Keys to victory
U.S. must learn to hold the ball, keep a leadPosted: Wednesday June 12, 2002 12:40 PM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
SEOUL -- Squandering leads is never an ideal way to proceed in a world championship, but there are mitigating factors to explain what has happened in the two U.S. games without exonerating it.
Portugal came back from a 3-0 deficit to lose narrowly, 3-2, but still it lost. Co-host South Korea came at the U.S. in waves for more than 50 minutes before getting the goal to break even 1-1.
"We've had a very difficult draw opening up with Portugal and playing a home team," said U.S. coach Bruce Arena after keeper Brad Friedel thwarted everything thrown at him by South Korea except an Ahn Jung Hwan header. "To be standing with four points after two matches is a good feeling."
Nearly lost in the post-game rehashing of blown leads -- or nearly blowing them -- is how the Americans got to that position in the first place: by scoring goals but then not keeping the ball -- and thus the lead.
It can rely on its attack because it has enough players to slice apart defenses, and it must attack because pieces of its defense have buckled. This is not a team that can one-zero its way to the second round.
Eddie Pope and Friedel have been excellent and Tony Sanneh has been solid, but Frankie Hejduk has struggled and Jeff Agoos has been burned several times.
Arena and his coaching mates are standing by their defenders. Breakdowns are inevitable against teams good enough to reach the World Cup and there's nothing illegal or immoral about relying on saves to bail you out when necessary, but counting on your keeper is a risky game plan.
One great way to keep the other team from scoring is to keep the ball away from them. Any defense looks better when it's tested less often and the U.S. needs to polish up its possession game as much as it needs to tighten up its defense.
"The one thing we will talk about a little bit from these two games is to keep possession a little bit more," said midfielder Claudio Reyna, the undisputed U.S. master of ball retention. "The less you have the ball, the more tired you will be."
The Americans kept pushing forward after scoring early against Portugal and held their lead to the end. Keeping the ball doesn't necessarily mean sitting on it. The Americans had a lot more trouble keeping the ball once the desperate Portuguese stepped up the pace.
Midway through the first half the Americans took the lead on South Korea but seldom did they dictate play. South Korea outshot the U.S., 19-6, and 10 of those shots were on target.
"We were up one [goal] kind of early again and we went into our defensive shell a little early," said Sanneh. "I don't think we did as good a job keeping the ball as we did against Portugal and they created a few chances. "I thought we could have spread the ball out more often and relieve the pressure."
To keep the ball requires clean control, cohesive movement, and sharp first-touch passing. The more the defending team has to chase the ball the more likely it is to leave spaces as its players fatigue.
DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan got forward enough to test the Korean defense, but at times they simply ran aground and lost the ball.
Midfield turnovers and a failure to connect passes out of its own defensive third when the ball was won provided South Korea with more than enough chances to win the game, not just tie.
"I think you have to give them [Korea] some credit," said Friedel, who pulled off at least three difficult saves. "They put us under a lot of pressure, in the second half. It was difficult to withstand that much pressure."
The U.S. expects less pressure and more time on the ball against Poland, which in the past has relied on its rugged defense and counterattacking efficiency.
But Coach Jerzy Engel's team is out of the running. He has stated his intention to field a few of his younger players. And if he's scouted the U.S. to any extent, he may turn up the heat in midfield. Why not? There's nothing to play for but pride, and playmaker Piotr Swierczewski is suspended because of yellow cards.
Playing the cat-and-mouse game has resulted in two defeats, no goals scored, and six goals conceded.
"We knew the American team would break down physically at the end and that's why we kept the pace high," said South Korea coach Guus Hiddink. "That's why I think it's Friedel's day. He saved the point. He saved five or six 100 percent chances. We failed to do so and this was the difference. Normally the result would have been 3-1."
Should the Americans advance to the second round, they will surely be harassed and forced into small spaces whenever possible. Midfield nooses and nets are drawn tighter and tighter as the competition gets tougher.
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.