Keys to U.S. World Cup successPosted: Friday May 31, 2002 1:26 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
A lot must go right for the USA to reach the second round at the World Cup. Here's a look at reasons for optimism and areas of concern.
Whatever well-laid plans Bruce Arena had in mind for the 2002 World Cup went out the window at RFK Stadium May 12.
In the many scenarios and formations and systems he envisioned, few had excluded Chris Armas, whose raw abilities may occasionally fall short of what is required but whose determination and tenacity never do.
Prior to Armas suffering an ACL tear in the 16th minute of the 2-1 victory over Uruguay, Arena had said, "He's not the best passer of the ball but he's certainly much better [than most] playing out of pressure and getting the ball moving. When you see some others play that position, you begin to see the value of Armas."
The value of Armas will have to be proved in his absence, which adds another entry on Arena's list of Things To Do:
Patch together a strong lineup with several players who fill other positions for their club teams;
Measure the value and risk of playing young stars;
Forge strong performances against European opponents from the Americans who play in Europe;
Pick a keeper without cutting a deep fissure within his team.
Question marks abound as the United States tries to advance to the second round.
Are there benefits to training camp?
Arena is banking a great deal on a domestic training camp spiced with warm-up matches against Uruguay, Jamaica and the Netherlands and another 12-day session in South Korea prior to the opening game June 5.
Yes, the players will have a chance to recharge following duty for club and country. But most teams will follow a similar schedule, so how much relative improvement can be expected is open to debate.
The core of South Korea's team has been together since December. If any players need breaks, they are Portuguese stars Luis Figo and Rui Costa and Poland's Nigerian wonder, Emmanuel Olisadebe. Can a refreshed David Regis, Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope and John O'Brien contain them if they hit the World Cup at full throttle?
"The most important thing is having that group together and playing for an extended period of time," says Agoos. "Fortunately, we'll be able to do that in May and the early part of June. The more time you can spend together, the better you're going to be able to play. It's a factor for every team."
How important is Claudio Reyna?
Claudio Reyna's first English Premier League season was a typical one for the U.S. captain: some fine games, a few goals, suspensions and disquieting groin and hamstring injuries.
After his injury absence at the 1994 World Cup -- Reyna was day-to-day for a month and never got on the field -- and a team-wide meltdown (three games, three losses) in 1998, this is a chance for redemption.
If the stars are right and his biorhythms don't bottom out, and he doesn't stumble down a steep flight of stairs at the Seoul Marriott, where the U.S. will be staying, perhaps he'll orchestrate, prompting others as to when they are to furiously play allegretto or calmly pluck pianissimo while he conducts the performance.
Reyna needs backing to play the lead.
If he's in the trenches most of the time digging out balls, if he's tracking toward his own goal because the opponents have numbers up, if he's bracketed in midfield gazing at opponents draped over his teammates, all the vision and touch and guile in the world won't move the ball sweetly.
No teammate took it upon himself to retaliate after German banger Jens Jeremies flattened Reyna in the opening seconds of the U.S. France '98 opener.
Luck may even out as well: It was Reyna whose 25-yard blast slammed against the Iranian goalpost in Lyons with the score 0-0.
Reyna has mentioned he may retire from the national team in July. He and his teammates must play each game in June as if it is their last.
Ferocity is the normal intensity level of a World Cup match as the Americans discovered to their chagrin against Germany and Iran at France '98.
Can the U.S. stay with the Europeans?
Warm-up losses to Italy, Germany and Ireland cloud the team's prospects against Portugal and Poland at the World Cup.
As Arena has often stated, many top European players possess size and strength to augment their superb skills. Yet the physical skirmishes are just one aspect of winning the battle.
"They are very aware, a very cohesive group," says Armas of European teams. "They run well out of midfield, they space themselves well, they defend well, they work together. Their timing is good and they make smart runs. They're athletic and they just have a great soccer mentality. They know how to press and they know how to get forward."
Going forward from Group D will require at least a point from a European foe, yet just one might not be enough.
Keller or Friedel, or does it matter?
Neither keeper will be a gamble on the field. Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel are both capable, quick, brave and experienced.
Players may prefer one over the other. Both keepers have said they have no intention of being No. 2.
Arena's decision, either way, will come under fire from whoever is the backup -- and from many corners if his choice uncharacteristically allows a bad goal in the World Cup.
Will the outside hold up?
The loss of Armas greatly lessens any possibility of Arena trying O'Brien at left back, where Arena has yet to find a reason -- or a solution -- for Regis' troubles in that spot. Solid stretches are marred by catastrophic lapses.
"He plays in spurts," says Arena. "He usually has a good first half and the second half hasn't been as good for whatever reason. Whether that's a matter of fitness or concentration he's been a little bit inconsistent. We need to see him being consistent over 90 minutes."
Regis and right back Tony Sanneh were moved into the middle by their club coaches during the season. Bouncing back and forth between positions and philosophies and systems won't be an issue by the time the World Cup kicks off.
The roles and responsibilities for each player will be clear. Execution will be the question.
O'Brien played left back for Ajax the last six weeks of the Dutch season, yet Arena retains misgivings about his defensive abilities.
"In most of those games he doesn't have to defend a lot so it's hard to evaluate his defending skills," said Arena. "It's not a strong suit of John's, but he plays it conservatively and solid."
Like O'Brien, Earnie Stewart is often asked to go wide, although Arena believes he's better in the middle.
Stewart scored eight goals during the qualifying phase and at age 33 can still cover lots of ground, but he didn't look sharp in his national team appearances in the spring. He'll need to help out Sanneh, who was burned badly on the right side against Uruguay.
"I'd like to tell you this team is better than the team we had in France in '98," says Stewart. "But we don't know that yet and we won't know until June or July after we play in the World Cup.
"Nothing else really matters. That's the test for every team."
Are the young lions ready?
No doubt Landon Donovan's gifts are extraordinary and his appetite for the spectacular is voracious.
But he's also a veteran of barely one year of club ball and not much more time with the national team. On the few occasions he's played top teams -- Brazil, Italy, Germany -- he hasn't moved the needle very far.
Against those teams, he's at the same level he was in the first few months of his MLS career. He needed time to learn how to fool opponents as well as fly through them.
At 5-foot-8 and maybe 150 pounds, he's bounced around by battle-savvy veterans. They may not see the game as vividly as he does, but their anticipation and quickness often frustrate him.
Expecting him to torment the opposition from the first minute is wishful thinking. He must pick his spots and avoid gaffes like the back pass Uruguay turned into its only goal at RFK.
The injury to Armas does give Arena the option of moving Reyna or O'Brien into the holding role and using Donovan in the starting lineup.
Arena could also play both O'Brien and Reyna centrally and use his other young lion, DaMarcus Beasley, on the left flank where O'Brien often roams.
Beasley's bombing runs forward and improving defensive work were evident at the Gold Cup as well as the 2-1 win over Uruguay. But like Donovan and the wonderfully gifted yet unrestrained Pablo Mastroeni, Beasley's a gamble as a starter.
And gambling against South Korea and Poland is what Arena may have to do.
Ridge Mahoney is a senior editor at Soccer America magazine.