I can’t begin to state the depths of my disappointment in you and the absolutely terrible choices you have made as a manager in this World Cup, but I will do my best to articulate my thoughts to you about how you, and you alone, are responsible for the United States being eliminated today by Ghana.
Dejected: Landon Donovan, in the wake of his invisible performance in the 2006 World Cup, walks off the pitch after the USA’s 2-1 loss to Ghana (AP Photo)
First, let me just say; from 1995-1997, during your tenure as manager of DC United, I lived in Washington DC and was a regular attendee at DC United matches. After Steve Sampson, US Men’s coach for the 1998 World Cup, basically ran that team into the ground with his ridiculous exclusion of John Harkes and his innate ability to make his players hate his guts, I was among the first to call your name as the best possible replacement. That paid off in 2002 when, after qualifying for the World Cup, you took an unheralded Team USA to the Quarter Finals, where we outplayed Germany, but lost 1-0. US Soccer has much to be proud of, and your run to the QF in 2002 really laid the ground work for the development of the game in this country over the last four years.
In qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, we won our region and qualified first, a wonderful accomplishment in its own right. I was on top of the world as a supporter; we had become the class of the region and our team was a confident balance of young players and veterans. Then, thanks to an incomprehensible seeding system, FIFA gave Mexico the #1 seed from our region and when the draw for the 2006 World Cup was announced, I knew we were in trouble: we had drawn Italy and the Czech Republic alongside African champions Ghana. The group of death. We had our work cut out for us, and with you in charge of the team, I had hopes that you would bring us respect on the pitch. Would we qualify for the second round? It was possible, if the team came prepared and was firing on all cylanders. I had no doubts that you would have the team prepared.
But a funny thing happened on the way to respectability. In pre-tournament friendlies, the team made some mistakes and was terrible in front of goal. Then came the Cup, and here is where you blew it: The USA came out playing four defenders, FIVE midfielders, and ONE striker: a 4-5-1. Sure, you said Landon Donovan was being utilized as a striker, but look at the tape; you played the 4-5-1, played a terribly out of form DaMarcus Beasley out of position by playing him on the right wing, and sat Clint Dempsey on the bench with Eddie Johnson, our young striker.
Well, that didn’t work.
After being thrashed 3-0 and taking ONE shot on goal against the Czech Republic, when our team came out looking unprepared and afraid, you promised better against Italy, and we got that. Not because you changed anything: here was the 4-5-1 again. After going down a goal and getting an own goal from the Italians, the game turned into a gut-check with 9 USA men playing against 10 Italians. Bunkering and playing with tremendous heart, our guys held on for a miracle draw. But the fundamental flaw in your system showed again– you played not to lose. Not terrible against the Italians, but the US had no chance to win that game.
Then, today. Despite a terrible play from Captain Claudio Reyna, giving the ball away at the top of the box and allowing Haminu Draman to take the ball straight to goal and score easily, and the worst penalty call I have ever seen by German ref Markus Merk, who penalized Oguchi Onyewu for a non-foul against Razak Pimpong which destoryed all the USA’s hard-won momentum, it was again your tactics that failed us. Let me run the list of your mistakes against Ghana.
Strip and Score: Draman hammers it home after robbing Reyna at the top of the box (AP Photo)
1. DaMarcus Beasley– You refused to bench DaMarcus despite the fact that he played terribly against the Czechs, dogged it against Italy, and offered very little going forward for this entire tournament. If you were going to play a left wing, why not Bobby Convey, who has been just fine? The answer is: speed. Unfortunately, speed doesn’t impact a first touch, and it has no impact on the ability to play attacking football going forward. Despite a lovely ball to set up Clint Dempsey’s goal after a Ghana gave the ball away, Beasley was awful. There is no way he should have been on the pitch today. This is a soccer match, not an aerobics competition.
2. Reyna and Donovan– These two players cannot play together and never have been able to play together. Now that Reyna will retire, perhaps you can see how much better Donovan can be without Reyna hindering him from the back. Playing Reyna out of position today cost us a goal; his inability to clear the ball or make a creative touch allowed the first Ghana goal. I have watched this team for years, and everyone knows that these two cannot play attacking, creative football together. That said, Landon Donovan is a very fit player and did some mighty defensive work against Italy, but his game is not on par with the Golden Boy status the USA press has bestowed upon him. Landon was invisible and the shortcomings in his game shone through; against a battling midfield that denies his ability to make dangerous, attacking runs after receiving the ball at his feet, Donovan simply didn’t have anything to warrant his reputation. He will not grow in the MLS. Now, after this performance, who in Europe would want him? Not that it matters; Donovan has shown no ambition to play high stakes football abroad. Without growth, he will remain a player who could have been great.
3. Dempsey and Convey– Should have been on the pitch together with Donovan from the get-go. Dempsey scored an absolute cracker of a goal today and showed his quality on the pitch everytime he played. He played loose, quality soccer. Where was he against the Czechs? I hope Clint makes it to England and allows his game to grow; he’s terrific. Convey will hopefully play top level football for the next four years, and he played pretty well with all of the uncertainty that surrounded him. Not playing these two against the Czech Republic, despite the fact that they were clearly the two players who were ready and on-form, was clear favoritism on your part. Playing Beasley on the right, then replacing Convey with Beasley on the left was PURE DENIAL, and not sorting out the Reyna/Donovan problem is a clear sign of your inability as a manager. This is the World Cup; time to put player egos aside and do what is required to win. Instead, you played players who you like and didn’t want to upset instead of setting up the best formation for the team and playing the best players in that system. Stop playing favorites!
Which leads me to…
4. Eddie Johnson– How is it that, needing to win, you come out in a 4-5-1 AGAIN, knowing that this formation has produced ONE shot on goal in two matches? How can it be? Eddie Johnson, one of our fastest, most dangerous players is a striker who absolutely should have been on the pitch from the get go. Holding Eddie Johnson on the bench until the 60th minute was a disasterous decision, as the team was unable to put Ghana under significant pressure and was chasing the game all day long. Eddie Johnson should have started this game in a 4-4-2. Period. The attack in the second half was far more effective when Johnson came on, he should have started. Every USA supporter knew this, but once again, you refused to change when change was necessary.
Where Was The Game Management?: Arena seemed lost at sea as his team went down 1-0 in every match. (AP Photo)
5. Your “System” and Tactics– Your tactical sense seems to be playing your favorite “boys” and scrapping the logical choice. Every smirking, arrogant person I know has a hubristic flaw, and just like a Greek tragedy, yours came shining through today: You were so sure your 4-5-1 system would work, you repeated it over and over and over again, and it NEVER came through. It killed us. In every match, your conservative approach put this team 1-0 down. We were 1-0 down in EVERY match playing your “conservative” system. We never once recovered from these starts to win a single game. Reyna and Donovan– pick one, sit one. Sit Beasley. Convey and Dempsey on the pitch at their expense– these players are competing; play them. Play Eddie Johnson up top with McBride. Over and over and over again you make the same mistakes, and when they are punished by goals from the other team, you refuse to make changes.
The definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over again, but expecting a different result every time. This adequately describes your approach to this team. As a long-standing supporter of American soccer, you can’t fool me. This team could have been great, and they were undermined because you did not put them in a position to win. It is a great shame; I didn’t expect us to get out of this very tough group, but I would like to see my team go out playing quality soccer. I guess I have to wait four years, maybe longer. A shame. An absolute shame. I was so excited; we waited four years to get here and now it is all over, and despite a gritty draw against the Italians, I am not sure my team showed up. I will always support the USA, and I look forward to watching the game grow here, but we have a long way to go. I’ll be there for the journey, because as supporters, we are the heart of this game. We’ll be back. Freddie Adu, Jonathan Spector and the young players who were not here; you have four years to grow. It’s time to get to work on South Africa 2010.
Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda: The USA missed their opportunities, and it cost us. (AP Photo)