PASSING THE FINALS EXAM II
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.
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 conclude our study session with the last five questions...
6)Jan Koller? Luca Toni? Matthew Amoah?
It's always best to identify the main strike threat for each team. The former pair have concerned US fans since the draw, and with good reason.
The nearly recovered Koller will be working on a surgically repaired knee in Germany, but is a zen target master for the Czechs, knocking down everything in sight like a backboard that can score with both feet.
Toni is also a physical presence, but brings more speed and mobility to his game. The Fiorentina gunner tops off his versatile athleticism with a laser sight for net.
Fortunately, the US is one of those teams with a defender capable of matching either from a physical standpoint: Oguchi Onyewu. What's twice as nice is we have the perfect partner for Gooch in the Battle Spider, Cory Gibbs.
With Onyewu on one shoulder and Gibbs cutting lanes from the other side, neither of these terrific strikers requires a special defensive wrinkle. Play 'em straight up, knock 'em around a bit, stay in their space.
Amoah, however, is an altogether different (if not as impressive) threat. Koller's Borussia Dortmund teammate likes to pop up in different places and looks eagerly for offside trap busting passes.
If there is a match among the first three that might tempt Arena to go 3-5-2, it's this one. Let Carlos Bocanegra, Onyewu and Eddie Pope pass him back and forth.
One trait shared by each of these three feature attackers is the general lack of a long blast threat. That being said, each is backed up by creeping midfield players that excel from long range (such as Tomás Galásek, Francesco Totti and Steven Appiah).
With this in mind, Pablo Mastroeni needs to be able to spend as much time patrolling for layoffs and long rebounds as he will helping the backline.
7)How do we score against Italy?
Brick solid from left to right, aided by a pair of menaces and often willing to test the limits when it comes to defending rules, Italy's backline is as celebrated as any of that country's monuments.
The Great Azzurri wall will likely consist of Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta, Gianluca Zambrotta and one of Giorgio Chiellini, Massimo Oddo or Christian Panucci.
The 'Nats have scored only once in their last four meetings with Italy – not that they've been the only team to struggle with this attack assignment. It would help greatly if the squad carried a couple more long range bombers, but that is just not a threat we carry.
Clearly, the US should look to exploit space on the break and dribble drive on the perimeter of the area often to win danger free kicks. The more times we have Onyewu & Co. crashing the net on set pieces, the better our chance of scoring will be.
That being said, I want the ball kept low most of the day. Brian McBride is splendid in the air, but sending crosses from the flank all afternoon plays into Italy's strength.
8)What to do with Francesco Totti?
To steal a line from the movie Ruthless People: "Francesco, meet Pablo… Pablo, eat
Mastroeni knows just how to stay in a mercurial #10's shirt and push all the right psychological buttons without getting himself in too much trouble.
He can make Cuauhtémoc Blanco go loco, which means Totti probably won't last to halftime before he throws a tantrum.
Granted, Mastroeni's efforts would be made easier if Ghana could steal a point from the group favorites in game one. Regardless, the objective here is to annoy the hell out of the one guy in blue capable of breaking the game open by himself.
9)What's the plan when we trail late in a game?
First, the good news: whoever doesn't start between DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey automatically provides a spark plug off the bench for that given game. Fresh legs to support attack in crunch time can make the difference between going home early and asking the nice lady next door to feed your fish for an extra week.
Unfortunately, the one area we lack proven international depth is up front. Eddie Johnson will probably be available off the bench for a game or two and Josh Wolff has proven that he can contribute to the build, but me thinks Taylor Twellman is going to get a chance to relieve McBride at some point.
However it shakes out, one of those forwards will need to match their midfield sub counterpart in performance. It is hard to say that I have faith that job will get done. I'd like to think one of our boys can rise to a big occasion... like to.
10)Who takes the penalties?
Assuming they are all still on the field, combining spot kick skill with the steel nerve factor, I'd want:
Lewis. Convey. Wolff. Donovan. Berhalter. Johnson. Pope.
We will see you all for the first part of the test on June 12th, and be sure to bring your #2 pencils.