Monday, January 23, 2006
A shaky start
After the U.S. tied Canada in a colorless shutout, coach Bruce Arena was as direct as ever when assessing his team's effort.
"Good question," he responded when asked which of his players showed well during the game, in which a young, but well-prepared Canadian team looked like it had the better of the play and the goal-scoring chances all night.
However, Arena cautioned against reading too much into the form of the American team, pointing out their long layoff from games, since the players are in the middle of their offseason.
It's a World Cup year, though, and U.S. fans, like Arena himself, are trying to determine which players are worthy of a spot on the roster to Germany. Yet few helped their cause in the Canada game.
Frankie Hejduk: Arena probably expected what he got from Hejduk in the match, nonstop effort, a spray of strange passes, dogged defense and an opportunistic spark. It was Hejduk who dared to unleash a hard outside shot that was probably the best chance the U.S. had on the night. The low ball forced an awkward save from Greg Sutton, Canada's 6'6 goalkeeper.
Heath Pearce: In his first start, the left back was an intriguing mix of positives and negatives. He displayed decent speed and athleticism, but his inexperience on the international level showed through as well. In the first half, for example, he misjudged badly a ball coming into the box, and the result was a clear shot on goal that Canada managed to put over the bar.
Landon Donovan: The midfield lacked cohesiveness all night, and the U.S. playmaker was often chasing the ball. He improved in the second half, making passes to teammates to create opportunities, but never imposed himself on the game.
"We would have liked to see Landon around the ball more," admitted Arena. "Obviously, he's a little bit of a marked man."
Clint Dempsey: The midfielder was active frequently, but often to little effect. Dempsey was an example of a player who was perhaps afflicted with the pressure of the moment. He was muscled off the ball on more than one occasion, though he managed to put himself in situations that gave him chances. In the second half he was played into the box with only the goalkeeper to beat on a deft entry pass by Donovan. Yet Dempsey's first touch betrayed him, as the ball went too far forward, and Sutton claimed it.
Brian Ching: In the target forward role, Ching failed to offer a consistent physical presence that the midfielders could rely on to win passes and hold the ball or make plays on goal. Of the three forwards in the front line, he seemed to contribute the least. He did earn a couple of corners for his team and had one decent header caught by the goalkeeper.
Jimmy Conrad: Arena singled both his centerbacks out for praise. Conrad deserved his share, tracking back well to win balls and rob Canada's forwards of opportunities. Due to the quick counterattack of the opposition, though, Conrad hung back a bit, cheating to his own half of the field, and contributing little to the attack.
Ben Olsen: He put in a decent effort, battling in the midfield, and providing defensive cover on plays. Though he was seemed to get beaten by the speedier Canadians to second chance balls, Arena noted dryly that Olsen's chances of making the Germany roster have improved partly because of the rash of injuries plaguing those competing for the holding midfield spot.
"He's in the mix," stated Arena. "We have other players for that position that happen to be injured -- [Claudio] Reyna, [John] O'Brien, plus [Pablo] Mastroeni. If they keep going down, [Olsen's] chances are going to look really good."
Josh Wolff: Of the starting forwards, he was the most productive, moving well off the ball and making good passes. He also showed that he was the one forward capable of advancing the ball in the attacking third even while under pressure. His dribble skills kept the U.S. alive on several second chances.
Taylor Twellman: The skills that make Twellman such a threat in MLS simply do not reveal themselves on the international level. Part of the problem was his lack of service from the struggling midfield, but his inability to move into space or run at defenders was mostly to blame.
Twellman had one nearly forty-yard run to the top of the box as a startled Canadian defense scrambled to cover the layoff pass. Twellman wound up for the shot himself, however, taking advantage of the open space between him and the goal. He then blasted the shot way high. It's just unforgivable that a player who offers finishing skills as his best asset cannot put an open shot from that spot on frame.
Eddie Pope: While not the dominant showing of his younger days, Pope turned in an assured and organized outing. He teamed well with Conrad to provide a solid defensive core on a night when other areas on the field appeared shaky.
Matt Reis: It almost seemed a cruel irony that the best performance of the night was turned in from one of the few positions that the U.S. suffers from something of an embarrassment of riches.
"He was called upon to make a big save on De Rosario's breakaway," noted Arena. "I thought Matt did well."
"He was a calming influence in the back," agreed Conrad. "He did a very good job coming off his line and rescuing us a few times."
Eddie Johnson: The forward displayed the speed and tactical awareness to give Canada's backline problems. During his short time on the field, the U.S. movement and play quickened and looked dangerous.
Johnson's touch was his weak suit, and his one rushed shot on goal lacked the power he usually takes the time to generate. Just when the second-half sub looked like he was working himself into the game, though, he was hurt.
"He's been working so hard to get back," explained Conrad. "For him to only get a few minute of meaningful soccer tonight is disappointing to him and us as a team."
Johnson's injury was given the early diagnosis of calf contusion -- a painful condition, but one that he should be able to recover from in time for the team's next game.
Chris Klein: It's possible that Klein could receive a "good sport" pass for his effort, as the normally right-sided midfielder played in the defense for the first time in his career. He did well to stop a few plays, especially since De Rosario was charging up the line often to give him problems. However, it was his marking error that allowed De Rosario's breakaway in the second half, forcing Reis into his impressive save.
Kerry Zavagnin: Considering he was a recent entry to the training camp, Zavagnin did well to keep his play simple and effective. Nothing was spectacular, but the logical pass and decent ball control were on exhibition during his time on the field. Zavagnin had one poor giveaway of the ball in the U.S. half that gifted Canada an opportunity, but he recovered well from the mistake to turn in a solid effort.
"I thought Kerry Zavagnin did a good job," praised Arena.
Freddy Adu: Besides making history as the youngest player ever to earn a cap, Freddy had one spectacular move in the midfield to shake his mark, earning applause from the crowd. He also went down poorly in the box, earning a yellow card from referee Benito Archundia. Though Arena admitted that Adu would not have seen the field that day if it were not for Johnson's injury, the coach allowed that the prodigy "did fine" in his ten minutes of action.
Chris Rolfe: He had trouble winning balls to create plays, but once the ball was at his feet, Rolfe displayed both speed and skill, flicking passes to open men and putting defenders on their heels with his runs. He was better at linking up with others when he had the ball to distribute. Without it, he wandered -- and his teammates had trouble finding him with passes.
As a whole, the team displayed the negative factors of rust from lack of play, unfamiliarity with each other, and perhaps, the pressure of knowing how few spots are available on the World Cup lineup.
"There's room for improvement," stated Conrad. "It's the first meaningful game since November for many of us. We have a lot of games ahead."
Though few players could have helped their cause in a game such as this, Arena was willing to be patient with his team, at least for this match.
"It's January, and you can't worry about it. You know coming into games like this knowing that they're not going to be real good, and you hope they're not real bad. They were right in-between. Next week, it's got to be better than it was today."
One thing that was clear is that the match did not reveal anyone who should be penciled in early for a World Cup slot. The team's most united effort was in appearing unspectacular as a whole.
"I don't think we had any bad performances." Arena defended his players. "I just don't think we had anybody that stepped up and made the difference that could have helped us win the game."
That's actually what the team will need in Germany, especially given their difficult group. The jitters being worked out only works as an excuse once. In the next game, Arena and U.S. soccer fans will look for those players both capable and willing to stamp their mark on the action.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org