What an incredible tournament the 2002 FIFA World Cup is turning out to be! Amazing, unexpected, historic events are happening in almost every game. I don’t know if it’s because the tournament is being held in the Southern Hemisphere, but everything is backwards in this competition. World champions France are out. Favorites Argentina, who looked so good in qualifying, are flying home. The U.S. and South Korea upset fifth-ranked Portugal, whose dream is over. Brazil, which shocked everyone by struggling to get the World Cup, are doing great — but they haven’t faced serious competition yet. One of only two teams with three wins in the opening round (Spain is the other), and with the confidence of having already scored 11 goals, they now are the team to beat. Nothing is predictable in this World Cup and that’s great. Anything can happen, and any team can be sent home.
The Americans, who played so well against Portugal, have struggled and played worse in every subsequent game. What’s up with that? I realize the players are tired, that other teams have studied the U.S. games and know our weaknesses (that was very obvious in the Poland game), but the U.S. defense has looked like they were out-classed and over-whelmed. Offensively we’ve been stronger, but even there we’re inconsistent. Mathis is a good player when he’s on, but he fades in matches and it’s like we’re playing with ten men. Claudia Reyna has never impressed me: he was the reason for our poor play in France 1998 and I can’t figure out why he’s our leader. He can play well — it’s just that he often doesn’t. The U.S. has a lot of players like that: Hejduk, Sanneh, Regis, etc. In the Poland game Reyna was ineffective in the attack, and he often gave the ball away leading to dangerous counter-attacks by Poland. Reyna does better when he sits back and defends, but he likes to move forward too much. I’d either bench him for the Mexico game or give him strict orders to sit back and act more defensively. At the back, Goose is a good player past his prime. I’m glad he’s gotten some World Cup experience, but in truth I’m relieved he’s out injured for the Mexico game. While he brings a lot of experience and stability to the U.S. team, he can do a lot of that from the bench. On the field he’s a liability at this level. Unfortunately, the U.S. isn’t deep in quality defenders, and that’s definitely our primary weakness. But Mastroanni needs to be on the field (in any position). Pope has been great, but he can’t do it all. He needs a partner back there. Heiduk has been excellent, playing better than he’s played in years (people forget he was widely considered our best player at France 98 and he got his German contract based on that performance), but he’s out suspended for the Mexico game. Eddie Lewis strikes me as the best substitute, but he’ll need the game of his life. I’d tell him not to move up unless we’re down more than one goal or up several: that leftback position is primarily for defense and we don’t need forward runs that leave us exposed. Sanneh’s just been brilliant, with his only mistake giving up the penalty in the Poland game. He’ll be ready for Mexico. O’Brien had his weakest game against Poland, but he’s a strong player. Stewart is also important, though I don’t picture him going 90 minutes. Not starting DaMarcus Beasley in the Poland game makes me wonder what’s going on the Bruce’s head. Perhaps he was just trying to give DMB a deserved rest, but Beasley’s a critical player for us. Not only is he super dangerous on the counter-attack, but he does some incredible defensive work, coming back and stealing the ball from the other team. He’s our brightest star so far (not counting Brad Friedel, who’s been insanely amazing). Landon Donovan needs to be more involved. He’s already a much better player than Reyna, and the U.S. team would do better to run play through him instead of the captain. Landon’s got so many good attributes: he’s fast, has a great first touch, he’s a lethal finisher, and has the best vision of the field of any American player ever. His quick flicks and through-balls are breath-taking, and they make him a double-threat: he can score himself or slip a ball through to a teammate who can finish. The best position for Donovan is “sunken forward” — pair him with McBride and they can feed each other balls. McBride was invisible in the Poland game. After two great games from him, I put that to fatigue and the fact that the Poles were strong in the air. But McBride needs to be on the field: he’s strong, can be lethal if given the chance, and he’s a battler who can win balls for the U.S. in the upper midfield. I’d tell him in advance he’s going to play for fifty minutes — let him run his heart out — and then sub in Josh Wolff. Wolff’s speed make him dangerous and I’d like to see him get more playing time. Clint is the biggest puzzle. He’s such a one-dimensional player. When he wants to he can be a playmaker, but much of the time his task is just to score goals. He can be a liability in how he gives up the ball. His passes are often weak and easily picked off, and in the Poland game he caused us a lot of problems by helping Poland start counter-attacks. Still, Mathis can be magical. He’s got a spark that can invigorate a team. He can do amazing runs and strikes that are world-class. Depending on his attitude, he probably should start, though he’d make a dangerous sub as well.
Well, these are just my thoughts before the game. We’ll see late tomorrow (Sunday night/Monday morning) who Bruce puts out and what happens. Good luck, USA!