International coaches in charge of teams that regularly qualify for the World Cup Finals are judged on one thing: how they fared in comparison to expectations held by fans and federation.
US boss Bruce Arena scored very well the last time he took this test, taking the side to the 2002 quarterfinals, where they battled nobly against eventual runners up Germany. He worked around selection problems well, got good mileage out of several World Cup rookies and did it all his way.
It would not have been out of bounds to hand the most successful coach in US history a big, bold A- to display proudly on the fridge. One could argue that, with Hugh Dallas consuming more Beta-carotene and Zinc in his diet, he may have been the architect of a second or third place finish.
This summer, the exam gets stepped up a notch… or two. Of course, Arena has a deeper, more cultured, more internationally savvy crew to work with – but the element of surprise is long gone. The world may love to take the stuffing out of American fans, while their respective coaches and players are busy preaching against taking the team lightly. Not only have the US drawn three vexing group opponents, but each will arrive with more to prove than our boys.
None of the Czech Republic players have ever played in a World Cup, with their last appearance coming as Czechoslovakia in 1990. Surely, longtime 'Nats supporters know this fact all too well because of the 5-1 beating handed out in Florence that summer. They increased expectations with a fine Euro2004 show, and will soon wave goodbye to a number of cornerstone players
Several Italy stars, most notably attack engine Francesco Totti, carry the weight of a shoddy Euro2004 performance and 2002's strange World Cup ouster courtesy of South Korea. The Azzurri have won three world championships, but the last came a generation ago in 1982. Besides, playing for this team is like playing for the Montreal Canadiens – the microscope is ALWAYS on.
Ghana are debutants, and who could have more to prove? Well, I'll tell ya who: African debutants. This team owns four continental crowns, packs loads of might in midfield and follows in the estimable World Cup footsteps of past splash makers Algeria, Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal.
Not to be alarmist, but Arena best be pulling some all-niters. World Cup 2006 will be a tough test with many puzzling questions. So what 10 key bits of curriculum might turn up on the Finals exam? We're going to take these in two parts, five at a time. Let's get to studyin'…
1)What happens if Pavel Nedvěd plays?
It is looking more and more like the Juventus dazzler is going to suit up for the Czechs in Germany. No doubt downhearted over the Bianconeri's toothless Champions League exit to Arsenal, the man with the Lion's mane seems likely to go the adventure route after wrapping up another boring Serie A title (his opinion, not mine… well, not entirely mine). So what do we do to keep him from dooming us with one glorious flick of the boot?
Play him like a basketball star that can kill you from the outside or on the dribble: deny, deny, deny. When he does get possession, stay in front of him. No big lunges, no desperate tackles, no backing off. Move the feet, get in his face to limit time and vision and strategically bring help defenders to trap.
Assuming Arena doesn't lose much sleep over the Czechs' wing play, I see him going with a 4-4-2 box formation. With respect to Nedvěd, this would likely entail able shadows Steve Cherundolo and Pablo Mastroeni passing the danger man back and forth.
Sounds easy, right? Hardly… more would have to be done.
Since we probably won't see both trackers surge forward together too often, the man at right attacking midfield (probably Bobby Convey or Landon Donovan) will need to avoid turning the ball over just past midfield at all costs. He will have to be strong in possession without much help, and keep an eye out for an opening to switch fields.
Cherundolo will need to be accurate with deeper crosses and Mastroeni will want to move the ball along quickly, preferably to the left a majority of the time. They won't want to dawdle on the ball, so guys like DaMarcus Beasley and Donovan will need to work extra hard to present themselves for passes.
The attackers will also need to hustle back to slow down Czech outlet distributors Tomáš Galásek and Tomáš Rosický, and can try to lean the opposite central midfield duo away from the left side. Another benefit of this tactic would see most crosses sent into our box from the right, giving Oguchi Onyewu that extra split second longer to find and blanket beanpole target Jan Koller.
2)Who is going to occupy Gianluca Zambrotta?
Simply put, containing this wingback is a HUGE key to finally breaking our Italy jinx. Zambrotta has played a lot of right back this season and Italy might have better second options on the left, but Marcelo Lippi probably understands that he makes this job easier on us if some combination of Beasley/Convey/Lewis lines up opposite.
Now... if Zambrotta spends the day marauding down your right side, it is probably because he shut you down in defense and is supporting a breakout. The more crosses he serves on the day, the worse your prospects get – even if none of them create a scoring chance.
Conversely, the longer he spends chasing in his back quarter, the closer you are to defeating the blue scuba divers. This could be the opening for Clint Dempsey to get a start, mainly because Arena can't play by the book to defeat Italy.
If Totti is out or at a diminished capability due to an ankle injury (the latter is a decent bet), the US could run out in a Dutch-style 4-3-3 set. Beasley or Convey might get the call on right wing, but I have the feeling this is the game MC Deuce gets his chance to do something unusual… bring the funk, so to speak.
Dempsey (or whomever) doesn't even necessarily need to provide end product for the US to get a favorable result. They'd just have to ensure Zambrotta spends enough time chasing on defense.
As with the Czechs, much can be gained from ticking off certain players. One could easily envision Italy ball hawk Genarro Gattuso or Nedvěd succumbing to "gentle coaxing" from Mastroeni, then seeing red for a hasty swipe. However, Zambrotta is one of the least flappable Azzurri and will need to be occupied with a constant stream of busy work.
3)What happens if Brian McBride gets injured?
I didn't want to say it… nobody wants to say it, but our national strike treasure is playing hurt already. McBride will require an operation for his sports hernia condition, but the plan is for that to wait until July.
The difficult thing is, the further we go in the tournament, the more likely it becomes we will face this crossroad. The Fulham banger could theoretically play masterfully in leading us to advancement, then suddenly be forced to the sideline when it comes time to face Brazil or France in a knockout.
To be honest, I am not well versed in the ways of the sports hernia, and yet I am quite confident in presuming that 200+ minutes of eager beaver treatment from Tomáš Ujfalusi, Fabio Cannavaro and Sammy Kuffour is not exactly prescribed treatment.
So what happens in the event that Bake can't go? I won't even pretend to have "the" answer, but I do have a suggestion. Naturally, it depends a little on the opponent; Brazil would definitely require Ed Johnson's quickness in the aerial game due to Carlos Albero Parreira's insistence on starting central defenders that habitually use the statue defense on crosses.
Against most foes, however, Dempsey or Donovan could be moved to a free role as shadow striker behind Johnson. Whichever guy takes this role should be allowed to benefit from a five-man midfield, with the likes of Beasley, Convey and Lewis capable of pushing forward to fill given space.
The mass in the middle of the park could also help the US keep tempo low until they are ready to break. The "lull them to sleep" game could potentially be a potent weapon for the Yanks, provided the central metronome trio of Mastroeni, O'Brien and Reyna stays healthy.
Johnson can wait until numbers arrive for close range finishing chances or make runs to open gaps for trailing midfielders to exploit. Provided the opponent doesn't rely on wing play, Mastroeni and John O'Brien could form a traffic directing defensive midfield set, with Carlos Bocanegra, Gibbs and Onyewu left to do nothing but patrol the back.
4)Will we have fresh legs to send out against Ghana?
Again assuming everyone is largely fit, the key to answering this question probably lies in how the first two matches play out. As written here before, I believe the best US path to avoiding second place (and, almost certainly, Brazil in the round of 16) involves a win-loss-win sequence in Group E play and Italy being drawn by either the Czechs or Ghana.
An even more fantastical dream scene has the US pulling "a Portugal" on the Czechs and getting slightly pasted by the Italians. These scenarios would allow Arena to rotate midfield players such as Dempsey or Kerry Zavagnin more leisurely, giving everyone the opportunity to stay fresh.
Easier tactical decisions translates loosely into "O'Brien and Reyna aren't forced to play 90 minutes" around these parts. Regardless, those who face Ghana will need all pistons firing to emerge victorious.
Should my ladybugs, popsicles and unicorns plan not come to fruition, this issue obviously gets murkier. Ghana's strength emanates from the skilled bulldozing of central figures Steven Appiah and Michael Essien. Add in the under-heralded Sully Muntari, and the Americans have quite a bit of steel to bend in midfield.
Fortunately, Arena gets some help from both his method and his madness on this one. He isn't likely to throw out identical line-ups, or even formations, in the first two matches. Because of that, he will have some extra juice from at least a few players.
Most likely of the US midfield gems to grab a seat at the beginning of game one or two? Beasley, Convey and Dempsey, any of whom could frighten an easily spooked Ghana backline in game three.
5)What happens if Gooch gets a red card?
Fair or not, many observers have wondered aloud whether Onyewu can play it cool enough to avoid the early shower gate. For the record, Frank De Bleeckere will be the only Belgian ref at World Cup 2006 and he hasn't issued the intimidating defender a single caution this season.
Double ejector Johny ver Eecke won't be anywhere near those late night zebra bull sessions to badmouth our favorite area bouncer. Even if Gooch gets in trouble with the "law", Arena enjoys his finest depth at center back and speedy counter attack assassin.
But, of course, we all know this isn't going to happen. No center back in Italy's group is going to get over-whistled, and more importantly, it would instantly and rudely nullify all the work I put into answering question #4.
See you next week for the rest of the Finals exam study session, and don't forget: it's your turn to bring the Hawaiian Punch.