Are the Red, White and Blue Through?
by Celso Chamochumbi - 6/16/2006
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At 3 p.m. EST, the United States men's soccer team faces Italy in what is essentially an elimination game for the Americans.
Bodog.com has the favored Italian side at -250 and the US at +600. For those that envision the draw, a nice +600 payout awaits. The total goals posted for this match is at 2.5 (-150 for the under).
Italy and the Czech Republic share the lead in Group E with three points apiece, while the United States and Ghana hope to improve upon their opening-match defeats.
The conventional wisdom says that Italy's offensive capabilities will overwhelm what has proven to be a porous American backline. Between Alessandro Del Piero, Francesco Totti, Luca Toni, and Vincenzo Iaquinta, the Italians promise to come at the Americans with fresh legs for the full 90 minutes. Totti, especially, could wreck havoc with his dangerous shot and uncanny ability to distribute the ball in much the same way that Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky shredded the Americans in the first game.
Also, the traditionally rugged Italian defense should stifle the US like they did Ghana. Of course, Italy looked tougher defensively than they actually might be by virtue of Ghana's propensity to play forward exclusively through the middle part of the field.
Thus, it would seem that if Italy pushes forward as it did during its first game, it should earn a satisfying result.
However, one has to ask what it means that the US will be playing with their World Cup lives at stake. One should question whether the butt-kicking from the opening game was simply a bad game, as the ESPN commentators suggested, or a symptom of deeper problems with the American side.
The Bad Game Theory, naturally, leaves open the possibility for a result favorable to the Americans in this game. It explains being run over by the Czech team as a result of poor effort, but is a lame manner to analyze and reduce the differences evident on the field. This is the World Cup, the summit of these players' careers, and it is highly improbable that a team with serious aspirations would have tanked it, particularly in the first game.
I think that the Czech game magnified greater problems about the US side, most of which cannot be fixed before the match against Italy. The most fundamental problem about the American side is not having a defined style of play. I believe that every side needs to have a foundation, a system which at its core gives the team an identity. In American Football, for example, the Chicago Bears run and rely on a swarming defense. The St. Louis Rams are famous for their prolific passing schemes. In soccer, the "European" and the "Latin American" styles predominate. The US opts for the middle road, and prides itself on being a combination of the team, a hybrid if you will.
Perhaps when matched against teams of the European or Latin style of play that are not very good, the hybrid system works. The US can put the ball on the ground and play a possession game against a disorganized European team, and similarly play very direct and at a faster pace against the weaker Latin teams. However, when faced against better competition, the lack of a system is exposed.
It is not a coincidence that the has struggled against Central-Eastern European teams. In 1994, it was Romania that defeated the American side days after it shocked Colombia. In 1998 everyone walked all over the US, and in 2002 the Poles dismantled the American side. This week's game against the Czech Republic fits neatly in that pattern.
So what will the Americans do against Italy, try harder? If the team had built itself as a possession, ball-on-the-ground side, like other middling teams such as Mexico, it would have a dreamer's chance. Remember, Mexico tied Italy 1-1 in route to winning its group in 1994, the same year that the Italians reached the World Cup final. However, forward Landon Donovan plays far away from midfielder Claudio Reyna, and speedsters Eddie Johnson and Josh Wolff make more runs away from than ball than into spaces where they could receive and quickly redistribute.
Thus, the team figures to struggle tomorrow and perhaps against Ghana as well. I say this in spite of the fact that I laud head coach Bruce Arena propensity to play an attacking brand of soccer. Although a tie would not mathematically eliminate the Americans tomorrow, he has made it clear that the US will play for the win. His substitution patterns are generally forwards-for-forwards, and at least he won't shamelessly sit back like Paraguay and Angola have done in their two matches.
The -250 for Italy will probably increase as game time approaches, and one should note the result of the Czech Republic-Ghana game which precedes it. If the Czechs prevail, as expected, then there will be a greater impetus for the Italians to win this game and stay equal in the standings. If the other game ends in a draw, then the draw suddenly becomes attractive for the US and Italy as well. The Italians wouldn't 'lose' as much with a tie, and the US would see a tie as the perfect option to keep its World Cup hopes alive. If Ghana wins, which I see as very, very unlikely, and then the Italians could clinch a spot in the second round with a victory over the US. The third scenario is purely theoretical, and should not be considered.
In sum, this match features an American side that is more desperate than hungry against an Italian team that has world-class players who can change a game in a multitude of ways. Bettors are usually more level-minded or cold-hearted, depending on one's outlook, but I caution anyway about embracing the underdog too eagerly here. Except for a few ties, the favorites have absolutely dominated the action thus far.