why this tournament is a good measuring stick.ö

BETTER AGAINST BRAZIL. Arena made three defensive changes for the Brazil game. Adriano and Ronaldinho refused to be shackled, but a much more cohesive unit limited BrazilÆs attack.

Perhaps June 21 isnÆt the right day for U.S. internationals. It was on that date in 1998 the U.S. lost to Iran, and on June 21 last year it fell to Germany, 1-0, in the World Cup quarterfinals.

Lyon staged its annual FOte de la Musique throughout the city as the U.S. ruined any lyrical passages against Brazil with a discordant moment.

Defender Gregg Berhalter dawdled on the ball long enough for Adriano to steal it and go in alone on Howard; the American keeper stopped the initial shot but couldnÆt prevent Adriano from potting the rebound.

Donovan was clipped as he tried to control a ball in the box but no foul was called; Dida snared a low shot from him to snuff another good opportunity. Brazil couldnÆt convert any of the chances it created but it snatched up a gift to win the game.

ôIt was night and day compared to the Turkey game in terms of the effort we gave and the cohesiveness and the coordination,ö said Berhalter. ôItÆs a step in the right direction. Take away my blunder [and] itÆs a 0-0 game.ö

That was the result against a Cameroon team that had already qualified for the semifinals by beating Turkey and Brazil by 1-0 scores.

If Clint Mathis is to be a goalscorer at the international level, he canÆt fluff vital touches like he did against Cameroon.

A weak shot he hit from 12 yards out begged to be slotted in a corner or simply smashed into the net. Instead, he hit a moderately paced grounder defender Pierre Njanka cleared easily. Lewis had pulled the ball back right into his path, and Mathis had a clear swing at the ball.

Late in the first half, Mathis was set free on the left by Kyle Martino as Jovan Kirovski ghosted in at the back post. MathisÆ attempt to cross Kirovski the ball wasnÆt even close.

Fatigue might excuse a poor cross in the final minutes of a tough half. As for a flaccid shot in a pressure situation, well, what is he paid to do? None of MathisÆ free kicks resembled the one that flew into the net against Honduras in San Pedro Sula more than two years ago, and few of his finishes rekindled memories of his trap and strike against South Korea in Daegu last summer.

Any scorer needs a bit of luck, and Mathis didnÆt get much. He hit a hard shot on-target that was headed off the goal line by Turkish defender Bulent Korkmaz after Alpay Ozalan had blocked his original attempt.

A flub or two hardly a failure makes, yet Mathis, like most of the MLS players, came into the Confederations Cup supposedly honed by several months of competitive play and faced three teams thought to be drained by a long European club season.

PEDESTRIAN ATTACK. Compared to the forwards the Americans faced, the U.S. attackers looked pedestrian. The dependence on Brian McBride and the role he plays was hammered home again in France as the U.S. often played balls up to a target man ill-equipped to deal with them.

Kirovski had very few good moments at the Confederations Cup, which seems to confirm he canÆt play the McBride role against good international teams. Provided with good chances against Turkey via crosses by Lewis, Kirovski headed one straight to the keeper and barely touched another to send it well wide of the goal.

ô[The] disappointing part was our forwards werenÆt as dangerous as weÆd like them to be,ö said Arena. ôWe need more pace up top. We werenÆt able to play Landon as a forward for most of the tournament.

ôI think you can see the value that McBride gives our team. We always say after every game we play without him that heÆs able to play with the big, strong center backs you see at this level. HeÆs able to hold the ball and give us advantages. We didnÆt have that type of player here.ö

And Arena doesnÆt have many of those types available, either in MLS or leagues abroad. Youngsters Edson Buddle and Conor Casey are both 6-foot-1, 170 pounds ù the same size as McBride. Buddle has one cap; Casey has none. Perhaps Ante Razov (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) can do more of the dirty work.

MIDFIELD MUDDLE. Without Claudio Reyna and John OÆBrien to spark the midfield, the U.S. attack is limited unless Donovan, Lewis or DaMarcus Beasley can play balls up to the target forward and get behind the defense.

Many of BeasleyÆs best efforts in France came from feisty defensive work. Aside from a few flashes, such as a great ball that put Mathis in behind the Turkish defense, Donovan sputtered. When Lewis did hit promising crosses to Kirovski, as occurred twice against Brazil, they were squandered.

Martino showed some dazzle before being brutally crunched in the Cameroon game. HeÆs quick, bold and dangerous, with some of OÆBrienÆs tenacity and a shade of ReynaÆs guile. With few domestic challengers, heÆs the early favorite to take a midfield playmaking role.

Pablo Mastroeni showed last summer at the World Cup he can man a holding midfield role, yet he labored at the Confederations Cup against Brazil. Armas battled as he always does, but on many occasions a Turk or Cameroonian simply muscled his way past him.

Filing it all away was Arena, who before the tournament began emphasized he was using it to observe and evaluate players against tough opposition.

ôIÆm satisfied with our participation,ö said Arena. ôIÆm not necessarily satisfied with the results. Again, I think itÆs a good experience for our new players, and hopefully they will benefit from the Confederations Cup.ö

by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney in Lyons, France

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