U.S. put up little fight in ugly loss to Czech Republic
Posted by ssbg on June 12, 2006
John O'Brien (left) and Oguchi Onyewu couldn't hide their disappointment after the U.S. was dominated by the Czech Republic.
Christof Koepsel/Getty Images
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany — When it came down to game time, the Czech Republic was the schoolyard bully, and the U.S. was the wimpy kid in the corner handing over his lunch money.
Of course, it didn't help that the wimpy kid was holding wads of hundreds in his hands, essentially asking for a punch in the face.
That was more or less the case when the Americans were throttled by the Czechs 3-0 on Monday in a match where nothing worked for the U.S. The Yanks were sluggish, mistake-prone and completely out of sorts against the No. 2 team in the world, which basically did what it wanted.
The tempo was set from the opening kick. In the months leading up to this match, U.S. coach Bruce Arena had stressed that one of the Czechs' biggest threats was 6-foot-7½ striker Jan Koller. Barely five minutes into the game, Zdenek Grygera sent in a perfect cross from the right wing. Koller slipped between U.S. defenders Eddie Pope and Oguchi Onyewu and, predictably, put his bald pate on the ball, sending it past Kasey Keller. The U.S. defenders started pointing fingers, accusing one another of losing his man. And that was your ball game.
From that point on, the Yanks barely mustered any scoring opportunities, handled the ball poorly and, essentially, looked very little like the No. 5 team in the world (which it never was) and even less like a team that will advance to the second round (which it probably won't). Over the past two World Cups, only one team — Turkey in 2002 — moved on after dropping its first game in the group stage.
"I'm very disappointed," the soft-spoken Arena said after the game in one of his biggest-ever understatements. "The Czech Republic took advantage of every play offered them tonight. Our players played pretty hard, but they didn't play well enough. The better team certainly won."
The Czech Republic put on a clinic in near-perfect soccer, demonstrating discipline and patience while relying on its stars to do the damage. Besides Koller, world-class midfielders Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky — who scored the Czechs' other two goals — had full run of the pitch, darting in and out of the U.S. defense. On the other side, the Czechs' unwavering defense broke up nearly every play that came its way.
"They just played textbook soccer," said U.S. defender Pablo Mastroeni. "Give them credit — for as badly as we played, they had more to do with [the result]."
Give Arena credit for taking a gamble, however. After being thoroughly outclassed in the first half, he could have elected to protect the score line in order to save further embarrassment and a further deficit in goal-differential (a key determinant in group-stage tiebreakers). Instead, Arena shifted to a more attack-heavy lineup, a 3-5-2 formation that brought passing whiz John O'Brien into the midfield and 22-year-old Eddie Johnson on as a second striker.
While the U.S. still couldn't get much going in the second half, Johnson showed some promising signs in his first World Cup appearance. He came out aggressive, firing on his first possession and adding another shot on goal later in the half. Neither could pierce the armor of Petr Cech, but Johnson's courage on the big stage could be a surprise weapon for the U.S. in its final two matches — if Arena chooses to take advantage of it.
But now the going gets really tough. Up next is Italy (which beat Ghana 2-0 on Monday) a team that, when it's clicking, can suffocate its opposition with top-notch possession and bruising defense. That's to say nothing of the Azzurri's Luca Toni, another tall striker who has the flair and mobility to cause the U.S. more problems than Koller did on Monday before he was forced out of the match with a hamstring injury.
"We had been saying all along that hopefully, four points would be enough to get out of the group," said U.S. defender Eddie Lewis. "Now we put this behind us and focus on getting a win and a draw out of the next two games."
Simple as that, right? A draw against Italy and a win against Ghana. We knew all along the U.S. was going to have problems with its killer group. But if things do not improve for the Americans, they're looking at the very real possibility that they may not win a game in Germany. That would be a disaster of epic proportions.
If the U.S. is to continue the growing respect it had started to enjoy throughout the world, it's time to grow up. No one respects the wimpy kid in the corner.