Ghana Turns American Stability Into Chaos

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

FRANKFURT, Germany – Let me talk first not of yesterday’s American failure, but of yesterday’s triumph – the personal triumph of Ronaldo. With two goals in Brazil’s 4-1 rout of Japan – one scored with an emphatic header, the other with a right-footed drive of withering power – Ronaldo has raised his total of World Cup goals to 14 and now shares with Gerd Muller – the German scoring star of the 1970s – top place on the all-time list.

Ronaldo, playing in his fourth World Cup, has been performing here against a mounting tide of criticism that he is fat, too slow, and has lost his scoring touch. His two goals against Japan may not silence his critics, who will surely point out that Japanese defenders are not necessarily the world’s most accomplished, but Ronaldo has time to silence them all: Brazil’s second-round match is against Ghana, and there could be as many as three more increasingly tougher games after that should Brazil keep winning all the way to the final.

To those of us who have been watching this remarkable player spread panic and havoc in opposing defenses for some 12 years, the sight of Ronaldo celebrating, showing off his famous toothy grin, being mobbed by his team mates was a moment of soccer beauty.

Things were not so beautiful for the Americans, who, five hours earlier, were eliminated from the tournament after a 2-1 loss to Ghana. America finished bottom of their group with one tie and two losses, one point, and only one goal scored (one can hardly count the gift own-goal from Italy’s Cristian Zaccardo).

Far from giving American soccer liftoff, Bruce Arena’s World Cup team toppled over on the launching pad and the wreckage is painful to contemplate.

A total disaster? I think not. A serious setback, possibly, but I have a feeling that events now move so quickly in the growing world of American soccer that there will not be too much time spent lamenting and port-mortem-ing this hiccup.

Everyone knew America had been drawn into a tough group – indeed, it was the only group in which all four teams were still alive as the final games were played. No doubt the battling 1-1 tie with Italy will be seen by many as the true face of American soccer, rather than the abject 3-0 capitulation to the Czechs.

Wherever the truth lies, the search for it must start with coach Bruce Arena, the man who took over the national team after it had lost all three of its game in the 1998 World Cup, built it into a World Cup quarterfinalist in 2002, and has now seen it slide back almost to the 1998 position.

Bluntly put, if America were a major soccer country, Arena would by now have resigned or been fired. Things happen that quickly to World Cup coaches; nobody wants to be associated with failure. We await the reaction of the new U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati – a reaction of some importance, for the sport has reached a critical moment.

Arena has worked wonders with the American players, giving them confidence and building a squad that has risen to a FIFA ranking of fifth in the world – a ranking that is at least 10 places higher than it should be, and that Arena always greets with a knowing grin. Whatever the numbers, American soccer has made massive strides. It is a professionally organized and coached team that plays respectable soccer.

I cannot rate Arena’s soccer any higher than respectable. It is now respected by most opponents, but I doubt it is particularly admired or envied. It’s pretty straightforward stuff played by mostly straightforward players – players who are always fit, who know their roles, who have bought into the Arena way of doing things and obey his orders.

After the 3-0 Czech debacle, Bobby Convey, puzzling over the unexpected blowout, told the Associated Press: “I think the reason why we didn’t do well is because everyone did not do their role, maybe didn’t know their role, maybe didn’t know what to do.”

Those words capture the problem that American soccer now faces, and they help make the case that it is time to call an end to the Arena era. We have heard, during that time, much talk about “the American player” – about how he differs from his European and South American colleagues, about how only American coaches understand the American player, and about how Arena is the undisputed leader of that pack.

I don’t think there’s too much wrong with that scenario. American pro soccer players are generally better-educated than their foreign counterparts. Most have a year or two of college, which is rare among foreigners, and most are from wealthier backgrounds.

It follows, goes the reasoning, that Americans don’t like being given orders; they like their coach to sit down and explain things, they like to ask questions, receive answers, and when satisfied, they will take the field and play their role. In Convey’s words they will “know what to do.”

In other words, the development of players and the coaching of soccer as practiced everywhere else must be modified to conform with the American way of life. It sounds reasonable, but I know of no proof that having intellectually curious players who can be reasoned into obeying the coach is a sure-fire way of producing good pro players. It could very well be that the accepted profile of “the American player” is that of a role-player, whereas soccer, particularly at its most intense level – read World Cup games – needs self-confident players who are infinitely resourceful and inventive in a constantly changing game.

The American player profile is, of course, that of the American college player. Arena himself has repeatedly and forcefully emphasized the gaping difference in mentality and standards between the college and pro games. Yet he cannot escape the influence of the college game, because so many of his recruits have experienced a year or more of college soccer (significantly, his two free spirits – Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley – did not go to college).

But what Arena has not done is to take on the challenge of the Hispanic player. The vast wealth of Hispanic talent in this country remains virtually untouched and, it seems, unwanted by Arena. With the talent that he has so far selected, Arena has gone about as far as he can go. Indeed, the Germany results suggest a falling off. The next era – it could still be an Arena era, but, frankly, I do not see him embracing a new direction – must be one that reaches out to the Hispanic talent, talent that is of a different order, that does not fall easily under “the American player” profile.

But it is wonderful talent, and it is talent that the American national team program needs if it is to move ahead, to build on the Arena years.

The New York Sun

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