Wednesday, June 14, 2006

U.S. v. Italy Preview

The U.S. game against Italy should be a no contest. It's not that the U.S. doesn't have a good team but they don't have the players who are as good as Totti, Toni, Cannavaro, Pirlo, et al. Make no mistake, if the U.S. were drawn in a group where they could play World Cup minnows such as Tunisia, Togo, or Trinidad they would likely be marching on and America would have something to feel good about, but the U.S. are among the big boys this time around and we are seeing just how far they have to go before they can be among soccer's elite nations. Landon Donovan can dominate MLS but he isn't ready to be among world beaters like Totti Nedved and Rosicky. He doesn't have the ability to play with consistency against top teams. Sure, he can produce a moment of magic to get you a goal. Against top opponents you need to be on top of your game for 90 minutes and Donovan isn't ready to sweep aside players the class of which he will be facing over the next week or so. This is unfortunate because everyone was looking forward to the U.S. building on their performance from '02. I certainly wanted to see the U.S. do better because I have a vested interest in seeing the game flourish in America. I don't want to have to wait until I go to Oktoberfest to see a Bayern Munich match in order to see a good game. It would be nice if I could see a top game on U.S. soil but I don't think America is there yet.

The World Cup performance in '02 was a little overblown. Sure, they got to the quarterfinals which is a difficult feat but they didn't really beat anyone of repute. They ran rampant against Portugal but Portugal are far from world beaters. Since the days of the "Black Pearl" Eusebio in the 60s the Portuguese haven't really done much on the world stage. The U.S. should be credited for hanging in there with eventual finalists Germany but we shouldn't get carried away. The U.d. like many upstart nations are capable of a flash in the pan performance but they are not yet expected to do well consistently. A few examples will illustrate this point. Turkey made it to the semifinals in '02 and are not in the tournament this time around. Cameroon were quarterfinalists in 1990. They are watching the '06 cup somewhere in Yaoundé. Denmark were in the quarterfinals in 1998 and went out in the first round in 2002 and aren't even in the tournament in '06. I give these examples simply to show that flukes happen in the world cup and the U.S. performance was just that, a fluke. That doesn't mean they don't have a solid squad but they are not yet at the level of consistency that we have come to expect from the likes of Brazil, Argentina, Germany and Italy.

I think the reason many Americans are disappointed in the U.S. team's performance agains the Czech Republic is twofold. First, there was a lot of hype around this team leading up to the cup and they were touted as "the best American team ever." That they may be but Americans read that as 'we have one of the best teams ever' in the Cup.

U.S. Coach Bruce Arena has the look of a man devoid of ideas.


This led everyone to believe that they were going to show up and run rampant in their group and they were seriously humbled by the Czech Republic. The Czechs gave them a real beating and only the Ukraine's performance against Spain was worst. The second reason is that America is obsessed with Rankings. We are the home of the BCS and the AP Top 25. We look to rankings to give us an indication of who is good. Since the U.S. were ranked fifth by FIFA we all believed that they were the fifth best team in the world but the FIFA rankings don't weigh "strength of schedule" so to speak. So while England is playing warming up by playing the Netherlands, Germany and Spain(all teams of top pedigree) the U.S. is playing nations like Jamaica, Panama and Barbados...places known more for their nice beaches than their soccer pedigree. Playing these teams do not give us an indication of how good the U.S. is in relation to other top countries but because FIFA's rankings only look at the result and not the opponent the U.S. ended up with an inflated ranking.

I understand I'm getting well ahead of myself here because the U.S. could very well defeat Italy and end up beating Ghana and progressing to the next round. As much as I would love to see this happen, I doubt the likelihood of this outcome. Here's how I see the Italy match playing out: The U.S. comes out attacking wildly putting the Italians under pressure early. The Italians keep them at bay for the first ten minutes. The U.S. continues to come at the Italians and finally a carelss pass by the U.S. leads to the Italians counterattacking. After a few swift passes it's 1-0 Italy and we are back to another Czech Republic situation. I don't think the Italians will blow out the U.S. because they tend to be defensive minded and as we saw in the Ghana game, they do give their opponents an opportunity to get back in the game. I don't think the U.S. has midfielders the class of Michael Essien and Stephen Appiah to capitalize on this. If the U.S. beat Italy I will be the first to say I was wrong and own up to my idiocy but come on. The Italians haven't lost in 19 games. They looked impressive against a strong Ghana side and unlike previous Italian teams they showed a desire to attack first and defend later. If Luca Toni and Gillardino show up and play in a similar way that they played against Ghana it's lights out for the U.S. on Saturday. Additionally, the U.S. have never won a game in Europe. Who in their right mind would pick them unless they were influenced by blind nationalism?

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