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.
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.
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
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
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?
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.
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.