American Soccer limps into its last qualifier

By Dimitri Islam

It wasn’t so long ago that the U.S. Men’s national team sported a 4-0-1 record and had virtually clinched a berth in the upcoming World Cup. Boasting a prolific striking partnership in the form of Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff, the U.S. dominated the opposition and earned critical goals when needed. If only they won the next one or two games, the U.S. would have been on pace to become one of the quickest teams to qualify for the Cup in recent history.

The road to the World Cup, however, is never quite so smooth.

After their strong opening, the U.S. surprisingly lost their last three games. All of a sudden, a team that looked assured of a spot in Asia now struggles to avoid elimination. Sudden injuries to top players have handicapped a previously assertive team. Increased pressure from the opposition has lowered the morale of the national squad. Bruce Arena, the once-confident coach of arguably the best team in the region, has now the looks of a concerned man. Certainly, no one expected the U.S. to explode to an unbeaten start, but no one expected the Americans to drop their last three games either. In World Cup qualifying, tying on the road and winning at home generally leads to success. In the past few months, the U.S. has lost both at home and on the road. That’s not good news for a team that is desperate to improve upon its last-place finish at the 1998 World Cup.

Injuries seriously hampered the skill of the current Men’s national team. Clint Mathis, perhaps the United States’ most threatening offensive player, went down with a torn ACL. His injury hurt both the national team and MLS, where he was quickly emerging as one of the few bona fide American stars. Josh Wolff also suffered an injury, and national team veteran Brian McBride battled with a blood clot that seriously endangers his future as a footballer. In another spell of bad luck, U.S. Captain Claudio Reyna endured several injuries resulting in key absences from the U.S. team. The lack of Reyna’s services nearly crippled the national team. Reyna provides the spark that jumpstarts the U.S. offense. Without his discerning passes and decisive runs, the U.S. could not muster any sort of offensive pressure against the opposition.

These injuries, while ill timed and unfortunate, vividly illustrate the dearth of talent on the men’s side. Make no mistake: the U.S. is not on the level of an Argentina or a France. If top players go down, the entire complexion of the U.S. team will change. A team like Argentina has a veritable army of world-class playmakers. If Veron goes down, Ortega will pick up the slack. The same goes for France. Injuries never strengthen teams, but most of the best squads have enough talent to push through.

The United States, on the other hand, simply cannot afford injuries to their best players. The U.S. has absolutely no replacement for a Chris Armas, or a Josh Wolff. They certainly cannot replace a player like Clint Mathis. Nevertheless, despite all the injuries, the United States simply should not lose three games in a row. Sure, a loss in a hostile environment is acceptable, but the U.S. loss to Honduras in Washington D.C. was a sad, sad day for U.S. soccer.

The defense keeled over as Honduras scored three goals. The offense managed two goals, but the U.S. frontrunners looked disconcerted at times.

The most recent qualifier, a disappointing 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, again displayed the lack of depth on the U.S. squad. Also, the U.S. game plan appeared timid and misdirected. Nine U.S. players sat back on defense, essentially inviting the Costa Ricans to test the Americans’ will. And test they did.

The Ticos accepted the challenge with panache, regularly pressing and finally breaking through with a penalty opportunity. The Costa Ricans converted, but the Americans never pressured the Tico defense. The U.S. never found the retaliatory goal, and they trudged back to the States with their third loss in as many games.

In many ways, the loss in Costa Rica signified disaster for the U.S. National Team.

Utterly uninspired and almost painful to watch, the Americans’ defend-at-all-costs policy cost them the match. Even without their skill players, the United States could have at least pushed forward a little bit. The Americans do not possess the defensive abilities to sit back for 90 minutes and play opportunistically. Trying to implement that strategy in an immensely important World Cup qualification match was foolhardy.

This upcoming Sunday, the U.S. plays Jamaica in their penultimate qualifier. If the U.S. loses this game, for all intents and purposes, they throw away their shot at a trip to Asia next summer. Mediocrity and decline often follow U.S. soccer, but, after starting out so well, a loss on Sunday would be heartbreaking.

Luckily, Claudio Reyna will return to the squad, and many of the other American players are on the mend. Unfortunately, judging from the form of the squad in recent games, the cavalry could be too little too late.

However, let the strong will and determination of this nation in these times show in victory.