World Cup 2006 update

By Alun Thomas

   The capitulation of the United States soccer team in Germany at the World Cup has left many fans, commentators and observers bitterly frustrated and disappointed in a team that was supposed to seriously challenge the upper hierachy of football's superpowers at the month long tournament. Instead the USA fell apart from the onset, losing to the Czech Republic 3-0 in a shocking display, before a battling 1-1 draw with Italy that left them in position to qualify for the second round. All they needed was to beat Ghana and hope Italy defeated the Czechs. Italy held their part of the bargain up. The USA did not. In scenes similar to the 1998 debacle where the US lost all three matches, recriminations and public outbursts tore the side apart. The sad thing is I predicted it just days before the World Cup kicked off, that the US would not progress past the group stage. After watching them for the last three years it was all too apparent.

   After the team gave up against the Czechs and turned in one of the worst showings of the whole event thus far, everyone was genuinely surprised and venting anger, particularly the ESPN studio analysts Eric Wynalda and Alexi Lalas, both ex US World Cup veterans. They were justified. The hype surrounding this team has been on overload for four years, since the 2002 World Cup where the US made the quarter finals, obviously a chance occurence. I've watched almost every game the US has played over the last three years, friendlies, World Cup qualifiers and never been convinced this team is truly world class. They are not a natural goalscoring side and have no identity on the world stage.  Challenged when it counted, this came to life, as there was no shape, abject performances from supposed stars like Landon Donovan and Demarcus Beasley and little creativity. They looked like a schoolboy side thrown on a pitch, happy to kick the ball up the field and hope.

   Coach Bruce Arena has come in for the most abuse, and his employment of a 4-5-1 formation was bizzare. One forward in such an event is automatic failure and lone striker Brian McBride in the opening two games cut a lonely figure as the service given his way simply did not exist. The excuse that the dubious penalty awarded to Ghana that cost them the match is not enough to blame on their elimination. They had the whole second half to reply and never looked like scoring again after Clint Dempsey notched their only team goal, their goal in the Italy match coming from an own goal. The most telling sign that they had no idea what they were doing, or any purpose came during that second half against Ghana, when fighting for the World Cup lives they kept passing the ball back instead of pushing up and attacking, the urgency they needed invisible.

  A simple cross appeared too difficult, or a consistent passing movement. The problems come from the Americans not fielding consistent sides over the last few years, playing too many weak oppenents and sadly being techincally inferior to sides who understand the game of soccer. When the US lost 4-1 to Germany in a friendly a few months before the World Cup one sensed they were out of their depth. It's a shame they had to be exposed as badly as they were, setting soccer in this country back yet again. The support has been there in droves unlike previous years, so the public rage demonstrated after the exit is something not seen before. It's hard for me to be sullen and letdown as I saw it coming a while ago.

   The brutal truth is the US were perhaps the poorest and most disorganised side in their own way. True Costa Rica, Serbia and Montenegro and Togo all went home in worse fashion, losing all three matches, but they showed flashes of structure. Watching the US you sensed they never had a clue how to break their opponents down and were never likely to score. The draw with Italy was an admirable effort, but to only have to win one game to advance they proved what underachievers they still are. Aside from this the tournament has been watchable and enjoyable for the most part, with the semi finals about to kick off it can only improve. The glut of yellow cards and relatively low goalscoring has been a minor blight, but hasn't dampened the spirit of the event.

   It's even encouraging to see the uneducated US sport fan involving themselves in the passion of the World Cup. The naysayers will always be there in stale fashion, but to see those around me watching for the first time is a positive sign. It's about time. When I came here I knew next to nothing about baseball and the NFL. I've gown to learn the sports and enjoy them as much as soccer. I often wonder why Americans cannot do the same with soccer. Nothing stopped me from cheering for the US despite their pitiful effort. Hopefully the excellent work Bruce Arena has put in during the  last eight years is not wasted because of it.