Superior commitment helps U.S. overcome PortugalPosted: Wednesday June 05, 2002 12:04 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
SUWON -- One team fought for every ball and flew into every tackle. The other team didn't. One team knew it needed its best game to win. The other believed it could play below its best and still win comfortably.
The United States was right, and won. Portugal was wrong, and lost.
Getting their tactics and personnel right set the table for success, but not without unbridled commitment and ferocity could the Americans have had a chance of winning.
Pressure on the ball all over the field, pace and purpose going forward, and a cohesive, relentless defensive effort brought the United States a historic 3-2 World Cup win despite the absence of midfielder Claudio Reyna and forward Clint Mathis, as well as defensive linchpin Chris Armas.
DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan ran the ball at the Portuguese defenders, the slowness of which had been detected as a rare Portuguese weakness.
The passivity of central midfielders Rui Costa and Petit allowed John O'Brien the run of midfield in the first half.
O'Brien's aggressive challenges and steady tracking in midfield were supported by a restrained Pablo Mastroeni and provided service for Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, whose scything runs petrified Portugal's defense.
Assistant coach Glenn Myernick said he watched 17 games of Portugal in person and on tape. Coach Bruce Arena had decided a month ago that the pace of Beasley and Donovan would cause problems.
The overconfident Portuguese played right into the U.S. game plan by moving sluggishly in the middle third and not covering up quickly enough.
But the Americans also beat central defenders Fernando Couto and Jorge Costa at their own game, by winning balls in the air nearly at will in the first half.
Brian McBride had dominated many a Central and South American team, but rarely had he overpowered a pair of proven European center backs. His flicked headers and redirected low balls sliced apart the Portuguese defense in the first half.
McBride scored what proved to be the winner with a perfectly timed back-post run to head home a classic cross from Tony Sanneh. Earlier, his header off a Earnie Stewart corner kick forced a fumbled save from Vitor Baia and a rebound that O'Brien lashed into the net.
Couto has a tough-man reputation as one of Europe's most rugged defenders. He must have been relying on it in the first half, as McBride repeatedly beat him in the air.
The American took a few shots to the face as Couto's frustration escalated, but never did McBride retaliate. He didn't back off either.
"The men of the match for me were Brian McBride, Eddie Pope and John O'Brien," said assistant coach Dave Sarachan. "Brian is a warrior, absolutely. We gave him a huge task tonight and look how he responded."
Sarachan cites McBride's timing and technique as reasons for his success. But the brutal truth is McBride wanted the ball more than did his opponents and refused to buckle.
The last U.S. goal was merely the final nightmare for left back Jorge Costa, whose pair of errors presented the Americans with its second goal. His pass out of the back was intercepted by Sanneh and scuffed back to Donovan, whose cross deflected off the defender and inside the near post.
In the absence of Reyna, who prefers to play much deeper, Donovan's guile and control further up the field kept the Portuguese defenders back on their heels.
Not until they were three goals down did the Portuguese step up their pace and intensity. They sleepwalked through the first half hour in a state of shock and disbelief.
Luis Figo caused some danger with his dribbles and first-time passes, but the Americans often had his three attacking mates shackled and never let him aim at goal. He finished with zero shots.
Outside backs Frankie Hejduk and Sanneh controlled their corners and seldom permitted an opponent to collect the ball behind them. With numbers around the ball and constant movement, the United States rarely allowed Portugal to break through the middle.
Several clear headers missed the U.S. goal in the opening 20 minutes. Much credit must go to Eddie Pope, who timed his crashing shoulder charges just as Pauleta and Joao Pinto put forehead to ball. Their knifing runs posed threats, but usually they were closely marked. Because of pressure on the ball the crosses directed to them lacked the necessary precision.
Pope also stepped up to intercept threatening passes before they reached the intended target.
The interchanging Portuguese attacking quartet opened up the United States several times. Yet the only goals were a rebound of a John O'Brien block, which rebounded back to Beto for him to stab into the net, and an attempted Jeff Agoos clearance of a near-post cross that he turned into the net for a shin-goal.
Arena had stuck with David Regis as long as he could at left back. Hejduk took his place against Portugal and played a disciplined, smart game, staying back and picking his spots to jump in.
Mastroeni also stayed within his limits most of the game. His skill and tenacity on the ball is sometimes betrayed by giveaways and poor decisions. His few flubs didn't prove to be costly.
By Thursday the euphoria will have faded. To a man the U.S. coaches and players insist they will remain focused on the task at hand, which is to qualify for the second round.
Next it meets South Korea, which attained its own milestone of sorts Tuesday night by beating Poland 2-0 for its first World Cup win in 16 attempts.
The buzzing, buoyant South Koreans will present a very different set of tactical and technical tests. And they are not likely to approach the game as casually as did the Portuguese.
The United States didn't win because of superior talent. Its players were better on the day. A team beat a collection of individuals.
"We have 23 guys who are all a good group of guys, and they go out and play with each other and fight for each other," said O'Brien before the game. "That collectiveness is one of our best attributes."
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.