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Separating Cause & Effect in the U.S. Performance

The post-match breakdowns of the U.S.'s whipping by the Czechs offered several factors. Some are just silly such as the U.S. has bad karma in Europe. One Soccernet piece offered up a more serious reason and one echoed in variants in articles yesterday and on Fox Soccer Channel last night:

What was missing? Emotion, energy and the requisite sense of urgency to be an elite World Cup team and they paid a costly price.

I think that this angle treats an effect as a cause. Separating cause and effect is often a tough nut to crack. As economists, we work hard to disentangle the two but sometimes find it a nearly impossible task. From my seat, it appeared that the U.S. came out with plenty of energy, emotion, aggressiveness -- probably too much in that the first goal resulted from an aggressively overlapping left back not getting any cover behind him. As further evidence, Onyewu took a pointless yellow card early on from hyped-up aggressiveness.

No, the team that showed up in Germany is almost identical to the one that beat Portugal in Korea and therein lies the problem. Against quality teams, the U.S. is only dangerous in the counterattack. This isn't Monday (make that Tuesday) morning quarterbacking. My main soccer consilieri, Reed Vesey, and I have been saying this ever since 2002 -- See my June 1 post. Portugal's and Mexico's tactics opened the door wide to our strength (Germany and South Korea to a lesser extent). The Czechs did not. They hung back, gave us room in the middle third, and then sprung their own counterattacks with devastating results. The lack of "emotion, energy, and urgency" that developed over the course of the game is the result of a team that can only counterattack in wide spaces limited to having to attack in limited space -- something that it is painfully obvious the U.S. cannot do well nor can any team with few (or no) players who can beat someone one-one-one in tight spaces.

Bruce Arena's decision to annoint Donovan and Beasley as offensive centerpieces of U.S. soccer over the past four years while freezing out Clint Mathis without having anyone available to take his place bore its fruit on Monday. For qualifying in CONCACAF, Arena's decision worked well, but facing a high quality opponent utilizing the right tactics exposed the downside. Arena starting freezing Mathis out even by the time of the last World Cup. The press bit on the "he's out of shape" business, and for four years nobody cared much. In March of 2002, in a "friendly" against Germany that evolved much like the Czech game yesterday, Mathis showed his metal versus a Donovan or Beasley. Not only was he the American attack, but he was everywhere winning balls and bringing energy, unlike the other two who were nowhere by halftime. The good news is that the U-17 and U-20 teams have players that should bring more dimensions to the U.S. attack down the road. The bad news is that they are not available for the Italy game.

The completely stunning aspect of U.S. showing for me were the set pieces and corners. If the other team's tactics do not permit counterattacks and you don't have a strong attack, then set pieces become the prime scoring threat. To its credit, the U.S. won several in the first half. Incredibly, Arena chose not to put balls into the penalty area. It was as if the U.S. women's national team came on for the set pieces. With McBride, Onyewu, and Pope on the field and the lack of attack, its hard to fathom the basis of Arena's choice.

I don't want to come across as anti-Arena. As Skip wrote, the Czechs are a high caliber opponent who played very well. Arena has raised U.S. soccer up to dominating CONCACAF (along with Mexico) rather than struggling to qualify and probably should have had Mexico's draw. The long view is very positive -- I'm just an impatient fan.