U.S. short of invention against Morocco

May 24, 2006
CarlisleBy Jeff Carlisle
(Archive)

If U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena were to have picked a theme song for Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Morocco, it would have been Alice Cooper's "Welcome To My Nightmare." Okay, maybe that's overstating it a bit, but it's close.

Convey
WireImage / Donn JonesSubstitute Bobby Convey nearly tied the score with a free kick in stoppage time.

One can talk all day about Arena's decision to play a 4-3-3 formation, the wisdom of starting Josh Wolff ahead of Clint Dempsey, or the fact that the match was a meaningless friendly designed to prepare the team for what lies ahead. But the sight of Claudio Reyna hobbling off with a right hamstring strain after a mere 15 minutes put all those issues firmly into the background, and it's bound to give Arena some sleepless nights the next few weeks.

The exact extent of Reyna's injury remains to be seen, and after the game, the Manchester City midfielder said he's hoping he has, "gotten away with something very minor." Arena and the rest of the squad will be praying that is the case because one only had to witness how the Yanks huffed and puffed against a resolute and organized Morocco side to realize just how much they need Reyna on the field. Although Pablo Mastroeni filled in admirably for the U.S. captain, the team's lack of ideas and poor execution in the final third are areas where Reyna no doubt would have helped.

Granted, Morocco's game plan of getting 10 men behind the ball as often as possible won't be replicated by Italy or the Czech Republic. But you also can bet the house that if the Italians find themselves on June 17 with a one-goal lead late in the game, they'll be perfectly content to soak up pressure just like Morocco did.

And based on this match, Italy (or Ghana or the Czech Republic) won't be too troubled by what it saw. Simply put, there were only a few occasions when the Americans moved the ball with the kind of speed and precision they'll need to break down their Group E opponents. Even then, the home side found itself reduced to half chances.

More often than not, the slow pace of the U.S. attack allowed the Morocco defense plenty of time to set up, which allowed the Moroccans to pounce on U.S. players who at times were surprisingly unwary.

And it wasn't just the MLS players who got caught in possession. Foreign-based players such as Brian McBride dawdled on the ball, as well. That's why as painful as it was to watch Reyna's early exit, the woeful performance of the U.S. in the offensive third was just as troubling.

DaMarcus Beasley, for all his excellent work on the defensive side of the ball, was rarely dangerous. Wolff looked far from comfortable in his role on the right flank and was noticeably more active when he was moved up top in the second half. Landon Donovan, despite going on some of his trademark runs, seemed indecisive when he got close to goal, regardless whether he opted to pass or shoot.

What's worse is that the subs weren't any better. Bobby Convey showed flashes, but nothing more. Dempsey never really got going in his brief stint, and Eddie Johnson's lack of sharpness in front of goal was readily apparent.

No doubt some will blame the Americans' tepid performance on the unfamiliar 4-3-3 formation Arena trotted out in the first half, but this is a cop-out of the highest order. One could argue that the difference between Tuesday's 4-3-3 and the 4-4-2 Arena normally employs is a matter of perception.

Given the extent to which Beasley and Wolff were tracking back, it could be argued that they played much like flank midfielders in a 4-4-2. Donovan operated mostly out of midfield, but left most of the defensive responsibility to the likes of Mastroeni and John O'Brien, allowing him to cheat forward. The bottom line is that the roles the players were asked to fill were familiar enough that it shouldn't have been an issue.

Fitness is another excuse being offered, but the fact is that after the opening 25 minutes, the U.S. had a firm grip on the game that the Americans maintained until the dying seconds.

Instead, the question this game raises is the same one brought forth before training camp. Namely, will this team be able to score enough goals to get past the group stage? As of this moment, it's a question still unresolved.

That said, there were some bright spots. That oft-injured O'Brien made it through the first half unscathed was cause to break out the champagne. Some rust remains, but the U.S. attack looked a great deal more cohesive with him on the field and O'Brien's performance was a step in the right direction.

With Eddie Pope and Oguchi Onyewu anchoring the back line, the defense looked solid, even though Steve Cherundolo's ghastly giveaway set the table for Mohamed Madihi's late winner. Still, given the lack of enterprise showed by Morocco during the match, it's debatable just what conclusions can be drawn about the U.S. defense. And that's a situation that isn't likely to change against the likes of Venezuela and Latvia.

For now, Arena's primary focus will be to get his attack in gear. Otherwise, Tuesday's nightmare will be a recurring one.

Player ratings:

Kasey Keller, 5 -- Had little to do, other than pick the ball out of his net. Almost looked as though he was caught guessing on Madihi's game-winning shot, but did well to stop Nabil Mesloub's 80th-minute drive.

Steve Cherundolo, 4 -- Marred an otherwise solid performance with a terrible error that saw Bouchaib El Moubarki rob him of the ball deep in the U.S. end, which led to the game's only goal. Got forward well, but his crosses were well off the mark.

Eddie Pope, 6 -- The Real Salt Lake center back solidified his hold on a starting spot, breaking up numerous plays and generally providing a commanding presence in the back.

Oguchi Onyewu, 5.5 -- Still the leading candidate to start alongside Pope, although his penchant for conceding free kicks around the box is a bit worrying.

Cory Gibbs, 5 -- Didn't play badly, but Charlton defender didn't look comfortable, either. Gibbs defended well, but it's clear Eddie Lewis offers much more in attack.

Claudio Reyna, NR -- A hamstring injury ended his night after just 15 minutes.

John O'Brien, 5.5 -- Showed his worth in a solid 45-minute performance. Nearly sprung Donovan in the first half with a deft chip, but there were also times he didn't play the ball quickly enough.

Landon Donovan, 5 -- Nearly scored with an 81st minute blast, but appeared hesitant around the box. For a player striving to be the best U.S. player on the field, Donovan fell short in this game.

Josh Wolff, 4 -- Just doesn't have the look of a flank player. Fortunately for him, no one else in the attack did enough to supplant him.

Brian McBride, 4 -- If Tuesday is indicative of the kind of service McBride will be getting in June, then it's going to be a long World Cup for the Fulham forward. That said, he didn't really do much else in this game to distinguish himself.

DaMarcus Beasley, 4.5 -- Struggled with his touch at times, and still seems well short of the form that saw him torment Mexico last August. But his effort on the defensive end was exemplary.

Subs:

Pablo Mastroeni, 6.5 -- Filled in capably for Reyna, stifling many attacks while launching a few of his own. Seemed to fare better alongside O'Brien.

Bobby Convey, 5 -- Another player whose crosses were off, although he nearly tied the score in stoppage time with a swerving free kick that was just wide.

Eddie Johnson, 3.5 -- Still seems to be a shadow of the player who burst on the international scene 18 months ago. His snap header from a Donovan corner kick was one of the better U.S. chances on the night.

Clint Dempsey, 4.5 -- Did little to stake his claim to a starting spot, although the packed Moroccan defense offered him little opportunity to take players on.

Brian Ching, NR -- Barely touched the ball, but did win the free kick from which Convey nearly scored.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com