Thursday, June 22, 2006
Why is it that the American soccer media (with the exception of Eric Wynalda who wasn't afraid to say that Donovan "hasn't shown up") is afraid to criticize Landon Donovan? I understand that he is supposed to be the Golden Boy of the US Soccer Revolution and all but how can we, as a group of journalists, not call a spade a spade when we see it?

In England, Frank Lampard, the undoubtedly talented attacking midfielder for Chelsea, has been getting a good skewering in the press over his general lack of contribution for the Three Lions so far this tournament. Lest we forget, Lamps was the runner up for European Footballer of the Year this past season.

In Brazil, Ronaldo entered the tournament with a chance to take the all-time lead in World Cup goals. He's been absolutely KILLED in the media for his lackluster play so far. I've even heard some rumblings here and there in the media questioning Ronaldinho's performance so far and he's pretty much the undisputed best player in the world right now.

Did I mention that neither England nor Brazil have lost any of their matches yet? Still, players of undoubted quality are being criticized by journalists in their home countries as well as in the international press.

Turning to our own shores, DaMarcus Beasley has had a miserable 2006 so far.

His play for PSV in the second half of the season wasn't up to the standards he's set for himself. He was equally disappointing in the run-up to the World Cup. The straw that broke the camel's back and won him a seat on the bench for the Italy match was his lackluster performance against the Czech Republic.

The thing is, that DaMarcus wasn't alone in being ineffective against the Czechs. The Golden Boy's performance in that match was just as miserable if not more so than that of Beasley.

Maybe you can give Donovan a little slack since Arena has been moving him back and forth between striker and play-making central midfielder for the last two months.

Regardless, Donovan was an abject failure in both roles in this tournament. I'm not sure he had a shot on target over the course of the three matches. I'm quite certain that his passing in no way resembled that of the great playmakers on the world stage.

I will admit that Donovan played nicely in the final 30 minutes or so against Italy. He was at his "best" in this tournament when the ball came to his feet with three or four Italians near him and he managed to push it down field and waste some time and give his exhausted team some rest. An invaluable role in a dire circumstance, but hardly enough for someone who has never really produced on a big stage to keep a place in the starting lineup.

Root Cause

This brings us to the bigger problem. While it is Donovan's fault that he doesn't come up big in big matches, it isn't his fault that he was in the starting lineup today and Eddie Johnson wasn't.

The blame for that - as well as not starting our two most productive players, Bobby Convey and Clint Dempsey, in every match - goes to none other than Bruce Arena.

It's a funny thing about coaches. Guys who are excellent in one situation can be terrible in another. Other times, a coach is just in place too long and loses his ability to motivate a specific group of guys. Sometimes, a coach is only good enough to get a team just so far - see Stan Van Gundy and the Miami Heat and/or any team Marty Schottenheimer has ever coached in the NFL.

It's hard to tell why the complex relationship between coach and team goes wrong but make no mistake - this one has.

I don't say this lightly either. I've been living in the DC area since 1992 and have seen the best of Arena. His dynasty at UVA; the fantastic job he did building DC United into an MLS powerhouse; and the progress that the National Team has made in the wake of the disaster that was France '98 are all testaments to his ability to coach.

Moreover, with the exception of UVA which I didn't really care about one way or the other, these are teams that I've derived great pleasure from watching.

Finally, I'm not a soccer beat writer so I don't really care too much that he's a bit arrogant and thinks little of the media - I don't have to deal with him so I kind of enjoy that aspect of his personality.

All of the above said, I was very disappointed at how much Arena seemed to lean on "his guys" as he picked the squad and his starting lineups. He is clearly in the bag for Donovan, Wolff, and anyone else who is currently playing in MLS.

He clearly has a bias against guys who are playing abroad.

Maybe he doesn't like to fly internationally.

Maybe he can't be bothered to learn new names.

I don't know the reason but you'd think that the list of people who would have been to training camp would have been longer. If they'd been no good, then no one could quibble. Since they didn't get a chance - we now are left wondering "why not?" since the team was obviously not good enough.

Now, all of the above is fine if you're Bill Parcells and you've won a few Super Bowls with "your guys" and I suppose that Arena fits that description at the NCAA, MLS, and CONCACAF level, but I don't see any World Cups in our trophy case so I have a hard time swallowing his choices.

My friend Jeremy's reaction when I asked him when he thought Arena would be fired was to respond "coach for life" (for all you non-DC folks that's a reference to former DC Mayor and felon Marion Berry's description of himself after his conviction on crack possession and solicitation of prostitution charges).

I certainly hope not.

I'd expect Arena to be out in the next few days.

So, the big question becomes - who should be the next coach of our National Team? That my friends, is another column - but rest assured, it's coming soon.