David Hirshey's World Cup Closer begins today. Enjoy.
So this is what we waited four years to see: Bruce Arena, sitting on the US bench, his face pinched, his arms folded tightly across his chest, looking like an excellent candidate for a hemorrhoidectomy. Was he thinking about the "Give 'em hell" pep talk he had received only an hour before from President George W. Bush, one that sounded eerily familiar to the message our Cheerleader-in-Chief had given American troops before we invaded Iraq? Or was he perhaps wondering how it is possible for his four college-educated defenders to be unable to find a bald six-foot-eight Czech lurking five feet in front of their goal? Could it be that in his pre-game tactical discussion, he had told his players, "Listen fellas, just because this guy Koller has scored 42 international goals with his head off free kicks or corner kicks doesn't mean you should pay him any special attention in the box?"
So this is what we waited four years to see: Landon Donovan, the US player most likely to end up on a Wheaties box, reminding us why he washed out not once but twice in Germany as a club player. He played like scheiss. For the Americans to have any chance against the Czechs, Donovan was going to have to break down their rearguard with his speed and sorcery. He was going to have to run at defenders and turn them inside out, just as he does every week in Major League Soccer. So how to explain that, with the exception of one corkscrewing run in the first half, Donovan didn't TRY to beat anyone, 1-v-1, until the game was hopelessly lost? Could it be that scything through the back four of, say, Real Salt Lake, is not the best barometer of a player's ability to perform against the world's elite teams? Oh I forgot, the US is an elite team, according to the geniuses at FIFA (which ranked the Americans fifth).
So this is what we waited four years to see: DeMarcus Beasley, whom the otherwise astute New York Times columnist George Vescey proclaimed to be "America's best all-field player" on the eve of the match, getting schooled time and again on the right side of midfield, where he looked about as comfortable as Ann Coulter at a seder table full of liberals. Where was the vaunted "swagger" he spoke of in SI recently, not to mention the electric pace and defense-shredding moves that caused Dutch juggernaut PSV to fork over millions to MLS for his rights two years ago? Having been the first American to appear in a Champions League semifinal, surely he couldn't have been awed by the occasion. And once it was obvious that he was overmatched against the likes of Nedved and Rosicky (please save some of your goal-scoring mojo for Arsenal next season, Tomas), why did Arena not only stick with him, but move him to yet another position (right back) where he appeared even more lost? Is he really that versatile, or are we so Nicole Richie-thin in defense that Arena gambled Beasley would play himself out of his timid funk?
So this is what we waited four years to see: the US, proud quarterfinalists in 2002, taking a big dump on the manicured field in Gelsenkirchen in front of a couple of billion people who had to be giddy with relief that the Americans are still years — or perhaps decades — away from being a global threat. At least in soccer.
(More roundup after the jump.)
Italy v. Ghana
If you wanted a sneak preview of whom the Americans will lose to next and next, this was the match to watch. Ghana may have lost, but at least they took the occasional shot on goal, which, as any serious student of the game can tell you, is one of the best ways to score. Being a hottie like Luca Toni is another. Even without Ghanian-born wonderboy Freddie Adu, Ghana looked like it could be a spoiler in the group. They even have their own version of Jan Koller in Chelsea hard man Michael Essian, albeit 10 inches shorter but no less intimidating.
Italy, meanwhile, showed that, despite the swirling match-fixing scandal and some hobbling stars, they now have an attack to go along with their lockdown defense. They still cry like little regazzas when anyone tackles their flowing locks, which is why Bruce Arena will no doubt be running drills the next few days on how to get inside your opponents' hair.
David Hirshey will write regularly during the World Cup.