"We Did it For Africa," Michael Essien
Anyone familiar with this blog knows that I've been partial to the African teams in this tournament. I think with the social problems in these countries and the lack of resources to properly develop the talent, the African nations are always at a disadvantage. I always cheer for the African teams because they show up to play attacking football. They have a devil-may-care attitude and play as if they have nothing to lose. When you play an African team you know you will get opportunities to score and you know they will be coming at you for 90 minutes looking for a goal. Ghana, more than any African team, really exemplified this spirit in their three games in the group stages. Whenever they got the ball around the box you knew they were going for goal. Given their positive attitude it was no surprise to see Ghana defeat the U.S. If they can hang tough with Brazil, their likely opponent in the next round, it would be a great boost for African football. It will take some doing since Essien will be suspended for that game thanks to a cheap yellow card from the ref in today's game.
Early in the tournament I thought the African sides were not performing to their potential but they have come around and none of them should feel embarassed about their performance in this tournament, with the exception of Togo who have let the financial row with their government overshadow their performance on the field. If Togo can take a point off the misfiring French team tomorrow that would be another shot in the arm for African soccer.
The Ivory Coast, probably one of the most talented teams in the tournament will go home with a vitory and two losses but those losses came against two of the top sides in the world in Argentina and the Netherlands. Angola, who also will be going home, only allowed one goal in their three matches and will leave the tournament with two points. Tunisia is probably the only African side to have really been put to the sword after their 4-0 beating against Spain. Tunisia, however, still have an opportunity to qualify for the round of 16 if they can defeat the Ukraine.
The Black Stars are the undisputed gem of this tournament. Drawn in a group against perennial World Cup powerhouses Italy, the Euro 2004 semifinalists Czech Republic and Quarterfinalists from '02 in the U.S., Ghana made it to the round of 16 in their debut. I'm looking forward to their game against Brazil not because I think they will win it but because I know I'm going to be treated to some positive play from both teams from start to finish. I mean, you know the Black Stars are called the "brazilians of Africa" too bad they are going up against the Brazilians of the world. Either way, kudos to Ghana for making it out the group.
What Today's loss means for American Soccer:
I think today's loss set American soccer back a good eight years. All the good work from '02 is forgotten and the players looked more like the confused players we saw in France '98. Moving forward, I think the U.S. needs a new coach. Bruce Arena proved himself to be a fool by coming out in a 4-5-1 formation in a game where he needed to have an attacking lineup. It is telling that the only time the U.S. played with two forwards in this tournament was after Eddie Johnson came in during the second half of today's game. You can't sit back and play with fear at the international level and expect to win game. The 4-5-1 formation indicated a fear of Ghana's midfield and that Arena was playing for a draw, which is stupifying considering they needed a victory. Firing Arena is the first tep the U.S. should take moving forward. Second, Donovan really needs to leave the MLS. He needs experience playing at the highest level. You don't get ready for the top players in the world by playing in the MLS. The MLS is a decent league but it is not yet at the level where it has the kind of talent to match the top leagues in Europe. If Donovan is ever going to realize his potential he needs to do so playing in Europe. Other plays in the side like Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson should also be playing in Europe, if they are good enough. The U.S. should really consider dropping Onyewu from the team. Yes, he has that cool nickname "Gooch" and the brotha is out there playing with braids but come on, he's a gots to go situation. Everytime his name was called during the tournament it was in relation to something negative. Maybe he will improve over the years but on this evidence he has no business wearing that U.S. shirt.
Third, and most important, the U.S. needs to start playing in Copa America. The tournament has the top sides from the South American CONMEBOL region like Brazil and Argentina. Though the U.S. is a CONCACAF side this should not be a hindrance to their participation since Mexico, another CONCACAF side, also plays in the tournament. Playing in Copa America will give the U.S. a good indicator of just how good they are two years prior to every World Cup. I've said this over and over again but I just don't think that teams like Barbados and Panama can give the U.S. the kind of challenge it needs to get ready for the big tournaments.
If these three changes are made, it is likely we will see an improvement in the talent level of the American player. As the players get better so will our performances in the World Cup. Many will moan about the group that the U.S. was in, but if Ghana, World Cup debutants, can make it out the group the U.S. can't complain. Additionally, some will feel the U.S. were undone by the referees penalty at the end of the first half of the Ghana game. The penalty decision was harsh but the U.S. still didn't score the goals needed to progress. Even if the penalty wasn't given the final score would have been 1-1 and that still would not have been eough for the U.S. to move on to the next round.
Today is a sad day for American soccer and fans of American soccer. The sport will now occupy the backseat it has always occupied in America. My boasts that soccer would soon be a major sport in America now appear sillier than ever. I don't doubt that the sport will eventually flourish in America but the team's performance in the '06 World Cup has really set American soccer back to the days of 1998 where they finished last in the World Cup. Hopefully the team will have a better showing in Johannesburg in 2010.