Thursday, September 8, 2005
Experimental lineup provides no answers
Groups of very competent players around the world play hundreds of games together, yet often still struggle to score goals. The team which the U.S. sent to face Guatemala Wednesday, then, accomplished much in playing to a 0-0 tie. With seven players making their first World Cup qualifying start, the U.S. spent much of the night trying to establish communication and understanding, qualities which require time to develop.
Nor is it fair to judge this performance, since it seemed more like an experiment than a competition. The late addition of Landon Donovan illustrated just how much one key player could change the dynamic of the team. Before Donovan entered, the U.S. lacked direction. This was not so much the fault of Clint Dempsey or Santino Quaranta; both likely would have thrived with Donovan in the lineup from the start. And, late in the match, when the game really began to open up, fatigue began to affect Dempsey. This was another factor in evaluating the U.S. players. Nearly everyone seemed too concerned with displaying an all-out hustle attitude to impress coach Bruce Arena, so you could not easily predict if these players could patiently break down an opponent, get in position to counterattack, slow the pace of the game, dominate possession.
Among the axioms of sport, or at least soccer, is that it is easier to destroy than to create. So, for the U.S. defense to function well was unsurprising. Marcus Hahnemann seems like an excellent shot-stopper, but it was difficult to know if he is that poor at clearances or was simply being expedient by slamming the ball into no-man's land, with no regard to the U.S. forwards who were attempting to control his long punts. Guatemala coach Ramon Maradiaga observed patiently until the late going, then inserted one of his few wild cards, Edwin Villatoro, who hit the post in the 90th minute. Without Carlos Ruiz, the Chapines did not figure on making much of a dent in the U.S. defense, so they attempted to be patient and selective in their offensive thrusts. Maradiaga said fourth place in qualifying will not be determined until Oct. 12, the final day of the tournament, so Guatemala is concerned just with maintaining the faith and remaining in contention, then bringing back their heavyweights -- Ruiz and, possibly, Dwight Pezzarossi -- for a final showdown.
Yet, the U.S. could have won this match had Eddie Johnson finished a sequence involving Taylor Twellman and Donovan in the 81st minute. The U.S. created enough chances with this group of players to be encouraged. Jeff Cunningham, Dempsey and Twellman were on the doorstep a couple of times. If this group had been chosen to represent the U.S. in the qualifying series, they might have succeeded, though not with in the same commanding way as the first-teamers.
In fact, the U.S. and Mexico are so dominant in the region that there should be some consideration of requiring both to send "B" teams to some matches, in order to avoid a meaningless conclusion to qualifying. Mexico already seems to do this with self-imposed restrictions, such as not using Cuauhtemoc Blanco. It is really difficult to predict how the U.S.-Panama game in Foxborough Oct. 12 will be received, since there is nothing at stake for either nation, the Canaleros long since eliminated and some of their best players suspended or likely to be excluded from this game after a 5-0 loss to Mexico.
The U.S. is unaccustomed to being in such a position of strength. Arena has motivated the team, and organized and planned this campaign well. Now, Arena has some time to plan for the future. This is something of a luxury, but Arena appears capable of trying out players and obtaining results; not an easy task, but this does illustrate just how far the U.S. has come since the MLS started.
In January 1997, Steve Sampson called in a mostly-MLS team for friendlies on the West Coast and in China. The U.S. struggled mightily in those matches. Now, the U.S. can play competitive games with an all-MLS team and achieve results.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.com