U.S. survives Poland debaclePosted: Friday June 14, 2002 7:17 PM
Updated: Saturday June 15, 2002 3:33 AM
By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America
DAEJON -- What the United States had accomplished in its first two World Cup matches and what lies ahead overshadowed what befell it Friday.
And what coach Bruce Arena and a few of his players had mentioned before the World Cup came true: along with talent and nerve and skill, a little luck is often needed.
The Americans are moving on to the second round despite being knocked out of the ring by Poland 3-1, thanks to a safety mat provided by the host nation and cushioned by the four points they had already accumulated.
To open the elimination round they face rival Mexico, with which they have won, lost and tied titanic battles in the past, but have seldom played on a neutral field. That setting will be provided Monday at 3:30 p.m. (2:30 a.m. ET in the U.S.) in the city of Jeonju.
The Poles had been blanked by Portgual and South Korea in their first two games, but with a revamped lineup and revived spirit they stunned the Americans with two goals in the first five minutes and fended off frantic attacks to win.
Emmanuel Olisadebe pounced on a deflected corner kick and Pawel Kryszalowicz rammed in a shot from close range. No better scenario could be presented to a team that prefers to mass its players behind the ball and spring counterattacks.
More than an hour of Polish counters and American misfires followed before substitute Marcin Zawlakow headed home a free kick to render Landon Donovan's late goal of merely historic interest.
The United States had taken the field knowing a tie would ensure passage no matter what happened one hundred miles to the north in Incheon, where another drama was unfolding.
It had a happy ending and thus so did the U.S. defeat. South Korea threw the Americans a life preserver by scraping past Portugal, 1-0, to win Group D. Had Portugal and South Korea tied, those two teams would have advanced. A Portugal win would also have eliminated the United States.
And had not Argentine referee Angel Sanchez sent off two Portuguese players, anything could have happened. As it was, the ejections of Joao Pinto and Beto and a goal by Park Ji Sung were barely enough, for Portugal hit the post and had another shot saved in the final minutes despite playing nine against 11.
The Americans can breathe a sigh of relief, thank their lucky stars and gloss over the Poland shellacking as a wake-up call.
Bizarre scenes ensued in the final minutes of Group D play. The South Korea game ended with time remaining in the U.S. match. American players on the bench began celebrating shortly after they heard a huge roar from the crowd saluting South Korea's win and first-ever passage to the second round.
There were plenty of chances for the U.S. but John O'Brien's attempts from distance were usually off-target, Clint Mathis' one good strike hit the post, and both of Brian McBride's shots were easily saved.
Brad Friedel saved another penalty kick but Poland's superiority had already been established. His courageous, outrageous saves bailed out a team that is fortunate to have conceded only six goals, the poorest defensive mark of any of those 16 left standing.
The United States will face Mexico shorthanded, and it is symbolic of a dawning new age in soccer that the absence by suspension of defender Frankie Hejduk will be much more critical than an injury to compatriot Jeff Agoos.
Agoos, 34, has suffered through a rough World Cup and the Poland game again exposed his deficiencies. His missed diving header gave Olisadebe a chance that was slammed into the roof of the net for the first goal and it was Agoos who was a step behind Kryszalowicz on the second.
A pulled calf muscle will probably keep him out of the Mexico match. Hejduk picked up a second caution and his speed will be missed against the tricky, quick Mexican attackers.
Speaking of quick, the Americans must regroup in less than 72 hours. Mexico also has the edge of an extra day of rest after tying Italy, 1-1, on Thursday to win Group G.
The Americans face a showdown against a bitter rival that came out of a difficult group (Croatia, Italy, Ecuador) with seven points and a lot more consistency than the United States showed.
The Americans have stumbled badly, but assistance from others saved it from stigmatization as chokers. Another such stroke of fortune is most unlikely.
Ridge Mahoney is senior editor at Soccer America magazine.