Arena's experiment went awry

March 30, 2005
GalarcepBy Ives Galarcep
(Archive)

The first thing you noticed was the heavy breathing.

After Sunday's World Cup qualifier between the Mexican national team and the United States, American players could be heard taking in labored breaths as they faced the media. Mexican players didn't have that problem. They smiled, bragged and walked like players who had no trouble dealing with the lung-busting altitude that had their opponents gasping for air.

So was it really the altitude that cost the Americans their first victory at Azteca Stadium? It certainly didn't help but, in the final analysis, the leading candidate for blame after last Sunday is none other than Bruce Arena. Yes, the same man who put on a coaching clinic against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup had a stinker Sunday, on the same day when his counterpart, Ricardo LaVolpe, had a masterful performance.

From the decision to start Eddie Johnson as a lone forward to the decision to start a four-man back-line that had never played a game together before Sunday, Arena's decisions made Mexico's job much easier on a day when the Mexicans didn't need much help.

Arena knows he could have done better. The fact that he was willing to acknowledge that the Johnson-as-lone-forward strategy wasn't a wise one spoke volumes. Yes, the players are the ones on the field, but the American players were following instructions that left them confused and unable to respond to Mexico's strategy.

LaVolpe's strategy was viciously clever. He was aware that the U.S. back-line was without its best leader, Eddie Pope, and its most fit defender, right back Frankie Hejduk. He knew Arena would start a set of fullbacks, Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo, who have some good skills going forward but some limitations defensively.

What does LaVolpe do? He has his team sit back for the first 25 minutes, watching the Americans move the ball around and expend energy without ever really threatening to score. After that initial period, LaVolpe sends the dangerous Jared Borgetti right at the central defense and then overloads both wings with extra attackers. Cherundolo and Bocanegra were overwhelmed, wingers Landon Donovan and Eddie Lewis spent more time helping the defense than attacking, and central defenders Gregg Berhalter and Oguchi Onyewu were completely confused as they juggled trying to contain Borgetti and helping contain the overloaded wings.

The U.S. team finally got going once the Mexican attackers tired in the second half, and pulled a goal back, but once LaVolpe subbed in three fresh sets of speedy legs, all realistic hope of stealing a point from Azteca was lost.

What could have Arena done differently? Taking the attack to the Mexicans with an offensive-minded lineup and formation would have helped. Sure, there would have been some risk of burning the U.S. team out early but that seemed to have happened anyway.

Would the Americans have won if Arena had enjoyed a better day and had a more successful preparation? They might not have considering how disciplined, dynamic and inspired the Mexicans were. But a stronger showing from the winningest coach in American history certainly would have kept the U.S. team from looking like the bumbling mess it looked like for stretches on Sunday.

What matters now is that Arena recovers and puts together a lineup and strategy to defeat a red-hot Guatemala. Arena's adversary tonight is Ramon Maradiaga, one of the region's best and most underrated coaches. Maradiaga already has a World Cup qualifying win on American soil under his belt, in 2001 with Honduras, so Arena will have his work cut out. Guatemala is on a roll after its 5-1 thrashing of Trinidad & Tobago, but the Americans still have the weapons to secure a home victory, as long as Arena doesn't decide to experiment again.

The worst of times for Landon

The days of being showered in champagne and kissing an MLS Cup seem so far away for Landon Donovan. In the same week he gave up on his second stint in Europe, Donovan endured a disappointing game in his most important national team match since his inspired performance against Germany at the 2002 World Cup.

So what should we make of his quick exit from Bayer Leverkusen and return to MLS? Donovan said repeatedly last weekend that his greatest concern was having a starting role in order to be in top form for the national team. That sounds noble enough but feels more like a cop out.

Are we really supposed to believe that Donovan jumped ship from Bayer in order to be in form for two World Cup qualifiers (against Costa Rica and Panama in June)? Donovan could have continued to battle for playing time at Bayer until the summer transfer window opened up, and then made a transfer move. He could have but he didn't. Instead, he jumped ship to return to MLS, where he practically sleepwalked through the 2004 regular season. The assumption is that he will be happy in Los Angeles, near his family and friends. But what if Steve Sampson drives him crazy? What if things don't go well? Will he deal with the adversity or will he simply request another move?

Donovan's return makes you wonder if he has the mental makeup to get the most out of his game. He seems to be more concerned with comfort than with making himself he best player he can be. All Donovan had to do was look across the field on Sunday to see someone who gets it. Rafael Marquez, the Mexican captain, made the bold move to Spanish champion Barcelona. After struggling for a place early on, Marquez eventually had a breakthrough at the Nou Camp and has now emerged as a vital player on a team full of superstars.

Donovan could have done the same with Bayer, if he had given himself the chance.

Ives Galarcep covers soccer for ESPN.com and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (NJ). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com