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Goodbye to All That
MARK BECHTEL AND GRANT WAHL
July 03, 2006
The U.S. is gone, but the tournament rolls on-and it just gets better from here. Pull up a chair as Beckham, Ballack and the balletic Argentines get ready to rock the goal
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July 03, 2006

Goodbye To All That

The U.S. is gone, but the tournament rolls on-and it just gets better from here. Pull up a chair as Beckham, Ballack and the balletic Argentines get ready to rock the goal

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Four shots on goal. You can find any number of excuses to explain the U.S.'s failure at the 2006 World Cup-a brutal draw, horrible refereeing, a coach undermined by his loyalty to certain players-but the fundamental reason was the Americans' chronic inability to create scoring chances. No team in the World Cup took fewer shots than the U.S., not even such lightweights as Trinidad and Tobago (seven) and Tunisia (eight). And the ultimate blame for that lies in a youth system that rewards order over imagination. � While the problem with U.S. basketball is the decline of fundamentals, the bugbear of American soccer is essentially the opposite. Where is the individual flair on the ball to split swarming defenses? Where is the improvisation to build attacks on the ground? The answer isn't complicated: It's being developed on playgrounds in Brazil and Ghana, not on the regimented fields of American youth soccer. "There's probably too much coaching [in the U.S.]," says U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, who announced his international retirement last week. "When I grew up, I just went to the park and we put up two cans for goals and played seven-on-seven for hours. Now when I see youth soccer, I see too much organization, too many kids standing around in line waiting to shoot." � It's worth noting that the U.S.'s best player in Germany, 23-year-old midfielder Clint Dempsey, spent his formative years inventing moves on the dusty plains of Nacogdoches, Texas-not sucking on orange slices in suburban youth leagues. Likewise, Reyna has kept his sons, Jack, 7, and Giovanni, 4, from joining structured soccer leagues. � "I roll the ball out and we just play," Reyna says. "They can worry about learning tactics when they're 15 or 16, but until then it's all about letting them enjoy it." With that, Reyna hugged his two boys and left the World Cup stage, taking an underachieving U.S. team with him.

Yet as the Americans began looking toward the next Cup (Will manager Bruce Arena return for a third four-year term? Has Landon Donovan [left] squandered his chance at superstardom? Will Freddy Adu be the man in South Africa 2010?), the real business of the tournament, the knockout phase, was only getting started. And the teams advancing to the quarterfinals knew how to find the goal.

TANGO ARGENTINA

Forget Goleo VI, the creepy pantsless lion. The real mascot of the World Cup is Diego Maradona, whose hyperactive cheering from the stands has hogged camera time from Argentina's majestic team. Two decades after his finest hour, at the 1986 World Cup, Maradona remains revered in his homeland. Small wonder that Argentina, fruitlessly searching for "the next Maradona," has come up empty in the World Cup since '86 while the Brazilians, who don't care about finding "the next Pel�," have won two championships.

Could the Argentines' agony be over? Heading into Friday's quarterfinal against Germany, they had played the best soccer of the tournament, not least because the next Maradona tag is no longer affixed to any of their starters. "We talked about this from the moment we left Buenos Aires. This is a team, and we want to show that," says midfielder Maxi Rodr�guez, who at week's end had scored the goal of the Cup, a sick 22-yard strike to sink Mexico 2-1 last Saturday. "No matter who is on the field, this group plays at a high level together."

The sea change is personified in 28-year-old playmaker Juan Rom�n Riquelme (previous page), who directs the attack with a subtlety that contrasts with El Diego's look-at-me bravado. If the Argentines' uncanny timing seems scripted, it's because Riquelme, like a first-rate basketball point guard, understands every teammate's place on the field. "For us, the way he manages the ball is important�simo," says striker Javier Saviola, the frequent beneficiary of Riquelme's surgical passes in the box. The result is often a magical, highlight-reel strike-followed by a quick camera cut to Maradona celebrating maniacally.

It's great theater, of course, a perfect balance of show and sideshow, to say nothing of the answer to a vexing problem. Who needs a next Maradona when the solution is to abandon the search altogether?

BEND, DON'T BREAK

Imagine Willie Mays urging the Giants to bench Barry Bonds in favor of a prospect. That's roughly what happened last week when Sir Geoff Hurst, the man who scored a hat trick for England in the 1966 World Cup final, suggested captain David Beckham (above) be replaced by Aaron Lennon, a 19-year-old with one international appearance before the World Cup. Hurst's complaint: England is "slow and predictable" with Beckham on the pitch.

Beckham's response: Bend it like only he can. In a 1-0 win over Ecuador on Sunday, the 31-year-old midfielder scored on a sublime 25-yard free kick that curled over the wall before swerving past the reach of keeper Cristian Mora. A Becks free kick also set up England's goal against Paraguay, and his cross to Peter Crouch provided the go-ahead goal against Trinidad and Tobago.

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