Soccer: Warm-ups show US has work to do before World Cup
By NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer
The World Cup is less than a year away, and the U.S. men look far from ready.
They’ve lost three of their last four games, are getting scored on faster than fans can take their seats and are on the verge of a meek exit from the Confederations Cup, a tournament featuring some of the best international soccer teams.
As if that’s not enough, the guy responsible for one of the U.S. losses is an Italian by way of New Jersey.
Not exactly the ideal warmup.
“I, maybe like a lot of people, thought this team was further along than it is,” said Alexi Lalas, the colorful star of the U.S. team at the 1994 World Cup who is now working as an analyst for ESPN.
“The sky is not falling. This still can be a very good team,” Lalas added. “But I think there’s some questions that the past month has raised with regard to, can this team compete at the World Cup? Because, ultimately, that’s what matters.”
Soccer is the biggest game on the planet and the World Cup the ultimate prize. Americans may not share the global love affair with the beautiful game yet, but they like big events and they’ll get behind any team with “USA” on the front of its jerseys.
They’d bought more tickets for next year’s World Cup in South Africa than fans from any other nation as of last month, no doubt hoping it will be the year the Americans make a deep run — or at least match the 2002 team’s surprising advance to the quarterfinals.
Judging by the way the U.S. team has played in the Confederations Cup and its last two World Cup qualifiers, though, the Americans have a long way to go before they catch the Spains, Brazils and Italys of the world.
We’re talking years, not months.
“The expectations of the American fans, the knowledge of the American fans has grown quite dramatically,” said Marcelo Balboa, a defensive stalwart on the 1990 and ’94 U.S. teams. “We wanted to get to this point and, now that we’re here, we’ve got to take the good with the bad.”
Injuries to veterans Carlos Bocanegra, Frankie Hejduk and Steve Cherundolo have left the United States a sieve defensively. When Brazil scored in the seventh minute of its 3-0 victory Thursday at the Confederations Cup, it was the third time in four matches — all since June 3 — that the Americans gave up a goal in the first 10 minutes.
They’ve allowed 10 goals this month. That’s two more than they allowed all of last year — and that was with games against Spain, Argentina and England. The offense hasn’t been much better, lacking flow and creativity. The Americans have just one goal from the run of play in four matches to go along with three on penalty kicks.
Part of the problem is that young players expected to be the backbone of the team following the retirements of trusted veterans Brian McBride and Claudio Reyna aren’t developing. The reason? They’re parked on the benches at their club teams.
It says something about the American game that Beasley, Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu and Maurice Edu are on rosters of major clubs in Europe, where the level of play is higher than Major League Soccer. But only Edu got significant playing time last season, and he’s sidelined at least three months following knee surgery June 4. That rust often shows when they step on the field with the U.S. team.
Take Altidore, who was loaned from Spain’s Villarreal to second-division Xerez midseason. The forward scored three goals in a World Cup qualifier on April 1, then didn’t play in a game again until the June 3 qualifier. No wonder he looked flat-footed against the Brazilians.
Perhaps most disconcerting, though, is the lack of fire the Americans seem to have. There’s no shame in losing to perennial powers Brazil or Italy, as the United States did Tuesday at the Confederations Cup.
To have any chance against the world’s best, though, the Americans have to play inspired. And they have looked far from that.
“Taken individually, they might be the best players that we have,” Lalas said. “(But) there might be lesser players out there who, put together, could fight and give that spirit that’s missing right now and ultimately provide the success that needs to be there.”
Others, though, say the naysayers are off base. The Americans have come a long way in a short time, said Bruce Arena, who led the U.S. team in 2002 and 2006 and now coaches the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The United States will almost certainly qualify for its sixth straight World Cup. It is only two points behind group leader Costa Rica, with the top three teams earning trips to South Africa, and probably would qualify just by winning its remaining home matches, against El Salvador on Sept. 5 and Costa Rica on Oct. 14. While that might not seem like a big deal, consider the United States went 40 years between World Cup appearances before qualifying in 1990.
“It’s not time to panic. It’s time, again, to understand where we are,” Arena said. “We’re moving in a steady direction, an upward direction. We’re not making great leaps and bounds, and no one would expect us to.”
That’s the problem, though.
The U.S. success in 2002 — the Americans beat archrival Mexico on their way to their first quarterfinal appearance in 72 years — got the attention of the mainstream public. With breakout performances by youngsters Landon Donovan and Beasley, fans thought the United States had claimed a spot among the game’s elite.
Soccer, though, has little room for upstarts. Only seven countries have won the World Cup. England, which pretty much invented the game, has one measly title, back in 1966.
“For us to be a world power is a challenge that’s not appropriate to ask of our national team at this time,” Arena said. “Just calm down and understand there’s a lot of work ahead, and we’re hopefully moving forward.”