Yanks Need To Get Back To the Game

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

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – In analyzing America’s 1-1 tie with Italy on Saturday, one must separate the achievement, which was considerable, from the way in which it was achieved, which was questionable, and the post-game reactions, most of which ranged from just plain silly to downright offensive.

We had been warned, of course, that patriotic fervor was building up among the American players. The decision to station the team for the pre-game period at the U.S. Air Force base at Ramstein gave plenty of opportunity for reflections on fighting heroically for America, with the most lurid comments coming from forward Eddie Johnson: “We’re here for a war,” he said. “We came here to battle, we came here to represent our country.”

Clearly the Americans, who had been humiliated by the Czech Republic in their first game, were not going to be pushed around again. A dangerous mixture of patriotism and machismo was brewing.

They gave the Italians a tremendous fright, even while playing most of the second half with only nine men against the Italians’ 10. A famous night for American soccer as the team – against all the odds – gained a World Cup point on European soil for the first time ever, and kept alive a hope of advancing to the second round of this tournament.

But the heroics were immediately undermined by the players themselves with their mindless comments on what took place on the field. Listen to the experienced goalkeeper Kasey Keller, normally the sanest of men: “These guys bled today for our country and our team.” True enough, Brian McBride had his face bloodied by a vicious elbow-jab from the Italian Daniele De Rossi – a foul which brought him immediate ejection from the game by Uruguayan referee Jorge Larrionda.

But bleeding for one’s country? The war clouds were gathering, and the Americans were to show an appalling lack of discipline in controlling the aggressive spirit they had built up. First Pablo Mastroeni, then Eddie Pope, were red-carded by Larrionda. Both decisions were 100% correct: Mastroeni’s vicious sliding tackle on Andrea Pirlo was of the ankle-snapping variety, while Pope – already cautioned – slid violently into Alberto Gilardino from behind to earn his expulsion.

At this point the American reaction sinks from being over-hyped patriotic machismo – unpleasant but, I guess, understandable – into a thoroughly repulsive vindictiveness toward referee Larrionda.

These guys who had just played so brilliantly to hold off Italy, now sullied their own performance with a string of half-baked accusations against Larrionda’s refereeing. One of the worst attacks came from one of the best American players, captain Claudio Reyna: “I think the ref ruined the game for us.” Mastroeni maintained that his foul on Pirlo was relatively minor (“I think that foul anywhere in the world is a yellow card”) while Pope thought both his yellow cards were “harsh.”

In the first half the Americans committed 18 fouls to the Italians’ seven. Now, 18 is a very large number for one team in only 45 minutes. Oguchi Onyewu had five of those fouls, including four crude physical tackles on the giant Italian forward Luca Toni. That total ought to have been enough to earn him a yellow card for persistent fouling, but Larrionda was lenient here.

Even so, coach Bruce Arena has since joined in with some sour-grape comments implying that Larrionda was harsher in his calls against the Ametricans than against Italy: “That’s natural. The powers of the game get a little more respect. One day the U.S. will get some of those calls.”

This undignified whining and sniping takes place against the background of FIFA’s pre-World Cup warning that referees would be harshly penalizing elbowing and reckless tackling. The stricter approach had been explained to all teams. Were the Americans not listening? Or do they, in the time-honored tradition of blind patriotism, think that the regulations apply only to others, not to them?

When De Rossi threw his elbow into McBride’s face, Larrionda red-carded him at once. That decision, of course, was not questioned by the Americans. But the Italians handled De Rossi’s foul play with a lot more maturity than the Americans could muster. De Rossi went to the American locker room after the game to apologize to McBride – who, as one would expect, for McBride is a fair-minded, mature player – minimized the foul, saying “He was very classy. I have nothing against him.”

De Rossi was pilloried by the Italian press, with Tuttosport demanding that he be benched for the rest of the tournament. Coach Marcello Lippi called De Rossi’s elbow his “umpteenth stupid mistake.”

Quite a contrast with the attitude of Arena and his team who, instead of looking sharply at their own shortcomings, chose to take the easy way out and blame the referee for everything.

I happen to think that Larrionda did a good job in this difficult game – a game that was made difficult by the Americans because they were determined, at all costs apparently, to prove to the world that their wimpish performance five days earlier against the Czechs had been an aberration.

They achieved that. Not by playing anything that looked like brilliant soccer, but by a tremendous effort of all the essential qualities that any team sport requires: grit, stamina, sacrifice, hustle and – up to a point – intelligence.

A reminder is necessary that America did not win this game. What it did was escape what looked like certain defeat. Another reminder: the Americans have yet to score a genuine goal in this tournament. Their goal against Italy came from a slapstick error by Italian defender Cristian Zaccardo who, under no pressure at all, managed to slice the ball into his own net. The stat sheet reveals the alarming truth about the Americans’ offensive efforts: not a single shot on goal in the entire game. It gets worse: against the Czechs, America recorded only one shot on goal.

That is simply pathetic and one might expect Arena and his team to be addressing attacking anemia rather than griping about the referee. A final word on that topic: Larrionda did miss one big call in the Italy game, one that no one from the American side has been heard to complain about. In the 88th minute he failed to call Jimmy Conrad for pulling on Vincenzo Iaquinta’s shirt in the penalty area. Had he made the call – shirt-pulling have been singled out by FIFA for harsh treatment – it would have meant a penalty kick against the Americans.

The New York Sun

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