Here are my top three reasons for the failure of the U.S. team to advance, in order of importance:
1. Talent. The US were the fourth best team in the World Cup's toughest group (top to bottom). So finishing fourth should not be surprising. Italy is a world power, we are not. The Czech Republic has Nedved of Juventus, Rosicky of Arsenal, Koller of Dortmund, and Cech of Chelsea. Ghana has Essien of Chelsea and Amoah of Dortmund. Our best players - McBride and Reyna - are a cut (or two) below their best. The good news is that our top players are working their way up the ladder in the European leagues. But they are not there yet.
We had one player on the field with a good first touch, speed, and who took on defenders: Clint Dempsey, who deserved his goal. God bless him, hopefully with some company in 2010.
2. Tactics. The U.S. just did not threaten the goal enough. Part of this comes down to the difference in talent levels. But don't forget, last World Cup this same basic team played Germany off the pitch with a solid passing game. Playing McBride alone up front, with the opponents covering the runs of Beasley and Donovan, left the U.S. searching for options they couldn't find.
Before the World Cup, there was an article in the NY Times by George Vecsey (I think), which had a telltale line from Arena about how the individual players were good enough to move around like chesspieces, and play in various systems. Arena overplayed his hand in this aspect, and the team just looked lost.
Australia, like the U.S., has no soccer history and the sport is third or fourth fiddle behind Australian football, rugby, and cricket. They had an easier (though not simple) group to move out of, but it was their style of play which posed the sharpest contrast to the Americans. The Aussies went after it, while the Yanks were trying to figure out what they should do. Arena's conservative approach was right for the match vs. Italy, but it snuffed out the team's spirit in the other two games.
3. Timing. Mastroeni's lunge and red card, and Merk's preposterous whistle for a phantom penalty were disastrous, coming right after the U.S. had seized momentum and strategic advantage. But good teams can overcome these problems, and that brings us back to the first point.
In Vecsey's report (TS-$) on yesterday's 2-1 loss to Ghana, he remarks on the "yowling" fans like myself, the main point being that plenty exist:
Back home, some soccer fans are yowling about Arena's strategy. I reject the suggestion that truly helpful players were ignored. The main criticism I might make is that Eddie Lewis and DaMarcus Beasley, two useful players in 2002, were moved from their normal left-side positions before this World Cup, although Arena surely had his reasons. They were reinstated yesterday, partly out of necessity when other players were not available. Still, the yapping from the home fans is a good sign. It shows people care. Yankee fans yowl. Dallas Cowboys fans scream. At this advanced stage, Knicks' fans just babble. But at least there is a fan base that did not exist 16 years ago.
"Bob Gansler could have walked through Times Square and nobody would have recognized him," [Sunil] Gulati said about the 1990 coach who lost three straight matches in Italy. This team and the 2002 team were both light years better than the 1990 team.
Under Arena, this team took some major steps toward the United States' becoming a soccer powerhouse, sometime later this century. This team did not reach the quarterfinals like Arena's star-kissed team did in 2002, but it did play in front of two of the noisiest crowds ever to witness an American soccer game.
Light years is correct. These days the U.S. team is not criticized for incompetence, but the failure to meet somewhat hopeful expectations. Better days are ahead.