Americans Would Do Well To Leave Rambo on the Bench

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The New York Sun

Has the United States reached the point where, simply by playing its best soccer, it can expect to beat the world’s top teams?

Clearly it has not. That answer was given by coach Bruce Arena and the players themselves four days ago in Kaiserslautern. That was when the Americans, facing elimination by the highly-fancied Italians, chose not to rely on their own soccer values, but to adopt instead the Rambo approach.

That approach, with its fevered atmosphere of flag-waving and chest thumping, and its emphasis on intimidating physical play, may well prove a short-term recipe for success, as it did against the Italians.

But there are huge risks involved in the Ramboid approach, as the Americans found out by having two of their players red-carded for violent play. It needs to be stressed: both of those red cards, to Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Pope, were justified. Referee Jorge Larrionda got his decisions exactly right, and his subsequent vilification by the American players – and particularly by American television commentators – is a shameful example of how Rambo patriotism can override clear thinking and trample on fair play.

For two players from one team to be red-carded in a World Cup game is rare, and it seems that the shock of the dismissals forced America to come to its senses and to start thinking about playing soccer.

What was needed when playing with nine men against a 10-man Italy committed to swarming attack was intelligent counter-attacking. And that’s what the Americans produced, with Claudio Reyna the wily orchestrator, and Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley the speedy attackers who repeatedly made life difficult for the Italians. Playing soccer, rather than clattering into opponents, was now the thing. Well, if not exactly classic soccer, this was desperation, survival soccer and America played it pretty well.

But the price for the initial Rambo approach has now to be paid. The Americans face Ghana in Nuremberg today without the suspended Pope and Mastroeni. And, less easy to measure, the team’s excesses will have been noted among the FIFA referees. The man in charge today is probably Europe’s top referee, Germany’s Markus Merk, and his assignment to the game is surely a warning to America that it had better cut out the rough stuff.

The game arrives, then, as an opportunity – albeit, a virtually imposed opportunity – for America to play some real soccer, unadulterated by the Rambo toxin,to win the game in the traditional way: by scoring more goals than Ghana.

For that to happen, there will have to be a pretty dramatic change in the American attacking game, which so far has managed only one shot on goal in two games (even that is suspect, as Reyna’s shot against the Czech Republic hit the post, and that is not considered “on target” by many statisticians).The forwards have failed lamentably, and it is striker Brian McBride who must be fingered as the worst offender. Strikers have their scoring runs, they have their dry spells, and things look pretty arid right now for McBride. Arena has options – either Brian Ching, of similar build to McBride, but relatively untested, or the smaller, quicker Josh Wolff.

A third, more daring option, would be to play Donovan and Beasley as the front two, eschewing the idea that a strong physical presence is necessary up front.

Defensively, Jimmy Conrad can be an effective replacement for Pope, though a less adventurous one. Oguchi Onyewu has received a lot of praise, but most of it centers around his size, which always seems to impress American commentators. There is much to admire about Onyewu’s athletic play, but he has a problem that could undermine the American efforts against Ghana: he is a relentlessly physical, foul-prone player.

In the first game against the Czechs he was yellow-carded in the fifth minute for tripping Pavel Nedved, while against Italy he committed three wrestling-type fouls on Luca Toni within the first eight minutes – a sequence that should have earned a yellow card for persistent fouling, but went unpunished by the much maligned Larrionda.

The Ghanaians will present a much more determined, speedier opponent than the Italians. To be sure of advancing, they need a win as urgently as the Americans do. The U.S. response to this do-or-die scenario must be to play soccer. So far, in this tournament we have not seen America do this – the Czechs never allowed them space or time to get anything going, while the Americans themselves ruled out soccer in favor of rough-and-tumble heroics against Italy.

There is an encouraging thought for the Americans. African teams do not have a sparkling success record in the World Cup. None has ever got past the quarterfinal stage, and a look at one of those defeated teams tells an interesting tale.

In 1990, Cameroon, playing beautiful soccer, led England 2-1 and seemed to be cruising into the semifinals before two late England goals reversed the scoreline. Both goals came from penalty kicks, and both were the result of violently reckless tackling by the Cameroonians. That wildness has been an ongoing failing of the African game.

Today in Nuremberg the Ghanaians, every bit as much as the Americans, will have to curb their Rambo tendency.

The New York Sun

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