Monday, June 28, 2010

Opportunity Squandered

This was an opportunity squandered.  One that is unlikely to reappear in such a gift-wrapped form any time soon--like the next forty years.  In the three games of the group stage at the World Cup the United States soccer team led for a total of two minutes.  But those two minutes concluded a win over Algeria and the team finished top of Group C ahead of England.  The draw broke beautifully for them as a result.

The Americans would play Ghana in the Round of 16.  Ghana had finished second to Germany in Group D.  The winner would play the winner of Uruguay-South Korea--not the world's most-feared footballing nations.  One of these four teams would reach the last four of the World Cup.  From that point, with confidence undoubtedly running high, anything could happen.

It won't be the United States.

On Saturday in Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg the U.S. again came out flat.  But eyebrows were raised even before the team took the field.  All the lineup and tactical changes coach Bob Bradley made in the first three games worked out beautifully.  Versus Algeria he changed three starters opting to use Jonathan Bornstein in the back, Maurice Edu in the midfield and Herculez Gomez up front.  Against the Black Stars the skipper went back to Ricardo Clark over Edu in midfield and Robbie Findley instead of Gomez up front.  Questionable decisions that immediately proved costly.

Five minutes in the team again fell behind early, the third time in four matches.  Clark made a terrible give away in midfield and Ghana attacked quickly down the left side.  Central defender Jay DeMerit couldn't have played it worse.  Backing off he tried to channel the attacker, Kevin-Prince Boateng, to the inside, but got beaten badly to his right, the outside.  Boateng, whose nationality was only changed to the land of his father as opposed to the land of his birth (Germany) on May 12, got a step and ripped a left-footed drive from sixteen yards past goalkeeper Tim Howard.  Howard should have done better as well, giving up too much of the near post.  1-0 Ghana.

From there Ghana controlled the possession, but both teams looked vulnerable in the back.  Bradley recognized his lineup misjudgment and mercifully replaced Clark around the thirty minute mark.  Shortly thereafter, Robbie Findley squandered a particularly delicious opportunity and the US went to break on the wrong side of 1-0.

The second half saw a changed storyline.  Benny Feilhaber replaced Findley and the Yanks immediately seemed energized.  Feilhaber had a great chance that was well-saved, but the U.S. kept up the pressure and was soon rewarded.  Clint Dempsey was deemed to have been taken down in the area and awarded a penalty shot.  Landon Donovan stepped up and knocked it in off the right post.  The giving of the penalty was questionable, but with all the Americans had suffered at the hands of the referees, it was nice to see them get the benefit of the doubt.

From here it seemed clear the United States would win the match.  They had the momentum and their superior fitness was clearly showing.  But it was not to be.  Clinical finishing and good central defending had abandoned them the entire tournament and this match would be no different.  The U.S. wasted opportunities in the final thirty and went to overtime level at one.   Three minutes into the overtime Asamoah Gyan latched onto a long ball played down the middle and crushed a volley past Howard into the U.S. net.  Ghana defended well enough from there to earn the right to play Uruguay in the quarterfinals on Friday.

What could have been.  The U.S. had a draw that afforded every opportunity to achieve more than they ever had on the world stage.  A 2:30 pm EST match on the Friday afternoon before a long national holiday weekend would have been a fantastic opportunity to rally a country that rarely has the chance to get behind a National Team or the inclination to invest in soccer.  But in the end, the side was lacking.  The United States team didn't have enough elite talent to push through.  The coach and most players are unlikely to be back four years from now when the World Cup sambas into Brazil.  Hopefully the exposure the sport got during this tournament expands the talent pool that the U.S soccer federation has to choose from when picking that squad and those that will come after it.  Opportunities like the one the Americans had in South Africa are few and far between.  They wasted one this time.


Jake said...

I agree it was a lost opportunity for the team. But I wouldn't worry about soccer's growth in the U.S. because it wasn't going to be affected. Win the World Cup, get bounced in the group stage, it doesn't matter. Those of us who love the sport will watch. The majority who just latch on during the World Cup will go back to ignoring it and then tune in again in four years when it starts again. To think large numbers of people will start watching MLS Game of the Week is folly.

The best athletes in this country play football, basketball and baseball. That's not going to change unless soccer scholarships and big money pro soccer contracts suddenly become ubiquitous in this country. And since the best players play those sports, that's where the money, tv and interest goes for the fans.

The Hammer said...

Yep, was saying the same thing on my radio show this morning. Don't think anyone is going to watch an MLS game on a Tuesday night in a month if they weren't already watching.

But, as you suggest, maybe the talent pool does expand. There are a lot of college soccer scholarships out there for boys and girls. And you start seeing stories like the one about Chris Henry and brain damage today and you wonder if soccer doesn't start to get more of the best athletes out there.

But, the US team will NEVER have a better draw than they had this year.

Tim Po said...

Spot on -

In aftermath I had to eat ill-advised post-Algeria words that Bradley was a world class coach. Clark and Findley, particularly Clark, stand as inexplicable gaffes by the gaffer.

After the missed calls that clearly affected the outcomes on the weekend I was left to wonder what the ultimate effect had been of the called back Dempsey goal against Algeria – if that goal is given, there is (arguably) no drama, no huge high, and, consequantly a much less daunting task for the US to put the game behind them and come out ready for Ghana. The post-Algeria Donovan breakdown was (embarrassing but more importantly) indicative of the challenge faced by the team: “I’m just happy that [a tough four years] culminated this way.” Culminated? Um, Landon, there are some games left here . . . Nice to wonder what could have been, but in the end a world class midfield sandwiched by second-rate back and front lines, is just not good enough

P.S. If FIFA doesn’t introduce technology, it might as well decide games with figure-skating style judging . . . can see it now: “Schneider scored a nice goal, but it lacked a certain je ne sais pas in the buildup. Argentina don’t score, but take a real chance with their sequined sky blue jerseys: Argentina win 1.3 to 0.85.”

The Hammer said...

From Sunil Gulati President of the US Soccer Federation on Monday,

"The missed opportunity is partly a chance to get to the quarters and the matchup with Uruguay, but it's also a missed opportunity to stay in the American public's eyes for another four, five, six days, maybe 10 days, when interest is at an all-time high."

I think Sunil is reading the blog. Kidding, he knows that one hurt.