Friday, June 11, 2010
USA aim to exorcise demons of '06
Jeff Carlisle, Pretoria
Redemption is a concept that doesn't easily lend itself to World Cups. The tournament happens every four years, and while the collective memory of fans is long, the natural turnover of players and coaches means the "We'll get 'em next time" mentality doesn't necessarily work. For many of the participants, there is no "next time".
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Yet for eight current members of the USA national team, a second chance - and in some cases a third - is precisely what they're getting. In 2006, USA entered the World Cup with high - some would say wildly inflated - expectations. The Americans were coming off an inspired run to the quarter-finals in 2002, and the inclination to think that progress is always linear meant that a similar or even better showing was expected.
The team didn't even come close.
A brutal draw saw USA thrown in with Czech Republic, Ghana and eventual champions Italy, and the Americans ended up finishing last in their group. Adding to the team's angst was the reality that most of the breaks went against them. The best performance, a gutsy 1-1 draw against Italy, was tempered by the knowledge that had the team not incurred two red cards, a better result might have been achieved. In the final match, against Ghana, defender Oguchi Onyewu was whistled for a dubious penalty that proved to be the difference in a 2-1 defeat.
"In 2002 it was awesome, and everybody talked about it for four years," said USA defender Steve Cherundolo, who is participating in his third World Cup. "And they were excited to get to the next World Cup because the experience was so amazing. In 2006 we were disappointed and I've been kicking myself in the ass for the last four years."
Yet not every player is choosing to drink from this motivational well. Onyewu, for one. "I don't really think about  at all," he said. "I'm just trying to prepare myself as much as possible for the upcoming matches."
Midfielder Landon Donovan, who endured a thoroughly forgettable tournament in '06, is a bit more willing to talk about past mistakes. The three-time World Cup participant engaged in plenty of introspection and dissection of what transpired in 2006, but these days he's focused on the task at hand.
"Indirectly [those memories] are spurring me on, but I don't think about it anymore," he said.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is midfielder Clint Dempsey, who is only too happy to recall 2006. He was the only USA player to score in the tournament, and parlayed his "positive experience" into a move to the Premier League.
But while not everyone uses the past as motivation, this band of brothers agrees that 2006 delivered some harsh yet valuable lessons, and the process of learning from those experiences and passing them on to the rest of the squad may result in a different outcome in 2010.
Among the bigger realisations was that the difference between advancement and early elimination is impossibly thin. This was true in 2002, when South Korea's victory over Portugal in the final game of the group stage allowed USA to sneak into the second round. Anything less would have resulted in the Americans' elimination. In 2006, it was the penalty against Ghana that sealed USA's fate.
"I think if that call [against Ghana] changes, we have a really good shot of advancing to the second round," said defender Carlos Bocanegra. "But the big teams and the top teams in these tournaments, they don't put themselves in those situations to have a penalty be called on them or be taken advantage of in certain situations. That's the thing I think we've learned from and we can look at. Just those little mental errors, we can't afford to have anymore."
There are off-field lessons to be applied as well. The World Cup brings a level of attention and scrutiny that is unrivalled for most players, especially those experiencing the tournament for the first time.
"There's a ton of distractions for us guys leading up to the first game," Cherundolo said. "Those are the types of things that can take the focus off of what's really important, and that's concentrating on what our job is day in and day out: Getting good practices in, just concentrating on the soccer because at the end of the day, it's 90 minutes of soccer that's going to make people talk about us for a long time or not. It's such a good opportunity, it's a waste to be distracted or nervous. It's my job to explain that to the other guys."
Yet it's up to veterans like Bocanegra, Donovan and Dempsey to step up their games. Only by leading the team at both ends of the field will the demons of 2006 be truly banished.
Fortunately, USA look to be headed in that direction. The entire team has benefitted from a more arduous schedule of tournaments and friendly matches, including last summer's Confederations Cup. Donovan believes that his experiences over the last four years have him primed for the kind of World Cup everyone expected four years ago, an impression that has only been reinforced over the last six months.
"I'm prepared for this moment," Donovan said. "I wasn't prepared in 2006. When you feel this prepared, you don't worry about, 'Is it going to go right on the day? Is this going to happen or is that going to happen?' I know I'm going to play well on Saturday."
Dempsey added: "I was a fringe player last go-round. This time I have more responsibility on my shoulders. I enjoy that and look forward to standing up and being counted in the World Cup."
If that's the case, the veterans of 2006 may find redemption whether they're looking for it or not.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the USA national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at email@example.com.