World Cup Oracle, Part 1: US Soccer
Contention or Illusion?
The 2009 Confederations Cup is over and the next international soccer tournament is this little event called the World Cup. The Confederations Cup in itself has little significance or prestige, but it is considered the "grand repetition" for the World Cup. Here in the U.S., this year's Confederations Cup got a little more exposure than usual because of the success of Team USA, which defeated European Champions Spain 2-0 in the semifinal and was up 2-0 against Brazil in the final before falling in the second half.
Despite Brazil's comeback, Team USA can be proud of its achievement in the tournament. But pride can only take you so far, and the bottom line is this tournament just isn't that important. The real question is what this Confederations Cup performance us about Team USA's prospects for next summers World Cup.
So can Team USA finally be considered a serious for the World Cup? [[image|url=http://kickssoccer.files.wordpress.com/2008/11/tim-howard.jpg|width=300|height=400|align=right]]
The short answer is no.
The long answer...
The performance against Spain in the semifinal, and in the first half against Brazil was admirable. But it's not the type of performance that can be consistently repeated. The US strategy in both games was a classic bunker--play 10 men behind the ball and then hope to strike on the quick counterattack. The strategy worked to perfection against Spain-- the U.S. had two real chances caused by two sets of atrocious mistakes within the Spanish defense, and both chances became American goals. On the defensive end, the U.S. played heroically, as its field players (including defenders, midfielders, and even forwards) blocked an inordinate amount of shots in the box, and the phenomenal Tim Howard saved the rest.
In the first half against Brazil, the U.S. relied on a similar strategy, and also converted its only two chances. To be fair, in the first half the U.S. did not allow the Brazilians to control the pace of the game like the Spanish did, but in the second half it all unraveled. When Luis Fabiano opened the scoring for Brazil 30 seconds into the second half the final result immediately became clear. Brazil pressured the U.S. relentlessly in the second half and exposed the U.S.'s real weakness- an inability to control and retain possession of the ball. The Brazilians attacked and when their attacks were parried simply took the ball back at will. The equalizer and go-ahead were inevitable and eventually Kaka (whose goal was unfairly disallowed), Fabiano, and Lucio all found the back of the net.
When a team plays the way the U.S. does, this sort of result can be expected. Sure, once in a while you'll get a defensive performance like against Spain. But in most games, teams that attack will eventually find a gap in the defense and exploit it; at some point, no matter how valiantly the U.S. defends, a Luis Fabiano or Kaka will come and bring the punishment. The Spanish caught an abnormally bad day from their two world class strikers, Fernando Torres and David Villa. On a normal day, even with a beastly Tim Howard in the net, they'll find a way to put 3-4 in the net against a passive U.S. side.
And that's the real problem-- a team like the U.S., that can't retain possession and control the pace of the game, is reliant on a lot of luck in its victories. It needs a perfect game from its defense and goalkeepers, and a poor day from the opposing attackers. It needs to be able to convert on the few counterattacking chances it will get. But most importantly, it needs to get on the scoreboard first. If the U.S. gets down 1-0 against a good team it is all but over, because the U.S. just does not have the creative attacking tools to create goal scoring opportunities against an elite team looking to preserve a lead.
What does this all mean for the World Cup? Realistically, the U.S. is somewhere between the 15th and 30th best national side in the world. When everything goes right, it can upset a top side. If the stars really line up maybe it can even pull off two upsets in a row. But in a World Cup, you need to win at least 5 games against top opposition if you're a real contender. At this point, U.S. soccer is very, very far from this level. While a repeat of the 2002 run to the quarterfinals is conceivable with a convenient draw and a bit of luck, U.S. soccer fans are best advised to temper their expectation for this World Cup.
In the next installment of World Cup Oracle, I'll talk about the chances of some of the world soccer superpowers in their quest for 2010 triumph.