Monday, June 12, 2006
Four years ago, the United States came out guns-ablazing against a Portugal team that were dark horses to win the entire tournament, while no one had given Bruce Arena's men a chance.

They shocked the rest of the world with their swagger, their speed, and even their skill and ability to kill out a game, but fans knew they had it in them - they weren't surprised so much as shocked.

Bruce Arena had put out a side of young and inexperienced players while resting the likes of Clint Mathis, Eddie Lewis and Claudio Reyna citing his young MLS stars' fearlessness as a reason for fielding such a green line up.

For 37 minutes, Portugal had no answer and before they knew what had hit them were down three goals to none leading to an historical World Cup for the United States and an Eliot Ness-like position for Bruce Arena in U.S. Soccer.

Tonight, some of those same players seemed to have come into the game realizing just who they were going up against and it showed as they failed to create any opportunities - save Claudio Reyna's clanger in the 30th minute - and eventually were supremely outclassed by a Czech side ranked number two in the world.

Leaving Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson on the bench, the latter of whom would prove to be the only bright spot on an otherwise dreadful night for the boys in blue, Arena fielded an impotent team that were unable to mount a consistent offensive threat.

Not since the 1990 when Paul Caligiuri's "Shot Heard Round the World" enabled a bunch of college all-stars to compete in the world's biggest event has the United States been so overmatched.

It's hard to remember a United States men's team play with so little inspiration or desire and I for one didn't think they were capable of such a dire performance.

Watching from France, television announcers were complimentary of the United States before the match, reminding viewers that the Americans had only lost in the quarterfinals against the eventual runners-up four years ago.

By the end of the match, comments weren't so complimentary, nevertheless impossible to disagree with.

"The United States are a small team, and are learning how to play with the big guys tonight," said former French defender Franck Leboeuf.

Maybe a Eurocentric view, but it's hard to differ with the World Cup champion's views.

Maybe even a bit more damning but which should nevertheless ring more true were commentator Thierry Roland's remarks just a few minutes before the whistle.

"It's been a disappointing match because the U.S. has shown up for the game but they haven't played."

Watching with French friends of mine, who cringed at such comments as they guessed it would offend such nationalistically sensitive ears as my own, I could only agree.

It's hard to write objectively about the only sport which I really and truly care about (I used to like the Orioles until Angelos fired DJ, but that's another story) or to criticize the only athletes in our country that still seem to have a head on their shoulders.

But seeing a performance like that is just plain and simply embarrassing because I know we are capable of so much more.

While the first goal was a serious breakdown - it was a scary situation as soon as you saw Jaroslav Plasil take take it down the wing - mistakes happen and Jan Koller buried the chance.

It wasn't the towering Czech's goal that set the tone of the match, however, but Oguchi Onyewu's third minute yellow card that would prove to be an omen for Arena's men.

Onyewu has complained that he has been singled out for cards because of his size in Belgium's Jupiler League, which led to three red cards including an involuntary rest for the biggest club game of his club career against Anderlecht that would eventually decide the Belgian league champions.

With the big center back conscious of the big red target on his back, he still managed to earn a well deserved yellow card after making a lunging tackle, falling far short of the ball and showing his inexperience on the world stage.

While it's hard to know exactly who to blame for such a poor showing from the American side and anyone that follows the team closely and knows who coaches them realizes that it is a side that is capable of at least holding its own. They fell far short of that potential tonight against an aging, though tactically sound Czech Republic, and effectively made them the team to watch in Group E.

Team general Claudio Reyna had a typically solid game and his shot that almost levelled the score in the first half was certainly cause for a skipped heart beat or two across U.S. Nation.

But his wingers, Bobby Convey and DaMarcus Beasley on either side, were either uninvolved or incapable of moving the ball forward.

Beasley sent just about every touch out of bounds or to the back line, while Convey found that running at international sides is just a bit different than in a German friendly or the Coca Cola Championship.

Landon Donovan and Brian McBride were equally non-factors in the loss but can hardly be to blame for a service from a defense that attempted to send them impossible long balls, or a midfield that refused to push forward.

Donovan showed flashes of what he is capable of but two good touches over 90 minutes is far short of what the U.S. need from the Manhattan Beach resident.

Bruce Arena was vocal in his critiques against his players following the loss, notably Donovan and Beasley, who were ironically the two wild cards as the United States made a run to the quarters in the 2002.

Yet in what seems to be a recurring pattern in U.S. soccer, the U.S. head man has failed to hold himself accountable for any of his teams failings, blaming Donovan, Beasley and Keller while making two second half substitutions which seem to admit a starting lineup error.

The former D.C. United and current U.S. Soccer emperor fielded a conservative lineup with McBride as a lone striker where he has always failed and most certainly left some of his swagger on the bench.

The U.S. head man did a little to remedy the fact at half time, bringing on the fearless "Grown Ass Man" Johnson, but the end result of his two second half substitutions was at the least, puzzling.

While leaving makeshift left back Lewis and the completely ineffective - admittedly out of position - Beasley on the field, Arena brought on John O'Brien and Johnson to replace stalwart defensive midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and natural right back Steve Cherundolo.

Cherundolo was at the very least solid in moving things forward from the fullback position and to replace him instead of Lewis betrays an oft talked about bias from U.S. headman Bruce Arena for certain players.

Likewise, if O'Brien were fit enough to play an entire half as a substitute, one has to wonder why the United States most consistent player in Japorea was unable to make the start for the United States' all-important opening match.

Beasley seemed to be another player given the start based on historical rather than current form and would probably have been better as a super sub when the Czechs had tired legs; midfielder Clint Dempsey's first touch on the right side could hardly have been less effective than that of the PSV winger.

Though Beasley finally showed a glimpse of what he has been capable of in the final two minutes, bringing the ball out of the back, it was clearly a case of too little, too late.

The diminutive midfielder was obviously a fish out of water on the night, and it seems that Beasley has lost all the confidence that led him to become a Champions League regular.

The American coach also seems to have surrounded himself with 'yes' men, fielding a lineup that a lot of casual fans of U.S. soccer could have told you beforehand would not be effective.

The United States were humbled tonight for no other reason than the fact that they never took the game to their opponents, something which they are entirely capable of doing.

To paraphrase Pete Seeger: Where has all the swagger gone?

Bruce Arena and his side didn't bring it against the Czech Republic and we can only hope that some of it comes out against Italy, or France '98 is going to look like a success story compared to Germany '06.